"Remaking frontiers"


Material Information

"Remaking frontiers" land tenure recovery, collective action, and survival strategies of agro-extractive peasants in the "Babassu Zone," Brazil
Physical Description:
xvi, 365 leaves : ill. ; 29 cm.
Porro, Roberto ( Dissertant )
Oliver-Smith, Anthony ( Thesis advisor )
Wood, Charles H. ( Reviewer )
Hildebrand, Peter E. ( Reviewer )
de Almeida, Alfredo Wagner B. ( Reviewer )
University of Florida
Place of Publication:
Gainesville, Fla.
Publication Date:


Subjects / Keywords:
Land use -- Brazil   ( lcsh )
Land use -- Government policy -- Brazil   ( lcsh )
Babassu -- Brazil   ( lcsh )
Latin American Studies thesis, M.A   ( lcsh )
Dissertations, Academic -- Latin American Studies -- UF   ( lcsh )
bibliography   ( marcgt )
non-fiction   ( marcgt )


The survival and social reproduction of peasant societies encompass changes in land and resource use resulting from socioeconomic and political transformations. since the 1960's peasants in the Brazilian Amazon have dealt with state policies promoting concentration of land ownership, pasture conversion, and the expropriation of their means of production. In Maranhao, the most "rural" of the Brazilian states, land scarcity forced a large peasant society to "remake frontiers", through the redefinition of survival strategies. By having the "remake of frontiers" as a central element for survival, peasants simultaneously introduce new aspects in their social and political identity. I have studied peasant communities in areas of babassu palm secondary forests in Maranhao. Expereiencing disputes with antagonistic social segments seeking conflictive land uses, peasants identified specific political ecologies consisting in the combination of economic alternatives, natural resource management, political expression and participation in state and market oriented initiatives. The processes associated to the recovery of tenure security resulted in changes in peasants' social and political trajectory, mainly expressions of collective action and the new forms of social organizations. Empirical references for this study are from five communities of "agro-extractivist, shifting cultivator" peasants in the Mearim and Grajau valleys, experiencing processes of tenure rights recovery in the 1980s and 1990s. Ethnographic observation, unstructured interviews, and 135 questionnaires addressing demographic, socioeconomic, and resource-allocation aspects served as the basis for the qualitative and quantitative analysis. Predominant outcomes in terms of socioeconomic standards, income composition, consumption patterns and allocation of labor were identified, attesting to the adoption of multiple and heterogeneous survival strategies among and within communities. the results obtained in the study indicate two major characteristics of peasant societies in their "search for new frontiers" in transformed economic and political realities. first, the establishment of a complex and multiple network of social relations. Second, their adoption of survival strategies that constantly reinterpret the various components affecting their livelihood, attributing differential weights according to specific correlation of forces and configurations of biophysical, socioeconomic, and political elements. by "remaking frontiers" peasant s in the so-called "babassu zone" look toward a more harmonic future despite social conflicts, linking the roots of their community's formation with their agency in the emergence and assimilation of new aspects in their identities.
Thesis (M.A.)--University of Florida, 1997.
Includes bibliographical references (leaves 356-364).
General Note:
General Note:
Electronic resources created as part of a prototype UF Institutional Repository and Faculty Papers project by the University of Florida.
Statement of Responsibility:
by Roberto Porro.

Record Information

Source Institution:
University of Florida
Holding Location:
University of Florida
Rights Management:
All rights reserved, Board of Trustees of the University of Florida
Resource Identifier:
aleph - 002327768
oclc - 38848115
notis - ALT1388
System ID:

Table of Contents
    Title Page
        Page i
        Page ii
        Page iii
        Page iv
        Page v
    Table of Contents
        Page vi
        Page vii
    List of Tables
        Page viii
        Page ix
    List of Figures
        Page x
        Page xi
        Page xii
        Page xiii
        Page xiv
        Page xv
        Page xvi
    Remaking frontiers
        Page 1
            Page 1
            Page 2
        Survival strategies of contemporary peasants
            Page 3
            Page 4
            Page 5
            Page 6
            Page 7
            Page 8
            Page 9
            Page 10
            Page 11
            Page 12
            Page 13
            Page 14
            Page 15
            Page 16
            Page 17
            Page 18
        Central question: the remaking of frontiers
            Page 19
            Page 20
        Approach and thesis organization
            Page 21
            Page 22
            Page 23
            Page 24
            Page 25
            Page 26
            Page 27
            Page 28
        Biophysical and demographic dimensions of the Babassu-zone
            Page 29
            Page 30
            Page 31
            Page 32
            Page 33
            Page 34
            Page 35
            Page 36
            Page 37
            Page 38
            Page 39
            Page 40
    Peasant economics and the economy of the "shifting-cultivator peasant"
        Page 41
            Page 41
        Revisiting economic strategies of peasant households and communities
            Page 42
            Page 43
            Page 44
            Page 45
            Page 46
            Page 47
            Page 48
            Page 49
            Page 50
            Page 51
            Page 52
            Page 53
        Social organization and collective action as peasant survival strategies
            Page 54
            Page 55
            Page 56
            Page 57
            Page 58
            Page 59
            Page 60
        Formation and consolidation of a "shifting-cultivator peasantry"
            Page 61
            Page 62
            Page 63
            Page 64
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            Page 87
    Survival strategies of agro-extractive peasants in the "Babassu-zone"
        Page 88
            Page 88
            Page 89
            Page 90
            Page 91
        Limited land and urban influence: seasonal moves, wages, and retirees
            Page 92
            Page 93
            Page 94
            Page 95
            Page 96
            Page 97
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            Page 106
            Page 107
        "Mutirao": peasant collective action in the Babassu zone
            Page 108
            Page 109
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        Agricultural projects in a "black" community
            Page 124
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        From abundance to scarcity: internal struggle in former indian lands
            Page 134
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        Landless occupation of forested lands in the Grajaú valley
            Page 154
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    A critical Interpretation for a quantitative assessment of peasant stratification
        Page 180
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            Page 183
            Page 184
            Page 185
            Page 186
        Community composition
            Page 187
            Page 188
            Page 189
            Page 190
            Page 191
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            Page 196
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        Measuring distinct expressions of changes in livelihood
            Page 198
            Page 199
            Page 200
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            Page 210
            Page 211
        Assessing differentiation through consumption
            Page 212
            Page 213
            Page 214
            Page 215
            Page 216
            Page 217
            Page 218
            Page 219
        Shifting cultivation within an agro-extractive peasant system
            Page 220
            Page 221
            Page 222
            Page 223
            Page 224
            Page 225
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            Page 244
            Page 245
        Analyzing households individually: patterns of income composition
            Page 246
            Page 247
            Page 248
            Page 249
            Page 250
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    Conclusion: the theoretical and practical elements of peasants "remaking their frontiers"
        Page 273
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            Page 274
        Significance of peasants "remaking their frontiers
            Page 275
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        Final considerations
            Page 296
            Page 297
            Page 298
            Page 299
    A sample questionnaire
        Page 300
        Page 301
        Page 302
        Page 303
        Page 304
    B census data on concentration of land ownership in selected counties (municipios) at the Mearim and Grajau valleys
        Page 305
        Page 306
        Page 307
        Page 308
    C household data on demographic and socioeconomic aspects, agro-extractive production and income composition
        Page 309
        Page 310
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    D house equivalent index and consumer goods index
        Page 350
    E Roça, Farinhada, and Lastro: peasant agriculture in the "Babassu zone"
        Page 351
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    Biographical sketch
        Page 365
Full Text







Copyright 1997


Roberto Porro

To Noemi, Felipe, Pedro, and Ana


I would like to thank two institutions for the support they provided during my

graduate studies at the University of Florida. I held an Inter-American Foundation

fellowship from September 1995 to August 1997. In January 1996, I received a grant from

the Brazilian office of the World Wildlife Fund in order to carry out research and field

work. I am deeply grateful to these institutions and to the staff associated with them.

My special thanks are due to the members of the supervisory committee with

whom I have learned and shared ideas during the research and writing of the thesis: Dr.

Anthony Oliver-Smith, Dr. Charles H. Wood, Dr. Peter E. Hildebrand, and Dr. Alfredo

Wagner B. de Almeida. This study could not have been done without their theoretical and

methodological support, and constant encouragement. Extensive thanks go to professors

that were a constant source of advice and inspiration. I give my gratitude to Drs. Marianne

Schmink, Steven Sanderson, Clyde Kiker, Leslie Anderson, and Abe Goldman. I am also

grateful to John Dain, Stephen Perz, and to my colleagues and the staff at the Center for

Latin American Studies and Tropical Conservation and Development Program.

Over the years since my initial work in 1986 in Maranhio, there were many people

and institutions that contributed to the realization of this study. I am grateful to the Ford

Foundation; to Drs. Robert Wilson, Lawrence Graham, and Carol King at the University

of Texas; and to Vilmar Faria, Eugenio Diniz, and Angela Alonso at CEBRAP. Kaye Pyle,

Anthony Anderson, Peter May, and Jorge Zimmerman were close advisors in the

transition between work in Maranhao and study and research in Gainesville.

The completion of the field research in the Summers of 1996 and 1997 was only

possible due to the hospitality and efforts of my hosts and hostesses in five communities in

the Mearim and Grajaui valleys. My sincere gratitude to the families of Jose S. Sobrinho,

Raimundo R. de Araujo, Domingos G. da Silva, Martim dos Santos Silva and Maria de

Jesus Bringelo, and Cicero Pedro da Silva. Additional support was provided by the staff

and board of directors of two non-governmental organizations: ASSEMA and ACESA.

Rather than the product of two periods of field research, this thesis is the result of

eight years of work with peasants in Maranhao. Out of these years of work, discussion and

friendship, I would like to specially thank Luciene Figueiredo, Jaime Conrado, Valdener

Miranda, Jos6 Carlos Florencio, Teresinha Alvino, Ildeth Sousa, Joaquim Shiraishi, Karl

Wirtz, Domingos Dutra, and Adolfo Themme, Eriberto Rembecki, and Klaus Finkan.

For the privilege of having learned from the struggle of their lives, I am sincerely

grateful to Manoel da Conceigio, Jos6 M. Carneiro, Manoel Rodrigues Sousa, Manoel de

F.Ferreira, Lourengo Teles, Francisco de Paula Rocha, Francisco A. Lima, Ildo Lopes,

Maria Alaides, Antonia Brito, Maria Adelaide, Juarez Dias, Antonio Linhares, Raimundo

V. dos Santos, Jos6 L. Pereira, Raimunda Gomes, Atanagildo Matos, and Julio Barbosa.

My gratitude is also due to the support of Antonio and Ada Porro, Eugenio V.

Caffarelli, and Shiro and Kazuco Miyasaka. Noemi Porro shared with me college, work,

and graduate studies experiences, challenges, frustrations and realizations. I thank Noemi

and our children Felipe and Pedro for the everyday lessons I learn from them.


ACKNOWLEDGMENTS .............................................. iv

LIST OF TABLES .................................................. viii

LIST OF FIGURES ................................................... x

KEY TO ABBREVIATIONS .......................................... xiv

ABSTRACT ........................................................... xv


1.1 Introduction ................................................ 1
1.2 Survival Strategies of Contemporary Peasants ....................... 3
1.3 Central Question: The Remaking of Frontiers ....................... 19
1.4 Approach and Thesis Organization ............................... 21
1.5 Biophysical and Demographic Dimensions of the Babassu-Zone ......... 29

2.1 Introduction ............... ............................... 41
2.2 Revisiting Economic Strategies of Peasant Households and Communities .. 42
2.3 Social Organization and Collective Action as Peasant Survival Strategies .. 54
2.4 Formation and Consolidation of a "Shifting-Cultivator Peasantry". ...... 61

3.1 Introduction .............................................. 88
3.2 Limited Land and Urban Influence: Seasonal Moves, Wages, and Retirees 92
3.3 "Mutir~o": Peasant Collective Action in the Babassu Zone ............ 108
3.4 Agricultural Projects in a "Black" Community ..................... 124
3.5 From Abundance to Scarcity: Internal Struggle in Former Indian Lands .. 134
3.6 Landless Occupation of Forested Lands in the Grajai Valley .......... 154

4.1 Introduction .............................................. 180
4.2 Community Composition ................................... 187
4.3 Measuring Distinct Expressions of Changes in Livelihood ............ 198
4.4 Assessing Differentiation through Consumption .................... 212
4.5 Shifting Cultivation within an Agro-Extractive Peasant System ......... 220
4.6 Analyzing Households Individually: Patterns of Income Composition .... 246

5.1 Introduction ............................................. 273
5.2 Significance of Peasants "Remaking their Frontiers" ................. 275
5.3 Final Considerations ......................................... 296


A SAMPLE QUESTIONNAIRE .................................. 300

VALLEYS ............................................... 306

COMPOSITION ............................................. 310


"BABASSUZONE" ........................................ 351

LIST OF REFERENCES ............................................. 356

BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH ........................................... 365


Table page

1.1 Babassu stands and fruit production according major ecological zones ....... 33

1.2 Specific features ofbabassu ecological zones in Maranhio ................... 33

1.3 Area, population, and demographic density of counties in the Mearim and
Pindar6 micro-regions, Maranhlo ................................ 38

3.1 Situation of the 94 plots after the 1981 land conflict and the 1984 agreement with
the rancher in the community of Alto Alegre, Lago da Pedra (MA). ......... 97

3.2 Whereabouts of peasant families who in 1984 participated in an agreement with
the rancher in Alto Alegre ........................................ 99

4.1 Area, location, community (C) and sample (N) composition of the five
communities in terms of tenure rights ............................... 186

4.2 Demographic data of five peasant communities at the Mearim and Grajai valleys
in Maranhio (a): household size and incidence of age groups ............. 188

4.3 Demographic data of five peasant communities at the Mearim and Grajai valleys
in Maranhio (b): residence in the area according to age group ............ 190

4.4 Demographic data of five peasant communities at the Mearim and Grajau valleys
in Maranhao (c): origin of the households according to age group ......... 192

4.5 Average number of children and infant mortality according age group ...... 194

4.6 Average consumer-worker ratio according to age group ................ 196

4.7 Indicators of household socioeconomic status (A): housing conditions, land and
material assets (objects) ......................................... 201

4.8 Collective goods owned by producers' associations .................... 208

4.9 Indicators of household socioeconomic status (B): semi-perennial crops, fruit
trees, and livestock ............................................. 209

4.10 Indicators of household socioeconomic status (C): average monthly consumption
of basic staple (rice, beans, manioc flour, sugar, coffee, and soy oil) ........ 215

4.11 Relative weight of consumption products in the average Sio Manoel's household
budget(1991 and 1997) ....................................... 217

4.12 Average annual consumption and cost of food, health, clothing, and transportation
for households in the Mearim and Grajai valleys, according to age group ... 218

4.13 Three-year average area, production, and productivity of agricultural plots in five
communities in the Mearim and Grajafi valleys, according to age group ..... 222

4.14 Three-year average area and production of agricultural plots per consumer unit in
five communities in the Mearim and Grajaii valleys, according to age group .. 223

4.15 Effects of land availability, stage of the settlement, life cycle position, and welfare
improvements in rice and manioc production and consumption ............ 238

4.16 Features ofbabassu extraction among sample households in four peasant
communities in the Mearim and Grajadi valleys ........................ 240

4.17 Average fallow period and number of palms cut in agricultural fields on five
peasant communities in the Mearim and Grajai valleys .................. 244

4.18 Occurrences of previous mining, urban work, and ranch work among sample
households of five peasant communities in the Mearim and Grajai valleys ... 247

4.19 Incidence of fishing and hunting habits among sample households of five peasant
communities in the Mearim and Grajaii valleys ....................... 250

4.20 Household distribution according to 1995/1996 rice production, consumption
and purchases in peasant communities in the Mearim and Grajafi valleys ..... 255

4.21 Age group distribution according to 1995/1996 rice production, consumption and
purchases in communities at the Mearim and Grajai valleys .............. 258

4.22 Distribution of peasant households according to strata of monetary income for
the 1995/1996 agricultural year ................................... 265

4.23 Summary of monetary income composition (in percent values) of sample
households from peasant communities in the Mearim and Grajaii valleys .... 269



Figure page

1.1 Peasant allocation of resources when access to land is not a constraint ....... 12

1.2 Peasant allocation of resources constrained by impediments in access to land,
forcing technological changes (agricultural intensification) ................ 14

1.3 Negative (1) and positive (2) land use changes resulting from peasant resource
allocation upon reaching a minimum pool of resources ................... 16

1.4 Maranhao state, Northeast region, and Brazilian Legal Amazon ............ 31

1.5 Four ecological zones in the area ofbabassu occurrence in Maranhao ....... 32

1.6 Mearim and Pindar6 micro-regions in Maranhao, and location of the five peasant
villages included in this study .................................... 36

1.7 1985 distribution of number and area of rural holdings in 13 counties in the
Mearim and Grajaii valleys according to producers' category .............. 39

1.8 1985 concentration of land ownership in 13 counties at the Mearim and Grajaui
valleys, according to size of the holding ............................. 40

1.9 Number of holdings and total area for the 1985 distribution of land use classes in
13 counties at the Mearim and Grajaui valleys, according to the predominant
economic activity ............................................. 40

3.1 1985 aerial-photography of Alto Alegre, showing the city and neighbor ranches 96

3.2 1997 situation of land ownership in Alto Alegre: peasant plots and lands sold to
ranchers .................................................... 98

3.3 Luis Vieira Mesquita cultivates vegetables in his small plot in Alto Alegre, selling
produce in Lago da Pedra's market ............. ............... 100

3.4 Landscape in Alto Alegre. The MA-245 road crosses village land and connects
it with Lago da Pedra and Bacabal .................................. 101

3.5 Francisco Zeferino, born in Ceara, bought a small cattle herd with his savings
and with the monthly retirement benefits he and his wife receive ........... 104

3.6 Alto Alegre's young babassu extractors contribute with family income ...... 105

3.7 Processes and occurrences associated with major facts, economic activity (EA),
land use (LU), and land cover (LC) in Alto Alegre (1925 1997) .......... 108

3.8 1985 aerial-photography of the area of Sao Manoel village, showing the allocation
of land for annual crops (shifting cultivation), pastures, and forested reserve 113

3.9 Raimundo Erminio da Silva is the manager of Sao Manoel's "cantina" ...... 117

3.10 Field storage of rice in area of shifting cultivation in Sao Manoel .......... 118

3.11 Labor allocation for manioc flour production in Sao Manoel ............. 120

3.12 View of Sao Manoel's pastures. Raimundo de Lima, the association cowboy for
one month, brings cattle from pasture to the stall ...................... 122

3.13 Processes and occurrences associated with major facts, economic activity (EA),
land use (LU), and land cover (LC) in Sao Manoel (1925 1997) .......... 124

3.14 Martim dos Santos Silva's family of Monte Alegre: the couple, nine children,
son in law, and Martim's mother .................................. 126

3.15 Partial view of Monte Alegre's landscape: banana grove and babassu ....... 129

3.16 Dos Santos and two children at their field in Monte Alegre .............. 131

3.17 Processes and occurrences associated with major facts, economic activity (EA),
land use (LU), and land cover (LC) in Monte Alegre (1888 1997) ........ 134

3.18 1985 aerial-photography of the Sao Jos6 dos Ricardo area, westward the river 140

3.19 Female labor in manioc flour production in Sao Jos6 dos Ricardo .......... 146

3.20 View of Sao Jos6 dos Ricardo's dwellings at the Grajai river ............. 148

3.21 Domingos Gomes and his son harvest rice in Sao Jos6 dos Ricardo ........ 149

3.22 Dioclidio Mota in front of his house, observes the swine he raises ......... 151

3.23 Processes and occurrences associated with major facts, economic activity (EA),
land use (LU), and land cover (LC) in Sao Jos6 (1935 1997) ............ 153

3.24 Rice for daily consumption is peeled in an Estrela's household ............ 158

3.25 Partial view ofLagoa Nova's temporary habitations built in 1995, after the
occupation of lands in the CIGRA farm ............................. 162

3.26 Partial view of landscape and recently built habitations in Estrela .......... 164

3.27 Jos6 de Jesus arranges rice in a temporary storage in his field ............. 171

3.28 Household and exchange labor harvesting rice for Dioclcio Oliveira (first on
the right) ................................................... 173

3.29 "Settlers" in Estrela hunt only for household consumption ............... 175

3.30 Processes and occurrences associated with major facts, economic activity (EA),
land use (LU), and land cover (LC) in Estrela (1960 1997) ............. 176

3.31 Synthesis of processes and occurrences associated with economic activities in five
communities in M aranhio ....................................... 179

4.1 Three-year average frequencies for rice, maize, manioc, and bean fields according
to household age group in five communities in the Mearim and Grajafi valleys 225

4.2 Three-year average area of shifting cultivation per household and consumer unit,
according to age group, in five communities in the Mearim and Graja6 valleys 227

4.3 Three-year average size of fields of rice, maize, manioc, and beans for the total
sample's age groups of household in five peasant communities in the Mearim and
G rajai valleys ................................................ 227

4.4 Three-year household average field size of rice, maize, manioc, and beans, in five
peasant communities in the Mearim and Grajai valleys .................. 228

4.5 Three-year average rice, maize, manioc, and beans' productivity among sample's
households in five communities in the Mearim and Grajafi valleys .......... 229

4.6 Annual production (three-year average) and consumption (averages per consumer
unit) of rice, manioc flour, and beans according to household age group in five
peasant communities in the Mearim and Grajai valleys .................. 232

4.7.A Annual production (three-year average) and estimated consumption of rice,
manioc flour, and beans according to age group in sample households in the
communities of Alto Alegre and Sao Manoel ......................... 233

4.7.B Annual production (three-year average) and estimated consumption of rice,
manioc flour, and beans according to age group in sample households in the
communities of Sao Jose dos Ricardo and Monte Alegre ................ 234

4.7.C Annual production (three-year average) and estimated consumption of rice,
manioc flour, and beans according to age group in sample households in the
community of Estrela, and for the total household sample ................ 235

4.8.A 1995 / 1996 rice balance, Alto Alegre .............................. 253

4.8.B 1995 / 1996 rice balance, Sao Manoel .............................. 253

4.8.C 1995 / 1996 rice balance, Monte Alegre ............................ 254

4.8.D 1995 / 1996 rice balance, Sao Jos6 dos Ricardo ....................... 254

4.8.E 1995 /1996ricebalance,Estrela .................................. 255

4.9.A 1995/1996 distribution and composition of monetary income of peasant
households in the community of Alto Alegre ......................... 259

4.9.B 1995/1996 distribution and composition of monetary income of peasant
households in the community of Sao Manoel ......................... 260

4.9.C 1995/1996 distribution and composition of monetary income of peasant
households in the community of Monte Alegre ........................ 261

4.9.D 1995/1996 distribution and composition of monetary income of peasant
households in the community of Sao Jos6 dos Ricardo .................. 262

4.9.E 1995/1996 distribution and composition of monetary income of peasant
households in the community of Estrela ............................. 263

5.1 Synthesis of processes included in the "remaking frontiers" by peasants in
Maranhio ................................................... 298




Associacao Brasileira das Ind6strias dos Derivados de Babaqu
Ago Comunitiria de Educagao em Safide e Agricultura da Diocese de
Animagao dos Cristaos no Meio Rural
Associalao em Areas de Assentamento no Estado do Maranhao
Banco do Nordeste do Brasil
Comunidade Eclesial de Base
Comissao Economica de Planejamento para a Amrica Latina
Companhia Geral de Comercio do Grio-Para e Maranhao
Companhia de Colonizaao do Nordeste
Companhia Maranhense de Colonizagio
Cooperativa dos Produtores Agro-Extrativistas de Lago do Junco
Empresa Maranhense de Pesquisa Agropecudria
Empresa de Assistencia T6cnica e Extenslo Rural
Fundo Constitucional do Nordeste
Institute Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatistica
Institute national de Colonizacao e Reforma Agriria
Institute de Colonizaqco e Terras do Maranhao
Movimento de Evangelizagco de Base
Movimento de Evangelizaio Rural
Ministerio da Indfistria e Comercio
Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem-Terra
Program de Colonizago do Alto Turi
Projeto Integrado de Coloniza~io
Program Nacional de Reforma Agriria
Program de Povoamento do Maranhao
Program Especial de Cr&dito para a Reforma Agriria
SuperintendEncia de Campanhas e Safide Piblica
Superintendencia para o Desenvolvimento do Nordeste

Abstract of Thesis Presented to the Graduate School
of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the
Requirements for the Degree of Master of Arts



Roberto Porro

December 1997

Chairperson: Dr. Anthony Oliver-Smith
Major Department: Center for Latin American Studies

The survival and social reproduction of peasant societies encompass changes in

land and resource use resulting from socioeconomic and political transformations. Since

the 1960s peasants in the eastern Brazilian Amazon have dealt with state policies

promoting concentration of land ownership, pasture conversion, and the expropriation of

their means of production. In Maranhio, the most "rural" of the Brazilian states, land

scarcity forced a large peasant society to "remake frontiers", through the redefinition of

survival strategies. By having the "remake of frontiers" as a central element for survival,

peasants simultaneously introduce new aspects in their social and political identity.

I have studied peasant communities in areas ofbabassu palm secondary forests in

Maranhao. Experiencing disputes with antagonistic social segments seeking conflictive

land uses, peasants identified specific political ecologies consisting in the combination of

economic alternatives, natural resource management, political expression and participation

in state and market oriented initiatives. The processes associated to the recovery of tenure

security resulted in changes in peasants' social and political trajectory, mainly expressions

of collective action and the new forms of social organizations.

Empirical references for this study are from five communities of"agro-extractivist,

shifting cultivator" peasants in the Mearim and Grajaij valleys, experiencing processes of

tenure rights recovery in the 1980s and 1990s. Ethnographic observation, unstructured

interviews, and 135 questionnaires addressing demographic, socioeconomic, and resource-

allocation aspects served as the basis for the qualitative and quantitative analysis.

Predominant outcomes in terms of socioeconomic standards, income composition,

consumption patterns and allocation of labor were identified, attesting to the adoption of

multiple and heterogeneous survival strategies among and within communities.

The results obtained in this study indicate two major characteristics of peasant

societies in their "search for new frontiers" in transformed economic and political realities.

First, the establishment of a complex and multiple network of social relations. Second,

their adoption of survival strategies that constantly reinterpret the various components

affecting their livelihood, attributing differential weights according to specific correlation

of forces and configurations of biophysical, socioeconomic, and political elements. By

"remaking frontiers" peasants in the so-called babassuu zone" look toward a more

harmonic future despite social conflicts, linking the roots of their community's formation

with their agency in the emergence and assimilation of new aspects in their identities.


1.1 Introduction

The survival and social reproduction of peasant societies is a subject of growing

policy concern and scholarly debate. Socioeconomic transformations at regional and

higher levels and alterations in the biophysical environment play a decisive role in both the

strategies to be adopted by peasants, and in the outcomes from those adaptative strategies.

As a result of dynamic processes and changes, peasants will identify mechanisms to adjust

themselves to these distinct domains, or otherwise be dispossessed and succumb.

In Brazil, the end of the slavery economy combined with the decline of the

plantation in the Northeast region fostered in the second half of the nineteenth century the

consolidation of a free peasantry, independent rural cultivators no longer subordinated to

the direct appropriation of their labor force. Initially occupying lands in the state of

MaranhAo, and then moving westward to Pari and other Amazonian states, in the last

twenty five years these peasants have been increasingly struggling for their social

reproduction through the identification of procedures that would ensure their survival in

spite of increasing threats associated with the reduction of their resource bases brought

about by the incorporation of land into the market.


1.1 Introduction

The survival and social reproduction of peasant societies is a subject of growing

policy concern and scholarly debate. Socioeconomic transformations at regional and

higher levels and alterations in the biophysical environment play a decisive role in both the

strategies to be adopted by peasants, and in the outcomes from those adaptative strategies.

As a result of dynamic processes and changes, peasants will identify mechanisms to adjust

themselves to these distinct domains, or otherwise be dispossessed and succumb.

In Brazil, the end of the slavery economy combined with the decline of the

plantation in the Northeast region fostered in the second half of the nineteenth century the

consolidation of a free peasantry, independent rural cultivators no longer subordinated to

the direct appropriation of their labor force. Initially occupying lands in the state of

MaranhAo, and then moving westward to Pari and other Amazonian states, in the last

twenty five years these peasants have been increasingly struggling for their social

reproduction through the identification of procedures that would ensure their survival in

spite of increasing threats associated with the reduction of their resource bases brought

about by the incorporation of land into the market.

This study addresses the survival strategies of contemporary Brazilian peasant

societies confronting state policies resulting in concentration of land ownership,

contributing to the "closure of the physical frontier" and promoting the expropriation of

peasant means of production. Specifically, the study focuses on peasant economic

practices and strategies of social positioning in the context of government-initiated

settlement schemes established after land conflicts. Distinct forms of interaction with the

environment changes in land and resource use associated with the adoption of

alternative economic activities by households and communities -- are viewed as responses

to socioeconomic and political transformations. Throughout the study, I intend to connect

peasant economic practices with the constraints and scenarios imposed by public policies

targeting the so-called rural development, and with the transformation in the relationship

between peasants and natural resources.

This study was based on research in social situations (Gluckman, 1958) having as

empirical references peasant communities in the Brazilian state of Maranhao. A number of

aspects enhance the significance of policies affecting the economy of peasant societies in

Maranhao and their utilization of natural resources. Maranhao is the most "rural" of the

Brazilian states, and most of this "rural population" are peasants. Compared to other

Amazonian areas, Maranhao has an older process of peasantry formation, providing more

insights in terms of peasant economy and social organization. Also, important are

Maranhao's transitional ecological features, with the predominance of secondary forests of

babassu palm (Orbignyaphalerata), and the heavy adoption of state incentives and

subsidies promoting cattle ranching and concentration of land ownership since the 1970s.

A large portion of the squatters, colonizers, and landless families currently on the

agricultural frontiers of the Brazilian Amazon, either have their origin in Maranhio, or

have been settled there for a significant period of their lives. As secondary forests of

babassu palm are increasingly being observed in areas of later colonization, Maranhio

presents a context in which land and forest use are undergoing significant changes that are

likely to be experienced elsewhere in the Brazilian Amazon.

1.2 Survival Strategies of Contemporary Peasants:

"Peasants still form a major part of mankind, but their numbers are stationary
while their shape in the population of developing societies is declining... [and]
the livelihoods of those who survive as rural small holders include what has been
considered as non peasant characteristics"(Shanin 1976, Foreword: 22)

The last quarter of the twentieth century has represented the aggravation of

processes referred to the modernization theory approach. Modernization principles to

stimulate development were accepted and adopted by governments of developing

countries and development agencies as references for the creation of policies to be

implemented in those countries' rural sector. According to modernization postulates1,

peasant societies are an impediment to development. Their agricultural practices do not

meet the necessary changes to increase crop productivity, and promote agricultural and

industrial integration. According to modernization theory, development policies should

transform the so-called "backward" orientation of peasant societies. That would open the

door for processes of social differentiation, favoring capital-based over labor-based units

SFor a complete description of modernization postulates, see Rostow 1990. The five stages of
growth: a summary.

of production, establishing a category of rural entrepreneurs, integrated in the market,

able to incorporate values and objectives of the nation-state and contributing to capital

accumulation, economic growth, and national development.

Although affected by "development" and "modernization", the ability and

flexibility of peasants to maintain their economy and adapt to critical environments and

socioeconomic constraints exceeded the expectations of policy makers and scholars.

Hence, peasant societies have been reconceptualized in their survival strategies and

compared to other marginal segments of contemporary society (Kearney 1996). The

extent to which peasants maintain their social reproduction has been increasingly a

function of the adoption of non-conventional economic activities. These transformations,

on the other hand, can generate distinct features in what could be called a peasant mode of

agricultural production2. Among these distinct features, the opportunities to engage in

capitalist relations of production to name the most significant ones do not simply

replace functions formerly adopted by peasants. Peasant societies can be transformed as

part of a broader process of change including subordination resulting through different

entitlement relations applied to ownership (Sen 1981: 7-8)3, alterations in the availability

of factors of production, and transformation in accessibility and composition of the

resource bases.

2 One of the central issues in peasant studies is whether or not peasant economy constitutes a mode
of production with theoretical status equal to capitalist mode of production. Throughout this study,
I will assume that it does. For an overview of this debate, see Deere (1990: 3-11)

3 Sen refers to entitlement relations as rules of legitimacy determined by social relations (1981:1)


Political and socioeconomic processes affect peasant societies in different manners.

Factors such as the characteristics of the hegemonic class, extent and historical facts

related to peasant occupation, internal division of labor among the household, natural

resource characteristics, and previous relations with state, market, and the broader society

are only a few indicators of this variability. Whether peasants will become completely

destitute and gradually disappear, deal with transformations and reshape their living

strategies, or otherwise still be able to retain their basic characteristics, is a function of the

interaction among these factors. Complex models could be formulated to assess the

outcomes of a wide range of social situations. However, the objective of this study is to

investigate peasant societies in areas of consolidated occupation, but still characterized by

slash-and-burn, shifting cultivation, although showing initial signals of shortening fallow

periods and agricultural intensification4.

Occupation and destitution: peasants on the frontier:

The trajectory of peasant cultivators in areas of free, unoccupied lands

incorporates to the extreme the dual perspective present in Schmink and Wood's

definition of frontier, designating both "the (palpable) physical edge of a settled area and

the (abstract) battle lines that marked the confrontation between competing

claims"(Schmink and Wood 1992:19). In fact, at the same time that peasants struggle for

the physical occupation of new lands, they do so as their best hedge against expropriation

and subordination.

4 For the dynamics of land utilization associated with agricultural intensification, see Boserup
(1965: 15-22); and Pingali and Binswanger (1988).

The importance of areas of free land for the configuration of a society's cultural

identity was introduced by Turner's work about the American expansion to the west

(Turner 1921: 311-334; Taylor 1967). Transposed to peasant societies, Turner's thesis

recognizes that availability of land would confer ideals of individualism and personal

advancement in the colonizer, leading to capitalist transformations subsequently affecting

the society as a whole5.

Comparing Brazilian authoritarian capitalism with Turner's American democracy,

Velho defines as an "expansion front" the spontaneous process of penetration of hitherto

unoccupied lands by marginal segments of a society. Different than what occurs in pioneer

or agricultural frontiers (in which land is consistently commoditized assuming the form of

private property), "expansion fronts'" are not only peripheral to the geographic center,

they are also marginal to the predominant economic system and marginal to the notion of

nation-state. Small producers occupying lands on the frontier, thus, are only indirectly

subordinated to capitalist accumulation, initially finding a favorable milieu for the social

reproduction of a peasant economy. As Velho pointed out, "the frontier, when it opens,

seems to represent a privileged locus for the development of small agriculture. In the

case of the peasantry, he is no longer a left-over from an early formation ... in this case

he is ascending" (Velho 1973: 98).

5 For the applicability of Turner thesis to the context of peasant societies, see Velho 1973. Modes
of capitalist development, peasantry and the moving frontier.

6 For the definition of expansion fronts in Brazilian Amazon, see Velho 1972. Frentes de expansion
e estrutura agraria.

State incentives for the occupation of the frontier, however, have historically

targeted the retardation of processes of social differentiation and class consciousness,

serving as a safety-valve for the alleviation of social tensions resulting from demographic

growth, distortions of economic development, and class conflict in areas of greater

consolidation of the productive forces. In effect, peasant occupation of the "expansion

front" fits into a number of assertions of the articulation of modes of production theory.

First, peasants in the "expansion front" produce food surpluses of relatively lower

standards and prices, to be channeled to local and regional markets. Second, the "frontier"

absorbs labor surpluses expelled from areas of more intense economic activity, and at the

same time consists of a reservoir of the same labor for eventual future needs, either on

capitalist farms and ranches, or for urban centers' economic growth7. Third, they execute

a great deal of work in clearing areas of primary forests, "domesticating the landscape" for

modernized systems of agricultural production.

Following initial occupation, capitalist economic interests tend to encroach upon

the "expansion front". In waves of progressive surplus extraction, peasants are

increasingly forced to sell or concede what they have built, sometimes to the better-off

members of their original group, but mainly to outside elements of other societal strata.

Primitive accumulation through unequal commercial exchange, the predominant type of

extraction associated with initial stages of occupation, gives way to the direct destitution

of peasants from their land and from their access to natural resources, ultimately

threatening their survival. Contrasting with the previous period, this process of peasant

7 Two features of the functional dualism referred by de Janvry (1981: 39). The agrarian question.

destitution is facilitated by the presence of an institutional apparatus supporting social

differentiation, capitalist class relations, and concentration of land ownership. Insofar as

land will be available for new cycles of extensification and destitution, and especially when

firm cultural roots were not established at that site, progressive moves tend to be adopted

by peasants. When, however, resources are seen as exhausted (or when the distance and

costs associated to out-migration become excessive), combined with the empowerment of

peasant communities and the establishment of steadier links with the occupied site, the

alternative is to remain. Remaining physically, however, does not assure maintaining their

original peasant identity. Remaining could also mean subordination through

proletarization. It could mean a progressive process of acquiring diverse economic

practices and values. It could mean the loss of peasant attributes. This study seeks to

provide empirical references that in the last two decades, peasants in MaranhAo have been

aware of the imminent threat to their social existence. The loss of the physical frontier

alternative (or at least a considerable reduction in its feasibility) resulted in the

identification of a series of practices and mechanisms to neutralize or reduce the impact of

increased integration within the capitalist economy, maintaining them as a peasantry.

Peasant production. resource use and environmental degradation in consolidated frontiers:

Contrary to the system of production of most of the so-called smallholder (Netting

1993: 2-3) type of peasant8, land and natural resources and not labor, and to some

extent, technology are the most important resources and constraints for peasant

8 Netting defines smallholders as "rural cultivators practicing intensive, permanent, diversified
agriculture on relatively small farms in areas of dense population".

societies in the "expansion front", usually located within forested areas. For these

societies, nature's provision of a variety of products and the practice of rotational

agriculture through the adoption of adequate fallow periods is fundamental for survival.

Given the almost complete lack of auxiliary means of production, relying basically on their

labor and nature, peasants find in the slash-and-bur system in forested areas a very

convenient practice. Whether this practice is to be considered sustainable or not9,

however, depends upon demographic, socioeconomic, and political factors.

In fact, peasants have been considered, according to the source, either responsible

for or victims of environmental degradation, or both'0. Especially when the frontier is

closed, forms of access to land and to natural resources for subsistence constitute a

dividing point in the characterization of peasant societies. This can be summarized by

Scott Cook's statement that "peasants, like pre-industrial societies, are entirely

constrained by the existence of satisfactory environmentalfactors to direct their

productive effort on the provision of the material means of social reproduction"(Cook

1973: 46). Conditions determining the availability and forms of access to land will affect

the outcomes in terms of peasant economic practices, and in these practices' predictability.

Alterations in land use and changes in land cover and in the global climate affect

affluent sectors of the western society, motivating growing concern in scholarly research

and in the work of international agencies dealing with rural development. This study

9 according to Kasperson, J.X., Kasperson, R.E., and Turner II, B.L. (1996: 6), a sustainable
environment is one where resource-use systems and the level of human well-being can be
maintained and options for future generations preserved over long periods of time.
10 Broad, R. 1994, gives an overview of the rural poor actions upon environmental degradation.

supports the view of environmental degradation in areas occupied by peasants and small

farmers as an expression of the disequilibrium resulting from social inequalities and

political economic determinants. Small cultivators' adoption of practices leading to

degradation, however, is not considered here as an unintended consequence of this

process. Pressured and threatened in their existence, peasants consciously reshape their

survival strategies, and reconstruct their perception and interaction vis-a-vis natural

resources and the environment. To the already poor small cultivators, but still able to

control their way to make a living, the destitution of the means of production causes, as

Annis argues, a disincentive to the care of their resource management (Annis 1992: 11).

On the other hand, we argue that scarcity of resources, and the lack of economic

alternatives, impel small cultivators to reconsider such a position in the long run,

identifying more sustainable resource uses among the range of available options. Without

generalizing Broad's viewpoint that peasants tend to act as environmental sustainers

(Broad 1994: 812) when their livelihood is threatened by degradation of fragile

ecosystems and once establishing firm roots and ties in their settlement, I argue that

progressive reduction in resource availability, the loss of the image of the unlimited

good", or the minimization of what Sahlins terms as the natural state of maximum

dispersion (Sahlins 1972: 97-98), stimulates peasants to alter their strategies of survival.

To explain this argument, I depart from situations of open frontier, with no

significant impediments in access to land, and socially regulated access to natural

resources for those that I term the "agro-extractive, shifting-cultivator peasants". As

" See Velho (1973: 100-101) forthe reversion of George Foster's argument.

socially regulated access I refer to forms of land tenure associating individually

appropriated fields for annual crops with areas for the common use of resources essential

for the economic realization of the households (Almeida 1989: 187). As Almeida points

out, individual annual fields are established according to the wish of the households, with

no appropriation of the land itself, and no obligation of territorial continuity. In such

circumstances peasants will pursue a combination of activities maximizing returns for the

performed labor (maximizing returns to labor), through engaging in a predominant petty

class relation (ownership of the means of production and control over the labor process).

When land and natural resources are abundant (or at least sufficient), this assumption

regulates the economic allocation of peasant labor at different stages of the household life

cycle. The allocation of factors of production targeting subsistence will result in long-term

maintenance of ecological conditions, guaranteeing the conservation of natural resources,

and consequently ensuring peasant social reproduction. L. Anderson stated that "knowing

that they depend on nature for subsistence and survival, peasants watch their natural

environment and protect it insofar as they can"(Anderson, L. 1994: 12). Empirical

evidences show, however, that this is not an inherent and everlasting characteristic of

peasants. The challenge is to understand the extent of each community's capacity to

perform this protection, in the face of internal and external factors, and the momentum in

which that conduct becomes no longer attainable. Figure 1.1 summarizes the social

situation resulting from socioeconomic and biophysical scenarios associated with no

significant constraints in resource availability (open frontier).


no restrictions on land and natural resource access
mechanisms for social regulation (community)

control of the means of production adoption of a pool of activities
control over the labor process maximizing returns to labor

long-term ecological balance
conservation and rational use of resources

social reproduction of the peasant household

Figure 1.1: Peasant allocation of resources when access to land is not a constraint.

As a consequence of unequal relations of power generally associated with

restrictions imposed on peasants by capitalist class relations, Deere and de Janvry

identified different forms of appropriation of peasant surplus labor. Such mechanisms are

rents (in labor services, kind, or cash), the appropriation of surplus value through wages,

the appropriation through prices, through usury, and state taxation. (Deere and de Janvry

1979). In addition, I would add that although not being directly appropriated by another

social segments, restrictions on access to land and other resources reduce the productive

capacity of peasant labor, violating basic principles of their economic calculation. Taussig

exemplifies with occurrences in the Colombian Cauca Valley, how capitalist class 'surplus

accumulation relates to the reduction of the size of peasant holdings (Taussig 1978: 66).

Particularly in social groups adopting shifting cultivation, restrictions in access to land

will disorganize agricultural production due to the shortening of adequate fallow periods,

reducing the recycling of organic material, and diminishing yields per area sown. In

addition, an extra demand for labor will be required due to increased weeding. Reduced

yields will provoke insufficient net household income, or inadequate levels of

consumption, subsequently affecting the productive capacity of the household in the next

agricultural cycle (Deere 1990: 267). Insofar as the "expansion front" exists, it will

consist in the main alternative to the "shifting-cultivator peasant". When, however, the

physical frontier is no longer a feasible alternative, there are set conditions for

rearrangements in the mode of production, or for its modification. Unlike the process of

demographic differentiation, derived from the very nature of the peasant farm,

concentration of land ownership resulting from public policies, market mechanisms, and

unequal entitlement relations, will force peasant families to reconsider their economic

calculations and reallocate remaining resources. Up to a point, as illustrated in Figure 1.2,

peasants will carry on transformations in their productive activities maintaining petty

relations of production. Although altering productive practices, they however are still able

to consider the utility function of maximization of returns to labor. In this case,

intensification of labor and land use transform the "shifting cultivator-peasant" to a

category increasingly dependent upon labor intensive technologies, the "small farmer-



public policies I state intervention
asymmetrical market exchange
unequal entit Vlent relations

restrictions in the access land and natural resources

lower land / natural resource availability:
shorter fallow periods, lower recycling
higher labor mand, diminish g yields

reduction of the productive e .
capacity of peasant labor: expansion front
insufficient household income changes in productive
inadequate consumption activities / practices
affecting next cycle of ca
(intensification of use
production of land / labor force)

Figure 1.2 Peasant allocation of resources constrained by impediments in access
to land, forcing technological changes (agricultural intensification)

The situation summarized by Figure 1.2 occurs when forces promoting land

incorporation in the market are not yet completely manifested, and there is a relatively

weak opposition of interests between peasants and rural entrepreneurs. More often,

however, the outcome of this process (of concentration of land ownership) consists of

peasants remaining with a quantitative and qualitative minimum pool of resources, forcing

transformations that go beyond technological change. When that occurs, mainly if

combined with increases in the size of the social group, remaining resources will not be

enough to sustain consumption needs if peasants only sustain petty relations of

production. Falling agricultural yields, when this stage is reached, already provoked in the

"agro-extractive, shifting cultivator-peasant" the loss of confidence in his/her previous

survival strategies. Moreover, worsening economic conditions will activate a variety of

more intense responses, including seasonal dislocations, the establishment of coalitions

with sectors of the civil society targeting political empowerment, or the adoption of a

variety of forms of collective action. Most important, however, is their parallel

engagement in other class relations, mainly through selling their labor-force in the market,

if existent. Social differentiation among the peasantry, in this case, is encouraged, as well

as the individual internal differentiation.

Maximum returns to labor will no longer be achievable at this stage, resulting in

higher levels of self-exploitation, and lowering household well-being. In these

circumstances, Chayanov's postulates will not be adequate to analyze peasant economic

practices, and the concepts of household and class relations, as well as Kearney's critiques

of the applicability of decision-making models will prevail.12

Figure 1.3 illustrates a scenario in which the stock of land available for peasants to

engage in shifting cultivation decreases to a minimum. When is reached this point (which

varies according to characteristics of nature and of the social group), and when peasants

do not establish proper coalitions for alternative provisions for their livelihood, allocation

of resources in production results in environmental degradation. The development of this

2 Chayanov, Deere, and Keamey theories are explained in Chapter 2.

scenario nourish one of the predominant paradigms within the field of conservation and

development, expressed by the World Commission on Environment and Development:

"those who are poor and hungry will often destroy their immediate environment in order

to survive" (WCED 1987: 28).


restrictions in the access to land and natural resources

quantitative and qualitative minimum pool of resources
increasing size of the social group / more pressures
exhaustion of remaining resources

environmental degradation j

I "environmental consciousness"

land use change (1)

I land use change (2) I

Figure 1.3 Negative (1) and positive (2) land use changes resulting from peasant
resource allocation upon reaching a minimum pool of resources.

engagement in multiple class relations
establishment of coalitions
internal social differentiation
seasonal migration
collective action

Nevertheless, such a degradation, as L. Anderson mentions, is usually part of a

long process in which many factors have preceded and have pushed peasants to a point

where they have no choice (Anderson, L. 1994: 196). Political economic analysis of

natural resource degradation, in fact, presents perspectives moving beyond blaming the

poor. According to Broad's analysis, these perspectives include three major components.

First, by focusing on the inquiries into the ultimate causes of poverty rather than on

poverty or the poor themselves. Second, through evidences and arguments of the creation

of an "environmental consciousness" among poor people, acting not as environmental

degraders but as sustainers. Third, through the appearance of new social movements in

which the poor become environmental activists (Broad 1994: 813).

Resource allocation and peasant survival in the babassu zone:

In the area of babassu secondary forests, in the Brazilian state of Maranhio, trends

of the political economy have been illustrating the arguments expressed above. A large

peasant society, initially responsible for most of the land occupation, confronts from the

late 1960s a series of policies aiming in the name of development to replace small

cultivators by large holdings for cattle ranching. As agro-extractivists, combining

agriculture with extractive activity of babassu palm products, these peasants were not only

able to settle and cultivate the land, but also to elevate the state of Maranhao to the

position of one of the largest producers of rice and manioc flour two of the country's

major food staples. A sustainable type of shifting cultivation, benefitted by babassu's

provision ofbiomass and fire resistance, occurred so long as land was not considered a

commodity. Although in poverty and subordinated through commercial exploitation,


peasant societies seemed secure and self sustainable in their holdings. In a parallel to what

Taussig shows for the Cauca valley in Colombia (Taussig 1978: 66), the reduction of

peasant holdings in Maranhio was a consequence of the political economy and social

antagonisms rather than from demographic growth. Immediate impacts on peasant

societies resulted from subsidized credit for pasture conversion and the state government's

intent to incorporate Maranhao's lands into the market. Indirect, but critical

transformations resulted from agricultural policies related to the development of soybean

production, and advances in the generation of synthetic raw materials, both for the

substitution of industrial utilization of babassu oil. Recent changes in commercial and tariff

policies vis-a-vis the import of southeast Asian palm, palm-kernel, and copra oil were

added to this picture of apparent hopelessness for Maranhio's agro-extractive peasants.

Facing these and other constraints, peasants encountered a temporary alternative in

out-migration, either to the westward expansion front or to urban centers. Since the mid

1980s, however, the occupation of most of the nearby available frontier has been

discouraging such strategy. Moreover, peasants are now increasingly facing land scarcity,

and forced to identify new survival strategies. This process includes their repositioning

towards plural society, the engagement in capitalist relations of production, changes in

household division of labor, and a reinterpretation of their relation with the natural

environment. Besides dealing with environmental constraints, and defining a pool of

economic activities maintaining their livelihood and generating surpluses for the larger

society, the outcomes of this search also depend on the specific strategies peasants will

adopt to achieve broader political objectives, specially the acquisition of citizenry. In this


context, the establishment of new forms of social organization and adoption of collective

action are critical for the social reproduction of this peasantry within a transformed reality.

1.3 Central Question: The Remaking of a Frontier

Facing many pressures and threats, peasant societies in developing countries have

demonstrated their ability to identify and engage in specific political ecologies represented

by the combination of economic alternatives, rules regarding management of natural

resources, and growing political expression. In the Eastern Amazon, this flexibility

addresses the "closure" of the physical frontier with an increased participation in state and

market-oriented initiatives. The eventual engagement in capitalist relations of production,

the adoption of collective action, and changes regarding natural resource management are

components of these political ecologies.

In the case ofbabassu areas in Maranhao, in the Mearim and Grajau valleys,

intense disputes with antagonistic social groups seeking conflictive uses for their lands

resulted in peasant undertaking, from the late 1970s onwards, of an effective "remaking of

the frontier". Rather than the frontier defined as the physical edge of unexplored lands,

peasants are building abstract spaces where they are able to counterbalance strong political

economy threats and to reproduce themselves socially. The "remaking of abstract

frontiers" by peasants materializes through a series of processes of social mobilization,

including the balance of seemingly passive forms of resistance with eruptions of collective

action in response to land conflicts, the active manifestation of their class representatives

towards the state, the formalization of new categories of social organization, and the


constitution of proper alliances and/or partnerships with other sectors of the civil society.

Peasant social mobilization in the babassu zone provoked an agrarian transformation that

if not massive, demonstrated their stake in refusing to give up the limited parcels of land, a

resource that realizes their social condition. Beyond that, the recovery of tenure security

through a number of distinct instruments served as a basis for the start of another phase in

their economic trajectory, incorporating what Albert Hirschman refers to as the "principle

of conservation and mutation of social energy", which he defines as the phenomenon

through which "early participation in public action of one kind leads later to

involvements in collective endeavors of a very different nature"(Hirschman 1988: 8-11).

In this trajectory of dealing with a transformed reality, peasants consciously adopt

multiple strategies to survive. Heterogeneous economic calculations, and distinct attitudes

toward the plural society, towards the state and the market, towards their resource base,

and towards their own communities and households, are important factors that maintained

them as peasants in a transformed universe. Peasants thus are not free riders in the process

of environmental change associated with socioeconomic transformations brought by the

implementation of development policies and programs. In contrast, being constantly

threatened in their survival, their economic strategies targeting the provision and

reproduction of the household have to address their resource base in a flexible way. Their

engagement in multiple strategies of survival adequately deals with the restriction or loss

of accessibility to land and natural resources. Consequently, ecological alterations will be

manifested to a lesser or greater extent according to the resilience of each ecological site,

and the resilience of the peasant society itself.

1.4 Approach and Thesis Organization

This study analyzes the adoption of distinct survival strategies by peasants in

contemporary Maranhio, specifically in areas where they were able to recover tenure

security. Social situations resulting from the dynamic of the political economy affecting

peasants in the babassu zone are differentiated among and within communities. The

understanding of this heterogeneity is essential for a correct assessment of socioeconomic

and biophysical transformations at local, regional, and national scales.

Although the more significant occupation of the region dates from the 1950s, and

acute peasant destitution began in the 1970s, it is possible to identify in a snap-shot taken

in the present, the reproduction of generic social situations characterizing the various

stages of this process. That can be verified even when restricted to the subset of areas in

which peasants recovered or consolidated their land tenure.

In order to access such a diversity, the empirical references used in this thesis are

based on social situations encountered in five peasant communities that have accessed land

through different mechanisms. For certain purposes, additional stratifications are made in

each of these situations according to household structure and life cycle position. Besides

expressing a wide range of mechanisms used for the recovery of their tenure rights, the

five situations to be focused on reproduce processes of initial peasant occupation (or

settlement) on lands recently incorporated into a "remade frontier" (1); the destitution of

peasants from most of their resource base (2); collective action through new forms of

social organization (3); the effective recovery of tenure rights, either through strong

connections with state agencies (4); or through the support and mediation of non-

governmental institutions (5). Relevant socioeconomic aspects of this society such as

growing social differentiation, the constitution of capitalist and communal relations of

production, the subordination through commercial exploitation, and initial transformations

in the system of production (agricultural intensification) are observed throughout both a

discursive representation and the introduction of quantitative data.

After explaining the methodology used in this thesis, the remainder of this chapter

introduces the biophysical dimension and a demographic representation of the research

site, highlighting its concentration of land ownership. Chapter 2 consists of a presentation

of the range of theories associated with the study of peasant economics and social

organization in general, and the study in particular of the political economy associated

with the formation of a free peasantry in Maranhao, its dispossession, and resistance. Also,

Chapter 2 relates the research questions of this thesis with the literature. Then, through the

presentation of the social situations, I intend to characterize and analyze this phase in

which "shifting-cultivator peasants" of the babassu zone in Maranhio, although remaining

on their land, are in effect challenging hegemonic sectors of the plural society through a

series of social events, and through being able to "open a new frontier". This frontier,

though not substantially improving their standard of living, fulfills the critical role of

guaranteeing survival. I seek to demonstrate how the dynamic of the political economy is

captured by peasant households and reflected in diverse allocations of their factors of

production, in the reformulation of their economic alternatives, and through new forms of

social organization. Chapters 3 to 5 describe and analyze how peasants in Maranhio


responded to the socio-historical context and adapted their practices to political economy

constraints. Chapter 3 consists of an ethnographic analysis of social processes, relations of

production, economic activities, and forms of land use encountered in those situations.

Chapter 4, through the interpretation of recently obtained quantitative data, portrays

communities' demographic and socioeconomic features, including the analysis of

household income composition. The discussion provided in Chapter 5 relates peasant

economic strategies and resulting patterns of land use and natural resource management to

the political ecology of each social situation. The conclusion of this thesis addresses the

practical and theoretical significance of its findings and relates its results to broader



The major concern of the methodology used in this thesis was to integrate the

theoretical basis with empirical evidence from the field. Bibliographic investigation for this

study covers the various approaches of peasant economics and decision-making. Particular

attention was given to the works ofA.V. Chayanov, the evolution of Marxist thought

regarding peasant societies and rural development, and the debate between James Scott

and Samuel Popkin concerning peasant's "moral or rational economy". In addition, this

study refers to the theories of articulation of the modes of production (de Janvry,

Taussig), household and multiple class relations (Deere), the political ecology of the

contemporary peasant (L. Anderson), and the ultimate reconceptualization of the

peasantry (M. Kearney).

The bibliographic study of socioeconomic and biophysical characteristics of the

babassu area in Maranhao was conducted through the works of A.B. Anderson and P. H.

May. In addition, valuable historical and geographic information were obtained from

geographers 0. Valverde and M.C. Andrade, and authors of Maranhao's economic

development. The study of the formation of a free peasant society in Maranhao had as its

major sources the works ofVelho, Musumeci, and Almeida. The latter author was also the

reference for the study of the role of contemporary social movements in Maranhao.

Theoretical postulates and assertions of peasant economics were applied to field

observations in rural Maranhao. My knowledge of rural realities in that region constituted

a process of cumulative reflections and interactions since 1986, when I first started

working in Maranhao as a practitioner in rural development. Most of the thoughts and

questions included in this study had their origin in the eight and a half years of close

contacts with peasant communities and rural grassroots organizations. Moreover, my

commitment to graduate study was itself a response to the complexity of evolving

processes connected to the impact of rural development in those peasant communities.

During the period of my work in Maranhao, I focused on technical support for

peasant organizations to become involved in improving their living conditions and to build

alternative economic strategies. From this period, it was possible to identify villages and

communities that could suitably provide insights in this study. In addition, auxiliary

reports, data, and publications were obtained from the non-governmental institutions in

which I have previously worked. Initially, for three years, I jointly-coordinated ACESA

(Ag~ o Comunitiria de Educaqo em Sauide e Agricultura), the "Community Action for

Education in Health and Agriculture", an organization created by the local Catholic

Church, through German Franciscan friars. ACESA assisted peasant communities having

experienced land struggles in the Dioceses of Bacabal, and seeking technical support for

the moments following the conflict. Subsequently, I participated in the creation of

ASSEMA (Associacgo em Areas de Assentamento no Estado do Maranhao), the

Association in Settlement Areas in the State of Maranhao, an institution conceived and

built by leaders of peasant communities in the Mearim and Grajail river valleys, and that

conjoins the features of grassroots mobilization and empowerment, with the provision of

technical support in rural development programs. Beyond documents and data, this

previous working experience served as an enormous facilitator for my acceptance among

peasant households, and for the merging of theoretical frameworks with concrete


Field research for the specific scope of this study was conducted in the summer of

1996, and in a three-week period in May of 1997. During residence in the five peasant

communities, all but one of which I was already familiar with, I focused my work on

unstructured interviews with community members (most of them recorded), and the

application of a questionnaire. Unstructured interviews stressed aspects related to the

household arrival in the area, conflicts over land tenure, resistance and consolidation, as

well as perceptions of the conditions of the local resource base, and future expectations.

The questionnaire was applied to a total of 135 households, with distribution ranging from

22 to 31 questionnaires per community. The questionnaire, included in Appendix 1 of this

thesis, focused on quantitative data of the household, especially referring to demographic

aspects, socioeconomic conditions, tenure security, agricultural systems, consumption

needs, and the role of the extractive activity and other economic strategies. In addition to

the questionnaires and interviews, another goal of the field work was the actual

recognition of the predominant landscapes associated with each community's system of

production. For this purpose, a photographic documentation was conducted.

Parallel to the socio-historical analysis of each peasant community stage in the

process of integration within capitalism, the survey provided quantitative data to be

transferred to spreadsheets for the purpose of providing a comparative assessment of

socioeconomic indicators among and within social situations. For the purpose of this

study, I have identified predominant outcomes of decision making processes regarding

allocation of labor and resources within alternative economic activities. As will be shown

in Chapter 4, most of these outcomes were stratified by community and by the three major

household groups within each community, according to their position in the life cycle,

designated as "age groups".

Social situations, communities, and villages in Maranhao's peasant society:

A methodological question that appeared during the field research was how to

focus the broadness of the survey. I intended to address the issue of peasant occupation of

lands acquired through processes of collective action, which culminated in forcing the

state to recognize their tenure rights through the initiation of agrarian reform measures.

Therefore, it is necessary to limit the object of this research by establishing boundaries to

determine the physical sites (areas occupied by peasants, some of them formally called

settlement areas3), and to identify peasants who (re)acquired tenure rights over this

physical site. However, when one goes to the field, neither are the settlement areas the

only sites in which these families (settlers = "assentados") are living in and working on,

nor are the settlers' families the only ones working and living in the area. In addition,

maintaining one of the essential features of this peasantry14, settlers in these situations

seldom appropriate individual plots, in contrast to the usual pattern of colonization

schemes. Neither is there a pattern differentiating the dwelling site for families who have

and who do not have tenure rights. And finally, there are areas not targeted by official

settlement policies, and in which other mechanisms for tenure recovery were assessed by

peasants themselves, who in the sequence attempt to obtain official recognition (and

benefits) as "land reform" beneficiaries. Therefore, the concept of social situation, coined

by Gluckman (1979 [1958]) is used to overcome limitations imposed by terms such as

settlement area, village, or even community". It is a necessary concept to define the object

of the survey, because even restricting the study to areas experiencing land struggles and

the so-called settlements (official or not), there is a wide range of patterns of habitation

and disposition in regard to the land/property in focus.

13 Settlements ("assentamentos") in this thesis refer to the official designation that the Brazilian
agrarian agency (INCRA) and other government institutions attribute to sites for the installation of
agrarian reform schemes.

14 See section 2.4 for details about forms of appropriation of land by peasants in Maranhio.

5I According to Gluckman, it is convenient to speak of a social situation when an event is studied
in the field of sociology. Gluckman pointed out that the analysis of social situations "reveals the
underlying system of relationships between the social structure of the community, the parts of the
social structure, the physical environment, and the physiological life of the community's
members." (Gluckman 1979 [1958]: 9)


In their initial stages of land occupation, peasants in the Mearim and Graja6 valleys

lived in small hamlets (centros) (Velho 1973: 224-225), a limited agglomeration near their

agricultural fields. Some of the "centers" became larger villages (povoados), that in

addition to household dwellings may incorporate sites for commercial, religious, and

educational functions. As the creation of settlement areas is relatively recent (less than two

decades), patterns of settlers' habitation will be highly influenced by previous existence of

villages inside or in the vicinities of the expropriated (or acquired) land. In the case of an

existing village outside the settlement area (often close to its boundaries), it is frequent

that a number of families maintain residency in this village, at least for a certain time.

Peasant villages in this region vary in size, from a small, family-based neighborhood with

less than a dozen households, to large villages, with a couple hundred families, especially

in those geographically privileged areas close to a water source or to a major road. The

average village in this part of the state, however, is composed of 30 to 45 households

(SUCAM, 1990). The village is thus a situational concept associated with a physical site

that includes all people living in relative geographic proximity. Within the village there is

no exclusion due to cultural, social, economic, or political attributes. When the concept of

community is introduced in this region of Maranhio, it reflects a process of differentiation

within the village. Although in most cases there is no common cultural and historical

heritage, the concept of community is usually associated to the social group having

common social positioning. A peasant community is thus a subset of a village. When there

are only peasants in the village, both institutions refer to the same social segment. Hence,

even in settlement areas, the concept of peasant community is wide enough to include,


besides families engaged in the settlement program, the landless, the smallholder, and even

medium holders, as well as peasant specialists (artisans, carpenters, etc) and those

involved in commercial activities. In sum, a peasant community might include all those

that in spite of living in the village, do not participate in or are benefitted by settlement

projects. In addition, community members participate in other institutions according to

their interests. This is the case of associations of producers, religious based communities,

cooperatives, rural union's representations, and women's groups.

1.5 Biophysical and Demographic Dimensions of the Babassu-Zone in Maranhao

This section introduces the biophysical and demographic features of the area of

babassu secondary forests, and specifically, the geographic micro-regions where the five

communities focused in this study are located: Alto Alegre, Sao Manoel, Sao Jos6, Monte

Alegre, and Estrela.

Biophysical dimension:

The state of Maranhao contains biophysical features of the Brazilian Northeast (to

which it belongs) and of the two surrounding geographic regions: North and Center-West.

Figure 1.4 shows the geographic location of the state, and its dual categorization as it is

included in the Northeast region, and considered part of the Brazilian Legal Amazon.

Maranhao's eastern portion limits and resembles the dryer climate and vegetation

of its neighbor, Piaui state. Its southern part exhibits features of the "cerrado" of the

Brazilian central plateau. Its western fringe contains the remnants of the tropical rain

forest originally existing in a large part of the state's 324,616 km2. As a transition of these

three ecological zones, and containing characteristics of them, a large area of the state is

covered by secondary forests ofbabassu palm, a dominant species in the regeneration of

deforested areas in the eastern and southern borders of the Brazilian Amazon. Babassu

occurs in almost 200,000 km2 of the Brazilian territory (May 1990: 49), but its main area

of occurrence, for convenience termed here as "the babassu zone"', lies from 2 to 7

degrees of latitude south, and between 42 and 48 degrees of longitude west. Babassu

kernels produced in this zone during the 1990-1993 period represented 98% of the

national production (IBGE. 1991 1994). The babassuu zone" has an annual rainfall

ranging from 1,000 to 2,000 mm, heavily concentrated in the December-June period.

Average annual temperatures in Maranhao range from 24 to 28" C, and most of

the babassu stands occur in altitudes of less than 200 meters. A. B. Anderson associates

high babassu densities with relatively fertile soils such as Ustalf, Udalfand alluvial soils

from the Parnaiba, Itapecuru, Mearim, Grajai, and Pindar6 river basins. In Maranhao, the

babassu region (Figure 1.5), has four distinct ecological zones, designated by a 1982

Brazilian Ministry of Industry and Commerce survey as "cerrado" (scrub-savanna),

"baixada" (wetlands), "cocais" (palm-forest zone), and "Imperatriz" (designating areas at

the margins 6f the Tocantins river) (Brazil. MIC/STI 1982: 22-29). Since that survey, the

expansion ofbabassu occurrence is also noticed in Maranhao's western frontier, in the so-

16 The babassu zone corresponds to lands of both North and Northeastern regions. It includes the
north-west of Piaui, the central, eastern, south-western, and northern parts of Maranhio, the very
northern portion of Tocantins (named "Bico-do-Papagaio"), and a small fraction of the south-east
of Pari. This denomination was adopted by major academic authors focusing babassu related
economy, biology, and society (May 1990; Anderson, May, and Balick 1991; Almeida 1995).

called pre-Amazon, associated with human occupation and slash-and-burn agriculture in

primary forests. Specific features of these zones are summarized in Tables 1.1 and 1.2.

r-Sl ?

.r p ..6.. BAH-IA

E ...

Figure 1.4: Maranhio state, Northeast region, and Brazilian Legal Amazon

S".* 4? 4. .6* A,* 4 Al.'

.. .'. ... "- ."- ": -:"; ^ "''

S* ". a -

-*. ": .*^ '.,;L -W. ; .

"*--- ....\,.-,,-- -.- ....... .- ,

,- -:.* / S

A E -,,A-) DC.. C .P RADOS,

,___________S____AR______EAS DE MAPEAMENTO

49 4' 47 46 4 44w 43a 4U 41

Figure 1.5 Four ecological zones in the area of economic occurrence of babassu
secondary forests in Maranhao.Source: MC STI 1985
I .....-

,** t OM

,, 1 I. .

.. "* 4" 4" 3' --'

Figre .5 For colgicl zne intheare o ecnomc ocurene obabss
secodar foestsin arahao.oure: IC /STI198

Table 1.1: Babassu stands and fruit production according major ecological zones


area (km2) 50,000 18,500 30,000 20,000 118,500

states MA-PI MA MA MA-TO -

area e vered 18,000 7,200 18,600 9,000 52,800

area effectively 44%MA-
covered (%) 25%PI 39% 62% 45% 44%

production (kgha) 1,250 1,300 2,200 2,500 1,800
annual average 2
production (ton) 2,250,000 950,000 4,100,000 2,250,000 9,550,000
Source: MCT/STI, 1982

Table 1.2: Specific features ofbabassu ecological zones in Maranhao

annual rainfall
( raam) 700-1,300 1,500-1,800 1,500-1,800 1,600-2,100

dry season 6-8 months 5-6 months 6 months 5 months
babassu major bottom lands elevated sites across landscape across landscape
incidence (islands)
soils of babassu alluvial gleys alfisols alfisols
primary gallery forests low savanna; evergreen to evergreen to deciduous
vegetation sedges, grasses deciduous
shifting shifting cultivation; shifting shifting cultivation;
cultivation; cattle buffalo and cattle cultivation; cattle cattle ranching (planted
major land use ranching/ natural ranching (natural ranchin pastures)
pastures cotton, s. pasture) (planted
cane pastures)

Sources: Anderson, May, and Balick, 1991; May,1990

Babassu still is one of the most important products for Maranhio's primary

economy, justifying the inclusion of aspects of species biology and ecology in the

description of the area's biophysical dimension. When studying the structure of 1 ha of

primary forest composed of a total of 63 species in the babassu zone, A. B. Anderson

estimated that babassu represented 20% of a total of 386 stems, in a relatively stable

composition (Anderson, May and Balick 1991: 86, 189-190). When natural succession

follows a disturbance, babassu's dominance in the landscape first declines in the initial 2-3

years, and then increases abruptly, as Anderson's data demonstrated: from a population of

366 trees composed of a total of 31 species in 1 ha of the above mentioned primary

forest's succession, babassu's relative dominance increased to more than 80% (Anderson,

May, and Balick 1991: 88-90, 191-192). Either in the case of recently cleared forests, or

when the sites are converted to pastures, this dominance consists of a two stratum

population, the lower one of seedlings and juvenile palms, and a superior layer of adult

palms. Considering that babassu palm life-span reaches a maximum of 184 years, in the

case of land uses with the predominance of pastures associated with babassu, or short-

term shifting cultivation, an apparent situation of equilibrium will endure only up to the

senescence of the upper strata. Conversely, in the case of shifting cultivation, especially

with fallow periods greater than eight years, conditions provided for constant recruitment

of juvenile palms and the consequent long-term renovation of the population will pertain

(Anderson, May, and Balick 1991: 74).

Mearim and Grajad valleys: rivers, roads, and people

The mid course of the Mearim and Grajafi rivers belongs to the "cocais" ecological

zone of the babassu area. Primary forests can still be observed only at the western

boundaries of the Grajaui valley, in the locally termed "regido da mata ", the forested

region. According to the classification of the Brazilian Institute of Geography and

Statistics (IBGE), lands in the mid-course of these two rivers are included in the Pindar6

and Mearim micro-regions, illustrated by Figure 1.6. These two rivers, running in the

south-north direction, constituted important commercial channels and ways to access the

coast up to the 1950s, when a road connecting Bel6m with the Northeast region (BR-316)

was completed, consolidating the integration of most of the area with the state capital, the

Northeast, and with the national market. Also, road construction shifted the major focus

of urban development and demographic growth in the region, from the area of influence of

Pedreiras to the area of influence of Bacabal, the two major cities and urban markets, with

a 1991 urban population of around 65,000 (Bacabal), and Pedreiras (40,000).

Introducing the historical perspective to be developed in Chapter 2, Figure 1.6 also

provides a visualization of the process of peasant occupation along the Mearim and Grajai

valleys. Generally stated, is possible to envision three major phases in the spontaneous

peasant colonization of the Mearim and Grajafi valleys. The first one is the oldest

occupation, dating from the second half of the 19" century, and associated with the end of

the slavery-based economy. This situation predominated in the northern and eastern

portions of the Mearim micro-region, and resulted in today's predominant presence of

black people in towns such as Bacabal, Pedreiras, and Sao Luis Gonzaga do Maranhio.

Figure 1.6: Mearim and Pindar6 micrq-regions in Maranhio, and location of the
five peasant villages included in this study.

The second situation, intermediate in occupation, and geographically centralized, is

associated with the expansion of Maranhio's agricultural frontier due to the arrival of

northeastern immigrants since the 1870s, but mostly in the 1940s and 1950s. This situation

includes lands between the two rivers. However it does not reach the western and

southern portions of the GrajaAi valley. Those, constitute the third situation, the "regiao da

mata" (forested region), effectively occupied since the late 1960s. It is in the south and

western parts of the counties (municipios) of Altamira do Maranhao, Esperantin6polis,

Paulo Ramos, Lago da Pedra, and Vitorino Freire, that remnants of the tropical forest still

cover considerable extensions of land, a situation no longer seen in the other two zones.


Bacabal and Pedreiras: the city of Pedreiras attained legal status in 1889, whereas

Bacabal was officially created only in 1920. Both are located at the margins of the Mearim

river, the latter being about 65 km south of the former. The oldest town of the valley,

created in 1854, is Sao Luis Gonzaga, previously named Ipixuna, and half-way along the

river between those two cities. Since the 1870s, even before its existence as a city,

Pedreiras received immigrants from the Northeast occupying lands for agriculture (Lago

1976: 8). Associated with cotton, rice, and babassu production, this immigration increased

after the 1910s, and provoked a "demographic jump" in the 1950s, when peasants of the

"expansion front" consolidated the Mearim valley occupation. After road construction and

expansion of the agricultural frontier, the annual indices of demographic growth of

Pedreiras and Bacabal averaged respectively 6.98%, and 5.07%, doubling figures of the

previous decade. If restricted to urban areas, these indices attest to Bacabal's supremacy

as an urban center: whereas Pedreiras' annual index of urban demographic growth

decreased from 8.10% in the 1940/1950 period to 3.27% in the following decade,

Bacabal's increased from 1.6% to 12.1% in the same period! (Musumeci 1988: 230-232).

Bacabal's urban perimeter is crossed by highway BR-316, which connects the city

to Belim (650 km), and Teresina (280 km). Sao Luis, the coastal capital of the state, is

250 km north of Bacabal, via highway BR-135. Pedreiras is linked to major roadways, to

Bacabal and other urban centers by state roads MA-122 and MA-245. Table 1.3 illustrates

demographic patterns of this region, through 1991 data from 13 of the 24 municipios of

the Pindar6 and Mearim micro-regions. Figure 1.6 shows these municipios, including

those containing peasant communities focused in this study, and those adjacent to them.

Table 1.3: Area, population, and demographic density of counties in the Mearim and
Pindar6 micro-regions, Maranho.
(municipio) (KM2) (inhab.) (inhab.) % (inhab.) % (Inh I (Inh I
km2) kn2)

Altamira do MA 456.2 20,003 2,535 12.7 17,468 87.3 43.9 38.3
Bacabal 1,744.0 98,793 64,783 65.6 34,010 34.4 56.7 19.5
Esperantin6polis 1,383.5 30,567 6,789 22.2 23,778 77.8 22.1 17.2
Igarap6 Grande 643.5 14,810 4,781 32.3 10,029 67.7 23.0 15.6
Lago da Pedra 2,419.4 46,877 17,562 37.5 29,315 62.5 19.4 12.1
Lago do Junco 552.3 19,276 2,841 14.7 16,435 85.3 34.9 29.8
Lima Campos 397.2 12,404 4,943 39.9 7,461 60.2 31.2 18.8
O.D'Agua CunhAs 577.4 16,249 7,125 43.9 9,124 56.2 28.1 15.8
Paulo Ramos 2,508.9 26,978 5,660 21.0 21,318 79.0 10.8 8.5
Pedreiras 873.2 50,603 39,694 78.4 10,909 21.6 58.0 12.5
PoGao de Pedras 526.0 24,481 7,311 29.9 17,170 70.1 46.5 32.6
S. Luis Gonzaga 1,087.5 26,085 5,266 20.2 20,819 79.8 24.0 19.1
Vitorino Freire 718.1 30,885 12,187 39.5 18,698 60.5 43.0 26.0
Total 13,887.2 418,011 181,477 43.4 236,534 56.6 30.1 17.0
Maranhao 333,565 4,930,253 1,972,421 40.0 2,957,832 60.0 14.8 8.9
% of State total 4.16 8.48 9.20 8.00
Source: IBGE, 1992.

A glimpse at concentration of land ownership

Figures 1.7 to 1.9 illustrate land ownership and predominant patterns of land use in

these 13 counties, according to 1985 IBGE figures (the latest available). Tables with full

data are in Appendix 2. As in most of the state of Maranhio, there is a large disproportion

between number of rural holdings (estabelecimentos) and their area, according to the

producer category. Figure 1.7 shows that in 1985 less than one fourth of the holdings

(estabelecimentos) were legally owned by a proprietor (landowner), representing almost

95% of the total area. In contrast, renters and squatters cropped three fourths of the

holdings, which however consisted of only 5% of the total area Concentration of land

ownership is more evident through Figure 1 8 It shows that in these 13 counties, in 1985.

more than three fourths of land holdings had less than five hectares, representing only 4%

of the total area. On the other hand, less than 1% of the farms had more than 500 hectares,

but occupied more than 40% of the area Figure 1 9 demonstrates the association between

concentration of land ownership and pasture conversion. The figure shows that annual

crops occur in about 94% of the holdings, and in less than 9% of the area. In contrast,

planted pastures occurred in one sixth of the holdings, in an area close to half of the total

Distribution by type of producer
1.400,000 25000
1,200000 -
S 1,000,000
S 800,000 15000
600,000 1 0000
2 2,000
0 ---
andowner renter shareropper squltter
type ofproducer
Number of properties total are

percentage of occurrence

squatter (25.TrA)
sharecropper (1.S4%) number of properties
rented (48.30%)
landowner (2437%)

squatter (2.09%) -
sharecropper (0.07%) total area
renter (2.93%)
landowner (94.92%)

Figure I 7 1985 distribution of number and area of rural holdings in I I counties in
-be Mleanm and Graja vai!evs accwdin o p rodiicer. ,ategnv Soure IBGE
*^'. (- en-,: -ikaoreoecuano'

Distribution by classes of area
600,. 25100
soo,oWo 20,O0O
1 5ooIooo
4.-000 Hil

200,000 10,000
o.00oo 00
< 1ha 1-10ha 10-100ha 100-SOOha >500ha
classes of area (ha)

I number o properties Dtal ana
percentage of occurrence
100-800 ha (4`.72%)
10-100 ha (12%) number of
1-10 ha (4.28%) properies
1 ha (31.2 M%

> 500 ha(40.8%) --
100- 500 ha (33.0) -- totalar
10-100 ha (21.14%) toa
1-10 ha (4.18%) \\)
< 1 ha (0.79%)

Distribution by land use classes

'00,000 -30,0
300,000 -0,000
2loo,ooo -o,oo
1 100

per- ann. fallow n. pot pl.pwat natfor. pl.tor
classes of land use
i number of proprtes j i al area

percentage of occurrence
P140SL (12-M -i
n. past (2.30%) -
atow (.83% -) number of properties
ann. (66s.77t%)
per. (8.10%)
-pasr. (9% ---
n. part. (.11%) total area (ha
fallow (17.50%) --\ (
ane. (o0.0%) -
per. (0A40%)

Figure 1.8: 1985
concentration of land
ownership in 13
counties at the
Mearim and Grajau
valleys, according to
size of the holding.
(Source: IBGE. 1985
Censo Agropecuario)

Figure 1.9: number of
holdings and total
area for the 1985
distribution of land
use classes in 13
counties at the
Mearim and Grajau
valleys, according to
the predominant
economic activity.
(Source: IB3GE 1985
Censo Agropecuario)


2.1 Introduction

The purpose of this chapter is a critical review of the literature in the field of

peasant economics and peasant social organization, and of the studies about the dynamic

of the political economy associated with the formation of a free peasantry in the Brazilian

Eastern Amazon, particularly in Maranhio. The first section provides a retrospective of

the major theories of peasant economic behavior and debates concerning factors affecting

peasant allocation of resources. The second section examines the impact of impediments in

access to land and other resources at the level of the social group. It addresses processes

of peasant collective action leading to rural conflicts, and the institutionalization of new

types of peasant social movements in recent years. The final section focuses on a historical

perspective of the political economy in Maranhao, through the major facts associated with

the existence of a peasantry: its formation following slavery, the intensification of

Northeastern migration upon changes in the plantation economy, their expropriation

through land commoditization, and the processes of reaction of contemporary peasants.


2.1 Introduction

The purpose of this chapter is a critical review of the literature in the field of

peasant economics and peasant social organization, and of the studies about the dynamic

of the political economy associated with the formation of a free peasantry in the Brazilian

Eastern Amazon, particularly in Maranhio. The first section provides a retrospective of

the major theories of peasant economic behavior and debates concerning factors affecting

peasant allocation of resources. The second section examines the impact of impediments in

access to land and other resources at the level of the social group. It addresses processes

of peasant collective action leading to rural conflicts, and the institutionalization of new

types of peasant social movements in recent years. The final section focuses on a historical

perspective of the political economy in Maranhao, through the major facts associated with

the existence of a peasantry: its formation following slavery, the intensification of

Northeastern migration upon changes in the plantation economy, their expropriation

through land commoditization, and the processes of reaction of contemporary peasants.

2.1 Revisiting Economic Strategies of Peasant Households and Communities

Definitions of peasants as a social category, and interpretations of peasant

economics have been formulated since the end of the 19th century, and still are the motive

of scholarly debate, having strong policy implications in developing countries.

Anthropology, political science, sociology, and economics are the disciplines converging

and contributing to the generation of an extensive literature of peasant studies. This

literature contributes to the understanding of themes of contemporary relevance such as

environmental conservation, sustainable agriculture, rural-urban integration, and economic


A recent work by Michael Kearney (1996), focusing on the anthropological

perspective but not limited to it, is one of the best references for a substantive review of a

number of these contributions, and how the "intellectual warfare" evolved among them.

Kearney points out two major dimensions in the theoretical and political debate of peasant

societies. These are of the left-wing vis-a-vis right-wing disposition, and the modem

versus romantic dimension. Whereas the left-wing debate incurs between the

proletarianism (modem) and peasantism (romantic) schools of thought, debates within the

right-wing are expressed by the confrontations among modernization theorists and those

that Kearney calls "romantic populists" (Chayanov, Redfield, James Scott as the most

significant ones).

Asserting that higher stakes are present in those debates that cross both of the

dimensions', Kearney also recognizes transformations in this framework resulting from the

self-deconstruction of the left-right confrontation and from the evolving development of

articulation theory, the sustainability discourse, and post-development images.

Prior to a more comprehensive discussion ofKearney's reconceptualization,

moving away from dualistic thoughts about peasant societies, this section starts with an

overview of the major theories in peasant studies, and more specifically, in peasant

economics, focusing on the investigation of decision making among economic alternatives.

It departs from definitions of peasant economy provided by the early works of Wolf

(1955, 1957, 1959, 1966, 1969), who described peasant survival strategies as mechanisms

for sharing resources in response to selective pressures. One of Wolf s major contributions

to peasant economics is the notion of the provision of multiple funds (replacement,

ceremonial, rent, and then, profit) guiding peasant decision-making, and the existence of

outside forces setting "asymmetrical ratios of exchange" for the food and other goods

produced by peasants vis-a-vis items (and cash) they obtain from the market. According to

Wolf "the appearance of the state marks the threshold of transition between food

cultivator in general and peasants.... Only when the cultivator becomes subject to the

demands and sanctions of power-holders outside his social stratum that we can speak of

peasantry" (Wolf 1966: 6-11). Based on Wolf's perspective, Stavenhagen describes

peasant economics with the following productionist statement:

1 Keamey (1996: 108-109) mentions as example of intense intellectual warfare the debate between
classical Marxists (proletarianists) and Chayanovians.


"the peasant economy can be defined quite simply as aform ofproduction (and
associated activities) in which the producer and his family till the land
themselves, generally utilizing their own means ofproduction (tools and
instruments) with the objective of directly satisfying their basic needs, although
for a number of reasons they may find themselves required to sell part of their
produce on the market in order to obtain goody which they do not produce. The
peasant economy occurs on small production units, non wage labor
predominates, possibilities for accumulation are limited or absent, and the
principal purpose of economic activity is not to obtain or maximize profits but to
guarantee subsistence" (Stavenhagen 1978: 31)

Allocation of resources:

Sahlins introduced the concept of the "domestic mode of production" (DMP) to

characterize how households in primitive societies support themselves. DMP's basic

elements are the sexual division of labor, the relationship between human beings and tools,

and finite production objectives. For Sahlins, household relations are the dominant

relations of production in primitive societies: "the normal activities of an adult man, taken

in conjunction with the normal activities of an adult woman, practically exhaust the

customary works ofsociety" (Sahlins 1972: 79). Human labor is what drives the domestic

mode of production, and the tools are subordinated to the human being, contrary to

capitalist relations, in which technology drives the relations of production and social

relations. According to Sahlins, economies organized by domestic groups and

characterized by kinship relations run below their capacity, are "underproductive" (Sahlins

1972: 39- 41). Referring specifically to agricultural societies practicing slash-and-burn,

shifting cultivation, he concludes that although sufficiency is the target of domestic

production for use, and a considerable portion of the available labor force is unused,

heterogeneity within primitive societies caused a substantial degree of "domestic economic

failure" (Sahlins 1972: 68-69). The significance of the DMP for peasant societies is

observed by Sahlins himself, who sees peasant articulation with the market as favoring the

manifestation of the under-use of labor-force, setting as a pattern for the group the

attainment of a level of household effectiveness within the reach of the majority, although

resulting inefficiencies among the most capable (Sahlins 1972: 89-91).

In sum, the allocation of factors of production by peasant households results from

a number of factors. First, it varies according to specific features of the domestic mode of

production, the division of labor, and attributions within the household. Second, it is

influenced by mechanisms existing at the community level, such as the intensity and forms

of reciprocity and redistribution, as well as the existing degree of internal differentiation

within the community. Third, it will be constrained or favored by endowments of the

natural environment. Finally, aspects of the broader society, and the political economy

resulting from state policies and market intervention play an essential role in peasant

decision making2.

Understanding economic behavior in the so-called non-western, pre-industrial

societies motivated during the 1960s and 1970s a great deal of academic controversy in

economic anthropology. Debates between the substantivist and formalist schools were

centered on the applicability of microeconomic theory in the analysis of the allocation of

resources by those societies. To some extent this debate also reached the study of peasant

economics, through different assessments given to rationality.

2 Leslie Anderson, in her theory of peasant political ecology, considers four components of the
peasant world: the individual, the village, the natural environment, and the national society.
(Anderson, L.E. 1994: 7-8).

Rationality is considered by a number of authors as the major guideline for the

allocation of resources by peasants. This hypothesis, however, assumed distinct

explanations, starting with Schultz's theory of the profit maximizing peasant,3 which

emphasized that peasants operate in a way that no alternative allocation of inputs nor

adjustments in outputs would give higher monetary or non-monetary net income to the

household (Ellis 1988: 64). Schultz's assumption that each farmer, by maximizing utility,

prevents any major inefficiency in the allocation of traditional factors (Schultz 1964: 39),

is derived from neoclassical economics perfect competition model, which indicates that

maximum profit occurs when marginal cost equals marginal revenue (what Shultz called

marginal value-product equalization). Despite the recognition of the knowledge acquired

by peasants by simply repeatedly executing their traditional tasks, the obtainability of

profit maximization is criticized by Lipton and Adams, who enumerated as major

constraints factors such as environmental instabilities, market and institutional

imperfections (Lipton 1968: 346), and the lack of information (Adams 1986: 277). In

addition, both condemned Shultz's misuse of evidence, through the adoption of selective

data (Lipton 1968: 346; Adams 1986: 277).

In 1965, one year after the publication of Schultz's work, George Foster

introduced the concept of "the image of limited good" as dominant cognitive orientation4

3 Schultz's theory is based on two ethnographic studies: Sol Tax's "Penny Capitalism", and W.D.
Hooper's "The Economic Organization of a Village in North-Central India". From the latter, he
quotes "each man comes close to doing the best he can with his knowledge and cultural
background". (Schultz 1964: 45-46)

4 Foster defines cognitive orientation as the unverbalizedd, implicit expression of a society's
understandings of the "rules of the games" of living, imposed upon them by their social, natural,

of classic peasant societies. Based on his field work in Michoacin, Mexico, Foster

suggests that "peasants view their social, economic, and natural universes their total

environment as one in which all of the desired things in life ... exist infinite quantity

and are always in short supply, as far as the peasant is concerned" (Foster 1967: 304).

He sees a number of features in peasant behavior adversely influencing economic growth,

but highly rational and indispensable for the maintenance of the peasant society in its

classic form. According to Foster, unexpandable goods in a closed system would allow

individual or household economic progress only at the expense of others, and

consequently, "apparent relative improvement in someone's position with respect to any

good is viewed as a threat to the entire community" (Foster 1967: 305). Thus, changes in

the status quo of the relationships are discouraged, through a preferred behavior that, as

Sahlins' analysis of the DMP corroborates, will maximize peasant security, preserving his

relative position in the traditional order of things. Advocating greater peasant participation

in national development, Foster suggests that only creating economic opportunities

(changing the economic rules of the game), the peasant would be "encouraged to

abandon his traditional and increasingly unrealistic cognitive orientationfor a new one

that reflects the realities of the modern world" (Foster 1967: 304).

Another way to address how rationality is expressed in peasant decision-making is

the debate between political scientists James Scott and Samuel Popkin, through their

respective theories (Scott 1976; Popkin 1979). The debate, one of the most preeminent in

the field of peasant studies, confronts Scott's social security mechanisms and peasant

and supernatural universes. Foster, G. M. (1967:300)

communities' harmony, with Popkin's concept of the rational peasant guided by self-

interest, and cooperation in societies based on task-specific incentives and calculations.

Whereas Popkin repeatedly stressed peasants' individual calculations in order to raise their

standard of living, Scott depicts peasant rationality as shaped by economic, political, and

social constraints. These books, published in the mid to late 1970s, linked peasant

decision-making at the individual and household level, with processes occurring in their

communities, and with the adoption of collective action. As Adams points out, whereas

Scott emphasizes harmony between individual and collective interests, Popkin stresses the

sources of conflict between them.

On the other hand, when examined at the microeconomic level, Scott's theory of

peasant behavior confronts capitalist enterprises's economic rationality. According to him,

peasants, threatened by a variety of social claims and impersonal forces, have as their

central economic preoccupation to feed their households reliably, despite the minimal

marginal return of the extended labor allocated.5 The strategy of avoiding falling below

what he calls a "subsistence danger level"6 combines with the risk avoidance behavior

pointed out by many economists studying peasant agriculture in developing countries

(Roumasset et al. 1979; Binswanger and Sillers, 1983). Following this principle,

cultivators would prefer to minimize the probability of a disaster rather than to maximize

5 Scott lists rent, taxes, and debts as social claims. As impersonal forces, he mentions uncertainties
of weather, soil quality, level of techniques, the risk of illness, and the availability of arable land.
(Scott 1975: 505-507).

6 As "subsistence danger level" Scott means the threshold below which the qualitative decline in
subsistence security, family cohesion, and social status is massive and painful. (Scott 1975: 507).

their average return. In so doing, they will provoke a sub-optimal use of variable inputs,

and outputs below the level expected when profit is maximized (Ellis 1988: 100).

Risk aversion behavior, as well as the theory of profit maximization, fails in

considering only the pursuit of a single goal as determining the allocation of resources by a

peasant household (Ellis 1988: 102). A different interpretation of peasant economic

practices is the analysis presented by A. V. Chayanov. His "Theory of Peasant Economy"

based on the concept of the peasant farm as "a family laborfarm in which the family as a

result of its labor receives a single labor income and weights its efforts against the

material results obtained' (Chayanov 1976: 41). The basic concepts of Chayanov's

theory are self-exploitation of the peasant labor force7 and demographic differentiation'.

According to this theory, given a socially accepted minimum standard of living, the

achievement of a point of natural equilibrium in the allocation of resources occurs when

the drudgery of marginal labor expenditures will be equal to the subjective evaluation of

the marginal utility of the sum obtained by this labor. In a separate essay from his "The

Theory of Peasant Economy", Chayanov identifies peasant economy as having

singularities regarding productive and reproductive strategies constituting a mode of

production distinct from the capitalist and the socialist.9

SChayanov (1976: 76) points out that the level of labor intensity is determined by internal and
external factors. The internal factors are those related to pressures of family consumption demands.
The external ones are those production conditions which determine the level of productivity.

8 Chayanov (1976: 60) explains demographic differentiation as: "every family, depending on its
age, is in its different phases of development a completely distinct labor machine, as regards labor
force, intensity of demand, consumer-worker ratio, and the possibilities of applying the principles
of complex cooperation"

9 "On the Theory of Non-Capitalist Economic System", included in pp 1-28 of the op. cited.


The supposed absence of a market for wage labor in 1920s Russia was the motive

of Chayanov's analysis considering the peasant family as a unity in abstraction from

external relations (the utilitarian individualism). Critiques of his theory, although

recognizing the consistency of his postulates, and moreover its scientific advance, allude

to the existence of a growing network of social relations between households, mediated

through product and factor markets. As Heynig points out, Chayanov's theory, besides

ignoring social differentiation, considers the peasant family farm as independent of the

larger social formation (Heynig 1982: 129). Kearney points out that Chayanov had little or

no concern for peasants as social and cultural beings, limiting his analysis only to

production and consumption aspects of the peasant household. In addition, Chayanov's

vision of the peasant household as a unity is contested by the fact that real family units are

internally differentiated by age and sex (Harrison 1979: 89; 1976: 329-334). Harrison's

critique of Chayanov's view of the peasant family opposes his analytical aggregation of

family members into a single economic agent possessing a unified, inherent rationality and

consciousness, encompassing a conceptual dissolution of internal social relations.

The individual and the household in the reconceptualization of the peasant:

Deere's approach to household and class relations addresses both of the

shortcomings attributed to Chayanov's theory. First, she looks at the class processes that

characterize economic activity. She departs from Resnick and Wolffs interpretation of

Marxist class analysis10 "by employing the concept of class relation to refer to a

10 Resnick and Wolff distinguish between fundamental and subsumed class processes. The former
refers to performance and to extraction of surplus labor, whereas the latter consists of its
distribution, through specific social functions. Subsumed classes, according to them, maintain

fundamental class process and the conditions of existence necessary to distinguish

different class processes from one another (Deere 1990: 13). Deere attributes to peasants'

participation in a number (multiple) of fundamental, or in both fundamental and subsumed

class relations, the basic condition for the reproduction of the peasant household as a unit

of production and reproduction. In other words, multiple income-generating activities help

explain the persistence of the peasantry. Second, she introduces the concept of household

relations to describe the economic, cultural, and political practices ruling the formation of

households and the relationship between the unit of production and the unit of

reproduction. As the multiple class positions of peasant households were often based on

the gender division of labor, her analysis brings together the potential tensions in

household and gender relations in order to understand their interaction with class relations

and the potential for social change. Within her framework, household members may

engage in feudal, petty, communal, and capitalist class relations at the same time (Deere

1990: 13-15) ". Rather than consider petty production as the primary relation of peasants

(as Warman did), Deere asserts that specific circumstances and opportunities

characterizing each household will dictate peasants' primary relation of production. That

themselves by means of shares of extracted surplus labor distributed by the fundamental extracting
classes. (Resnick and Wolff 1982: 3).

" Deere characterizes feudal class relations by the existence of a class of landlords and a class of
direct producers who must pay rent in the form of labor services in order to obtain access to the
means of production. In capitalist class relations, a class of dispossessed workers sell both their
necessary and surplus labor for a wage, to the owners of the means of production. Communal class
relations are characterized by collective possession of the means of production by direct producers,
all of whom perform labor. Finally, the class relations embodied in petty production are
characterized by the petty producer's ownership of the means of production and control over the
labor process, allowing the individual appropriation of surplus labor.

is conditioned by the class relations in which household members participate and the

outcome of the economic activities, which interact and are mediated by household and

gender relations, and by extra-household relations among kin. Household and class

relations vary according to the family life cycle (Chayanov's demographic differentiation),

as well as in response to the broader political economy. Stressing interactions among

household and class relations, she considers that

"a focus on peasant household reproduction from a micro point of view provides
a different understanding of how peasants may survive in the face of
impoverishment and proletarization, opening up space for the analysis of the
subjective forces of history, the actions of men and women in daily life as well as
the relations between them" (Deere 1990: 326)

As was already pointed out, Kearney's working assumption of peasants'

reconceptualization advocates a "dismantling of spatial and temporal binary opposition

in the present historical moment, characterized as transnational, post-developmental,

and global" (Kearney 1996: 43). Influenced by articulation theory assertions of complex

interrelationships between capitalism and other modes of production, Kearney emphasizes

the "dissolution of much of the opposition between rural and urban, developed and

underdeveloped and between peasant and non-peasanf' (Kearney 1996: 120).

Contrasting dependency theory's emphasis on global regions and nations as primary units

of analysis, he borrows from articulation theory the analytical focus on community,

household, and individual levels. Working with the concept of social identities affected by

internal differentiation resulting from migration, the penetration of agro-industry, and

capitalist agriculture dominance, Kearney attributes to peasants rather the complex

transforming entities who defy social bounds than Wolfs definition by productionist


criteria as "polybians": "creatures moving in and out of multiple niches, ..., adapting

their being to different modes of existence opportunistically occupying different life

spaces"(Kearney 1996: 141). Hence, although mechanisms of the capitalist economy in

several cases resulted in the disappearance of peasant societies, it is also true that peasant

economy can coexist side by side with capitalism. Shanin, for instance, points out that a

number of authors

"have documented for different environments the tendency of agribusiness to
withdraw from the process ofproduction in agriculture, focusing their profit
making activities on credit, supply of inputs, contracting and selling, while
leaving farming to the small holders and skimming them rather than replacing
them". (Shanin. 1976: 4)

The importance of Kearney's reconceptualization of the peasant extends also to

the field of decision-making research, which he considers largely contained to the sphere

of agricultural production and predicated by rationality and maximization of economic

value. Kearney advocates a refocus of decision-making theory in order to recognize the

totality of spaces occupied by the individual and elements of the identity of which he or

she is composed: "ethnographic research on decision-making concerning agricultural

production is inseparable from the ethnographies of the other socialfields in which the

small part-time producer lives and that are often more important to biological and social

reproduction than is agriculturalproduction "(Kearney 1996: 159).

Definitively, Kearney refuses the adoption of productionist issues, decision-making

models and rational actor theory when referring to his polybian-type of peasant (Kearney

1996: 148). His theory envisions these peasants as part of a dynamic process of

transformation of value and power, shaping the political economy, "redefining agrarian

issues and establishing the local politics of human rights and ecology within

international contexts, eventually favoring subaltern groups in the balance offorces with

the nation-states" (Kearney 1996: 169).

Whereas Kearney expresses a great deal of human agency through the sequential

engagement in various economic opportunities, his characterization does not sufficiently

addresses the role of household in the establishment and maintenance of the polybian-type

of social identity. My interpretation is that his theory fits suitably for situations in which

peasants experience massive penetration of cultural and economic value characteristics of

capitalist society, especially in transnational contexts. It has less application, however, for

scenarios of peasant communities that, in spite of ongoing changes, have not yet

undergone a complete revolution in the process of production. To these scenarios, Deere's

theory seems to be of more analytical validation. Taken together, Deere's and Kearney's

approaches substantially contribute to the understanding of the economic calculations and

practices of the contemporary peasant.

2.3 Social Organization and Collective Action as Peasant Survival Strategies:

Socioeconomic transformation restricting access to the resource bases modify

prior arrangements and attributions not only at individual and household levels, as seen in

the second section of Chapter 1. They provoke changes internally in the entire peasant

social group. When the availability of resources for the productive process reaches a

certain minimum, the status quo of the relationships within the community, and previous

mechanisms regulating the access to labor and to common resources begin to deteriorate.


They deteriorate up to a point in which individual initiatives often result in conflicts with

the general perception of the social group. As Almeida and Mourao pointed out, although

reciprocity and redistribution principles strengthen community cooperation and protect the

group from external interference, they are affected by limitations in material conditions,

of which access to land is the primary one (Almeida and Mourao 1976: 19). Thus, the

reduction of resources increases individualism (Ostrom's "free-riders"), and Hardin's

"tragedy-of-commons" (Hardin 1968: 1243-1248) is manifested, deteriorating patterns of

social interaction 12. The peasant community becomes fragile, and parallel to the adoption

of distinct economic practices, households are stimulated to rearrange their broader social


One of these rearrangements consists of internal mechanisms of regulation through

incentives for out-migration, reducing pressures upon resources. That is represented by

the departure of some members of the household, or of the entire social unit. The first

case usually involves youths' seasonal leaves to work in activities such as mining,

migration to urban centers or to poles of capitalist expansion in need of labor in rural

areas. Migration of the entire household, however, is more often associated with the

existence of an "expansion front". This alternative, therefore, depends upon the availability

of "free" lands in the frontier, where peasants reacquire an ideal stock of resources for the

practice of their system of cultivation. It will last, however, up to the point in which the

capitalist mode production subsequently reach the newly occupied area and the peasantry.

12 According to Hardin, "each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd
without limit in a world that is limited. [and] ...freedom to breed will bring ruin to all".

Proletarization of members of the peasant household, on the other hand, generate

remittances that contribute to income composition and for the social reproduction of the

remaining group. The adoption of out-migration, although partially dismantling

community linkages, is thus a regulatory strategy, extending the conditions for the

prevalence of petty class relations for peasant subsistence.

The lack of the "expansion-front" alternative, or the return of those who out-

migrated and assimilated different perceptions of reality in urban centers or regions

undergoing agricultural modernization, are some of the factors favoring the intensification

of another process, peasant collective action, as a mechanism adopted by communities to

deal with the subordination derived from concentration of land ownership. Eric Wolf sees

peasant movements of protest centered upon a myth of a more egalitarian social order,

sufficient however only to provide a common vision, to unite peasants, and not to

organize them (Wolf 1966: 106-108). Peasant reaction to exploitation, in fact, assumes

heterogeneous forms, from rebellions and revolutions to nonviolent protest and everyday

resistance". In proposing a theory of rural class conflict, Paige attributes the prevalence of

major forms of rural social movements to particular combinations of economic and

political behaviors of those who cultivate and those who do not cultivate the land. He

asserts that agrarian revolts, described as "short, intense movements aimed at seizing land

but lacking long-run political objectives" characterizes the situation combining a landed

upper class and a landed starved peasantry. According to Paige, a reformist process

3 A bibliography on peasant revolution includes the already mentioned works of Scott and Popkin;
Wolf 1969; Paige 1975; Migdal 1974. Works on nonviolent peasant protest are Sharpe 1977;
Zamosc 1986. For everyday resistance, see Scott 1985; Hyden 1980, and Gaventa 1980.


prevails in two cases, both of them characterized by a rural upper class having commercial

and/or industrial interests rather than depending on land revenues. The first instance

occurs in small-holding systems, where conflict focuses on the control over the commodity

market. The second is the reform labor movement, in which political conflict targets

working conditions and salaries. Finally, Paige associates agrarian revolutions to "the

conflict between a radical, well organized class conscious work-force and a landed

upper class unable and unwilling to grant any political or economic concession" (Paige

1975: 39-60). Incorporating a vision of interdependence among individual, village,

ecosystem, and society, L. Anderson, attributes peasants' survival to their flexible range

of political actions and consequent readjustments to an ever-changing world (Anderson,

L.E. 1994: 170). According to her, as the wider political world becomes part of peasants'

perspective, collective action incorporates the ecological interdependence and reciprocity

that characterizes the relationship between peasants and their broad environment14.

The enunciation of Anderson's political ecology emphasizes the incorporation of a

distinct strategy, the establishment of new forms of peasant organizations. Their origin is

flexible, either resulting from a process of revolt, or emerging from the sequential stages

of spontaneous disruptive actions. In the context of fewer closed corporate peasant

communities15, the establishment of dynamic, non-perennial forms of socioeconomic

organizations has been increasingly adopted to reduce peasants' subordination and

overexploitation resulting from the subsumption of their labor and products. The creation

14 For an analysis of the political ecology of the peasant, see Anderson, L. E. (1994: 14-18)

15 For the characterization of closed, corporate communities, see Wolf, 1966.

of these institutions, in fact, follows Wolf's assertion about peasants' social organization,

which emphasizes a" ... strong bias towards autonomy, and an equally strong tendency

to form coalitions on a more or less unstable basis for short-term ends"(Wolf 1966: 91).

These new social movements articulate interests that are other than class-based. They

consist of institutions targeting the reproduction of peasant social and cultural identity,

through the adoption of economically-focused coalitions, initially within the community,

and subsequently with external groups or entities, in which peasants encounter appropriate

allies. In a certain sense, new social movements within the peasantry act as a

contemporary substitute for the patron/client relationship. When constrained by a reduced

resource base and facing transformations in the dominant mode of production, these

organizations deal with the narrow limits represented by the maintenance of peasant

identity simultaneous to the everyday provision of material needs for the household.

Given processes of socioeconomic transformation occurring in their specific area

of influence, peasants' contemporary organizations attempt to channel their members'

economic logic and capacity to survive in adverse conditions, to a more active market

integration, and in the formulation and claim for adequate public policies. This process

represents an internally assimilated response to external pressures, and allocates strategies

and instruments of collective action toward a new set of determinants. They are essentially

operational and localized in their interests, but are characterized by a strong capacity of

regional aggregation and by the envisionment of broader aspects affecting the existence of

the interest groups represented (Almeida 1994: 522-523). Their unstable and flexible

condition reduces restrictions common to bureaucratic corporative institutions, allowing

the expression of values characteristics of peasant societies in the contemporary world.

Socioeconomic transformations push the peasantry to organized strategies, and the

creation of institutions such as associations or cooperatives can be a tool for the social

reproduction of the peasantry and improvement in their living conditions within capitalism.

In effect, peasants, due to the need to incorporate longer term production planning,

influenced by a broader vision achieved through coalitions, will have the awareness and

strategies to avoid Meillassoux's remark that,

... the shiftfrom production for self-sustenance and self-perpetuation to
production for an external market must necessarily brings a radical
transformation, if not the social destruction of the communities, as indeed we
witness the process nowadays. The attempts to superimpose productive and
mercantile institutions, such as the cooperative, on the lineage or village
community, is bound to fail or to transform the society into an eventual class
system". (Meillassoux 1980: 10)

On the contrary, the activity of peasants associations, cooperatives, and similar

organizations will enhance their ability to attract allies in other sectors of the civil society,

and through vertical coalitions, counterbalance the exploitation imposed by the hegemonic

class. By acting over the three major constraints for peasant social reproduction, such

organizations attempt the reconstitution of funds that have been often suppressed in most

contemporary peasant societies. First, their activity targets the recovery and/or effective

maintenance of tenure rights. Second, they emphasize the definition of patterns for land

use and conservation of resources given ever increasing pressures. Third, they attempt to

raise peasant awareness of the exchange value of their labor and of their products. In this

respect, the formalization of interest groups for commercial purposes assumes a buffering

function, attenuating negative effects of market exchange, by absorbing them at the

institutional level. In doing so, they revert these commercial transactions to forms of

integration reflecting mechanical solidarity among households. On this, I agree with

Popkin when he states that" ... throughout the world peasants have foughtfor access to

market not as a last gasp when all else has failed, but when they were secure enough to

want to raise their economic level and redefine cultural standards" (Popkin 1979:80).

The extension of interactions brought up by contemporary forms of peasant

organizations and the coalitions they form also change the cultural distance between the

peasant and the outside world. Acting as brokers in bringing an extended universe to the

social group, leaders and representatives of these organizations, as well as members of

allied groups in constant connection with the peasant community, have the extreme

responsibility of counterbalancing the often early negative impacts of the industrial society.

Nevertheless, important internal restrictions also affect the activity of these peasant

organizations. Their positioning should observe the social context. Economic initiatives

must be shaped by social experiences of the group, by "everyday experiences peasants

have in their class situations and in their various social roles in institutions such as the

church, the family, and external kinship groups" (Sharpe 1977: 121). In effect, in order to

achieve their goals, these new institutions have to consider the adoption and/or gradual

modification of practices present in traditional social relations, avoiding sharp

discontinuities. Particularly important are tensions between the household and the social

group, or community. Far from Banfield's "immoral familism" (Banfield 110-113), there

are certain attributions traditionally pertaining to the former, and that cannot be simply

substituted through the initiative of a broader organization. For a certain peasant group,

the undertaking of a collective agricultural field, for instance, can be of extreme

importance during certain phases of the struggle for land. However, once this phase is

terminated, it may not be accepted as a normal pattern. Existing differences among

households in a peasant community also have to be observed during the implementation of

economic initiatives such as settlement schemes and development projects. Political

negotiation and deadlines for implementation, however, have been forcing the execution of

such actions disregarding these aspects and jeopardizing not only the long run feasibility of

these initiatives, but also, and primarily, the internal organization of the group. This is

exactly one of the most significant challenges for the contemporary peasantry in

Maranhao. The next section will thus introduce the literature referring specifically to that


2.4 Formation and Consolidation of a "Shifting-Cultivator Peasantry"

Society in the babassu zone, and in Maranhao, is predominantly rural. According

to the 1991 Brazilian demographic census, sixty percent of the state population was

classified as "rural", the lowest urbanization index in the country. The origin of this

society resides in descendants of native Indian people'1, descendants of former African

'6 According to Van Damme (1990), the indigenous population that inhabited the coast of the state
upon the arrival of the Europeans was estimated at 1 million people. Forced into slave labor up to
1754, the indigenous groups progressively moved to the interior, usually along the rivers. For more
details about native Indian groups in Maranhao, see Gayoso 1970. Compendio Historico-Politico
dos Principios da Lavoura no Maranhio.


slaves1, and Portuguese colonizers. Its present configuration resulted from the arrival of

migrants coming since the end of the 19* century from the arid Northeast, mainly from the

states of Ceari and Piaui". Net migration to Maranhao, and to the babassu zone, ceased in

the 1970s. According to Sawyer, average indices of both annual population growth, and

annual population natural growth have decreased in the 1980s. The former dropped from

2.9 in the 1970-1980 period, to 1.9 in the following decade, while the latter dropped from

3.3 to 2.5 in the same period (Sawyer 1993).

The dynamic resulting in the configuration ofMaranhio's rural society reflects the

processes associated with the formation of a peasantry in the Eastern Amazon.

Consolidating the occupation of the area, agro-extractive, "shifting-cultivator peasant",

relying essentially on human labor and nature (no tractors, no animal power in agricultural

operations, no fertilizers and only limited use of pesticides), since the 1950s placed

Maranhao as one of the top Brazilian producers of rice and manioc'1. In addition, the

largely female-and-child-based extraction of products derived from the babassu palm, and

the nature of the palm forest's secondary growth itself suitably integrates extractive

7 The prohibition of indigenous slavery in the 1750s, motivated the trade of African slaves, in
exchange of primary goods acquired by the English. For details about slavery in Maranhao, see
Viveiros 1992. "Historia do Comercio no Maranhao 1612-1895".

18 A succession of severe droughts since the beginning of the century, and the fragmentation of
properties are considered the main reasons for this movement westward. For more details see
Andrade 1984. Ensaios sobre a Realidade Maranhense.

9 According to the IBGE, the 1992 area destined in Maranhio to rice production (740,000 ha)
and manioc production (240,000 ha) corresponds respectively to 17% and 13% of the total area
destined to these two crops in Brazil. The 650,00 tons of rice and 2 million tons of manioc
harvested in Maranhao, corresponded to 6.5% and 9% of the national production. (IBGE 1994
Anuirio Estatistico do Brasil).

activity with the mostly male-based agricultural practices. And although babassu kernels

are no longer the most important product of Maranhao's primary economy as they were

up to the 1970s, secondary forests of babassu decisively contribute to the livelihood of the

larger agro-extractive segment in Brazil20. Maranhao produces more than seventy five

percent of the country's babassu kernels, through an activity that occupies more than

300,000 families. As Shiraishi's recent research attests, an increasing portion of babassu

extraction is executed by peasants expelled from their land, currently living in the

periphery ("pontas de rud') of urban areas (Shiraishi Neto 1997).

Paradoxically, since the late 1960s, trends of the political economy and regional

development resulted in the negation of these peasants' tenure rights. According to

IBGE's figures, there were 425,000 landless families (more than 2.1 million people)

classified either as squatters, renters, or sharecroppers in 1985. Land ownership has in fact

been an issue of controversy and dispute in this region. As Valverde pointed out since

1957: ... no other Brazilian region, except Sao Paulo and Parani 's plateau faced so

intense and abusive a process of illegal land appropriation (grilagem)" (Valverde 1957:

17, my translation). This section presents an historical perspective of processes resulting in

the formation and consolidation of the "agro-extractive, shifting cultivator peasantry" in

Maranhio, and the dynamic of the political economy associated with its existence.

Although assuming the risk of placing boundaries where they do not fit, I will present

20 According to the IBGE, in 1986 there were 202,000 families (188,000 of those in Maranhio)
involved in the extraction of babassu. In the same year, population estimations for rubber and
Brazil-nut were respectively 95,000 and 40,000 families. (IBGE. 1986. Censo da Producio

these processes according to a simplified classification consisting of four major periods:

the consolidation of a peasantry following the end of slavery, the intensification of

Northeastern migration due to the disintegration of its plantation economy, the process of

expropriation due to land incorporation to the market, and the recent processes of reaction

of contemporary peasants.

From slavery to peasantry: land occupation and common resource use:

The creation of the General Commercial Company of GrAo Pari and Maranhao

(GCCGM), in 1756, is considered the threshold for the economic formation of the state

(Tribuzi 1981: 13). Until Brazilian Independence in 1822, Portuguese colonizers were

granted large extensions of land (sesmarias), measuring 18 x 6 km. The exploitation of

these areas, however, became effective only upon intensification of the African slave trade

through the GCCGM monopoly. Coinciding with the aftermath of the Independence of the

United States, this period opened the European cotton market for Brazilian production,

and Maranhao's cotton plantations received a significant impulse, although until 1815 all

profits were channeled to Portugal. In 1822, more than half of the 175,000 population of

the state was composed of African slaves, working mainly on cotton plantations in the

Itapecuru valley, and on sugar-cane plantations in the Pindar6 valley (Tribuzi 1981:14-16;

Andrade 1980:184). The prohibition of slave trade by the British crown in 1850 initiates a

process of decline of the plantation economy in Maranhao, culminating thirty eight years

later with the abolition of slavery .

The decline of a system based on the capturing of the labor-force through slavery

occurs parallel to the formation of a peasantry adopting a "subsistence" economy based on


the domestic unit of production. Emphasizing the establishment of these units outside the

plantation, Andrade describes the period as one in which

"... the Negroes left thefazendas and sugar mills. They hid away in the babassu
groves andforests, easily withdrawing their subsistence. There was abundant
unoccupied government land, from which the Indian was already removed but
which the colonists had not yet occupiedfor agriculture, and they were able to
live in a closed, non monetary subsistence economy."(Andrade 1980:184)

However, even though unoccupied lands were incorporated, this was not the

predominant feature associated with the formation of the "black-peasantry" in Maranhio.

As a matter of fact, two major trends were observed. On the one hand, ex-slaves remained

within the former plantation, especially in areas of older occupation at the Itapecuru valley

(Almeida and Mourio 1976:10). Landowners, adopting extensive livestock grazing on

natural pastures, captured this labor-force through mechanisms of payment of rent for land

use, and commercial exploitation. On the other hand, in areas of more recent occupation,

the disintegration of the plantation farm led to its transformation into a constellation of

autonomous domestic units of production, based on inter-household cooperation and the

common use of resources (Almeida 1996: 19). Tenure rights were transferred from failed

landowners to families of ex-slaves, either through donation, sale, or by mediation of

municipal governments, as Esterci mentions for the Pedreiras case (Esterci 1977: 73). In

addition, Almeida includes in this latter category, so-called "lands of the black" (terras de

preto), state concessions of land to runaway slaves as a payment for their warrior services,

mainly in the Balaiada war (1838-1841), well before abolition (Almeida 1989: 174-175).

Indeed, instead of the natural economy targeting subsistence as Andrade's

description signalizes, what prevails in both situations following the collapse of the

plantation system in MaranhAo, as Musumeci emphasizes, is capitalist accumulation

through the commercial exploitation of rural cultivators. Cotton, and later rice and

babassu, heavily integrated into market mechanisms, remained as the major products of

this newly formed peasantry (Musumeci 1988: 173-174). Contrary to a natural economy,

there was in fact

"an intention to be integrated into the market and overrule the agrarian situation
stipulated by the 1850 xaw of the Land [regulating the measurement, demarcation,
and sale of the designated Imperial lands], as large landowners, upon losing their
power and being unable to feed and sustain their slaves, proposed agreements
including freedom (alforria) and land." (Almeida 1996: 18-19, my translation)

Market integration through the commoditization of their production seemed to be

incorporated into the economic horizon of that society. But if we refer to peasant

segments entitled to access to land, and "terra de preto" was only one of a multiplicity of

situations, the same logic did not apply regarding their perception of land. Opposed to

individual appropriation of territories and land commoditization was the notion of

common resource use, defined by Almeida as a category where

"resource control is notfreely and individually executed by the specific domestic
unit ofproduction or by one of its members. Resource control, instead, occurs
through rules that go beyond the legal framework, being adopted by consensus
throughout inter-household social relations.... Territoriality functions as an
element of identification, defense, and empowerment. Solidarity liaisons feed a set
of regulations over a common physical basis, essential and inalienable, in spite of
eventual successional dispositions" (Almeida, 1989: 163, my translation)

Common resource use represented a strategy for their social reproduction in the

face of capitalist accumulation. Common resource use usually does not include common

appropriation of the results of the labor (agricultural fields are individually appropriated),

even though exchange labor and other forms of cooperation are observed. Also, common

resource use entails differential notions of entitlements among the social group.

Maintained in a number of present situations, although the object of threats since its

pristine appearance21, common land and resource use are viewed as an impediment for the

incorporation into the market of these resources, and a consequent defense against the

dispossession of the peasant unit. In a distinct context, it was indeed associated with the

other primary process in the formation of Maranhao's peasantry, the northeastern

"expansion front".

Northeasterners in the moving frontier: market integration or commercial exploitation ?

Gradual and non revolutionary transformation in Northeastern plantations, from a

system that immobilizes the labor-force through direct hierarchical relations, to

authoritarian capitalism, is indicated by Velho as the key factor for the appearance of a

marginal peasantry in Northeast Brazil (Velho 1972: 120, 187). According to him,

"secular decadence of Northeastern sugar plantations... made it more convenientfor

Northeastern planters to resort to forms of immobilization of the working force in which

labor itself took care of its subsistence ... both outside and inside plantation physical

domains" (Velho 1972: 118, 123). Parallel to the capturing of the necessary labor-force

for plantation needs, Velho sees the formation of a peasantry marginal to the plantation,

acting as a reservoir of labor-force for seasonal operations. Such transformations,

however, as Velho himself attests, occurred with greater intensity since the 1950s, with

the introduction of a more typically capitalist system of free wage labor (Velho 1972:

21 Almeida (1989: 171) mentions the annihilation of the Canudos and Contestado movements, and
the repression against units absorbing runaway slaves (quilombos).

196). Thus, if transformations on the plantation economy are coherent with the

appearance of a peasantry in the Northeastern sugar-belt, other explanations should be

added for the Northeastern influence in the constitution of a peasantry in Maranhao.

In fact, since the third quarter of the 19' century, the already debilitated plantation

economy, affected by the consequences of periodic droughts in the arid interior regions,

was not able to maintain immobilized their reserves of labor, and families began to move

either to cities in the Northeast, to cities and coffee plantations in the Center-South, or to

the Amazon. An estimated half million Northeasterners arrived in the Amazon during the

rubber boom, until 1912, when the region fell into a new period of great stagnation. Thus,

although observed since the end of the 19h century (Lago 1976: 8), the movement of

surplus Northeastern population towards Maranhio was intensified in the 1920s, following

the end of the rubber extraction alternative. As Velho states, this migration "atfirst tended

to cross already settled although decadent areas close to the coast. But with time it

spread towards the unsettledforest regions of the river valleys further West." (Velho

1972: 213).

The "Northeastern front" introduces distinct cultural patterns in Maranhao's

Indian and African heritage. Patterns that did not always favor integration, and in certain

circumstances, as will be described in the next chapter, are still generating internal

conflicts. Although deeper interpretation of such a cultural confrontation goes beyond the

objectives of this thesis, the following narrative made in 1957 by geographer Orlando

Valverde gives an idea of the usual representations of these patterns, attributing a positive

image to the Northeasterner in the face of Maranhao's "native" cultural habits:


"The cearense works hard He has initiative, has disposition to open doorsfor a
better future to his family, whatever the cost. It is a patriarchy, but everybody
works: men, women, and children.... Maranhao's caboclo is a loser. Economic
dependency, the slavery legacy, and indolence defeated him. His social function
is almost limited to mere reproduction of the species. Women, however, start to
work early. At 6 or 7 years old they begin to crack babassu to buy clothes, but at
16 or 17, most of them are prostitutes".(Valverde 1957: 32, my translation)

Northeasterners in fact, through the so-called "spontaneous" migration -- that

Almeida appropriately portrays as an actual process of forced migration (Almeida 1974:

46) -- initially arrived at the already occupied and pauperized lands of the Itapecuru valley,

characterized by large holdings and the extraction of rent from peasants. Such an influx of

cultivators resulted in dismantling the previous equilibrium, increasing competition over

limited land. Raising prices of the rent, it stimulated the joining of a peasantry previously

established in those areas of older occupation (for instance, segments of the "black

peasantry" mentioned before), to the westward progression of Northeasterner migrants

(Almeida and Mourao 1976: 11). For these, as Valverde emphasizes, the search for social

and economic independency was the major motivation to immigrate. A reinsertion in a

system that would immobilize them was not at all desirable (Valverde 1957: 17).

The opportunity to occupy unsettled, free lands was viewed as favorable by those

peasants, given the exacerbation of restrictions imposed by rental agreements. Not usually

associated with the "expansion front" into the Mearim, Grajai and Pindar6 valleys, these

arrangements later became part of the subsumption of peasant labor even in these areas,

after land incorporation into the market, began in the late 1960s. Still today, this

mechanism is largely used in Maranhio.


The usual agreement between renter and landowner stipulates payments using part

of the harvest, often rice. Frequently through informal contracts, the concession of land

during the agricultural season is usually the only contribution of the landowner. The

estimated obligation of such contracts consisted in a payment of an average of two

"alqueires per linha', (180 kg of rice per hectare), corresponding to 5 to 20 percent of

the production, according to the yield ". Although severe restrictions for the cultivation of

perennial crops (except in a small area surrounding the household), the inter-cropped

production of maize, beans, and manioc is usually free of rent, and rent was flexibly

charged in years of bad weather or when unexpected problems affected a household.

Landowners wealth to a large extent depended upon the relations of production with

peasants. In many cases, living in the village, landowners appropriated portions of their

funds through the land rent, by requiring unpaid labor obligations for their own benefit,

and in some circumstances even through processes of transformation and

commercialization of agricultural and extractive production.

Increased rental and other peasant obligations in areas of older colonization

contributed to the occupation, by the "expansion front", of free lands west of the 44

meridian, entering into a territory that later would be termed as "Legal Amazon". By

installing themselves through their characteristic system of occupation3, peasants in the

" The "alqueires per linha" (one "alqueire"is equal to 30 kg of rice, and one "linha" equivalent to
0.33 hectares) still is the unit of measure for the rent paid by sharecroppers. According to my
personal observation, peasants in Maranhio consider one "alqueire" as a fair payment. Two
"alqueires" are accepted as normal. Three "alqueires" are considered a violation of social rules.
23 For the description of the peasant system of occupation in the "expansion front", whose basic
element is the center-edge opposition, see Velho (1972: 224-225); Almeida (1974: 16-21)


frontier seldom asked for rental payments for those in their social group. As land was not

perceived as a commodity24, rental obligations were not mandatory for newcomers in a

recently settled area centroo) (Santos 1981: 19). Convenient for both the squatter in need

of labor force for the expansion of his agricultural area, and for those newly arrived in

need of start-up support, such cases involved a great deal of labor exchange, and eventual

payments of an attenuated rent functioned for the recognition of early settler's tenure

rights in that site. Constituting a pioneer agricultural frontier, these peasants heavily

depended on rice cultivation, that joined babassu as the most important product of

Maranhio's economy in the 1950s, the decade signaling the intensification of this frontier.

By specializing in rice cultivation, generating a product of inferior quality

(compared to the rice produced in the southern and central Brazilian states)2 and

therefore important for the supply of the lower strata of the urban population, this

peasantry integrates itself into a commercial circuit of capitalist accumulation. In areas of

older occupation the predominant pattern is the landowner control of agricultural

commercialization. In the frontier, conversely, the commercial circuit has the middleman

as its key element, who also often own rice mills (Droulers and Maury 1981: 1041). Velho

stresses road construction in the late 1950s as the cause of a process of vertical integration

of this peasantry with the national market, through the supply of rice. Although peasant

4 Hypothesis refused by Musumeci. She condemns the categorization of a peasant mode of
production in the "expansion front" based on common land use, opposed to capitalist private
property. See Musumeci (1988: 30-42)
2 "rice from Maranhao competes at the MSo Paulo and Rio markets due to its low price. At the
fairs and groceries stores, it is always the cheapest one. It has an irregular aspect, is yellowish,
has a lot ofimpurities and broken grains. (Valverde 1957: 15; my translation)


production was effectively reaching further markets, Velho's statement that through these

commercial transactions "this peasantry seems to be gradually demarginalizing itself

(Velho 1972: 216-218) denies market integration already existent since at least the end of

the 19" century, as other authors have demonstrated26.

Beyond demonstrating market integration, Musumeci contests theories attributing

to peasants in the frontier a survival strategy based on self-subsistence, only secondarily

targeting the market. Her work focuses on the Mearim valley, and mentions Velho's

apparent reconsideration of the subject. She initially establishes her point by documenting

peasant engagement in cotton cultivation during the 1930s, a decade of record production

and exports of cotton in Maranhao, when the Mearim valley, recently occupied by

Northeasterners, was the biggest cotton producer zone of the state, predominantly

through small peasant units. Musumeci questions the preferential adoption of rice

cultivation by migrant peasants from the Northeast, as they had no tradition of rice

cultivation nor was rice their staple food. She emphasizes that if receiving market signals

and stimuli, peasant units of production and small scale agriculture do not impede an

export-oriented production, neither are they an obstacle to mercantile accumulation.

Musumeci highlights peasant subordination and capital accumulation through commercial

and speculative mechanisms, a system that does not require land monopoly nor direct

control of the labor-force. According to her, these peasants "are mercantile producers,

integrated into a specific chain of commercial transactions which dictates predominant

26 Valverde (1957: 15) mentions a Caio Prado Junior work in which the latter attests that "since
colonial times Maranhao's rice was an important product for local consumption and for exports to
the Northeast". See also Almeida (1996: 19)

market trends and heavily influences choices of the unit ofproduction." (Musumeci 1988:


The interpretation ofManoel da Conceig9o, a peasant leader who personifies in his

life the progression of the "expansion front" through the Itapecuru, Mearim, Pindar6 and

Turi valleys, realistically summarizes peasant commercial subordination. A union and

political activist, who was mutilated, tortured, imprisoned, and exiled by the authoritarian

regime, he states:

"There are books and theories about a certain subsistence economy. They explain
that workers sell their surplus production. This is not true because the worker
does not sell his surplus. He himself gets the 'surplus', if something remains after
he pays all his debts to the middleman. If nothing remains it is because the
middleman got the last grain of rice. Thus there is no surplus, the worker sold all
his produce. "(Conceicio 1980: 59; my translation)

Hence, economic and political control and the accumulation of wealth through

commercial operations are based in a series of practices, including the provision of

advanced credit, to be converted in rice payments28, lower prices paid at the harvest, and

higher prices for basic staple and consumer goods for the household. In addition, the

middleman imposes exclusive rights to purchase babassu production, and process rice,

manioc, and maize. Most landowners installed a commercial store and became middlemen.

27 Musumeci's research in the Mearim was coordinated by Velho, as part of the project: The
process of colonization of Maranho's humid valleys and its follow-ups.

28 In Maranhao, January to April is the hardest period for peasants. Due to previous obligations to
the middleman, their supply of rice is usually exhausted. Peasant engagement in wage activities
conflicts with labor requirements in their own fields. In addition, this period coincides with the
year's lowest production ofbabassu. Middlemen advance rice at a 2 or 3:1 ratio, being paid after
the harvest. A lower value is stipulated for peasant's rice when middlemen lend cash, forcing a
significant portion of the harvest to be used for this payment. For a categorization of the economic
transactions pertaining to the rice commercial circuit in Maranhio, see Musumeci (1988: 264-286)

In recently occupied areas where there was no land ownership, commercial subordination

was initially referred directly to a larger village or town businessman. Gradual

differentiation among squatters resulted in the appearance of local middlemen, linked to

those in the immediate superior level in the trading chain, which extends to two or three

additional components. Through debt peonage, price mechanisms, and processing

machines, the middlemen left no room for peasant accumulation of eventual surpluses".

While commercial extraction by the landowner in lands of older occupation contributed to

the maintenance of the agrarian structure and to the social subordination of the peasant,

the economic control of the middlemen was one of the main sources of social

differentiation and concentration of land ownership in the "expansion front". Having no

means to pay their debts, and attracted by a still open westward frontier, the alternative to

negotiate their tenure rights with the middleman was convenient to many families.

In fact, thousands of peasants who had settled in the Mearim Valley by the 1960s

moved to the valleys of the Graja6, Pindari, Turi, and Tocantins rivers, in the 1970s and

1980s. Juxtaposing characteristics of peasant economic strategy based on shifting-

cultivation, the availability of unoccupied lands, and pressures resulting from commercial

exploitation, Andrade describes this period of "spontaneous" settlement as one in which

"peasantsfrom elsewhere in the Northeast migrated to Maranhao in search of
virgin forest land Upon finding it, they built a small hut, cleared afield in the
forest, burned the brush and trees, and prepared the field for planting.... The

9 Manioc flour is produced in the village through manual or diesel powered "casas-de-faiinha",
under a 5 to 10 percent fee. Rice is processed in mills "piladores de arroz" charging 1 kg per 30 kg,
plus by-products (used as swine feed), and intentional scale errors in weighting: 30 kg of paddy are
usually converted to 21 kg of rice, although producing up to 24 kg.

following year, because the soil was less fertile, the peasants planted manioc in
the same field and cleared a new plot in the forest on which to plant rice. They
movedforward each year, making new clearings and carrying out what might be
called migratory agriculture. The land left behind are being occupied by
merchants, rice millers, or government officials, who fence the landfor cattle
raising... The poor peasant, thus, clears areas for the rich livestock raiser to
occupy." (Andrade 1980: 188)

Circuits of commercial and speculative accumulation were more benefitted by the

lack of social and infra structural policies targeting the needs of peasants at the "expansion

front". Instead of recognizing this peasantry's tenure rights in the land they occupied, state

conduct favored the proliferation of illegal land appropriation (grilagem), promoted

internal social differentiation, and stimulated the conversion to pastures of lands recently

deforested and potentially productive for agriculture. Moreover, it generated an

unprecedented wave of violence and expropriation.

Land incorporation into the market, pasture conversion and agrarian conflicts

The Superintendency for the development of the Northeast (SUDENE -

Superintendencia para o Desenvolvimento do Nordeste), was created in December 1959,

having CEPAL's economist Celso Furtado as its first president. One of the bases of

SUDENE's policy in its initial operation under the Furtado administration was the

colonization of Maranhlo's forested areas, targeting the demarginalization of peasants

through their transformation in "efficient food producers" for the Northeast, and the

assimilation of population surpluses. (Velho 1972: 214)

"Furtado considered Maranhio a favored area because it experienced
spontaneous migration from the semi-arid zone of the Northeast, and had an
abundance of unoccupied government land.... SJDENE planned to obtain
donations of extensive areas in Maranhiao: in the West, on the Pindare river, in
the upper Mearim, and later in the Gurupi valley, in the forested zone. These

lands were to be divided into parcels and given to families brought from the semi-
arid zone. To guarantee the success of this undertaking, Ambassador Merwin
Bohen, special representative of President Kennedy, went to the region in order to
channelfunds from the Alliance for Progress and foodstuffs from the Foodfor
Peace program. "(Andrade, M. C. 1980: 195)

Sudene's original "Projeto de Povoamento do MaranhiPo" (PPM), the Maranhio's

colonization project, was created in 1962 with the ambitious goal of settling and

coordinating the "spontaneous" settlement of 40,000 peasant families in five years, over

three million hectares donated by the state government. Results were meager. It took ten

years for the effective operation of the project, under the authoritarian regime. The

implementation was restricted to 940,000 hectares at the Pindare and Turi valleys in the

Northwest portion of the state, for the settlement of 10,700 families in its first two phases

(490,000 ha), and the later expansion to a third area with 450,00030. As in the

COMARCO project31, and at the PIC-Barra do Corda32, the two other official

colonization initiatives in Maranhio, multiple agrarian problems surrounded the execution

of the schemes. On one hand, the "spontaneous" colonization exceeded expectations, and

30 "PCAT Projeto de Coloniza~io do Alto Turi", since 1972 managed by the Northeast
Colonization Company (COLONE Companhia de Colonizacio do Nordeste) and installed in an
area crossed by BR-316, the road that connects Bel6m to the Northeast. Funds for this project
originated from a $6.7 million World Bank loan to the Brazilian government. For more details
about COLONE, see Droulers. and Maury (1981:1041-1049); Trovio (1989: 137-141).
31"COMARCO Companhia Maranhense de Coloniza~ o", the Maranhbo Colonization
Company, created in 1971 by the state government to settle 10,000 families in 30 ha plots at the
Graja6 and Pindar6 valleys. In addition, COMARCO would sell 1.4 million ha to corporations, at
lower prices and no interest. Whereas the latter action was (illegally) conducted, 1035 peasant
families were settled until 1974, and 600 remained four years later. (Troviio 1989: 132-137).
32 "PTC Projeto Integrado de Colonizafio de Barra do Corda", the INCRA (Agrarian Reform
Agency) led Integrated Colonization Project at the upper Mearim region, targeting settlement of
3,000 peasant families on 340,000 ha. (Almeida and Mourio 1976: 7).

approximately 20,000 families occupied the area even before the conclusion of its first

phase, which envisioned the installation of 5,200 families on 240,000 ha. Droulers and

Maury describe that the application of the recognized "economic model" was possible

only in 1977, and to a subset of only 500 families (Droulers and Maury 1981:1042),

favoring the formation of a restricted middle class within the peasantry. On the other hand,

and moreover, this area witnessed pressures of ranchers and corporations illegally

purchasing properties and initiating land conflicts. As Almeida and Mourao stated, "the

magnitude of the conflicts, which rational colonization of available lands should

supposedly reduce, became instead even greater, bringing land struggles to the expansion

front" (Almeida and Mourio 1976: 9).

Outside the colonization schemes, state action intensified the implementation of a

concentration-based development model, with no regard to its social impact. The 1969

state government "Law of the Land" (Lei de Terras), and fiscal incentives and subsidies

generated by the authoritarian regime transformed social relations of production in rural

Maranhao. A process of property legalization was initiated. Nevertheless it was limited to

a circle of better off and more entrepreneurial producers, more often Northeasterners,

combining agriculture with small scale livestock, and acting as local middlemen. In many

situations, although originally members of the community, these newly recognized

landowners excluded and harmed their former friends. With the possession of deeds, they

became entitled to claim rural credit and benefit from official programs3.

33 See Velho (1972: 228) for his interpretation of social stratification in Eastern Amazon's
peasantry. See also Santos (1981: 28-31), and Musumeci (1988:118-128) for characterizations of
the "inside grileiros", usually referring to better-off peasants taking advantage of their "insider"


In other areas, as happened at the COMARCO scheme, untitled state lands (terras

devolutas) were appropriated through "grilagem", the illegal instrument of documentation

of large tracts of land and posterior speculative sale of these lands, usually with peasant

communities in their interior. The so-called grileiro"is the most important element in the

transition of an untitled piece of land in private property, either benefitting corporations,

ranchers, or himself" (TrovAo 1989: 91; my translation). Attracted by the profitability of

the deal, these corporations and wealthy ranchers became the certified landowners of

extensive properties. Most of the peasant communities had neither the information nor the

opportunity to demonstrate their tenure rights, and after being expropriated through labor

(rent), prohibited access to natural resources babassuu, wood, game, fish), having their

house and tools vandalized, they were finally expelled from the land (Almeida 1981: 8)34.

Extraction of surpluses through rent and commercialization were no longer the

only sources of capital accumulation for landowners. Indeed, the hegemonic classes were

successful in influencing policies in their benefit. The state, with generous offers of

subsidized capital and fiscal incentives, determined that "... especially in the 1970s, an

active process of pasture conversion has been replaced rice fields, ... through financial

support of the two regional development authorities, Maranhio had 77 government

subsidized livestock projects in an area of more than one million hectares" (Amaral Filho

1990: 233; my translation).

condition as a disguise for illegal land appropriation.

34 For an actual description of the stages and elements of a process of"grilagem", see Asselim
(1982: 60-61).

State policy resulted in the shift from rice to cattle. In the period between 1975

and 1985, IBGE figures show that the area converted to pastures in MaranhAo more than

doubled, from 12,182 km2 to 27,903 km2, whereas the area for annual agriculture

presented a much lower increase, from 10,140 km2 to 12,181 km2. In the same period,

while the state's cattle herd increased from 1.78 million to 3.25 million, rice production

decreased from 894,000 tons to 779,000 tons (IBGE. 1976, 1986).

Pasture conversion led to increasing concentration of landownership and agrarian

violence, by the removal of squatters and sharecroppers, and the consequent demographic

pressure on the remaining agricultural land. Besides the elimination of hundreds of villages

(whose existence is witnessed by clusters of mango trees within extensive pastures and on

the edges of the roads), peasants were restricted accessing to babassu stands enclosed in

ranchers' and corporations' properties. Babassu palm eradication, due to both a false idea

of palm competition with pastures, and the ideological motivation to avoid peasant

economic activity, became an effective way to accelerate this strategy.

Cooperation and flexibility formerly provided by landowners and middlemen in

critical instances ceased to exist. Land left for agriculture was soon exhausted, resulting in

increasing risks and decreasing yields, reducing safety margins of middlemen's commercial

gain. Extensive livestock production required only a tiny portion of the peasant labor

force, working as waged "cowboys". Westward migration of families to further areas in

Pari was still an alternative, but since the mid 1980s even this option has become limited

as the same restrictions were progressively applied to the frontier. Peasants were thus left

with two major alternatives: migration to urban centers, and seasonal migration, either


working for wages on the installation of agricultural, livestock or infra-structural projects,

or to the "garimpos", the mining areas. Urban migration inflated the unbalanced urbanized

peripheral zones of Sao Luis, Imperatriz, Caxias, or Bacabal3. Through seasonal

migration, peasants from Maranhio constituted an impressive portion of the

"garimpeiros", the independent mining prospectors working in the Amazon, and even

outside the Brazilian territory ". Both alternatives represented a profound contrast for

those who experienced them, in comparison with their original peasant values and culture.

However, the existence of these options and the remittances they provided, was crucial for

the maintenance of a still numerous peasantry in the state of Maranhio, and particularly in

the Mearim and Grajaii valleys.

Changing realities for an aero-extractive peasantry: globalization and reaction

Besides the alleviation of demographic pressures due to out-migration and the

support of eventual cash transfers from urban and mining activities to the original peasant

unit, another important factor contributing to the livelihood of the peasantry in large areas

of Maranhio is the income provided by babassu. Even with strong restrictions to access

the resource base since the 1970s, babassu's unique provision of both monetary and non-

monetary income has effectively been a "subsidy from nature" to the peasant.

Nevertheless, although representing one of the bases for the regional economy, babassu

35 According to IBGE census, the 1991 population of the three largest urban centers of Maranhio
was 700,000 (Sao Luis), 210,000 (Imperatriz), and 85,000 (Caxias).

3 Maranhio is the state that contributes the largest number of "garimpeiros" in the Amazon.
Almeida (1989), for instance, mentions that in 1986, there were 400,000 "garimpeiros" in the
Brazilian Amazon, 120,000 of them being from Maranhio.


extractive activity has been progressively losing even the reduced government support that

it received until the early 1980s37. Land commoditization relocates the basis of capitalist

accumulation from a system based in commercial exploitation to another based on landed

ranchers and agro-industrial enterprises. Parallel to pasture conversion and land

speculation, occurs the polarization of interests regarding land uses. Extractive activity

based on the domestic unit of production was increasingly viewed as an obstacle for rural

development of Maranhio. The official discourse, in the name of the interests of these

hegemonic classes, attributes to babassu extractivism a generalized backward feature that

reproduces the impressionistic narratives of the geographers who visited the babassuu

zone" during the 1950s and 1960s38, but without the social concern of those narratives. In

addition to the ongoing transformation on entitlements for land use, were added initiatives

targeting the transformation of the productive process in the babassu economy. Foreseeing

a feasible integration of babassu within the "capitalist livestock enterprise", and matching

the interests of ranchers aiming to eliminate continuous peasant entrance in private

properties, the reduced group of politicians, researchers, and entrepreneurs sympathetic to

babassu addressed technological change as the redemption for the sector.

Different from the traditional babassu oil industry, the proposed babassu agro-

industrial complexes considered a process of horizontal integration, through which the

3 During the oil shortage of World War II, for instance, a report from the US Vegetable Oil
mission evaluated babassu's potential value as "... five times the value of Brazilian coffee crop"
(Brazilian Government Trade Bureau, 1950). The last period in which babassu deserved the
attention of government authorities was during the mid 1980s oil crisis, when the federal based
"Babassu's Institute", was created. After a few years, when petroleum supplies were no longer an
acute problem, it ceased to exist.

38 see Azevedo and Mates 1951; Valverde 1957; Andrade 1964.


industry would either own land or establish contracts with ranchers who would "supply"

the babassu. Technological development, therefore, rather than inspiring changes in

babassu zone's agrarian structure, intended to reinforce it, as seen in Almeida's quote

from a report presented in 1991 by the Brazilian Association of Babassu Industries

(ABIBA Associago Brasileira das Indfistrias do Baba9u), to Maranhao's governor. One

of ABIBA's proposals is "to stimulate landowners to invest in the babassuu] sector as a

complementary source of income in their properties, incorporating a permanent labor-

force and avoiding possible invasions of babassu gatherers" (Almeida 1995: 28). The

adoption of this technology, the industrial cracking, separation, and integral utilization of

babassu's component parts, was attempted in the late 1970s and early 1980s through some

plants in the Itapecuru and Mearim valleys. All these projects failed, allegedly due to an

inconsistency in babassu supply and refusal of the peasants to being a mere supplier of raw

material 39. As a matter of fact, the widespread adoption of industrial babassu cracking

without agrarian reform and social policies targeting peasant needs would have profound

negative impacts, and peasants seem to be aware of that. As May summarizes,

consequences include the loss of opportunities for the allocation of peasant labor (as fewer

people will be needed to collect whole fruits), imbalances at the gender division of labor

within the household, and a substantial reduction of total income due to the loss of other

products, especially charcoal and starch (May 1994: 13-15). Even when the technology

was installed in an area where peasants were reassured of their tenure rights through an

39 For the description of the technology and an analysis of its application, see May (1990:242-252)