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The Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (MST) has stepped up its occupations of nonproductive land, saying it wants the government to move more quickly on its commitment to agrarian reform. While some media and analysts are describing the actions as "the end of the honeymoon" for President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the MST says it is merely continuing its longstanding strategy. A greater problem for the Lula administration than the MST land takeovers could be the emergence of paramilitary organizations linked to large landowners openly vowing to block MST actions.

The MST was founded in 1984 to press for agrarian reform through a strategy of occupations of nonproductive haciendas and estates. The organization now has 500,000 members in 23 of the 27 states, and is considered the most successful grassroots organization in the country.

President Lula's Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT) has always been a strong supporter of MST demands. Brazil has one of the most unequal land distributions in the world, with less than 3% of the population owning two-thirds of the country's arable land, and the poorest 40% owning just 1% of the land. At least 50% of the arable land lies idle, while 4.8 million Brazilian rural families lack land. The MST says 11% of campesinos have no income, while 47% earn about the level of a minimum salary (US$57 a month). Since 1987, more than 450,000 families have gained title to 22 million hectares of land through MST land takeovers.

During the campaign, Lula said, "I am the only possibility for a tranquil and peaceful agrarian reform, without the need for any land occupations or violence."

But now in office, Lula is constrained by many pressing demands and a lack of resources. In January, his administration said it would expropriate 200,000 ha of unproductive land for redistribution. But the MST said that was only a fraction of what is needed.

When Lula met on March 11 with 2,000 mayors, he asked for patience, and he mentioned specifically the need to carry out a well-planned agrarian reform that would not only give landless campesinos land, but the assistance they need to successfully farm it.

Escalation or ongoing policy?

MST land takeovers at the rate of a few a week have been carried out since Lula took office, but the pace has recently been stepped up.

On March 6, about 500 women and 100 children set up tents at the headquarters of the Instituto Nacional de Colonizacao e Reforma Agraria (INCRA) in the Goias state capital Goiania, 200 km from Brasilia.

"We want the government to name a superintendent of agrarian reform to whom we can present our demands, which are for the settlement of 3,000 families," said local MST coordinator Elisangela Moura. "Although Lula's taking office signifies an advance, we are aware that it does not guarantee change and that, to accelerate the process of agrarian reform, we have to act."

Within a few days, hundreds of families occupied another INCRA office in Mato Grosso and at least three haciendas in three other states.

On the last weekend in March, the MST occupied six haciendas in the state of Pernambuco, an act participants described as a tribute to the 19 victims of the massacre at Eldorado de Carajas in 1996 (see NotiSur, 1996-04-26). The MST is also planning a march of workers in the city of Escada in Pernambuco on April 13.

The Pernambuco occupations brought to nine the haciendas occupied in the state by the MST, with the participation of 2,410 families. The occupations were carried out peacefully.

"We have waited long enough for the new government to take concrete action in favor of agrarian reform," said MST leader Joao Paulo Rodrigues.

Brazilian Agrarian Development Minister Miguel Rossetto criticized the protesters, saying the government was working to bring about a peaceful process of land redistribution.

"For the government of Lula, agrarian reform is central to the development of the country," an official government statement said, but it added that the takeover of the INCRA office in Mato Grosso "goes beyond democratic limits."

"It's legitimate to exert pressure, but we do not accept invasions of public buildings or the occupation of productive rural lands," said PT president Jose Genoino.

April will be a key month for the Lula government's relations with the MST, since it is traditionally a month dedicated to national protests and marches. MST leaders say they are planning more land seizures in April, as well as marches and occupations of government buildings. "In April, we will have an organized action throughout the country," said Rodrigues.

Interior Minister Jose Dirceu said that the government will continue its conversations with the MST. In the talks, which include other organizations such as the Central Unica de Trabalhadores (CUT) and the Confederacao Nacional dos Trabalhadores na Agricultura (CONTAG), the government will present an agenda for turning over land in rural areas. "We are going to move forward with agrarian reform. That is the determination of President Lula," said Dirceu.

Resurgence of armed paramilitaries

The MST's peaceful invasions of unproductive lands are not the most serious land-related problem for the Lula administration. The greater risk could come from the large landowners bent on provoking new violence in the rural areas, some suggest with the goal of destabilizing the government.

In several areas, groups of large landowners have said they would take direct action against the MST by recruiting hired guns to form private armies.

A clandestine association of large property owners, called the Primeiro Comando Rural (PCR), recently emerged in the state of Parana and sent an open letter announcing their formation to the state government.

The landowners met in Pitanga, in the interior of Parana. They said each "affiliate" would provide arms for two "custodians." Estimates are that 80 armed people are now available to respond to new land invasions.

The daily Jornal do Brasil reported that members said they chose the name because of its similarity to the Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC), a drug mafia that operates in most states in Brazil (see NotiSur, 2001-03-02), to get press attention. A member of the PCR warned that the situation could bring a repetition of the Eldorado de Carajas massacre.

Parana Gov. Roberto Requiao warned that the hired guns and their backers would be prosecuted "if they break the law."

Increasing the government's concerns was the simultaneous emergence of a paramilitary organization in Minas Gerais, where, in Campina Verde in mid-March, dozens of armed people entered the Inhaumas estate, which had been taken over by the MST. State police said the assailants fired shots and set fire to tents where 30 families were sleeping.

In Parana, the MST blames former governor Jaime Lerner of the Partido da Frente Liberal (PFL) for the worsening situation. MST leaders say that the violence began in 1997, when Lerner, giving in to pressure from landowners, allowed the police to repress the landless campesinos. In 2000, more than 1,000 campesinos were attacked by the militarized police as they were traveling by bus to Curitiba. Three people were killed and dozens were wounded. That year, various violent evictions were also carried out by paramilitary groups.

The Catholic Church's Comissao Pastoral da Terra (CPT), which works with the MST, says that violent conflicts between security forces and campesinos increased in the last years of the administration of Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1995-2002). In 2002, 38 people were killed in confrontations between landowners and campesinos involved in land occupations.

Land issue will not go away

"The landless have ended the honeymoon that we thought would last longer. Now this movement, which has strong ties to the PT, considers that it is time to reap its reward," said political analyst Carlos Graieb.

But the MST's Juan Pablo Rodrigues said such a honeymoon never existed and recent MST activity is merely a continuation of its normal strategy. He said the "occupations will end only when there are no more latifundia."

Sociologist and specialist in social movements Leonilde Servolo de Medeiros of the Universidad Federal Rural de Rio de Janeiro said that the actions were all part of the methodology of the MST. "What is new is the context in which they are taking place, after almost a year of pragmatic withdrawal [by the MST] in favor of the candidacy of Lula and a government with ideological roots closer to their own," said Servolo.

As the MST works to move agrarian reform forward, landowners will likely also increase their activities to stop it. The president of the Confederacao Nacional da Agricultura (CNA), Antonio Ernesto de Salvo, recently warned that the MST causes "uneasiness" that could interrupt agricultural production in the country. He said that the Lula administration's response to the invasions has been weak, and it had "committed a serious error" by appointing people tied to the MST to positions of leadership in INCRA. He mentioned that INCRA president Marcelo Resende belonged to the CPT and backed the invasions of haciendas in Minas Gerais in 1998.

Pedro Stedile, a national leader of the MST, said the new invasions should not be seen as a confrontation with the Lula administration. "The role of the movement is to organize the workers to struggle for their rights by occupying latifundia, and that struggle, I am sure, is going to help the government confront the pressure of the large landowners," said Stedile. [Sources: La Opinion (Los Angeles), 03/07/03; BBC News, 03/07/03, 03/10/03; Clarin (Argentina), 03/12/03;, 03/27/03; Notimex, 03/11/03, 03/13/03, 03/28/03, 03/31/03]
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Title Annotation:Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra
Publication:NotiSur - South American Political and Economic Affairs
Geographic Code:3BRAZ
Date:Apr 4, 2003

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