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BRAZIL: Land Reforms Promised to Peasant Activists

by Andrew HayReuters
July 3rd, 2003

Brazil promised on Thursday to speed land reforms after landless movement leaders met with President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, but the pledge did little to halt a wave of occupations by peasant activists.

Lula's chief of staff urged non-violence and cooperation with the Landless Workers Movement, or MST, as police tried to end a standoff between armed peasants and cowboys on a ranch just 25 miles west of the presidential palace.

"The solution is agrarian reform, not repression," said Chief of Staff Jose Dirceu, promising to free up funds to speed up land reform.

Lula, Brazil's first working-class president, is keen not to radicalize the MST, out of fear it may turn toward armed struggle. But he also does not want to alienate powerful landowners.

Lula has asked the movement to halt occupations to allow his newly elected government to redistribute land. The MST seizes unused farmland that may qualify for expropriation and helps poor people set up homes and start planting crops.

The MST initially halted land seizures following the election of Lula, formerly a socialist and a natural ally of the group. But MST soon organized a new series of land grabs, saying members were too hungry to wait for the government's excruciatingly slow bureaucracy to distribute land.

MST heads praised Lula after meeting with the former union leader, but declared no halt to occupations.

"The president has promised to carry out massive land reform. That is pretty positive," said Jaime Amorim, an MST leader from Lula's home state of Pernambuco where activists took food from four trucks this week as a protest.


Brazilian landowners have formed armed militias in response to the wave of invasions. Many believe Lula's left-wing government will ignore them and side with the MST.

"The (Lula) government not only failed to reach a truce with the MST but the meeting was friendly," said political analyst Christopher Garman, who called the meeting a "double disaster" since it appeared to confirm landowners' worst fears.

A small number of big landowners own the vast majority of arable land in Brazil, which has some of the world's greatest disparities in income and education levels.

Founded in 1984, and inspired by the Mexican and Cuban revolutions, the MST has taken land reform into its own hands. It claims to have won land titles to more than 15 million acres for 350,000 families. Some 80,000 families are now in camps throughout Brazil awaiting for the government to recognize MST land takeovers, it says.

Police on Thursday said they had taken firearms from three MST members involved in the occupation of part of a 1,950-acre (800-hectare) cattle ranch west of Brasilia. The MST claims they have taken land that is public property grabbed illegally by local landowner and rancher Mario Zinato.

"The law is going to get them out of there," said Zinato, as his ranch hands stood guard at a nearby earth barricade.

(Additional reporting by Andrei Khalip)

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