I spent the last half of January in the Northeast of Brazil, monitoring development projects funded by the NGO (non-government organization) Rainbow of Hope for Children, along with the NGO's president George Bunz. Eight fellow Canadians made the trip with us, making of it an exposure tour plus holiday.
What struck a common chord of dismay? The failure to enact land reform.
Our third day there we were at dinner when our host's daughter came rushing in waving the daily paper. Mario Agra, whom I had known earlier as the Alagoas minister of agriculture, had just resigned from Inera (the federal government's agency for land reform) and this elicited a front-page story about the current state of land reform in Alagoas.
The reporter interviewed Agra and people in various encampments of landless folk in highway ditches. President Lula da Silva had promised to settle 60,000 landless families in his first year of office. That year is now over and how many were settled? About 13,000! Halfway through the year the 60,000 goal had been downgraded to 35,000. And the year ended with 13,000. Does Lula not mean what he says? Or are his hands tied?
Mario Agra explained that his resignation from Inera was to avoid a public fight with Lula, both being members of PT, the Worker's Party. Agra had expected to settle close to 2,000 of these 60,000 families in his state of Alagoas. He ended up being able to settle a mere 170.
Our party visited three of the many encampments huddled in ditches along the pavement. At each place we were moved and humbled by the articulate exposition the camp leaders gave of their plight, the political and social "realities" of their world. The women spoke just as self-assuredly as did the men. And the children of every encampment won our hearts.
One little boy explained volubly that a car had "rolled down that hill, right over there!"
"How old are you?" we asked.
But his mother smiled and said, "He's three," our guess in the first place. And these children are without schools just as their parents are without house and land, and all in the encampments are, for all practical purposes, without citizenship.
At a hotel, we spoke of this with a professor of agriculture at the Federal University of Alagoas. "Why the eternal delay in enacting land reform?" "Well, think! This needs lots of planning. A settlement will need a health post, a school, a road. Owners need to be indemnified -- lots of planning."
"But," we protested, "without some eventual action, surely all this planning is the 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 that, nonetheless, "owners must be indemnified." And, since there's no money for this (the International Monetary Fund sees to that) even the Lula government, despite its goodwill, is helpless.
Some of the campers have been living along their bit of highway for up to five years! "But it's better now. Lula, with his program, Zero Hunger, gives us a food basket every month. We no longer face starvation." In return, they must promise not to invade idle lands. How's that for emasculation?