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
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
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