In the middle of April this year, José Sarney. Brazil’s first civilian president for 21 years, unexpectedly announced an ambitious land reform programme. Under it 7.1 million families - about a quarter of the country’s population - would receive plots by the year 2000.
The new programme, which caused a stir at home and abroad, cannot be taken at face value, but should be seen as part of a complex struggle for power in Brazil today. Jose Sarney is a lightweight politician who gained power as the result of a bizarre chain of events. For many years he was a staunch supporter of the military regime. He began to change his mind in early 1984, when Brazil was overwhelmed by a series of huge demonstrations in favour of a speedy return to democracy. In what was seen by many as an opportunist move. Sarney decided in mid-1984 to change sides. With other politicians from the pro-military PDS party, he joined ranks with the main opposition party, the PMDB.
The support of this breakaway faction was essential for the victory of the opposition’s presidential candidate. Tancredo Neves, in the electoral college in January of this year. As one of the conditions for their decisive support, the PDS dissidents demanded that Neves should accept Sarney as his running mate. Neves was duly elected, but, on the very eve of his inauguration, he was taken ill and eventually died. Though for many in the country Sarney represented the hated, outgoing military regime, it was he, paradoxically, who headed the new democratic government.
Though politicians of all shades of political opinion rallied to his support at the height of the crisis. Sarney realised that he could not survive as president unless he disarmed the left-wing faction within the PMDB and built up his own political base. Though he was himself a landowner in the state of Maranhao in the north-east of Brazil. he was well aware that in a huge land-abundant country, where an estimated ten million rural families have ridiculously small plots or no land at all, a programme of agrarian reform was a great vote-catcher. Moreover, his advisers told him, the programme need not be socialist: on the contrary, the very dynamic of capitalist expansion was demanding that land be distributed more rationally. It was thus that the land reform programme was born.
But Sarney made one fatal error: he underestimated the emotional impact his plans would have. In a country of land-starved peasants and reactionary landowners, any government which bandies around the words agrarian reform’ is playing with fire. Moreover, the programme, which had been put together in great haste, was loosely-worded. Its vague commitment to expropriate areas of ‘social tension’ both alarmed the landowners and encouraged some peasant families, desperate for land, to invade estates and thus fall within the stipulations of the new law.
Since the announcement of the programme, there has been a marked increase in tension in the countryside, part of it artificially created. Landowners, who for many years had been secretly using Jagunços’ (gunmen) against peasant families, began openly to arm themselves, in an evident attempt to alarm the government Flavio Telles de Menezes, president of the Brazilian Rural Society. the arch-conservative bastion of the landowners, justified this move: ‘Landowners have the right to defend their property against invaders’, he said. ‘Just like banks, we need armed guards.’
This tension has inevitably erupted into violence. In the first fortnight of June, at least 20 rural labourers died in conflicts with landowners in one area of the Amazon. Hundreds of conflicts have been recorded all over the country. Horrified at the Pandora’s box that he had opened, Sarney began to back-pedal furiously. He reassured landowners that no land in use would be touched and that only in exceptional circumstances would unproductive areas be expropriated. Openly contradicting his earlier statements. he said that the main thrust of the programme would be to open up new areas in the Amazon, not to reform existing farms. Jose Gomes da Silva. head of the government’s agrarian reform institute, warned peasants that the government would deal harshly with anyone who created an ‘artificial conflict’ so as to be included. In the confusion, it is now unclear how the government will proceed.
As yet. all the programme has achieved is to demonstrate that land is a highly explosive issue, which is what sociologists have been saying for years. But why is this the case? Why has conflict over land been building up. as if in a pressure cooker, when Brazil ought to be one of the few countries in the world where there is land enough for everyone?
The present rural crisis is largely the result of unbridled capitalist expansion. Brazil inherited from colonial times a highly unequal distribution of land and since then has done nothing to remedy it. Today small farms (that is, 100 hectares or less) account for half the total number of rural properties. yet they cover only three per cent of the occupied land. And, at the other end of the scale, big estates (that is. of over 1.000 hectares) make up under one per cent of the total number of properties, yet they occupy 43 per cent of the land. Worse still, it is estimated that no fewer than 335 million hectares in the hands of big landowners - an area considerably larger than the whole of Great Britain - are not being farmed, but are being held as a reserve, probably to be sold later when land prices rise. This is an enormous injustice in a country with so many landless rural families.
Rather than attempting reform, the military governments which ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985 allowed the situation to get worse. Dependent on the support of the big landowners and the elite of top businessmen in the industrialised south, the generals allowed these groups to move into the Amazon, which was being integrated into the market for the first time, and to reproduce there the highly unequal system of land tenure prevalent in the rest of the country.
So the big groups moved into remote areas, destroying the lives of thousands of peasant families who had arrived when the region was still very isolated. These families lived in a closed economy, growing their own food and cultivating cotton to make hammocks and clothes. They had no conception of land as a commodity, to be bought and sold. They saw it as God-given, like rain or sunshine. They were very ignorant of the outside world.
These families were very vulnerable. With little idea of the value of money, they often sold their land for trivial sums. I remember speaking to a 24-year-old woman in Goias who was sitting by the side of one of the newly-constructed roads. Speaking in a rough form of Portuguese, peppered with regional expressions typical of the ‘sertão’ (hinterland), she told me her story:
‘My name is Iracema. I’m going to Gurupi to meet my husband, Zé. Imagine it, it used to take three days. Now it only takes a few hours. We had a plot of land, which we sold for 2.000 cruzeiros ($50). They said that they’re going to put cattle to graze on it. Imagine 2,000 cruzeiros. I’d never seen so much money. Zé says that we are going to live in a town now.
While she was chatting, Iracema was busy feeding the youngest child, just two months old, with a paste made from finely-grated manioc and water. Despite the oppressive heat, the baby was tightly bound in swaddling clothes in typical sertão fashion. It was heartbreaking to imagine the hardships and disillusionment that lay ahead for this hardworking yet carefree woman who was optimistically facing life in a town with $50 in her pocket.
The expansion of capitalist farming into remote areas led to the migration of thousands of families to the towns and cities. With Brazil in recession, these evicted families have been unable to find jobs in the cities. Many have stayed in towns in the countryside, getting occasional day-jobs on farms. They are known as ‘boias-frias’ (literally, cold food). They get the worst of both worlds: they have none of the benefits of resident rural labourers (house, plot of land and so on), and yet are paid low rural wages with which they have to wrestle with all the problems of urban life. It is estimated that almost half of the labour force in agriculture are today ‘boias-frias’.
As a result of all this, Brazilian agriculture is in a mess. The big farmers, who are dominant, have concentrated on export crops, like soya and sugar-cane, which gets a good price as the government is carrying out an alternative energy programme based on alcohol fuel made from sugar. The production of crops such as these has grown steadily. This may have benefitted Brazil’s trade figures, of such interest to international bankers and the IMF. but it has greatly hurt the bulk of ordinary Brazilians. Crops grown for local consumption have been greatly neglected, with production of rice, potatoes, beans, cassava and wheat actually falling from 1978 to 1983.
This is nonsense from an economic and social point of view. Economically, it is ridiculous that Brazil, under heavy balance of payments strains, should be paying out each year for food imports. And socially this situation has led to rocketing food prices, which have been particularly prejudicial for the poor.
These paradoxes can be eliminated by land reform, as small farmers are efficient producers of basic food stuffs. But care must be taken. What some Brazilian agronomist fear is that agrarian reform, by merely providing small plots of land to the landless, will create a new poverty trap. They are afraid that the government will encourage the peasants to produce basic foodstuffs, but will not make sure that they get decent prices. It will be the old story of the peasants subsidising urban consumers by not getting a price which covers their labour. What is required is not isolated land distribution, but a whole integrated programme of social and economic reforms which allows the poorer sectors throughout th country to increase their living standards. Though it is too early to be certain, there has been little sign so far that this is what Sarney is planning.
Sue Branford was Brasil correspondent for the London Financial Times 1974 – 9