Brazil Preserves Family Farms and Keeps Food Local and Healthy

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions


Today’s global food crisis sparked by a toxic mix of events – high oil and commodity prices, food scarcity, growing populations, and environmental catastrophes – has woken many up to the urgent need to secure food supplies and help those who grow the world’s food. More and more countries are turning to local and small farms – or family farms – to offer food security when times get rough.

Right now there are more than 862 million undernourished people around the world (FAO), and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has called for food production to increase 50 percent by 2030 just to meet rising demand. Three-quarters of the world’s poorest people living on less than US $1 a day live in rural areas in developing countries and 85 percent of the world’s farms are of less than two hectares in size.

There has long been a tension between those who believe in very large farms, agribusiness and mono-crops (, and those who believe in having a large number of smaller farms with a wide variety of crops and animals.

Family farming has been seen as doomed for a long time. In the 19th century, figures like philosopher Karl Marx believed they would be split into capitalist farms and proletarian labour. Most modern economists regard family farming as an archaic way to grow food, destined to give way to agribusiness. Most family farms refute this, saying family farmers have been able to operate with success in both developed and developing countries.

And small farms have endured. The livelihoods of more than 2 billion people depend on the 450 million smallholder farms across the world. With their families, they account for a third of the world’s population.

Family farms are critical to weathering economic crises and ensuring a steady and secure food supply. The International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) ( called earlier this year for small family farms to be put at the heart of the global response to high food prices and to improve food security. And in Brazil, this call is being answered by a bold initiative to create what they call a “social technology”, combining a house building programme with diverse family farms.

Brazil is currently buying up unused land and distributing it to people making land claims, including Brazil’s Landless Workers Movement ( When they receive land, family farmers often find there is no house on the land, or just a very basic dwelling.

This is where the Brazilian farmer’s cooperative Cooperhaf: Cooperativa de Habitacao dos Agricultores Familiares (, steps in. It has put together what it calls a “social technology” combining housing and farm diversification to support family farmers.

“We see the house as the core issue,” said Adriana Paola Paredes Penafiel, a projects adviser with the Cooperhaf. “The farmers can improve their productivity but the starting point is the house.

“Family farming is very important for the country – 70 percent of food for Brazilians comes from family farming,” said Penafiel. “The government wants to keep people in rural areas.”

Started in 2001 by a federation of farmers unions, the Cooperhaf works in 14 Brazilian states with family farmers.

“Family farmers had to organize themselves to deal with housing,” said Penafiel. “The cooperative was formed to mediate between farmers and the government. The farmers have a right in the law to a house.

“We promote diversification to make farmers less vulnerable: if they lose a crop in macro farming, they lose everything. We encourage diversification and self-consumption to guarantee the family has food everyday. We help to set up a garden.”

The concept is simple: a good quality home acts as an anchor to the family farm, making them more productive as farmers. The farmers receive up to 6,000 reals (US $2,290) for a house, and can choose designs from a portfolio of options from the Cooperhaf.

As in other countries, the Cooperhaf and other coops encourage markets and certification programmes to promote family farmed food and raise awareness. Penafiel says promoting the fact that the food is family farmed is critical: to the consumer it is healthier, fresher and contains fewer chemicals than imported produce.

“We sell a livelihood not a product. If you get to know the product, you are more conscious of what you eat.”

In the US, there are almost 2 million farms, 80 percent of which are small farms, a large percentage family-owned. More and more of these farmers are now selling their products directly to the public.

In the UK, family farms are on course to provide 10 percent of the country’s food and drink and be worth £15 billion a year.

“If we forget them, we actually may get a situation where, while meeting the world’s immediate supply targets, we wind up with an even greater imbalance in the global supply system and greater food insecurity,” said IFAD President Lennart Båge.

“Most agri business is for export,” said Penafiel. “If we don’t have food in the country, food for poor communities would not be available. This enables farmers to be more autonomous, not having to buy fertilizers and equipment and take on too much debt. That approach is not sustainable as we saw with the so-called Green Revolution.”


  • US-based Local Harvest uses a sophisticated website and map to help customers find local farmers and buy their products. It also is packed with resources and offers a good model for Southern farmers to work together. Website:
  • Ela Family Farms is an organic fruit farm (peaches, apples, pears and cherries) that uses a website and sophisticated product marketing to sell the farm’s produce. Website:
  • The global movement for slow food, which encourages organic production and appreciation of traditional foods and cooking.

UPDATE: This project has won the 2009 World Habitat Awards. Read more here:

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