HOW DO AGRICULTURE AND the countryside contribute to the construction of a development model capable of combining economic growth and income distribution? The objective of this paper is to raise those issues.
We need to examine, initially, the context and structural conditions of recent agricultural development in Latin America, with emphasis on Brazil. The declining demographic weight of the rural population limits the possibility (contrary to the perspectives of sub-Saharan Africa, for example) of using agricultural development as the focus of the fight against poverty. Despite this, the ability of agriculture to improve the living standards of the poor is fundamental because of the effect of agricultural development on the prices of products that constitute the basic diet of the low-income population. This productive performance cannot obscure the significance held, up to now, by the concentration of landed estates in Latin America which are an obstacle to the formation of a dynamic civil society in the countryside.
The persistence of landed estates (and the inevitable correlate, rural poverty) in conjunction with agricultural dynamism makes the problem of land reform rather specific in most Latin American societies. The main mission of land reform contrary to many Asian experiences is not a unimodal model of agricultural development. This does not, however, reduce its importance, as it should be considered the best means of combating rural poverty and of developing the poorer regions of the continent.
However, rural development is not limited to land reform, especially after the development of an important, though minority, social sector in Latin America made up of family farmers who should become the focus of a policy that values social life in the country. The case of Brazil demonstrates how society's relationship to the issue of family farming is changing. First, from the intellectual angle, recent studies have shown that family farms and small farms make an economic as well as contribution to the development of agriculture. Next, from the point of view of social movements, family farmers are involved in issues of property management and reorganization, national and international markets and the credit system. Last, from the political angle, the Brazilian government has recently launched a National Programme for the Strengthening of the Family Farm which offers some very interesting and promising examples of decentralization of agricultural policy itself. In the regions covered by the programme, family farms are the strongest and most viable mechanism for providing access to land as an alternative to land reform.