Brazil's Landless Need More Than Land Reform

Agriculture holds little hope of a livelihood

The headlines were all too familiar. "Massacre," cried one news magazine. "The Shame!" sung another. The dateline, El Dorado deCarajas, a town somewhere in the eastern Amazon region, had an exotic ring. But the news was cruelly commonplace.

Homeless peasants, protesting their plight, had set up a roadblock to bring attention to their cause: land reform. The police saw things differently, and "confronted" the demonstrators. "Attacked" was the better word. The farmers wielded hoes and sickles, the police submachine guns. When the bullets had stopped, 19 people were dead - and none of them wore a uniform.

The incident was notable not only for its brutality, but because it was so predictable. Brazilian farm country is a contradictory landscape. Much of it is carpeted with field crops, where enterprising farmers and ranchers have turned poor, mostly acid soils into a garden. But shift your eye to the edges of many of these properties and you see a powder keg.

Thousands of squatters invade farms and ranches, demanding a piece of land and a shred of opportunity. Barely a week goes by now without news of landless peasants toppling fences and marching en masse to set up tent cities on some untended corner of the biggest estates.

Property owners, meanwhile, are arming themselves. Luckily, most of these confrontations are played out peacefully. Occasionally, the authorities must count the dead.

As officialdom scurries to put out fire after fire, now with the police, now with land reform agents, some nagging questions loom: Why has there been no agrarian reform in Brazil? What is to be done with the landless millions?

Complex issues, for sure, but in no small way addressing them will be a stern test not only for the government of president Fernando Henrique Cardoso, but for Brazil's tender democracy itself.

Origins in colonial times

Since colonial days, the Brazilian countryside has been a parquetry of privilege, where a handful of barons ruled over rambling estates the size of counties, or even countries, even as millions of peasants scratched a living from meager patches. Little has changed. Brazil today has some 3 million rural properties. But only 58,000 of them account for around half the farmland.

Mr. Cardoso, a social democrat and former foe of the military, whose resum is thick with human rights work, has championed the landless. He has vowed to settle 280,000 families by the end of his term in 1999.

But homeless peasants are not waiting for invitations. Some 22,000 families have set up encampments - raggedy villas of sticks and sheet plastic - on roadsides or on a corner of someone else's property. They call their campaign the Landless Movement - Movimento Sem Terra in Portuguese, or simply MST.

They are encouraged by union men, leftist politicians, and liberal Catholic clergy. They demand nothing less than the "democratization" of the countryside, by taking away idle land from the "latifundiarios," or big landowners, and divvying it up among the have-nots.

The movement's leaders bear surnames of Italian, German, Ukrainian, or Polish descent. They are the sons and grandsons of Europe's sem terra, who fled war or want in the Old World to seek opportunity in the New. Their intrepid ways helped settle Brazil's forbidding interior, turning this sleepy nation into a cornucopia.

Yet, they are also the victims of success. Thanks to the machines and methods of modern farming and herding, some 30 million small farmers were tossed off their plots in the last three decades. Most of this human jetsam streamed into the cities, swelling the slums, but many thousands were left adrift in the countryside.

A flood of imports

Contemporary economics took over what modernization had begun. Once as closed to the world as a greenhouse, Brazil has suddenly thrown open its borders to the world. A flood of food and manufactured imports has helped stabilize prices - no mean feat in a country that teetered on the edge of hyperinflation. But it also destabilized agriculture. At least half a million farm jobs have been lost in the last four years.

Most of these jobs are gone forever. And this is the bitter truth of it: Seizing good farmland and parceling it out to the landless millions would probably only backfire, and may even be cruel. Time and again, the government has sent peasants with all their worldly belongings into some forsaken corner of the back lands, only to watch them fail. A far more powerful tool for land distribution might be to simply call in the debts and uncollected taxes of the land barons, many of whom would be forced to cough up huge tracts of their estates to settle their accounts.

Like Brazilian agriculture, Brazil's landless are also modern. They are the modern poor, the detritus of an economy whose efficiency has tossed them into the bin we call redundancy. Like many of Brazil's automobile workers or bank tellers, whose jobs have been automated, the sem terra are not only unemployed but, more tragically, may even be unemployable.

They demand, and deserve, aid and comfort. It is not so much new land, but a new purpose and vocation that these jettisoned rural laborers are seeking. Brazil has worked a minor miracle in quelling inflation and repairing its faltering economy. To become a true social democracy, it will also have to find a way to care for victims of the miracle.

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