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Brazilian Dialogue

The Landless Movement

For the past few months, a succession of events has stirred up the discussion on the most important subject of social justice in Brazil's history: land reform. The Landless Movement, otherwise known as Movemento dos Sem-Terra -- MST, which demands implementation of an unambiguous land reform policy, has put pressure once more on the federal government by increasing the number of land occupations throughout Brazil.

Approximately 114 land occupations took place from January to June. This represents more than those that occurred in 2002 (103 occupations). The situation is more critical in the Northeast states, particularly in Pernambuco, the leader of land occupations (23). Conflicts involving casualties have also increased.

As a result, President Lula met this past summer with leaders of the MST in Brasilia to discuss several aspects of viable land reform, including education in the assentamentos, the settlements. Surprisingly, this meeting received special attention in the media and even from some conservative politicians. The MST emissaries presented Lula with a basket containing fruits and vegetables produced in existing assentamentos, and an MST baseball hat. Lula wore the hat for a few minutes of photo ops. When these pictures appeared on TV and in the papers, loud and inflamed voices from conservative sectors raised a huge fuss. Politicians, in particular those who represent the rich and powerful oligarchy, accused President Lula of stimulating conflicts in the countryside.

Their expression of anger went further as they demanded a wide investigation of MST policies and activity. The Union of Wealthy Farmers (UDR) of Sao Paulo even considered suing President Lula and some of his cabinet ministers for listening seriously to MST's demands. Despite all that, we are also seeing an increased support toward land reform in Brazil. Employees of INCRA, the federal organization responsible for establishing assentamentos, participated in a meeting with the Minister of Land Reform wearing MST's hat (what a beautiful picture!). The president of Brazil's Supreme Court also met with MST's leaders, politicians and priests of the Pastoral da Terra, who defend land reform. In Sandovalina, a wealthy farmer, touched by the sufferings of 300 families camped outside his property on a highway, invited them to stay temporarily at his farm.

It is, therefore, clear that this is a turning point in Brazil's long history of denial of land reform. By having elected a president who has always stood for those lacking the basic needs for survival, Brazilians trust that fair days are on the horizon. In fact, many of the changes proposed by the federal government to deal with land reform indicate that we are living new days.

For instance, how police should proceed toward the removal of people from occupied lands has finally been addressed. In the past, many have been murdered during these actions. The proposed bylaw will guarantee the human and social rights of the occupiers. Also, a regulation approved last year by the former president FHC, aiming at stopping the legitimate demands for land reform, is under assessment for probable annulment. President Lula is considering renting out land to comply with the demand for land reform while funding is short. Yet, the federal government's reserve accounts are being increased every month, and we expect that this will make a difference in the land reform process for the coming years, enabling it to buy out more of the large holdings for distribution to the landless.

Al Gerwing