Land Reform News from Brazil
RIO DE JANEIRO - Thousands of Landless Rural Workers Movement (MST) activists occupied government offices in the capitals of 10 Brazilian states Tuesday, demanding faster implementation and stepped-up funding of agrarian reform.
In Campo Grande, the provincial capital of the southwestern state of Mato Grosso do Sul, eight activists were injured when police cracked down on the occupation of a government office by hundreds of peasant farmers.
Thousands of people participated in the MST's Nationwide Day of Struggle, invading eight Finance Ministry offices and two offices of the National Institute of Agrarian Colonisation and Reform (INCRA), which implements agricultural policy.
At least one thousand activists took part in the Day of Struggle in some cities, including Sao Paulo and Curitiba in the south. And in some cases, government officials were forced to remain in the office buildings for several hours.
The MST plans to occupy the buildings for an indefinite period of time, and has organised food supply mechanisms and turned the offices into improvised camps for hundreds of people.
The aim, according to MST spokespersons, is to pressure the government to make good on its promises of increased financial support for peasants settled in the agrarian reform process and small farmers.
There is ''increasing poverty and risk of social upheaval'' in the countryside, said Gilberto Portes, a national MST coordinator who is active in Brasilia, mainly lobbying parliament.
The MST complains that the measures promised by the executive secretary of the Finance Ministry, Pedro Parente - an increase in the initial credit granted newly settled farmers to the equivalent of 15,500 dollars, and a reduction of the interest rate from 12 to 6.5 percent - have not yet been implemented.
The movement's leaders are thus seeking a meeting with Finance Minister Pedro Malan, who warned however that ''there will be no dialogue'' as long as public buildings remain occupied.
Portes said the activists would leave the buildings after the movement obtained guarantees of effective negotiations ''on concrete points, posed since 1995,'' such as the granting of more soft loans for small farmers and the beneficiaries of the land reform process.
The 200 peasants who invaded the Finance Ministry office in Belo Horizonte in central Brazil decided to abort the occupation due to a police cordon that blocked the entry of food into the building.
INCRA offices are occupied with some frequency in Brazil. But Tuesday's offensive stood out due to the simultaneous mobilisation in 10 large cities, mainly in the south and southeast, the most developed regions.
The Finance Ministry was targeted because the main demand is financial, and a response depends on the country's economic authorities.
Minister of Agrarian Policy Raul Jungman admitted that the most difficult part of the land reform process was the ''consolidation'' of the settlements, not the expropriation of land or its distribution among poor peasants.
The government's goal is to settle 100,000 families this year, to be added to the more than 180,000 provided with land during the first three years of President Fernando Henrique Cardoso's term.
While the MST sees that goal as falling short of what is needed, INCRA underlines that never have so many landless peasants been settled in Brazil, pointing out that the previous average was 12,000 families a year.
As in most of Latin America, land is concentrated in a few hands in Brazil, which has been racked by tension and struggle over the question of land reform for four decades.
Indeed, the movement for agrarian reform was one of the causes of the 1964 coup. The military regime recognised the need to distribute land, and adopted a Land Statute and programmes of colonisation of new agricultural frontiers. But the measures failed to resolve the problem.
Since the restoration of democracy in 1985, there have been efforts to provide land to the estimated 4.8 million landless peasant families in Brazil.
The Cardoso administration has pushed through laws designed to de-concentrate the ownership of land and facilitate the expropriation of property, by heavily taxing land left idle. But it has been unable to neutralise the pressure exercised by the MST, which has won strong popular support in the past few years.