TORONTO (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Investors describe it as one of the last frontiers for major agricultural expansion - a vast area in Brazil’s poor northeast that the government is eager to open up to investors hoping to set up big new soy farms and cattle ranches.
But for Maria de Jesus Bringelo and tens of thousands of other Afro-Brazilians who earn a living from the land in more traditional ways, the MATOPIBA region has another value: it’s their home.
Bringelo, a 68-year-old grandmother of nine and long-time rights campaigner, wants to block new large-scale investments from encroaching on territory where her family has lived and worked since Brazil abolished slavery in 1888.
Her house was burned down in 1979 after she led a letter- writing campaign criticizing cattle ranchers for forcing local residents off the land, but says that is not the worst thing that could happen.
“Losing our land is the most violent attack we can face,” Bringelo told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “We lose our history, our lives, our knowledge.”
A key member of the National Commission for People and Traditional Communities, a Brazilian government advisory body, Bringelo addressed World Bank officials in Washington on Wednesday to raise objections to new large-scale agriculture plans.
Brazil wants to open the savannah region - larger than France - to investment projects under the MATOPIBA Agriculture and Livestock Breeding Plan launched last year.
Latin America’s largest country is suffering from a serious recession and political turmoil, and officials say bringing capital into the area is crucial for economic growth, broader development and poverty reduction plans.
“Agriculture is the industry that is employing people in this country... in agriculture there is no (economic) crisis,” Agriculture Minister Katia Abreu said after a tour of MATOPIBA with foreign investors earlier this month.
“We need to create opportunities to bring business here.”
Opponents of MANTOPIBA say large farms create fewer jobs than small-scale traditional agriculture.
Foreigners cannot buy farmland directly in Brazil, but often form partnerships with local investors to seal big deals, said Bastiaan Reydon, a World Bank consultant and professor at the University of Campinas.
The MATOPIBA region, some 73 million hectares (180 million acres) of territory in the states of Maranhao, Piaui, Tocantins and Bahia, is home to many of Brazil’s indigenous people who live traditionally, harvesting crops from the land. The price of land there is cheaper than in the country’s more developed south.
Residents like Bringelo make a living harvesting Babassu nuts, a multi-use crop that grows in the wild and can produce porridge, cooking oil and cosmetics.
Most of them, including Bringelo, do not have formal ownership of their ancestral land.
But the Brazilian constitution recognizes ancestral and indigenous land tenure, World Bank consultant Reydon said.
Local communities have not been consulted about new large-scale investment plans, Bringelo said, arguing the initiative violates United Nations guidelines on Responsible Governance of Tenure designed to prevent displacement and land grabs.
“Legally, most of this land is owned by the state,” Reydon told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “There is no clear institutional setting to stop (land grabbing)... people will be murdered if this continues.”
Across Brazil, 34 people were killed in land conflicts in 2013, according to figures cited by Human Rights Watch last year, and nearly 2,500 rural activists have received death threats over the past decade.
It is not clear how many people the MATOPIBA investment plans may displace as the initiative is still under discussion.
But foreign investors have shown interest in starting soy farms, cattle ranches and orange juice processing facilities in the region.
Poverty in Brazil, a country of 206 million people, fell rapidly in the past decade, largely because of the commodities boom, fueled by large-scale investments such as those Bringelo is opposing.
Between 2003 and 2013, more than 26 million Brazilians were lifted out of poverty, according to the World Bank.
Fewer than eight percent of Brazilians face poverty today.
Starvation has been virtually eliminated in South America’s largest economy, and supporters of Brazil’s farming model say export earnings have provided the government with revenue to help poor families buy food.
Bringelo and her friends are directly benefiting from government food policies. They sell Babassu nuts to the state which uses them in its school feeding program for poor children.
Activists say the problem is that big plantations don’t provide as many jobs as smaller-scale agriculture, and can have a harmful impact on local people - who therefore need to be consulted about plans to change land use.
“Exports are an important part of the national economy,” Douglas Hertzler, a policy analyst with the charity Action Aid, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“But we can’t use the recession as an excuse to trample the rights of traditional people.”
Reporting By Chris Arsenault, editing by Tim Pearce. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, and climate change. Visit news.trust.org