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BRAZIL: Marching for Real Land Reform

Fabiana Frayssinet

RESENDE, Brazil, Aug 12 2009 (IPS) - After 10 years of waiting for secure title to the land they occupy and farm, 35 families in Resende, in the southeastern Brazilian state of Rio de Janeiro, have joined a huge march organised by the Landless Workers Movement (MST) in Brasilia to demand effective agrarian reform.

Mario Laurindo knows all about protest demonstrations. Some 14 years ago, he and others in the MST set up a roadside camp and were evicted. For the past 10 years he and his family have lived in the “Terra Libre” (Free Land) settlement, 176 kilometres from the city of Rio de Janeiro, the state capital.

“We may grow old in the attempt, but we will keep continue the struggle,” Laurindo told IPS. A long time ago, he left the “favela” (shantytown) where he lived, because he had no job, food or health care, and wanted to escape the high levels of urban violence.

Now, at least, he has plenty of food. With his wife and two children – they had two more, but they died – the family produces enough to subsist on, from honey to bananas. They also keep chickens and a few dairy cows.

Like other families in the settlement, Laurindo sells his surplus produce at a nearby town where he goes every day, crossing a river on boats built by another neighbour. Barter with other settlers complements the family diet.

“I’ll never work for someone else again. Now I’m my own boss,” says Laurindo, who has taken up the way of life of a small farmer and ekes out the family income with odd jobs such as bricklaying, but always on a self-employed basis, he stresses.

Like Osvaldo Cutis, a teacher and the spokesman for Terra Libre, Laurindo shares the goals of the settlement and of the MST, which is mobilising 3,000 of its activists in Brasilia from Aug. 10-19.

The demonstration in the capital, which includes marches, debates, cultural events and other activities, is an effort by the MST to put pressure on the government of leftwing President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva to distribute land within the next six months to at least 90,000 families who have been squatting in different parts of the country since 2003, many of them camping by the roadside.

The landless movement has carried out land occupations for the past 25 years “calling for fulfilment of the law,” Cutis told IPS. It also seeks better living conditions for another 45,000 families “who have been resettled on paper only,” and are “suffering hardship” because they are still waiting for resources for housing, infrastructure and production, he said.

People in the Terra Libre settlement are all too familiar with this situation. The state Institute for Agrarian Reform (INCRA) has not legalised their ownership of the land where they have lived “on a temporary basis” for over a decade because of red tape and endless battles over inheritance and compensation for expropriation in the courts.

Terra Libre occupies 460 hectares of an old estate, which was deemed unproductive according to official criteria set out in the law on agrarian reform, and which owed its workers the equivalent of one million dollars before it was taken over by the MST.

The problem is that until they have legal title to the land, the settlers do not have access to credits and tools from INCRA. But according to the MST, many families to whom the government has already granted title deeds has not yet received this assistance.

“It’s hard to convince some farmers to put effort and work into a plot of land that they might be forced to leave tomorrow,” Cutis said.

The school, computers, kitchen, community vegetable garden and other achievements in Terra Libre were obtained thanks to individual efforts and requests to local governments or public financial institutions, or through foreign aid and the goodwill of MST sympathisers.

For this reason, another goal of the Brasilia protest activities is to expand credits for agrarian reform. According to the MST, so far only 40,000 housing units have been built using state credit. To cap it all, this year the government halved its land reform budget due to the global economic crisis.

Roberto Kiel, the head of INCRA, acknowledged to IPS that once land titles have been awarded, support for the farmers does not always immediately follow. He attributed this to the complexity of the resettlement process, which is carried out in “annual cycles.”

Kiel said that in 2008 alone, the government granted title deeds to 70,000 families occupying land, most of them in the second half of the year, so “obviously they may go a year with nothing but land,” and other people are “always waiting in line.”

“The process takes time, we can’t create a new settlement overnight,” said Kiel, explaining the delays in “implementing infrastructure and credit” for the small farmers.

However, he said that when state-owned land is given to settlers, even if it is still occupied by the original communities, it comes with “the entire development process” – that is, technical assistance for building housing and for sanitation and other basic services like electricity.

INCRA says that between 2003 – when Lula took office – and 2008, land tenure to 43 million hectares was legalised for 519,000 families, 59 percent of the total number formally settled throughout the history of land reform in Brazil.

From 2003 to 2009, INCRA has granted nearly 4.4 billion reals (2.4 billion dollars) in loans to the beneficiaries of land reform, according to the institute.

Kiel excused the delay, dating from 1975, in updating official indicators identifying unproductive lands, which are used as the official criteria for legally expropriating – with payment – idle landholdings. By law and according to signed agreements, they should be updated every five years.

He attributed the delay to the “complexity” of the process, which he said was “very difficult” because, although the indicators are calculated on “a scientific basis,” sometimes “they become an ideological issue, which hampers decision-making.”

But “it is only a question of time,” he said, emphasising that “Lula will not leave this decision up to the next government.”

Kiel said the government has invested more resources in family agriculture than in agribusiness, and that in terms of agricultural policy, the internal market is “a top priority.” “First, Brazilians must eat,” and only in second place does the government promote the export of “surplus production.”

The MST, however, refutes this. According to Marina dos Santos, a member of the MST national coordinating committee, the Lula administration has prioritised agribusiness, including production of sugarcane, coffee, oranges, cotton and cattle ranching for export, to the detriment of agrarian reform.

Economist Joao Pedro Stedile, another member of the MST national leadership, said this model was adopted in the 1990s and is completely at the service of the interests of financial capital and transnational corporations.

An article published in the Folha de Sao Paulo newspaper says that foreign companies “are taking control of the market by guaranteeing purchases of commodities, at prices they themselves impose.

“Most of this production is destined for foreign markets. Forced to share the profits, large landowners seek economies of scale, increasing the concentration of land ownership and production,” and expanding unsustainable practices such as the use of toxic agrochemicals, the article warns.

The MST also says the government has focused on the process of legalising farm properties, which is important but “cannot be called land reform because it does not democratise nor change the structure of land tenure.”

Cutis argued that real land reform would solve other serious problems in Brazil, such as urban unemployment. Many people like him in the MST are former campesinos who migrated to big cities looking for work.

After he lost his job and his prospects for the future, Curtis joined the MST to return to the land, which he does not wish to leave ever again. The process “restored his personal dignity,” he said, but he recognised that getting and holding land “requires a permanent, ongoing struggle.”

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