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Agrarian Reform in Brazil

Agrarian Reform is not a mere redistribution of land. It is a broad process of change that passes through the political, social, technical and economic fields. Essentially, it aims to transfer land ownership from landowning minorities to small farmers and agricultural workers, with the aim of achieving greater social equality, better distribution of political power and economic improvements.

Agrarian Reform in Brazil

Article available in: PT-BR ESP

Last update: 25/05/2022

By: Lúcia Gaspar - Librarian of the Joaquim Nabuco Foundation - Specialist in Scientific Documentation

Agrarian Reform is not simply the redistribution of land, instead it is a broad process of change that involves the political, social, technical, and economic fields.


It aims to transfer land ownership from the landowning minority to small farmers and agricultural workers, seeking greater social equality, better distribution of political power, and economic improvements.


Abolitionism and the Agrarian Reform


According to the historian and geographer Manoel Correia de Andrade, the political-social movements in support of abolitionist campaigns and the agrarian reform share the same remote cause, despite being separated by a century:


they both emerged from the conquest of the Brazilian territory by the Portuguese, from the system of land use and ownership imposed on the Indigenous population inhabiting the territory, and from the vast number of Black people brought from Africa in the development of large plantations.


The Portuguese aimed to develop an agriculture to produce tropical food and raw materials necessary for the European market, as well as to organize the exploration of ores.


Through the implemented system, land was given to settlers, who were to use a large number of slaves (Indigenous and/or African), to produce goods of interest to the colonial market. To control the access to land ownership, they decimated groups who opposed slavery and dominated the population by force.


Thus, a society without freedom was formed, mostly in which the great concentration of land made it impossible for poorpeople, albeit free, to have access to land for cultivation.


Colonial and slave exploitation lasted for three centuries. In the nineteenth century, we begin to see movementsin favor of the liberation of slaves.


The reaction from the Black population as well as from the elites who understood that changes of social order were necessary to ensure the development of Brazil resulted in the abolition of slavery, conducted through successive stages.


With the Lei Áurea (the Golden Law, enacted on May 13th, 1888), slavery ceased definitively, but did not solve the situation of the enslaved. Complementary laws proposed by abolitionists – aimed at the creation of agricultural colonies for the formerly enslaved people, the expropriation of unexplored land, and the development of agriculture – were not signed.


The Republic and the land


With the abolition of slavery, the Republic, which succeeded the monarchy, sought to replace slaves with European settlers, especially where export crops such as coffee were expanded. The Black and mixed population were left to work in partnership systems (in which the small producer paid for the land with much of their agricultural production or money), or to develop subsistence crops for the great landowners.


The enormous size of the Brazilian territory, combined with the small concentration of population, contributed to the emergence of great landowners, who expanded their domains by forcing the sale of small properties, or even by forcingthe owners out of theirland.


In key areas, where export products (coffee, sugar, cocoa) were cultivated, employment relationships were adopted, allowing workers to earn wages. In the less dynamic sites, where there was plenty of land and little workforce, other forms of relationship emerged (leasing of small properties, partnership, and land concession in exchange for production).


The Republic delayed the agrarian measures defended by political groups. Forms of exploitation of agricultural workers (former slaves, mostly) appeared in the country.


Reactions and first changes 


Uprisings were always violently destroyed by the governments linked to dominant groups. The revolution of 1930 contributed to the downfall of the dominant system of oligarchies. New sections of the Brazilian population – the middle class and the urban industrial worker – became involvedin the political disputes.


The 1934 Constitution brought advances:

a) guaranteed expropriation for public need or utility, upon prior and fair indemnity;

b) determined that agricultural work was to be regulated, seeking to settle a fixed population in rural areas;

c) anticipated the organization of agricultural colonies;

d) established the acquisitive prescription;

e) Required agricultural enterprises that were located away from school centers, to maintain schools.


The Charter, however, did not come into effect. It was replaced by the 1937 Constitution, which was more conservative and more focused on urban problems than those of the agrarian sector.


After the end of World War II, a constituent assembly drafted the new Constitution (1946), which repeated the provisions of the 1934 Charter. The landowners’representatives within the constituent allowed the inclusion of previous advances, since they understood perfectly that, with the obligation of prior monetary compensation, in cases of indemnity, the agrarian reform would not succeed.


The industrial boom of the 1950s revitalized the capitalist world economy. In Brazil, from 1955, new highways were opened, and hydroelectric plants and basic industries (steel, oil, automotive) were established. The process of income concentration grows. Commercial crops expand in the rural area, affecting the lands occupied by small producers.


With the emergence of peasant leagues and rural unions, the peasant movement became organized as a form of legal confrontation. Movements in favor of the agrarian reform grow,aiming to change the land ownership system. The movements become radicalized by means of strikes and invasions of unused property, demanding for reform “by law or by force.”


The gravity of the situation leads society to become more concerned about the problem and to discuss it. In 1963, the Rural Worker Statute is launched, in which the rural worker is guaranteed the right to a minimum wage, paid leave and rest, as well as prior notice and compensation in case of dismissal. The Government creates the Superintendency of Agrarian Reform (Superintendência da Reforma Agrária – SUPRA). The United States pressures Brazilian authorities to implement an agrarian reform seeking to softenthe influence of the Cuban Revolution in Latin America.


Social demandsmultiply, and a mentality geared towards change is established, with emphasis on the agrarian reform. The Revolution of 1964 begins an authoritarian period, in which the popular rural movement is completely oppressed.


The first military government, due to the condition of the country and the American pressure, drafts a moderate land reform project. Transformed into Law No. 4,504, of November 30, 1964, the Land Statute was born, creating two agencies: the Brazilian Institute of Agrarian Reform (IBRA), to handle the reform of the land property structure, and the National Institute of Agrarian Development (INDA), focused on the colonization process.


These agencies came under heavy pressure from the greatlandowner sector. Later, the two agencies were unified, in 1970, forming the National Institute for Colonization and Agrarian Reform (INCRA). Surveys initiated by IBRA and continuedby INCRA – 1967, 1972, and 1976 – showed an absolute predominance of large estates throughout the Brazilian territory, which were not being intensively cultivated, preventing millions of workers from having access to land and production. The smallholdings, even if in greater numbers, occupied small areas and accounted for the large volume of Brazilian food production. Such a finding had to be suppressed.


An initiative to use the unoccupied land belonging to the Union and the States–part of a colonization policy toward rural workers in critical areas and under social tension – resulted in the National Integration Program (Programa de Integração Nacional – PIN), which would justify the construction of large highways (Transamazônica, Perimetral Norte, Cuiabá-Santarém). The Government also launched conservative projects, such as PROTERRA (1971), in areas of the Northeast, in which the landowner himself would offerINCRA part of their estate, in exchange forcash indemnity.


The agrarian policy of the military regime resulted in strengthening the power of traditional landownership and developed the modern estate ownership, of large national and multinational companies. Government-funded agricultural, agro-industrial, and agropecuary projects have become huge estates, seizing land from squatters and from the Indigenous.


With an emphasis on export policy, the road system was improved, with the construction of motorways, expansion of ports, and modernization of railways. There was incentive for the development of imported agricultural technology, with growth in the production of raw materials and of food (sugar, cocoa, coffee, tobacco).


The unions began to be controlled by the Ministry of Labor and to practice a welfare-centered policy. 


With the failure of the military government’s economic model, strikes began to emerge in areas where farmers were better organized, and where the wage system prevailed. Many of these movements were successful, but the owners did not always respect the worker’s rights guaranteed by the Law.


The Catholic Church and other religious institutions began to support rural workers. The country becomes more aware of the issue. The campaign for Diretas Já (Direct Elections) advances. Tancredo Neves, elected by the Electoral College, promises agrarian reform to rural workers. In the Sarney government, the Ministry of Agrarian Reform and Development (Ministério da Reforma e Desenvolvimento Agrário –MIRAD) is created, which, together with INCRA, present theAgrarian Reform National Plan (1985).


The national scene becomes delicate. On the one hand, there are movements that call for the application of the Agrarian Reform Plan, considered moderate and contradictory, and those that want immediate reform, through the occupation of unproductive lands. On the other, great landowners radicalize the process and resist the implementation of changes.


Concept of agrarian reform


According to Law No. 4,504 (Land Statute), 30-11-64, art. 1st, & 1st, “Agrarian Reform is considered to be a set of measures aimed at promoting better distribution of land, through changes in the regime of its possession and use, in order to meet the principles of social justice and increase productivity.”


Several experts draw attention to important aspects of the agrarian reform:

a) the need to be a broad and comprehensive process, which effectively includes the participation of peasants and benefits the majority of rural workers;

b) the implementation of the Reform only in the Primary Sector, that is, the distribution of rights on the property of agricultural land, thus avoiding misrepresentation as to its scope, a fact that may hinder the whole process;

c) establishment of a comprehensive policy, which considers human, social, economic, and political promotion.

d) The speed and firmness of the process to achieve short-term goals and achieve changes in the land property structure.


The agrarian Reform is, therefore, a process of structural changes that aims to distribute the rights over the possession and use of land and the control of its production, ensuring the participation of the rural population in the benefits of development.


Process steps


For most authors, two points are strategic for the success of the Agrarian Reform: speed and comprehensiveness. The duration of its process should be limited to a maximum of five to ten years. It is also essential that it reaches the entire national territory to consolidate the actions and to prevent the emergence of anti-reformist resistance.


However, due to the size of the national territory, the actions cannot occur at the same time everywhere. Priorities must be observed, considering the most urgent needs of each specific region or area. What must be avoided is the implementation of programs in isolated areas, to the detriment of others: thus favoring the formation of center resistantto the reform.


The steps to conduct an agrarian reform process do not need to follow a mandatory sequence, it should allow the variation or elimination of steps, according to the specific development of each area.


First Stage


It refers to the acknowledgement of the agrarian problem, regarding the living conditions of the rural population, verifying their economic, social, and political situation.


At this stage, the flawswithin the agriculture functioning,regarding the studied region, and its relations with ownership and useare detected.


Second Stage


The planning phase. It is common for mistakes to occur in the evaluation of the collected data: leading to the creation of technically perfect projects, albeit detached from reality, making the execution impossible.


Each area should receive a specific treatment, depending on its stage of development.


Third Stage


It corresponds to the execution phase, and it requires the application of legal instruments, such as expropriations and transfer of land ownership. The participation of the rural worker is essential to make them the main agent of development.


The success or forestallment of an agrarian reform process is directly linked to the population’s understanding of the formulated programs and projects and to the integration with those interested in the reforms. In this stage, class entities should be set up to supervise and evaluate the actions performed.




Agrarian reform will either be consolidated or not, depending on the level of changes achieved, regarding the possession, use, and benefit of the land and the factors of production.


Previously existing structural weaknesses should disappear, leaving no space for the possibility of reversal of the achieved changes.


Conflicts over land ownership


The difference between the interest of smallholder farmers and those of great landowners has generated conflicts throughout all regions of Brazil. For small farmers, the land is fundamental for their livelihood, whereas for the great landowners it is source of income.


The most common types of conflicts have been:

a) those that occur in the expansion zones of agricultural frontier (in the states of Maranhão and Bahia), where workers settle as squatters and cultivate the land with their families. They end up being evicted by large economic groups or large estate owners. 

b) where livestock farming, and small food production exist. Livestock farmers, stimulated by the growth of the beef market, seek to expand their grazing areas, evicting partners and tenants, and pressuring smallholders to sell their land.

c) those caused by expropriations for the construction of dams or for the installation of irrigation systems. They harm smallholdingsthat farm on riverbanks. The indemnity amount is insufficient to buy other land under the same conditions, and it end up being spent elsewhere, leaving countless families in misery. Partners and tenants who live on farms are not compensated and are also left without any means of survival.


It is also worth mentioning the Indigenous issue; due to lack of demarcation of their lands, the Indigenous have been pushed out of their landsby the action of grileiros.


The problem in recent years


The three-month march of the landless that happened in Brasilia, on April 17, 1997, became one of the largest demonstrations that took place in the federal capital, reviving the agrarian issue.


The release of a Vatican document, in January 1998, entitled For better land distribution – The challenge of agrarian reform, also caused great repercussion. Reactions to the document were immediate and extreme.


The topicbecame radicalized. The Landless Workers Movement (Movimento dos Sem-Terra – MST) intensified land invasions as a form of pressure. On the opposite side, farmers were forming armed groups to prevent the action of the landless.


In regions such as southern Pará, the Federal Police and the Army had to be summoned to control the most intense situations. In the North and Northeast of Brazil, landowners hire shooters to defend their land.


The MST, founded in 1984 in Rio Grande do Sul, is responsible for rekindling the agrarian reform issue within the national consciousness, they have shown to be not only a social movement but also political and ideological one. In addition to invading lands, productive or otherwise, they began to invade public agencies, companies, and even historical landmarks, listed by the National Institute of Historic and Artistic Heritage(Instituto do Patrimônio Histórico e Artístico Nacional– IPHAN), as well as participating –along with those who had been scourged by the drought – in the looting of supermarkets and hijackings of trucks that transported foodstuffs, aiming to gain more visibility to public opinion and increase their power of pressure before the public authorities. The leaders claim that the goal of the MST is to change the model of society.


Currently, there are complaints of irregularities regarding the application of resources toward improvements in settlements and the payment of technical assistance. In Pernambuco, the State Court of Accounts detected deviations of public money in at least five MST settlements.


Final remarks


The rural worker’s main claim has been for the agrarian reform. The Land Statute has not yet had a true application. The existing structures, the political power maintained by great landowners, and companies with large estates resist and prevent change.


The very complexity of agrarian reform, with distinctive characteristics from one area to another, regarding the forms of land use and ownership, and the issue of financial resources for the expropriations and settlement of the beneficiary settlers, make its implementation difficult.


For the reform to be complete, it cannot be restricted to the redistribution of land. It must be accompanied by a rural credit policy (with interest and deadlines compatible with agricultural activity), technical assistance, a system of research, and marketing techniques. A policy that brings a sense of community organization based on social, ecological, economic, and political elements. As well as food production policy for export and domestic consumption.


The agrarian reform must encompass all rural areas and population, so that they can exercise their rights. Rights to work, food, and land. Rights above any that of ownership.


This reform should not repeat the errors of previous programs and projects, in which the goals were never met, which benefited the landowner and thwarted the small owner. In which vast agricultural areas were destroyed with land floods due to the construction of large dams, causing the unemployment of small producers. Or agricultural projects that have not demonstrated any social and ecological concern.


A democraticreform,without radicalism, aimed at raising the living standard of rural workers. A reform that promotes social peace in the rural areas and promotes agricultural modernization throughout the national territory, and that can harmonize freedom of initiative with the valorization of human work.


In Brazil, the agrarian reform is a matter of social justice and requires a position taken by the entire society to allow the full development of the country.


Explanatory Vocabulary


Settlement: a place where rural workers and their families are settled, benefiting from expropriations promoted by the government, to explore the lands that belong to them.

Expropriation: a unilateral act of public law, with repercussions in private law, by which individual property is transferred, by prior and fair indemnification, to those who use it, in the interest of the collective.

Agricultural Frontier: pioneer strip in which the settlement made by farmers advances, occupying forest land.

Grileiro: a representative of greatlandowners, in charge of expelling squatters, preparing the occupation of empty land by these same owners.

Estates: rural property that presents uncultivated land, operated by a single owner. There are estates also belonging to large industrialized rural companies.

Smallholding: it is the rural property that occupies areas smaller than the estates, and in which the land is cultivated. 

Oligarchy: a form of government in which power is in the hands of few people. The rural oligarchy is characterized by the enormous economic and political power great landowners have.

Squatters: people who take possession of empty land without, however, owning their property.

acquisitive prescription: mode of acquisition of the domain of a movable or immovable property, for its uninterrupted and peaceful possession for a certain time.



Recife, February 24, 2005.

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how to quote this text

Gaspar, Lúcia. Agrarian Reform in Brazil. In: PESQUISA Escolar. Recife: Fundação Joaquim Nabuco, 2005. Available from: Access on: dia mês ano. (Ex: 6 ago. 2020.)