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Last Updated: Tuesday, 26 September 2006, 10:14 GMT 11:14 UK
Lula under fire over land issues
As part of his series on President Lula's Brazil, the BBC's Steve Kingstone travels to the state of Mato Grosso to look at the issue of land ahead of the 1 October presidential election.

Driving along the BR163 is like taking part in a surreal rural video game.

A boy at the MST camp
The MST camp - home to 80 families - is very basic
First, you must dodge waves of potholes that home in expertly on your vehicle. Next, ease your way past lumbering grain lorries whose tyres are prone to sudden explosions.

As you pass fields of corn and soya, watch out for wandering cattle and the cowboys chasing them. And throughout, beware of kamikaze farm trucks rushing headlong towards you on the wrong side of the road.

Stretching over 1,700km (1,000 miles) - less than half of it paved - this demanding road links the grain fields of Mato Grosso with the Amazon port of Santarem. It is where Brazil's rapidly expanding agricultural frontier meets the rainforest, and its margins are lined with the various forms of land conflict that have scarred Brazil for 500 years.

First stop: a makeshift camp on a patch of occupied farmland, which since April has been home to 80 families from Brazil's Movement of Landless Rural Workers (MST).

They invaded the farm on the grounds that it was not being used to its full potential.

"Having a small piece of land means everything to us," explains 22-year-old Leila.

"There's no way we could move to the city - to survive there you need money and a good education."

Lula's defence

Living conditions are basic. The camp has no electricity or running water, and families sleep in simple huts, with frames made of tree branches and roofs lined with palm leaves and plastic rubbish sacks.

The dividing line between untouched rainforest and land which has been taken for farming

Inside, the heat is stifling, even though this is late winter.

If the government's land agency agrees that the farm is underused, the Brazilian state will have the right to buy the land for the purpose of agrarian reform. But the legal process is dragging on, and these MST activists are frustrated with President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

"I remember Lula saying that if he could deliver one thing as president it would be land reform," recalls 38-year-old Fabio with a rueful smile.

"But four years on, land reform is still on the drawing board. He's done nothing, and for me this is one of the worst governments in Brazil's history."

As he campaigns for re-election Lula would point out that, in three years, his government has resettled nearly a quarter of a million landless families.

However, the majority have been housed on public land or pre-existing settlements. The expected wave of new expropriations has not materialised.


Ivana Giacomet, landowner
It's hard for us and I don't think the government cares about farmers' problems
Ivana Giacomet

The MST, quite literally, expected the Earth from President Lula. But the suspicion now is that the president has abandoned his friends on the Left and cosied up to the agricultural elite that owns nearly half Brazil's farmland. Except that, further along the BR163, it is difficult to find a farmer with a kind word to say about the president.

"Lula is a plague on Brazilian agriculture," complains Ivana Giacomet, whose family owns 2,000 hectares (5,000 acres) of land in Mato Grosso.

They grow soya, until recently Brazil's boom crop. But an unfavourable exchange rate and the crippling cost of farm credit have brought the good times to an abrupt halt.

map showing mato grosso and santarem

"When I go to pay my suppliers I don't have the money," explains Ivana. "My image as a businesswoman suffers. It's hard for us and I don't think the government cares about farmers' problems."

Ivana's brother, Paulo Giacomet, agrees that Lula has failed Brazilian agriculture.

"Look at the roads around here," he says, "it's we farmers who are paying to have them paved. The government simply isn't playing its part. Lula tries to be all things to all men and he ends up pleasing no-one."


Despite farmers' complaints, their industry has come to dominate these vast plains, and agriculture now accounts for one third of Brazil's exports. But there is a heavy environmental cost.

Alonso Iravali
Forget the government, it was God that gave this land to the Indians - long before the white man arrived in Brazil
Alonso Iravali
Manoki leader
It is no coincidence that Mato Grosso, the biggest soya-producing state, also has the highest levels of Amazon deforestation.

"They're chopping down everything," complains 72-year-old Alonso Iravali, leader of the Manoki indigenous tribe, native to Mato Grosso.

"They're destroying our forests, polluting our rivers with chemicals, and depriving us of the natural remedies that our people rely on."

With a tiny school, a church and even a public phone box, the Manoki Indian village sits within a 40,000 hectare reserve demarcated by the state in 1968.

But they complain that their traditional hunting grounds lie far beyond the reserve, on land which successive Brazilian governments have sold off to farmers.

Numbering barely 300, the Manoki invested great faith in President Lula. They hoped his government would approve their legal claim to a much larger area, but like many people I spoke to on this journey their hopes have been frustrated.

In 2004, the justice ministry ruled against the Manoki.

"We campaigned for Lula four years ago because we thought he would help us," shouts Iravali, wearing a brightly-plumed headdress. "But he deceived the Indians. He discriminated against us. Forget the government, it was God that gave this land to the Indians - long before the white man arrived in Brazil."

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