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Expropriating land in Brazil: principles and practices1

Zander Navarro1

Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul / Research fellow at the Institute of Development Studies

Paper presented at - "Land Redistribution: Towards a Common Vision, Regional Course, Southern Africa, 9-13 July 2007"

SARPN acknowledges the World Bank as a source of this paper:
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Land reform is an age-old debate in Brazil either as a government policy or as an imperative to enhance social development defended by various political actors. Since the end of the 19th century one finds in literature vigorous demands to reform one of the most skewed land structures in the world. However, it is perhaps correct to point out that land reform, in fact, was made visible only in two well-defined periods in the political history of the country. First, it emerged in the public agenda in the late 1950s and was abruptly interrupted soon afterwards with the military coup of 1964. The second historical moment was gradually materialized after the Constitution of 1988, when strong political pressures and a growing social demand developed. One of the hottest topics when legislators drafted the new Constitution was to increase access to land for the rural poor and the promotion of land redistribution, because of many disagreements about their mechanisms. As a result of the post-Constitution capacity of rural organizations and social movements to exert pressure, by the mid-1990s an ambitious process of land expropriation was in due course. If measured by the implementation of actual initiatives, therefore, this second historical moment covers the last twelve years, when four successive mandates (including the current one) devised several actions to made land reform a reality in Brazil.

This article summarizes the history of land reform in Brazil and its most decisive facts, moments, achievements and current challenges. Section one briefly sketches the origins of land concentration and the main aspects of that first historical moment when land reform emerged as a heated political issue. It also highlights the military cycle that followed it, when land reform in practice was replaced by projects of colonization in several still sparsely populated and remote regions of the country. Section two discusses how land reform was legally structured in Brazil after the Land Statute of December 1964, indicating its main formal stipulations and the definition of the expropriation program principles. After a synthetic account on how land reform principles evolved and were adjusted over time, section three discusses recent years, especially after 1995, and the main achievements of the land reform program implemented since that year. Finally, before conclusions, section four analyses the most pressing challenges facing this policy nowadays when it is suggested that it is probably reaching its historical end for various reasons, including a diminishing social demand. The article also discusses in passing in different sections the linkages between the expropriation program and actions by social and political organizations and pressures exerted (especially land occupations) in order to reach greater results in the implementation of land redistribution.

  1. This paper has been prepared for the workshop “Land Redistribution in Africa: Towards a common vision.” The findings, interpretations, and conclusions expressed herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development/The World Bank and its affiliated organizations, or those of the Executive Directors of The World Bank or the governments they represent.

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