Brazil's Landless Refuse To Be Voiceless As Well

Grass-roots movement becomes main political opposition

The blue-and-white tile mural that dominates the entrance to the Carlos Botelho Agricultural School shows a bucolic scene of a proud farmer tilling his land with a horse-drawn plow.

The peaceful picture stands in stark contrast to the reality of rural Brazil. Like the wheat, soy, and cattle-grazing lands that surround this community 100 miles west of Sao Paulo, farmlands across Brazil are the scene of thousands of land disputes. Violence often erupts as hundreds of thousands of rural Brazilians who see no alternative to farming demand their own plot of ground.

The Carlos Botelho School has not escaped this maelstrom. It stands occupied by 500 families who say they will not leave until the government gives them land.

The demands, and the government's failure to address them over the past decade, have given rise to the Sem Terra, or Landless Movement, which some observers now consider to be Brazil's principal political opposition force.

After more than 500 land invasions in the 1990s that involved more than 151,000 families, Sem Terra leaders are pledging to ratchet up pressure on the government in the coming weeks to force an acceleration of land distribution and a shift in agrarian reform.

March on capital

Yesterday, Sem Terra contingents from around the country were to begin a two-month march on the capital, Braslia, to mark the one-year anniversary of the April 17 massacre of 19 squatters in Eldorado dos Carajs by Par state military police.

Anticipating stepped-up activism over the coming weeks, the government on Friday announced new security measures to stop land seizures. The government said it is moving as fast as possible on land distribution.

Aiming even higher, Sem Terra leaders are also hoping to stall, if not derail, a list of belt-tightening national economic reforms and privatizations - saying they will lead to even greater hardships for Brazil's poor.

For the protesters who took over the classrooms and dormitories of the Carlos Botelho School last month, however, the first objective remains land.

"We have given the government 45 days to resolve the situations of these families by resettling them, but we are also pledged to occupy the school until everyone has land," says Jos Gais, a local Sem Terra leader whose family is among the 500 camped here.

Itapetininga's landless protesters claim that much of the verdant farmland surrounding them belongs to the government or absentee landlords for whom land was nothing more than a hedge against Brazil's once Himalayan-sized inflation.

Meeting with other movement leaders under Sem Terra's now nationally recognized flag - a white medallion showing a farm couple and a green Brazil centered on a crimson field - Mr. Gais and his colleagues, who are all jobless, say they have an alternative vision of how Brazilian agriculture should develop.

"The government's agrarian model is designed to create large farms producing goods for export," says Daniel Costa, another local Sem Terra leader. "But all that plan has done is concentrate land ownership even more, while farmers like us have lost our jobs.... Our approach," he adds, "is to encourage production for people here, and not on small isolated farms but through diverse and value-adding cooperatives."

Land distribution is not a new problem in Brazil, where some farms are larger than European countries. In a country where income distribution is considered the world's worst, land distribution is on a similarly unequal plane.

But the size and impact of the landless issue has grown swiftly over recent years for several reasons:

* Land claims became bottled up during the early '90s as the government failed to pay the problem any serious attention;

* A recession in the early '90s and agricultural modernization in Brazil's most productive states in the south teamed up to cut demand for farm laborers even as many farm-related businesses folded, putting tens of thousands of low-skilled workers out of a job.

* Unemployment, at a five-year high in Brazil, means moving to the cities is no longer a promising option for the rural jobless.

* With Brazil becoming a more democratic society, space has opened up for a grass-roots movement such as Sem Terra.

Officials acknowledge that the landless issue is among the stickiest they face. But they insist the government is dedicating much more time and resources to the issue even as it searches for better economic alternatives than small plots and subsistence farming.

"We're intent on resolving a larger number of claims each year, but we're hampered by growing violence and impunity that make a resolution more problematical," says Gilmar Viane, director of the Department of Agrarian Land Conflicts in INCRA, the government agency that manages the agrarian reform process in Braslia. "The situation we're dealing with is like the Old West."

The government says it settled 62,000 land claims last year, up from 42,000 in 1995. The goal is to settle 80,000 this year and 100,000 in 1998 - so President Fernando Henrique Cardoso can claim 280,000 resolutions by the 1998 elections.

Sem Terra leaders discount those figures, however, insisting that last year only 25,000 families received land. "We investigated and found that most of these families had received their land well in the past," says Egidio Brunetto, a member of Sem Terra's national board.

Mr. Brunetto, who received land in 1988 that is now a diversified cooperative in Matto Grosso do Sul state, says most of the movement's protesters come from the estimated 400,000 rural Brazilians who lost their jobs in recent years. And he acknowledges that a stronger government effort to address landless claims has given more families the impetus to join the movement.

But Sem Terra's success has also caught the eye of large rural landowners and ranchers, who fear the landless are winning a national image battle. The landowners' best-known organization, the Democratic Ruralist Union (UDR), is planning its own march on Braslia to remind the government of their rights and to try to improve their image as gun-toting land barons.

Settling disputes with a gun

The Sem Terra movement has spawned a few heroes who embody the ideals of the rural poor's struggle for justice. But last month, the landowners were handed their own poster boy when a young rancher in Pontal in So Paulo State was captured on TV news rebuking the 5,000 landless threatening to invade his land with gunfire. The mustachioed cowboy, vice president of the UDR, said from his horse's saddle, "The next attempted invasion, there'll be a killing. They want a body, they'll have it" - and an antihero was born.

But such high-profile bravado raises government fears of rising violence. Last year Brazil counted 47 deaths directly related to the land conflicts. This year, there had already been seven in the first two weeks of January.

None of those killings has been solved. "We're showing we're capable of resolving the land conflicts," says Mr. Viane, "but if the justice system can't assist us in the mean time, it will encourage more violence."

Subsistence farms aren't answer

Viane says the government wants to get beyond simply handing out small plots of land for subsistence farming "that only leave people stuck in the past" and in poverty. Touting the kind of cooperative Sem Terra's Mr. Brunetto is already operating, Viane says one idea is to work with farmers to plant crops that they can process themselves or that local businesses can market. A new $300-million World Bank loan is helping Brazil work in that direction by funding development of farm cooperatives in five states.

One example is the small dairies that are sprouting up and working with regional creameries to develop yogurt, cheeses, and other dairy products.

"With that kind of integration, you get higher incomes," says Viane, "which is something that should satisfy all sides in this conflict."

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