by Mateo Mier y Teran
On 11 September in Wageningen I presented my PhD research on contrasting soybean farming styles in Querência, Mato Grosso, Brazil, on the southern fringe of the Amazon rainforest. The diversity of soy farming practices brings into question the simplistic portrayal of farming by the standard narratives that advocate or condemn soybean production in Brazil (e.g. be as a success model to reproduce in African countries or as a threat to the Amazon Forest and small-scale farming). I argue that the heterogeneity of farming styles has to be acknowledge for the implementation of policies for sustainable soybean agri-food systems. Here I will like to share some thoughts that came out from the seminar, and briefly show how I used the farming styles approach (developed by Jan Douwe van der Ploeg and colleagues from the Rural Sociology Group at WUR).
As Dominic Glover commented, in the global critical discourse soybean production in South America is seen as highly unsustainable, as the big monster. How does my research contribute to this debate? In Brazil the socio-economic and environmental impacts of soybean are a contested matter and discussed in extremely polarized terms. Rather than adding more proof against or in favor of soybean production I aimed at offering nuance on who produces soy, how is the production organized, and the implication for agrarian dynamics. I question the assumption that a single model of commodity production is homogenously expanding and causing equal effect everywhere, as it leads to ignore the existence of (rural) people with their own livelihood strategies, and the diverse ways their farming practices shape and are shaped by the soybean agri-food systems. The thesis presents a more diverse picture of farming practices and livelihood strategies around soybean production. These are defined by migratory trajectories, livelihood strategies, and the relationship with particular colonization and land use policies, labour, technology and markets.
The migration of the past 40 years to Mato Grosso´s agricultural frontier involved families with diverse livelihood trajectories, which implies access to different knowledge on farming styles and various degrees of capital. The so called pioneers that moved from the south of Brazil to Mato Grosso (MT), associated to the expansion of soybean, are not an homogenous group, and not all arrived with the sole idea of becoming large-scale soybean farmers. The differences in initial capital and knowledge shaped the ways of farming in Querência-MT. Moreover, the policies of land colonization in this area have defined a mosaic of sizes of land ownership: from mega-large areas distributed in the 1960´s, and then fragmentation of these, to 1,000 ha plots average distributed by a private colonization cooperative (COOPERCANA) in the 1980s, and plots of more or less 80 ha distributed by the Brazilian Institute of Colonization and Agrarian Reform (INCRA in Portuguese) in the 1990s. Since 2000 the increasing predominance of soybean production has involved people owning all size of farms (e.g. 80,000 ha, 10,000 ha , 500 ha, 29 ha), what has form a heterogeneous landscape of farming styles.
Henk Oostindie suggested that my research was more about heterogeneity. Certainly, in my research I argue that there are diverse ways in which soybean is farmed, but the point is that soybean has a role in the unfolding of diverse farming styles that are not depicted by the broad standard narratives. In Querência-MT there is a recent trend of formation of mega-large soybean corporate farms, and also technological, cultural, or economic pressures that lead soybean producers to increase their scales of production. However, assuming that large-scale farming is the only trend contributes to a critical distortion to understand farmers’ varied responses to challenges. Assuming that the soybean monoculture model and technological package has homogenous effects in a particular location, and everywhere in soy production areas, blinds us from understanding more complex agrarian dynamics and socio-economic and environmental implications; e.g. the development of rural cities with a middle class that become a center of consumption of production by settling, small-scale farmers.
An old tractor used by a family (parents and two children with separate households) who moved from been rural worker in a large-scale soybean farm to a land reform settlement. There they work in their own farms and rented area, where soybean (90 ha) is produced along livestock, rice, maize and other crops for self-provision.
Soybean farming styles reflect that the production of this global commodity is often embedded in the local development of farming practices. The large-scale production promoted by the agribusiness interest groups as the future is molded as corporate farming. An example present in Querência since 2002 is Grupo André Maggi, with a farm with 30,000 ha of soybean, 50,000 ha of native forest, 16 new harvesters with GPS that have reduced the farm´s employment from 300 to 200 workers, and integrated in a chain of input provision and trade of another 12 farms and processing industry own by the same corporation.
However this model is not the main farming style nor the predominant trend in Querência. A majority of soybean farmers (that plant between 100 ha to 5,000 ha of soybean) do not fit the above type. These majority corresponds mainly to migrants that colonized the area, contributed to form the municipality of Querência along other migrants, and have succeed in running medium-scale soybean farms. Their livelihood strategies are interlinked with the local development. An example is a household with 800 ha of soybean, along 400 ha of native forest, two employed workers, four machines (tractors, harvesters and sprayer), provision of inputs from a local providers, trade with commodity corporations and through the soybean farmers cooperative, highly informed of the soil conditions and following closely the farming process, and with a petty production of livestock for self-consumption. This family identifies with a farming style that cannot be equaled to a corporate farm, and although they have the choice to increase their scale of production, they also have the options to invest in their farm as it is, by intensifying or diversifying production, and plan the future of their next generation.
In parallel with these farmers there is an increasing number of small-scale farmers (less than 100 ha) that have found in soybean production an activity that allows them to leave from the product of the land. Using soybean in diverse ways, be to generate extra income as savings along a diversified production, to feed livestock, or to manage soil fertility. These small-scale production too is not creating the same socio-economic and environmental effects attributed to soybean production per se, and reflect a different farming style involving soybean.
In conclusion, the acknowledgement of the diversity of farming styles allows to recognize a degree of agency by farmers and the ways soybean is incorporated to their livelihood strategies. A policy or intervention to modify the soybean farming practices in Mato Grosso, Brazil, will have more chances of engaging the farmers if considering their diverse ways of farming rather than assume these as an homogenous application of a technological package.
If interested, the thesis will be accessible at the University of Sussex web page (http://sro.sussex.ac.uk), under the title “The political ecology of soybean farming systems in Mato Grosso, Brazil”, or you can send me an email at email@example.com