New Internationalist

Cutting the wire

Issue 353

Fewer people own more of the land in Brazil than anywhere else in the world - but now, as Sue Branford reports, landless people are taking matters into their own hands.

At about midday, several jeeps and cars drew up on the road near the rough camp in front of an abandoned church. Here, about seven hours earlier, I had helped three-dozen landless peasants to occupy the land and build makeshift huts out of branches and black polythene. About 30 men, all armed, got out of the jeeps and marched slowly, in a phalanx, towards the camp. At the sight of them, the landless peasants seized their hoes and blocked the path, defiantly shouting out slogans they had just been taught. One was: ‘Ocupar! Resistir! Producer!’ (‘Occupy! Resist! Produce!’).

I was terrified, expecting violent confrontation - as at times happens. But this time the gunmen merely pointed to their guns in a menacing way and warned the families not to start cutting down the sugarcane in the nearby fields; they then turned on their heels and marched off. Cheers and cries of delight from the triumphant families.

Two weeks earlier, few of the peasants on the occupation had known much at all about the organization, called the Landless Movement (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra, or MST), that had planned the occupation. But MST militants had only just arrived in the region. I had been with them, on the back of a small motorbike, as they travelled around the impoverished backland of Pernambuco in the northeast of Brazil. It was the beginning of the sugar harvest. As we sped along the rough roads between the villages, I watched the rural labourers setting fire to the sugarcane fields to burn the young vegetation and then, wielding sharp machetes, cut down the thick, charred stems that contain the juice. After a day’s work, men, women and children came out of the fields blackened all over from the soot. Not infrequently the cutters injure themselves or are bitten by snakes. It is a scene that has changed little over the last 400 years.

When we reached the villages, however, the talk was not about the harvest but about the growing problem of unemployment. In the past the labourers had been badly paid and often brutally treated by the plantation owners, but they’d had their own plots of land, known as sítios, on which they’d grown their own food. They’d been very poor but well fed. Today the region is in crisis. Many of the sugar plantations have gone bankrupt, unable to compete with the more modern, mechanized sugar farms in the south. Those plantations that have survived have taken the sítios away from the labourers, so that more land can be planted with sugarcane. There is real hunger now in the hot dusty villages of wattle-and-daub huts.

One of the MST militants was 30-year-old Cícero Onório Alves. He could weave magic with words. ‘I was once a sem-terra, a landless peasant, like you,’ he told a group of about 30 villagers, some of them women holding babies, who’d come to listen to him in the village of Alto do Ceu. ‘But we occupied a plantation. We were evicted four or five times, violently, by gunmen. But we re-occupied and in the end we won. Today we’re producing rice, beans, cassava, pumpkins, passion fruit and other crops. The agrarian reform train is passing through your village this week. It will only come once. If you miss it you’re robbing your children of a future, of a life where you can be people, not slaves.’

A new world

Cícero’s rhetorical skills held people enthralled. He was offering them not just an end to starvation but a new world, the chance to construct a new life. It’s because of this message of hope that the MST - which was formed 20 years ago in the south of Brazil after hundreds of thousands of small farmers had lost their land as a result of agricultural mechanization - has been able to recruit roughly a million members. It has set up a thousand settlements, where some 100,000 families live today. MST members tell you proudly that they haven’t won a single acre of land without first carrying out a land occupation. ‘The Government didn’t give us land as a gift,’ says Jaime Amorim, the MST’s main spokesman in Pernambuco. ‘We had to force the Government to expropriate land through constant pressure, mobilization. Even so, we need far more land reform on a far greater scale. Brazil has at least four million landless families.’

As the MST first arose in the south of Brazil, it is there that the movement has its oldest settlements. So I decided to make the 4,000-kilometre journey from the hot, semi-arid state of Pernambuco down to the cool temperate weather of the country’s most southerly state, Rio Grande do Sul, to see what the families can achieve with the land once they’ve won it.

About 600 people are sitting along rows of trestle tables set up on the concrete floor of a huge, high-roofed hall, tucking into churrasco, the Brazilian term for barbecue. They are eating with the unrestrained relish of people who have known what it is to go hungry, filling their plates time and again with slices of beef, chicken legs and spicy sausages. Outside the hall a dozen men are rotating giant skewers, each over a metre long, across glowing open fires. Fat, dripping off the huge chunks of meat previously marinated in a mixture of salt water and herbs, crackles in the embers. Vilar Martins da Silva, the indefatigable president of one of the MST’s largest co-operatives, COANOL, is still working, while the others enjoy themselves. Perched on a stool in front of a tall desk, he is selling barbecue tickets. The cattle for the barbecue were donated by the settlers themselves and the proceeds will go on improving the present rudimentary installations of the hall - the community’s sports and recreation centre.

Fruits of labour

The community is commemorating the 14th anniversary of their settlement, which they won after a long and difficult land struggle. Today their community is relatively prosperous. But before they got to where they are now they made serious mistakes. ‘When we first won the land, we aped the big farmers,’ said Claudemir Mocellin, the co-operative’s young agronomist, who as an eight-year-old child went with his father on a land occupation. ‘We reproduced the system. We wanted the most modern hybrid seeds. We used the most lime, the most fertilizers. We wanted to have the biggest machines and the largest harvests.

It didn’t work. ‘Families found that, as their soils got exhausted, they were spending more and more on fertilizers and pesticides. In the end it was taking 60-70 per cent of the money they got for the crops. It didn’t make any sense.’ Claudemir, who by then had become a passionate advocate of organic farming, was getting concerned about the huge amounts of chemicals that the families were applying on their land. But it wasn’t this that got people to change the way they farmed. ‘Families started to do the sums. They realized that they weren’t better off by having a bigger crop if they were spending so much of their money on inputs.’

‘Subsistence suggests that we’re “sub-existing”, “under-existing”, whereas, in fact, we’re improving the quality of our lives’

It was this economic pressure that first got people thinking about organic farming. And, once they started it, the farmers found that they much preferred it. ‘About four years ago I was on a tractor applying secante [a herbicide] to prepare the land for planting maize,’ said Gilmar da Silva Vargas from the Conquista da Fronteira settlement near the town of Bagé. ‘It was windy and some of the secante blew into my face. When I got home my face started swelling and itching terribly. I couldn’t sleep at night. I thought I was going to die. I kept thinking: “I’m never going to touch secante again.” So I was so pleased when we started moving into organic farming and now I’m used to it I could never go back to chemical farming.’

Today many of the families are practising what we would call subsistence agriculture - growing their own food and selling small surpluses on the market. Subsistence, however, is not a term that the MST likes. ‘Subsistence suggests that we’re “sub-existing”, “under-existing”, whereas, in fact, we’re improving the quality of our lives,’ said Claudemir. On the whole, the families on the settlements are eating well today.

Moreover, they are rediscovering the old pleasures of peasant life that have virtually disappeared from Europe. I visited one settlement where the families were cultivating 147 different food crops, including some varieties that were almost extinct elsewhere. On another settlement families were growing three different varieties of wheat, including one just because it produced the best kind of straw for making hats!

Despite the enormous gains that the MST has been making, it still faces huge problems. Brazilian agriculture has been going through a rapid process of modernization in recent years, with the expansion of intensive monoculture. It is very difficult for peasant farming to survive in such an environment. So, while the MST has been winning land through its occupations in some areas of the country, hundreds of thousands of peasant families have been losing land in other regions, as the big farmers take over.

The situation may change. The Workers’ Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores - PT) won the elections in October and its candidate, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, takes over as President in January. The PT is far more sympathetic to the MST than previous governments, but it cannot risk antagonizing the big farmers. Brazil needs to keep on exporting large quantities of soya and other cash crops to earn the dollars to service the country’s huge foreign debt. If land reform is to accelerate, the MST, it seems, will have to go on organizing its occupations…

Sue Branford has been writing about Brazil and rural workers for many years. Her latest publication, with Jan Rocha, is Cutting the Wire - The Story of the Landless Movement in Brazil, Latin America Bureau, 2002, London.

The big issue: land reform

A journalist once asked Joseph Stiglitz (former Chief Economist at the World Bank who resigned in opposition to its policies) what one thing he would do to help developing nations. 'Radical land reform,' replied Stiglitz. In his view, the very high rents charged by propertied oligarchs worldwide, which take on average about half of a tenant farmer's annual produce, were acting as an invisible '50- per-cent tax on poor farmers'.

Brazil is one of the countries most urgently requiring land reform. Just 0.8 per cent of farmers whose farms are larger than 2,000 hectares own 43 per cent of the land, while the 32 per cent of farmers whose farms are smaller than 10 hectares own just 1.3 per cent of the land. Remarkably, there are 262 farmers who own 40 million hectares of land. Worse still, land is becoming even more concentrated than it was in the past, largely because of the growth in huge, export-oriented farms practising monoculture, particularly the cultivation of soya beans.

Stiglitz says: 'Land reform preceded several of the most successful instances of development, such as those in Korea and Taiwan.' Numerous studies have shown that radical land reform would make an enormous contribution to world development: it would help eradicate poverty, as poor farmers could use all the food they produce to feed their families or to sell for their own benefit; and it would reduce environmental devastation, as the families would no longer be compelled to over-exploit their land to squeeze out the money for the rent.

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