For some considerable time, the international scientific debate on the possible future of rurality in the contemporary world has ceased erroneously equating the latter with agriculture, as if there were some kind of equivalence between the economic activities of this sector and the (physical and social) space where they occur. In addition, the emergence in many rural areas of activities that have little or nothing to do with agriculture has triggered intense debate on the characteristics and trends of what has been called the “new rural economy”. In the developed nations such rurality is normally classified as “postindustrial”, “post-modern” or “post-Fordist”.
Brazil’s immense size and hugely uneven development have given rise to extreme rural situations. On the one hand, there are still forms of anthropic pressure in the vast Amazon forests that maintain a pre- Neolithic relationship with nature; on the other, there are several examples of a highly advanced rural economies in temperate areas of the Atlantic rain forest, and above all, in the southern plains and forests. There is no reason, therefore, for Brazil to be excluded from the crucial debate on the possible future of rurality. However, there are at least two fundamental preceding questions to be asked: what exactly is rurality and how can we measure it? In fact, these two questions are themselves of such complexity that this paper will be devoted to them. Thus, before proposing a means of evaluating the relative importance of rural Brazil (section 3) and drawing attention to certain theoretical-historical implications of the problem (section 4), this paper deals with the urban-rural divide, seeking explanations for the surprising inertia in the way in which the space is understood, and presents the main alternatives being adopted in other countries (section 2).