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Landless farmers triumphant

Brazilian landless farmers are heading home battle-scarred but victorious after their epic 238km journey to the capital and an audience with the president in their bid for agrarian reform.

Last Modified: 20 May 2005 13:26 GMT
The marchers entered the capital led by Luis Beltrame, 97

Brazilian landless farmers are heading home battle-scarred but victorious after their epic 238km journey to the capital and an audience with the president in their bid for agrarian reform.

In three strict thin red columns, the march had entered the capital watched by cheering crowds lining the route. It snaked past the US embassy where protesters made a bonfire of "cultural rubbish to send it back to where it came from" according to announcements from the sound system truck.

After 16 days on foot, the mood was euphoric and defiant, and the landless danced and sang towards the seat of government led by 97-year-old Luis Beltrame.

Mounted police, backed by a low-flying helicopter, descended on the crowd that had swelled to 20,000 when it rallied in front of the government Congress building. Running battles left 50 injured on the final day of the protest before calm returned.

Image problem

Images of bloody-nosed military police and members of the Movimento Sem Terra, or MST, being treated for injuries in front of the twin towers of Congress dominated the domestic press.

The marchers caused traffic
snarls  on the city's major roads

The clashes reinforced impressions of the MST as a dangerous, uncontrollable group, but its leaders claimed the violence was sparked by police provocation.

"They have been paid by bankers and North Americans to provoke us. We have been marching with federal police for 16 days without any incident," said MST leader Joao Pedro Stedile.

Delegation talks

At the same time, inside President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva's office, 50 MST leaders presented their 16-point list of demands.

The president received the delegation with smiles and hugs, accepting a symbolic rucksack, food container and an MST baseball cap, which he donned for photographers.

After three hours of talks and little progress, the delegation headed back to the camp at the Mane Garrincha football stadium on the edge of the city but was recalled for more talks into the early hours. The MST had threatened to remain in the capital, which had caused chaos to traffic, if its agenda was not met.

Extended meeting

When the dust had settled, Lula's government admitted it was in debt in its promises for land reform and promised to fulfil its targets to resettle 400,000 families by the end of its term in office in 2006. It has so far settled just 60,000 according to the MST.

Some argue the movement has
greater political ambitions

The Ministry of Agrarian Reform also announced it had agreed on seven principal points with the landless. Minister Miguel Rosseto said the march "had positively provoked a realisation of a debate about agrarian reform and because of this we all have reason to celebrate this moment".

The government will send a basic casket of food each month for 120,000 families camped waiting for land. It will create 1300 new jobs at Incra, the national land reform agency, whose function is to assess land for settlements.

Reduced ambitions

"We were more ambitious, but we are leaving satisfied with the understanding with the government," said MST national co-ordinator Jaime Amorim.

"The struggle for agrarian reform doesn't stop. But we are proud of the success of the march and of the negotiations for the future of agrarian reform," he said.

The march had been the biggest undertaken in the 20-year-old organisations' history. At the final count, 12,000 landless people from 23 states from across the country had made the trek.

Marching orders

Along the route, farms were invaded and camps set up and taken down daily. A team of more than 400 cooks served 24,000 meals for lunch and dinner daily from food brought from farmers who are already in productive settlements.

The marchers had to break camp
early every day

For many, the journey was a break from daily poverty and malnourishment, camped under black plastic sheeting at the edge of roads.

Brazil has one of the worst income distribution records in the world, with less than 1% of the population owning almost half of the land. A mass exodus from the countryside to the cities has swelled the infamous urban favelas, or slums.

Political leanings

Many escape violence and persecution from big landowners which often result in deaths, as with the US nun Dorothy Stang who was shot dead in the state of Para in February.

The complex landless movement borrows much of its imagery from South American revolutionary heroes, including Che Guevara and Fidel Castro, and has military undertones.

Daily afternoon education sessions espousing the theories of Mao-Tse Tung, Lenin and Marx were strictly adhered to.

For some critics, the MST is a dangerous army-in-waiting which has wider political aims and links to the FARC in Colombia and drug gangs in Sao Paulo.

Hopes

For others, it is spearheading a cultural revolution and offering a way out for unemployed urban youth - half of the marchers were under 25 - and the rural poor.

The march was a historic attempt
to influence politics

Either way, the historic march has made the MST impossible to ignore. Back in the Mane Garrincha camp, triumphant members cheered and waved as a steady stream of buses began their long journeys back to the extreme north and south of the country.

For Pepe, from the southern state of Santa Catarina, the march had been necessary to force progress.

"In Brazil, we have a saying that the government is like feijao (beans). You need pressure for them to cook," he said.

Source:
Aljazeera
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