The Transition: From Colonos to Wage Labour

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


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.


Land Reform Coffee Production Protective Legislation Rural Worker Coffee Tree 
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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.
    Reviews of existing literature on the casualisation of rural labour are: J. Gomez da Silva and V. L. G. da Silva Rodrigues, ‘“O bóia-fria”: contradições de uma agricultural em tentativa de desenvolvimento’, Reforma Agráda, V (9–10) (September/October 1975) pp. 2–44.Google Scholar
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    Brazil, Comissão de Desenvolvimento Industrial, O Problema da Altimentação no Brazil (Rio de Janeiro, 1954), Relatório Klein and Saks. Already in 1945, Brazilian industrialists and representatives of agriculture at a meeting in Teresópolis on the state of the Brazilian economy diagnosed as one of the principal needs the expansion of food production. At a second congress of ‘producing classes’ held in Araxá in 1949, the first point on the agenda was again the problem of food supply for the domestic market. Carta Económica de Teresópolis (1945) Conferencia das Classes Productoras do Brasil, Teresópolis (1945); Conferencia Nacional das Classes Productoras, Araxá (1949); the food-supply problem was diagnosed as follows: ‘Point one concerns the supply of foodstuffs for the domestic market and more especially for the towns. It implies two problems: one is an emergency concerning the present shortage of foodstuffs, the other refers to normal supply once this period of difficulties is over … The supply problem affects the whole cycle from production to distribution to the consumer’ (p. 4).Google Scholar
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  20. 30.
    Message No. 124 1954 which became bill No. 4264/54 which extended the benefits of the Consolidação das Leis do Trabalho (CLT) passed in 1943. The renowned lawyer, Cesarino Jr, an active advisor to the Confederação Nacional da Industria (CNI), was very critical of this bill because of its many imprecisions. Folha de São Paulo, 6 April 1954. Vargas’s first Labour Minister was Danton Coelho of the PTB who had resigned in protest over Vargas’s conciliatory politics. Vargas nominated the lawyer, Segadas Vianna, in his place and requested him to create yet another commission to study the extension of the labour laws to agricultural workers. It drafted two bills, one regarding the legal protection of rural workers the other regulating sharecrop-ping contracts. J. de Segadas Vianna, O Estatuto do Trabalhador Rural e sua Aplicação (Rio de Janeiro, 1965) p. 39. The same year, at the opening session of the Fifth Conference of American States members of the ILO in Petrópolis Vargas had declared: … it is our lively concern to receive suggestions that will allow us to achieve more rapidly and easily that which is today our principal national and governmental goal, namely to effectively make extensive the social legislation that protects the urban proletariat, to rural workers, modify the production methods and economic relations that prevail in agriculture … we need to create a less unjust system of distribution of the fruits of agricultural labour and extend to the countryside a little of the hope and comfort urban workers enjoy’. J. de Segadas Vianna, O Estatuto do Trabalhador Rural, p. 42. The concession of the statutory minimum wage to rural workers was already debated in the early 1940s. A. P. Brasil, ‘O salário mínimo na lavoura paulista’. Legislação do Trabalho (October 1941) for the kind of arguments used against its enforcement then. 31. G. Vargas, O Governo Trebalhista (1969) IV, p. 477. In 1948 approximately 100 000 ploughs and 6000 tractors were in use on the over 2 million rural properties in the country. Joint Brazil/United States Economic Development Commission, The Development of Brazil, p. 23. In 1954 15 000 tractors, 8726 ploughs, 5033 harvesters and 10 488 disk harrows were imported with foreign credit under the Joint Brazil/ United States Commission provision of US$18 000 000 for the import of agricultural equipment. Comissão Mista Brasil/Estados Unidos para Desenvolvimento Económico, O Programa da Comissão Mista, Rio de Janeiro (1954); R Miller Paiva and R. Araujo Dias, ‘Recente evolução da agricultura em São Paulo’, ASP, VII (1) (January 1960) p. 29. UK, Board of Trade, Overseas Surveys, Brazil, Economic and Commercial Conditions in Brazil (London, 1954) pp. 58–9 has an assessment of agricultural mechanisation in São Paulo, and notes that in the early 1950s interest among farmers was increasing partly due to shortage of labour.Google Scholar
  21. 33.
    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
  22. 35.
    Quoted by M.V. de Mesquita Benevides, O Governo Kubitschek, Desenvolvimento Económico e Estabilidade Política (Rio de Janeiro, 1976) p. 210.Google Scholar
  23. 36.
    Quoted by C. Lafer, ‘The planning process and the political system in Brazil: a study of Kubitschek’s target plan, 1956–1961’, Doctoral Dissertation (Cornell University, 1970) p. 41. process’, p. 187. G.W. Smith, ‘Agricultural policy, 1950–1967’, in H. S. Ellis (ed.), The Economy of Brazil; G. E. Schuh and A. Veiga, ‘A política de importação de insumos agrícolas no Brasil, 1948–1967’, ASP XXIII (1) (1976) pp. 141–69 for a discussion of preferential treatment of fertilisers and agricultural equipment imports.Google Scholar
  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
  26. 44.
    Quoted by T. Skidmore, Brasil: de Getúlio a Castelo (1930–1964) (Rio de Janeiro, 1969) p. 455, n.15.Google Scholar
  27. 48.
    One of those who was most explicit in his opposition to any legal reforms of power relations in agriculture was PSD Deputy Daniel Faraco who, while President of the congressional committee for the economy, in 1956 declared: ‘While I am President of this Committee no land-reform programme will pass through it’. In effect, between 1946 and 1958 a total of 213 land-reform programmes were rejected by the Chamber of Deputies. M. V. de Mesquita Benevides, O Governo de Kubitschek (Rio de Janeiro, 1976) p. 219. O Estado de São Paulo (1 May 1956).Google Scholar
  28. 50.
    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
  29. 52.
    Brazil, Câmara dos Deputados, Anais, (1957) X, (27 April–4 June 1957) p. 382, Deputy Oliveira Franco.Google Scholar
  30. 53.
    J. W. F. Rowe, The World’s Coffee: A Study of the Eonomics and Politics of the Coffee Industries of Certain Countries and of the International Problem (London, 1963), p. 14. Rowe seems to have had a special flair for coffee crises. As in 1931, he was again in São Paulo in the early 1960s during the renewed over-supply crisis.Google Scholar
  31. 54.
    In 1948–9 São Paulo still produced 54.4 per cent of the country’s registered coffee as compared to 10.2 per cent grown in Paraná which by 1960, however, had outranked São Paulo with 46.9 per cent compared to 27.6 per cent produced by the latter. A. M. M. McFarquhar and G. B. Aneury Evans, Employment Creation in Primary Production in Less Developed Countries, Development Centre Studies, Employment Series 6, OECD (Paris, 1972). ‘Registered coffee’ is the coffee crop minus the amount retained by coffee producers. São Paulo’s and Paraná’s exportable production increased between 1951–2 and 1958–9 by 41 and 67 per cent respectively. J. W. F. Rowe, The World’s Coffee, p. 33. The annual rate of new planting rose from an average 19 million in 1934–8 to 65 million trees in 1956–8 in São Paulo. ‘A indústria do café em São Paulo’, ASP, VIII (3) (March 1961) p. 22.Google Scholar
  32. 60.
    A Delfim Netto and C. A de Andrade Pinto, ‘The Brazilian coffee’, P. Malan et al., Política económica externa; P. Malan, ‘Foreign exchange constrained growth in a semi-industrialised economy: aspects of the Brazilian experience (1946–1976)’, Doctoral Dissertation (University of California, 1977); E. Lisboa Bacha, ‘A política cafeeira do Brazil, 1952/67’, in E. Lisboa Bacha, Os mitos de urna década (Rio de Janeiro, 1976).Google Scholar
  33. 63.
    Memorandum by the Federação das Associações Rurais do Estado de São Paulo (FARESP, the Federation of the Rural Associations of the State of São Paulo) addressed to the Finance Minister Aranha on 22 June 1953. A. Alves Novaes e Cruz et al. (eds), Impasse na Democracia Brasileira 1951–1955, Coletánea de Documentos, CPDOC, Editora da Fundação Getúlio Vargas (Rio de Janeiro, 1983) pp. 184–8.Google Scholar
  34. 71.
    A. Boito Jr. O Golpe de 1954: A Burguesia Contra a Populismo (São Paulo, 1982) pp. 47–50, suggests that coffee growers, as distinct from exporters who are said to have favoured devaluation, paradoxically shared the industrial sector’s opposition to free exchange, currency devaluation and free imports of manufactured goods behaving like importers of industrial inputs rather than as exporters. However, as I have shown, before 1953 coffee growers and exporters were generally against devaluation because they feared the destabilising effect on the coffee market and the drop in coffee prices. During 1953, however, while being sceptical about free exchange for coffee, growers objected above all to ‘exchange confiscation’. Agricultural equipment was anyway classified as super-essential and subsidised.Google Scholar
  35. 77.
    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
  36. 78.
    This was denounced by São Paulo Deputy for the PTB Batista Ramos in August 1957. Brazil, Câmara dos Deputados, Anais (1957) XXXI (15–21 August 1957) (Rio de Janeiro, 1958) pp. 267–76, XXII (22–28 August 1957) (Rio de Janeiro, 1958) pp. 131–8.Google Scholar
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    UN ECLA, Economic Survey of Latin America (1949) p. 225. The Report by the Joint Brazil/United States Economic Development Commission, p. 23, notes that rice, wheat and sugar cane lent themselves well to mechanisation being temporary crops often grown on large farm units. Cf. also G. E. Schuh, The Agricultural Development of Brazil. Google Scholar
  38. 97.
    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
  39. 140.
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  40. 142.
    The best analysis of rural political mobilisation in the Northeast in the late 1950s and early 1960s is A. Alcántara de Camargo, ‘Brésil Nord-Est; Mouvements Paysans et Crise Populiste’, Doctoral Dissertation (Université de Paris, 1973).Google Scholar
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    Quoted by P. Schmitter, Interest Conflict and Political Change in Brazil (Stanford, 1971), p. 211.Google Scholar
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    Brazil, Câmara dos Deputados, Anais, VI (1961) (Rio de Janeiro, 1962) p. 88; Deputy Munhoz da Rocha of the PR; for objections along similar lines to job security and severance pay see also Câmara dos Deputados, Anais, XXV (1956) p. 602, XXXIII (1956) pp. 236–7.Google Scholar
  49. 169.
    Brazil, Câmara dos Deputados, Anais, XI (28 June 1961) pp. 719–31. O Estado de São Paulo (26 July 1964); for a legal discussion of the Rural Labour Statute and its history see J. de Segadas Vianna, O Estatuto do Trabalhador Rural; D. W. Zibetti, Legislação Agrária Brasileira (São Paulo, 1968);Google Scholar
  50. A Campanhole, Legislação do Trabalhador Rural e Estatuto da Terra, (São Paulo, 1966);Google Scholar
  51. O. Rocha, Manual Prático do Trabalho Rural, (São Paulo, 1969), contains a survey of the jurisprudence that arose in 1966 and 1967 from the enforcement of the Rural Labour Statute. Time and again legal claims by sharecroppers were disputed and rejected;Google Scholar
  52. see also C. A. Gomes Chiarelli, Direito do Trabalho Rural Consolidado (São Paulo, 1975).Google Scholar
  53. 176.
    M. V. Mesquita Benavides, A UDN e o Udenismo. Ambiguedade do Liberalismo Brasileiro (Rio de Janeiro, 1981) P. 195.Google Scholar
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  55. 204.
    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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