Invisible battles in Brazilian agricultural cooperation

23 March 2015

Brazilian agriculture is famous for its modern farms growing soybeans in the cerrado and for Embrapa, a world leading public research agency on tropical crop science that played a central role in the cerrado transformation. Its agricultural cooperation with African countries has not, however, been a simple matter of replicating the ‘miracle of the cerrado’ in the African savannah.

Fazenda de soja próxima ao Parque do Xingu. Mato Grosso. / Soya farm close to Xingu Indigenous Land. Mato Grosso - Brazil. Image credit: Leonardo F. Freitas - Flickr

In fact, it presents a rather more fragmented picture than the orderly lined up soya harvesters caricature might suggest.

Over the last decade, the scope of Brazil’s agricultural cooperation projects has expanded from training courses and sporadic technical exchanges, carried out mainly by Embrapa researchers, to include joint research, regional development planning, public policy advocacy, pilot interventions and the selling of Brazil-made tractors and other agricultural equipment.

Brazil’s portfolio in Mozambique, the focus of my own research, is an example of such diversity.

Diversity of actors, models and cooperation practices in Brazilian cooperation

No longer the exclusive realm of diplomats and agronomists, today, Brazil’s agricultural cooperation frontline is populated by politicians, technocrats, consultants, traders and social movements’ activists, operating in a seemingly independent fashion and taking along a variety of agricultural development models and knowledge sharing perspectives.

Besides the cerrado model, the package comprises Brazil’s public policies targeting family farmers, which range from the mechanisation of farms to public procurement of food products. With regards to knowledge sharing, approaches vary from conventional top-down technological transfers to more bottom-up methods guided by agroecological principles.

This diversity results partly from the nature of Brazilian cooperation, which has emphasised first-hand sharing of experiences between experts dispersed across specialised fields and agencies. It also reflects Brazil’s ad-hoc institutional framework for cooperation, where the coordination function is weak and the boundaries of what constitutes development cooperation are loosely defined under the elusive label of South-South cooperation.

Whether Brazil’s cooperation system can be described as healthily decentralised or dysfunctionally fragmented remains a debatable matter.

Furthermore, Brazilian authorities often call on South-South cooperation principles of non-interference and demand-driven to justify why cooperation projects cover such an array of contrasting initiatives. The approach means the Brazilian government responds to partner country government’s requests, rather than pre-setting a cooperation agenda which could undermine its partner’s sovereignty.

Metaphorically, you could describe Brazilian agricultural cooperation as the domain of priests, technicians and traders, as someone put it, where: 

  • Priests are those who advocate a paradigm of agricultural development centred on family farming
  • Technicians are those driven by a technical fixing thrust, drawing on Brazil’s agronomic excellence
  • Traders are those seeking business opportunities.

But is the diversity that Brazil exports through cooperation contradictory or complementary?

The visible battle – agribusiness vs family farming

In Mozambique, agricultural cooperation practice so far has revealed an overt battle between seemingly competing visions of agricultural development, suggesting that any claim to the complementary diversity is deeply contested.

ProSavana, Brazil’s most prominent agricultural cooperation initiative in Mozambique, has been the main locus of the battle, typically framed as agribusiness versus family farming.

The programme aims to transform the Mozambican savannah, spreading along the Nacala corridor in the north of the country, into a highly productive agricultural landscape. It draws its inspiration from Brazil’s cerrado transformation and Prodecer specifically. It has mobilised agronomic expertise from Embrapa and zoning and clustering expertise from FGV-Projetos, a Brazilian think tank.

ProSavana is accused, mainly by civil society organisations and social movements, of land grabbing and corporate agribusiness take-over, to the disadvantage of local communities, in terms of distribution of benefits, access to resources, environmental sustainability and food security.

The critical voices point towards Brazil's public policies supporting family farming as more suitable for a South-South exchange. The programme's implementers refute the accusations as well as the argument that agribusiness and family farming are inimical.

While the discursive battle continues to unfold, ProSavana has so far materialised as an alliance between ‘traders’ and ‘technicians’. The cerrado success and edaphoclimatic similarities between the cerrado and Africa's savannah are invoked either to justify technological transmission, where Brazil's tropical agriculture science and technology are presented as the most suitable, or, to suggest business opportunities, where Africa is seen as the last frontier for farming expansion and Brazilian farmers as well placed to explore it due to their experience with similar crops, soils and climate.

It is against this alliance that 'priests' have rallied, calling for a family farming alternative to what is seen as a corporate agribusiness enterprise masked as development cooperation.

The invisible battle

Beyond the surface of this dispute, however, lies a more fundamental divide regarding ontological perspectives on the rural space.

The contrast is between ‘productivist modernisation’ and ‘territories of life’.

Put simply, the former emphasises agricultural productivity, cutting-edge crop science, mechanisation and market integration, whereas the latter highlights diversification, local knowledge, retaining people in the rural space and pesticide-free food. The match between these two perspectives and the typically articulated agribusiness-family farming duality is not clear-cut. More Food International, another Brazilian cooperation programme in Mozambique, is illustrative.

More Food International carries along a distinctive family farming narrative. It is implemented by the Ministry of Agrarian Development, which is a patron of family farming policies in Brazil. The programme includes the selling of Brazilian agricultural equipment, on concessional terms, policy dialogue and extension to family farmers.

To date, the equipment component has attracted most interest from the recipient side and tractors are already on their way to Mozambique. A similar programme in Brazil has been criticised for promoting the conservative modernisation of family farmers, with mechanisation seen as compromising diversification and exacerbating dependency from large agro-industrial conglomerates.

I recently published paper on Brazilian cooperation in Mozambique in which I suggest that, rather than pluralistically diverse, Brazil's agricultural cooperation appears more as hegemonic power struggle. I'm not convinced that the agribusiness vs family farming duality is the nub of the matter, at least not in the terms dualism is usually framed.

Indeed, family farming campaigning, as so far practised by More Food International, seems to have little affinity with the ‘territories of life’ perspective reproduced by the anti-ProSavana insurgency.

You could argue that, both ProSavana and More Food International have emphasised a productivist modernisation ontology and do not necessarily represent opposing models on agricultural development. The agribusiness-family farming dispute can hence be regarded as a discursive fabrication, which serves mostly to reinforce a particular institutional setting and power partition, both in Brazil and in its development cooperation practices abroad.

What next for the counter-hegemonic insurgency and the South-South discourse?

Has productivist modernisation won the battle in Brazil-Mozambique agricultural cooperation?

Much will depend on what the recipient side wants from Brazil. So far it seems the allure of modernisation remains strong in Mozambique, inside its government at least.

Yet, on the Brazil side, new alliances are being forged within the family farming discursive field, building on the anti-ProSavana movement and on the international backing of Brazil's more leftist family farming experiences. Their capacity to influence the cooperation agenda will depend not only on the strength of their ideological propositions on agriculture and public policy but also on institutional power politics. On the latter, the urge to reinforce the political capital of the family farming lobby may stand on the way of a de facto counter-current alternative for the rural landscape.

While the battle for hegemony continues to be fought, the likelihood that Brazilian cooperation will materialise as a channel for promoting unorthodox approaches to Africa's agricultural development remains low. So what for Brazil counter-hegemonic South-South discourse? How does it square with the (hegemonic) modernisation thrust dominating interventions in the agricultural sphere?

Lidia Cabral's working paper, Priests, Technicians and Traders: The discursive politics of Brazil's agricultural cooperation in Mozambique, is part of a series of 24 working papers presenting research from the China and Brazil in African Agriculture project. The working papers are being published on the Future Agricultures website between February and June 2015.

Image: Soya farm close to Xingu Indigenous Land in Mato Grosso, Brazil. Credit: Leonard F. Freitas - Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

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