Bloody land wars in the Brazilian countryside have worsened with the apparent collapse of a government program to redistribute land to more than 1 million needy peasant families by 1989. About 5,000 families - known as posseiros - have occupied big properties in the states of Bahia, Rio Grande do Sul, and Maranhao in the past two months, according to Joao Pedro Stedile, an official with the leftist Movement for Landless People.
He adds that these and other land invasions caused battles with cattle ranchers and their hired guns that left 40 posseiros dead throughout rural Brazil in June and July.
Mr. Stedile said the land invasions and conflicts have increased because posseiros, supported by hundreds of Roman Catholic priests, have given up hope that the government will fulfill its pledge to give them land.
The government planned to resettle about 675,000 families on 62 million acres by the middle of this year. But so far, Stedile says, the government has only redistributed 2.7 million acres for 48,000 families. ``Peasants have lost faith in the government. They think they can only obtain land through occupations,'' Stedile said.
Landowners, who have had land taken over, charge the peasants with being ``subversive'' and claim the right to protect their own property.
As throughout the rest of Latin America, land ownership in Brazil is sharply skewed. Only 1.2 percent of the rural properties - latifundios larger than 2,500 acres - encompass 45.8 percent of the arable land while 10 to 12 million peasant families don't own enough land to make a living.
When President Jos'e Sarney came to office in 1985 as Brazil's first civilian leader after 21 years of military rule, he gave peasants hope that he would remedy this imbalance. He pledged in October 1985 to expropriate 100 million acres of under-used land on large private farms and give it to 1.4 million peasants by the end of 1989.
Promising to carry out a plan that the military government had formulated in 1964 but later largely abandoned, President Sarney said that giving land to peasants would offer them the opportunity to lift themselves out of poverty, would defuse conflicts in the countryside, and would reduce migration to Brazil's overcrowded cities.
But after powerful landowners formed the Democratic Rural Union to oppose the measure, Mr. Sarney de-emphasized the land reform program. It suffered another blow when Land Reform Minister Marcos Freire, who had vowed to step up expropriations, died last September in a plane crash.
Meanwhile, rural land disputes from the Amazon's jungles to the southern grasslands left 500 people dead from 1985 to '87, the Movement for Landless People reports.
Shortly after Jader Barbalho became Sarney's fifth land reform minister last October, he said the government planned to resettle 200,000 families in 1988 - not 450,000 as originally planned.
Mr. Barbalho called the original target goal ``overambitious'' and ``unworkable.''
In May, Brazil's Congress bowed to intense pressure from the Democratic Rural Union. The Congress voted to include a conservative land reform program in the country's draft constitution. The article protects ``productive'' land from expropriation.
Plinio Sampaio, a member of the Socialist Workers' Party and the leading land reform advocate in Congress, says this vote effectively torpedoed the program because ranchers could leave their property under-utilized while meeting the minimum ``productive'' land-use standards.
``Not a single `productive' farm has ever been expropriated in Brazil,'' Mr. Sampaio claims.
Political analysts say that the government has apparently given up on meeting its scaled-back goals with Sarney's decision late last month to appoint Barbalho to another Cabinet post.
David Fleischer, who heads the University of Bras'ilia's political science department, says the government plans to fold the Ministry of Land Reform into the Ministry of Agriculture. ``It will become just another government agency, and without ministerial rank its director will lose direct access to the President.''
In an interview shortly before stepping down as land reform minister, Barbalho denied that the Congressional vote outlawing the expropriation of ``productive'' land had crippled the Ministry's efforts. He added that the government had redistributed more land - 5.4 million acres - during his tenure than any of his predecessors' and that 55,000 peasant families were in the process of receiving land this year.
Barbalho said the government had increased health care, technical assistance, and public credit to resettled peasants, following a 100-billion cruzado (about $400 million) increase in the Land Reform Ministry's 1988 budget.
But political scientist Fleischer says legal challenges by landowners will keep most of the 55,000 families from receiving the land and that Brazil's monthly 20 percent inflation rate will quickly eat up the 100-billion cruzado appropriation. ``With the government having to reduce spending to lower the budget deficit, land reform aid will be cut,'' he adds.
In land conflict areas like Marab'a, a city with 150,000 residents, interviews with local people suggest that disputes between cattle ranchers and posseiros won't end soon. Although the government has succeeded in reducing tensions here by recently indemnifying landlords for property that posseiros had taken over and giving posseiros legal title to the land, the two sides still talk past, not with, each other.
Elias Mifarrey, the head of Marab'a's Democratic Rural Union office, says the posseiros are not men and women fighting a just cause but ``subversives linked with the Soviet Union.'' He adds that it was only natural that landowners resist land invasions. ``Like anybody else, we want to protect what is ours.''
Jos'e Pereira da N'obrega says the original posseiros who in 1981 took over the 18,000-acre ranch that he co-owned 20 miles outside of Marab'a, had sold out for a profit and had probably invaded somebody's else's property. ``I'm not going to buy any more land here,'' says Mr. da N'obrega, who has survived six gun battles with peasants. ``It will just get taken over again.''
But Jos'e Ribiero, whose family was one of 60 last year that invaded an estate dominated by towering Brazil-nut trees, says the landowners would rather kill malnourished peasants than let them plant crops on idle land. ``We don't have jobs, we don't get enough to eat, we don't have anything,'' Mr. Ribiero says standing outside his makeshift wooden home in a Marab'a slum. ``But still the owner called in the police who tore apart the wooden shacks we had constructed on his land.''
Emmanoel Wamberque, who heads the Marab'a office of the Catholic Church-funded Pastoral Land Commission, says that while the situation in the area is relatively calm, more conflict is inevitable. ``The social problems of hunger and employment - which give rise to the land invasions - still exist,'' he says. ``The posseiros say it's better to die from a bullet fighting for your rights than from hunger.''