[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Wednesday, 13 August, 2003, 10:51 GMT 11:51 UK
Brazil's land reform dilemma

By Linda Pressly
BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva
There are high expectations of the Brazilian president

In Brazil's extensive ranching country, the landless peasants' movement, the Movimento Sem Terra (MST), is impatient for change.

But it is unclear whether the country's left-leaning President Lula da Silva is prepared to risk the wrath of the nation's powerful farming lobby - and its valuable export dollars - to alleviate their plight.

At an outdoor mass in the western corner of the state of Sao Paulo, offerings are made to the priest.

There are baskets of fruit, bowls of beans and old, well-used farming implements.

And there are flip-flops. Five pairs symbolise the long road people must walk before they get their own land.

The MST has been fighting for agrarian reform for nearly two decades.

The roots of the inequalities in Brazil's land tenure system go back five centuries to Portuguese rule.

And over the last 50 years, mechanisation has driven thousands of poor people from the land to populate the favelas that surround cities like Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.

At other times in Brazil there was talk of agrarian reform, but you never had the conditions you have today
Gilmar Mauro

Thousands of those slum dwellers - together with landless peasants - have joined the MST.

They are determined to change a system where around 1% of the country's landowners control nearly half of all Brazil's agricultural land.

The mass in Teodoro Sampaio is an anniversary celebration. It marks the 13 years since the first MST occupation of land in the area known as the Pontal.

It is one of Brazil's richest cattle-rearing areas. And according to the MST, it is a region ripe for change:

"At other times in Brazil there was talk of agrarian reform, but you never had the conditions you have today. A popular democratic government on one hand, and an organised peasantry on the other," Gilmar Mauro told the programme.

Hungry for change

Lula was swept to power on a wave of support for his programme of social justice.

Expectations are high. Energina is a vibrant white-haired woman in her 50s enjoying the birthday party. She has being living in one of the MST's camps for four months.

"I want land from President Lula, so I can work," she said. "That is why I voted for him."

Less than an hour away, Luis Antonio Nabhan Garcia is surveying his land with a hard, set expression.

He is the local president of the UDR, the organisation that represents land owners. Four years ago his land was invaded by the MST.

Farmers are just working and defending themselves within the law
Luis Antonio Nabhan Garcia

He says he cannot forget it. "When I saw what those people had done, it was a complete shock to me. Tractors were destroying the land, the cattle were out on the road, and my father and brother were absolutely terrified."

The farmers are nervous. And there are stories of them employing armed militias to protect their land. Luis Antonio denies this.

"If there are armed militias, it is on the side of the MST. They call themselves a revolutionary force, and are connected to the FARC, the guerrilla group in Colombia," he claimed.

And he continued: "Farmers are just working and defending themselves within the law."

Asked if he would use a gun if his farm was invaded again, he replied:

"It would absolutely depend on the situation. What is certain is that I would not shoot against old people, women or children."

Lula's dilemma

Brazilian farmers
Farmers like these make a valuable contribution to the economy

Luis Antonio got his land back from the MST. But with the organisation actively encouraging landless families to come to the Pontal, he is increasingly anxious.

Thousands of people have arrived over the last few months. The seas of black polythene snaking along some of the region's roads are the MST's encampments.

Families help each other to build precarious, makeshift shacks. Then they wait and hope.

The Pontal provides a snapshot of the most pressing issue facing the federal government. The MST is getting impatient and the farmers are determined they will not be pushed around.

Land reform will go ahead, not at the high speed demanded by the MST, or at the slow pace hoped for by those against it
Brazilian President Lula da Silva

Lula is widely identified with the MST's struggle. But he has other powerful interests to consider: agribusiness now accounts for over a quarter of Brazil's economy.

On a recent trip to London, and an interview with the BBC's Brazilian service, the president was not making any radical promises. He told the BBC:

"We are committed to reform. Of course we must do it within our financial means, and our government does not have enough money to buy as much land as we would like.

"Land reform will go ahead, not at the high speed demanded by the MST, or at the slow pace hoped for by those against it. We will do it... in the right way, at the right time."

BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents was broadcast on Thursday, 14 August, 2003 at 1100 BST.

Former economy minister Mailson da Norbrega
"It would be a disaster"

Ladislan Dowbar, academic
"People want results, they have waited too long."

Crossing Continents


Download or subscribe to this programme's podcast

Podcast Help


Brazil's three dilemmas
04 Aug 03  |  Crossing Continents
Ask President Lula da Silva of Brazil
15 Jul 03  |  Have Your Say
Country profile: Brazil
05 Jul 03  |  Country profiles
Timeline: Brazil
05 Jul 03  |  Country profiles
In pictures: Brazil squatters leave camp
07 Aug 03  |  Photo Gallery
Brazil landless leader arrested
12 Jul 03  |  Americas
Brazil activists target Monsanto
03 Jun 03  |  Americas
Brazil's Lula in land reform talks
03 Jul 03  |  Americas

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites


News Front Page | Africa | Americas | Asia-Pacific | Europe | Middle East | South Asia
UK | Business | Entertainment | Science/Nature | Technology | Health
Have Your Say | In Pictures | Week at a Glance | Country Profiles | In Depth | Programmes
Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific