How do agrarian elites protect themselves from redistribution under democracy? Prominent scholarship in comparative politics argues that landowners oppose democratization because the fixed nature of their assets makes them more vulnerable to expropriation. However, these theories overlook landowners’ capacity to organize politically and use democratic institutions to their advantage. I present a novel electoral strategy by which landowners have successfully blocked redistributive policies in democratic Brazil: a multi-party congressional caucus. Contra earlier work, the Brazilian case shows that economic elites can gain electoral representation in the absence of a strong conservative party. Through an analysis of the Bancada Ruralista, I study the factors explaining agrarian elites’ decision to enter the electoral arena as well as the determinants of their electoral strategies. I argue that agrarian elites' strategies of political influence are shaped by two factors: (1) the level of threat they perceive; and (2) their degree of political fragmentation at the local level. Empirically, I test this argument through process tracing. Theoretically, I argue that this multi-party strategy is better suited for interest group political representation in contexts of high party fragmentation and ideologically loose parties.
Contractarian theories assume that economic elites and the right-wing parties that represent them share a common interest in protecting property rights and thus should act as a unified actor, vetoing expropriation under democracy. The Brazilian case challenges that assumption as conservative administrations in the 1990s and early 2000s implemented a vast program of agrarian reform with the support of right-wing parties in Congress and the blessings of urban economic elites. What explains the implementation of redistributive agrarian reform in conservative administrations under democracy? Analyzing data from elite surveys (n=412), in-depth interviews (n=56) and the National Institute for Agrarian Reform (INCRA) archives we show that urban political and economic elites saw agrarian reform as a low-cost tool to mitigate the externalities of inequality, such as crime and social unrest. In their view, many of those externalities had resulted from the migration of poor citizens from the countryside to Brazil’s major cities. In other words, Brazilian urban elites supported the redistribution of rural land to the poor because it offered them a way of outsourcing to the agrarian elite the costs of lowering social conflict. Supporting agrarian reform also offered right-wing politicians a way of containing the electoral growth of the left by challenging the left issue ownership over the subject. Based on those observations we theorize that conservative elites have strong incentives to support agrarian reform in contexts that combine (i) high distributive conflict, (ii) the electoral viability of the left, and (iii) weak agrarian ties in Congress. We test our theory through a mixed-methods empirical strategy that combines process tracing with logistic regressions. Our findings challenge the idea of elites as a naturally cohesive group by showing how right-wing politicians and urban economic elites presented little solidarity toward agrarian elites in Brazil, forcing the latter to coordinate in more effective ways to protect themselves, not from the rural poor, but from urban elites.
The protection of the environment presents a challenge for commodity-producing democracies. To account for the enforcement of environmental laws, we propose a multilevel approach that emphasizes political dynamics shaping enforcement at different stages of the policy-making process and across levels of government. This approach contrasts with prominent scholarship that focuses on sanctions and the electoral incentives and bureaucratic resources of enforcers. We demonstrate the advantages of our multilevel approach by showing how enforcement of national forest protection legislation (NFPR) in the Argentine Chaco Forest is shaped not only by whether sanctions on illegal deforestation are applied by subnational authorities but also by the design of both the national law and subnational regulations. Employing original geocoded data on deforestation and extensive fieldwork, we show how affected subnational organized interests influenced the design of the NFPR and provincial regulations with the goal of weakening or strengthening their enforcement, producing remarkable subnational variation in deforestation rates.
Belén Fernández Milmanda and Candelaria Garay. Forthcoming. “Subnational Variation in Forest Protection in Argentina.” In Understanding Weak Institutions. Lessons from Latin America , edited by Daniel Brinks, Maria Victoria Murillo, and Steven Levitsky. Cambridge University Press.
The historical role of landed elites as obstacles to democratic consolidation in Latin America has been widely studied. Four decades after the onset of the third wave, however, the issue of how these elites have adapted to the new democratic context remains unexplored. The question of why these elites who supported military coups each time a government threatened their interests have mostly played by the democratic rulebook during the past four decades still needs to be answered.
Important structural and political transformations took place in Latin America during the last half of the 20th and the first decade of the 21st century that affected agrarian elites’ incentives and capacity to organize politically. The first change was urbanization, which undermined agrarian elites’ capacity to mobilize the votes of the rural poor in favor of their political representatives. The second was an increase in the importance of agricultural exports as a source of foreign exchange and revenue for Latin American countries thanks to the commodity boom of the 2000s. The third change was the arrival to power of left-wing parties with redistributive agendas, threatening agrarian elites’ interests in the region with the highest land inequality in the world. However, the fact that these governments relied on revenues from agriculture to fund their policy agendas created tension between the leftists’ ideological preferences for a more equal distribution of land and their fiscal needs.
Dominant theories in political science suggest that democratization should lead to redistribution from the rich to the poor, as democracies represent the preferences of a wider spectrum of citizens than nondemocracies. Landowners, given the fixed nature of their assets, should be easy targets for increased taxation or expropriation. However, these theories understate landowners’ capacity to organize politically and use democratic institutions to their advantage. In fact, if we look at contemporary Latin America, we see that four decades of democracy have not changed the region’s extremely high land inequality.
Agrarian elites in Latin America have deployed a variety of political influence strategies to protect themselves from redistribution. In some cases, such as Chile and El Salvador, they have built conservative parties to represent their interests in Congress. In others, like Brazil, they have invested in multiparty representation through a congressional caucus. Lastly, in other countries such as Argentina and Bolivia, agrarian elites have not been able to organize their electoral representation and instead have protected their interests from outside the policymaking arena through protests.
In a context of booming commodity prices, what factors drive subnational authorities to implement forest protection regulations in active agricultural frontiers?. Focusing on one of the world’s deforestation hotspots, the Argentine Chaco Forest, we argue that subnational variation in the implementation of forest protection legislation is driven by governors’ attempts to avoid conflict produced by agricultural expansion. Through process tracing, we show how governors’ implementation decisions—regarding both the design and enforcement of provincial regulations—sought to mitigate pressures from large producers opposed to clearing restrictions and from various groups contesting agricultural expansion. As the power of these actors varies across provinces, governors’ conflict avoidance strategies resulted in markedly different subnational regulations as well as contrasting levels of enforcement and deforestation. We substantiate our argument through an empirical strategy that combines department-level geocoded data on deforestation and levels of forest protection in the Argentine Chaco with extensive fieldwork and interviews in the core provinces in which the forest is located. Our findings aim to contribute to academic debates in political science and environmental science on the determinants of subnational policy and deforestation, respectively, and have the potential to inform both donors and policymakers about the factors shaping the uneven impact of decentralized arrangements to combat climate change.