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Worth Dying For

A report on Brazil's landless movement.

Gerald O'Hara proclaimed, “Land is the only thing in the world worth workin' for, worth fightin' for, worth dyin' for — because it's the only thing that lasts.”

When Scarlet O'Hara, in Margaret Mitchell's classic novel “Gone With the Wind,” stood alone on what was left of Tara Plantation, she understood what her father saw in the land. “As God is my witness,” she declared, “I'll never be hungry again.”

America grew up by settling the land. From Cape Cod to Cape Disappointment we worked, fought and died for land. Many of us on the land today are beneficiaries of homesteading that allowed settlers from all walks of life to claim 270 million acres of America's public domain.

The desire to settle and derive a living from the land didn't end with the settlement of North America, though. Journey south to Brazil today and you can witness the 21st century version.

In Brazil's case, it offers a perspective on the interminable polarities created when industrialized agriculture and family farming try to unite. But, like the survivors of O'Hara's Deep South and the Old West pioneers, Brazil's “landless movement” is burdened by South America's own brand of range wars and carpetbaggers.

A New Agrarian Reality

Brazil's landless movement isn't just a matter of offering agrarian opportunity and bolstering food production. It's part of a larger program designed to keep the masses from swarming to teeming cities like São Paulo (17+ million), Rio de Janeiro and Belo Horizonte — cities bursting with favelas or barrios. Between 1999 and 2001 alone, 5.3 million people left the countryside, says the Brazilian Geography and Statistics Institute — contributing to Brazil's 79% urban population rate.

Agrarian reform is more than rhetoric in Brazil. It was a major plank in the campaign platform of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who became Brazil's president last year. “Lula” was supported heartily by leaders of the powerful Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Terra (MST), or Landless Workers Movement.

One of the largest agrarian reform groups in the world, MST unashamedly uses invasions of private, unused land to bring attention to the quest for greater equality of land distribution in Brazil.

“It's a country where enormous social and economic inequalities portray high concentrations of income, property, knowledge and justice — essential elements required for the full exercise of citizenship,” says Francisco Graziano Neto. He's an agronomist and former agriculture secretary for the state of São Paulo.

“Family farming has extensive room for contributing to the creation of jobs and the generation of income,” he says. “This entails the need for a new agrarian reality in Brazil, centered on the strengthening of family farming and the recovery of agrarian reform settlements.”

Violence And Corruption

As well intentioned as some might see it, the landless movement carries the thumbprint of violence and corruption.

For nearly two years, some 180 landless families have lived in an encampment along Highway PR-373 near the village of Foy do Jordão, in Brazil's south-central state of Paraná. The families recently settled an adjacent fazenda (farm) that's been declared “unproductive” and is included in process of the agrarian reform.

In September 2003, 20 heavily armed men, reportedly hired by the owners of the land, attacked the settlement, killed two men and severely injured two others.

“This violent act is only one among many campaigns carried out by landlords,” reports the Land Research Action Network (LRAN). A U.S.-based human rights group, LRAN says landlord actions “constitute a crime and represent a serious obstacle to an efficient realization of agrarian reform.”

Then, there's a story circulating around the municipality of Sidrolândia in the west-central state of Mato Grosso do Sul. A local farmer was leasing property from an absentee owner. Nearby “settlers,” allegedly organized by MST, overran the farm during the off-season.

The lessee complained to the titled owner about being driven from the property by settlers. The owner showed little sympathy but offered to sell him the land for a steep price. No deal was struck.

Subsequently, the titled owner went to the government with a woeful tale of the farm being invaded by settlers. The agrarian reform officials responded by buying the farm for a steep price. They then split the property among the settlers who legally could claim only two hectares (about five acres) for each family.

Even a Brazilian family can't subsist with a few chickens and pigs and growing patches of manioc, corn, soybeans or sugar cane on such small tracts. So, after the requisite period of settlement, the landowner bought the land back from the settlers who took the money and returned to their roadside encampment.

In the end, the man had his land again, plus significant cash — even after repaying the jeitinho (favor) provided by the government officials. Of course, the settlers had to pay their “dues” to the MST, and the cycle started again.

Capitalizing On Ideology

“The landless movement is as confused and intricate a problem as only can be imagined in Brazil,” says John Carter. The former Texan and his Brazilian wife Kika ranch in a remote northern region of the state of Mato Grosso. A few years ago, Kika's cousin shot a squatter as an organized group tried to invade his land.

“There's a lot of corruption behind the landless movement and very few of the original squatters who participate in it remain with the land for longer than five years,” Carter says.

“As is normally the case, the ideology comes from people outside the country and the corruption from within,” he explains. “The latter always capitalize on the formers' good intentions and ideological fervor.”

The movement is linked with the Institute of National Agrarian Reform (Brazil's agrarian reform ministry) and has been backed and supported by Fidel Castro's Cuban government, Amnesty International and Brazil's Catholic Church.

“The problem is these groups have a legitimate axe to grind,” Carter explains. “While poverty and wealth distribution here are curve-benders, the solution shouldn't be to destroy one of the most sacred institutions a government can offer to its people, that of property rights.”

Clear title to land in the Amazon is a hard thing to come by — one of the chinks in the armor the landless movement looks for. While the landless movement is surging now under Lula's leadership, Carter thinks it might be a passing trend.

“Many people in the government and from the private sector realize the key to growth in Brazil lies not in stealing land from the producers who make up 35% of the country's gross national product,” he says.

A Million Landless Families

The Brazilian government is fully aware of the challenges it faces in the country's rural areas, said Brazil's United Nations Ambassador Gelson Fonseca Jr. in a November 2002 address.

“The measures carried out by Brazil constitute the most comprehensive agrarian reform program ever implemented in a democracy in peacetime — and with full respect for the rule of law,” Fonseca said. “Real progress towards agrarian reform requires dedication and persistence to systematically dismantle an antiquated and unfair rural economic system.”

The official line isn't enough for Roberto Antonio Liebgott. He's a member of Cimi Sul, a Brazilian aboriginal rights activist group. He says the government must stop being submissive to the big landowners.

“They must arrest the landowners and their gunmen who threaten the rural landless workers and instigate violence,” Liebgott says. “Then, the government can put the idea of agrarian reform into practice.”

Meanwhile, Brazil's President Lula is calling for patience in the face of MST's demand that 1 million landless families be settled in the next four years. His agrarian reform plan is designed to help small farmers and settlers produce food to meet the demand fueled by his new Fome Zero (Zero Hunger) program.

“The agrarian deficit inherited by the Lula Administration is huge,” concedes Graziano. He echoes Gerald O'Hara's homily of the land.

“Brazil no longer accepts the idea of idle lands,” Graziano says. “Settlement of the land is necessary to produce, to grow and to generate income so as to meet the aspirations of millions of Brazilians for a better life.”