Portugal collectives resist returning land to private hands

In the Communist-run collective farm "the 5th of October," Francisco Espanhol looked up from a pile of potatoes, pointed to a far-off hill, and said, "All we want is work and peace, but if they go on doing that, we're going to go hungry and then we'll have to fight."

Earlier that morning groups of local paramilitary police, two officials from the Ministry of Agriculture, and a rather nervous-looking, nameless individual dressed in an immaculate gary suit had arrived without warning and expelled 63 men, women, and children from a large farmhouse. The ministry officials had then handed the individual a piece of paper that made him the legal owner of the house, a few animals, some machinery, and about 356 acres of land.

The individual said, "All that has happened here is that I've been give back what was robbed from em in the first place."

The "5th of October" is named after the day in 1975 on which more than 1,000 land-hungry peasants, caught up in the euphoria of the Portuguese revolution, invaded one of the large estates then existing in southern Portugal and declared it "in the hands of the people."

Today the collective "5th of the october" is one of more than 400 collectives threatened by Portugal's three-year-old agrarian-reform law. In principle, the law aims to settle the complex tangle of ownership rights in the agricultural Alentejo region, where, following the April 1974 revolution, some 2.5 million acres of private land was siezed by landless peasants. A large part of this land, which former owners say was illegally expropriated, is being divided into smaller and more productive estates and then placed in the hands of the former owners.

The Ministry of Agriculture believes that until this restructuring takes place there is little hope of the kind of technical improvement so desperately needed if Portugal is to become a successful member of the European Community. The fact that food stuffs represent over 30 percent of Portugal's total import bill has been largely blamed on the inefficiency of the collectives during the past five years.

But one of the immediate practical consequences of the agrarian reform law has been unemployment. The private farmers repossessing the land are aiming to maximize profits through the use of machinery and fertilizers, and do not want to be overburdened with excess labor. Antonio Potes, a young farmer who had just had his estate handed back after six years of self-imposed exile in neighboring Spain, said, "No one was too concerned when I was put out of a job by the revolution. Now that I'm back again I want to make the best of what I've got. It's up to eh government to deal with the unemployed."

Under the reform law passed by Parliament in the summer of 1977, an estimated 555,000 acres of collectivized land have been handed back to private ownership. According to local farm unions. the active population in the Alentejo region has dropped in these years from nearly 72,000 to less the 55,000, and the number is falling all the time.

Portugal's center-right Democratic alliance, which won last December's general election, is committed to completing the agrarian reform by the end of this summer. According to the government's own estimates this will involve the decollectivization of a further 600,000 acres, leaving a potential total of between 20,000 and 30,000 unemployed laborers in the Alentejo.

Until recently, Portugal's Communist Party, whose elected commitees sit on every collective farm, has shown a reluctance to physically oppose the application of the agrarian reform law. The few land reoccupations that have taken place have never lasted more than a week. Clashes with the paramilitary police have been kept to minimum. And the speeches of party officials have been generally cautious, urging resistance but only through legal means.

Significantly, the communist Party officially condemned a spokesman for Portugal's extreme Left, Maj Otelo de Saraiva de Carvalho, when he urged Alentejo farmworkers to take up amrs and "march on Lisbon."

"That kind of irresponsible rhetoric simply plays into the hands of the Right , and we're not strong enough to take them on yet," said a young Communist militant, reflecting his party's dogged pragmatism. There are signs, however, that the Alentejo operation is raising the pitch of left-wing opposition. This week the Communist-controlled trade union movement, the 1 million-strong Intersindical, organized a nationwide series of strikes and demonstrations. But while the Communists seem content to stick within the limits of what they call "legal opposition," they are in danger of being outflanked.

The sheer frustration experienced by a growing number of landless peasants is finding its expression in more violent action.

Francisco Espanhol's fears are echoed by many of his fellow laborers as they watch the edifice that has sustained them for the past five years slowly collapsing.

A guaranteed wage, year-round employment, and a roof over one's head -- the three priority concerns of the rural worker -- are no longer guaranteed The pattern of land ownership is rapidly changing, the collectives are dying, and the words of caution whispered by the local committees are becoming increasingly irrelevant.

"Where are we going to from here? Back to the days of misery and darkness," said one of the members of the "5th of October." He had lived through the days of starvation wages and political repression that in the 1950s and '60s forced many Alentejo peasants to migrate to the cities of abroad.

In recent weeks, growing social unrest has led to a number of wildcat strikes and demonstrations that were not organized by the Communist farm unions. On some estates, the paramilitary police have clashed with farmworkers, and there have been serious incidents involving symbolic "shootouts" between private farmers and displaced peasants.

Although such incidents are still far from the violent uprising envisaged by Major Otelo, they are being viewed with increasing concern by communists and government officials.

Future unrest in what is Portugal's equivalent of Spain's Basque country will be avoided only if the government can come up soon with a coherent policy of compensation for the 80,000-odd laborers in danger of being made redundant.

The few cards that Portuguese Prime Minister Francisco de Sa Carneiro can still play include a distribution of small plots of land among individual peasants, an ambitious civil construction scheme, and a major liftoff of the country's weak industrial sector as Portugal approaches membership of the European Community in 1983.

As one economist put it, "In the '60s the war in Africa and the economic boom in Europe were the solution for our unemployment problem. Now we're without Africa, and Europe is almost as poor we are."

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