José Roberto Escórcio
Fellow Since 1989
This profile was prepared when José Roberto Escórcio was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1989.
Escorcio, 32, is an agronomist who is working to find alternative markets for the produce of small settlement farmers.
The New Idea
In the all continuing furor over land reform in Brazil, advocates sometimes overlook the importance of not only obtaining the land but of keeping it. Jose Roberto Escorcio is helping small farmers on land settlements in the southern Brazilian state of Parana to market their goods, to boost income and to stay on the land."The problem is often that people are concerned with obtaining the land settlement, but they don't understand anything about selling their farm goods," Jose says. "They can grow beautiful produce, but when it comes time to sell it, they sell to the first intermediary who comes along at whatever price he pays. Small producers were expelled from their lands in the first place partly because they didn't have an entrepreneur's vision. They had no vision of the market. They lost out to speculators. On these settlements, they gain land but without that market vision, in one or tow or three years they end up again with no land."Meanwhile in the cities, poor urban populations go hungry because food prices are high. By the time black beans, a staple of the Brazilian diet, reach city markets, the price is 86 percent higher than what the small farmer in Parana received for them.To help poor rural and urban populations, Jose promotes city produce markets, especially in low-income neighborhoods, where framers sell their goods without intermediaries. The grower gets a better price, and so does the consumer.Escorcio is working with leaders of 70 settlements obtained through land reform. He teaches them how to market from produce and take what they learn back to the settlements.On the receiving end, in the towns and cities where the produce has potential markets, Escorcio gives 30-hour courses to local government agents to help them develop the direct produce markets in poorer neighborhoods."In the more progressive city governments, the course is well-received," he says. "I show how easy it is, even with impediments, to do a market where the producer comes to sell his goods on the weekend. It's a new idea for most of them."His calendar is filling up with dates to teach the course, hold a national seminar or Worlds Food Day and meet with small-scale producers' associations, rural workers' unions, land-reform advocates and church-related groups that work among the rural and urban poor. Escorcio sometimes finds divergence of opinions among the various tendencies but tries to show them cooperation renders the best results. For example, liberal church groups recently expressed concern that showing small-scale agricultural producers how to enter the market and increase their profits would encourage competitive, commercialist attitudes among them."But on the contrary, I tell them it's important to organize to bargain in the market. Alone, you're only one," he says.He wants to apply that collective mentality as well to the purchase of staples, so settlements can buy wholesale the salt, coffee and other goods they do not produce on their own lands. Escorcio wants to see a political and economic structure that makes it feasible and attractive for small farmers to stay on their land, produce, enjoy a decent standard of living and not feel compelled to move to the city. That idea is part of popular political discussion in Brazil, but the political will to put it into practice is not evident."It was an American senator who said a government's real priorities you can see in its budget," Jose Roberto recalls. By that standard, he doesn't find the government especially concerned with land settlements and says their small farmers have no reason to expect government help any time soon. He feels this is all the more reason for farmers to cooperate and learn how to market their goods to assure themselves of keeping the land they've struggled to acquire.
With the development of agra-industry, the survival of small producers in the countryside has become more and more marginal. Many of them have been expelled from their farms because of increased concentration of land into the hands of large businesses. These businesses then plant cash crops such as soya, replacing basic subsistence crops such as beans and corn. The result is hunger both in the countryside and in the city.The food that is produced for consumption is sold by an oligarchy of large businesses and supermarkets who fix prices at high rates. They also reduce the quality of the food by constantly cutting production costs to increase profits. Consumers have no alternatives for cheap, healthy foods and small produces do not have the marketing or production capacity to sell to these large retailers.
The first year of the project is devoted to building a financial and administrative structure, researching how prices are set, analyzing markets and selling a sales calendar in keeping with seasonal crops. A second, two-year phase is devoted to consolidating markets, refining marketing methods, finding wholesalers who do not charge high commissions and establishing a central market to coordinate the entire project. The final year-long phase serves to demonstrate results in real profitability and cost efficiency. By this time, the project should have been absorbed into larger operations of the same nature. Awareness of consumer and small producers' rights is encouraged through the project's life.
Jose Roberto Escorcio is a Portuguese-born immigrant who family worked citrus plantations in Sao Paulo state. At the state agricultural college in Parana, he was active in student government and turned the student residence he directed into a self-sufficient venture for poorer students. He then worked among small farmers and rural workers in Parana until being invited to join a progressive government's agricultural secretariat.With his innovative programs in the secretariat ended with a change of government, Jose Robert began his search for means to help small farmers help themselves without relying on government support.