Brazil's landless protesters take a break - for now

Officials removed squatters from government buildings on Friday.

After a week of violent protests and property invasions by tens of thousands of landless workers in 22 of Brazil's 26 states, government officials have quelled the uprising and cleared insurgents from government buildings.

At least for now.

"Today, squatters are heading home," Jose Rainha, president of the Landless Rural Workers Movement (MST) told the Folha de So Paulo daily. "But be sure that we will be back soon and in force."

This echoes the view of local observers that these landless groups are emerging as an institutional force to be reckoned with throughout Brazil.

Long recognized for their commitment to agrarian reform, the MST is now expanding its outlook to focus on economic and political goals, according to analysts. In addition to demanding the government speed up land reform, it is now stepping up its call for financial assistance to small landowners.

"This was the largest mobilization they have pulled off so far," says David Fleischer, a political scientist at the University of Brasilia. "They had invaded public buildings before, but they had never done so on such a massive coordinated scale. It will probably get more violent."

The MST works by invading land it deems untended or unproductive, under a loose interpretation of the Brazilian Constitution's statement that all land not "socially productive" can be distributed to farmers. The tactic has proven extraordinarily successful. Since President Fernando Henrique Cardoso took power in 1994, his administration has given land titles to 350,000 families, more than his predecessors did in the previous 30 years.

Last week's melee involved armed police using smoke grenades and rubber bullets to keep bus loads of demonstrators at bay. It was among the worst seen at Sem Terra (or "landless" in Portuguese) protests since 19 of its members were shot dead by police in 1996. Mr. Fleischer says this bodes ill for the future.

And police forces aren't the only ones keenly aware of the escalating tension.

"The Brazilian countryside is a powder keg right now," says Jaime Callegari, one of the movement's national coordinators. "The conflict is going to be tougher than ever in the coming months, and it is only a matter of time before there is more violence."

That terse prediction will not dissuade the movement from continuing with a policy that has helped it grow to become one of the biggest social movements in Latin America. The group formed in 1974 but only seriously began its now trademark land invasions in the mid 1990s around the time Mr. Cardoso took power.

In a country with the one of the widest income disparities in the world, Cardoso is distributing too little land too slowly, says Bernardo Mancano Fernandes, a geography professor who has studied the Sem Terra movement. "The government is only giving away land because Sem Terra is forcing them to," Mr. Fernandes says. "Before, the only way to get land in Brazil was to buy it. Now there is the option of occupying it."

MST leaders admit that most of those who took part in last week's protests had already received land titles from the government. But earlier this year, Brazil altered its rules on distributing financial credits. And, says Adelar Preto, one of MST leaders in Brasilia, it is now harder than ever to make the newly acquired land profitable,

The 30,000 people who stormed into buildings and farms last week need more financial help, Preto says, and the invasions are designed to put the pressure on Finance Minister Pedro Malan.

By occupying federal and state buildings in big towns and cities across Brazil, the MST is broadening its range of targets, analysts say.

The MST has invaded 40 state buildings so far this year, compared to approximately 50 in the whole of 1999, landless coordinator Mr. Callegari says.

The protests have won the movement publicity but it has come at a price.

According to Brazilian experts, the broad support enjoyed by Sem Terra has eroded recently as an increasing number of people - particularly among the middle classes once sympathetic to the cause - perceive the movement as becoming more political, more radical, and more violent.

Says Minister of Agrarian Development Raul Jungmann, "I think we could have a difficult two years ahead."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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