Landless Peasants Press For Agrarian Reform In Brazil

By Hilda Cuzco, The Militant, Vol.60/No.26, 1 July 1996

We are preparing for the general strike called for June 21, said Carlos Bellé, a leader of the Movement of the Landless Rural Workers (MST) in Sao Paulo, in a telephone interview June 13. The peasant organization has maintained close ties with the trade union movement and has linked its fight for land with demands for jobs and better working conditions—bringing the issue of agrarian reform in the forefront of politics in Brazil.

The strike, organized by the United Federation of Workers (CUT) with support of the other unions, calls for jobs, land, wage increases, and an end to the government's austerity drive. Metalworkers, public employees, and transportation workers are in the front ranks of the movement preparing the nationwide walkout. Peasants and agricultural workers are an integral part of the action as well.

The MST, founded in 1985, fights for the interests of 4.8 million landless peasants and rural workers. The movement demands above all that the government take over idle lands in big capitalist estates, with compensation to the owners, and distribute them to landless peasants. It organizes direct actions by thousands of toilers across rural Brazil who occupy such lands and then demand official title from the government.

In its last convention, held in July of last year, the MST demanded that the government confiscate the biggest landed estates in each state. Delegates also demanded the government expropriate more than 1,200 deadbeat landlords who are the biggest debtors to the Bank of Brazil, and give this land to the peasants. The amount owed of 2.1 billion reals ($2.2 billion) would pay at current market levels for 2 million hectares of land that would accommodate more than 200,000 rural families in all the states of Brazil, said an MST document.

In Brazil, the largest country in South America, 1 percent of the landowners own 44 percent of the land. The 20 largest estates in the country control 15 million hectares (1 hectare = 2.47 acres), while big monopolies control another 30 million hectares of land. Out of the 400 million hectares of farmland only 60 million are cultivated, and most of it dedicated to lucrative export crops like coffee, cotton, soybeans, and fruits.

Conditions for peasants in most rural areas are much worse than urban areas. With a population of over 160 million, the life expectancy in Brazil is 60 years of age; in the northeast and rural zones it is 47 years. Infant mortality averages 116 per 1,000 births, and is more than double that in the northeast. Some 26 percent of the adult population lacks basic literacy; in rural areas the figure is 42 percent, while 8 million children are not in school and only 16 percent of those who start complete the basic level. Around 40 percent workers in Brazil earn less than the official minimum wage of $80 per month, while 11 million workers are unemployed or underemployed.

The government's economic policies, designed to favor Brazil's capitalists, have aggravated the farm crisis. In the wake of the Mexican peso crisis in 1994, President Fernando Henrique Cardoso tried to stem the resulting capital flight by raising interest rates to record levels, threatening tens of thousands of farmers with bankruptcy.

In response to this crisis, scores of land takeovers have occurred throughout Brazil in recent years, particularly in the more heavily populated northeast and south. The tens of thousands involved in these occupations of big estates include agricultural workers, sharecroppers, tenant farmers, peasants subsisting on tiny plots, and unemployed workers.

Fierce repression

The fight for land has met fierce repression by the capitalist landlords using armed thugs and police to evict the peasants. The MST, however, is not backing off. The group has succeeded in organizing thousands of peasant families in assentamentos (settlements), meaning plots of occupied land with partial or complete government recognition. The occupied lands awaiting legalization are called acampamentos (squatter camps). After the legalization of the occupied land, the settlements can grow basic crops that eventually will enable the families to sell some on the market, said Neuri Rosetto, coordinator of the MST in Sao Paulo.

Through the pressure of the peasants, the Cardoso administration had pledged to grant 27.5 million hectares to 280,000 families before the end of his term, in four years. After protests last year, Cardoso promised to give land to 40,000 peasant families by the end of 1995. Although the National Land Reform and Settlement Institute (INCRA) insists that at least 37,000 families have been granted land, leaders of the MST dispute the figure. The 40,000 families have not been settled yet, said Francisco Lopes from the MST in Brasilia. There are no more than 10,000 with titles.

The movement is concentrating in three key demands, said Rosetto, referring to the MST's participation in the June 21 strike. The settlement of 37,000 families that are encamped awaiting official titles; the approval of three pending laws that would benefit the agrarian reform; and an end to the crimes committed against the peasants with impunity.

In the past decade, nearly 1,000 peasants and their supporters have been killed while being forcibly evicted from the occupied lands, reported the Pastoral Land Commission (CPT), a Catholic human rights organization. In the state of Pará alone 83 were killed, 30 in one incident in 1987. The commission also reports that 10 percent of landlords own 80 percent of the lands in Brazil.

The most recent attack against the peasants took place June 12 in the municipality of Buriticupú, in the state of Maranhao, where 10 rural workers were killed. Around 600 families had occupied a 13,000-hectare farm, which a court ordered them to turn back to the former owners. The CPT reports that 30 armed men surrounded the peasants and began killing them in cold blood. The MST has sent a delegation to investigate the massacre.

One of the bloodiest confrontations took place on April 14 when the military police attacked 2,000 peasants, killing at least 19 and injuring 55, in Eldorado do Carajas in the state of Pará, some 1,200 miles northwest of Río de Janeiro. Around 3,000 families had occupied the Macaxeira farm, in the municipality of Curianópolis March 5. Many of them were on their way to the state capital, Belém, to claim title for their land. The MST in Sao Paulo reports that two battalions of military police surrounded the peasants. The massacre began with the cops throwing tear gas bombs.

In Río de Janeiro the television network Globo pointed out that after the peasants responded with stones and sticks, Col. Mario Pantoja ordered his men to fire on the demonstrators. Not even those who ran into the bushes escaped death. When a reporter asked a survivor what the military police did when the peasants fell on the ground, he answered, They dragged them and piled them up. We saw how they aimed their guns at those who were still alive, aiming at them on the ground and shooting them in the head.

Around 155 policemen have been temporarily arrested for the shooting and death of the peasants, while Colonel Pantoja has been released. The MST has organized numerous protests to blast the impunity the government allows its police in these crimes. MST leaders have also urged international condemnation of this crime, and ask for protest messages to be sent to the government. Sem Terra, the MST's newspaper, reported that more than 10,000 people demonstrated in Belém against the massacre. Similar actions took place in various cities.

Meanwhile, peasants continue the occupations. Sem Terra reported that on April 19 around 3,000 families occupied the farm of Gacometti-Marodin in Rio Bonito do Iguacu, in the central-western part of Paraná state. This is the largest occupation yet, with 80,000 hectares. Globo Television in Río de Janeiro also reported that 250 families—mostly unemployed workers—arrived with trucks from four different towns in the Mato Grosso state. They occupied a farm of 10,000 hectares in Diamantino, 300 kilometers from Cuiaba. The owner there decided to settle peacefully with the workers, agreeing to cede part of the land.