- The Washington Times - Monday, May 10, 2004

PARANAPOEMA, Brazil — Members of Brazil’s most controversial political movement last month occupied 135 private farms — their largest action since 1998. Their leaders promise more land grabs unless the government transfers expropriated farmland to 400,000 poor families by 2006.

Brazil expropriates agricultural land that is not being used productively, paying the former owner full value for it over a 10-year period. The land is distributed to poor families willing to work it, after being divided into the “40 acres and a mule” size common in the United States two centuries ago.

“The struggle continues, though we probably won’t be as aggressive in May,” said Joao Paulo Rodrigues, one of the top coordinators of the Landless Rural Workers Movement — known as MST, its acronym in Portuguese. The group becomes most aggressive each April to commemorate the police slaying of 21 of its members in the northern Amazon state of Para in April 1996.

Mr. Rodrigues said MST would continue pressing the government of President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva to give land to the poor through expropriation. “If he doesn’t listen, there will be more land occupations,” he said.

Although it is illegal to occupy farmland that is in productive use, the MST often invades anyway, sometimes leading to violent clashes with landowners.

The number of people staying in roadside camps has risen sharply since Mr. Lula da Silva — a one-time shoeshine boy who grew up to be a union leader and ran for president as the Workers Party candidate — took office in January 2003.

Unemployment as high as 20 percent in some areas has further swelled the ranks of those willing to hoe the fields if it means free land and a stable life.

In Parana state, for example, there were roughly 5,000 people camped along roads to MST-occupied farms in 2002. Now there are an estimated 15,000, according to the Pastoral Land Commission, a rural workers’ rights group.

“Expectations are high,” said Jelson Oliveira, a commission representative in Parana. “Invasions are going to continue.”

Along the border of Sao Paulo and Parana, the southern state with the largest number of MST workers now operating small farms, roughly 100 huts made of tree branches and black plastic sheeting have become makeshift homes.

“We want to work the land,” said Nelson Cruz, standing on a dirt road outside a smaller encampment in northern Parana. “Lula has to keep his promise.”

Mr. Cruz and six other men have been camped out there since 2003, despite having homes in nearby Itaguaje.

He said they are waiting for the government’s National Institute for Land Reform (known as INCRA, its acronym in Portuguese) to tell them it has property waiting for them. Some days, the agency delivers food baskets to poor families camped at the roadside. It also delivers to those camped inside occupied farms.

This is the only obvious support by the federal government for the movement. Unlike the farm invasions in Zimbabwe, there is no evidence the executive branch in Brasilia orders land grabs. Last month, Mr. Lula da Silva himself termed the MST’s leadership “too radical.”

Leaders of the landless movement say they feel let down by Mr. Lula da Silva, who promised before last year’s election to put 115,000 families per year on government land or expropriated farms. According to INCRA, roughly 47,000 families have been given plots to farm since January 2003.

If Mr. Lula da Silva isn’t giving them the support they seek, other political leaders are, if only to win votes. When asked who recruited him to stay in the encampment, Mr. Cruz named a local politician, Valdir A. Antunes, as their leader.

Political support like that, and MST’s estimate that 200,000 families are camped out, waiting for marching orders, makes farmers nervous.

On Aug. 5, some 3,000 people invaded Alexandre Maehara’s farm in Paranapoema and they’ve been there ever since. The town itself has only about 3,000 inhabitants.

INCRA put a large sign in Mr. Maehara’s yard saying the farm is productive and working in accordance with the government’s labor standards.

MST often considers bank defaults by farm owners or poor treatment of farmhands as evidence the land is unproductive, and thus eligible for expropriation.

Despite Mr. Maehara’s clean record, hundreds of squatters occupy 90 percent of his 2,767-acre farm. Most of the land remains unfarmed. Large weeds surround a small crop of corn.

Mr. Maehara was renting part of his land to another farmer who was looking for more acreage to plant, but that farmer will now have to pay the occupiers or face losing his crop, said Luiz Gallant, the farm’s general manager.

Despite the fact that the occupiers are violating the law, five local politicians have spent time in the encampment in what some call a show of support.

Parana state Gov. Roberto Requiao said on April 15 that the Landless Rural Workers Movement was “blessed by God.” This may have saved Parana from invasions last month, when not a single farm in the state was occupied.

Mr. Gallant said he lost a season’s harvest when the Maehara farm was taken over.

“They sealed off my cattle on a small pasture, and we lost 60 of them to starvation. I don’t know how many people are down there,” he said. “I’m a little afraid to talk to them.”

Farmers say the group destroys property and carries weapons, but the Pastoral Land Commission says the farmers are exaggerating.

“I have been with the commission for 15 years and have never seen anyone destroying crops. Only in very rare cases do they carry firearms,” said Dionisio Vandresen, a commission representative working with 1,500 families hoping to be given land on a 205,000-acre tree farm called Araupel that is in the process of partial expropriation by the government.

According to press reports, five MST members were arrested at Araupel on weapons charges on Nov. 20, 2001.

Ivone Henrique DeMelo of Presidente Prudente, Sao Paulo state, just across the Parana border, said MST members were armed when she met them in 1999.

“They wouldn’t let me onto my property,” Mrs. DeMelo said. “The government said they had to leave, but they stayed for 58 days, cooked up the cows they killed and ate my employees’ food.

“Most of them were from the city, the police told me. I could tell they knew nothing about agriculture. They were just bandits.” Her 80-year-old father’s 2,965-acre farm had been expropriated by the government the year before as unproductive.

“These guys are not interested in agriculture,” said Marcos Prochet, a farmer with a long history of contact with MST. “This is an ideological movement with a very different view of agriculture. They are surely against big agribusiness. They want everyone to just live off the land.”

Mr. Prochet’s 988-acre farm was invaded on New Year’s Day 1997. He said he was later held at gunpoint after being caught videotaping people cutting his crop. After that, he started the Democratic Farmers Union and has been a thorn in the side of groups like MST and the Pastoral Land Commission — an agency that he and other farmers say incites rural violence and misrepresents the number of people seeking land.

The Pastoral Land Commission has accused him of manslaughter, an unproven case to date.

Last week, state attorneys in Rio Grande do Sul charged one of the most visible MST leaders, Joao Pedro Stedile, with inciting violence against landowners. Mr. Stedile missed a late April court date and now faces fines and travel restrictions.

Some former members of MST agree with the group’s adversaries that many people in the encampments are simply told to register their names with local governments to inflate the number of people seeking land.

“I know people who have been placed on farmland and have done nothing at all with it,” said Santo Jaro, 35, who occupies a large tract of land owned by an elderly woman five years ago. The government expropriated her property and gave it to 43 MST families. Mr. Jaro now farms the 35 acres he was given.

A small blue shed once housed his family of four, but his is a success story of land expropriation: By farming the parcel the government gave him, Mr. Jaro has been able to make ends meet and build a larger, modern home on his property.

“Without MST, I wouldn’t have a life for myself and my three children,” he said. “My kids are in school. This is much better for us.” Mr. Jaro said he has been a rural worker since childhood. He said he no longer has contact with MST leaders.

Mr. Maehara’s farm is right next door, but Mr. Jaro doesn’t know anybody there.

“It’s obvious with a movement this size, you’re going to have crooks and people who aren’t very serious about it,” said Jan Rocha, author of “Cutting the Wire: The Story of the Landless Movement in Brazil,” a book to be published here this month.

“To the families who are serious about running a farm, this group is enormously relevant,” Mrs. Rocha said.

MST has joined forces with other social movements to pressure the government to change its domestic policies. To date, the pressure to increase social spending has had little effect on an otherwise conservative and cautious Lula administration.

Most of land battles are at the expense of the federal government and cash-strapped states. Each farm invasion costs Sao Paulo state an average $55,172, according to the Sao Paulo Agricultural Federation. Landowners lose even more, both in personal costs and in agribusiness, which constitutes 37 percent of the Brazilian job market and 42 percent of the country’s exports.

At a small encampment of a dozen huts, three elderly men in flip-flops said they’d go anywhere the government told them to if they could get land. In a scene straight from the John Steinbeck novel “The Grapes of Wrath,” the three men in torn, ragged slacks instead of work clothes are waiting for nothing short of a miracle.

“The government will give us the resources for the infrastructure to take care of a modern farm,” said Celsino Rocha, 66.

“Lula’s is one of the best governments we’ve ever had,” said Cicero Ribas, 62. “We’ll get land.”

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