Activists still die but government does pay some support
It doesn't take much to buy off the desperate
We trim and append this 2009 report from the BBC, "Brazil's landless fall behind changing times" on Jan 23.
by Gary DuffyFor 25 years, the landless movement in Brazil, spearheaded by a social movement known as the MST, has carried out a wide range of protests, including what it calls land occupations.
The strategy has often been controversial, with protests leading to hundreds of prosecutions -- not against the organization, which does not exist as a legal entity, but against its activists.
MST activists have also been accused of violence and damaging property, and there have been frequent clashes with the authorities.
The conflict has been costly in human terms: the MST says dozens of its activists are among hundreds of people who have died in land disputes in recent years.
In the most notorious incident, 19 people were shot dead by police while taking part in a protest at Eldorado dos Carajas, in the state of Para, in April 1996.
Success and failure
Agrarian reform is a divisive issue in Brazil, which is still said to have one of the highest levels of inequality of land distribution in the world.
While new official figures are hard to come by, one leading analyst says that 10% of the largest farmers still hold about 85% of the land.
"MST brought the issue [of agrarian reform] onto the political agenda,” said Prof Antonio Marcio Buainain, of Campinas state university.
“Today, there are roughly one million families settled. That is the largest agrarian reform settlement in peace time," said Prof Buainain.
"But people in settlements are still poor. They still rely on public funds to survive, and they are not autonomous farmers. As farmers, they are not very successful," he adds.
There are also tensions between the landless movement and the government of President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who has been a long-term supporter of the MST.
His government turned down a proposal to settle one million people, and adopted instead a counter-proposal of 450,000, says Jose Batista de Oliveira, of the MST.
Agrarian Reform Minister Guilherme Cassel says that of the more than one million families resettled, “520,000 were settled during this government. Therefore 50% of what has been done in agrarian reform in the history of Brazil has been done in the past six years."
Mr Cassel says "The country has started to create work and social programs again, inequality has diminished, and the minimum wage has been raised," he says. Government support of family income, Bolsa Familia, as it is known, now reaches 11 million families. That has weakened the movement's appeal.
Prof Buainain offers a different explanation. "The MST are fighting for a social transformation, they are fighting against globalization, they are fighting against the multi-nationals, and they are fighting against the Doha agreement on trade. They lost focus and the movement lost strength, and that is visible.”
The MST says it only adapted to changing times. "What changed was not the MST, what changed were the enemies of agrarian reform," says Jose Batista de Oliveira.
"What has changed was the posture of the Brazilian government in supporting the enemies of agrarian reform."
It has been a long journey for the landless movement, which over the years has taken its protests to the capital, Brasilia, many times. The MST says the economic crisis will reinforce the need to promote agrarian reform -- and it is clear the road ahead will be difficult and uncertain.
Prof Buainain argues that the government should rethink the idea of placing poor settlers on "unproductive land" that farmers are said not to need. "If it is not good for production for a farmer, it will not be good for production with a poor peasant.”
“On the other hand," he says, “the government cannot just take productive land off farmers who lawfully own it and redistribute it to people who are poor or landless.”
JJS: While the situation may seem like between a rock and a hard place, it has been solved successfully before. Those governments did not remove a rich family from from a large estate and put on it many poor families by force of law. Instead, it levied a tax on land. Then owners might still collect rent from tenants, but must turn around and pay it over to the public treasury. Owners found it no longer worthwhile to be a middleman. So they sold off excess land usually at prices that former tenants could afford. Thus land got redistributed effectively and bloodlessly in Denmark, California, Australia, New Zealand, and Taiwan.
A new tax on land (or a deed fee or land dues) could be coupled with cutting old taxes on buildings, sales, and income. Then, lowering taxes (perhaps even eliminating them) on things people do produce could make it easier politically to raise taxes on things people did not produce, such as land, resources, and nature in general.
Thereby the road ahead could be less difficult and lead to an economic result much more certain. More people need to become aware of the geonomic option and enough committed to using it. As bloodless revolutions are rare and human life precious, this tax reform -- a policy central to geonomic thinking -- is an idea that both activists and governments should put into place.
Jeffery J. Smith runs the Forum on Geonomics.
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