Brazil's Landless Refuse to Be Voiceless as Well Grass-Roots Movement Becomes Main Political Opposition

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The blue-and-white tile mural that dominates the entrance to the Carlos Botelho Agricultural School shows a bucolic scene of a proud farmer tilling his land with a horse-drawn plow.

The peaceful picture stands in stark contrast to the reality of rural Brazil. Like the wheat, soy, and cattle-grazing lands that surround this community 100 miles west of Sao Paulo, farmlands across Brazil are the scene of thousands of land disputes. Violence often erupts as hundreds of thousands of rural Brazilians who see no alternative to farming demand their own plot of ground.

The Carlos Botelho School has not escaped this maelstrom. It stands occupied by 500 families who say they will not leave until the government gives them land. The demands, and the government's failure to address them over the past decade, have given rise to the Sem Terra, or Landless Movement, which some observers now consider to be Brazil's principal political opposition force. After more than 500 land invasions in the 1990s that involved more than 151,000 families, Sem Terra leaders are pledging to ratchet up pressure on the government in the coming weeks to force an acceleration of land distribution and a shift in agrarian reform. March on capital Yesterday, Sem Terra contingents from around the country were to begin a two-month march on the capital, Brasilia, to mark the one-year anniversary of the April 17 massacre of 19 squatters in Eldorado dos Carajas by Para state military police. Anticipating stepped-up activism over the coming weeks, the government on Friday announced new security measures to stop land seizures. The government said it is moving as fast as possible on land distribution. Aiming even higher, Sem Terra leaders are also hoping to stall, if not derail, a list of belt-tightening national economic reforms and privatizations - saying they will lead to even greater hardships for Brazil's poor. For the protesters who took over the classrooms and dormitories of the Carlos Botelho School last month, however, the first objective remains land. "We have given the government 45 days to resolve the situations of these families by resettling them, but we are also pledged to occupy the school until everyone has land," says Jose Gais, a local Sem Terra leader whose family is among the 500 camped here. Itapetininga's landless protesters claim that much of the verdant farmland surrounding them belongs to the government or absentee landlords for whom land was nothing more than a hedge against Brazil's once Himalayan-sized inflation. Meeting with other movement leaders under Sem Terra's now nationally recognized flag - a white medallion showing a farm couple and a green Brazil centered on a crimson field - Mr. Gais and his colleagues, who are all jobless, say they have an alternative vision of how Brazilian agriculture should develop. "The government's agrarian model is designed to create large farms producing goods for export," says Daniel Costa, another local Sem Terra leader. "But all that plan has done is concentrate land ownership even more, while farmers like us have lost our jobs.... Our approach," he adds, "is to encourage production for people here, and not on small isolated farms but through diverse and value-adding cooperatives." Land distribution is not a new problem in Brazil, where some farms are larger than European countries. In a country where income distribution is considered the world's worst, land distribution is on a similarly unequal plane. But the size and impact of the landless issue has grown swiftly over recent years for several reasons: * Land claims became bottled up during the early '90s as the government failed to pay the problem any serious attention; * A recession in the early '90s and agricultural modernization in Brazil's most productive states in the south teamed up to cut demand for farm laborers even as many farm-related businesses folded, putting tens of thousands of low-skilled workers out of a job. …