Lula No Long Ball Hitter When it Comes to Land Reform

  • Brazil nears the 10 anniversary of the massacre that drew international attention to the country’s intense struggle for land reform.
  • The Movement of Landless Rural Workers (MST) carries tremendous political clout in Brazil’s rural regions, which it will likely wield as the presidential election approaches.
  • Lula, who arrived in office with the full support of the MST, has failed to deliver a comprehensive land reform program, leading to widespread unease over his rule.
  • The orthodox economic policies Lula has pursued, while lauded by international financial institutions, have left many longstanding social problems in Brazil, unaltered due to underfunding and neglect.

As Brazil approaches the 10th anniversary of the April 17, 1996 Eldorado dos Carajás massacre, which saw six unarmed land reform protestors shot and thirteen slaughtered with hatchets and machetes at the hands of Brazilain police, attention will again be focused on the disappointing performance of President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s government regarding this issue. The killings drew international attention to the struggles of Brazilian activists who sought to confront their country’s tremendous agrarian inequalities, and helped to further solidify the political clout of the Movement of Landless Rural Workers (MST, Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra). The MST, which was a key player in Lula’s finally victorious quest for power in 2002, has become increasingly dissatisfied with the distance between the president’s promises and his actions. With the October elections looming, the MST again hopes to bring the rural reform issue to the center of the political debate, and transmit to Lula the message that Brazilian camponês will not wait another fifty years for land reform. For Lula, this is a crucial juncture, as his presidency has increasingly rested on eroding pillars, with corruption and orthodox economic policies casting doubt on his legitimacy as a reformer. A demonstrated unwillingness to confront the question of agrarian reform will prove even more damaging to the leader’s stature, and whether he exhibits capacity for trust from his people.

The Context of the Brazilian Land Struggle

Brazil is one of the most unequal societies in the world in overall statistics, with the second highest gini coefficient. The discrepancies are countrywide, but particularly painfully obvious in the countryside. According to the Brazilian Census Bureau, 1% of landowners currently control 45% of the nation’s farmland, while approximately 37% of Brazil’s 184 million citizens hold less than 1% of land. Meanwhile in Brazil, the so-called “South American breadbasket,” about 4.8 million landless farmers struggle to survive with temporary or part-time work, on meager wages, and under conditions, as reported by the U.S. State Department Human Rights Bureau, as being analogous to slavery. For example, due to long hours and inhumane working conditions, eleven sugar cane cutters have reportedly died within the past two years.

According to Brazil’s National Institute for Settlement and Agrarian Reform (a public body), 150 million hectares of farmland is presently underused in the country, including 20 million fertile and easily accessible hectares that could be put into production almost immediately. The MST estimates that up to 60% of the Brazilian countryside lies fallow, producing a devastating social backlash as millions of the rural poor join the ranks of the nation’s favela (urban slum) dwellers. “Indeed,” the MST insists, “the wealthiest 20% of the Brazilian population own 90% of the land, much of it being idle, used for ranching, tax write-offs, or to produce crops exclusively for export, while millions starve in the country.”

Horrendous conditions existing in the Brazilian countryside gave rise to a powerful political and social movement, the MST. After emerging in 1984 as a coalition of peasant groups involved in a series of disparate, widely scattered land struggles, the MST has since become the largest social movement in the hemisphere, and arguably the most significant in democratic land reform history. About 30% of all government-granted agrarian settlements can be attributed to MST bargaining. Although such data can be shaky, Brazilian land reform expert, Dr. Miguel Carter of American University, estimates that the organization encompasses over 1 million in Brazil. Also, according to Carter, “MST engagements with Brazil’s political institutions are multifarious and dynamic. These include public activism and acts of civil disobedience, lobbying and bargaining, ad hoc societal corporatism, electoral participation, and manifold relations with the rule of law.” In this sense, he argues, MST’s nonviolent tactics – land occupations, marches, road blockades, and petitions – have demonstrably strengthened Brazil’s civil society by incorporating its most marginalized masses into its inner recesses. Perhaps this record of success helps to explain why, despite the fact that the Brazilian media overwhelmingly portrays the group as radical, and therefore dangerous, opinion polls by April of 1997, revealed that 94% of the population felt the MST’s struggle was just, and that 85% supported its non-violent method of land occupations as a proper vehicle for accelerating lethargic government reforms.

Fresh Hopes Fade
The MST’s public demonstrations and the positive public opinion ratings that they inspired, helped create a powerful political force, which the organization wielded with great effect in the 2002 presidential election. Although the MST claims no political affiliation, it has strong historic ties to the leftist Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT), and when Lula launched his presidential bid as the PT’s standard bearer, the MST was there to offer support. Lula’s historic landslide victory offered fresh hope to the nearly 200,000 landless peasants living in plastic tents across the countryside.

As a former union factory worker and agrarian reform campaigner before becoming a major union president, when Lula took office in January of 2003, he was championed by the disenfranchised. He had long voiced his support for the MST, visiting its camps, even sporting its trademark baseball cap, much to the dismay of the Brazilian elite. Riding to victory upon the support of the marginalized masses, his charismatic and passionate speeches were studded with promises to create 10 million jobs in 4 years, as well as to double the minimum wage, and build social infrastructure. However, once in office, he created only 3.7 million jobs, and increased the minimum wage by just 42%. And, like many of Lula’s other promises regarding social change, it was soon glaringly obvious that land reform would come second to his administration’s neoliberal economic policies which Lula claimed were essential in order to attract the foreign investment needed to generate funds for his proposed social justice programs.

The Case Against Lula
Lula’s sluggish and seemingly indifferent approach to land reform is consistent with the apathy that he, in general, has displayed toward social issues that impact most Brazilians. Lula won the MST’s support by pledging to give land to 400,000 families, and allowing 500,000 squatters to acquire formal deeds to the land on which they live. However, according to the Brazilian National Institute of Colonization and Agrarian Reform (INCRA), only 235,000 families have been given land. “Under the previous government, agrarian reform was going at a snail’s pace, and it has continued at a snail’s pace,” said MST leader Marina dos Santos. “We are very disappointed, we expected so much more from him.”

While his neoliberal economic policies are drawing praise from the nation’s elites, other Brazilians are not so convinced of the benefits generated by such orthodoxy, and claim that the policies have hindered land reform and have been an inadequate vehicle for job creation, while exacerbating inequalities and disproportionately draining the nation’s resources. Lula’s economic strategy “concentrates income and only generates an economy aimed at foreign trade, with no repercussion in the internal market,” says economist João Pedro Stédile. “The export dollars do not come back to the economy.” He linked this capital drain to the deepening of rural poverty in areas such as Goiás, which despite the prosperity brought on by being the largest exporter of cotton in Brazil, has turned into a “large slum.”

With violence surging in urban poor communities during Lula’s presidency, culminating in last year’s dreadful “social cleansing” of 29 poor Rio de Janeiro residents during what also has been described as a raid by a military-police group, it has also become increasingly clear that there is no sanctuary for Brazil’s numberless landless, who historically have poured into the cities’ favelas when rural realities seemed too harsh to bear. Indeed, in the fifth largest economy in the world, the asymmetrical land distribution system seems to represent the heart of Brazil’s ills, along with the unequal gains and social costs of such progress, which have bred violence, corruption, and abject poverty.

The MST Moves Forward
Land reform in Brazil was almost entirely absent from the government’s initial planning agenda until landless movements began to demand the exaction of basic resources on their behalf from the political system, beginning in the 1980s. Embedded in Brazil’s original constitution, which embodies the fundamentals of Brazil’s modernist slogan of “progress-at-all-costs,” is the idea that unproductive land can be “occupied” to be made productive. The 1988 Constitution, which marked Brazil’s shift to democracy, states that “land should be used for the benefit of all society.” Lula has only partially changed this, and the strategies employed by local activists remain in effect. In accordance with these constitutionally established rights, peasants began to stage sit-ins on unproductive and speculative plots, while demanding land redistribution initiatives. Often living in tents and armed only with farm tools, landless activists have been able to make impressive gains, acquiring a total land area of roughly the size of the state of Louisiana. Approximately 200,000 landless still wait in make-shift encampments, sleeping under tarps on the sides of highways, or squatting on vacant plots.

While squatters carry out ad hoc land reform, the MST has stepped in with social services where the Brazilian government has failed, both under Lula and his predecessors. The MST draws funding from often creative sources, ranging from 400 farming cooperatives, to its own natural medicine plant in Ceara. Its 1,600 government-recognized settlements, spread across 23 Brazilian states, boast health care centers, 1,800 primary and secondary schools (serving 160,000 children), and a literacy program involving over of 30,000 adults. In 2005, the MST established its first university, Escola Nacional Florestan Fernandes, named after the famous Brazilian intellectual, on a campus outside of São Paulo. In addition, as a method to accelerate the spread of social services, the organization has signed a number of formal agreements with federal government and sub-national agencies to carry out a variety of development projects to provide services, including education and healthcare.

Days of Struggle
Just 7 months before Brazil’s upcoming presidential election, Lula still boasts a 20 point lead over his main competitor, São Paulo governor Geraldo Alckmin. Yet the numbers might belie a less certain standing, as a long-simmering corruption scandal has come to a head and blossomed over the last few months, with a report that implicates many of Lula’s close PT associates. Moreover, a widening gap between his leftist pledges and centrist policies, has caused many to question his credentials.

Many of those who most supported Lula as he came into office have become his most ardent critics: human rights groups, NGOs, and even the Catholic Church accuse him of selling out to big landowners and giant corporations. Disenchantment with Lula’s sluggish role in the realm of land reform has been manifested in a wave of land invasions by former Lula supporters, as they attempt to place the issue in the center of the political debate come October. “This was a government that didn’t face up to the powerful rural and economic oligarchies,” says Maria Luiza Mendonca, the director of the Human Rights and Social Justice Network, an umbrella group. “He hasn’t attacked the structural problems that cause things like hunger, illiteracy, and poverty. Lula has lacked courage and he has lacked daring.”
While the month of April has been a major time for mobilization ever since the 1996 massacre, this year the MST is announcing record land occupations as part of its “days of struggle.” According to Agência Brasil, the MST plans to mobilize 120,000 encampment dwellers to occupy unproductive properties in 23 states, including the Federal District. João Paulo Rodrigues, a member of the movement’s national coordinating board, announced that while encampments that will be not taking direct action to occupy land, they will be exerting other pressures for land reform through launching public debates, marches, and “block[ing] highways if necessary.”

The scope of this “anti-neoliberal, anti-imperialist, popular, and national project” will become increasingly international as cities in Europe and the U.S. also mobilize in protest on April 17. The MST has solidarity groups within 14 European and North American countries, and maintains close ties to small farmers’ organizations in 43 nations through Vía Campesina, an international peasant coalition. Dr. Miguel Carter told COHA that he is planning a second annual march to the Brazilian Embassy in Washington D.C., along with family members of Dorothy Stang, an American nun and rural activist, who was murdered last year in Anapu. He predicts comparable demonstrations in Spain, France, and Italy as well as New York and Boston.

Impetus for Change?
As April 17 draws near, many will be watching to see if escalated social movements provide more conveyances for change, or if they will encounter increased violence, or perhaps even worse, fall victim to Lula’s indifference and complacency. The MST has accomplished a great deal, but what some of them see as Lula’s betrayal has cast doubt on whether political solutions exist to deal with Brazil’s greatest problems. If Lula is unwilling to commit himself to the principles of agrarian reform ahead of the presidential elections, he will likely be discarded as just another charlatan who wore the mask of another reforming crusader but turned out to be only the bearer of orthodox nostrums.