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Revista de Economia e Sociologia Rural

versão impressa ISSN 0103-2003versão On-line ISSN 1806-9479

Rev. Econ. Sociol. Rural v.40 n.3 Brasília  2002 

Land, environment, and inheritance in the High Jequitinhonha, Minas Gerais



Flávia Maria Galizoni

Anthropologist, doctoral candidate at IFCH/UNICAMP, CNPq grant holder. E-mail:; P O Box 151, Lavras, MG. CEP: 37.200-000




In the High Jequitinhonha region of northeastern Minas Gerais, Brazil, farmers acquire land principally through inheritance: their own, their spouses, or a combination of the two. The owner of the land is, before anything else, an heir; and the land is primarily a family patrimony. The objective of this article is to add to the understanding of Brazilian rural society and rural forms of land control by analyzing the interaction among land ownership, land use, the environment, and the family, focusing on the effect of this combination on the inheritance process, migration, work, and marriage.

Key-words: Agrarian Regimes, Family Farmers, Environment.



1. Introduction

The present article focuses on the inheritance process found in farming areas of northeastern Minas Gerais’ High Jequitinhonha region. It includes a discussion of family flexibility in regards to the process of land acquisition and the relationship between community land appropriation, individual land appropriation, and shared land tenure. The research that resulted in this article was conducted as part of a wider study1 analyzing the region’s agrarian regimes.

The Jequitinhonha River’s course through northeastern Minas Gerais can be divided into two contrasting regions: the high and the low. The river’s high course, the High Jequitinhonha, is a climatic transition area with vegetation typical of both savannah and semi-arid regions. Land in the High Jequitinhonha is divided into numerous family agricultural units controlled by an economically torpid, migration prone population. Farmers in the area practice extractive agriculture employing a rotational land use system in which cultivable ground is periodically left fallow. In contrast, the Low Jequitinhonha is characterized by Atlantic Forest vegetation occasionally alternated with dry forest. Land holdings in this area are concentrated in large ranches and aggregated parcels cultivated by local farmers.

The data to be presented in this article are the result of fieldwork carried out in three phases between January and September 1999. The first phase of data collection was exploratory, defining the study area and making contacts with local rural workers’ unions, public agencies and associations, the Baptist and Catholic Churches, and members of local social movements.

The second phase was designed to build a knowledge base of the local ethnography. Looking for an observation participante,2 information was gathered from a stay in three different High Jequitinhonha communities. The three communities were selected according to the six following criteria: distribution along the course of the Jequitinhonha River and its principal tributaries, historical period of occupation, environmental diversity, demographic density, migrations, and land cultivability.

In the third phase, five more communities in the High Jequitinhonha were chosen for ethnological study. The criteria used to select these communities were the same as used in the second phase, but information was gathered through a scripted interview-based sampling procedure. The interview solicited responses to questions focused on family relationships, land history, farming system in practice, and type of environmental extraction. After data collection was completed, an internal comparative study was conducted to distinguish what is particular and what is general in the area’s agrarian regimes, forms of land access, environmental resource regulation, and processes of inheritance, migration, and farming.

This article is divided into four sections. The first is a bibliographical review of the inheritance process within farming families and the methods these families use to resolve conflicts arising during this process. The second section presents the High Jequitinhonha, addressing the local forms of communal and individual land appropriation and the family farmer’s land use system, especially the relationship between their farming techniques and the environment. The third section is an analysis of the land acquisition and consolidation processes observed in the region and these processes’ link with inheritance. The fourth section is a discussion of the strategies (principally migration) that High Jequitinhonha family farmers use to maintain land holdings large enough to sustain future generations.


2. Wholesale inheritance

Researchers sweating over the study of family agricultural units note that family farmers are constantly faced with the same problem, a problem that threatens their survival: the division of land. This issue, governed by contracts, negotiations, and strategies, is insistently present. It demands the farmers’ constant attention if they are to preserve the minimum amount of land for their future generations’ survival. The solution to this problem involves a balancing act. For the new generations to continue as farmers they need to have access to a portion of land large enough to supply their needs, but if the land is constantly divided into smaller and smaller parcels through inheritance, continuity of the family as an independent farming group becomes infeasible.

Antônio Cândido (1975) approached this theme and its consequences for farmers and their families. In the "hick society" he studied, he found that the search for new farmland becomes a continuous cycle impelled by itinerant agriculture and increasing family size. Cândido elaborates a global analysis of this "hick society," stressing the environment, both generous and limiting, as a factor at the center of discussion by family farmer organizations.3 It is important to point out that he analyzes a society in transformation as farmers opened new land for cultivation in the forests bordering agricultural areas.

Land is a farmer’s patrimony and affords his principal route to income generation and survival; but due to demographic pressure and the depletion of the environment, it eventually becomes the factor limiting his family’s survival in the broadest sense of the term. When the number of family members exceeds the land’s carrying capacity, inheritance and migration become central issues.

Social science literature about succession and inheritance points to the farmers’ use of countless exit strategies to resolve the problem of too little land and too many family members. Wolf (1976) determines that the process of substitution of younger family members for older family members creates a moment of tension within the group, placing the family unit’s existence in question. During these times of tension, the family creates special norms to regulate succession and inheritance, presupposing the passage of resources from the oldest generation to the youngest. Wolf (1976) presents an element found in a number of the studies on the process of succession and inheritance: the process is controlled within the family. In the present work, this understanding is extended to the group of families that share the same social life.

Wolf (ibid) found that the succession and inheritance process includes substitution within the social group over time, as resources slowly gathered by the work of the oldest generations are passed to the younger generation. The author also discusses the form that determines how these resources will be distributed. The author broadly defines "resources," embedding in this concept several others: patrimony, environment, and culture. He concludes that two inheritance systems are created: one without sharing, where there is only one heir; and one in which the inheritance is shared by several family members. The main factors that define these options are, according to Wolf, "the ecological, which involves the relationship between technology and environment, and the hierarchical social context, which involves relationships between domestic groups" (ibid).

In his study of family farmer communities in Pernambuco, Brazil, Garcia Jr. (1983) places insufficiency of arable land as the factor that forces farm families to create accumulation strategies and alter land use plans to permit intensified family work per area. He observes that over time there is a family sharing process but that this sharing undermines and compromises the family’s existence. He concludes that the rural inheritance and succession process is a collective social construction. This construction shapes the family’s reproductive strategy and dictates future migration in search of employment.

Moura (1978), researching family farmers in the southern Minas Gerais, presents the built-in inheritance system found in rural societies as a fundamental mechanism shaping the rural family’s future as a unit and as individuals. The author discusses the dynamics of rural family land control and points out the linkage between land control and matrimonial pacts. She demonstrates that local rules of inheritance possess their own logic and are created by a complex process that affects future generations: inheritance is not a simple commercial transaction.

Considering farmers in the state of Santa Catarina, Brazil, Seyfert (1985) concludes that implicit rules of inheritance are created to maintain a unified patrimony and avoid excessive fragmentation of the family’s land holdings. These rules are designed around internal and external family circumstances, such as land availability, economic situation, number of children, and the urban job market. The author asserts that the inheritance process is not controlled by fixed rules, but by the situation; therefore, it should be approached through several indicators.

In spite of the specificities of each of the above studies, they all verify that the texture of the succession and inheritance process is formed by a combination of factors, such as land availability, environmental and cultural resources, family structure, and employment options; and that the rules governing the flow of this process are determined privately by each group in an attempt to best combine all interests and assets and guarantee the family’s persistence on, and access to, the land.4


3. High Jequitinhonha

For the most part, rural communities of the High Jequitinhonha originated on large, basically undifferentiated land holdings and farms.5 Located close to water courses, these communities are the result of demographic growth and incessant land sharing by successive generations. Land ownership in these communities is characterized by enormous fragmentation. The demographic pressure on the land can be verified by the small size of the family plots, by the state of deforestation, the degradation of soil submitted to continuous use, and the shortage of water.

The literature of agronomy defines the environment of the High Jequitinhonha as savannah. Based on soil fertility, this savannah is further separated into four types, characterized as big savannah, strict savannah, dirty field, and clean field. As to be expected, the region’s farmers have created their own land classification criteria, system, and jargon distinct from those used in agronomic literature.

High Jequitinhonha farmers separate the region by terrain: chapadas,6 great extensions of flat, infertile, high plateau; and grotas, humid valleys and their hillsides containing natural springs and streams. In the High Jequitinhonha, there isn’t a chapada that doesn't spill into a grota or a grota that doesn’t rise up to a chapada. Using other criteria, which include soil fertility, relief, humidity, exposure to the sun, color and composition of the soil, and a strong consideration of the type of natural vegetative cover, High Jequitinhonha farmers have also classified the area’s reoccurring environmental zones: cultivable, savanna, and field.

The lands defined as cultivable are characterized by fertile virgin soil in humid areas close to flowing water. These conditions are considered the best for small farm cultivation of staple foods. Unfarmed cultivable lands are usually heavily forested, containing the native tree species angicos, aroeiras, lianas armadillo and timbó, aroeirinha, pear tree, stick-of-canoe, ingá, marmelinho and mutamba. Cultivables appear in grotas and at the margins of rivers.

Savanna lands are usually found at the headwaters of streams and on hillsides. They and are used for the cultivation of rustic plants such as the cassava, pineapple and, occasionally coffee. Native trees on the savanna are very large, and include pau terra, paud’óleo, and marmelada.

On the land identified by the farmers as field, native grasses, bushes, and muçambé, cagaita, monjolo, and mulatto maria trees prevail. Field lands are not favorable areas for farming. They are used only as pasture and for the extraction of sawood, firewood, fruits, and medicinal plants.

The High Jequitinhonha’s different environments impose diversified land use and appropriation schemes on the region’s farmers (Ribeiro, 1997). Land is appropriated according to possible uses and use defines the ownership regime: private, practically perennial rotational farming in the most fertile areas of cultivable, the grotas, and collective extraction or grazing in the chapadas and fields.

Over time, each community’s farmer families have established among themselves several agreements for land and natural resource use. The areas of the environment that are to be explored collectively have become objects of careful, delicate negotiations and are subject to rigorous community regulation. Communal areas are used for "free grazing cattle" pasture, wood extraction, wild fruit gathering, and hunting; they are not to be used randomly by all.

The first objective of the individual High Jequitinhon farm family is the acquisition of enough cultivable land in the most fertile areas of grotas to produce the food needed to sustain the family. The struggle to acquire and hold these properties has become a fundamental force motivating the local population, and the process of inheritance and succession determines who wins in this struggle. To control this process, each family creates a specific set of norms woven by the family’s history. These norms and the process they control shape the family members’ futures, which in the High Jequitinhon, frequently lead to migration.

Inheritance and migration were not always counterparts of the same process. They become such when nature’s exhaustion and a lack of additional fertile land impose restrictions on agricultural production. The farming system used in the High Jequitinhonha is roça de toco or coivara. Using this system, soil is revitalized by the rebirth of native vegetation during a fallow period. This technique’s use in the High Jequitinhon was described by Ribeiro (1997); Wolf (1975), and Boserup (1987) noted its features in other areas.

Because the coivara system restores fertility by taking land out of production, each family needs a much larger cultivable area than they actually farm: while one area is producing another is at rest. According to calculations by Ribeiro (1997), it takes from 10 to 15 years for an areas’ native vegetation to recover. With the passing of years, areas that were producing become dormant and those that were dormant are put into production. The rotational farm system creates a type mosaic on the land: some areas are in preparation for a new small farm, others are in the middle of production, and others lie fallow as native vegetation is replenished. If the total area suitable for staple food cultivation is small and the pressure on the land increases, the dormant period is must be shortened. This results in lower soil fertility, lower production, and a greater number of family members exiting the family’s farm.

The dynamic that connects family, land, patrimony, and the environment establishes the base of rural society and determines the family members’ different destinies. If it is not possible to understand the movement of rural populations without taking into account their adjustment to environmental factors, neither can those migrations be understood without focusing on the relationships between family members.

As with inheritance, migration is also a family process. Although inheritance determines who migrates, with the winners getting the land and the losers migrating, migration doesn’t imply that the family is lost to the migrant, because he who is unable to stay on the land doesn't sever family ties. Rural family members go where they have relatives, they reconstruct the family in other places (rural or urban), and, in the case of high Jequitinhonha, only very rarely do they permanently break with the family.


4. Work, Ownership, and Control: retail inheritance

The farmers of High Jequitinhonha constantly affirm that their lands are in the "pool," in other words, "ownership" of the land is in common. An individual’s or family's claim to land is not the result of a formal document, for there is none. "Ownership" is defined and demarcated by the family’s work; sweat makes the land yours. This characteristic is constant in the area’s land regime, and in itself suggests that the legitimacy of ownership is fluid, respected and maintained as long as the family continues working this "owned" land. The absence of a family’s work can lead to the reincorporation of their plots into the community’s stock of land and these plots eventual redistribution to other segments of the extensive family group that is the community.

José de Souza Martins (1981) demonstrates that this conception of work, based on the relationship between the farmer and the land, is fundamental to rural land ownership and appropriation regimes. Klass Woortmann (1990) follows a complementary line of reasoning in his study of farmers in the Brazilian state of Sergipe. He points to the notion of work as the basis of a moral order—countryness—that organizes the farmers' universe, defines their relationship with the land, and arranges the family’s internal social space. According to this author, it’s not only is the land inherited, but also the work that the family does on the land.

To understand the land control system in High Jequitinhonha, it is necessary to understand the work done on the land by the farmers, expressed by their cultivation system. As note previously, this system makes use of crop rotation and differentiated land use, necessitating that the farmer controls a cultivable area much larger than that under cultivation. The farm family’s work subordinates and adapts nature, modifying it to increase the area planted with crops and creating a humanized space. Both symbolically and in practice, the transformation of native habitat into farmland, mediated by the family’s productive effort, permits the land’s appropriation. The family establishes their control over nature through work, in this way asserting ownership of the land. In the High Jequitinhonha, it is common to hear that land not worked by anybody is "lost."

A family dominates the portion of land that it works, but the family doesn't work just any land; cultivable land is the priority. Cultivable land makes up just one-fifth of the High Jequitinhonha, creating a problem for growing rural families and their communities (Ribeiro, 1997, and UHE Irapé RHYMES, 1992).

A family’s land in the High Jequitinhonha is normally composed of two or more portions dispersed throughout the communities, hopefully including plots in river lowlands. The portions are very small and usually discontinuous. The total of a family’s land, in different environments from several inheritances, is zealously preserved; it must provide the goods to secure a family’s survival.

The fragmentation and dispersion of a family’s land can be the consequence of the sharing of successive inheritances. For example, the total portion of land controlled by Geralda and Adam in the "Community of Portions" is the sum of three areas: their cultivable land, used to grow corn, beans and basic staples, is from the wife's inheritance from her parents share in Portions; their land in the neighboring community of Cuba, used to cultivate cassava in areas of savanna vegetation, is an inheritance from the husband's parents; and a small plot in the flood plain of the Araçuaí river, used for a vegetable garden, was also inherited from the wife's family.

The family’s control over many small discontinuous parcels can also be the result of the community’s system of land allocation. When distributing land held in the community pool, an attempt is made to divide the best and worst land equitably while creating the compound of environments necessary to maintain each farm family’s productive system. Division of a community’s land pool is, among other things, a communal response to environmental conditions.

The land the family controls in the "pool" is their principal legacy. Claims on this legacy pass to members of the same generation, siblings for instance, pass between generations, as in the case between uncles and nephews, and pass through to following generations, making marriage a form of building and securing the inheritance. Ideally, all the siblings have equal rights to inheritance, as do the grandchildren and the great-grandchildren; but everyone cannot inherit equally. This legacy must be formally divided to insure against the confusion that would arise if all relatives were to claim an inheritance. Control of the land and the passage of this control among generations are determined through a process that unfolds within the family.

As time passes, family members’ rights to the land become differentiated. This differentiation is fundamental to the determination of who will be heir and who will be migrant. Differentiation between possible heirs is determined by a "toss of the dice" and external conjunctures arising from migration, work, marriage, the accumulation process, and the environment; but the family controls this differentiation. Succession is a sort of game in which luck, hard work and external factors, such as migration, the possibility of accumulation, define the destiny of each family member. All family members theoretically participate in the "game" of who leaves and of who stays, who acquires, and who doesn’t. Relatives that don’t inherit usually migrate, either temporarily or permanently.

The land in the family pool also acts as a form of insurance, as a rearguard that at difficult moments can support family members excluded from direct inheritance. In the High Jequitinhonha, he who doesn't work the land, has a "stopped" right, a right suspended in air, that in severe situations can prevail, be reintegrated, or be retaken through explicit or implicit conflict. Nobody denies the inheritance—"Inheritance doesn't die"!—it remains a "little stopped right;" it always represents a symbolic tie that can be activated in case of need.

The history of Alexandre serves as an example of family land being an insurance policy and the ever-present possibility of inheritance. After being excluded from paternal inheritance, traveling the country’s agricultural work circuit, going to São Paulo, Paraná, Mato Grosso, Acre and Rondônia, the fifty year-old Alexandre returns, marries a much younger maternal cousin, and re-enters in the inheritance of his mother's family group, transforming his potential right into an effective right.

The return of would-be heirs attempting to claim an inheritance is not peaceful. Much to the contrary, it creates tensions and conflicts, becoming a wrestling match combining force and cunning. As a High Jequitinhonha farmer says about his family’s land being farmed by a solitary brother-in-law, it is "dangerous that he not accept that we work there." The stratagems used by heirs that remain on the farm to hinder the return of those who have left are many; they may allocate the worst land or the worst site to the returnees or make their life otherwise more difficult.

The surveys taken in the course of this research, made with the assistance of members of the Union of Rural Workers, show that claims on an inheritance very rarely reach the judicial system. As a farmwoman in Santa Rita's community says, "It’s is resolved around here, in Santa Rita, it does not go to the law." She further states that these inheritance questions are "brother-in-law fights."

Two basic questions in the study of inheritance are, how is the land transmitted intra and inter generation, and what is transmitted with the land. In our study of High Jequitinhonha’s communities, we found that the transference of land through inheritance is as vindictive a process as any commerce, linking heirs, neighbors, relatives, and godparents in a game involving envy, greed, and primitive but patient calculation.


5. Migration

As the soil is depleted and new family units are added, the need for additional agriculture lands increases. In the past, the farmer could move onto to unused lands in the community’s pool or open new lands in border areas. The mid 20th century farmer is described by Antônio Cândido (1975) as one who lives glued to an environment, moving only when his land became unproductive, usually to another site within the same environment; but now that mobility is restricted. Garcia Júnior (1983) shows that a shortage of available agricultural land is hindering both old and new domestic units in their attempt to maintain the productive and social conditions for survival within their local environment. Because farmer mobility in their locale is now limited, the displacement that once took place within this environmental has becomes a migration to areas beyond the farmer’s social sphere. In this sense, the rules of patrimonial transmission, fighting against the patrimony’s cumulative division into unsustainably small farming units, determine both this migration and who the migrants will be.

In sharp contrast with Cândido’s mid 20th century farmer, the late 20th century farmer studied by Klass Woortmann (1990) migrates to a more urban setting so that other family members can continue as farmers and maintain the family’s farm. This finding agrees with one of Garcia Júnior’s (1983) very important observations: "the social reproduction of new domestic units of small producers causes the children’s transformation into other social categories…. paradoxical as that seems, it is part of the reproduction strategy of the farming family that a part of itself becomes a non-farmer." Martins (1985) called attention to a similar contradictory aspect of seasonal migration. According to the author, despite seasonable migration making possible some of these farmers’ reproduction, it has a disastrous side effect: migration overloads the families with work and transforms independent farmers into members of the proletariat.

Ellen Woortmann (1985) establishes three types of migration, two of which are seasonal: the first, to know the world and expand one’s horizons—a rite of passage; the second, to accumulate resources; and the third, to relocate excess family members permanently. The resources acquired from a seasonal migration may be used for immediate family consumption, the acquisition of costlier goods, or may be accumulated for the purchase of more land. For years, the seasonal migration of farmers has been a common phenomenon.

The principal characteristic of migration from the High Jequitinhonha is that it is seasonal. Family members spend the drought period working in other regions—approximately seven months for the men and four for the women—and return in the rainy season to help on the family farm. Migration of this type includes a combination of extremely varied destinations that reflect the family’s survival strategy. The principal destinations, cane field or coffee plantation, are linked with a series of other destinations, which include the São Paulo coast, mining camps, and urban employment locations.

In areas where the land is extremely depleted or there are strong demographic and environmental pressures, seasonal migration can last from mid-April until February of the next year. In one case, a farmer from the High Jequitinhonha community of Cuba migrated to the sugar cane fields in April, went back to Cuba at the end of November, and at the end of December, went to the coast of São Paulo to work as a roving salesman on the beach with another brother.

The sum of family’s seasonal migration may involve a number of family members traveling to specific disparate destinations. In the case of another family from the Cuba community, the father migrates to work cutting cane in Guariba (SP), the three older daughters migrate to pick coffee in Altinópolis (SP), while the mother stays home with the youngest children and does as much farming as she can stand.

Marriage, inheritance, and migration combine in a way that assures reproduction of the patrimony and the family. Migration, seasonal or permanent, is a family strategy imposed when the accepted family survival patterns can no longer be maintained. Thus, the farmer or his family’s members migrate to both maintain reasonable living conditions in their place origin and create these conditions in their new location.

Inheritance implies future planning. Children that migrate don't leave all at once but little by little, seeking out opportunities while using the family as a rearguard. If the time comes when the family’s lands are unable to sustain the entire family, then exit becomes inevitable. Many who migrate seasonally must eventually make that migration permanent.

The succession and inheritance process is built over the course of family life. The process is well along when the head of the family dies: some children have already migrated while those that remain have created a new work unit and a new family.



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1Masters Dissertation, defended in March 2000, in the Department of Social Anthropology at FFLCH/USP.
2See Malinowski (1978) on the observation participant method
3See Heredia (1979) and Lovisolo (1989) for more on this subject.
4Other authors with valuable contributions to this debate are: Woortmann (1990) and Wootrmann (1985) who show how access to the land is made through family parentage; Tavares dos Santos (1978), who wrote about the transference of land among farmers integrated with agro-industry; Ribeiro (1993) about inheritance, decision making within the family group and division of land; and Barcelar ( 1997).
5See Carvalho Franco ( 1975) for São Paulo about farms vs. land holdings as categories of appropriation and Woortmann (1990) for the Brasillian Northeast and Ribeiro for the Jequitinhonha ( 1977).
6It was in the chapadas in the mid-70's, that the federal government gave incentives to large reforestation companies for the planting of eucaliptyus mono-culture.The commercial planting of eucaliptyus implied the expropriation and fraud involving communal land,and a largr enviornmental impact. Both of which ate still felt untill today.Graziano,1986,analyzes the form and consequences of big business reforestation. Also see Furtado,1985; Silva,s.d.; and Moura, 1988.

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