Brazil: New Offensive for Faster Land Reform

 (IPS) – Brazil’s landless movement (MST) has launched its annual April demonstrations to demand an acceleration of land reform efforts and commemorate the Eldorado de Carajás massacre, in which 19 rural protesters were killed by the police and hundreds injured.

The mobilisations began in the northeastern state of Pernambuco with Monday’s occupation of part of the land of an old sugar mill complex near the town of São Lorenco da Mata, 31 km from the state capital Recife, by around 200 landless rural families.

"For now we are camping out, but later we will discuss the replacement of the old sugar cane fields with our crops," said the coordinator of the MST camp, Cícero Oliveira.

The Usina Tiuma sugar mill complex belonging to the Votorantim business group has not been operating since the 1990s, and has been occupied by successive groups of landless peasant farmers, according to the MST.

In Salvador, the capital of the neighbouring state of Bahia, some 1,000 demonstrators occupied the offices of the Secretariat of Agriculture.

The annual protests by the MST, which will continue until Apr. 17, are dubbed "Red April" for the red flags that are the hallmark of MST demonstrators and are carried prominently in their marches.

Marina dos Santos, a member of the movement’s national coordinating committee, said the mobilisation is aimed at drawing attention to the question of land reform, the continued heavy concentration of land ownership, and the agricultural policy followed by the government of leftist President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva since he first took office in January 2003.

Dos Santos told IPS that the administration’s farm policy "prioritises intensive export-oriented agriculture to the detriment of food production, the domestic market, the environmentally sustainable development of rural areas, and the rural population."

According to the MST, land reform would generate not only specific solutions for the countryside, but benefits at a national level by counteracting the effects of the global economic crisis. The powerful rural movement estimates that agrarian reform would create 10 times more jobs than agribusiness offers, and with lower levels of spending by the government.

The MST calculates that each family granted a plot of land that was formerly unproductive would generate three direct jobs at a cost of less than 15,000 dollars.

"The creation of sources of employment is cheaper than in industry, where it costs around 40,000 dollars, or in commerce, where the cost is about 30,000 dollars," said dos Santos. "This is the cheapest investment in terms of generating employment, as well as indirect jobs and small rural businesses."

At a news briefing with foreign correspondents in São Paulo, national MST leader Joao Pedro Stédile took stock of the government’s efforts so far with respect to the expropriation of unproductive land and the distribution of rural property to landless farmers.

He pointed out that under the national agarian reform plan launched by the Lula administration in 2003, 550,000 families were to be settled on plots of their own by 2007.

But according to studies by the Universidade Estadual Paulista (São Paulo State University), only 163,000 families have benefited so far, which means only 30 percent compliance with the government’s goal.

And with regard to land titling efforts, the aim was to formalise the situation of 500,000 families granted the legal right to idle land that they had occupied. But only 113,000 – 22 percent – have received title deeds so far, said Stédile.

Official statistics, however, paint a different picture. The Institute of Agrarian Colonisation and Reform reports that a total of 43 million hectares have been granted to 520,000 families since 2003.

The MST also complained about continuing violence against rural activists and the impunity that surrounds attacks on them.

The Pastoral Land Commission (CPT), a Catholic church organisation, documented 23 murders in 2008 alone, and counted 1,117 land disputes between 1985 and 2007, in which 1,493 rural workers and activists were killed.

The CPT reported that just 85 of the murders have gone to court, with 71 perpetrators convicted of homicide. In addition, of 49 people accused of planning and ordering the murders, only 19 have been found guilty, and not a single one of them is behind bars.

The most notorious incident was the Eldorado de Carajás massacre, in which the police opened fire on Apr. 17, 1996 on a crowd of peasant farmers who were holding a peaceful protest march along a rural highway in the northern state of Pará, killing 19 demonstrators and injuring hundreds more.

In 2002, then president Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1995-2003) named Apr. 17 the National Day of Struggle for Agrarian Reform.

But 13 years after the massacre, the 155 police who participated in the shooting are still free, the MST pointed out.

Only two of the police – Colonel Mario Collares Pantoja and Major José María Pereira de Oliveira – have been convicted, after three trials.

But both are out on bail while a Supreme Court magistrate is studying the sentence.

"Thirteen years after a massacre that had international repercussions, the country has not yet resolved the problems facing poor rural people, who continue to be the target of violence by landowners who enjoy impunity," said dos Santos.

Besides the movement’s planned marches and debates, the MST announced that it will set up two camps this week in the state of Pará to demand that those responsible for the massacre be brought to justice, and to press for support and compensation for the victims’ families.

"We are mobilising to protest that after all these years, no one is in prison, and the families have not received reparations," said MST activist Ulisses Manacas.

The MST is calling for a new trial in the case, as well as land reform "that would put an end to the violence against rural workers."

"We will hold as many protests and carry out as many actions as are necessary this year," said dos Santos.

There are currently more than 100,000 landless families living in MST camps around the country while awaiting recognition of their right to work idle agricultural lands.

But the MST says land ownership has become even more heavily concentrated under Lula. In 1992 there were 19,077 large landed estates more than 2,000 hectares in size, totaling 121 million hectares, compared to 32,000 in 2003, covering a total of 132 million hectares, the MST reports.

According to the Pastoral Land Commission, 3.5 percent of Brazil’s landholders own nearly 60 percent of the best farmland, while the poorest 40 percent of farmers have a mere one percent.

The MST is demanding land for the 100,000 families living in camps, as well as public spending on the new rural settlements, in the form of credit for farmers, rural housing, education and health care.

"There are families who have been living in camps for over five years, in difficult conditions along the sides of roads and on occupied land, who are the victims of violence from landowners and agribusiness interests," said dos Santos. The MST occupations of land and protests in public offices are aimed at drawing attention to large estates that fail to fulfill a social function, as stipulated in article 184 of the constitution, which states that idle land can be expropriated for the purposes of agrarian reform.