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Last Updated: Monday, 16 May, 2005, 12:57 GMT 13:57 UK
Brazil's landless squeeze government
By Sue Branford
BBC News, Brasilia

Marchers shortly after setting off from the Brazilian city of Goiania, 2 May
Marchers stretched back about 4km (2.5 miles) along the road
Brazil's landless movement, known in Brazil as the MST (Movimento dos Sem Terra), is on the march.

Waving red flags and walking in an orderly line along the federal highway, some 12,000 "sem-terra" (as they are known) have spent two weeks walking to the federal capital, Brasilia, from Goiania, capital of the neighbouring state.

As they marched, the sem-terra chatted, sang or listened to one of the thousands of small portable radios donated to the movement by the World Social Forum.

Most wore straw hats to protect them from the hot sun and carried their belongings in small backpacks.

The sem-terra converged on Goiania for the march from different corners of Brazil. Some travelled for three days by coach from the hot and impoverished northeast.

Others came up from the much more temperate state of Rio Grande do Sul in the very south of Brazil, where the movement was founded 25 years ago.

Circus tents

The march was organised with meticulous care. Fireworks went off at 0400 to wake the marchers, who slept in 23 circus tents. After a quick breakfast they set off into the darkness.

At midday they "invaded" one of the large private farms along the road and erected the 23 giant circus tents where they spend the night.

Although the landowners were not consulted about the use of their land, there was no violence. A small contingent of federal policemen, accompanying the march, looked on rather anxiously each day as the MST set up camp.

The sem-terra spent the afternoons talking, playing music, sipping mate tea from a chimarrao (gourd), or going to one of the political education seminars organised by the movement. No alcohol was allowed in the camps.

There were about 100 children on the march. In the afternoons those of school age attended classes in the MST's well-known "itinerant school". Education is always a priority for the movement.

The MST held the march to put pressure on the government of President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, from the left-leaning Workers' Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores, PT).

Landless activist Luisana Bomfim
President Lula said he would give land to 430,000 families... but so far only 73,000 families have been given plots
Luisana Bomfim
MST member and marcher

"We want the government to carry out its agrarian reform programme," said Luisana Bomfim, a 26-year-old woman who lives in a landless camp in the state of Rio de Janeiro.

"President Lula said he would give land to 430,000 families during the four years of his government, but so far only 73,000 families have been given plots. At this rate, he's not going to honour his promise."

Miguel Rossetto, the minister for agrarian development, contests the MST's figures.

"We gave land to 118,000 families during the first two years of the government," he told the BBC News website.

"And, just as important, we're providing the families with good technical and financial support, once they're on the land. That's something they didn't get in the past."

Prudent economics

President Lula came to office in January 2003 amid great expectations that he would end poverty.

He knows what it is like to be very poor. As a seven-year-old boy, he sold peanuts on the street to supplement the family income.

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva
Lula has pleased business, but disappointed traditional supporters
Income is highly concentrated in Brazil. A small elite is extremely rich, but some 44 million Brazilians still struggle by on less than $1 a day.

President Lula has pleased the financial and business class, because he has adopted prudent economic policies. The economy is growing steadily and exports, especially from the farm sector, have been booming.

New areas of land are being incorporated into the agricultural frontier. Brazil is already the world's leading exporter of orange juice, chicken, tobacco, coffee and other commodities. Beef may be added to the list this year.

The country has the world's largest iron ore company, Companhia Vale do Rio Doce, and mineral exports are soaring, particularly to China.

Slow change

But the pace of social reform has been slow.

Bernardo Kucinski, who works as a presidential adviser in Brasilia, says advances have been made.

These programmes are important but the problem is... they do not convey a general feeling of change
Bernardo Kucinski
Presidential adviser
"We have launched a system of micro-credit, that is, we are providing individuals and small companies with cheap credit. This is changing the panorama of the whole financial system.

'We have introduced Bolsa Familia, a programme to help the very poorest families, which is already reaching about half of them. We are funding students from poor families to go to university.

"These programmes are important but the problem is that they are not connected to one another. They do not convey a general feeling of change."

So, if President Lula is elected to a second term of office in 2006, will he manage to really change Brazil, as many poor Brazilians hope?

"It will depend, not so much on Lula, but on the people. If people demand more, more will be done," said Mr Kucinski.

If this is really the case, then the MST will certainly play its part.

Landless Brazilians occupy farms
06 Apr 05 |  Americas
Modest gain in Brazil land reform
20 Jan 05 |  Americas
Three held over Brazil land clash
22 Nov 04 |  Americas
Lula warns Brazil land activists
20 Apr 04 |  Americas
Brazil's land wars hit new height
17 Apr 04 |  Americas

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