Brazil's new land reform law is victory for wealthy landowners

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Large landowners won an important battle this week, when Brazil's Congress voted to include a conservative agrarian reform program in the country's new Constitution. The new law protects ``productive'' land from expropriation. After more than a week of negotiations between leftist and conservative congressmen, those favoring more radical land reform were unable to come up with the 280-vote majority needed to write a law that would allow some ``productive'' land to be expropriated. (The vote was 267 in favor, 253 against, with 11 abstentions.)

The new Constitution says that landowners must protect the environment, comply with labor laws, and use the land to benefit both owners and workers. Leftist congressmen wanted noncompliance with these requirements to be criteria for expropriation. But with the victory of the conservatives, landowners will be able to comply over a period of time to be determined later.

The new law also provides for earlier payment in the form of government bonds for land that is expropriated. The current law, written by the military government in 1974, was less conservative, but in most cases wasn't enforced because of lengthy legal battles over its interpretation.

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Conservative politicians say the new Constitution will cause less conflict because it is clearer. Violent struggles over land are common in Brazil, where more than 16,000 squatter families are waiting for the government to find them some land to work.

Leftist congressmen say the new agrarian reform law won't solve the problem of Brazil's landless. Sixty percent of Brazil's 141 million people are considered ``desperately poor'' by government standards.

``It was the darkest day of the National Constituent Assembly,'' Workers' Party federal deputy Plinio Sampaio told the financial daily, Gazeta Mercantil. ``We have gone 40 years backward.''

He and others fear that landowners will use their property as real estate investments, claiming their land is productive just by letting a few cattle graze on it. These congressmen also say that rural landowners won't comply with labor laws. Rural workers in Brazil have long missed out on most social benefits urban workers enjoy, such as minimum wages.

Tuesday's vote illustrates the strength of the landholders' Democratic Ruralist Union, the first interest group to organize after the military turned the government over to civilians in 1985.

Many Brazilians point to the Democratic Ruralist Union as an example of how to get things done in the country's nascent democracy. The party's tough no-concessions stance pushed the center-right congressional block to set up the voting scheme that put the burden on the left to come up with the necessary 280 votes to get their ideas into the Constitution.

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