Brazil's Land Revolution- On BBC

Brazil's Land Revolution
Produced by:TVE
Director:Chris Walker
Producer in Brazil: Daniel A. Rubio

Brazil is a rich country – it has the tenth largest economy in the world – but the distribution of wealth and land is badly skewed, with almost half of the agricultural land owned by just one per cent of the population. The Brazilian Government views this inequality as a primary cause of poverty and hunger, but until recently the pace of land reform has been slow.

The government estimates that land reform would benefit some 4.5 million families - both agricultural workers and city slum-dwellers. Although the policy has been backed by successive governments, political opposition has so far prevented much meaningful progress. Now Brazil's President, Luiz Ignazio Lula da Silva, has announced plans to resettle more than 100,000 landless families this year, and promised an extra US$500 million towards agrarian reform over the next two years. And a recent initiative encourages the landless to club together to buy up land, with low-interest government loans.

Planting manioc on land bought under the Land Credit programme.

In January 2004, 60 families organised by the Landless Workers Movement - the MST - occupied a farm owned by an absentee landlord in the state of Bahia. MST activist Ademir explains: “Why do we need a piece of land? To give our children a better future. We want to plant the land, to produce. We only occupy the land if it isn't being used. Once we occupy the land, we have our own resources.”

And Graça, one of the people occupying the land, adds: “I think the hope and future of all of us, us Brazilians, lies in the countryside. The big cities offer many things, but for people lacking an education, lacking a good knowledge of things - middle and lower class people - we suffer because we don't have the education to get good jobs, we don't have the space to live either. So our only solution is to return to the land.”

But in 1997, to head off opposition from the landowners, the Government joined with the World Bank to introduce a Land Credit project, which meant that small farms - which could not be compulsory purchased under the Constitution - could now be bought by the landless with government loans to make an immediate cash payment to the landholder. Miguel Rosseto, Federal Minister of Development and Agrarian Reform, explains:

Miguel Rosseto
Miguel Rosseto.
“The fact is we have an enormous quantity of land in our country, and some of this land comprises small and medium-sized properties that are not being used productively. But there is no legal instrument which permits the government to expropriate these properties. There are more than 40 million hectares of land in Brazil where access to land through the Land Credit project would play a fundamental role. So this project, which has made these lands available to urban and rural workers, has been very important in many regions.”

To date, under the Land Credit programme, 27,000 farmers have been settled on 750,000 hectares of land. A new World Bank loan of US$200 million was approved in 2000, and the project has been scaled up to 14 states with the aim of settling 130,000 families.

Four years ago , a group of landless workers joined together to purchase the Vila Canaa property under the Land Credit project. José Domingos, President of the local community association, recalls: “We arrived here in this area, and the land was really rough, it had nothing. We started building shacks. We had to get the water from 3 or 4 kilometres away. Very muddy water, not good water, but we needed the land so much, we were in desperate need, we weren't in a good financial position like today. We were living only with other people's help. Then we developed the land and built houses.”

Today Vila Canaa is a functioning community with a school, flourmill, and church. One of the original settlers, Bento Pereira dos Santos, says: “I enjoy my life, I am happy, because before I suffered working on other people's land. Working like crazy, selling my labour and using my sweat to try and survive. But today I live without anyone's help, and for me that's already really satisfying. Here we produce beans, corn, flour, watermelon, zucchini and we sell everything at the market. We harvest it all and take it to the market. In the old times, when I was a day labourer, I wasn't able to make one basic minimum wage. But today, I can make something around 2 minimum wages per month, and all the money I make here is enough for me to live and still have a little bit to buy something or save...”

But the Landless Workers Movement (the MST) believes that by making people pay for land, the Land Credit programme fundamentally undermines the existing Land Reform Programme. The Movement was founded in 1985 and claims 1.2 million activists. It uses mass occupations to pressure the government to compulsorily purchase land. The MST takes the credit in forcing the previous government to settle almost 400,000 families in four years.

Valmir Assunçao, MST Bahia.

MST claims that the Land Credit programme, and its reliance on the market, is depoliticising land reform. Valmir Assunçao, Co-ordinator, MST Bahia, explains: “We've never been against people who participate in the Land Credit project, but we are against the programme of land credit, which is land reform via the market, as if the market can regulate this question of land.”

Three years ago Edmilson dos Santos gave up his life in the city to join the MST and occupy unused land owned by an absentee landlord in northern Bahia. The government land reform agency has now compulsorily purchased the property and he has been given legal title.

“I always thought about buying a piece of land but I never had the money. The only thing I bought was a very small plot, we built a shack on it and then had just enough room to hang the washing outside. The only thing I could do was join the MST, thank God! and now I could build ten houses! This land is my heritage… I will never sell this land, it's for me, my children and my grandchildren.”

Edmilson dos Santos
Edmilson dos Santos: 'This land is my heritage.'

While the MST remains committed to abolishing the Land Credit project, the Government argues that the project is complementary to the Land Reform programme, although it does acknowledge its limitations, as Miguel Rosseto admits: “There is a problem, which is a structural limitation of the programme, which is that it relies on the willingness of the owner to sell the land - so there's no active role for the government to intervene… In this sense it is not a substitute for land reform in Brazil, but complementary. Why? Because the instruments we have in this country permit an active political role by the government in obtaining lands which don't fulfil their social function.”

Across Brazil, more than 50 properties have been invaded since mid-March 2004. Brazil's President Lula da Silva has announced plans to speed up the resettlement of landless families this year and has promised an extra $500 million towards land reform over the next two years. Certainly, for those who achieve it, access to land can only make for a better life in Brazil, as Edmilson testifies:

“My life is calm, no matter how hard I work, like digging with a hoe, for example, it’s better than working for someone else. Before I didn't have the freedom I have today or this peaceful life on the land.”


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