Agrarian reform in Brazil: a case of interaction between social movements and the state

Camila.JPG.315x315_q95Two of the Sociology Department’s (visiting) PhD’s are conducting research into the role of social movements in Brazil’s agrarian reform process. Camila Penna of the Universidade de Brasilia conducted ethnographic fieldwork in Marabá, at the regional office of the National Institute of Colonization and Agrarian reform (INCRA). For the blog she reports on what she found out during her fieldwork and how her fieldwork contributed to a better understanding of the complex relations between Brazil’s social movements and the state.

Agrarian reform is a polarized topic in Brazil. In the public debate about agrarian reform, passionate arguments grounded in ideological positions polarize the political left and right. Over the last weeks two activists of landless movements have been killed, and five others were killed last year in land related conflicts. Meanwhile, Brazil’s current president Dilma recently travelled to an agrarian reform settlement to inaugurate a small dairy industry assembled through agrarian reform settlers’ initiative and financed by the government. At this event, she called upon the landless movement, which organized the settlers, to continue its partnership with the government in order to secure implementation of future social policies.

Brazil’s rural social movements are widely recognized as protagonists in the Brazilian agrarian reform process. At the same time, the national media frames them as troublemakers and indeed, as a threat to the democratic order. Accusations of the close alliance between the movements and the current left wing government abound. Among other accusations, the Brazilian political right wing accuses the state of illegal cash transfers to the movements, through which they encourage protest and property invasion.

The relation between the state and rural social movements in Brazil is a controversial, complex and understudied phenomenon. After the transition to the leftist government in 2003 a number of former activists were installed to manage important state institutions, such as the one responsible for agrarian reform. Similarly, research suggests that social movements have a great capacity to influence state actions. Nonetheless, not much is known about the nature and the consequences of this mutual influence. There is little information on how the state actually interacts with social movements in the realm of agrarian reform.

My PhD project investigates this relation and aims to answer the question “How does the Brazilian state interact with rural social movements on a daily basis and what are the implications of this interaction for agrarian reform policies?” Therefore, I conducted an ethnographic study in a regional office of the National Institute of Colonization and Agrarian Reform (INCRA, the national institution responsible for agrarian reform policies).

My research points to the hybrid role of the state in agrarian reform policies. With ‘hybrid’ I mean that, contrary to what one would expect, the roles of the state, political parties and civil society are not clearly separated. Social movements’ practices are completely embedded in the daily routines of state bureaucracy. For example, the main characteristic of the social movements’ profile (and that of its members) is the encampment experience: the claiming of land through occupation in encampments. The state incorporated the encampment experience as an official criterion for the (re)distribution of land: to this day, only encamped families are selected as beneficiaries of agrarian reform policies. At the same time, the state has a great and definitive influence on the movements’ organization. In particular, state officials are known to adapt the movements’ strategies to conform existing policy regulations.

The long time relation between rural social movements and state bureaucrats has developed into crystallized bureaucratic behaviors and powerful non-written rules that allow the social movements to act as the state and the state as a social movement. This relation is mediated by political parties, that entangle both social movements and state bureaucrats in a complex network of interests and political strategies, which have great impact on how agrarian reform policies are implemented.

My empirical findings, among other things, show that social actors do not always comply with the theoretical frameworks we forge to analyze them. In this case, the Brazilian rural land reform movements cannot be studied separately from the state institutions in which land reform policies are embedded, and vice-versa. More generally, this research shows the value of solid sociological fieldwork in questioning predefined analytical categories.

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