The New York Times

July 27, 2003

Poor Press Brazil's Leader on His Promise of Land

By LARRY ROHTER

MIRANTE DO PARANAPANEMA, Brazil—The encampments have sprung up along highways throughout this fertile farming region and are expanding rapidly. Precarious clusters of shacks made of wood, cardboard and plastic, they are inhabited by thousands of peasants who have flocked here with a single unwavering demand: a piece of land.

In some cases, farms, cattle ranches and sugar mills have been occupied, threatening violent clashes. In other areas, squatters have in recent weeks seized or vandalized government offices, blocked highways, taken hostages and looted trucks to press their demands.

The squatters are organized by Brazil's largest and most combative social movement, the Landless Rural Workers' Movement. Always an advocate of confrontational tactics, the group has become even more emboldened with the arrival of a new government it views as friendly and responsive to pressure.

But for President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the tensions and the rising demands of a movement whose support has been essential to the growth of his Workers' Party have become an intensifying political headache.

His problems have only worsened, too, with the recent emergence in São Paulo, the country's largest city, of a group of urban slum dwellers known as the roofless movement that has begun using similar tactics.

Mr. da Silva, a left-leaning former labor leader, was elected last year on promises of sweeping land reform in a country where fewer than 5 percent of people own more than half the arable land. Now the landless movement is challenging him to make good immediately on an issue that is a source of shame for many here.

Founded in 1984, the landless movement, which claims 1.5 million members nationwide, is today a formidable political and social force with a substantial war chest that comes from tithes paid by peasants it has successfully resettled. Its demands, which have expanded to include an end to agribusiness and a promise not to relocate squatters, can be ignored only at political peril.

In early July, Mr. da Silva met for four hours with movement leaders at the presidential palace in Brasília. He was hoping to reduce tensions, but may have achieved the opposite.

When the meeting ended, he was photographed wearing the movement's red baseball cap and feeding cookies to the visitors. As a result, he was widely criticized for appearing to support the movement's violations of the law, including land occupations.

"The amount of noise being made about this is way out of proportion," José Genoino, the president of Mr. da Silva's Workers' Party, said in an interview here. "The president has met with various other groups and organizations and put on their hats and no fuss was ever made before."

But Mr. da Silva's reluctance to act against his allies merely confirmed the suspicions of conservative rural landowners who have always opposed him. They are openly arming themselves and hiring private security forces that landless movement leaders described as illegal militias.

"We have a president who swore to respect and uphold the Constitution but is not doing so," Luiz Antônio Nabhan Garcia, a rancher here who is president of the main national landowners' group, the Democratic Rural Union, complained in an interview. "When land invasions take place, the police stand by with arms crossed because this government has no will to enforce the law."

Mr. da Silva has contributed to raising the expectations of the landless. Before he assumed the presidency in January, he promised to provide homesteads to at least 60,000 families this year. At the top of that list were those already living in precarious encampments like those here in western São Paulo State.

But government figures show that he is far behind that goal. Barely 2,500 families had been resettled by the end of June, and what is left of this year's budget appears to allow for fewer than 7,000 in all.

At the same time, the number of poor families living in the estimated 1,300 squatter settlements around the country that the landless movement has organized and controls has swelled to 150,000. Increasingly, they are showing signs of frustration and impatience.

"I've been working in the fields since I was 7 years old, but always for someone else and always as a day laborer," said Valdevino Antônio de Lima, 58, a father of seven who is part of a group of 400 families squatting alongside a road. "My dream has always been to farm a piece of land that I can say is mine and that I can pass on to my children."

The group's leaders, however, envision something more radical. They have repeatedly said they want to rid Brazil of agribusinesses that focus on export markets and to impose a collectivist agricultural model.

"We want the socialization of the means of production," Miguel Stedile, a son of the group's founder and a member of its national coordinating council, said in a recent interview with the newsmagazine Epoca. "We are going to adapt the Cuban and Soviet experiences to Brazil."

That position puts the group in direct conflict with Mr. da Silva's government. In some years, Brazil exports more foodstuffs from coffee and oranges to beef and soybeans than any country except the United States, and Mr. da Silva has emphasized increasing agricultural production and exports even further as the quickest way to bring investments and prosperity.

"There is room in Brazil for everything from agribusiness to cooperatives and family farms," Mr. Genoino said in the interview. "They can all coexist comfortably, just as some people wear jackets and ties and others prefer shorts and sandals."

The landless movement and its allies are also challenging other aspects of the official land reform program. Increasingly, they are demanding that landless families remain where they are, rather than being settled in more remote areas.

"We can no longer accept that the landless from all over the country be deported to unused lands out there at the end of the world, in the Amazon," said Msgr. Tomas Balduino, director of the Pastoral Land Commission of the Roman Catholic Church. "Why can't they live in areas with a good infrastructure, close to the markets that consume their products?"

But in this region, where three states with some of the most fertile land in Brazil come together, it is hard to find farms or ranches that are not being worked.

Leaders of the landless movement say that many such properties are "unproductive" and thus can be legally expropriated. Their owners favor cattle over people, the movement leaders say, or have violated environmental regulations. Courts have not endorsed those positions, but the group continues to encourage peasants to occupy land.

In some cases, landowners have obtained injunctions ordering squatters off their land or the arrest of movement leaders, only some of which have been carried out. Mr. Garcia complained that movement leaders have also encouraged members to destroy tractors and other machinery, burn pastures and tear down fences, "and no landowner has been compensated for his losses."

"Landowners can't take it any more, and they are taking advantage of their right under law to arm themselves, their relatives and their employees to protect their property and their rights," he said.

But with tensions rising, the landless movement's national directorate has decreed that "there will be no truce" with landowners, and local leaders, like Valmir Rodrigues Chaves, say more land occupations and other "militant actions" should be expected here and elsewhere.

"We're not going to stop," Mr. Chaves said. "We are a social movement. The populace need jobs and food and that is what we are here for, to bring people back to the land."