Land reformers south of the US border want you to know
Farmers in Argentina and Brazil fight back nonviolently
Owning some land is still a life-and-death struggle in much of the world. We trim, blend, and append two 2008 articles from IPS of Nov 10 and Nov 11.
by Marcela Valente and by Mario Osava
Newspaper Brings to Light Abuses against Poor Farmers
Small farmers in the northern Argentine province of Santiago del Estero are publishing their own newspaper, El Ashpulitu, which means “full of earth” in Quechua, in an attempt to raise awareness about the constant abuses they suffer at the hands of wealthy landowners, who are encroaching on their small plots of land.
According to official statistics, between 2002 and 2006, more than 500,000 hectares were deforested to make way for genetically modified soybeans, Argentinas main export crop.
The advance of monoculture, besides destroying the areas natural biodiversity, is also undermining the very survival of campesinos who have lived and farmed in the region for generations.
Off-duty police officers and armed men in civilian dress burst into the humble dwellings of local campesinos by day or night, hitting people and yelling insults and false accusations, and dragging them off to jail, where sometimes they are held for months.
But the detainees were released thanks to the pressure brought by the peasant movement, which held protests and filed legal complaints. However, more than 150 members of the movement are facing legal charges and arrest warrants.
The Campesino (peasant) Movement of Santiago del Estero (MOCASE), which groups nearly 9,000 families who are defending their right to the land they have worked for at least 20 years, and for several generations in many cases, is producing the newspaper. By law in Argentina, people can claim ownership of a plot of land if they can prove that they have lived on and worked it for at least 20 years.
Santiago del Estero, which is in the heart of the semi-arid Chaco grasslands and subtropical forest region in northern Argentina, has a population of just 800,000 people, 34 percent of whom live in rural areas. Many people lack electricity, so they have no TV or Internet, and dont have any idea of the impact that what is happening to them can have in other places.
Speculative Prices Block Land Reform
So far this year the left-wing government of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva — who took office in 2003 with promises of transforming rural Brazil — has distributed plots of land to less than 19,000 families, according to the National Institute of Colonisation and Agrarian Reform.
As for last year, the government failed to meet its target of 100,000 families, even though it artificially inflated its statistics to produce a figure of 67,535 new family farms, maintained João Pedro Stédile, an activist and economist with the international peasant movement Via Campesina.
Moreover, he said, two-thirds of these plots are in the Amazon jungle region, which means that they were state-owned and thus do not alter the countrys landholding patterns. In the two previous years, official figures had been double that number.
Despite the land reforms figures released by the government, recent studies show that Brazil is undergoing a process of further land concentration, driven by the expansion of export products like soybean, sugarcane, eucalyptus, and corn, the MST activist added.
Some 130,000 landless families are still living in camps in Brazil waiting for the government to distribute plots for them to work, but Stédile said that the number is going down as disenchantment with the land reform program spreads and rural families involved in the movement decide to move to urban slums instead of waiting.
The global financial crisis has exacerbated the trend, with large investors increasingly seeking shelter in land, wood, hydroelectric plants, and minerals, “advancing voraciously on the Amazon rainforest,” he said.
The surge in food prices is part of that process, and is caused primarily by the action of “oligopolies,” as just “10 or 15 transnational corporations” control the entire chain of production at a global level, and by commodity market speculation, which triggers sharp fluctuations in prices, Stédile said.
Prices are no longer set by production costs or the law of supply and demand, but rather by corporate and stock market speculation, he added.
The Landless Workers Movement (MST), the biggest Brazilian member of Via Campesina, will continue occupying unproductive portions of large landed estates, like the ones that are still exploiting labor in near-slavery conditions, but now their main target is transnational corporations , such as Syngenta, Monsanto, and Cargill, he added.
There has been some progress in rural Brazil, spurred by a boost in the economic activity of small municipalities, due primarily to the expansion of social security coverage to rural workers and an increase in the minimum wage, which have particularly benefited certain poor rural areas.
JJS: Experience shows that the ultimate solution is for society — via government — to collect the annual value of land. That is, dont take the land or the land title, a coercive political act which breeds resentment, but instead recover the socially-generated value of land. At the same time, do not tax the individually-generated value of labor or capital.
The five governments that did tax land, and not what was built on the sites, spurred land reform automatically. Over a century ago, owners of vast spreads in Denmark, California, Australia and New Zealand found that the land tax made it no longer worth their while to be a middleman. So they sold off their excess, usually to their former tenants and at prices poor farmers could afford. Absentee ownership was reduced and every place prospered. In the middle of last century, Taiwan taxed land, increased owner occupancy, and established the world record for rapid development.
Eventho the tax on land did not last once the descendants of the new landowners did not want to pay it either, by then it had done its job of spreading ownership of farmland equitably. Post-tax, concentration of land into fewer hands has started up again. But it can be reversed, and fairly, any time a society decides to use the geonomic solution, to forgo taxes on our efforts and instead recover the worth of Earth.
Jeffery J. Smith runs the Forum on Geonomics.
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