Battle lines drawn in Brazil land reform

It's planting season here in the red-dirt country of Brazil's southern interior. Peasants like Egon Filtes, a descendant of German immigrants, are tramping around the new-plowed sod of this 20,000-acre ranch with new hopes for the future.

Mr. Filtes and his family are squatters, one of 1,300 families on the Anonni ranch that have been given federal government permission to plant on the land they have occupied for more than a year. Their successful ``invasion'' may be a spark for one of the most explosive issues facing this country as it emerges from years of military rule - land reform.

For as the victorious squatters dismantle their tent city and fan out to take their share of the land, the polarization of the rich and poor in the Brazilian countryside only increases.

President Jos'e Sarney raised the historic but contentious issue - the redistribution of nonproductive land - in 1985 by promising to expropriate 100 million acres for the resettlement of 1.4 million landless families by 1989.

Since the days of the Portuguese monarchy's land grants here, large chunks of the countryside have remained in the hands of a few, while the peasantry has multiplied but not prospered. The country's deep rural poverty has never been seriously addressed. Now with the first democratic government in more than 20 years, the pent-up pressure for change has suddenly found an outlet. And the lines of battle are being drawn.

Landless peasants in many parts of the nation see the Anonni ``invasion'' as a successful technique for pressuring the government to move more rapidly on its promises of land reform. Landowners, who have organized to fight the reform program - even with arms - see it as a dangerous precedent.

``If we didn't do this [move onto the land], we wouldn't have managed the pressure to get the land we have now,'' says Odette Beazus, who with her sharecropper husband and five children left their rented property a year ago to squat on the Anonni spread. The Anonni family land was nearing final expropriation by the government after a 15-year dispute stemming from one of Brazil's earlier attempts at land reform.

Landowners and even some at the National Institute of Colonization and Agrarian Reform (INCRA), the government agency charged with redistributing land, are concerned about Mrs. Beazus's interpretation of the Anonni case.

``We're really worried,'' admits an INCRA official who asked not to be named. ``This is something that could multiply. These people were willing to wait a year in shacks for some land. It [their success] could unchain expectations that invading and camping out are right.''

Justino Vasconcelos, the attorney for the Anonni family, whose cattle ranch was targeted for expropriation because it was not considered productive, says: ``The Anonni farm serves today to remind all property owners that they shouldn't let anyone onto their property. So if you have a farm, you're going to defend it any way you can ... with revolvers or rifles or whatever.''

There were more than 200 deaths in Brazil over land disputes over the past year, including priests working with the landless. Most of the deaths occurred in the northeast, where many have never had clear title to the land.

By reviving the long-dormant reform issue, the government has given momentum to activism on both the left and right. The Movement of the Landless, supported by leftist Roman Catholic advocates of liberation theology, has created several dozen encampments, including that on Anonni land.

The well-funded, rightist Rural Democratic Union (UDR) was formed by landowners during the past year to mount political campaigns for last November's congressional elections. The UDR says 60 of its candidates were elected. The group opposes expropriation of private lands, productive or not, and backs the use of arms.

Land ownership remains highly concentrated, as it has been for centuries - 48 percent of the arable land is owned by 1 percent of landholders, while only 2.4 percent is in the hands of smallholders.

A population explosion in the past 20 years and the mechanization of farming techniques have helped to deepen rural poverty. Policies of the former military government encouraged speculative land-buying in the interior, and the growth of export crop production such as soybeans encouraged owners of large farms to buy up smaller arable plots. As a result, the rural poor were pushed to the cities, where they've been bottled up in slums, lacking the skills needed to make a living in urban areas.

Those who promote land reform believe giving the poor a piece of land will help reduce Brazil's hunger and poverty. (It is estimated that some 60 million Brazilians live in dire poverty.) They say large landholdings often lie unused or are sprinkled with a few head of cattle while the owner manages the land for speculative gain rather than productivity.

``Land as a resource is not a consumer good, it's a productive good, and has to be used by society in the most productive manner in terms of production, job creation, tax revenues, and conservation of natural resources. So we compare the potential use of the land with its actual use,'' says Jos'e Eli da Veiga, a Brazilian land-reform scholar and former Sao Paulo regional director of INCRA.

The current agrarian reform program is based on one developed in 1964 that was carried out only sporadically. Land targeted for expropriation is land that is underused according to federal indexes of the average productivity in a region. The program calls for market-value payment, in the form of 20-year government bonds, to the landowner. It would provide about 70 acres of land, technical aid, and low-interest loans to each settling family.

The reform program, which is gaining wide attention through government-sponsored television and newspaper ads intended to notify peasants, was not supported in the previous Congress under the military government. It was promulgated in October 1985 by decree of President Sarney.

Landowner groups call reform a romantic notion that is ``communistic'' and ``unworkable.'' They say the costs of paying owners for expropriation and of the subsequent technical assistance to small farmers are too much for the strapped federal budget. The Brazilian Association for Agrarian Reform - a private group of agronomists, economists, and social scientists supportive of the program - places the cost at about $5,900 per family, or $82.6 million. The landowners, however, claim that the price tag would be closer to $2,470 per acre, or as high as $40 billion.

Even if the government were able to afford the cost, landowners say, the trend toward highly technical, large-scale farming and the high cost of financing under Brazilian inflation means that the small farmer could not compete. And subsistence farming, they claim, has already proved unsuccessful, because many small farmers saw better profits in selling their land and moving to the city.

But Guy LeRoy, a Russian Orthodox priest from Belgium working with the Movement of the Landless, says ``capitalist accumulation of the land'' has been a cause of peasant hunger and the exodus to the city. The growing poverty in Brazil justifies immediate expropriation of land as a short-term solution, he says. And, he adds, the Movement of the Landless will continue the land encampments because they have been successful in spurring the government to move a little faster.

Less than one-third of the 104,000 families targeted for settlement over the past year have been resettled, because expropriations immediately lead to protracted legal battles. Those settling on the Anonni farm, for example, are only being allowed temporary rights there while larger plots for them are being determined in court.

An INCRA official in Rio Grande do Sul says that rural peasant groups will find it easier to organize because of the success of the Anonni invasion and because of what appears to be a new seriousness about agrarian reform.

``Only in the last two or three years are debates about this front-page news,'' the official says, and land reform will be a major issue of debate when the new Congress meets next month to write a new constitution.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Battle lines drawn in Brazil land reform
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today