The Transition: From Colonos to Wage Labour

  • Verena Stolcke
Part of the St Antony’s/Macmillan Series book series

Abstract

Until the Second World War the history of the São Paulo coffee planters was a story of remarkable success in withstanding recurrent market adversities. The unique form of labour exploitation, the colonato system, played a crucial role in this. But despite its proven efficiency, by the 1960s this labour system had virtually disappeared from São Paulo’s coffee plantations. Between 1964 and 1975, the agricultural labour force of the state declined by 35 per cent while the number of workers resident on estates diminished by 52 per cent and the proportion of non-resident labour in the agricultural labour force rose from 15.8 to 35.8 per cent. As the colono families disappeared, a new figure, the volante, aptly called the ‘new nomad’, made its appearance on the São Paulo agricultural scene. He or she earns his or her livelihood in agriculture but now lives in town.1 By 1970, São Paulo had the largest proportion of casual wage labourers in Brazil.

Keywords

Sugar Migration Maize Depression Amid 

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Notes and References

  1. 2.
    Until the early 1950s sugar cane in São Paulo was also cultivated by colonos. A. F. Cesarino Jr, ‘Os colonos paulistas e sua situação em face do estatuto da lavoura canavieira’, Trabalho e Seguro Social, TV (1) (October 1943) describes the arrangement under which the sugar-cane colono worked. They were paid for the sugar-cane they delivered. All other contractual conditions were the same as in coffee, including self-provision. In the early 1940s over half of the sugar cane grown in the counties of Piracicaba and Santa Barbara was produced by colonos. There is little information on the way productive relations evolved on São Paulo sugar-cane plantations. O. Ianni, A Classe Operária Vai ao Campo, Caderno CEBRAP; 24 (São Paulo, 1976), a historical study of one sugar-cane area, Sertãozinho, lacks information on the labour process. We can only speculate. In 1968 labour needs for sugar-cane production compared with coffee were 1:4. (‘A nova face da agricultura’, Coopercotia (October 1968) p. 16) indicating a high level of mechanisation since sugar cane grown manually is even more labour-intensive than coffee. By contrast with Pernambuco, the traditional sugar-cane producing state, the topography of São Paulo is more appropriate for mechanisation of cultivation. R. Miller Paive, S. Schatten and C. F. Trench de Freitas, Sector Agrícola do Brasil (São Paulo, 1976) p. 170. On new sugar-cane plantations, soil was presumably already prepared with the aid of ploughs and tractors in the 1950s cane being planted in large continuous areas rather than by individual colono families. Labour needs for soil preparation thus diminished markedly while remaining unchanged for the harvest. Sugar-cane plantations would, therefore, increasingly hire casual wage labour for seasonal peaks, using resident workers for soil preparation and cane planting. The Estatuto da Lavoura Canavieira of 1943 may have played a relevant role in putting an end to the sugar-cane colono. J. C. Saboia, ‘De senhores a trocadores de cebola’, Master’s Dissertation, Universidade Estedual de Campinas’, (Campinas, 1978) has shown that in Cravinhos, bordering on Sertãozinho, where sugar cane and food crops replaced coffee, planters and labour contractors dated the appearance of gangs of casual wage labourers hired through a labour contractor to the 1940s. See also O. J. Thomazini Ettori, ‘Mão-de-obra na agricultura paulista’, ASP, VIII (12) (December 1961), p. 16, who noted the existence of colonos on sugar-cane plantations in 1955. ‘Situação e perspectivas da produção café no estado de São Paulo’, ASP, IX (4) (1962) p. 29 notes that the expansion of sugar cane in São Paulo between 1948 and 1952 was made possible also by substantial capital investment in mechanisation of the crop which came to occupy the second place in value in the state. But more research is required.Google Scholar
  2. 3.
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    G.W. Smith, ‘Brazilian agricultural policy, 1950–1967’, in H. S. Ellis (ed.), The Economy of Brazil (Beverley, 1969) p. 277; imports of fer tilisers which in 1963 still amounted to 77.2 per cent in terms of value of total supply, were granted very favourable treatment under the multiple exchange-rate system of 1953.Google Scholar
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  24. 40.
    G. E. Schuh, The Agricultural Development of Brazil (New York, 1970) pp. 153–61. From a very low level, the number of tractors in Brazil increased by 69 per cent between 1954 and 1958, and in São Paulo by 74 per cent. R. Miller Paiva and R. Araujo Dias, ‘Recente evolução’, p. 30.Google Scholar
  25. 41.
    W. Baer, A Industrialização, p. 139. Between 1952 and 1956 only 4 per cent of the Economic Development Bank’s total credits in national currency went to agricultural activities, the share in credits in foreign currency being even lower, namely 1.7 per cent See also F. B. Homem de Melo, ‘A política económica e o setor agrícola no período pós-guerra’, Revista Brasileira de Economía, 33 (1) (January–March 1959) p. 48 for the evolution of agricultural credit between 1951 and 1974.Google Scholar
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    N. H. Leff, Economic Policy-Making and Development in Brazil 1947–1964 (New York, 1968) pp. 19–34, who has dated the coffee sector’s political eclipse to the 1950s on account of the government’s almost unlimited freedom of action in policy making.Google Scholar
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  31. 54.
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    Brazil, Câmara dos Deputados, Anais (1957) XXII (22–28 August 1957) (Rio de Janeiro, 1958) pp. 671–9. UDN Deputy Herbert Levy was one of the most vocal and persistent defenders of free exchange for coffee in Congress in the 1950s and explicitly denounced the preferential treatment accorded industry to the detriment of the coffee sector. He, together with his brothers, established the coffee brokerage firm, Escritório de Corretagem para Negociar Café na Bolsa de Valores. However, even he had to admit in June 1957 that the authorities had probably missed their chance for a successful exchange reform that would not jeopardise foreign exchange earnings from coffee. Brazil, Câmara dos Deputados, Anais (1957) XI (5–13 June 1957) (Rio de Janeiro, 1958) pp. 551–2. Attacks on industry for benefiting from ‘exchange confiscation’ were rare. Generally, the coffee sector blamed the government for this iniquity. Possible splits between the coffee sector and industry need further investigation, in particular the important question of the extent to which coffee capital branched out into banking and industry, blurring possible conflicts of interest.Google Scholar
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    R. Kahil, Inflation and Economic Development in Brazil, 1946–1963 (Oxford 1973) pp. 144–54 is a monetarist critique of structuralist theses on unequal development in Brazil. In the absence of wage data Kahil bases his estimates of fluctuations in rural wages between 1947 and 1963 in São Paulo and Paraná on two kinds of data: (1) on labour demand and supply as determined by the coffee cycle and internal migration into the two states, and (2) on inferences from the changes in urban wages for unskilled workers. He concludes that during coffee expansion between 1947 and 1950 which increased labour demand while supply was inadequate, rural wages in São Paulo rose by about 30 per cent in real terms; between 1950 and 1957 as immigration increased, wages dropped by 24 per cent, whereas after 1957 they rose once more. This is not only a much more optimistic, but a radically different picture from that conveyed by the data used here. There is at least one fundamental problem with Kahil’s calculations. Rural wages in the 1950s were substantially lower than those of unskilled urban workers. Moreover, the spread between the rural wage and the legal minimum wage increased markedly in the 1950s (R. Miller Paiva, S. Schattan and C. F. Trench de Freitas, Setor Agrícola do Brasil p. 92). The rural and urban labour markets were not unified. Vargas’s programme to achieve unification failed because of the landowners’ opposition. An extension of labour laws to agriculture would have made the redistribution of income to landowners on account of inflation more difficult. (W. Baer, ‘The inflation controversy in Latin America: a survey’, Latin American Research Review, II (2) (1966) pp. 3–25). When available, Kahil uses rural wage data for ‘spade workers’ (trabalhadores de enxada)). But such data are no good for assessing colono wages. The rural population of São Paulo declined from 48.1 per cent in 1948 to 30.2 per cent in 1962; after 1957–8 the rural population diminished in absolute terms. ASP, X (5–6) (May/June 1963) pp. 18–19. UN ECLA, The Economic Development of Brazil, p. 96. In May 1959 planters complained that because of very low returns many were unable to complete the coffee harvest because, since they could not offer their colonos better wages the labourers were abandoning the plantations for the towns, attracted by the much higher minimum wage. A Gazeta (18 May 1959).Google Scholar
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    In the 1960s, the negative effect coffee eradication had on food supply was already noted with alarm, for ‘beans are married to coffee’ (o feijão e casadinho com o café). Brazil, Câmara dos Deputados, Anais, XII (1963) (26 and 28 June, 1 and 3 July 1963) pp. 240–1. In the mid-1970s acute food supply crises were caused by the rapid great expansion of export crops such as sugar cane, soy beans and oranges and pastures. The ‘beans crises’ of 1973 and 1976 brought rationing and the import, for the first time, of beans. A. A. Kageyama et. al., ‘Diferenciación campesina y cambio tecnológico: el caso de los productores de frijol en São Paulo’. Between 1959 and 1975 the availability of rice and beans ‘per capita’ in Brazil diminished, raising prices. O. Queda, A. A Kageyama, J. F. Graziano da Silva, Evolução Recent das Culturas de Arroz e Feijão no Brasil (Brasilia, 1979).Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Verena Stolcke 1988

Authors and Affiliations

  • Verena Stolcke
    • 1
  1. 1.Universidad Autónoma de BarcelonaSpain

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