Family farming in Brazil: from concept to policy

21 mai 2014
Paolo Groppo (FAO) and Carlos Guanziroli (Associate Professor, Federal University of Rio de Janeiro)

FARM: The International Year of Family Farming (IYFF) aims at raising the visibility of family farmers into national and international policy agendas. In this context, the Brazilian case keeps being referred to. It is true that Brazil is one of the few countries in the world to have a legal definition of what a “family farm” is, it is the only one to have a distinct Ministry for Agrarian development with a department dedicated to family farming, and an agricultural policy with several measures specifically dedicated to family farms such as the widely known PRONAF (Program to Strengthen Family Farming).

But who knows that before the 1990s, the concept of family farming had been unheard of in Brazil?

We have asked two Brazilian experts closely involved in the process that led to the recognition of this category of actors in Brazil to describe it and provide some insights for other countries.

The discussion about family farming, its definition, mode of production and its social and political role dates back to the end of XIXth century, at least in Europe. For a long period the concept was appropriated by conservative political parties and it was only recently that it started emerging as a “new” and progressive area of work (1).

In Brazil, family farming (also family agriculture) is now defined by the Family Farming Law (Law 11,326), based on four criteria: a maximum land tenure defined regionally; a predominant recourse to non-wage family labor; an income predominantly originating from the farming activity; and a farm operated by the family. It is considered a specific means of organizing agricultural, forestry, fisheries, pastoral and aquacultural production. The family and the farm are inseparably linked, co-evolve and combine economic, environmental, reproductive, social and cultural functions (2).

The emergence of the concept of family farming in Brazil, shows that this reality is, by definition, diverse. The concept is still under discussion today in Brazil and many functions are being associated with this terminology (economic, social – like the care/social farming, cultural, environmental and reproductive ones), with obvious implications in terms of measuring its importance in national economies.

This blog article has been written based on exchanges and presentation made within the World Agricultural Watch (3) working group, dedicated to develop an international framework for typology of agricultural holdings informing policy on agricultural transformations, taking into account specificities and stakes of family farms in their diversity. Our aim with this article is to raise awareness on the Brazilian internal process and maybe guide other countries that wish to start a debate on family farming.

How did the “family farms” emerge in policy debate in Brazil?

In the 1990s, two fundamental milestones led to the recognition of family farmers as political actors and as direct beneficiaries of public policy. They were the outcome of two distinct processes.

The first process led to the enforcement of the 1988 Constitution, and the extension of the social security rights that had been introduced in the 1970s to rural workers. This was the successful achievement of successive social mobilizations by both CONTAG (the National Confederation of Workers in Agriculture, the traditional union for small farmers and rural laborers), and landless workers. In doing so, CONTAG started looking for a wider definition than the traditional “small farmer/peasant” one because it had a strong presence in the Northeast and sought to extend and consolidate its political influence as new actors emerged to represent small farmers in southern Brazil as well as landless workers.

The second process leading to the definition of PRONAF stemmed from the federal government itself, which in 1993 during the Itamar Franco administration put land reform back on the public policy agenda with the Emergency Settlement Program and included small farmers in agricultural policy concerns, particularly with regard to farm credit. This was backed by academic studies that contributed both to the debate on the subject and to public policy formulation, especially the PRONAF.

Those academic studies were to prove fundamental to the delimitation of family farming as a category and its consolidation as a relevant political actor and public policy focus.

The most blatant proof of the success of these processes is the creation in 1999 of the Ministry of Agrarian Development, with a Secretary for Family Farming which was given the instruments and funding to intervene in reality and contribute to rural development.

The FAO/INCRA project instrumental to produce evidence on the importance of family farms in Brazil

The return to democracy in Brazil in 1985 came with a strong social movement (Landless Movement: Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Terra, MST) in favor of a needed major agrarian reform. However, there was very little indisputable knowledge about the agrarian sector: few numbers were available at national level, there was a heated controversy about the efficiency of land use in the agrarian reform settlements and their viability (4) and, finally, the need to devote scarce public resources to this theme was a core issue in the first democratic governments.

For those reasons, when, at the beginning of 1990s, a joint project supported by UNDP (United Nations Development Program) and FAO proposed to provide some basic figures on this, it received warm support from all parties. But the data came as a certain surprise: they showed that level of income of settlers were higher than expected. The analysis gave a strong basis for the official program in favor of agrarian reform. It is worth mentioning that those data are still undisputed today.

Until then, little attention had been given to the planning of settlements, with very limited implications of the rural extension workers and other experts not pertaining to the Agrarian Reform institute (INCRA). But, after having set the basis for a wider agrarian reform program, INCRA requested technical support from the FAO in order to help settlers improve their production systems by testing an innovative approach based on the French school of agrarian systems (5). After initial projects in Sao Paulo and Maranhao States, the support was expanded to the entire country, through a series of trainings and support to field work.

Realizing the lack of connection between the two main institutions, INCRA aimed at settlers and EMATER responsible for Rural Extension towards other farmers, and the lack of consideration for the experience and knowledge of small farmers already present in the areas were new settlements were conceived, the FAO team became concerned about promoting collaboration between pre-existent farmers and settlers and amongst the concerned institutions. It led to a major change into the agreement signed by FAO and INCRA, in 1994, to start deepening the analysis of these “old” farmers, in order to better know their production systems, technical itineraries, economic and agronomic efficiency and, finally, to get an idea on how many they were and how they managed to survive in a relative market-led environment with no specific public support.

It also became urgent to get quantification at national scale of those farmers. The political support of the newly created Extraordinary Ministry of Land was instrumental in getting access to rough existing census data that were rearranged for the purpose of the study (6). A working group was set up, composed of several universities experts in statistics and agro-economics, and field workers. The first data on the family farming sector in Brazil took more than a year of work.

Academia, social movements and government institutions were very involved in the debate on the concept of family farming since the beginning, because it was perceived very different from the previous concepts of “small farmers” or “peasantry” ones which were the mood in the 1980s. It was necessary for the FAO team to explain why the size of land did not discriminate farmers well enough compared with the new element they introduced which was the type of labor. The FAO Team played a key role of facilitator between the different actors, while taking into account the need of policy makers to have a definition that could be used as basis for a future targeted program.

Towards a Brazilian definition of “family farms”

The first variable that was introduced into the discussion was the maximum threshold of family labor that differentiated family farms from other farms. The group decided that family farms should rely more on family members than hired labor. But preliminary results showed that it was impossible to ascertain that a farm with 4 family and 3 hired workers was different from one with 3 family and 4 hired workers, hence the shared perception that any proposed threshold, although well justified, would be arbitrary.

But once the criteria of maximum hired labor share was agreed, it became possible to get a first estimation of the prevalence of family farms nation-wide. Obviously, to make this typology more useful in practical terms, the second step was to deepen it at regional and local level in order to provide the government with an acceptable estimate of the numbers of farmers by types so that it could estimate the federal budget.

The FAO/INCRA project promoted a twofold approach: on the one hand continued technical support was provided to local agrarian systems diagnostics as a way to raise awareness on the need to improve the methodological approach, training local teams (a mix of government rural extension officers, NGOs technicians and universities’ experts) and checking the data from the ongoing national census. On the other hand, based on these field works, a feedback on the variables used at national level was also carried out, thus double-checking the results obtained.

At the same time, regional and national policy makers were engaged in policy discussions to create the “enabling environment” in the policy arena for what then became a National Program in support of the Family Farming (PRONAF). Initially adopted under Cardoso’s Administration, although a lower scale, it became one of the flagship programs of the newly elected Lula’s Administration later on. The fact that among the FAO/INCRA working group there were experts pertaining to the inner circle of advisers of the future President obviously facilitated the move.

The PRONAF has since then reached more then 2.2 million contracts, covering roughly 50% of the family farmers in the country, with a very diversified set of credit proposals, covering main production costs, investments, agro- industry processing and marketing, agro-ecology, forest, a dedicated program for women and for youth and others. Associated with the credit program, it is worth mentioning the rural extension and education program (ATER) that was designed and implemented by Lula’s Administration, thus providing a coherent and complete support package. In terms of resources mobilized, PRONAF moved from the initial 3.3 to almost 20 billion R$ (from about 1 to 6.6 billion euros) in 2013.

Making the case for the specific needs of family farms while recognizing their diversity

There are undoubtedly several subcategories embedded in the generic concept of family farming. Family farmers differ by their history, cultural heritages, professional experience and private lives; they also have different access to and availability of factors, including natural resources, human and social capital; they are inserted in distinct agrarian landscapes, have different degrees of access to markets; hence they have relevant distinctions, including different potentialities and constraints, which shapes their particular interests and specific strategies for survival and production. Therefore they react differently to similar challenges, opportunities and barriers, and require treatment compatible with such differences.

But beyond those differences, economic and social similarities justify the use of the family farming category for the purposes of public policy.
Family farmers tend to create a significant number of jobs in the countryside, not only by retaining and employing family members to work on the family property, but also by living and spending locally. This contributes to other activities, such as the street markets that are so important to small towns in the interior, the local retail trade, food supply, and the production of inputs integrated with agroindustrial value chains with a key role in the national economy, such as tobacco, poultry, hog farming, and fruit growing. They also suffer from disadvantages due to historical distortions associated with anti-rural bias, such as the infrastructure deficit, as well as structural distortions, such as low acces to land due to the highly concentrated land tenure.

What are the lessons learned from the Brazilian experience?

Such a short article cannot do full justice to the extent of the debates that we had and are still going on in Brazil on the question “Who are the family farmers?”

One important lesson is that although the question might seem trivial for anyone familiar with rural life, identifying family farmers for public policy purposes means defining objective criteria. Yet the real identity of family farmers is multifaceted. Translating this complexity into objective criteria is difficult, especially when it has to be based on the incomplete information available. It inevitably entails simplifications, which like any simplification are open to questioning, disagreement, controversy and even distortions. But those simplifications are inevitable to lobby policy makers about the importance of family farms.

In this context, to our mind, it is important to use a simple criteria that takes into account the essential features of family farming and ensures the inclusion of a majority in the segment while reducing as much as possible the leakages and distortions that could result from ill-defined criteria. That is why a combination of labour, capital and size was used in the Brazilian case.

Despite certain specificities that differentiate it significantly from other segments of the agricultural sector, at least part of the family farming segment in Brazil are part –a fragile part, no doubt– of Brazilian agribusiness. Those are the ones that are much capitalized. But at the other extreme, there are also some “subsistence” farms, more similar to peasants.

To account for the internal differentiation inside the family farming category, and to give a relative figure about the proportions of the sub-categories at the national regional and local level, a variety of criteria on consumption vs surplus commercialization, assets, income beyond the labor used, should be employed. Unfortunately most governments still use income as exclusive criteria to differentiate internal groups.

But even by using assets, or consumption and sales, the problem persists of how to understand which the determinant differentiating factors are. It is not only the use of family labor force that determines the income and evolution. Although econometrics helps to see coherence between variables, the limitation of Census data does not allow going deeply on the issue.

In Brazil, since the project had started with field research using the methodology of agrarian systems, it was sometimes possible to correlate the different systems of production with income or assets groups, and historical and ecological factors. Different soils, climate, support or not of agricultural policies, access to credit, and so on were found to be very important. But these variables are not often present in census data.

Therefore on the methodological side, our main lesson has been that the classification using only census data revealed important for preliminary analytical understanding and foremost for political lobbying. But once the question moves into which production system to give priority to and how to improve them, the diversity of systems of production appears, and it becomes necessary to go the field. Field research is the only way to allow understanding the reasons that explain the success or not of different types of family farms and therefore what kind of policy will adjust better to the different target groups.

Understanding the background of the Brazilian policy shift and especially the role of research in producing important evidence is critical for countries where family farms are not yet an accepted issue in national policies and where data are still weak and fragmented.

Finally, the practicality of the concept for national policy makers was also a plus. Promoting this debate not only within the Academia, with a declared purpose of making a concrete use of this concept and the typology for future targeted public policy program, with the support of an independent external agency like FAO, was instrumental to fill the gap between the research (Universities) and the action (Government). Linking the analytical part of the work with the desiderata of the policy makers (in general, not necessarily limited to government forces), through an intense and constructive dialogue had proved to be helpful to pave the way for its following success.

(1) Hans Georg Lehmann, Il dibattito sulla questione agraria nella socialdemocrazia tedesca e internazionale. Dal marxismo al revisionismo e al bolscevismo. Feltrinelli Ed., Milan, 1977.

(2) Economic functions include production and employment. Environmental functions include soil enrichment, carbon sequestration, water purification, pest control, pollination and biodiversity enhancement.. Reproductive and social functions include childcare, nutrition, water and energy provisioning, education, health, social security, insurance and risk management. Cultural functions include transmission of identity, symbolic and religious values of resources and territories, knowledge and technologies.

(3) More information on WAW on its website

(4) Agrarian reform settlements regrouped the “settlers” farmers beneficiary of the agrarian reform. Between 1985 and 1993, more than 85 000 families were settled on more than 5 million hectares.

(5) FAO, 1999. Guidelines for Agrarian Systems Diagnosis,

(6) The statistic work was done using micro data of Agricultural Census of 1985, 1996 and more recently 2006.


2 commentaire(s)
Thank you very much Paolo and Carlos for this very insightful article... It shows how research had a decisive role in the definition of policy measures specifically dedicated to family farmers in Brazil. To my mind, it also explains very clearly how practicability of the results is key if Academia wishes to influence policy.
Ecrit le 30 mai 2014 par : Mathilde Douillet 2871

Au jour d'un avenir incertain pour le Brésil....Comment pourra-t-on le définir en mai 2019 ?
Ecrit le 7 octobre 2018 par : j-m bouquery 3650

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