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Agroecology, Public Policies and Labor-Driven Intensification: Alternative Development Trajectories in the Brazilian Semi-Arid Region

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  • AS-PTA - Agricultura Familiar e Agroecologia

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The institutional recognition obtained by family farming in Brazil over recent decades has translated into the launching of a broad and diverse set of public policies specifically aimed towards this sociopolitical category. However, the design of these policies was heavily influenced by the productivist bias derived from the agricultural modernization paradigm, making the sector increasingly dependent on input and capital markets. In this same movement of institutional evolution, policies consistent with the agroecological approach created new margins for maneuvering for development trajectories founded on the use of local resources self-controlled by rural families and communities. Taking as a reference the recent trajectory of rural development in Brazil's semi-arid region, the article analyses the role of the agroecological perspective in the strategic combination between territorially endogenous rural resources and public resources redistributed by the State. Based on the analysis of the economy of agroecosystems linked to two sociotechnical networks structured by contrasting logics of productive intensification, the study demonstrates agroecology's potential as a scientific-technological approach for the combined attainment of various Sustainable Development Goals, starting with the economic and political emancipation of the socially most vulnerable portions of the rural population.
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sustainability
Article
Agroecology, Public Policies and Labor-Driven
Intensification: Alternative Development Trajectories
in the Brazilian Semi-Arid Region
Paulo F. Petersen and Luciano M. Silveira *
AS-PTA, Rio de Janeiro 22270-070, Brazil; luciano@aspta.org.br
*Correspondence: paulo@aspta.org.br; Tel.: +55-21-2253-8317
Academic Editor: Manuel González de Molina
Received: 30 December 2016; Accepted: 29 March 2017; Published: 31 March 2017
Abstract:
The institutional recognition obtained by family farming in Brazil over recent decades
has translated into the launching of a broad and diverse set of public policies specifically aimed
towards this sociopolitical category. However, the design of these policies was heavily influenced
by the productivist bias derived from the agricultural modernization paradigm, making the sector
increasingly dependent on input and capital markets. In this same movement of institutional
evolution, policies consistent with the agroecological approach created new margins for maneuvering
for development trajectories founded on the use of local resources self-controlled by rural families and
communities. Taking as a reference the recent trajectory of rural development in Brazil’s semi-arid
region, the article analyses the role of the agroecological perspective in the strategic combination
between territorially endogenous rural resources and public resources redistributed by the State.
Based on the analysis of the economy of agroecosystems linked to two sociotechnical networks
structured by contrasting logics of productive intensification, the study demonstrates agroecology’s
potential as a scientific-technological approach for the combined attainment of various Sustainable
Development Goals, starting with the economic and political emancipation of the socially most
vulnerable portions of the rural population.
Keywords:
rural development; agroecology; agricultural intensification; public policies;
sociopolitical innovation
1. Introduction
The quarter century spanning from the beginning of Brazil’s return to democracy, especially
following the proclamation of the 1988 Constitution, and the abrupt end of the Dilma Rousseff
government in 2016 marked a period of innovation in the institutions linked to rural development
in the country. One decisive element in this process was the inclusion of the family farming in
the ‘social pact’, which authorized the launch of public administration policies and instruments
targeted specifically at this sociopolitical category, previously pushed to the margins of the Brazilian
State’s interests.
These institutional advances, which brought Brazil widespread recognition during the
International Year of Family Farming in 2014, should be understood as the end result of a long historical
trajectory of struggles and demands pursued by rural social organizations and movements [
1
]. The core
point of this struggle for social recognition and legitimization is the affirmation of the specificities and
potentialities of the modes of production and ways of life of this extremely diverse social universe
as part of resolving an interconnected set of polarizing questions about the national public agenda:
the rise in unemployment rates; the continuing rural exodus and the growth in unplanned urbanization;
increasing levels of urban violence and rural conflicts; the rapid degradation of ecosystems; the crises
Sustainability 2017,9, 535; doi:10.3390/su9040535 www.mdpi.com/journal/sustainability
Sustainability 2017,9, 535 2 of 18
in the food supply and, as a consequence, the elevation in inflation rates and in the population’s levels
of food and nutritional insecurity.
The launch of the National Program for Strengthening Family Farming (Programa Nacional de
Fortalecimento da Agricultura Familiar: PRONAF) in 1995 was a landmark for the official legitimization
of family farming. However, it was only from 2003 onward, with the political priority given by the
Lula government to eradicate hunger in the country, that a broad and diverse set of official initiatives
created an institutional environment more favorable to development and to the public expression of
the family farming’s contribution to society as a whole.
In the course of this instituting process, the launch of the Zero Hunger Program, the inclusion of
the Human Right to Adequate Food (HRAF) in the Federal Constitution, and the approval of food
and nutritional security plans (PLANSAN) and plans for sustainable and solidary rural development
(PNDRSS) contributed to strengthening the conceptual and political connection between the official
initiatives aimed at strengthening family farming and the strategies for overcoming rural poverty and
promoting food and nutritional security in the country. New institutional arrangements created during
this period generated synergetic effects between social welfare initiatives and economic development
programs, two spheres of intervention historically autarchic within the State’s functional structure.
According to the multilevel perspective approach [
2
,
3
], these advances that were made can be
understood as niches of institutional innovation in a political-ideological environment dominated by a
narrative that asserts the supposedly inherent incapacity of impoverished small farmers to adapt to
the technological and financial treadmill of modern farming [4].
Rooted in earlier theoretical approaches that questioned the economic propensity and social
reproductive capacity of the poorest contingent of the rural population [
5
,
6
], this dominant narrative
continues to assert homogenization of the rural world as an inexorable process. For theorists linked to
this approach, most of the family farming sector, branded as peripheral, is destined to vanish. Family
farming policies should therefore focus exclusively on those sectors identified as consolidated and
in transition [
7
], perceived as the legitimate agents of social and economic progress in the rural world.
According to this prevailing narrative, rural development is driven by the economic growth of
farming establishments, envisaged as independent business units. This growth, in turn, is viewed to be
an outcome of trajectories of productive intensification promoted by the use of modern technologies.
Through this rhetorical construct, rural development was equated with agricultural development and
the latter with the modernization of the technological base of agroecosystems. Consequently the very
concept of intensification became unduly assimilated as a synonym of technological modernization.
As a corollary, alternative trajectories of economic intensification, built using the multifunctional
potential of family farming, were excluded from the horizon of possibilities propagated and legitimized
by the dominant narrative. Consequently the interpretative schemes based on the modernization
paradigm used to interpret the agrarian world, and which strongly influence the design of agricultural
and agrarian policies, are incapable of recognizing, describing, and analyzing rural development
trajectories that are essentially driven by family farming labor.
The State initiatives consistent with the agroecological paradigm should be understood and
evaluated within this political-ideological and institutional context. Exploiting the limited institutional
spaces achieved with governments more permeable to democratic debate, organizations from the
agroecological field were able to take the lessons learned from decades of decentralized construction
of agroecology among rural communities, transforming this social experience into innovative public
policy proposals. The evolution of this process culminated in 2012 with the creation of the National
Policy for Agroecology and Organic Production (PNAPO), put into operation in 2013 by the First
National Plan for Agroecology and Organic Production (I PLANAPO), which was updated and revised
in 2016 in Plan II [8].
The growing participation of grassroots movements seeking to establish themselves in the public
spaces in which government policies are formulated and monitored [
9
] created conditions favorable to
rural development dynamics consistent with the agroecological approach. Previously driven almost
Sustainability 2017,9, 535 3 of 18
exclusively by territorial-level civil society networks, these dynamics began to receive substantial
support from government funding. Contrary to the direction taken by agricultural modernization
policies and programs, the public funds invested in these trajectories helped increase social capital
and ecological capital in rural territories, stimulating the expansion and diversification of these
sociotechnical networks through an endogenous development approach [
10
]. Two interrelated ideas
are central to the concept of endogenous development: local resources and local control. In this
sense, the endogeneity of development is determined by the degree to which rural economies are:
(a) constructed on the basis of local resources; (b) organized in accordance with local models of
combining resources, which also implies control of the use of these resources; (c) strengthened through
the distribution and local reinvestment of locally produced wealth [11]).
In economic terms, these endogenous trajectories are guided by a model of labor-driven
intensification [
12
]. This signifies that instead of the intensive support of market-supplied factors
of production, a characteristic typical of conventional trajectories of agricultural intensification, the
agroecological approach is based on the use of skilled labor [
13
] to promote ecological processes at the
level of the landscape, simultaneously ensuring the continuous regeneration of ecosystem services [
14
]
and the conversion of natural goods into a diverse range of economic goods.
Taking as a reference point the recent dynamics of rural development in the Brazilian semi-arid
region, a process promoted by a new generation of public policies, this article seeks to show how the
strategic combination of resources endogenous to rural territories and public resources redistributed by
the State has favoured the unfolding of agricultural intensification trajectories that organically articulate
economic production with ecological reproduction. In this sense, these trajectories differ fundamentally
from the controversial notion of sustainable intensification [
15
] that became integrated into the new
official rhetoric in international debates about the future of farming and food, without challenging
the technicist and productivist bias inherited from the narrative of agricultural modernization.
As González de Molina and Gúzman Casado emphasize, and as formulated and disseminated, this
notion amounts to a contradiction since it lacks any thermodynamic basis concerning the sustainability
perspectives of agroecosystems [16].
The study also looks to show how public support for these trajectories of economic intensification
without ecological simplification [
17
] can help overcome the structural poverty in which the majority of
the rural population is trapped, as well as engaging poor family farming as dynamizing agents of rural
development capable of generating wider benefits for society, contributing to the combined attainment
of various Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) [18].
2. Material and Methods
2.1. Context of the Study
Measured in territorial or demographic terms, the Brazilian semi-arid region is one of the largest
such regions on the planet. Covering a geographic area of 982,000 km
2
, concentrated in states in Brazil’s
Northeast, the region is home to a population of 22.5 million—12% of the national population—with
44% living in the rural area, making it the least urbanized region of the country [19].
Also concentrating 35% of the country’s family farming establishments (1.5 million) [
20
] and
more than half of the country’s poorest population [
19
], the Brazilian semi-arid region is considered
a problem region in some intellectual and political circles [
21
]. This kind of interpretation reflects a
determinist bias that associates, as though two sides of the same coin, the low social indicators with the
recurrent droughts typical of the biome’s semi-arid conditions. The narratives historically produced
through this bias imposed themselves on the national collective and political imagery, generating an
environment of tacit acceptance of a supposed historical predestination of the region to poverty and
backwardness compared to other regions of the country. For decades the dissemination of this fatalistic
view of the historical process in the semi-arid region exerted a strong influence on the legitimization
of the system of power responsible for maintaining the extremely concentrated agrarian structure
Sustainability 2017,9, 535 4 of 18
inherited from Brazil’s colonial era [
22
]. Because of these structural conditions, family farming emerged
and developed in the region on the margins of the large estates dedicated to extensive cattle ranching.
The long history of territorial dispute with big landowners and the increasing constraints on
land, an outcome of the fragmentation of family establishments caused by intergenerational processes
of dividing up inheritances, left traditional strategies for managing the fertility of agroecosystems
increasingly out of step and vulnerable. The high levels of migration away from rural areas,
especially among young people, highlight the significant limitations posed to the social and economic
reproduction of family farming in the region.
In parallel with the demographic exodus, however, family farmers, individually or collectively,
sought to develop technical-economic and political responses to the agrarian issue in the region.
These responses combine two simultaneous movements: on one hand, the fight for land; on the other,
the innovation in agroecosystem management practices designed to intensify the use of agricultural
land [
23
]. Though largely invisible, this second movement corresponds to a recurring process of
change to the technological base of peasant agriculture when faced with limited access to natural
resources, beginning with the land [
24
] One of the main conclusions of Boserup’s work is that there
is no agrarian ceiling or natural support capacity in any particular region. The levels of productivity
obtained depend not only on ecological capital but also on the social and human capital capable of
continuously improving technical systems through local investment in experimentation [24].
Founded on the contemporary paradigm of living with the semi-arid region [
25
,
26
] in contrast to
the established notion of fighting the droughts, this decentralized movement of peasant innovation
has been responsible for the development of an extensive stock of technologies and management
processes relating to production and social organization, adapted to the very specific edaphoclimatic
and agrarian conditions of the semi-arid region. For a long time, though, this innovation remained
largely unnoticed and/or shunned by public programs aimed at regional development.
It was only from the 1980s onwards with the return to democracy in Brazil that civil society
institutions became structured to provide systematic advice to peasant organizations [
27
], looking to
associate the critique of the historical pattern of agrarian occupation in Brazil and of the conservative
modernization project [28] with the building of alternative styles of rural development.
Identified today with the agroecological field, these civil organizations work in an integrated
fashion with the decentralized dynamics of rural development in the region. At the end of the
1990s, after almost two decades of accumulating practical experiences, the organizations united in
the Brazilian Semi-Arid Alliance (Articulação Semiárido Brasileiro: ASA). Today ASA comprises a
network formed by more than a thousand organizations present in the eleven federal states covered
by the semi-arid region, (see www.asabrasil.org.br) drafted and advocated for public programs for
improving water security in rural communities. ASA was responsible for designing, negotiating, and
executing two programs for improving water security: the Program for Training and Mobilizing to
Live with the Semi-Arid Region—A Million Rural Cisterns (P1MC), designed to ensure quality water
for human consumption; and the One Land and Two Waters Program (P1 + 2), aiming to install local
infrastructures for catching and storing rainwater for food production. Fifteen years after the launch of
ASA’s programs, more than one million and two hundred thousand cisterns for human consumption
(first water) and more than 160,000 infrastructures for storing water for production (second water)
have been implanted [29].
The infrastructures implanted by the public programs run by ASA allow the capture and storage
of rainwater, reducing a critical ecological factor in the region’s agroecosystems. Consequently they
play a decisive role in expanding the margins for maneuvering for the development of trajectories of
local innovation rooted in the recombination of other elements from the resource base self-controlled by
rural families and communities, whether such elements are material (land, biodiversity, infrastructure,
etc.) or social (labor, knowhow, cooperation practices, etc.).
Analytically, ASA’s programs reproduce practices and perspectives consistent with the notion
of endogenous rural development, a pattern of development founded on the deployment and
Sustainability 2017,9, 535 5 of 18
redynamization of resources locally available in rural territories [
10
]. Among other characteristics, this
pattern reactivates ecological capital and expands social capital through trajectories of technical and
socio-organizational innovation driven by territorial-level sociotechnical networks.
As social constructs, these agroecology sociotechnical networks vary from place to place in
terms of the levels of governance that they exert on rural development dynamics. On one hand, this
governance is related to the capacity of actors linked to the network to combine the public resources
mobilized through different policies in line with a specific strategy focused on the quantitative and
qualitative expansion of the self-controlled resource base. On the other hand, it entails the capacity to
involve, commit, and mobilize the participation and political support of growing sectors of the rural
and urban population, seeking to amplify the room for maneuvering so that the network can spread
horizontally and increase in density within the territory.
This second aspect is essential, especially when we consider that agroecology networks are not
formed in territories free of disputes over endogenous resources and the allocation of public resources.
Sociotechnical networks structured by technical-economic approaches informed by the modernization
paradigm also channel public resources to the territories, very often by means of the same policies, but
establish distinct and frequently conflicting forms of appropriating ecological assets and organizing
the agricultural labor process.
By employing public resources redistributed by the State predominantly to the expansion of the
self-controlled resource base at the level of the agroecosystems and rural communities, the agroecology
networks help strengthen the territorial economies through investment in qualified labor informed by
contextualized knowledge [
13
]. In summary, the issue is one of catalyzing development trajectories
rooted in distribution and local reinvestment of socially produced wealth, contrasting with the
conventional dynamics of economic growth, founded on the systematic (and growing) influx of
capital and exogenous technologies.
The recent experience in the Brazilian semi-arid region exemplifies the importance of
the agroecological perspective in the establishment of mechanisms of synergetic coordination
between public policies, in order for their resources to be channeled coherently in endogenous
development trajectories.
In order to assess the potential impacts of this emergent process in the semi-arid region, the study
focused on the Borborema territory, a region in the state of Paraíba densely occupied by family
farmers producing staple foods and an area where a vigorous sociotechnical network inspired by
the agroecological paradigm has been developing for more than twenty years. Supported by the
non-governamental organization AS-PTA (www.aspta.org.br), this network is dynamized by the Polo
Sindical e das Organizações da Agricultura Familiar da Borborema (Pole)—a collective actor that currently
connects 14 municipal-level rural workers unions, 150 community-level grassroots organizations, and
a regional association of agroecological farmers, Ecoborborema [30,31].
The network expanded and spread further afield with the decisive input of public funds mobilized
through a broad and diverse set of government policies. Today it mobilizes a social base of around
five thousand farming families, corresponding to roughly 30% of the family farming universe in the
territory’s 14 municipalities. Organically integrated with the network, a movement of women farmers
has grown in strength, participating actively in the local dynamics of agroecological innovation and in
the fight against gender inequalities.
2.2. Characterization of the Heterogeneity of Family Farming in the Territory
At the outset of its work in the region in 1993, the AS-PTA established a partnership with family
farming organizations in two municipalities. To produce an overview of the local situation and guide
its advisory work, it proposed the implementation of a participatory appraisal of agroecosystems to its
local partners. Some years later, between 2001 and 2003, an updated survey of knowledge concerning
the situation of family farming in the region was conducted, this time encompassing the social universe
of 14 municipalities covered in the Pole’s work. On this occasion, the territory was stratified into
Sustainability 2017,9, 535 6 of 18
environmental zones by means of a participatory appraisal. Twenty-three years after the emergence
of the agroecology network in the territory, a new update was carried out, this time seeking to focus
more specifically on identifying the influence of public policies on the recent development trajectories
in the family farming in the territory (all these activities included the participation of the authors and
this paper presents partial results from the last update).
Although this second update considered the territory as a whole, a more in-depth analysis was
undertaken in the municipalities covered by the environmental zone locally identified as Agreste do
Roçado (Figure 1). As well as including a substantial portion of the farming families and organizations
linked to the Pole, this portion of the territory is the setting for the development of sociotechnical
networks that foment contrasting trajectories of agroecosystem intensification.
Sustainability 2017, 9, 535 6 of 18
development trajectories in the family farming in the territory (all these activities included the
participation of the authors and this paper presents partial results from the last update).
Although this second update considered the territory as a whole, a more in-depth analysis was
undertaken in the municipalities covered by the environmental zone locally identified as Agreste do
Roçado (Figure 1). As well as including a substantial portion of the farming families and
organizations linked to the Pole, this portion of the territory is the setting for the development of
sociotechnical networks that foment contrasting trajectories of agroecosystem intensification.
As an initial stage of the appraisal, a two-day seminar was held in the first half of 2015, attended
by 60 family farming leaders, men and women, from the Agreste do Roçado region, with the objective
of describing and analyzing the transformation to the family-based agroecosystems in the region.
This analytic exercise, systemized in the form of a time line, enabled the group to discern the influence
of public policies on the emergence and development of sociotechnical networks organized according
to contrasting economic approaches. On one hand, networks were identified that drive intensification
trajectories in line with the technical-economic paradigm of agricultural modernization. The
tendency to generate a growing dependence of farming families on input and service markets was
presented as a recurrent feature of these trajectories, which lead agroecosystems to different levels of
technical-economic embedding in production chains of specific crops, such as potatoes, fennel, and
tobacco in the past, and free-range chickens (caipirão) and intensive olericulture presently.
Figure 1. Environmental zoning of the Borborema Territory (Agreste do Roçado outlined in red).
Figure 1. Environmental zoning of the Borborema Territory (Agreste do Roçado outlined in red).
As an initial stage of the appraisal, a two-day seminar was held in the first half of 2015, attended
by 60 family farming leaders, men and women, from the Agreste do Roçado region, with the objective
of describing and analyzing the transformation to the family-based agroecosystems in the region.
This analytic exercise, systemized in the form of a time line, enabled the group to discern the
influence of public policies on the emergence and development of sociotechnical networks organized
Sustainability 2017,9, 535 7 of 18
according to contrasting economic approaches. On one hand, networks were identified that drive
intensification trajectories in line with the technical-economic paradigm of agricultural modernization.
The tendency to generate a growing dependence of farming families on input and service markets was
presented as a recurrent feature of these trajectories, which lead agroecosystems to different levels of
technical-economic embedding in production chains of specific crops, such as potatoes, fennel, and
tobacco in the past, and free-range chickens (caipirão) and intensive olericulture presently.
On the other hand, the agroecology network dynamized by the organizations linked to the Pole
drives production intensification trajectories that ensure the maintenance of high levels of autonomy
of agroecosystems vis-à-vis the markets for factors of production (inputs, land, labor). This autonomy
is also evinced by the fact that a considerable portion of the food consumed by farming families
is produced by themselves. Furthermore, the gradual increase in the self-controlled resource base
mobilized in the process of farm work was presented as a recurrent characteristic of these intensification
trajectories guided by an agroecological approach.
In the second stage of the diagnostic survey, semistructured interviews were held with 201 farming
families.with the aim of characterizing in detail the evolving dynamics of family farming in the region
and comparatively assessing the effects of different development trajectories on various criteria related
to the technical-economic reproduction of agroecosystems.
The interviews used a script of open questions designed to identify transformations in the
sociotechnical organization of agroecosystems, especially over the course of the last decade and a
half, as well as various characteristics of their current configurations (a self-controlled resource base,
the production of monetary and non-monetary and agricultural and non-agricultural income, relations
with input and product markets, access to public policies, and so on).
Taking as a reference point the information obtained in the interviews, the agroecosystems were
classified in three main categories: Type 1: traditional systems, i.e., those with a limited connection to
sociotechnical innovation networks (87 interviews—43%); Type 2: systems linked to the agroecology
sociotechnical network (102 interviews—51%); Type 3: systems linked to sociotechnical networks
structured as specialized production chains (12 interviews—6%).
The diagram below schematically represents the transformations occurring in the region’s
agroecosystems over the recent decades (Figure 2). The two polar trajectories of agroecosystem
intensification are illustrated by the dotted arrows. The trajectories linked to the agroecology network
basically correspond to the processes of the transformation of Type 1 (traditional) agroecosystems
into Type 2, i.e., those managed via relatively autonomous and historically guaranteed strategies of
technical-economic reproduction [
32
]. As well as maintaining high levels of autonomy vis-à-vis input
and service markets, other characteristics also detected in the Type 1 agroecosystems, these trajectories
are distinguished by the gradual incorporation of technical and socio-organizational innovations that
assure the continuous reproduction and enable the gradual quantitative and qualitative expansion of
the self-controlled resource base mobilized in the labor process of farming families. In this sense, they
typically comprise labor-driven intensification trajectories.
The trajectories of technical-economic innovation linked to the specialized production chain
correspond to the development of Type 3 agroecosystems whose reproduction strategy structurally
depends on the mobilization of the factors of production in the markets. In this sense, they figure as
conventional trajectories of production intensification (or capital-driven intensification).
One aspect to be emphasized in the model shown in the diagram is that the intensification
trajectories illustrated by the dotted arrows correspond to an ideal type—in Max Weber’s sense [
33
]—of
the development dynamics of family farming in the region. However, the interviews conducted with
the farming families revealed a more complex empirical reality insofar as they showed the existence of
various combinations between these patterns of technical-economic organization of agroecosystems.
This means that, in many situations, the processes of innovation observed in the region’s family
farming establishments are guided by hybrid strategies that mix practices that are typical of two or
more sociotechnical networks.
Sustainability 2017,9, 535 8 of 18
Sustainability 2017, 9, 535 7 of 18
On the other hand, the agroecology network dynamized by the organizations linked to the Pole
drives production intensification trajectories that ensure the maintenance of high levels of autonomy
of agroecosystems vis-à-vis the markets for factors of production (inputs, land, labor). This autonomy
is also evinced by the fact that a considerable portion of the food consumed by farming families is
produced by themselves. Furthermore, the gradual increase in the self-controlled resource base
mobilized in the process of farm work was presented as a recurrent characteristic of these
intensification trajectories guided by an agroecological approach.
In the second stage of the diagnostic survey, semistructured interviews were held with 201
farming families.with the aim of characterizing in detail the evolving dynamics of family farming in
the region and comparatively assessing the effects of different development trajectories on various
criteria related to the technical-economic reproduction of agroecosystems.
The interviews used a script of open questions designed to identify transformations in the
sociotechnical organization of agroecosystems, especially over the course of the last decade and a half,
as well as various characteristics of their current configurations (a self-controlled resource base, the
production of monetary and non-monetary and agricultural and non-agricultural income, relations
with input and product markets, access to public policies, and so on).
Taking as a reference point the information obtained in the interviews, the agroecosystems were
classified in three main categories: Type 1: traditional systems, i.e., those with a limited connection
to sociotechnical innovation networks (87 interviews—43%); Type 2: systems linked to the
agroecology sociotechnical network (102 interviews—51%); Type 3: systems linked to sociotechnical
networks structured as specialized production chains (12 interviews—6%).
The diagram below schematically represents the transformations occurring in the region’s
agroecosystems over the recent decades (Figure 2). The two polar trajectories of agroecosystem
intensification are illustrated by the dotted arrows. The trajectories linked to the agroecology network
basically correspond to the processes of the transformation of Type 1 (traditional) agroecosystems
into Type 2, i.e., those managed via relatively autonomous and historically guaranteed strategies of
technical-economic reproduction [32]. As well as maintaining high levels of autonomy vis-à-vis input
and service markets, other characteristics also detected in the Type 1 agroecosystems, these
trajectories are distinguished by the gradual incorporation of technical and socio-organizational
innovations that assure the continuous reproduction and enable the gradual quantitative and
qualitative expansion of the self-controlled resource base mobilized in the labor process of farming
families. In this sense, they typically comprise labor-driven intensification trajectories.
Figure 2. Contrasting intensification trajectories and resulting types of agroecosystems in Agreste do
Roçado.
Figure 2.
Contrasting intensification trajectories and resulting types of agroecosystems in Agreste
do Roçado.
The outcome of the adoption of these multiple strategic possibilities in the organization of the
labor process by the region’s family farmers is the forming of a significant heterogeneity among
agroecosystems in terms of the levels of intensity and autonomy in relation to markets, or in
other words, to the degrees of commoditization [
32
]. The degree of commoditization reflects the
relative importance of market relations in the organization of the labor process in the agroecosystem.
Analytically it corresponds to the ratio between the resources mobilized in the markets and those
reproduced in the agroecosystem itself and/or mobilized in the community through relations of
reciprocity. In the diagram, this heterogeneity is represented by the positioning of agroecosystems
around these two main axes, forming three clusters that correspond to the predominant types of
family farming.
According to the theoretical-methodological approach adopted to represent the diversity of family
farming in the region, the agroecosystems may be located at the intersection of two or more clusters.
This positioning that is halfway between two or more categories differs from the dualist classificatory
schemas frequently adopted to represent the diversity of agriculture and to inform the design of public
policies. The adoption of binary categories easily identifiable through simple and objective criteria,
such as property size, income level, technical system adopted, and so on, tends to produce images of the
agrarian world incongruent with the strategies of technical-economic reproduction adopted by family
farming. The decision to pursue this perspective to representation, inspired by the farming styles
approach proposed by Ploeg [
34
], is founded on the understanding that agroecosystems correspond to
the expression of technical-economic strategies adopted by farming families. Consequently they are
not understood as sociotechnical configurations hermetically sealed in space or immutable in time,
but as the sociomaterial outcome of the solutions actively constructed by farmers in response to the
contexts of objective opportunities and constraints faced in the process of reproducing their means
and ways of life.
2.3. Comparative Analysis of Contrasting Trajectories of Intensification
In order to comparatively assess the effects of contrasting development trajectories in family
farming in the region, two typical cases were chosen from the universe of agroecosystems described
above that express polar opposite situations. The first agroecosystem is strongly linked to the
agroecology network dynamized by the Pole, while the trajectory of the second is linked to the
sociotechnical network shaped by the production chain of free range chickens (caipirão) structured in
Sustainability 2017,9, 535 9 of 18
the territory since the start of the 2000s. Both networks receive support from public funds, either for
the implantation of infrastructures and processes of collective action (such as cooperatives, chicken
processing units, projects for selling to institutional markets, etc.), or for financing and direct support
for the farming families linked to it. As well as expressing contrasting strategies for technical-economic
reproduction, the two agroecosystems were selected since they possess similar sized territories (around
15 hectares) and equivalent workforces (2 Family Labor Units).
In order to identify the contributions made by both the agroecosystems and the sociotechnical
networks to which they are connected toward rural development, an economic-ecological method
of agroecosystem analysis was employed. The method was proposed by AS-PTA with the aim of
highlighting the economic, ecological, and political relations that set apart the modes of production
and ways of life of family farming, but which have been systematically eclipsed or distorted by
conventional economic theory [35].
To carry out the present study, the method was put into practice in two subsequent stages.
In the first phase, semistructured interviews were conducted with the families in order to collect
the information needed to describe and analyze the evolving trajectories of the agroecosystems
and to develop representative models of the structure and economic-ecological functioning of the
agroecosystems in the year of the study (2015). The information on the trajectories taken by the
agroecosystems was systemized in the form of time lines, which allowed mapping of the significant
changes inside and outside of the farms. This methodological approach made it possible to identify
the logics involved in mobilizing the recourses of public policies aimed at farming families in order to
promote the structural and functional transformations in agroecosystems. The models, elaborated in
the form of flow diagrams, are schematic representations that enable the identification of the circulation
of inputs and products, monetary and non-monetary incomes, and the social division of labor between
family members and between the family and outside economic agents.
In the second phase, through a new interview, the economic-ecological flows represented in the
models were quantified and the data obtained was fed into an electronic spreadsheet specifically
designed to generate a wide-ranging set of economic indicators. The comparative analyses are
quali-quantitative in nature and are grounded in the information and data collected via in-depth
interviews with the families managing the two agroecosystems.
3. Results
3.1. A Trajectory of Agroecological Intensification
The family of Paulo and Josefa resides in the Oziel Pereira rural settlement in the municipality of
Remígio (PB). For 21 years, since their marriage in 1978, they have been a landless family. The couple
obtained income by working the land owned by other people, either as tenant farmers, or as
sharecroppers, or with the right to plant fields for a two-year period in exchange for clearing land for
pasture. One of the areas where Paulo worked in the past was precisely where the family was settled,
in 1999, after years of activism in the Landless Rural Workers Movement (MST). When they took
possession of their plot of land, Paulo and Josefa discovered they had been given a heavily degraded
area, “completely treeless”, a situation reverted over the years through organic fertilization of the soil
and reforesting of the area with multifunctional tree species.
Through their participation in the community association, the family became an active member
of the agroecology sociotechnical network dynamized by the Pole with the local Rural Workers
Union functioning as a channel of dialogue between the community and territorial spheres. It is
also worth emphasizing the Pole’s integration in sociotechnical networks organized at higher
geographical levels, such as the Paraíba Semi-Arid Alliance (ASA-PB), the Brazilian Semi-Arid Alliance
(ASA), and the National Agroecology Alliance (ANA). Based on this multilevel social participation,
the agroecosystem’s development was heavily shaped by the processes of learning and experimentation
generated in the networks of farmer-experimenters assisted by the Pole and AS-PTA, as well as by the
Sustainability 2017,9, 535 10 of 18
political capacity of the Pole and its organizations in mobilizing and channeling public resources to
enable transformations in the territory in line with the agroecological approach.
In addition to the already mentioned reforestation of the lot, favored by the existence of a territorial
network of community nurseries, over the years the family incorporated a set of management practices
closely connected to processes organized by the Pole. Among them, we can highlight: the use of
adapted seeds, seasonally-timed access that is ensured through participation in the community seed
bank and in trials of local maize varieties organized by the Paraíba Semi-Arid Alliance (ASA-PB)
in partnership with the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (EMBRAPA); implantation of
cisterns for collecting rainwater for human consumption and for production with resources obtained
from public programs implemented by the Brazilian Semi-Arid Alliance (ASA); restructuring and
intensifying house yard production with resources mobilized in a community revolving fund; an
increase in the volume of forage produced and stored, making use of a forage machine managed by
the Remígio Rural Workers Union and obtained through the Citizenship Territories program from
the Agrarian Development Ministry; participation in the municipal agroecological fair and the sale of
produce to the National School Meals Program (Programa Nacional de Alimentação Escolar: PNAE).
The gradual incorporation of technical and organizational innovations in the agroecosystem,
made possible by material investments associated with learning processes and local experimentation,
helped broaden the family’s self-controlled resource base and simultaneously enhance the process
of converting these resources into a diverse range of products for market sale and self-consumption.
As well as the access to land through the land reform program, the family was able to combine the
resources mobilized through different public policies—including income transfer programs—to build
a multiproduct unit with low technological dependence, which provides them with a high level of food
security and enables them to sell their produce via diverse local markets. The changes introduced to the
family’s house yard under Josefa’s leadership assumed a prominent role in the reorganization of their
work and in the economic results of the agroecosystem as a whole (an aspect to be examined later).
3.2. Effects on Rural Development
The trajectory through which the agroecosystem run by Paulo and Josefa’s family became
constituted cannot be assumed to be a generalizable empirical expression of the agroecosystems
connected to the Agroecology network in the territory. A complex set of material and immaterial
factors, both internal and external to the rural establishments, influence the strategic decisions taken
by families and, consequently, the development trajectories taken by agroecosystems. Ultimately,
each agroecosystem then possesses a unique configuration that expresses the contingent result of the
accumulation of strategic decisions taken over the years. However the analyses undertaken through
concrete reference to this agroecosystem are valid in terms of extrapolating the potential effects at the
territorial level, allowing the identification of a variety of contributions to the agroecosystems linked
to the agroecology sociotechnical network for rural development.
From the environmental viewpoint, the style of economic management of the agroecosystem
contributed simultaneously to: (a) a continual renewal of the fertility of the cultivated lands through
intensive production cycles and the restoration of biomass to the soil, a significant aspect in a region
subject to processes of desertification (contributing to the reach of SDG 15); (b) the conservation and
enrichment of agrobiodiversity, based on the adoption of a diverse set of valued practices linked
to economic and ecological functions of the local genetic resources—i.e., local plant varieties and
native livestock breeds, replanting with species with multiple purposes, etc. (SDG 15); (c) completely
dispensing with the employment of pesticides and other contaminating inputs (SDG 3 and 12).
When considered together with the diverse range of economic options available to the family, these
environmental management practices confer greater resilience to the agroecosystem, a fact verified in
the most recent period of sustained drought, which has already lasted for five years. Furthermore, this
pattern of managing the farm landscape, based on geobiochemical cycles propelled by photosynthesis,
contributes to a reduction in the levels of greenhouse gas emissions (SDG 13). These results demonstrate
Sustainability 2017,9, 535 11 of 18
the possibility of reconciling practices of agricultural intensification and strategies for mitigating and
adapting to climate changes. In other words, it means that the challenge of intensifying farming does
not necessarily imply the appropriation of natural assets through predatory practices. On the contrary,
the experience reveals the possibility of attaining the objectives of intensifying farm production while
restoring degraded landscapes (SDG 8).
These processes of protecting and expanding ecological capital at the levels of the agroecosystem
and the territory cannot be comprehended separately from a strengthening of social capital—that
is, the improvement of the collective action mechanisms used to build, defend, and continuously
replenish common goods. To boost these processes, the Pole and AS-PTA have fostered an intense
social dynamic aimed at producing and sharing knowledge and involving activities related to
participatory appraisals, local experimentation, exchange, and research in partnership with official
scientific-academic institutions. As a common good, knowledge circulates freely in the sociotechnical
network, helping boost human capital and, consequently, the quality and efficiency of labor (SDG 4).
Still on the question of the expansion in social capital, it needs to be emphasized that the
creation and strengthening of tools for managing common goods in the region’s communities occur in
association with a deliberate strategy of the Pole and AS-PTA to overcome the patriarchal culture and
the various forms of violence against women, creating better environments for critical reflection on
gender inequalities. These in turn helped foment a regional movement in support of the political and
economic emancipation of women in private and public spaces (SDG 5). In Josefa’s case, for example,
her active involvement in community revolving funds allowed her to obtain wire mesh to fence off her
yard and animals in order to expand and improve the quality of her poultry livestock. Furthermore,
Josefa’s integration in this community-level space facilitated her entry into the women’s movement at
the territorial level, participating in various exchange visits and six annual editions of the Women’s
March for Life and Agroecology, co-organized by the Pole and AS-PTA.
The horizontal spread of the network through the region’s municipalities, engaging an ever
increasing number of family farmers, is anchored in and contributes to the strengthening of territorially
rooted institutions based on relations of reciprocity (SDG 16). The creation of 65 community seed
banks and eight community nurseries, the setting up of 140 community revolving funds, the collective
management of twenty motorized silage machines for processing and storing forage, the swapping of
knowledge and genetic material in exchange activities, as well as the various forms of cooperative
work (work rallies, day swaps, local fairs), are more or less formalized expressions of the strengthening
of institutional capital, a decisive condition for individual capacities to be mobilized in support of
actions of the collective interest without the need for the intermediation of commodified relations.
One important practical implication of the amplification and management of common goods for
rural development is the increase in the quality of the labor processes and products in agroecosystems.
Among the various expressions of this improvement, we can highlight the quality of the food produce,
whether destined for self-consumption or for market sale. Given the rise in health issues associated
with the consumption of processed foods and/or with residues of pesticides and other contaminants,
this is undoubtedly an especially important positive effect (SDG 3 and 12).
The creation of the Borborema Territory Association of Agroecological Farmers (Ecoborborema) in
April 2005, set up to stimulate the commercial outlet for diversified and differentiated food production,
was one of the key moments in the evolution and densification of the network run by the Pole.
Responsible for coordinating a set of 12 agroecological fairs and managing projects for the sale of
produce in institutional markets, Ecoborborema has played an essential role in broadening and
diversifying the actors belonging to the sociotechnical network, especially by establishing connections
with growing portions of the urban population in the region’s municipalities. This valorization of
local production in ever broader social circles within the territory is a key element in strengthening
its symbolic capital, i.e., in the increased public recognition of the benefits generated by the family
farming mode of production linked to the Pole.
Sustainability 2017,9, 535 12 of 18
3.3. Impacts on Family Economies
As well as helping to strengthen the agroecology sociotechnical network, the public policies for
family farming implemented in the territory over recent decades have supported the development
of production chains for specific food produce such as potatoes and tobacco in the past, and free
range chickens (caipirão) and intensive vegetable cultivation in the present. The logic of economic
intensification of agroecosystems linked to these chains tends to generate processes of ecological
simplification and increased dependence on commercial inputs. At the same time, the higher level of
productive specialization makes these agroecosystems more dependent on commercial relations over
which the families themselves have little or no control.
Contradicting the central argument propagated by advocates of agricultural modernization,
comparative economic analyses conducted in the region have systematically demonstrated that
increases in the value of the production of the agroecosystems linked to these chains do not necessarily
yield agricultural incomes any higher than those obtained by families who do not make use of
modern technologies.
This fact became apparent when the economic yield of the agroecosystem managed by Paulo and
Josefa was contrasted with an agroecosystem of analogous size (around 15 hectares) and labor capacity
(two adults), but which followed a conventional intensification trajectory, today managed with the
intensive use of external inputs following an economic logic based on intensive capital inputs. In this
case, the agroecosystem employed as a comparative reference, identified here as AE1, is linked to the
productive chain of free range chickens, a sociotechnical network that first emerged in the region at
the start of the 2000s. This network is strongly polarized by a regional cooperative of poultry breeders
and has been able to mobilize resources from public policies for credit, material support, and rural
extension services. The free range system of poultry breeding has been actively promoted as a labor
and income alternative for the region’s family farmers, including the mobilization of resources from
social policies like the Misery-Free Brazil Program (Programa Brasil Sem Miséria), an initiative launched
by the Brazilian government in 2011, with the objective of drastically reducing the poverty indices in
the country through the social and productive inclusion of the section of the population considered to
be living in extreme poverty. However, the logic of technical-economic management of the activity
leads families to establish ties of structural dependence with the input and service markets (purchase
of feed, chicks, and other production inputs, hiring outside labor).
In technical terms, while the AE1 management style follows the logic of an economy of scale,
seeking to reduce unit costs through specialization and through the continual increase in the operational
dimension of the production processes, the agroecosystem run by Paulo and Josefa’s family, AE2, is
based on the logic of an economy of scope, seeking to reduce total costs through a synergy between
the productive activities. Specialization and scale, on one hand, diversity and synergy, on the other,
are keywords for defining what distinguishes the two management styles.
An eloquent numerical expression of this contrast is given by the diversity of items produced in
the two agroecosystems. While AE1 produces two items in two subsystems (poultry and cattle), AE2
produces 23 items in 4 subsystems (crops, fruits, cattle, and poultry). Through a complex of synergistic
relations between the different activities performed, AE2 comprises a dense web of economic-ecological
flows strategically organized in space and time to attain an integrated set of family objectives.
When we turn to consider monetary and non-monetary economic flows, the comparative analysis
of the annual economic yields of the two agroecosystems reveals aspects usually hidden in conventional
accounting, though they are central to understanding the economic operation of family farming.
Focusing narrowly on Gross Value of Production (GVP), the main economic indicator used in official
agricultural statistics, AE1 presents an annual performance 2.6 times higher than AE2 (R$107,500
versus R$40,200). However, when our focus of comparison shifts to the clean part (net yield) of
economic production—the agricultural income—a superior performance of AE2 is observed (R$26,000
versus R$31,700).
Sustainability 2017,9, 535 13 of 18
A panorama even more divergent from conventional economic approaches is revealed when we
turn our comparative analysis to land productivity. Observing that the two agroecosystems generate
similar agricultural incomes per hectare (R$1547 versus R$1717), a conventional analysis would
conclude that they possess an equal level of efficiency in terms of allocating this factor of production.
However, when we analyze the situation from the viewpoint of the ecological economy, it becomes
clear how many virtual hectares are needed for the production/extraction of the resources obtained
from the markets—with costs reaching R$73,000—to activate the productive processes of AE1. This
means that the labor process in the management of AE1 consumes resources appropriated in a much
larger environmental space than the space directly exploited by the agroecosystem (principally the
inputs for making feed, produced in large transgenic monocrop plantations in the Cerrado region of
Brazil), revealing a low level of endogeneity of AE1 (0.29) compared to AE2 (0.79), whose production
costs (intermediary consumption) were just R$8000 (obs.: A representation of the endogeneity of the
agroecosystem through a synthetic index is obtained through the ratio between Added Value and
Gross Income). Applying these indices to the adjustment of the land productivity indicators, we can
conclude that AE2 is 302% more intensive than AE1 (R$448/ha versus R$1356/ha). In this analysis
it should be noted that AE1’s main income generating activity, poultry breeding, makes virtually no
use of the ecological resources provided by the agroecosystem itself. Hence conventional analyses
tend to generate a somewhat distorted picture of the degree of technical efficiency of modernized
establishments insofar as the income generated by them does not effectively express the technical
efficiency in the use of local environmental resources.
This analysis of land productivity through non-conventional lenses reveals the essential difference
between the logics of intensification adopted by the two families. While the management of AE1
is associated with an intensive and constant application of capital, AE2, run by Paulo and Josefa’s
family, makes use of most of the factors of production from a self-controlled resources base, built up
slowly over the years and continually regenerated by investing the labor of the family itself, including
towards the maintenance and expansion of relations of reciprocity established at the territorial level.
4. Discussion
Although the two agroecosystems taken here as benchmarks do not represent the significant
heterogeneity of family farming in the Borborema Territory, the analyses derived from them enable
a number of comments to be elaborated on concerning the effects of public policies on rural
development dynamics. This is because they illustrate two practically opposite trajectories of
agricultural intensification. Between these two polar situations, the reality on the ground contains a
varied mixture of technical-economic management rationales. In this sense, the resulting heterogeneity
of agroecosystems may be interpreted as the expression of hybrid strategies that combine investment
in labor and capital in different proportions.
It is important to stress that the strategies adopted by the families reflect legitimate options
for continuing to reproduce themselves as family farmers in response to the structural conditions
encountered by them in the territory. Hence the focus of analysis should be on the institutional
environment in which these decisions are taken in the private sphere, in particular on the influence of
State action on the creation of the conditions for developing and consolidating the multifunctional
potential of family farming, including those sectors historically considered marginal, peripheral,
or non-viable.
Firstly, we need to focus on the role of the State in working to resolve a decisive factor in the
political economy of agriculture, namely the agrarian question. The experience of Paulo and Josefa’s
family is emblematic of the relevance of land reform to compliance with the constitutional provisions
related to the social and environmental functions of the land. In little more than a decade, the settled
family and community have transformed the landscape from a large economically unproductive and
environmentally predatory farm into a space generating hundreds of decent jobs and steady sources
of income to meet their economic needs, by diversifying the production of the agroecosystems. It
Sustainability 2017,9, 535 14 of 18
is worth emphasizing that Paulo and Josefa’s children also obtained plots of land through the land
reform program, demonstrating the role of this policy in the intergenerational reproduction of family
farming. In addition to the direct benefits for settled families, and in an effective contribution to the
structural overcoming of poverty (SDG 1) and food insecurity (SDG 2), this State intervention was
decisive in terms of stimulating the territorial economy (SGD 8), the ecological restoration of degraded
areas, and the increase in the production of quality food produce to supply local and regional markets
(SDG 12).
The family’s experience also emphasizes that, beside land redistribution, other public initiatives
are essential for making space for the expression of the multifunctional potentialities of family
farming. The resources redistributed by different public policies where channeled by the family
towards strengthening typically peasant strategies of economic reproduction, i.e., driving trajectories
of intensification rooted in the management and continual expansion of the self-controlled resource
base [12].
The presence of a social environment favorable to the production of contextual knowledge and the
generation of local innovations proved to be an indispensable condition for self-controlled endogenous
resources to be identified, valorized, and amplified. Here we can stress the decisive role played by
AS-PTA’s advice in the use of an agroecological perspective to comprehend the socioenvironmental
peculiarities of the territory and the agroecosystems operating within it. This perspective is directly
opposed to the focus on technological diffusionism that has historically influenced the organization of
the extension service and agricultural research institutions.
The public programs for implanting decentralized infrastructures for catching and storing
rainwater (P1MC and P1 + 2) have performed an essential role in this trajectory by functioning
as the triggers of processes of sociotechnical innovation, contributing to the reorganization of the labor
processes in the agroecosystems and rural communities. On one hand, they helped to substantially
reduce the time dedicated to obtaining water for human consumption, generating a series of positive
effects for families, particularly for those individuals previously involved in this activity, traditionally
women and children. Here we can also highlight the significant improvement in the quality of the
water consumed with positive impacts on collective health (SDG 6). On the other hand, they enabled
an increase in the water reserves directed towards production, contributing to a rise in the efficiency of
land use and labor.
The intensification in house yard production, with substantial impacts on the income generation
and food security of local families (SDG 2), was one of the most significant outcomes of the installation
of water infrastructures. The relative economic importance of these spaces is illustrated by the
agroecosystem managed by Paulo and Josefa. Despite occupying just 0.5% of the agroecosystem’s
total area, the house yard, a space primarily managed by Josefa, was responsible for generating 24% of
the family’s agricultural income in the year when the study was conducted, a drought year. Another
notable effect of the programs is the greater stabilization of livestock herds and flocks during the dry
periods of the year, another hugely important contribution to the resilience of the agroecosystems.
However the innovations brought about by these programs are not limited to the technical
dimension. Both programs were conceived and successfully introduced by ASA after lengthy
negotiations with a series of federal government administrations. Along with obtaining the funds
needed to implement the infrastructures, ASA negotiated an innovative mode of partnership with
the State that enabled joint execution and public oversight of the programs. Through this innovative
framework, the Borborema Pole, along with hundreds of other organizations linked to ASA, was able
to optimize its role as a collective actor in the promotion of territorial development dynamics. By
strengthening the capacities of civil society organizations to execute and oversee the use of public
resources, the partnership between governmental and non-governmental public entities has helped
shift beyond a political culture congenitally linked to clientelist practices responsible for reproducing
the political and economic subordination of the most impoverished sectors of the rural population
within oligarchical local power structures.
Sustainability 2017,9, 535 15 of 18
Instead of submitting the most vulnerable farming families to clientelist relations and those able
to make a modest living through dependency on the agribusiness sector, this style of joint public
policy management has helped to strengthen political citizenship and to activate and dynamize social
mechanisms of reciprocity, amplifying social capital in the territory, a decisive element in terms of the
generation of common goods managed by the organizations and families linked to the Pole.
The development of a variety of collective action devices in the territory has also depended on
the crucial support of resources redistributed by government policies. Among these we can highlight
the short circuits to commercialization (institutional markets and agroecological fairs), community
seed banks and nurseries, solidary revolving funds, machinery for making screens and fencing,
and the silage machines for collective use. These and other initiatives created and consolidated
through the sociotechnical network coordinated by the Pole are important expressions of rural
development dynamics unleashed through the coproduction of public action involving the State
and territorially-based civil society organizations. They also express the capacity of territorial-level
sociotechnical networks to mobilize and provide coherence to public resources derived from different
government policies, including those not directly identified with rural development.
Here we can emphasize the pronounced influence on the trajectory of the network exerted
by income transfer policies, especially rural pensions and the Family Allowance Program
(Programa Bolsa Família)
, a federal government direct income transfer program, targeted at families
living in poverty and extreme poverty in rural and urban areas. Firstly, regular access to these resources
among the most impoverished families (rural and urban) has contributed to an increase in the overall
demand for food produce. In this sense, income transfer policies perform polyvalent functions in
the territory, not only by reducing levels of poverty and food insecurity but also by dynamizing the
regional economy through the valorization of the work of family farming. Moreover, it should also
be observed that access to these resources by farming families significantly expands the margins of
freedom for them to improve their economic reproduction strategies, not only by responding to more
pressing needs, but also by assuring the regular influx of financial resources that are partly invested
in structural improvements to the agroecosystems. This aspect is particularly important for women
farmers, since their direct access to financial resources comprises a powerful tool of emancipation from
the double condition of subalternity to which they have traditionally been submitted: by being poor in
a structurally unequal society; and by being women in a culturally patriarchal society. Hence, whenever
this is combined with multiple strategies for economic and political emancipation, the income transfers
effected by social policies generate multiplying effects on territorial development.
Although the higher rates of decline in extreme poverty in Brazil over recent years have occurred
precisely in the semi-arid region [
36
], revealing the universal effect of income transfer policies, they do
not necessarily imply the inauguration of development trajectories capable of overcoming the structural
conditions responsible for the pronounced social inequality experienced in the region. The effects of
these social policies on the improvement of the welfare conditions of the poorest families and, in some
cases, on the stimulation of local markets are not enough by themselves to transform the productive
bases of the rural territories since their resources are primarily used to purchase essential goods not
produced locally (a substantial portion of food items, medicines, clothing, household appliances,
furniture, building materials, and school materials) [
37
]. On the other hand, the experience of the
most socially vulnerable family farmers linked to the sociotechnical network coordinated by the Pole
demonstrates that the alleviation of severe hardship through regular access to social policy resources
comprises an essential condition for them to obtain enough room for maneuvering to be able to join
trajectories of material accumulation based on labor-driven intensification processes.
The substantial improvement in the public service provision in the areas of education, health,
and infrastructure (rural power supply, communications, road systems, etc.) in the territory have
also contributed to expanding the freedom of the poorest farming families to invest their labor in
self-emancipation processes. As the Indian economist Amartya Sen [
38
] (p. 66) made clear: “The
quality of life can be vastly raised, despite low incomes, through an adequate program of social
Sustainability 2017,9, 535 16 of 18
services”. This observation led the author to challenge the idea of trickle-down economics used
to justify keeping large swathes of the population in poverty as a necessary sacrifice for national
economies to grow and create the structural conditions for ‘sharing the cake’ later.
The empirical evidence observed in the Borborema Territory over recent decades corroborate this
challenge to orthodoxy by the winner of the Nobel Prize for Economics. The Agroecology sociotechnical
network coordinated by the Pole combined resources endogenous to the territory with resources
redistributed by the State to drive a robust dynamic led by regionally interconnected collective
actors working to build and defend their own project for rural development amid a social universe
conventionally labelled marginal and unproductive. This dynamic unfolded through autonomous
strategies of economic reproduction based on processes of coproduction with nature, on the expansion
of the practices of reciprocity in the management of common goods, and on the local production of
technical and organizational innovations. The process thus promotes the creation of a new political
and institutional culture that gives a new meaning to public action, contributing to the decentralization
of State action and to strengthening the ties between the dynamics of territorial development and the
deepening of participatory democracy.
5. Conclusions
In adequate political-institutional conditions, the most impoverished portions of family farming
can become the leading agents of rural development dynamics, contributing to the combined
attainment of various SDGs. In this sense, the evidence presented here directly contradicts
influential arguments that downplay the economic vocation and innovative capacities of this largest
section of the rural population. These conditions should favor the emergence and development of
territorially-based sociotechnical networks capable of mobilizing and synergically combining public
resources redistributed by the State and endogenous social-material resources.
The agroecological paradigm offers the conceptual grounding and adequate methodological tools
for the identification, recombination, and continuous improvement of the resource base self-controlled
by rural families and communities in order for it to be valorized in productive intensification trajectories.
From this viewpoint of sociotechnical innovation alone, the trajectories of productive intensification
can be considered sustainable since they do not place demands on the systematic importation of
material and energy. However, in order for the agroecological intensification approach to be put into
practice at ever wider social and geographic levels, it becomes necessary to strengthen the institutions
of participatory democracy in order for public policies to be continuously improved, allowing critical
and active citizenship to exert a leading role in the governance of agri-food systems.
Acknowledgments:
The 201 interviews carried out with the aim of characterizing the diversity of family
farming in the Borborema territory were undertaken as activities integral to the Technical Assistance and Rural
Extension (Assistência Técnica e Extensão Rural: ATER) service provision contract agreed between AS-PTA
and the Ministry of Agrarian Development. The authors thank the AS-PTA technicians who carried out the
interviews. The information and data presented on the agroecosystems were compiled by the postgraduate
student Eduardo Araújo and the AS-PTA technician Cleibson dos Santos Silva as part of the research project
Family farming systems resilient to extreme environmental events in the context of Brazil’s semi-arid region:
alternatives for confronting processes of desertification and climate change, executed in partnership with the
Semi-Arid Institute (Instituto do Semiárido: INSA) and the Brazilian Semi-Arid Alliance (Articulação Semiárido
Brasileiro: ASA).
Author Contributions:
Paulo F. Petersen and Luciano M. da Silveira jointly conceived and design the content of
the paper. The first author took the lead in writing the text.
Conflicts of Interest: The authors declare no conflict of interest.
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... There is a growing body of work on agroecology "territories" in which agroecological transitions at a regional scale involve farmer-to-farmer exchanges, integration of extension using agroecology, development of local and regional businesses that sell value-added agroecological products, and incentives to initiate change, including public procurement and legislation (Wezel et al., 2016;Pérez-Marin et al., 2017;Anderson et al., 2019). Territory-level agroecological transitions in the semi-arid region of Brazil included social movements that organized forums with governments to develop social innovations and shift the management of local resources (Petersen and Silveira, 2017). A new notion of "coexistence with semi aridity" emphasized conservation and sustainable resource use, generating innovations such as community seed banks, collective labor, cooperatives, and public procurement in school meals and farmers' markets (Pérez-Marin et al., 2017;Petersen and Silveira, 2017 Owen et al., 2020;Steinhaüser, 2020). ...
... Territory-level agroecological transitions in the semi-arid region of Brazil included social movements that organized forums with governments to develop social innovations and shift the management of local resources (Petersen and Silveira, 2017). A new notion of "coexistence with semi aridity" emphasized conservation and sustainable resource use, generating innovations such as community seed banks, collective labor, cooperatives, and public procurement in school meals and farmers' markets (Pérez-Marin et al., 2017;Petersen and Silveira, 2017 Owen et al., 2020;Steinhaüser, 2020). These studies have emphasized several key drivers, including the recognition of a crisis in the food system; a shift in social organization; pedagogical shifts to horizontal, participatory approaches; external allies; favorable policies and markets; and efforts to mobilize discourse (Figure 2). ...
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... The implementation of public policies must be seen as a tool to support economic development. For family farmers, public policies help to improve their quality of life and establish connections with other economic actors, improving productive cycles, inputs, raw materials, and final products [16,17]. ...
... According to Dos Santos, et al. [7], Petersen and Silveira [17], Berchin, et al. [36], public policies for family agriculture is important for maintaining rural jobs, generating benefits for society, for sustainable development, income distribution, and for the country's food security. In other words, this can contribute to poverty reduction. ...
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... It also represented the political construction of the Borborema Territory as a space for collective action (The analysis contained in this item is based on and adapted from: Delgado [34]. It was also supplemented by Petersen; Schmitt; Delgado and Zimmermann; Delgado; Diniz; Piraux and Bonnal; Miranda and Piraux; Silveira, Victor, Anacleto; Bonnal, Diniz, Tonneau, Sidersky; and Petersen and Silveira [33,35,[37][38][39][40][41][42][43][44][45].) This took place at a time of marked crisis in regional agriculture and of renewal and strengthening of rural workers' unionism, which culminated in the creation of the Borborema Union Hub (The Hub is currently called, since 2001, the Hub for Unions and Borborema Family Agriculture Organizations) in 1998. ...
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... Among the numerous criticisms that marked the assessments of the first PLANAPO, one of the most highlighted aspects was the absence of policies considered by social movements as essential to the agroecological transitions, such as those related to the agrarian structure: improving peasant access to land and, at the same time, protecting them against land grabbing (Petersen and Silveira 2017). Thus, when the second plan was launched (2016-2019), social movements conditioned their participation to the introduction of these issues, which contributed to make PLANAPO II even more comprehensive, encompassing 194 actions. ...
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... Furthermore, there was a significant difference in terms of resilience between households benefiting from different policy mixes, reflecting different types of capacities to recover from droughts ( Figure 4c). This aligns with results previously found in the region that demonstrate the role of productive inclusion, social protection, and rainwater storage systems in facing droughts, although they have not been sufficient to shift sustainability pathways (Lemos et al., 2016;Lindoso et al., 2014Lindoso et al., , 2018Mattos, 2017;Milhorance et al., 2020;Nogueira et al., 2020;Petersen & Silveira, 2017). ...
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... Para definir as políticas que seriam analisadas, inicialmente identificamos nas avaliações do Plano Nacional de Agroecologia e Produção Orgânica (Planapo) aquelas que promoveram resultados mais expressivos na promoção da transição agroecológica Sambuichi et al., 2017). Também contribuiu nesse sentido nossa própria experiência em um conjunto de pesquisas que analisaram como essas políticas operam em diferentes contextos territoriais Guéneau et al. 2020;Resque et al., 2019;Petersen & Silveira, 2017). Finalmente, entre março e maio de 2021 realizamos entrevistas e grupos focais envolvendo policy makers e street-level bureaucrats que participaram da construção e implementação dessas políticas 1 Enquanto as duas primeiras estratégias metodológicas permitiram reconstruir a trajetória das políticas, a última foi fundamental para a compreensão dos processos de desmantelamento e seus efeitos. ...
Preprint
O Brasil é um dos poucos países que implementou, em escala nacional, políticas públicas especificamente voltadas a apoiar processos de transição agroecológica. Atualmente, ao mesmo tempo em que sua experiência tem chamado a atenção da comunidade internacional interessada na construção de sistemas alimentares sustentáveis e saudáveis, a literatura aponta para um processo de desmantelamento dessas políticas. Esse artigo identifica as estratégias de policy dismantling (i. extinção ou substituição; ii) adensamento institucional; iii) inefetividade da política e seus instrumentos; iv) mudança no vínculo institucional e objetivos; v) discursivo e simbólico) para, a partir disso, analisar como elas articulam-se à mudança do policy paradigm que orienta a ação do Estado. Os resultados sugerem que a formação de um paradigma "clientelista-corporocrático" legitimou estratégias ativas e com alta visibilidade, tais como a extinção de instrumentos de políticas e a deslegitimação da agroecologia por meio de mecanismos discursivos e simbólicos. O artigo também destaca como o desmantelamento dos espaços de participação social e a sabotagem da burocracia tem impactado na desestruturação das redes que construíram as políticas. Palavras-chave: Agroecologia; Políticas públicas; Mudança institucional; Brasil.
... In this sense, it is hardly surprising that public food procurement for school canteens is receiving special attention from the field of agroecology (Kleine and Das Graças-Brightwell 2015;Petersen and Silveira 2017). The agroecological design of public food procurement may contribute to the achievement of such global objectives as food sovereignty and the right to food, as well as to the reinforcement of environmental education for action in schools (Powell and Wittman 2018). ...
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... Além disso, um número crescente de grupos indígenas nos países andinos e mesoamericanos adotou a agroecologia como estratégia fundamental para a gestão da agricultura em seus territórios autônomos[40] . Esses esforços estão ligados à luta para conservar a terra e preservar sua identidade (dietas alimentares fazem parte dessa identidade), por territórios materiais e intangíveis[41] . ...
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