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DEVELOPMENT: Agrarian Reform Takes a Low Profile

Mario Osava

PORTO ALEGRE, Brazil, Mar 8 2006 (IPS) - The second International Conference on Agrarian Reform and Rural Development (ICARRD) does not intend to approve a final declaration, only draft documents that will provide a foundation for a new meeting in three or four years, according to activists.

There was not enough debate among the governments, and much less between the governments and civil society, Henry Saragih, general coordinator of Vía Campesina, the global alliance of peasant, family farm, rural worker, indigenous and landless movements, told IPS.

He pointed out that there were only five months of preparations for the ICARRD, which is running Tuesday through Friday in the southern Brazilian city of Porto Alegre.

The level of participation in the conference is unsatisfactory, even on the part of the governments, because only slightly more than 80 countries have sent official delegations, he said.

The Porto Alegre ICARRD “is not representative,” because no heads of state or government are taking part, and very few cabinet ministers, said Egidio Brunetto, one of the leaders of Brazil’s powerful Landless Workers’ Movement (MST) and of Vía Campesina in Brazil.

Because Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is on a visit to the United Kingdom, Vice President José Alencar presided over the opening ceremony on Monday.

In addition, the conference is headed by a minister who is about to step down, Brunetto pointed out. Brazilian Minister of Agrarian Development Miguel Rossetto announced that he would soon leave his post, in order to run in the October legislative elections.

Lula sent a message to the participants in which he underlined ICARRD’s responsibility for “bringing agrarian reform up-to-date on the development agenda of the 21st century.”

He also cited the urgent need to fight hunger and poverty, and the broad scope of the question of land reform, which, he said, must involve access to credit, health care, education and technical assistance, as well as fair international trade rules, if true rural development is to be achieved.

Active citizen participation and joint action by governments and civil society are indispensable to the success of reforms in favour of the poor, like land reform, Lennart Bage, president of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), told the conference participants.

There is a pressing need to revitalise the question of agrarian reform as a route towards reducing hunger, poverty and inequality, as emphasised by several international conferences that have underscored the prevalence of poverty in the countryside, said Jacques Diouf, director-general of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), which organised this week’s gathering.

Diouf also invoked the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), set by the international community in 2000, which include concrete targets in terms of poverty, hunger, health care, education, gender, the environment and development, to be met by 2015. The first MDG is aimed at halving world poverty and hunger by that deadline.

The fact that 850 million people worldwide are still hungry today is “unacceptable” in a world that is capable of producing enough food for everyone, said Diouf, who noted that 75 percent of the poor are peasants or rural people who depend on fishing resources and the forests for survival.

Reducing rural poverty is therefore crucial for meeting this goal, and is directly related to secure access to land and other resources needed for development, such as greater investment, observed Diouf.

“Sustainable rural development” is the focus of the second ICARRD, a unique occasion to build dialogue among governments, social movements and civil society organisations as an essential step towards fighting poverty and the violence engendered by conflicts over land, he stressed.

We are far from achieving an equitable, efficient and sustainable structure of land ownership, 27 years after the first ICARRD, said Bage, adding that control of the land is also a key aspect in development strategies.

Among the rural poor, Bage highlighted the plight of women and indigenous people, whose vulnerability and extreme poverty are primarily the result of their lack of secure access to land and other natural resources. Moreover, these two sectors have little power to influence changes in their situation.

Globalisation, urbanisation, industrialisation and the concentration of capital subject the rural poor to new forms of competition with more powerful interests, including competition for limited basic resources, said Bage. But, he added, local realities vary, which means there are “many roads” towards combating poverty, and no single solution for access to land.

Brazilian Environment Minister Marina Silva, speaking on behalf of her country’s delegation to the conference, emphasised the need for sustainable rural development and the related challenge of integrating policies among different sectors, such as infrastructure, agricultural development, technological development and the environment. “Isolated sectoral policies do not foster efficient use of a country’s resources,” she maintained.

Despite the official declarations in support of participation by social movements, local campesino organisations plan to stage protests throughout the four days of the ICARRD. The fact that Brazil is hosting the conference does not necessarily make it a champion of effective agrarian reform, they argue.

Via Campesina released a report in which it recognised a number of advances made by the Lula administration, such as curbing the repression suffered by campesino movements and increasing credit for small family farmers. Nevertheless, it highlighted a number of errors and omissions, such as placing priority on large-scale export agribusiness in government credit policies and failing to expropriate more unproductive land from the owners of large rural estates, or “latifundia”.

Lula established a goal for his administration to provide land to a total of 400,000 families between 2003 and 2006. However, in the majority of cases, families have merely been given legal ownership of land on which they were already settled, especially in the Amazon region, which means this has not been a genuine process of land redistribution, stressed MST national coordinator Joao Paulo Rodrigues.

“Today there is no agrarian reform in Brazil, the process has come to a standstill,” declared Tomás Balduino, former bishop of Goiás and president of the Pastoral Land Commission, a Catholic church agency that supports campesinos and rural communities and monitors violence in the Brazilian countryside.

According to the Pastoral Land Commission, during the first three years of the Lula administration, more than 110 campesinos were murdered in land-related conflicts.

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