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BRAZIL: Speculative Prices Block Land Reform

Mario Osava

RIO DE JANEIRO, Nov 11 2008 (IPS) - Rising land prices in Brazil, driven up by the boom in investment in rural property and the expansion of biofuels, are hindering agrarian reform, says João Pedro Stédile, an activist with the international peasant movement Via Campesina.

The result is that the country’s land reform efforts have practically come to a halt, reduced to the creation of “welfare-style” settlements of landless farmers in response to specific conflicts, and falling far short of the declared goal of “democratising land ownership,” according to Stédile, one of the leaders of the powerful Landless Workers Movement (MST), the biggest Brazilian member of Via Campesina.

So far this year the left-wing government of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva – who took office in 2003 with promises of transforming rural Brazil – has distributed plots of land to less than 19,000 families, according to the National Institute of Colonisation and Agrarian Reform, Stédile reported at a recent press conference.

As for last year, the government failed to meet its target of 100,000 families, even though it artificially inflated its statistics to produce a figure of 67,535 new family farms, Stédile maintained.

Moreover, he said, two-thirds of these plots are in the Amazon jungle region, which means that they were state-owned and thus do not alter the country’s landholding patterns. In the two previous years, official figures had been double that number.

Despite the land reforms figures released by the government, recent studies show that Brazil is undergoing a process of further land concentration, driven by the expansion of export products like soybean, sugarcane, eucalyptus and corn, the MST activist added.

Some 130,000 landless families are still living in camps in Brazil waiting for the government to distribute plots for them to work, but Stédile said that the number is going down as disenchantment with the land reform programme spreads and rural families involved in the movement decide to move to urban slums instead of waiting.

The global financial crisis has exacerbated the trend, with large investors increasingly seeking shelter in land, wood, hydroelectric plants and minerals, “advancing voraciously on the Amazon rainforest,” he said.

The surge in food prices is part of that process, and is caused primarily by the action of “oligopolies,” as just “10 or 15 transnational corporations” control the entire chain of production at a global level, and by commodity market speculation, which triggers sharp fluctuations in prices, Stédile said.

Prices are no longer set by production costs or the law of supply and demand, but rather by corporate and stock market speculation, he added.

Stédile, who is an economist, announced the results of Via Campesina’s Fifth International Conference, which drew some 600 delegates from one hundred countries to the capital of Mozambique Oct. 19-22.

In its “Open Letter from Maputo,” Via Campesina warns that the “entire world is in crisis, a crisis with multiple dimensions. There is a food crisis, an energy crisis, a climate crisis and a financial crisis. The solutions put forth by Power – more free trade, more GMOs (genetically modified organisms), etc. – purposefully ignore the fact that the crisis is a product of the capitalist system and of neoliberalism, and they will only worsen its impacts.”

Only “Food Sovereignty based on peasant and family farm agriculture offers us a way out of this crisis,” the movement adds.

“With the economic recession in rich countries, xenophobia is spreading, with more racism and repression, and the dominant economic model offers ever fewer options to our rural youth,” the declaration continues. However, it “also generates opportunities. Opportunities for capitalism, which uses crises to reinvent itself and find new sources of profits, but also opportunities for social movements,” it stresses.

Stédile said there has been a transformation in the rural struggle for land in Brazil because the main adversary has changed and is now embodied by the transnational corporations, such as Syngenta, Monsanto and Cargill, that control the global seed and food markets.

The MST will continue occupying unproductive portions of large landed estates, like the ones that are still exploiting labour in near-slavery conditions, but now their main target is transnational corporations, he added.

This year the movement celebrated as a great triumph Syngenta’s decision to donate its Santa Tereza do Oeste Research Station – an experimental farm where the firm was planting genetically modified seeds – to the Paraná State Agronomy Institute, a government agency in the southern state of Paraná.

Since 2006, the MST had been pressuring Syngenta to stop growing unauthorised transgenic corn on the estate, which is located near a national park. The movement staged three occupations of the land to protest the company’s activities there.

The estate will now be turned into an agro-ecological centre for the production of conventional seeds, named after MST activist Valmir Mota de Oliveira, who was killed by private security guards hired by Syngenta during one of the group’s occupations in October 2007.

Dependency on GM seeds produced by biotech giants like Monsanto and Syngenta – as is already occurring with corn in Mexico and soybean in Argentina – is fatal for small farmers, who have to pay the companies patent rights for the seeds, said Stédile.

He recognised, however, that there has been some progress in rural Brazil, spurred by a boost in the economic activity of small municipalities, due primarily to the expansion of social security coverage to rural workers and an increase in the minimum wage, which have particularly benefited certain poor rural areas.

The Lula administration also greatly expanded the credit available to family farms. But this incentive is limited to one-quarter of Brazil’s four million small-scale farmers, precisely the ones who are better off. According to Stédile, the poorest sectors do not benefit from these loans.

Other government policies, such as the Food Acquisition Programme through which the state purchases products from family farmers, are a step in the right direction, but they only reach thousands of families, and not the millions that need help, Stédile concluded.

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