text size: smaller reset larger



Country profile - Brazil


Brazil is an agricultural superpower. It produces more coffee, sugarcane, cassava, bananas, and sisal than any other country and ranks second in the world in the production of oranges, cocoa and soybeans. There is also huge international demand for its cattle and poultry, and the country has vast, largely untapped, hydroelectric potential in the Amazon region.

But, although classified as a middle-income country, extreme poverty and inequality exist in Brazil, where five per cent of the population owns 85 per cent of the wealth and the UK Department for International Development (DFID) estimates that a quarter of Brazilians live on less than US$1 a day. Only South Africa has a more uneven distribution of income.

The majority of Brazil's farmers are smallholders involved in subsistence production (World Bank)
The majority of Brazil's farmers are smallholders involved in subsistence production
World Bank

Almost 80 per cent of rural Brazilians, some 30m people, live in poverty and have limited access to education, health and other public services. Many rural families are unable to survive by farming alone, supplementing their incomes by making and selling handicrafts. Child labour is widespread with 40 per cent of 10-14 year-olds working to bolster family incomes. Women head 27 per cent of homes in impoverished rural areas, as husbands migrate in search of seasonal work, The rapid modernisation of farming, introduction of the salary system, and issues of land ownership have seldom benefited the poor and the consequent migration of rural people to urban centres in the south-east of the country has swelled the notorious favelas - shanty towns - of Rio de Janiero and Sao Paolo.

One of the poorest regions is the drought-prone, semi-arid Caatinga region of north-eastern Brazil, which constitutes the largest concentration of rural poverty in Latin America. More than two-thirds the size of Western Europe and home to 25m people, Caatinga is part of the 'drought polygon', which extends from northern Bahia to the coast between Natal and Sao Luis. The Caatinga region's shallow, stony ground means many families practice subsistence farming and an estimated 11m people in the region live without access to clean drinking water. Infant mortality is a sobering 25 per cent.

A question of ownership

A major cause of poverty in Brazil's north-east and central regions is inequality of land tenure. Most of the country's four million farms are small and dedicated to subsistence production, with landless farmers renting smallholdings from wealthy landowners while working long hours for poor rates of pay on their landlords' plantations. The rise of agribusiness has seen tenants evicted as smaller farms merge into larger commercial operations.

Inequality of land tenure is a prevailing theme in Brazilian agriculture (World Bank)
Inequality of land tenure is a prevailing theme in Brazilian agriculture
World Bank

Unequal land distribution has been a feature of Brazil since colonial times, leading recently to the rise of a number of activist groups under the banner of the Landless Rural Workers Movement (MST). The MST campaigns for agrarian reform and coordinates direct action against agribusiness, which has forced many smallholders from the land.

Sympathetic to the plight of the poor and rural landless, the Brazilian government has introduced a series of initiatives to reduce poverty and support rural farmers. President Lui Inacio Lula Da Silva rode to victory in 2002 with pro-poor policies at the top of the agenda, setting up the ambitious Zero Hunger (Fome Zero) campaign to provide basic food supplies to millions of families. After a convincing re-election victory in 2006, despite several corruption scandals in the run-up to the vote, Da Silva consolidated the country's social programme, calling it the Family Grant (Bolsa Familia). Provision of financial support to small farmers, and improved access to education has been well-received but, despite some success, the Lula government is expected to miss the UN Millennium Development Goal of halving the number of people whose income is less than $1US per day by 2015.

Bioethanol - cure or curse?

The government's commitment to biofuel has exacerbated the stand-off between landowners and landless groups. Production of bioethanol - primarily from sugarcane - is booming, especially in Sao Paolo state, fuelled in part by recent agreements to increase trade with the United States. A leading exporter, Brazil supplied 70 per cent of the world's bioethanol in 2006 and plans to increase production from the current 16 billion litres per year to 200 billion litres by 2025.

The recent soybean boom in Brazil saw the destruction of vast areas of rainforest (World Bank)
The recent soybean boom in Brazil saw the destruction of vast areas of rainforest
World Bank

Much of the land now dedicated to sugarcane production used to be pasture, leading to concerns that production of another booming export - cattle - will be shifted further into the Amazon, causing greater deforestation. This mirrors the recent soybean boom in Mato Grosso, which saw the destruction of huge areas of the Amazon rainforest and much of the savannah of the Cerrado region.

Although bioethanol has been hailed by some as an economic panacea, it is feared that sugarcane monoculture will bring few benefits for the poor, instead igniting further arguments over environmental degradation, hunger and unemployment, and deepening agrarian disputes.

Balancing act

The clash between Brazil's pursuit of agribusiness and the need for land reform is likely to be a prevailing theme in the country's progress towards development. While the minority landed elite reaps the benefits of rising world demand for cash crops, the NGO community is echoing the aims of the landless and calling for food sovereignty to become a central part of Brazil's development policy. If Brazil is to make significant progress in this area it must find a balance between harnessing its immense natural wealth, appeasing the powerful agribusiness lobby and enforcing environmental protection, while formulating firm policies to address and alleviate poverty.

Statistical information
  • Official Name: Federative Republic of Brazil
  • Population: 190 million (2007 est)
  • Area: 8,547,403 sq km
  • Population Growth: 1.03% (2007 est.)
  • Life Expectancy: 72.24 (male 68.3; female 76.38)
  • Ethnic Groups: white (53.7%), multiracial (38.5%), black (6.2%) Asian (0.5%), Amerindian (0.4%), unspecified (0.7%).
  • Languages: Portuguese, Spanish, English, French and a number of indigenous languages
  • Inflation: 3.14% (2006)
  • GDP: R$2322 bn (2006) - approx. US$1067 bn
  • GDP per capita: US$ 5,862 (2006); $8,600 at purchasing power parity.
  • GDP by sector: Agriculture 8%, Industry 38%, Services 54% (2006 est)
  • Land use: Arable (6.93%), permanent crops (0.89%), other (92.18%) (2005)
  • Major Industries: Agriculture (soya, meat, sugar, fruit, vegetables); mining iron ore and minerals; processing of iron, steel, oil and derivatives; food and wood products; manufacture of footwear, textiles, automotive, aerospace, petrochemicals electronics; financial services.
  • Agricultural products: coffee, soybeans, wheat, rice, corn, sugarcane, cocoa, citrus; beef.
  • Natural Resources: bauxite, gold, iron ore, manganese, nickel, phosphates, platinum, tin, uranium, petroleum, timber and hydropower.
  • Export commodities: transport equipment, iron ore, soybeans, footwear, coffee, cars.
  • Export Partners: United States, China, Argentina, Germany, Japan, Italy, France, and United Kingdom.

Date published: November 2007


Have your say

Refering to the languages spoken in Brazil, the correct is: ... (posted by: Jose' H. de Carvalho)


The New Agriculturist is a WRENmedia production.

This website uses cookies to improve your experience. By continuing to browse the site you are agreeing to our use of cookies.
Read more