Brazil Makes Land Grabs by Peasants Tougher

For the past decade of Brazil's democracy, it has been the accepted way for land-hungry peasants to grab some property.

Armed with spades and machetes, they camp near or just inside large estates viewed as unproductive, and they wait. In many cases, the government has rewarded them with titles to land.

But now President Fernando Henrique Cardoso says he has run out of patience.

"I've been tolerant and patient because it's part of my temperament and because it is the duty of he who rules the country," Mr. Cardoso said recently. "But the limit of my patience and tolerance is set by democracy."

Late last month, Cardoso signed a decree making government land expropriations quicker and simpler but also penalizing occupation of land by peasants, a favorite tactic of the Landless Rural Workers' Movement (MST).

"Land invasions are unacceptable," Cardoso says. "No longer will invaded areas be taken by the state for agrarian reform."

Typically after an invasion, agents of the government's National Agrarian Reform Institute assess the land. Any property that is at least 75 percent idle may be expropriated by the government. Now, the institute will no longer inspect invaded farms until after the squatters leave.

Cardoso isn't the only official who has lost patience with the MST. Last month, a judge in Espirito Santo State sentenced Jose Rainha, a nationally known MST leader, to 26 years and six months in prison for the 1989 double murder of a landowner and his security guard. Although five witnesses testified that Mr. Rainha was in another state at the time of the crime and five of the seven jurors admitted to having close ties to the deceased landowner, Rainha was found guilty.

Under Brazilian law, Rainha is entitled to a new trial since he was sentenced to more than 20 years. The retrial is scheduled for Sept. 16. The MST promises to bring in thousands of supporters, including soap-opera stars and popular sertenejo (country western) singers, who have just recorded a song to honor Rainha. The London-based human rights group Amnesty International has promised to consider him a prisoner of conscience if convicted.

Despite Cardoso's new decree, the MST will continue to pressure the government by invading large estates, according to its leader, Gilmar Mauro. Some 42,000 MST families are camped out in crude plastic tents waiting to invade large uncultivated land holdings.

In Brazil, the richest 20 percent of the population owns 88 percent of land, while the poorest 40 percent holds only 1 percent. According to the MST, Brazil has 195 million acres of fallow land, or some 62 percent of its arable territory, which is often used for speculation and tax write-offs.

This skewed distribution of land, MST leaders argue, is the major reason for migration of millions to urban slums and the chronic rural violence that has resulted in the deaths of nearly 1,000 people since 1985, according to the Roman Catholic Church's Pastoral Land Commission. In the last two years, 95 peasants were killed in 1,304 conflicts, and 17 more died in 1997, according to the commission.

In Parana, a rich southern farming state, five people have been murdered this year, including two MST farmers killed while tending fields on the property of the Giacometti lumber company.

Parana has 92 land invasions, so many that Gov. Jaime Lerner ordered the police not to evict squatters to avoid widespread violence.

As a result, landowners have turned to hired guns, or pistoleiros. "We have a right to protect our property," says Manoel Campinha Garcia, president of the Parana Rural Society, a rancher's association.

After the killings at Giacometti, the government announced the next day that the lumber company would turn over 38,000 acres to 6,000 peasants. "Since we received our land, the pistoleiros have stayed away," says Linomar Angelo, who invaded the 442,000-acre lumber company, the largest private landowner in Parana, along with 10,000 other peasants last year. "But we continue to patrol 24 hours a day."

Before he joined the MST, Mr. Angelo barely scraped by as a tenant farmer who handed over one-third of his crop to a landowner.

Today, he resides in the sprawling Giacometti settlement, a black-plastic tent city that is organizing itself the best it can while waiting for government loans to build permanent homes. Residents have dug latrines, erected water tanks, and built a schoolhouse for 1,300 children.

MST leaders say such land invasions - there have been 518 MST-sponsored occupations between 1990 and 1996 - are necessary because of the slow pace of Brazil's land-reform program.

They claim that at the current rate, the program will take 70 years to settle the estimated 4.8 million landless families.

President Cardoso says he has done more for the landless than any of his predecessors, providing land to 60,000 families last year and promising to settle 280,000 families by the end of his four-year term in 1998. Last March, he announced a $150 million credit line from the World Bank for infrastructure and the purchase of land for settlements in northeastern Brazil.

In the meantime, the MST continues its militant ways. In the past two weeks, its members have occupied the So Paulo State Secretary of Agriculture building, blocked two federal highways in Mato Grosso do Sul State, and announced marches on state capitals on July 25 to criticize the government's agrarian reform policy.

Funded by Brazilian and overseas donations, the MST has offices in 22 of Brazil's 26 states, operates 30 radio stations, three credit cooperatives (banks), and a monthly newspaper.

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