'Poor press Brazil's leader on his promise of land'

Fred Feldman ffeldman at bellatlantic.net
Sun Jul 27 10:02:16 MDT 2003

July 27, 2003
Poor Press Brazil's Leader on His Promise of Land

IRANTE DO PARANAPANEMA, Brazil — The encampments have sprung up along
highways throughout this fertile farming region and are expanding
rapidly. Precarious clusters of shacks made of wood, cardboard and
plastic, they are inhabited by thousands of peasants who have flocked
here with a single unwavering demand: a piece of land.

In some cases, farms, cattle ranches and sugar mills have been
occupied, threatening violent clashes. In other areas, squatters have
in recent weeks seized or vandalized government offices, blocked
highways, taken hostages and looted trucks to press their demands.

The squatters are organized by Brazil's largest and most combative
social movement, the Landless Rural Workers' Movement. Always an
advocate of confrontational tactics, the group has become even more
emboldened with the arrival of a new government it views as friendly
and responsive to pressure.

But for President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the tensions and the
rising demands of a movement whose support has been essential to the
growth of his Workers' Party have become an intensifying political

His problems have only worsened, too, with the recent emergence in São
Paulo, the country's largest city, of a group of urban slum dwellers
known as the roofless movement that has begun using similar tactics.

Mr. da Silva, a left-leaning former labor leader, was elected last
year on promises of sweeping land reform in a country where fewer than
5 percent of people own more than half the arable land. Now the
landless movement is challenging him to make good immediately on an
issue that is a source of shame for many here.

Founded in 1984, the landless movement, which claims 1.5 million
members nationwide, is today a formidable political and social force
with a substantial war chest that comes from tithes paid by peasants
it has successfully resettled. Its demands, which have expanded to
include an end to agribusiness and a promise not to relocate
squatters, can be ignored only at political peril.

In early July, Mr. da Silva met for four hours with movement leaders
at the presidential palace in Brasília. He was hoping to reduce
tensions, but may have achieved the opposite.

When the meeting ended, he was photographed wearing the movement's red
baseball cap and feeding cookies to the visitors. As a result, he was
widely criticized for appearing to support the movement's violations
of the law, including land occupations.

"The amount of noise being made about this is way out of proportion,"
José Genoino, the president of Mr. da Silva's Workers' Party, said in
an interview here. "The president has met with various other groups
and organizations and put on their hats and no fuss was ever made

But Mr. da Silva's reluctance to act against his allies merely
confirmed the suspicions of conservative rural landowners who have
always opposed him. They are openly arming themselves and hiring
private security forces that landless movement leaders described as
illegal militias.

"We have a president who swore to respect and uphold the Constitution
but is not doing so," Luiz Antônio Nabhan Garcia, a rancher here who
is president of the main national landowners' group, the Democratic
Rural Union, complained in an interview. "When land invasions take
place, the police stand by with arms crossed because this government
has no will to enforce the law."

Mr. da Silva has contributed to raising the expectations of the
landless. Before he assumed the presidency in January, he promised to
provide homesteads to at least 60,000 families this year. At the top
of that list were those already living in precarious encampments like
those here in western São Paulo State.

But government figures show that he is far behind that goal. Barely
2,500 families had been resettled by the end of June, and what is left
of this year's budget appears to allow for fewer than 7,000 in all.

At the same time, the number of poor families living in the estimated
1,300 squatter settlements around the country that the landless
movement has organized and controls has swelled to 150,000.
Increasingly, they are showing signs of frustration and impatience.

"I've been working in the fields since I was 7 years old, but always
for someone else and always as a day laborer," said Valdevino Antônio
de Lima, 58, a father of seven who is part of a group of 400 families
squatting alongside a road. "My dream has always been to farm a piece
of land that I can say is mine and that I can pass on to my children."

The group's leaders, however, envision something more radical. They
have repeatedly said they want to rid Brazil of agribusinesses that
focus on export markets and to impose a collectivist agricultural

"We want the socialization of the means of production," Miguel
Stedile, a son of the group's founder and a member of its national
coordinating council, said in a recent interview with the newsmagazine
Epoca. "We are going to adapt the Cuban and Soviet experiences to

That position puts the group in direct conflict with Mr. da Silva's
government. In some years, Brazil exports more foodstuffs — from
coffee and oranges to beef and soybeans — than any country except the
United States, and Mr. da Silva has emphasized increasing agricultural
production and exports even further as the quickest way to bring
investments and prosperity.

"There is room in Brazil for everything from agribusiness to
cooperatives and family farms," Mr. Genoino said in the interview.
"They can all coexist comfortably, just as some people wear jackets
and ties and others prefer shorts and sandals."

The landless movement and its allies are also challenging other
aspects of the official land reform program. Increasingly, they are
demanding that landless families remain where they are, rather than
being settled in more remote areas.

"We can no longer accept that the landless from all over the country
be deported to unused lands out there at the end of the world, in the
Amazon," said Msgr. Tomas Balduino, director of the Pastoral Land
Commission of the Roman Catholic Church. "Why can't they live in areas
with a good infrastructure, close to the markets that consume their

But in this region, where three states with some of the most fertile
land in Brazil come together, it is hard to find farms or ranches that
are not being worked.

Leaders of the landless movement say that many such properties are
"unproductive" and thus can be legally expropriated. Their owners
favor cattle over people, the movement leaders say, or have violated
environmental regulations. Courts have not endorsed those positions,
but the group continues to encourage peasants to occupy land.

In some cases, landowners have obtained injunctions ordering squatters
off their land or the arrest of movement leaders, only some of which
have been carried out. Mr. Garcia complained that movement leaders
have also encouraged members to destroy tractors and other machinery,
burn pastures and tear down fences, "and no landowner has been
compensated for his losses."

"Landowners can't take it any more, and they are taking advantage of
their right under law to arm themselves, their relatives and their
employees to protect their property and their rights," he said.

But with tensions rising, the landless movement's national directorate
has decreed that "there will be no truce" with landowners, and local
leaders, like Valmir Rodrigues Chaves, say more land occupations and
other "militant actions" should be expected here and elsewhere.

"We're not going to stop," Mr. Chaves said. "We are a social movement.
The populace need jobs and food and that is what we are here for, to
bring people back to the land."

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