Brazil's agrarian reform sparks land war. Land dispute tests country's fledgling democracy

A protracted land war is underway from the Amazon to the southern grasslands of Brazil. As a result, the national agrarian-reform program sparking the conflict has become the single most explosive political issue for this country's fledgling civilian government. President Jos'e Sarney first proposed significant reform over a year ago, but the initiative has remained largely a paper promise.

Federal legislation was passed in October to begin turning land over to Brazil's enormous class of land-hungry tenant farmers and farmers who do not own enough land from which to draw a living, estimated at between 10 to 12 million. The plan would distribute 100 million acres of land to 1.4 million families through 1989. The plan has been attacked by powerful landowner associations, who say it's ``communist'' inspired, and by activist sectors of the Roman Catholic Church, who oppose the go-slow approach.

Brazilian land has traditionally been concentrated in a few hands. But the problem of landlessness deepened during the two decades of military rule that ended in 1985. While the nation's population grew rapidly during this time, small family plots were absorbed by large-scale farm operations and new farmlands opened in the interior were bought up by companies or speculators.

The Sarney government came to power promising dramatic changes in the rural sector but appeared to falter under pressure from powerful interests opposed to any large-scale redistribution of land.

Brazil's millions of landless peasants have seized on the plan as a glimmer of hope. Many moved onto lands illegally in expectation the land would eventually be assigned to them through legal means. Landowners, meanwhile, formed armed associations to resist land invasions.

During the past year, more than 150 people have been killed in the conflicts, mainly involving invasions of land by peasants. President Sarney will unveil a new antiviolence program on June 14 aimed at controlling the conflict, during a visit to one of the regions of heaviest fighting, known as Parrot's Beak, on the edge of the Amazonian frontier.

To combat rural violence, the government has dispatched civil, federal, and military police to areas of conflict -- with orders to confiscate arms from landlords and peasants and to end the ``atmosphere of impunity'' in the countryside.

It took until last October, and 10 drafts, for the government to approve the national land-reform plan. And only last month, after the highly publicized murder of a popular Catholic priest and of a number of peasant leaders, were seven of 26 regional programs signed into law.

Land for the peasants is supposed to come from state-owned properties or from the expropriation of private land where production is below land-use standards established by government agronomists.

Frustrated by the lack of progress in implementing the reforms and increasingly isolated within the Sarney government, Agrarian Reform Minister Nelson Ribeiro quit his job late last month. Ribeiro was replaced by Dante de Oliveira, a one-time member of a leftist guerrilla group who has solid credentials with the Brazilian left. But the nomination of Mr. de Oliveira did not quiet land reform's most vocal advocates, the powerful Brazilian Bishops Conference, which backed Ribeiro.

Relations between church and state have not improved since. In late May, the leading daily Journal do Brasil reported that Justice Minister Brossard had complained to Sarney that the church was ``organizing invasions'' of land by squatters. Brossard emphatically denied the reports, but later, on a nationwide television program, charged that, although ``the church as a whole cannot be blamed. . . , there are priests who are creating difficulties for agrarian reform.''

Archbishop Lorscheiter did not show up at a recent awards ceremony in Bras'ilia, where he was scheduled to receive an award from President Sarney, and his absence was interpreted as a protest over Brossard's statements.

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