Since it’s Proclamation of Independence in 1822, Brazil has had a wide and vast spectrum of conflicts that plague the developing country, even to this day. Between resource management, political regimes, and a nearly out-of-control number of lower class, Brazil is looking to the future to emerge as a nation comparable to the economic giants of today. Before tackling global issues, however, Brazil must first deal with internal affairs that threaten to tear the fledging nation apart. One of Brazil’s most pressing political and economic issues of today is the problem of agrarian reform. While the Brazilian government seems to be sitting back and turning a rather apathetic eye to the issue, there is one group out there getting Brazil’s food production means up and running again. Despite the fact that the Sem Terra Movement (MST) appears to be working towards the betterment of Brazil, the government continually attempts to stomp their efforts.
In current day Brazil, land management should be a mute point in the country that takes up just under half the total landmass of South America. The current system under fire can be traced back to the late 1950s and the early 60s when America was in fear of escalation of the Cuban Revolution. The US decided to combat Communistic tendencies in Latin America with a policy known as the “Alliance of Progress” (Graziano). The Alliance aimed to establish a prosperous rural middle class by stimulating reform in the agricultural programs of Latin American nations. The policy would thus create an unfavorable environment for Communism as consumers and businessmen, alike, sought ways to get rich quick. The next step was to establish reform programs that worked, which is where Law 4504/64 (“The Land Statue”) comes into play. The Land Statue intended to provide Brazil with a “democratic solution” to the “socialist option” by boosting capitalism in rural communities (Graziano). While it seemed like The Land Statue would work as many Latin American countries made plans and held discussions, the democratic land distribution efforts never came to fruition – in fact quite the opposite happened. Backed by the military regime in 1964, capitalism’s face was soiled as emergence of the modern large landhold was encouraged through the use of plentiful rural credit. This system, of lots of land in just a few hands, dates back to Latin America’s colonial days when the Kings granted land estates to the noblemen (who did not always use the land to its fullest). After the French Revolution the people took the lands from the nobles by force and the precedent of agrarian reform was set. It was at this time that these estates were viewed as being some of the greatest evils of the nation’s social formation. Attempting to (and succeeding to) once again institute the system of land estates, the Castelo Branco Military Republic successfully boosted the nation’s economy onto the global market and all without the democratization of land distribution (Graziano). To this day, because the classic system of large land estates remains so, too, does the classic problem of having too much land in too few hands.
So what exactly is agrarian reform? In its simplest form, agrarian reform means turning uncultivated land into land for production. According to a 2000 government report on Human Rights and Agrarian Reform in Brazil, nearly 46% of all landing Brazil is held by 1% of the rural landowners. Of the 400 million hectares of land registered as private property, only sixty million is used for planting crops (Brazil). On top of that figures released from the Institute for Colonization and Agrarian Reform (INCRA) suggest that there is nearly 100 million hectares of land that remains unused. On top of this seemingly fertile land being set aside, of the sixty million hectares reported as being used for crops, that number shrank. From 1985 to 1996 lands that supported permanent crop growth fell by two million hectares while lands that supported temporary crop growth fell by 8.3 million hectares. In the period from 1980 to 1996, the total area of lands cultivated fell by 2% while the population of Brazil rose 34% (Brazil). So what exactly is the government doing wrong? As far as the Administration’s policies are concerned, very little. Article 11 (2) (a) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights requires states-parties to fully use technical and scientific knowledge to improve the making, preservation, and distribution of food. It also states that state-parties must use the land to fit in with known nutritional principles to establish a system of agrarian reform that promotes efficient utilization and conservation of the natural resources of the state (Brazil).
Sounds nice on paper, but provides little to no details of how the government would provide for such advances in its reform measures. Much of the modern agrarian reform efforts were established under the Cardoso Administration that was elected in 1995 for two terms. A large part of the reform effort focused on industrialization of agriculture and the elevation of Brazil’s economy into the global market. Like the military regime of the early 80s, Cardoso also believed in the establishment of large land estates that could better prepare the grain grown for export (Graziano). The problem of a growing capitalistic system mixing with impoverished rural farmers is the emergence of rural oligopolies. These large farming entities raise prices on raw materials and prevent small farmers from obtaining them. Similarly, the large oligopolies produce more, faster via technology and manpower that rob the small rural businesses of sales (Graziano). It is a self-defeating cycle that necessitates a need for protection for the small producer to survive. The Cardoso government already took a large step towards agrarian reform by disappropriating 14 million hectares of land but is also self-defeating as it sold millions of hectares of land to large corporations. One business alone bought 4 million hectares of land – an area the size of Denmark. As it currently stands, there are 3,065 farmers hoarding 93 million hectares, 11% of the national territory (Graziano).
On May 4, 2000, the federal government, in response in increased pressures from several national rural laborers organizations, released a package of measures aimed at fixing the current problems in its agrarian reform plan. The majority of this package was seen as useless regardless of the measures the Administration attempted to take to help the reform effort. To better allocate money for agrarian reform the government decided that lands subject to expropriation that possess no productivity would obtain no compensatory interest (Brazil). That is, unproductive lands would not receive government funding. But what renders this measure useless is the fact that farmers can produce a handful of lettuce and still retain their land’s compensatory interest. The package of May 4th measures also allowed for the criminalization of laborers who engage in occupations of rural properties and public buildings with threats to their possible receipts of land title. The package also allowed for the criminalization of the leaders of the landless movement by use of the National Security Law, which was established during the reign of the military regime (Brazil). Just who are these landless laborers the government feels so adamantly about? The bigger question is why does the government see their downfall as a means to promote agrarian reform?
The mentality and need for an internal solution was first established in the 1970s when agrarian reform efforts meant agricultural modernization and the end of countless rural farmer’s jobs. Further backed by the increasing liberation theology of the Catholic Church, the Sem Terra Movement (MST), or “Landless Movement,” found its roots in the landless populations of Brazil (Plummer). “Landless” is the term given to the lowest of the social classes in Brazil, those that work on the lands without actually owning them, and number around 4.8 million. During 1979 and 1978 the Catholic Church began viewing the poor as righteous and dispossessed and began to organize landless laborers through their Pastoral Land Commission (CPT). By 1984 the CPT was looking for an autonomous movement that could unify efforts around rural Brazil. Later that year 1500 representatives from 16 (of the 27) states met and formed the MST. The MST ran under three primary goals: The first, and seemingly most important is to get the land out of the hands of estates and getting a productive farm established. The second goal is the foundation of an agrarian reform program entailing both land distribution and putting policies in place to protect and bolster rural families. The last and simplistically ideal goal is the search for a “more just society” (Plummer).
Under these three principle beliefs the movement set out to provide for the landless and all of the impoverished of Brazil. For years the MST has grown as a grass roots operation; occupations of land by the organization have been increasingly progressive over the years. In 1991 the group involved nearly 15,000 families while in 1995 it had over 30,000 (Graziano). Since 1991 the MST movement has placed over 150,000 families onto nearly 21 million hectares of idle land. By the end of President Cardoso’s first term (from Jan 1995 – Jan 1999) the group had placed 260,000 families on 8 million hectares of land (“Landless Movement”). The appeal of the group is simple; it involves the rural poor in the economical and political affairs of the country. The Cardoso Administration realized this and in 1999 implemented the Banco de Terra program to sell land on the market. But this program was bitterly shot down as groups used the government’s own studies to show that the land was already too expensive for poor farmers to purchase and contend with large-scale agribusinesses (“Landless Movement”). Today the MST operates under much broader goals. Seeking everything from agrarian reform to industrialization of “the Interior” the MST also has established a budget of over 50 million dollars from various enterprises while 60% of the profits come from contributions. Most of this money is either reinvested or used to pay for the work of poor farmers (Padgett). But do not get the impression the MST is only about agrarian reform, in their squatter camps all over Brazil one can now find MST schools being setup to educate illiterate farmers. But how does this group’s non-violent occupations of land help agrarian reform? What the MST does is find an unproductive estate of land and move a family of farmers in on it. The group then petitions the government for the title to the land. Once granted, the family and MST work on the farm as a collective enterprise, making the settlement productive again. Following this process of land reform, the MST truly live up to their slogan of “Occupy, Resist, Produce.”
Regardless of the MST’s success, it has done so only in the face of extreme government repression. From 1985 to 1995 there were 969 assassinations against workers and activists – 820 of those are documented attempts while over 2,400 rural worker, family members, and MST officials have been threatened with their lives (“The Landless Movement”). The movement’s demonstrations have also been the target of government “orders” such as the one on April 17th, 1998. Nineteen activists were killed when military police fired at an unarmed demonstration at what was to become known as the Eldorado de Carajas massacre. The 153 policemen accused of the murders still await trials four years later. But such a lag in trails in characteristic with MST murders. Of the 820 documented assassination attempts, only fifty-six of the assassins have been held accountable for their crimes, of that number only seven have been convicted (Hinchberger).
Violence has been the response of the Cardoso Administration to the MST but the sun has set on the Cardoso presidency and a new President now stands ready to tackle Brazil’s issues. President Lula da Silva has already tackled with the MST when shortly after his inauguration, the MST setup a roadblock on a state highway and took the Minister of Land Reform hostage. The group demanded expropriation of lands as well as support on several land settlements. The Brazilian government claimed that the MST leadership did not know about the action and termed it a “local” event. That statement, however, goes against the MST leadership’s statement that they had full-knowledge of the event. The President decided to negotiate with the hostage-takers setting a dangerous, yet benevolent, precedent between the Silva Administration and the MST (“Lulawatch”). But perhaps Lula has gone one-step beyond helping the MST in their efforts. Lula, having recognized poverty and hunger as a major factor in the streets of his cities, has established the Zero Hunger Program. With an initial budget of 1.8 billion dollars, the Zero Hunger Program aims to setup realizable goals such as the establishment of food banks in urban centers and food rationing cards. (AFP)
With a booming population, and a growing number of hungry, poor, rural and urban families crowding Brazilian streets, perhaps the time has come to promote change. While the MST has succeeded in the face of brutal government repression, imagine its success when unhindered and assisted by the government. The funny thing about the issue is both groups are seeking the same goal, a goal that has been tried for for decades – an agrarian reform that works. Is this the kind of “just society” the MST was aiming for? Has this new president aimed to relieve the immediate pressures of an archaic agrarian reform plan? Only time will tell.
AFP. “FAO support for Lula’s ‘Zero Hunger’ call.” ClariNet. 23 Jan 2003. 31 Mar 2003.
Brazil. Global Justice Center. National Report on the Situation of Human Rights and Agrarian Reform in Brazil. 17 May 2000. 25 Feb 2003.
Graziano, Francisco. Agrarian Reform. 2001. 31 Mar 2003.
Hinchberger, Bill. “Land of No Return? Not Brazil.” The Nation 2 Mar 1998. Global Exchange. 31 Mar 2003.
Langevin, Mark S., Peter Rosset. “Land Reform From Below: The Landless Workers Movement in Brazil.” MST. 23 July 2001. 25 Feb 2003.
“Lulawatch.” The American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property. 17 Feb 2003. 25 Feb 2003. <http://www.tfp.org/lulawatch/feb03/vol1/1.html#3>.
Padgett, Tim. “Brazil’s Landless Rebels.” Time. 19 Jan 1998. 25 Feb 2003.
Plummer, Dawn, Betsy Ranun. “Brazil’s Anti-Globalization Squad.” Brazzil. Feb 2003. 25 Feb 2003. <http://www.brazzil.com/p120feb03.htm>.
“The Landless Movement.” Brazil Network. April 2003. Brazil Network. 31 Mar 2003. <http://www.brazilnetwork.org/land.htm>.