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Brazilian Dialogue

Land Reform Debate

In last week's Brazilian Dialogue Carmen Miranda Masutti noted the current heating up of the land reform debate in Brazil. Let me add some further remarks:

1. Government policy has always declared the occupations (the authorities call them "the invasions") to be criminal and therefore fair game for violent repression. But the new Procurator General of Brazil says no to this policy. "Hungry, desperate people enter such lands to grow food, not to destroy. It's peaceful resistance, like that practised by Gandhi.

2. More than 700 Catholic clergy and sisters throughout Brazil are active in the church branch of land reform, the Pastoral da Terra, a great many of them originating in the three southern states. Bishop Tomas Balduino of Goias says, "Gaucho (this is the term for cowboy in southern Brazil) priest is like a hamburger joint, you find them everywhere." Padre Cirio Vandresen, a gaucho priest, writes, "Sharing the chimarrao (a pot of gaucho tea from which all drink) is a lesson in how we should be sharing all of life's gifts, bread, even land. I'm not a padre just to pray. I need to be engaged in the struggle for justice. And the most important justice issue in Brazil today is land reform."

3. Lula has appointed Miguel Rossetto as his minister of Agrarian Development. Rossetto says, regarding the old policy of criminalizing "invasion," "The presupposition is that legality safeguards legitimacy. This does not square with the social reality of Brazil, here where we have 50,000,000 people going hungry."

4. Joao Pedro Stedile, Sem Terra head, after meeting with Lula in July 2003: "Land reform is like a soccer match and now the big landowners will be beaten. Now the government is playing on our team." (In June, however, Stedile complained at the slow pace of Lula's reform.)

5. Readers may remember a series of three Brazilian Dialogues from 1995 on Canudos, a Utopian experiment in holding land in common. This enterprise, led by Antonio Conselheiro, drew many thousands of families into a desert region made fruitful in short order. Three successive attacks by Brazil's military finally reduced Canudos to rubble and now a dam has inundated the site. But a 42-year-old firebrand named Jose Rainha Junior is again rousing the disinherited. Since June, thousands of families have flocked to his new Canudos. The first Canudos was in northern Bahia. Rainha's's movement is centred in an encampment on the border of Sao Paulo State and Mato Grosso do Sul. Says Rainha, "We're giving Lula a vote of confidence because we want land reform based on peace and love. But, if he doesn't get the job done, we will."

6. Getting hold of a piece of land is not enough by itself. Settlers need credit, some access to technology, management training and access to markets.

The April 1994 issue of the New Internationalist excerpted chapters from Nancy Scheper-Hughes book Death Without Weeping. She came to Brazil's Northeast in 1964, one of the first Peace Corps workers in that state. Her book published in 1992 is a moving account of the landless of the Northeast. The title comes from Geraldo Vandros' Diaspora: I have seen death without weeping. The destiny of the Northeast is death. The cattle they kill, but to the people they do something worse."

Yes, cattle have a swift, merciful death. The people's deaths, except for babies, are slow, lingering.

Al Gerwing