Food Power in the Unpromised Land of Brazil

03/09/2015 02:30 pm ET | Updated May 09, 2015

On Wednesday, March 4, 2015, I went to a lecture at Pitzer College - located in Claremont, California where I live. The speaker was John Wilkinson, professor for about thirty years at the Rural Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Wilkinson made a power point presentation in a dark room, his slides of text and maps throwing a glow of facts and illusions at the silent students.

Wilkinson spoke or rather read his slides - all about "food systems" and "agribusiness concentration": how large Brazilian and international agricultural companies in Brazil and the tropics replaced the armies of colonial occupation with purchased land and technology. With those assets and the collaboration of local large farmers and supermarkets, they recreated their agricultural business in Africa, Latin America and Asia. In time, they took over national food companies and made the tropics a cornucopia, not for the local population but for Europe and North America.

For example, Brazil, Argentina and Thailand have become big players in the export of poultry and pigs. Other tropical countries have been exporting fish.

Brazil alone became a food superpower. By the dawn of the twenty-first century, Brazil became the world's number one beef exporter and star in the exports of sugar, coffee, orange juice, corn, soy, and cotton.

Wilkinson underlined this fact: that agribusiness in Brazil has been the largest and most profitable sector of the economy. He said five companies slaughter most cattle; giant ranchers have been pasturing their cattle on land that used to be part of the Amazon.

China entered Brazil and enriched Brazilian and international agribusiness even more: buying "commodities" in large amounts.

The recitation of production figures puts the listener to deep thoughts or sleep. Certainly, in the abstract, and in economic terms, Brazil shows what human ingenuity or bad intent and ruthless determination can accomplish. The Earth (forests, rivers, wetlands, wildlife, domesticated animals, and the land) cannot resist machines, knifes and poisons. The combination of all these "inputs" in Brazil made for a spectacular agribusiness "success."

I asked Wilkinson to speak about the effects of that success. I said I was in Brazil in 1992, the year of the Earth Summit and global excitement over "sustainable development" and "climate change." I reminded him the Amazon in 1992 was much larger than the Amazon of 2015. What happened?

Wilkinson looked at me and the students in the dark and said things did not go so well for the natural world, the poor, and the landless. By this he meant most of the good land (largely from the Amazon) was in the hands of large farmers. This fact all but neutralized the zeal for giving land to the landless.

While Wilkinson was speaking about the "conversion" of the Amazon into money, I momentarily relived my 1992 visit to the wounded Northeast of Brazil and the Amazon.

Land is the very heart of the agrarian culture of Brazil and the rest of the world. Agrarian reform, giving land to the landless, is by far the most vital ecological and social priority of the Earth's people. No pro-peasant or pro-small farmer strategy has a chance anywhere when land is hoarded by the few in an ocean of landless and hungry human beings.

In 1990, Demetrios Christodoulou, a Cypriot Greek economist who spent twenty years with the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, wrote The Unpromised Land, a book about agrarian reform.

He reports that global agrarian conflict blights the life of billions of peasants. He says:

"The root of agrarian conflict lies in the misery, inequality and injustice under which billions of people feel themselves undeservedly condemned to live. Famines are only dramatic manifestations that attract outside attention; endemic grinding poverty and powerlessness are 'normal' features of their lives. In the cause of agrarian reform millions of rural poor have died or suffered torture and imprisonment. Agrarian reform is generally opposed by privileged land-owning interests and their supporters; their hostility and opposition is instinctive and 'natural.' Those close to the land, whose livelihood and welfare depend on it and who are aggrieved by existing agrarian relations, naturally yearn for improvement and change."

In 1992, I witnessed some of the agrarian inequalities in the Brazilian Northeast. I spoke to landless peasants; I saw children begging. But one needs to read Death Without Weeping to grasp the magnitude of the disaster. This is a 1992 book by Nancy Scheper-Hughes, professor of anthropology at the University of California-Berkeley. She says the Brazilian Northeast, "land of sugar and hunger, thirst and penance, messianism and madness," made death routine--particularly for "the children of poor families."

This violence engulfs the Amazon, too. In 1992, it was a burning forest. It was also the world's largest forest, the "lungs" of the Earth, a huge wild frontier for the extraction of gold, oil, timber, rubber and other "resources," the home of feared Indians and despised Brazilians.

And, of course, Amazonia is still untamed nature for countless species of plants, fish and terrestrial animals. But the Amazon rainforest is also a prize for Brazilians and international strategic politics, and nationalism. It's everything to all people, an unknown place for conquest, love, hate--and passion.

My own passion led me straight into it. The green nature of the Amazon--the trees reaching for the heavens and light, the fragile sandy soil making all that exuberance of life possible--was burning in my mind. I climbed to the top of an observation point that brought me at the same level with the tallest trees in the reserve near Manaus; the view of that most fertile part of the forest--usually the home of monkeys and other animals--was awesome. A breeze lighted my sweat and fright from that height.

Wilkinson admitted Brazilian and global corporations were primarily responsible for destroying a great deal of the Amazon since 1992. Yes, Brazilian agribusiness is financially healthy, but its footprint has been very unhealthy on Brazil and the world.