Brazil's Landless Peasants Take City Buildings in Protest

They occupied 16 government offices this week trying to speed distribution of 'idle' acreage.

Thousands of landless peasants took over government buildings in 16 cities this week in an effort to force Brazil to pour more money into land reform.

"Congress keeps stalling. They say they'll make the changes we asked for, but they don't. Invasions are the only weapon we have," says Eduardo Luiz Emmerck, one of 1,000 peasants who spent the night in the Treasury Department in downtown So Paulo.

He adds that his family "cannot survive" and pay back a government loan with the $8.50 a day they make selling milk from the cows on their 50-acre plot of land.

"Even after the government gives us the land, we can't produce enough to live off it, and the loans don't cover our expenses," Mr. Emmerck says.

The more than 4,000 members of the National Movement of Landless Rural Workers agreed to start pulling out of federal offices Wednesday night. But they threatened to block highways and invade national banks if the government did not speed up the distribution of some 1.1 billion acres of idle farmland among an estimated 4 million landless peasants.

Movement leaders said they broke up the occupations because Finance Minister Pedro Malan has agreed to allow a congressional committee to negotiate their demands, including more than doubling the amount of farm credits granted to help peasants make use of the land they're given.

"Let us continue to pressure and demand that agrarian reform take place once and for all," says movement leader Roberto Baggio.

President Fernando Henrique Cardoso has pledged to settle 280,000 peasants on "idle" land seized by the government in 1998 and loan each family $6,500 to get started.

The movement said the takeovers will continue until the government increases the loans to about $15,000 and reduces the interest rate from 12 percent to 6.5 percent.

For more than a decade, the group has led the illegal occupation of farmland as a way of forcing the government to speed up the land-reform process, which seeks to correct one of the most unequal land and income distribution rates in the world. Two percent of the richest farmers own 65 percent of the land, according to the National Institute of Colonization and Agrarian Reform.

The invasions, supported by churches, international groups, and local politicians, have sometimes sparked violence between the landowners and the occupiers.

Others still fighting to get their plot of land said they were upset this week's invasion was called off.

"I'd rather die than keep on suffering like this," says Jose Xavier Costa Irapera, wiping tears from his eyes. The former farm laborer said he hasn't worked since he was laid off two years ago.

"I need a piece of land. My wife and two kids, we are good people. We don't want to go hungry anymore," he says.

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