Peasant Farmers Step Up Efforts to Obtain Land
By Mario Osava*
Tension between peasant farmers and large landholders is on the rise in Brazil, where a landless workers’ organization is demanding land for some one million families by 2006. Leftist President Lula is making no concrete promises.
RIO DE JANEIRO – Land occupations, marches and raids by Brazilian landless peasant farmers and threats of reprisals from large landholders and mayors in the affected areas have deepened the social tension in several of the country’s states and placed the land question at the top of the government’s agenda.
Leftist president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, historically a defender of land reform, met last Wednesday with top officials of the Landless Rural Workers’ Movement (MST) in a bid to defuse the tension and avoid dangerous conflict.
The situation had threatened to get out of hand. For instance, in the southern city of Sao Gabriel in the state of Rio Grande do Sul, a pamphlet was circulated calling on owners of cropdusters to spray "the camps where the landless workers live, with 100 liters of gasoline," so that one lighted candle could once and for all put an end to the clamour for agrarian reform.
The pamphlet was circulated in the city of 60,000 people in reaction to a demonstration by 800 MST activists who marched 300 kms to the city, to demand the expropriation of a 13,200 hectare farm and its distribution to 530 families in the area.
Landowners launched their own "counter-march" of 3,000 people on horseback, trucks and tractors. But by directing the MST protesters into a detour, local authorities averted a potential clash between the two groups.
The MST estimates that some 120,000 families across the country are living in make-shift camps waiting for land.
A 19-point document that the movement presented to Lula last week contains demands for the settlement of all 120,000 families this year and the provision of land for one million families by the year 2006. Of Brazil’s 172 million people, some 4.5 million are landless peasant farmers.
Lula promised to promote "widespread and massive" agrarian reform beginning in this half of the year, but did not set specific targets.
For now the government will set aside available public lands for the rapid settlement of 60,000 families, says Minister of Land Development Miguel Rosseto.
In addition it will accelerate expropriations. Under Brazilian laws, the government can confiscate land not being put to productive use, as well as property dedicated to the cultivation of illegal drugs, for its agrarian reform program.
The tension in the countryside will weaken to the degree that "land reform advances," said Gilmar Mauro, one of the 27 national leaders of the MST who met with Lula.
But the conflict is heating up. Last Tuesday, peasants who are camping out on occupied lands in the northeast state of Pernambuco raided a truck carrying food.
Almost 15,000 families are in these camps, a majority of whom are "starving" because the government has failed to distribute the basic food items it promised, Jaime Amorim, one of the MST national coordinators in the state, told Tierramerica.
In Pontal de Parapanema, an area long plagued by land disputes in the southwestern portion of the southern state of Sao Paulo, the mayor of Sandovalina, Divaldo de Oliveira, has begun an unusual strike, closing two schools and the only health center on Wednesday.
He threatened to widen the protest one day each week if the state and national governments do not provide help to bolster city services collapsing under the weight of too many users. Some 1,500 landless peasants have camped in the city of 4,000 inhabitants, putting heavy pressure on its ability to provide services for residents.
In neighboring Presidente Prudente, population 190,000, Mayor Agripino de Lima called on the population to resist "the invasion" by 3,500 landless peasants who are threatening to demonstrate in the city’s central plaza, demanding land reform.
"This is being done in violation of the law…The continuation of this process will undermine governance in the country," said eight agribusiness organizations that make up the Rural Council of Brazil, headed by the National Farming and Ranching Council.
The Democratic Ruralist Union (UDR), which is not a part of the Rural Council, has accused the government of neglect for failing to crack down on the illegal actions taken by the MST.
"The large farmer is forced to put his family at risk to defend his property, since the institutions don’t work," said Luiz Antonio Nabhan Garcia, president of the UDR in Presidente Prudente.
Garcia denied accusations that the UDR was promoting the creation of armed militias by the large landholders.
In his opinion, land reform should be carried out on the "agricultural frontier", such as in the "virgin Amazon", not in already developed agricultural states such as Sao Paulo and Rio Grande do Sul, where the government must "purchase expensive land rather than expropriate, because all land is already productive."
But, says the MST, there are 838 non-productive properties larger than 2,000 hectares in Rio Grande do Sul - enough to settle more than 100,000 families.
"There are large unproductive estates all over Brazil," said Miguel Stedile, MST coordinator in that state. "It’s a myth that all of the land has been developed," he added.
* Mario Osava is an IPS correspondent.