Brazilians wonder: Where's the reform?

While recent protests criticize President Lula's sluggish land reforms, his popularity persists.

A wave of land invasions by peasants seeking arable land is increasing pressure on Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and highlighting the disenchantment felt by former supporters who say he has failed to tackle the country's social ills head on.

But with just seven months to go before Brazil's next presidential election, the charismatic Lula still boasts a strong showing in the polls. His popularity belies a still-simmering corruption scandal and his behavior as a business-friendly pragmatist rather than the iconoclastic socialist reformer his first campaign had portrayed.

Social justice groups expected Lula, as he is known - a former union worker who campaigned for agrarian reform for decades as the country's most outspoken opposition leader - to speed the pace of land distribution when he took power in January 2003. But he has given land to little more than half of those he vowed would get it, inciting anger from his once-devoted followers.

"Under the previous government, agrarian reform was going at a snail's pace and it has continued at a snail's pace [under Lula]," said Marina dos Santos, one of the leaders of the Landless Peasants Movement (MST), the country's largest landless group. "We are very disappointed, we expected so much more from him."

Peasant groups - often comprising dozens or even hundreds of families - occupied at least 30 farms or properties in two weeks in a new round of protests against the slow pace of agrarian reform. The groups invade land they believe is not being used, sometimes clearing it, farming small plots, or simply making their presence in makeshift camps felt by owners and officials.

Both squatters and government officials agree that too much land lies unused and should be distributed to the poor. Brazil, the fifth-largest country in the world by both area and population, is notoriously unequal. The largest 37 landowners own more land than the 2.5 million smallest, according to government figures.

The wave of farm invasions comes at a peculiar time for Lula. Although his government was involved in a corruption scandal last year that analysts have called the most outrageous of its kind in modern Brazil, his personal popularity remains largely unaffected. Opinion polls give Lula about 20 percentage points over his main rival, Sao Paulo Governor Geraldo Alckmin, who was chosen as his party's candidate last week.

Lula has also shrugged off increasing criticism from some of his staunchest supporters. In addition to protests from the landless movement, NGOs, human rights groups, and even the Roman Catholic Church are now accusing him of selling out to landowners, bankers, loggers, and other vested interests.

"This was a government that didn't face up to the powerful rural and economic oligarchies," says Maria Luiza Mendonca, the director of the Human Rights and Social Justice Network, an umbrella group. "He hasn't attacked the structural problems that cause things like hunger, illiteracy, and poverty. Lula has lacked courage and he has lacked daring."

An unlettered factory worker who ran for president three times before being elected in a landslide victory in 2002, Lula promised wide- ranging political, union, tax, land, and social security reforms. He vowed to create 10 million jobs in four years, double the minimum wage in real terms, and build houses, schools, and hospitals.

But while his stewardship of the economy has been widely praised, he has failed to meet his own targets. He created only 3.7 million formal jobs in his first three years in power and increased the minimum wage by just 42 percent in real terms. His flagship food distribution program, called Fome Zero, reached 8.7 million homes but has been plagued by administrative problems.

But as this wave of invasions has shown, no one is more angry at Lula than those seeking land. Candidate Lula won the support of organizations like MST after he promised to give land to 400,000 families and hand over title deeds to 500,000 more families who already have plots but lack the legal papers for them. So far, only around 245,000 poor families have been given new land.

The recent wave of "invasions" are designed to put pressure on the government to keep its word and get the question of land reform back on the table as the election approaches, activists say.

"After three years we are seeing that our problems are not being resolved," says dos Santos. "These occupations are part of that question; to pressure the government to seat the families already camped out ... and get this on the agenda before the election."

Government officials, however, say the MST is being unrealistic and claim they have given away land at a record rate, just using different criteria from the MST to measure how. Between 2001 and 2004 the income of the poorest 10 percent of the population increased by 23.4 percent, while the income of the richest 10 percent fell 7.6 percent.

"The MST counts only families of their own group and only those being given land that was appropriated," says Guilherme Cassel, the No. 2 man at the Ministry of Agrarian Reform. "Land reform is more than that; there are a lot of other instruments that we are using that are not part of the MST's criteria."

"It's all to do with their expectations," he added. "Because it is a government from the left, Lula being who he is, with his history, there is an expectation. That expectation is just, but it clashes with reality."

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