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May 20, 2007

Mixed views on success of Brazilian land reform

Brazil's land reform programme has settled nearly one million families on small farms of their own in the last 20 years. But there is no consensus on the effort, which the government touts as a success, the landless movement sees as insufficient, and the opposition criticises as wrongheaded.

During President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva's first term (2003-2006), 381,419 families were granted a plot of land, according to the Ministry of Agrarian Development. Credit was made more widely available, price supports (guarantees of minimum prices) were provided, and greater technical education and assistance to small farmers was offered. In that same period, the funding that goes towards financing agriculture was quadrupled to 4.75 billion dollars.

But the agrarian reform plans for Lula's second term (2007-2010) have not yet been defined, nor has the minister of agrarian development been named. "Of the seven promises made, it has fulfilled only one : to distribute food baskets to the families living in camps," said Joao Pedro Stédile, one of the coordinators of the Landless Workers Movement (MST), one of the largest and best-organised social movements in Latin America.

Conflicts over land remain a problem in Brazil. Tens of thousands of families are still living in camps, organised landless families continue to stage occupations of property that they see as unproductive and subject to agrarian reform, and violent clashes periodically occur between landowners, their private militias, and families who have moved onto, and begun to work, fallow private land. People are often injured or even killed in these disputes. However, the problem no longer seems to mobilise the same level of public support as it did in the past.

The landless movement has also expanded its targets. The rural movement now holds protests against the paper pulp industry's monoculture forestry plantations, which have been dubbed "green deserts" because they rob the soil of nutrients and consume enormous amounts of water; genetically modified seeds; mega-hydroelectric dams; free trade treaties; transnational corporations; export agribusiness; and even biofuels, which are displacing food production.

The MST leader was pessimistic with regards to Lula's second term, saying the president, a former trade unionist, was becoming "centre-right" as a result of his "commitments to the agribusiness sector and conservative forces."

Opponents of land reform, who are mainly large landowners, agree with the view expressed by Francisco Graziano, environment secretary in the state of São Paulo, when he predicted that Brazil's agrarian reform would become "the world's biggest failed public programme." He argued that the roughly one million families settled on land through the agrarian reform programme occupy around 60 million hectares, nearly equivalent to the 62 million hectares worked by large agribusiness interests, and that there is no indication of how much they actually produce, while "they have failed to improve on the wealth of the countryside; on the contrary, they have spread poverty around."

It is expected that a new agricultural census, whose results will be released in 2008, will make it possible to effectively assess the contribution of land reform to local economies and rural development.


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