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Land Reform - 7,000 families waiting for land they've been promised

The exit of Mario Agra from Incra (Federal Government's Land Reform Agency - Ed) generates a climate of frustration among 77 encampments of the landless in Alagoas

Frustration! That's how most families feel, who live in tents of leaves and plastic in 77 encampments of landless people in Alagoas. Families like that of Jose da Silva Filho, 41, married, who lives with his wife and eight children in a hut of palm leaves, one cot, no bathroom, improvised "kitchen,” in the encampment "Bolo” along highway BR-104 between the municipalities of Branquinha and Munico, 50km from Maceio.

For five years now Jose has been dreaming of getting a little allotment of land on which to plant corn, beans, cassava, raise chickens and pigs. "The day I get my land will be the day I end the suffering and misery of me and my family, I guarantee it,” he stated to this reporter, sitting in front of his hut surrounded by his wife and children. "Now that Senhor Mario Agra has left Incra I fear our dream of owning land has receded,” he lamented. The encampment "Bolo” is administered by MST (Movimento Sem Terra - Movement of the Landless - Ed).

Jose is one of the first at the encampment, now numbering 240 families. Before this, in 1998, he was a cane cutter. "Even my wife and kids cut cane. In spite of this we still lacked necessities, lived in misery. The money we earned was very little."In it's five year history the encampment has been through some difficult times: threats from hired guns, intimidation from neighbouring plantation owners, no work and no earning power. But the dream of owning land still permeates the encampment. "Last year our spirits rose because Mario Agra, superintendent of Incra, promised to settle more than 1,000 families. Here is it January already and nobody has received land."

Nonetheless, Jose has no intention of giving up and leaving the encampment. (This would make him ineligible should land ever become available - Ed.) As to hunger, he said the situation is better now. The families of the encampment are registered in the program "Zero Hunger,” registration carried out by Incra-Alagoas. Under this program, each family receives a handout of basic food monthly. (This program was initiated by President Lula da Silva immediately on assuming the presidency in January 2003. Its aim was to eliminate starvation by the end of 2003. From our questions at several encampments we visited, it appears to be working, although, like Rome's "bread and circuses” it seems also to be robbing the landless of their legitimate militancy - Ed.)

According to the MST there are encampments like that at "Bolo” scattered throughout the 102 municipalities of the state, with some 6,000 families hoping for the land reform project to move from paper and talk to action and reality.

(At one hotel we discussed this article with a professor of agriculture at UFAl (Federal University of Alagoas). We asked the why for of the delay. He said, "Well, think! This needs a lot of planning. A settlement will need a school, a health post, a road. Owners need to indemnified - lots of planning!” "But,” we protested, without some eventual action, all this planning is a sure kiss of death. And anyway, why indemnify the "owners” when most of what they "own” came from power grabs later legitimized by governments they controlled. He agreed this was so but the present reality is that "owners must be indemnified.” And, since, there's no money for this, even the Lula government, favourable though it be, is helpless. - Ed.)

The encampment families concede that they still believe in the promises of Lula. Terezinha Vital de Silva, an MST official, added that Mario Agra's leaving Incra has created general apprehension.

"Everything indicates that 2004 will be a year of militancy and pressure for land reform to finally become a reality,” said Terezinha. Alongside MST, there is a second force organizing the landless of Alagoas, the CPT, the church commission for the landless, led by the progressive sector of thee Catholic Church, the sector that proclaims Liberation Theology. Under CPT's banner some 1,500 families are organized in their encampments of plastic tents. CPT is now 10 years old. Its major engagements have been with landless peasants in the Zona da Mata. (This is the sugar cane belt along the coast. Its name translates into Forested Zone, ironic in that the forests have been 99 per cent destroyed in the favour of cane, the hills all laid bare to the destructive power of torrential rains and increasingly severe droughts. - Ed.)

CPT's state coordinator , Carlos Lima, disputes Incra's statistics. He says that in addition to the 7,800 families acknowledged by Incra, there are 10,000 more families waiting for land allotments. (Not to mention the hundreds of thousands of families who've given up the struggle and have surrendered themselves to slum life. In slums their children quickly lose the rich cultural and moral heritage that have made rural Brazil so noteworthy. This degradation is even more horrendous than the physical deprivation that marks slum life. - Ed.)

"We are very frustrated with Lula's inaction on land reform during 2003," said Carlos Lima. "My take on it is this - in 2003, land reform simply collapsed,” he states. He considers Mario Agra's resignation from Incra an enormous setback for the movement. :Mario Agra spent 2003 identifying the problems, searching how to unite the Gordian knot that imprisons land reform, looking for suitable areas for settlements. And now, with his resignation, we are once more in a state of paralysis.” The statistics of MDA (Ministry of Land Development) given to the Gazette by Incra indicate why the landless are currently so frustrated. President Lula, and Miguel Rosseto, minister of Land Development promised to settle 60,000 families throughout Brazil in 2003.

But, with little money to invest, the government revised its goal for 2003 downward to 35,000 families. It ended the year settling a mere 13,000. Alagoas felt this downward pressure in spades. Agra took up his post at Incra promising to settle 1,682 families. He ended up settling only 170 families, all of them in Serrana in the municipality of Uniao dos Palmares.

Agra says he resigned from Incra over policy differences with the PT (Workers Party - Ed.), the party of Agra and of Lula. He did not wish to attack publicly the land policy of Lula.

Editor's note: President Lula's good intentions ran up against First World reality, i.e. what money you have is for servicing the debt according to the "structural adjustment” policies of the International Monetary Fund and The World Bank. These policies demand that debt servicing taking priority over internal needs like social services and certainly over programs like land expropriation and indemnification. The First World does not like land reform as the large holdings raise all our "dessert” crops (sugar, cocoa and chocolate, nuts, coffee, exotic fruits, especially bananas), and do it cheap.