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close this bookAgricultural Expansion and Pioneer Settlements in the Humid Tropics (UNU, 1988, 305 pages)
close this folder17. The colonization and occupation of Brazilian Amazonia
View the document(introductory text...)
View the documentRecent economic development and governmental policies regarding the Amazon
View the documentAmazonian colonization from 1964 to the present
View the documentThe border and social conflicts
View the documentNotes
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Amazonian colonization from 1964 to the present

As mentioned in the previous section, colonization in Brazil can be divided into two stages, taking the year 1964 as the basis for the more recent period. It was also observed that, until 1973, the government supported its colonization agencies (Tavares et al. 1972, 19), changing its guidelines whenever necessary and possible in order to implant in the Amazon a notedly entrepreneurial form of occupation.

It is worth noting that an analysis of colonization must start from an understanding of the border's role inside the country. There are different interpretations regarding the occupation of the Amazonian border.

The Current Debate about the Border

Four theses concerning the role of the border in today's Brazil can be identified. According to Albuquerque David (1984), there are contradictions between these approaches and the perspectives each one presents regarding the border's future.

The first concerns the closing of the border resulting from the appropriation of uninhabited lands as large estates, accompanied by the expulsion of small rural producers. This land appropriation occurs due either to a desire to protect against the accelerated inflation registered in the country after 1977/1978 or to the intention of carrying out, at a later stage, production for economic purposes. The movement is dual in the beginning it is an expansion border, where the land is merely appropriated without being the object of trading transactions. Afterwards, this border is substituted by the pioneer or economic border, thereby leading to its progressive incorporation into the market economy with the occurrence of conflicts about land ownership. This theory currently claims that the occupation pattern which prevails in the Amazon continues to be centred on big-business projects, fiscal incentives, and speculative capital, as was the case in the 1970s.

The criticisms addressed to this approach are based on the fact that since the 1970s, a significant reduction in the granting of fiscal incentives has been observed as a result of the economic recession, which worsened in the subsequent years. Furthermore, the reduction of fiscal incentives has resulted in a lack of financial credit without a clear priority for large company investments. Likewise, the government's role itself has been changing, with a larger institutional participation in the life of the region, legalizing already existing situations and implementing colonization projects. This has also resulted in a change in the composition of migratory flows demanding land along the border, especially in the western part of the Amazon. Currently this flow involves a more significant proportion of rural producers with capital than in the 1970s. Despite this, the conflicts resulting from the coexistence of these new forms of occupation in relation to the former ones (leaseholders and transitory workers) have not been eliminated.

A second thesis attempts to identify the process of withdrawal from the border. The chief reason is the industrialization of Brazilian agriculture, which has channelled investments to the central and southern parts of the country. In this new stage of development, the border no longer plays a role which helps it to integrate into the dynamics of economic growth. Consequently, the expectations of those who see possibilities of a continuous border development have been frustrated. Furthermore, private capital has not managed to combine land appropriation in the Amazon (which has occurred on a large scale) with capitalist patterns of production. Hence the region's economic weakness and the lack of propulsive elements to maintain its present dynamism as Brazil tries to overcome the economic recession.

There are those who consider this analysis susceptible to criticism based on the fact that not all speculative capital has been withdrawn from the border, nor has the capitalist front retracted. There are several large projects to prove this, such as Carajas and Jari, which continue to exist in this region. Furthermore, it was not only this area which ceased to attract speculative capital, for a decrease of land prices has occurred nationally, not only in the Amazon.

A third group of authors attempts to emphasize the border's importance as an area which produces basic food crops. In spite of recent growth, it lacks significant participation in the national agricultural supply. On the other hand, one cannot expect large-scale production from these areas where an old and obsolete technology is used, and where there is a lack of technical knowledge and a distant location from the consumer centres. It should be emphasized that these areas today lack the favourable conditions observed when the border regions were occupied in the south and the west. The Amazonian border expanded during the middle of the oil crisis, when investments in road construction became scarce, and avoided less populated areas. Another problem that arises is the defective storage of agricultural produce, reinforcing the disadvantages of the border for development.

Finally, a fourth group of authors emphasizes the role played by migratory flows along the border which served as an escape from the tensions of more populated areas, especially the larger urban centres. Those who study this aspect demonstrate a certain frustration regarding the effective capacity of the border to absorb migrants. The reasons indicated are: the cyclical nature of the push-pull movement, arising from the large labour contingents and the existence of large capitalist undertakings that have increasingly worsened the conditions for small producers remaining in the area. Furthermore, the border has suffered an intense urbanization process which leaves the agricultural sector with little capacity to absorb labour. The pressures by national and foreign capital to hand over the border's occupation to the private sector are a consequence of this process.

What is initially criticized in this thesis derives from the lack of reliable data concerning the region's current population. It is argued that the absolute number of migrants has increased, even at decreasing rates in the 1970s when the opening of extensive roads constituted the major factor of attraction for labour. However, one cannot help recognizing that the intensification of occupation by large companies and colonization projects has reduced the availability of land for those who migrate spontaneously.

The Role of Colonization

It is worth noting that the role of colonization seems to be considered as a minor issue in all the analyses mentioned above. In fact, it represents a relatively advanced stage of Amazonian occupation. On the other hand, the regional diversity of the Amazon does not allow one to consider it entirely occupied. The role played by public or private colonization is still powerful in the less populated states like Rondônia, Acre, and Mato Grosso. This suggests the necessity of an evaluation of the results obtained by the colonization policy in the last twenty years in order to provide details of the peculiarities of the Mato Grosso region (a west-central state), where the field research for this project was developed.

Dias and Castro (1982) explain that colonization projects aim at a combination of three objectives: (i) occupying virgin territory, (ii) social promotion of rural workers, and (iii) increasing agricultural production. However, these objectives are not compatible with one another, as the Brazilian experience has shown. The attempt to achieve them simultaneously has been translated into frustration in terms of colonization results.

The administrative structure of the colonization projects comprises a large range of models which vary from a simple land allotting agency (without any commitment to install complementary services) to the enterprise which develops the whole project. According to Dias and Castro, colonization has never obeyed political guidelines that would link it to the development strategy applied in the country. This may be the primary reason the projects' implementation. has always been marked by discontinuity and farmers' experiences have seldom been incorporated into new projects.

Colonization, as an instrument of regional development, was emphasized from the late 1960s, when a group of government experts undertook a systematic analysis of the errors and the correct moves made by authorities during this period. Attempts were made to formulate a methodology for the operational programming of the settlement of farmers based on the concept that colonization is an extremely important element for changing the agrarian structure when supported by community awareness and more equitable land distribution. The social and economic promotion of rural labour coming from different regions continues to be considered as one of the main goals.

Despite this, the colonization policies and the global strategy to develop the agricultural sector do not manage to achieve the desired integration. There is an inconsistency between the social promotion objectives and profit, due to a failure to analyse the dynamics which exist between projects and market trends as far as the producer's condition to capitalize is concerned. Dias and Castro support the thesis that this has occurred due to "lack of knowledge of the basic economic aspects of traditional technology by the small producer and because of the obstacles and opportunities offered in view of the current technological change" (Dies and Castro 1982). In other words, colonization would achieve its objectives if a low level of production, based on traditional technology was economically possible and if the conditions to develop a more technologically advanced and capitalized stage were created.

Initially, the efficiency of these projects, generally based on subsistence production, depended upon the availability of family labour and its physical productivity, the extent of the area to be cultivated, the quality of the soil, and the eventual utilization of equipment and means of transport, mainly of the timber that the inhabitant of the land extracts and tries to sell as soon as he arrives. In the medium and long term, economic viability is conditioned particularly by available time for work, the revenue gained, and the loss of soil fertility. In successful experiences,

the integration of these elements will produce a continuous revenue increase for the producer, until the entire area's occupation is under his care. From then on, there is no distinction between an agricultural economy based along the border and that developed in the traditional areas.

The official colonization projects are characterized by scarcity of capital while land and labour are abundant. Considering that the official objective is to achieve quick occupation of the land, it seems preferable to substitute colonization by other types of activity which offer possibilities for the attraction of investment capital. Furthermore, one should not necessarily favour agriculture, which competes with activities creating more income for the inhabitant (like felling trees, among others). Another limitation of official colonization is related to its goal of quickly increasing the supply of basic food crops. Obviously there is a lack of resources for investment and too many risks, ranging from the lack of land-ownership certificates to the climate and to the uncertain product markets due to the lack of an infrastructure, while there exist better options for investing capital. Colonization has never been developed in the regions that already have a reasonable infrastructure, at least not by the government. Colonization projects are always developed in remote regions, where easy access is limited, at least in the beginning, and natural conditions are adverse.

The basic result of this colonization policy has been incompatibility between the projects' technological structure, the aim of social promotion, and accelerated occupation and the rapid growth of agricultural production. This incompatibility is due to the scarcity of capital and the fact that the small producer is usually unable to invest.

One of the alternatives proposed by Dias and Castro would be to transfer colonization to private initiative or to adopt a strategy that would mix public and private initiatives. Others point out that the scarcity of low-cost credits is one of the factors which has prevented this undertaking from succeeding, besides its location far from fertile lands.

Theoretically, the range of colonization models is not very large. It would be possible to combine them with occupation developed through medium and large rural estates, which often attract labour spontaneously when located on goodquality land. Parcels of this land could be reserved for future occupation as smaller lots by labour which is actually working on the farms. Thus, the implementation and maintenance costs of extensive roads and projects would benefit from the experience of the medium and large estates. Furthermore, the produce trade would become less risky and a large number of workers would find better conditions for settling in the region. It is worth noting that the performance of private colonization projects has not differed substantially from that of government projects.

Basically, companies try to concentrate in their own hands the gains from colonization, obtained through the gradual opening of new lands and their sale, in order to cover most of the infrastructural costs. Land distribution in the projects is usually more flexible, causing small, medium, and large estates to emerge as properties. In many cases, this makes the emergence of a service sector more likely and has a multiplier effect on investments, combined with government colonization and enriched with the adoption of a credit system which favours the redistribution of income. The volume of subsidies to be granted by the government would have to be inversely proportional to the size of the property acquired. The larger undertakings would not be denied access to these resources, but they would have to pay a greater portion of the direct implementation cost of the colonization projects. Overall, this combined formula would create a demand for a local labour market and for services by the larger business organizations. Furthermore, the greater administrative capacity of large undertakings could be used to organize and to administer co-operative enterprises.

However, the government seems to dismiss the process of colonization, while at the same time opening the field for private initiatives to take care of colonization as another option to invest capital, alongside the co-operatives. In general terms the settlements promoted by the government have seldom achieved the proposed goals. Attempts along the Transamazônica, failed, as the settlers knew almost nothing about soil fertility, which turned out to be poor, nor about the real socioeconomic requirements to avoid failure by small farms based on foodstuffs production. The population which participated in these projects was composed mainly of migrant workers of diverse origins and formed an extremely heterogeneous group. Additionally, important differences regarding the eastern and western Amazon areas were observed. Consideration of these characteristics was crucial for a successful occupation of less populated areas such as the state of Mato Grosso.

The Occupation of the Eastern Amazon

One of the most serious aspects of the occupation process has been the large number of land conflicts. Albuquerque David (1984) notes that several Amazon areas of declining resource exploitation, relatively distant from the border, have been suffering from an accentuated net emigration of population, due mostly to the policy adopted by the government of giving most privileges to large enterprises, which in turn limits access of small production units. One of the immediate results is an outbreak of conflicts regarding the ownership of the land, especially when the varied composition of migrants is noted. They comprise everything from experienced small producers, who possess capital and technological resources, to simple migrant workers employed or previously connected with resource exploitation and including temporary owners or occupants (itinerant agriculture) and leaseholders. A distinct geographic source of these flows can be noted: the eastern front of penetration by small producers receives a flow of itinerant farmers from the north-east, while the western part of the Amazon receives farmers from southern Brazil, who usually have more resources with which to cope with the border's difficulties. These two separate penetration and occupation flows, as well as the two different Amazonian regions, represent equally distinct results.

The eastern side received a flow of north-eastern migrants, who came to work in the chestnut harvest. Later, this flow, which lasted until the end of the 1960s, headed towards the south of the state of Para and to the north of Mato Grosso, joining the migrants who had settled along the Belem-Brasilia highway, where an emergency job creation programme was opened by the government.

This occupation brought together rural producers, who aimed at settling for business in the new area, with others who did not possess any resources and who had no means of remaining there except as labourers. On the other hand, these producers were often faced with the presence of large landowners, who did not all have full legal title to their lands and therefore additional conflicts were created.

The case of the western Amazon is different since its occupation goes back to emigration from the border area in the state of Paraná, a movement which lasted roughly from 1940 to 1960. The overall experiences of its participants are completely different from those of the north-eastern migrants, and this may account for different results along the new Amazonian border.

The Occupation of the Western Amazon

Emigration from the southern border region took place in concert with the growth in cereal production (soya beans, wheat, and rice), motivated by the expansion of the economy in the neighbouring state of Sao Paulo and by cattle raising. Rapid land concentration followed as a consequence of the rural exodus, which has increased since the 1970s. The pioneer front moved to the state of Mato Grosso do Sul (mainly private colonization with the participation of co-operatives) and to the state of Mato Grosso do Norte after the division of the two states in 1977. The construction of paved roads was favourable to the large enterprises as well as to the small producers. There was also a spontaneous colonization front which moved towards the north of the state of Goiás, crossing another one from Maranhão along the way. The territory of Rondônia, which had previously acquired statehood, gained a reputation for its tin mines, which attracted people from the north and the south. Here, the population increased five times during the 1970s, a fact which explains the emergence of new migratory flows because of the scarcity of opportunities for local occupation. The migrants headed towards Roraima and to the north of Mato Grosso, along the Pôrto Velho-Manaus and Cuiabá-Santarém highways. This flow is the most recent and has not yet been systematically studied.

General Results of the Amazonian Occupation

From what can be observed in the current situation on each of the fronts mentioned, it is clear that, due to the composition of the migratory flows, the western area is more privileged, as there are better conditions for settlement and the accumulation of capital. This results in a complete difference in the conditions for successful population absorption between the western and eastern borders. Along the western border the free lands are more fertile, while an institutional weakness to control the demand for rural space can be observed. Consequently, it acts as an arena of activity for land-grabbers (Almeida and Albuquerque David 1981), conflicts, valuation of the land, and the establishment of latifundia, creating difficulties for the small producers and the seasonal land workers. On the eastern side, conflicts are even more accentuated and entrenched, since the border is being quickly colonized. Consequently, the government has created an organization, Grupo Executivode Terras do AraguaiaTocantins (GETAT), with the specific task of administering the region's land issues.

At present, as far as the state of Mato Grosso is concerned (which includes the penetrating eastern front), the occupation has been developed primarily via private colonization, which is more concentrated from a geographic point of view than public colonization and, consequently, restricts the kinds of migratory flow that can have access to it. Its farmers basically come from the south as producers who have experience and enough financial resources to occupy legalized lands. Overall, the northern region of Mato Grosso continues to have few occupants, but it already reflects the more accentuated presence of private colonization.

The Case of Mato Grosso

According to Almeida and Albuquerque David (1981), the occupation model based mainly on private colonization has received strong official support since the 1970s in the case of Mato Grosso. Official colonization tends to spread along the roads and rivers, while private colonization is more concentrated.

From a historical point of view, the first colonization projects in the central western regions were implemented in 1912, but most of them date from 1940, gaining more emphasis between 1951 and 1953. Nearly all of them were interrupted before completion because they did not fulfil the minimum requirements for their development, thus making way for land conflicts. Today (the last data available are from 1981), the number of private colonization projects in Mato Grosso is estimated to be 54, with 8 in Mato Grosso do Sul.

According to Goodman (1978), there were 40 private colonization schemes, which incorporated two per cent of the state of Mato Grosso. The governmental colonization policy has limited itself to operate as an entitlement agency in order to avoid land conflicts following migratory flows. This policy has concentrated more on land legalization than on providing basic conditions for successful colonization. Thus, a great part of the state's territory ended up free of conflict but, also, with a low occupation density.

One particular aspect of private colonization is that it does not present a structure of land ownership as rigid as that presented by governmental projects. The entrepreneurinvestors are interested in occupying the land with people who have already become used to agricultural work before their arrival at the border and who have an initial amount of capital available, generally obtained by selling former property. Some investors have recently concluded colonization projects for and with co-operative farmers from the south who were not able to obtain all the knowledge they needed, especially in areas where the forest is thick and where there is no infrastructure to help in starting cultivation projects. A service-rendering network was established for properties of different dimensions. This network accelerates the occupation but does not guarantee that it will be an orderly one. Mato Grosso provides a clear example of colonization projects oriented towards investments which impose strict selection of the people who will work on the land and expect an investor's attitude from them.

Not all colonizing agencies wholly comply with the contracts signed with the government, even though, according to the law, the colonizing agency is obliged to cultivate only 20 per cent of the land received. Generally, the remaining area is subject to appropriations for speculative purposes.

There are two current interpretations regarding the logic of colonization in this area. The first considers the demands of the colonizing agency as a means by which the government was able to quickly establish a land property structure in order to divert rural migrants from northern Mato Grosso. The other interpretation recognizes in the border's attraction for the colonist the presence of a mechanism that causes the concentration of land into fewer and larger properties in regions the colonists left behind. On the other hand, the co-operatives increase their capital with the flow of settlers towards the border, creating a concentration of previously dispersed resources.

Since the second half of the 1970s, the great success of private colonization compared with public colonization has become evident. This has caused INCRA to stimulate the implementation of mixed colonization models, in which it then also participates, together with a co-operative and a private company. However, this mixture of company-government-co-operative has proved to be disadvantageous since it does not eliminate the partially excluding aspects of the co-operative.

In summary, the results are an inefficient public colonization together with a more successful private colonization which is characterized by the exclusion of potential settlers and by the concentration of resources. Among the colonization attempts, by means of a simultaneous implementation of several models, conflicts over land ownership were accentuated since public colonization seldom manages to keep the settlers in the field, while private colonization does, but in a limited manner.

In the last few years the quantity and intensity of these conflicts have increased, although official data concerning these issues hide the seriousness of the process in most cases.