Unexpected expropriators: How Elites Came to Support Agrarian Reform


Matias López and Belén Fernández Milmanda. Working Paper. “Unexpected expropriators: How Elites Came to Support Agrarian Reform”.


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.

Last updated on 10/18/2018