Opinion: Agrarian Reform today and the challenges we face

This article reflects the discussions and debates that took place during a virtual study session hosted by La Via Campesina for its members and allies, as part of its efforts to build a constructive narrative around food sovereignty. This session, among many others, is part of a series of discussions and deliberations that the global movement is holding as part of its international call to sow the seeds of struggle and harvest transformative ideas. (#TimeToTransform).

Joao Pedro Stedile, member of the MST, Landless Rural Workers Movement, of Brazil, was the main speaker at this “Second Study Session on the Agrarian Issues”. During which, he analysed the relevance of Agrarian Reform in the ongoing struggles for Food Sovereignty and Agroecology.

To begin with, Stedile acknowledged that one study session might not be enough to understand the numerous and diverse national campaigns for agrarian reforms that are underway around the world. He presented some elements that characterised and unified the member organisations of La Via Campesina.

Citing Latin American context as an example, Stedile commented that the entire southern hemisphere is currently involved in a conflict centred on agriculture, nature and agricultural production. This conflict has three aspects to consider; (1) the latifundio-minifundio system of land distribution and tenure (2) the role of agroindustry or agribusiness (3) and the alternatives proposed by La Via Campesina.

The latifundio-minifundio system of land distribution and tenure:

This dualistic tenure system is characterised by relatively few large commercial estates known as latifundios, which are over 500 hectares and numerous small properties known as minifundios, which are under 5 hectares. Minifundios are mainly subsistence-oriented smallholdings and are generally farmed by peasant households. In Brazil, for example, the land available for land reform and thus suitable for occupation had shifted dramatically in previous years as a result of the recent waves of capitalisation of agribusiness. For example, large unproductive landholdings or ‘latifundios ‘— once the main target of peasant ire and land occupations — had largely become productive agribusiness export platforms.

Stedile, in his presentation, explained how this system is an attempt by Global Capital to take ownership of the natural goods in rural areas and countrysides. These actions, he argued, are what had previously described for Europe as primitive accumulation (Marx, Capital, Volume 1). Primitive accumulation, in the words of David Harvey, “entailed taking land, say, enclosing it, and expelling a resident population to create a landless proletariat, and then releasing the land into the privatised mainstream of capital accumulation”. Stedile also cited that in the twentieth century, Rosa Luxemburg described how primitive accumulation was an element of colonial capitalism that imposed itself in Asia, Africa, Latin America, where this accumulation and appropriation of natural goods once again took place.

For example, in Brazil, when Nestle concentrates milk and dairy products, their yearly profit rate is of 13%. But when Nestle appropriates drinkable water, just like Coca Cola or Pepsi, the profit rate reaches 400%. There is immense greed to take ownership of water, today worth as much as gold; it is a finite resource they want to own and distribute worldwide. And that is the end goal of this project.

Contradictions in the Agroindustry and Agribusiness :

The Agroindustry or Agribusiness model.

This is a highly concentrated model with very few companies, perhaps between 50 and 60 engaged in large agricultural operations, always attempting to expand its production units. Brazil, for instance, is the largest world producer of soy and cotton, part of a consortium with 500,000 hectares. The intensive use of toxic agrochemicals marks this model. Why apply toxic agrochemicals so intensively? Because these chemicals replace the workforce. Large landholdings do not want agricultural workers, so they replace them with the poison that destroys all biodiversity.

Agroindustry is constantly pushing peasants from their lands. There is no ‘University of Agroecology’ able to measure precisely how much toxic agrochemicals are used per hectare.

Another issue is that they use genetically modified seeds as a way of dominating and concentrating seeds. “Here in Brazil, before agribusiness, we used to have 40 different varieties of soy developed in each region. Now we have two or three varieties, under the control of Monsanto and Bayer. Even if they were honest and called it poison, Roundup Soy -named as such because it is resistant to Monsanto’s glyphosate called Roundup- genetically modified seeds do not increase productivity. Their only value is being able to adapt to agrochemicals.

Finally, this is a model based on the production of commodities for the market. And the contradiction in this model lies in the fact that they claim to produce food for the world, but that is a lie, what they produce is commodities. They don’t even call them ‘basic products’, they call them ‘agricultural products’, products that are standardised worldwide. Soy is the same all over the world. Milk isn’t the same worldwide, and they’ve created powdered milk and turned it into a commodity so that it may be the same, everywhere in the world.”

Key Features of Our Project – La Via Campesina

The peasant project is very diverse. Some call it Family Agriculture or Peasant Agriculture, Popular Agrarian Reform, Comprehensive Agrarian Reform, Sustainable Agriculture Development Project; all of these are different labels of the same project.


It is a model that relies on the family or household workforce. Its primary function is to produce food for the family or household, and the surplus is sold in the market – local markets, fairs, government procurement or peasants integrated into agribusiness companies.

Today COVID 19 has made evident the limits of the capitalist system in terms of solving the fundamental issues of the working class. Capitalism as a mode of production belongs to the past, it is backwardness, because it no longer solves the problems of people. It is not a model for the future, and, unlike our model, it has no forward-looking perspective.

Capitalism has not solved the problem of employment and in most capitalist countries the unemployment rate is of 40%- Capitalism does not ensure housing, income, education, transport and what little is available is in dire and unsanitary conditions.

So it is that, as we face this capitalist crisis, the project of Peasant Agriculture gains in strength and relevance, and poses before us a series of challenges:

Our proposals must make it clear that, aside from land, we are the only ones who stand in defence of nature. Peasants must be the keepers of the land, biodiversity and water. Society will give us this task. “You have the land, but you must also take on the commitment of caring for it, for nature is at the service of the common good.”

Before, we only thought of Agrarian Reform in terms of access to land, but it is time to move past this. Aside from being the location of our work, it must produce food for everyone. It is there that we find an alliance with the people. “We have committed to healthy food.”

Food Sovereignty to ensure access to food:

The modes of organisation must aim towards producing food for every people. And that’s why only the surplus should be destined for trade. No nation in the world should leave its population dependent on production in other countries. “The FAO defends only Food Security and, from our perspective, Food Sovereignty is gaining traction and strength.”

The solution for a mass food distribution is agroecology. We must defend agroecology as the only matrix needed for the production of healthy food. And agroecology requires a “marriage” between popular and peasant knowledge and scientific knowledge. We must make progress and develop the best techniques, able to produce more with a larger peasant workforce. The issue of agricultural mechanisation has excellent potential for further developments.

The development of cooperative agroindustry:

In order to bring food into the cities, to store winter or summer food, agroindustry is essential. The problem today is that the industry and the market are under the control of large monopolies. We must develop cooperative agroindustries.

The role of the State must be transformed. We must not have an anarchist view of the State as capitalist and bourgeois. “We have no use for the bourgeois State, but rather, we need a democratic State of the people. We must not have an anarchist view of each peasant village solving their problems in their own way. We need public policies for development, for production, for food procurement; in everything that relates to public policies, the State should be in charge of administration and induction.”

Agricultural research:

We must devote more energy to the development of the research that peasants need. Research at the service of peasants.

Education in the countryside:

Only knowledge can truly liberate people. Knowledge is acquired and produced in schools, in the family, in the community. It is systematised in schools. That is why we must go to school, at all levels, from elementary to middle, technical and university. Cuba has taught us – peasant men and women go to university to transform the countryside with research, together with IT experts, machine experts, to transform the land and the ways of production through knowledge.

Stedile reminded the audience that even while we find ourselves still in the midst of a great struggle against transnational companies, “capitalism can only take us back. To produce healthy food, we need a peasant workforce that respects nature. Capital has respect neither for nature nor the workforce. Let’s carry on; the future belongs to us.”