News Release

Rural population in Brazil is underestimated and lacks political representation, scientists warn

Study shows that scant progress has been achieved in addressing the concentration of land tenure in Brazil. For the authors, extreme inequality and a lack of public policies to combat it are the main causes of rural conflict and violence.

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Fundação de Amparo à Pesquisa do Estado de São Paulo

More than three decades after the end of authoritarian military rule in Brazil, extreme inequality in the countryside has hardly changed. Inequality, especially in land tenure, is a structural trait of the Brazilian social formation and one of the main causes of the imbalances and conflicts that permeate its history. 

This is the focus for Land Inequality in Brazil: Conflicts and Violence in the Countryside, a chapter of Agriculture, Environment and Development: International Perspectives on Water, Land and Politics (Springer, 2022), a book with the findings of research projects conducted in Brazil, India and Europe.

The authors of the chapter are Artur Zimerman, Kevin Campos Correia and Marina Pereira Silva, all researchers at the Federal University of the ABC (UFABC) in São Paulo state, Brazil.

Brazil is one of the largest producers and exporters of agricultural commodities. Its large-scale agribusiness concerns differ from the once dominant latifundiários (big landowners) in scale but resemble them in terms of rural inequality, according to the authors. 

The text recognizes the quantitative advances achieved by the administrations of President Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1995-2002) and President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (2003-2010) in land distribution compared with their predecessors and successors but notes that the type of land reform carried out in these periods was clearly insufficient. Moreover, large-scale agribusiness was prioritized over family farming.

“The concentration of land ownership or possession is enormous throughout Latin America, and particularly in Brazil. A mere 1% of the population holds half the area appropriated to date. Modernization spearheaded by agribusiness, which introduced high technology into the countryside, not only excluded the rural population from its benefits but also reduced the supply of agricultural jobs. Rural conflicts with big landowners’ private security forces or police have led to 1,836 deaths since 1985, 564 of them in the south-southeast of Pará state,” said Zimerman, first author of the chapter. 

Zimerman was supported by FAPESP via the project Why agrarian conflicts turn violent in Latin America: understanding the food crisis and how to alleviate the impact of agrarian violence, conducted at the University of London in the UK.

For Zimerman, the agricultural workforce has not necessarily dwindled owing to a rural exodus. Many people have indeed found work in the cities but continue to live in the countryside. “The definitions of rural and urban adopted by IBGE [Brazil’s national census bureau] are based on parameters defined at the time of the Estado Novo [the dictatorial regime established and led by Getúlio Vargas], between 1937 and 1945, and are entirely out of date. IBGE is a reputable institution, but these parameters are totally misaligned with current conditions in Brazil. Worse still, they’re followed by other research institutions in Latin America,” Zimerman said.

“More modern criteria, proposed by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development [OECD] and by the World Bank, and adopted by such highly regarded scholars as José Eli da Veiga, Ricardo Abramovay and Ivair Gomes, among others, require redefinition of the size of the rural population, which has clearly been underestimated. As we show in our article, the definitions of rural and urban zones used by these and other multilateral bodies take into account the following parameters: population density of less or more than 150 inhabitants per square kilometer; infrastructure; and the distance to a city with more than 100,000 inhabitants. Based on these criteria, the rural population of Latin America practically doubles from 24% to 46% of the total.”

This huge population, he added, is dramatically deprived of formal political representation, which could defend its interests and help sort out conflicts. “Smallholders and rural wage workers have scant representation, whereas the interests of the agribusiness sector will be defended by some 280 members of Congress in the newly assembled legislature,” he said.

According to the chapter, “Land inequality is the villain for the poorest in the interior of Brazil, and one of the main roles to be played by democratic governments would entail reducing this gap between strata of the population.”

Land reform

According to the study, the main changes in terms of land reform, which acquired genuine momentum only during Cardoso’s first term, were set aside by President Michel Temer’s administration in 2016, when the former Ministry for Agrarian Development was downgraded to the level of a secretariat, and completely abandoned by President Jair Bolsonaro’s administration in 2019, when this secretariat was stripped of its powers, renamed, and subordinated to the Ministry for Agriculture, Livestock and Food Supply (MAPA).

The number of families resettled annually under the land reform program reached 584,655 under Cardoso and 614,088 under Lula, falling to 133,635 under President Dilma Rousseff (2011-2016) in the context of a severe economic crisis, and plunging to 10,077 under Temer and 9,222 under Bolsonaro.

“The total number of families given land under these federal resettlement programs since redemocratization [starting in 1985] is about 1.5 million. That’s a very small number considering the size of the rural population,” Zimerman said. “Furthermore, resettlement hasn’t significantly affected economic and social inequality in the countryside. The Gini coefficient, an indicator of inequality, has stayed practically the same in the last two decades. There’s a big difference between land distribution and a properly designed land reform program, which must include public financing and technical assistance, among other benefits.”

One of the results of the prevailing model, which gives preference to large-scale agricultural enterprises and commodity production, is its strong impact on food prices. “In the last two decades, food prices have quintupled in Latin America. This exerts huge pressure on household budgets. Food accounts for 10%-15% of the average household budget in the developed countries and for 65%-80% in the developing and non-developed countries,” Zimerman said.

The food crises seen in 2007-08, 2011-12 and now since the start of the pandemic are the focus of a new research project he is currently designing. It will have a broader scope including land purchases by large foreign investors (Arab, Nordic and Chinese), the impact of climate change on rural violence, the role of global demographic trends such as population growth and pressures on land use due to the resulting growth of consumption, leading to even more violence, and political polarization across Latin America.

About São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP)

The São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP) is a public institution with the mission of supporting scientific research in all fields of knowledge by awarding scholarships, fellowships and grants to investigators linked with higher education and research institutions in the State of São Paulo, Brazil. FAPESP is aware that the very best research can only be done by working with the best researchers internationally. Therefore, it has established partnerships with funding agencies, higher education, private companies, and research organizations in other countries known for the quality of their research and has been encouraging scientists funded by its grants to further develop their international collaboration. You can learn more about FAPESP at and visit FAPESP news agency at to keep updated with the latest scientific breakthroughs FAPESP helps achieve through its many programs, awards and research centers. You may also subscribe to FAPESP news agency at

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