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Brazil: small farmers don’t have to be poor farmers

Not content with winning land rights for 1.5 million poor Brazilians, the Landless People’s Movement is helping small farmers to compete against huge farming corporations – championing food production, jobs for everyday people and environmental sustainability on the way.

Brazil’s largest producers of organic rice – former landless campers

Twenty years ago, a young couple called Orestes and Alcinda were living with their three young children in a makeshift black plastic tent, with no services or sanitary facilities, and cooking over a campfire, in the southernmost region of Rio Grande do Sul.

Today, Orestes and Alcinda have their own home and their own farm, and are members of the cooperative that is Brazil’s largest producer of organic rice. 

Alcinda and Orestes Ribeiro on their farm

The couple are part of Brazil’s Landless People’s Movement (MST). Under the Brazilian 1988 constitution, farmland that is not being productive can be claimed for redistribution to people who have no land.

Since it was established in 1984, MST has helped more than 1.5 million people like Orestes and Alcinda to win land.

Land of inequality

Just 3% of Brazil’s population owns two-thirds of all arable land – a statistic that is symbolic of the inequality that characterises this rich and beautiful land.

Despite the recent growth that has catapulted Brazil into the world’s top ten biggest economies, this country remains among the most unequal on the planet. 

This means that while the mega rich thrive, the desperately poor barely survive.

Monopoly and monoculture

Land inequality in Brazil has actually got worse in recent years, with the expansion of large estates belonging to fewer and fewer landowners.

This is because of the growth of large-scale agribusiness – vast monoculture estates of cash crops like soybeans, sugarcane and eucalyptus, usually grown for export.

This model allows companies and landowners to make huge profits, but is environmentally destructive and really only benefits the land-owning elite, rather than the country as a whole.

Meanwhile, 85% of all Brazil’s food comes from family-run farms, which also provide the vast majority of all agricultural jobs. In terms of food production, employment and environmental sustainability, family-run farms offer a better model of development.

Family agriculture

MST believes in a land ownership model based on family agriculture, rather than large-scale agribusiness. 


Not only does it help poor and landless people to win land, but it supports them to establish profitable farms and to form cooperatives that are economically competitive – as Orestes' and Alcinda’s story shows.

Orestes Ribeiro holds a handful of rice When Orestes and Alcinda won their plot of land, back in the early 1990s, it turned out to be wet land only suitable for rice, a crop neither of them knew anything about.

With agricultural and marketing support from MST, they formed a rice cooperative with other MST members in their area.

Thanks to their own hard work and MST’s expertise in agronomy, they got their farm started and, a few years later, decided to go organic.

Thriving, not just surviving

Alcinda reflects on what would have happened to her family had they not joined MST: ‘We would be working for survival, not for betterment.

'In the city we would have lost ourselves. There are no opportunities for our children there. Instead we own land and run a profitable business with others. 

'We work hard, but we produce something healthy for people and the environment and that we are proud of.’

To view the gallery full-screen, simply press play and then select the enlarge button on the bottom right. To show the captions, select 'Show info' on the top right.

Enough Food for Everyone IF

Christian Aid has teamed up with over 100 UK and Irish organisations to end global hunger through the Enough Food for Everyone IF campaign.

A key part of this is action to help small-scale farmers get, and hold onto, land to grow food.

Find out more about how you can join MST in the global struggle for land and food by joining the Enough Food for Everyone IF campaign.

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