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Page last updated at 12:09 GMT, Friday, 23 January 2009

Changing times for Brazil's landless

By Gary Duffy
BBC News, Sao Paulo state

Entrance to Elizabeth Texeira camp, where MST has taken over land
Police have tried to remove settlers from the Elizabeth Texeira camp

A small hut with a red flag flying above it marks the start of the Elizabeth Texeira camp in the heart of the countryside in Sao Paulo state.

Among fields of sugar cane, 120 landless rural families have taken over an area of state-owned land as part of a campaign for agrarian reform.

Accommodation is basic, consisting of shacks made of plastic, wood and tin, and in the frequent tropical storms, the rain often comes pouring through.

The families try to make what they can of the land, growing vegetables and fruit, and raising small animals.

They say police tried to remove them using force in 2007, and 20 people were injured.

"We are scared, we are afraid, always afraid, because it is an insecure situation for us," says resident Jovanildo Francisco de Moura.

"We would very much like to have the right to the land, so we could work and develop it."

Jovanildo Francisco de Moura
Jovanildo says he wants permission to stay and develop the land

For 25 years, the landless movement in Brazil, spearheaded by a social movement known as the MST, has carried out a wide range of protests, including what it calls land occupations.

It plans to mark that anniversary this weekend with a demonstration in the state of Rio Grande Do Sul.

The strategy has often been controversial, with protests leading to hundreds of prosecutions - not against the organisation, which does not exist as a legal entity, but against its activists.

MST activists have also been accused of violence and damaging property, and there have been frequent clashes with the authorities.

The conflict has been costly in human terms: the MST says dozens of its activists are among hundreds of people who have died in land disputes in recent years.

In the most notorious incident, 19 people were shot dead by police while taking part in a protest at Eldorado dos Carajas, in the state of Para, in April 1996.

Success and failure

Agrarian reform is a divisive issue in Brazil, which is still said to have one of the highest levels of inequality of land distribution in the world.

While new official figures are hard to come by, one leading analyst says that 10% of the largest farmers still hold about 85% of the land.

Fifty percent of what has been done in agrarian reform in the history of Brazil has been done in the last six years
Guilherme Cassel
Agrarian Reform Minister

Given that high level of inequality, has the MST reason to be satisfied with what the movement has achieved over 25 years?

"Yes and no," says Prof Antonio Marcio Buainain, of Campinas state university.

"They brought the issue [of agrarian reform] onto the political agenda. Today, there are roughly one million families settled. That is the largest agrarian reform settlement in peace time," said Prof Buainain.

"But they should be very unhappy, because the results for people are not very good," he says.

"People in settlements are still poor. They still rely on public funds to survive, and they are not autonomous farmers. As farmers, they are not very successful," he adds.

Government respect

There are also tensions between the landless movement and the government of President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who has been a long-term supporter of the MST.

His government turned down a proposal to settle one million people, and adopted instead a counter-proposal of 450,000, says Jose Batista de Oliveira, of the MST.

Settlers granted the right to stay by the government
Brazil's government says more than one million families have been settled

"In the first year [of his presidency] he didn't keep to his plan, and in the middle of his first term he gave up. In the second term he hasn't even raised the issue," he tells the BBC News website.

But the government insists it is on the right track.

Agrarian Reform Minister Guilherme Cassel says that in total more than one million families have been settled in Brazil.

"Of these, 520,000 were settled during this government. Therefore 50% of what has been done in agrarian reform in the history of Brazil has been done in the past six years."

Analysts say the motivation for involvement in the MST is usually economic, and the wide availability of the government's family income support has weakened the movement's appeal.

Bolsa Familia, as it is known, now reaches 11 million families.

Professor Antoni Marcio Buainain
The government cannot just take productive land off farmers who lawfully own it and redistribute it to people who are poor or landless
Prof Antoni Marcio Buainain
Mr Cassel says he has enormous respect for the MST, but he also believes changes in Brazilian society are having an impact on the landless movement.

"The country has started to grow again, to create work and social programmes again, inequality has diminished and the minimum wage has been raised," he says.

"All this has clearly had a positive impact on society, with fewer people on the margins and this has had wide implications, including for the MST," he tells the BBC news website.

Critics also say the MST is fighting battles on too many fronts.

"It lost focus and it cannot be said it is a landless movement in the sense that it's fighting for land," says Prof Buainain.

"They are fighting for a social transformation, they are fighting against globalisation, they are fighting against the multi-nationals, and they are fighting against the Doha agreement on trade.

"They lost focus and the movement lost strength, and that is visible," he says.

Reform rethink

The MST says it only adapted to changing times.

"What changed was not the MST, what changed were the enemies of agrarian reform," says Jose Batista de Oliveira.

"What has changed was the posture of the Brazilian government in supporting the enemies of agrarian reform."

MST banner, the landless movement in Brazil
The MST says the economic crisis will reinforce the need to promote reform

Prof Buainain argues that the time is right for the government to rethink its approach to reform - in particular the idea of placing poor settlers on "unproductive land" that farmers are said not to need.

"If it is not good for production for a farmer, it will not be good for production with a poor peasant. On the other hand, the government cannot just take productive land off farmers who lawfully own it and redistribute it to people who are poor or landless," he says.

"Alternatives to punitive expropriation need to be discussed in our society as the public will have to pay for it."

But he says there is still an urgent need to address the issue of unequal land distribution.

"I think agrarian reform is still needed in Brazil. Obviously, this high land concentration is something that will be eased over the generations, but we should try to intervene to speed it up," says Prof Buainain.

It has been a long journey for the landless movement, which over the years has taken its protests to the capital, Brasilia, many times.

The MST says the economic crisis will reinforce the need to promote agrarian reform - and it is clear the road ahead will be difficult and uncertain.

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