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BRAZIL: No Consensus on Success of Land Reform

Mario Osava

RIO DE JANEIRO, Mar 22 2007 (IPS) - Brazil&#39s land reform programme has settled nearly one million families on small farms of their own in the last 20 years. But there is no consensus on the effort, which the government touts as a success, the landless movement sees as insufficient, and the opposition criticises as wrongheaded.

During President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva&#39s first term (2003-2006), 381,419 families were granted a plot of land, according to the Ministry of Agrarian Development.

Complementary policies were also adopted, which made credit more widely available, provided for price supports (guarantees of minimum prices), and offered greater technical education and assistance to small farmers, Caio França, a high-level Ministry of Agrarian Development official, told IPS.

In that same period, the National Programme for Strengthening Family Farming (PRONAF) quadrupled the funding that goes towards financing agriculture, to 10 billion reals (4.75 billion dollars), which meant 1.9 million families benefited, twice the total from four years ago, added França.

But the agrarian reform plans for Lula&#39s second term (2007-2010) have not yet been defined. Nor has the minister of agrarian development been named.

This government "has failed to live up to its own national agrarian reform plan. And of the seven promises made before the late 2003 march by landless rural workers, it has fulfilled only one: to distribute food baskets to the families living in camps," said Joao Pedro Stédile, one of the coordinators of the Landless Workers Movement (MST), one of the largest and best-organised social movements in Latin America.

The goal for the 2003-2006 period was to distribute land to 400,000 families, and according to the government&#39s own estimates, it fell short of that target by only 4.65 percent.

But the MST says the official figures have been inflated, because they include families who merely received formal titles to land that they were already living on, and families who left the property that they had been granted.

Besides, the MST continues to call for broader, faster land reform.

In Brazil, one of the countries in the world with the most uneven distributions of land, around 3.5 percent of landowners hold 56 percent of the arable land while the poorest 40 percent own barely one percent.

The MST also complains that families who have been living in the movement&#39s camps for years, waiting to be assigned land of their own, have not been given priority treatment, and that the rural productivity index has not been updated.

The index is one of the tools used by the government to decide when land has been left idle and unproductive, and thus qualifies under Brazilian law for expropriation and redistribution within the framework of the agrarian reform process.

The Brazilian constitution explicitly states that land must be used for the benefit of society.

França, meanwhile, said advances were made with respect to other commitments, like the strengthening of the country&#39s land reform institutions.

He pointed out that the budget of the National Institute for Colonisation and Agrarian Reform (INCRA) grew threefold, and that a law on family farming was passed last year. In addition, mechanisms for the support and training for farmers were bolstered, he said.

Nevertheless, conflicts over land remain a problem in Brazil. Tens of thousands of families are still living in camps, organised landless families continue to stage occupations of property that they see as unproductive and subject to agrarian reform, and violent clashes periodically occur between landowners, their private militias, and families who have moved onto, and begun to work, fallow private land. People are often injured or even killed in these disputes.

However, the problem no longer seems to mobilise the same level of public support as it did in the past.

The landless movement has also expanded its targets. In its last major offensive, on the eve of International Women&#39s Day on Mar. 8, 2006, thousands of women occupied eucalyptus plantations in southern Brazil, a state development bank in Rio de Janeiro, a mining company in the southeastern state of Minas Gerais and an ethanol plant in the southern state of São Paulo.

The rural movement now holds protests against the paper pulp industry&#39s monoculture forestry plantations, which have been dubbed "green deserts" because they rob the soil of nutrients and consume enormous amounts of water; genetically modified seeds; mega-hydroelectric dams; free trade treaties; transnational corporations; export agribusiness; and even biofuels, which are displacing food production.

In Brazil, Vía Campesina – the international peasant movement made up of organisations from 56 countries – includes rural groups with links to the Catholic Church, communities affected by hydropower dams, small farmers, women farmers, and the MST.

Each group has its specific demands, but they are all united against "The common enemy: the agribusiness model of agriculture, controlled by international financial capital," said Stédile.

The MST leader was pessimistic with regards to Lula&#39s second term, saying the president – a former trade unionist – was becoming "centre-right" as a result of his "commitments to the agribusiness sector and conservative forces."

"We don&#39t expect anything from this administration," said Stédile, who argued that only stronger mobilisations by rural activists could achieve "speedier and broader agrarian reform."

Opponents of land reform, who are mainly large landowners, agree with the view expressed by Francisco Graziano, environment secretary in the state of São Paulo, when he predicted in an article in the O Estado de São Paulo newspaper that Brazil&#39s agrarian reform would become "the world&#39s biggest failed public programme."

Graziano argued that the roughly one million families settled on land through the agrarian reform programme occupy around 60 million hectares, nearly equivalent to the 62 million hectares worked by large agribusiness interests, and that there is no indication of how much they actually produce, while "they have failed to improve on the wealth of the countryside; on the contrary – they have spread poverty around."

But França responded that these figures have been "loosely" thrown about, because the area that went towards land reform between 2003 and 2006 amounted to 31 million hectares, which included non-arable forest areas set aside for conservation.

Under the agrarian reform programme, new settlers must preserve forested areas on their land, in a proportion that varies from 20 percent to a high of 80 percent in the case of land granted in the Amazon jungle region.

Family farms in Brazil occupied a total of 110 million hectares, equivalent to 45 percent of the 244 million hectares in the hands of large landholders, according to the 1995-1996 agricultural census.

But the gross production value of family farms represented 62.6 percent of that of the large landowners – who only cultivated 62 million hectares of land – which shows that family agriculture had a productive advantage over agribusiness.

The new agricultural census, whose results will be released next year, will make it possible to effectively assess the impact of land reform – its contribution to local economies and rural development, said França.

For now, there are "indirect indicators" in studies by several universities that identified three results shared by the farms granted to families through land reform: the land&#39s performance improved under the new owners, the families&#39 quality of life was enhanced, and the farms&#39 productivity level was similar to the regional averages.

Moreover, since each family farm generates year-round work for three people on average and indirect work for another two or three people in the production chain, one million new farms represent 5.4 million people with incomes, França underscored.

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