Meeting Brazil's Family Farmers

Dona Marinova Fortunato, 50, and Joise Lopes, 37, stand in Marinova's cassava field. They are both family farmers and members of a women farmers' cooperative in Promissao, Brazil. Image by Rhitu Chatterjee. Brazil, 2015.

Cattle grazing in the fields of Promissao. Family farmers produce 58 percent of the milk in Brazil. Image by Rhitu Chatterjee. Brazil, 2015.

Pumpkin plants on Dona Marinova Fortunato's farms. Image by Rhitu Chatterjee. Brazil, 2015.

Rhitu Chatterjee interviews Joise Lopes as she and her sister put together an order for a nearby school. Image by Ana Pereira. Brazil, 2015.

When we think of Brazil, we often think of large agribusiness. After all, Brazil is a global agricultural powerhouse. It is the largest exporter of orange juice, cane sugar, chickens and beef.

I saw miles and miles of these big, mechanized farms on my journey from São Paulo city to a small, rural town called Promissão—most of them growing sugarcane, as it’s one of the main agricultural products of São Paulo state. (I was accompanied on this trip by a translator and a researcher from the University of São Paulo.) But as we approached Promissão, the landscape began to change. Driving along the dirt roads just off of the highway, we saw little hamlets surrounded by small farms, owned by families.

Joise Aparecida Lopes, 37 is a family farmer in Promissão. She grows cassava, pumpkin, corn and chickens on land she owns with her extended family. Business is good these days, she tells me, and she was finally able to build a new house for herself, down the road from where her mother and sisters live.

But two decades ago, Lopes never dreamed of owning a house, let alone land to farm on. Her parents were poor, landless laborers, and her own future seemed dim. Small family farmers and farm workers produce 70 percent of the food consumed by Brazilians, and yet they use a mere 24 percent of the cultivated land, and make 15 percent of the total value of agricultural production. With an income less than $200 a year, many people working on family farms barely get by.

Life would have remained grim for Lopes and her family had it not been for Brazil’s land reform movements, led largely by small farmers, especially the Landless Rural Workers’ Movement, (or MST, as in the Portugese Acronym). Most small farmers I met in Promissão, including Lopes owe their lands to the work of MST, which since the 1980s has succeeded in giving millions of hectares of land to landless farmers.

Then, in 2003, the government of Brazil started the Public Acquisition program (PAA), which guarantees a certain annual income to family farmers through government purchases. The program is known to have been one of the main reasons for improving the lives of family farmers. In 2009, the School Meal Law was enacted. It required municipalities to buy at least 30 percent of the ingredients for school meals from local farmers, offering another guaranteed income to small farmers.

Lopes benefited from these programs. Today, she runs a cooperative with her sisters and other women farmers. They sell their produce to the government, to public schools in her town (for school meals), and at the local market. She is happy with what she makes and thinks of herself more as an entrepreneur than a farmer.