Brazil's landless gain despite dangers

A cluster of wooden shacks stands by the road. Even calling them shacks is generous - they are sticks of wood lashed together in the dirt, the lavish ones covered with plastic sheeting.

    Gildasio Salles Ribeiro marched to Brasilia in protest

    A lone red flag flying atop a piece of bamboo indicates that this is a camp of the landless farmers' movement, the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (MST), which has been campaigning for agrarian reform and more equitable land distribution in Brazil.

    In 1985, the MST began peacefully occupying unused land and constructing farms, schools and clinics hoping to convince the government to distribute plots to the landless poor.

    But this camp in the poor northeastern state of Paraiba is virtually abandoned following a series of drive-by shootings.

    Five people remain - all male, four of them teenagers.

    There are 200,000 people living like this, across Brazil, waiting for a plot of land, often in desperate situations with scarce water, no electricity and under the threat of the guns of big landowners.

    Jose Amoro Filho, 75, whose house stands at the edge of this particular plot agrees with the demands of the landless.

    "It's a good thing that they are here, people who don't have work. What good is this land sitting unused?" he says.

    Dangers increase

    Manuela Olivia Andrade, 32, a mother of two, was one of those who abandoned the camp and her struggle to own her plot of land.

    The red flag of the movement
    flies over the camp in Paraiba

    "I wanted to try and get something for my children when they grow up. But I can't wait forever and the shootings were too much to bear,” she says.

    Manuela had joined the movement just two months before the MST had embarked on its  biggest protest to date - a march to the capital, Brasilia, with 12,000 of their million-strong membership, in May last year.

    One man died of a heart attack and scores were hospitalised in the gruelling 17-day trek.

    The government responded by promising to achieve their targets set out in the National Plan for Agrarian Reform, to resettle 400,000 families.

    The government, under Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the president, of the Workers' party, says they will reach their resettlement targets - the MST says they are not even half way there, leaving people such as Manuela without hope.


    The government had planned to have a total of 230,000 people resettled in 2004 and 2005. To date, they have resettled 153,000, according to the MST.

    Brazil has 30 million people undernourished, and the MST says agrarian reform is the key to solving the issue of rural and urban poverty and starvation.

    Life goes on in the landless
    farmers camp at Bahia

    "The government should have responsibility to look, as a matter of emergency, to take these families out from under the black plastic and find land for them to work, " says Joao Pedro Sedile, one of the leaders of the MST.

    He says the government has to state whether it favours the landless poor or the affluent landowners.

    That may prove daunting.

    Brazil has one of the largest concentrations of land ownership in the world - less than 1% owns more than half the land. Yet 30% of the 850 million hectares of land in Brazil is without a registered owner.

    The struggle for land reform dates back to colonial times and has appeared on the agenda of successive governments with little advance. The Workers' party, the first non-elite government in Brazil's history which came to power in 2002, offered fresh hope.

    Winning the land

    Gildasio Salles Ribeiro, 48, took part in the epic march last year. He says that, as a result of the pressure brought to bear, they have been successful in winning their fight for land after three years camped under black plastic bags near the city of Porto Seguro, in the north-eastern state of Bahia.

    The new settlement will even bear the name of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

    A woman and child in the
    farmers camp in Bahia

    "The president came to the camp to see our situation for himself,” he says.

    "He is the first one who has ever come to the landless people and shaken our hands, so we named the camp after him and now the settlement. He says he will come back to inaugurate it later this year."

    They have already set about dividing lots between the hundreds of families where they can grow corn, cassava, beans and other staple crops to feed themselves and sell regionally. They plan to construct a school and a health centre.

    Lula's support

    Despite the criticisms of not doing enough, Lula has always been an historical ally of the landless movement and has twice sported their trademark baseball cap much to the chagrin of Brazil's powerful landowning elite.

    The stakes in this alliance are growing as the race in the 2006 elections, set for October, heats up.

    His chief opponent, Geraldo Alckmin, who became the official candidate of the Brazilian Social Democrat party (PSDB) this month, has already made a point of singling out Lula's sympathies for the MST in his first campaign salvos.

    And the spotlight will again shine on the landless on 17 April, 10 years on from the worst massacre of the landless by government forces.

    Police opened fire on a group of unarmed landless farmers in Eldorado dos Carajas, in the northern state of Para, leaving 19 dead and 65 injured in 1996.

    An investigation into the incident is yet to hold anyone accountable.

    SOURCE: Aljazeera


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