Brazil’s Battle for Land Reform

Friday 30 May 2003, by Pierre BEAUDET

Photo : Sebastião Salgado ©

Landowners already doubt him, while landless peasants see him as the one who will finally restore justice to the most inequitable country in the world. Brazilian Minister for Land Reform Miguel Rossetto will be coming to Montreal at the beginning of June, on an invitation from Alternatives. A former trade unionist and vice-governor of the state of Rio Grande do Sul, the young minister knows he has quite a challenge ahead of him. One thing is for certain: it is land reform, promised for years now, that will make or break the new government of Luis Inacio da Silva, whom they call Lula.

Since Lula became president in January, the largest country in South America is ripe for mudança (changes).

But waiting takes a long time, in a country with 178 million people. The majority of Brazilians are poverty stricken, with an average income of less than 250 dollars US per month (while the cost of living is about equivalent to Montreal).

In a country that is extremely wealthy - the GNP of Brazil exceeds that of Canada - peasants, women, children, and blacks are among the poorest. 20 percent of the population is unemployed, and nearly 60 percent works under the table in the informal sector in very difficult conditions. More than 50 million Brazilians are hungry, with an income of less than one dollar per day. Their children do not go to school - they work in medieval conditions on large plantations.

The new government is ready to rid Brazil of this misery and exclusion. But will it be able to? Right before the elections, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) urged the government to keep paying off its debt and maintain its hardline economic policies. Lula has little room to maneuver, because a conflict with the IMF could be very expensive in the short term.

One thing is certain; Brazilians who voted for Lula (more than 55 percent of the population) are not going to wait forever. They want to see concrete changes now. Popular organizations like the Landless Peoples Movement support the new government, but if and only if it owns up to its promises.

A rural world in crisis

27 000 Brazilian landowners control 178 million hectares, half of which are not cultivated. Many of them still live as they did in the days of slavery. On "their" land, expropriated and stolen from aboriginals, live "their" workers, for whom the concept of citizenship is a foreign ideal. Until recently, whole rural communities, especially in poor and arid areas like the Northeast, could not even exert their voting rights as landowners controlled the local political apparatus. Armed militia groups continue to dictate law and order, especially when peasants start to speak up and get organized.

Today, feudal agriculture is in crisis. It doesn’t correspond to a global "agricultural market" where land and crops are goods like any other. Large rural farms whose production (usually soy, meat, citrus fruits, and coffee) is intended for export are under attack by multinationals, who are buying them up cheaply. Through neoliberal policies, opening up to foreign investors, and deregulation, 17 large American companies now control 43 percent of Brazil’s exported production. The former government of Fernando Henrique Cardoso gambled on globalization under the illusion that Brazil might possibly compete on equal terms with the United States.

Far from improving conditions, the ongoing takeover of Brazilian agriculture has caused mass poverty and exclusion. As a result, one million small farmers have gone bankrupt since 1995 because of massive American corn imports. At the same time, the number of people without land has soared above 4 million. If this economic liberalization continues, as proposed by the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), the situation could get worse.

Peasants march onwards

For the last few years, political initiatives have changed. Rural movements like the 15-million-member National Confederation of Agricultural Workers, and the Landless People’s Movement (LPM) are looking to smash down walls. Created in 1984, the LPM now consists of more than 5 million landless peasants, agitating in 23 of Brazil’s 26 states. The LPM’s main tactic is the mass occupation of mostly idle land from large landowners. Once there, the formerly landless set up camps, cooperatively farm the land, and sell their crops. Increasing school attendance is also one of the priorities of the LPM, since the children of peasants often end up working in the fields alongside their parents. With minimal means, the LPM now manages 1 800 primary schools.

Since he was appointed, Miguel Rossetto has helped 80 000 LPM families to get settled. He intends to get the most out of existing legislation, allowing the government to expropriate land that landowners have left empty for speculation. More than 100 million hectares, half of the fertile properties, could be redistributed. And the Minister is even more ambitious, wanting to combat more than just property ownership issues. Under the guidance of the new minister, civil servants from the land affairs department are helping landless people to create more diversified and productive agricultural enterprises. According to Miguel Rossettto, "The central element will be the transformation of the landless people into farmers that produce, who have knowledge, technical assistance, and credit in a collective country model."

Putting a country without a floor back on its feet

Narciso Rocha Clara, the president of the agricultural producers’ organization SINAPRO, accuses Miguel Rossetto of wanting to bring Brazil to a state of war. The media are generally hostile toward Lula’s new government, condemning the LPM’s actions and calling Minister Rossetto "complacent" in the face of the illegal occupation of land. But for Rossetto, "Brazil is getting back on its feet. Look at the level of crime, infant mortality, respect for the elderly, and the unemployed. We have 50 million people who are hungry. The violence of landless people should not be seen as a legal right for people who have been socially excluded - it exists because of misery, exclusion, abandonment, and a lack of perspective."


Pierre Beaudet, Director of Alternatives

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