Rural landless labourers converged on Brasilia last April after a 1000km march. They were met m the Brazilian capital by a 50,000 strong cheering crowd waving banners, throwing flowers and offering baskets of food. The government agreed to meet the leaders of the landless. Never before had the plight of the rural poor gained such spirit in the cities; the Brazilian Landless Movement (Movimento Sem Terra, MST) has succeeded in bringing the demand for agrarian reform to the centre of the Brazilian political stage.
ln Brazil, 58,000 large land owners occupy 46% of the land, 62.5% of which is unproductive. At the other end of the scale, 2.96 million smallholders live on 2.2% of the land. The official agrarian reform programme is agonisingly slow; according to the government's own statistics, at the cur-rent pace it will take 250 years to resettle Brazil's 4.5 million landless families.
The Landless Movement originated in southern Brazil in the as agribusiness squeezed smallholders off the land. Their tactic of occupying unproductive land spread to the north and northeast. Over 42,000 families currently live on 207 land occupations across the country.
Land occupations are meticulously organised. A vacant or idle plot of land is identified. Men, women and children then take the land, either by surprise, or by sheer force of numbers. MST activists argue that their actions are not technically illegal: the Brazilian constitution states that land should have a "social function and allows for the expropriation of unproductive land.
The landless then plant crops on the settlement or demand that the government provide alternative plots. The MST has settled almost 140,000 families in this way. Sometimes families decide to continue working the land collectively; in other cases the MST encourages families to work co-operatively, sharing expensive technical equipment, enabling smallholders to compete with agribusiness. Schools and clinics are organised on established MST settlements and all occupants are involved in running the camps.
In spite of widespread support, both domestically and internationally, the landless continue to face violence. Landowners still kill with impunity. The Pastoral land Commission estimates that 97 peasants were assassinated between 1985 and 1995. Police killed 19 landless activists in April 1996 -- no one has been tried -- and last January hired gunmen shot dead five people, including a 16-year-old boy.
The MS'I' believes in peaceful protest and its best defence against such violence is strength in numbers. At times its members have armed themselves with sticks or machetes to face military police and land-owners guns, but they are not the violent agitators portrayed by conservatives. Last March, for example, 2200 rural labourers occupied an estate in Minas Gerais, in central Brazil. The military police patrol, taken by surprise, was surrounded and disarmed. Rather than keeping the weapons, the occupiers handed them in to the local state authorities.
Social democrat president Fernando Henrique Cardoso pays lip service to the need for agrarian reform, but he relies on the votes of the rural elite and therefore resists wide-reachirg structural changes. Unsatisfied with condemning MST's direct action, the government attempts to criminalise the movement, as shown by the wrongful imprisonment of MST leader José Rainha Junior (see box).
Attempts to characterise MST as lawless political agitators have, it seems, failed. A poll by the Confederation of Industry found 94% of the, population in favour of agrarian reform and, more surprisingly, 84% supporting the illegal occupations.
Rural conflicts will inevitably continue as long as Brazil's inequitable land tenure exists. When the landless of Minas Gerais handed in the arms they had confiscated, the Chief of Police demanded who was the organiser of their occupation. "Hunger," they replied.Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra, Alameda Barão de Limeira,1232 Campos Eliseos, 01202-002 São Paulo, Brazil (+55 11 3361 3866; email semterra@ sanet.com.br; http://www.sanet.com.br).
Friends of the Brazilian Landless Movement, 41 Park Road, London N1S 3HR, Britain.
Last June a national leader of the Landless Movement, José Rainha Junior, was found guilty of "co-authoring" the murders of a policeman and a landowner In the southern state of Espirito Santo eight years ago. Rainha was 1900km away when The killings took place. He has been sentenced to 28 years' Imprisonment.
"it was clearly a politically motivated judgement", says Fiona Macauley of Amnesty International "The prosecution has absolutely no evidence, they called no witnesses and produced no material evidence." The trial was not impartial, since it was heard in the tightly-knit community where the killings had occurred. Local landowners sat on the jury.
Rainha will have a retrial In December. If he is convicted again and returned to jail, Amnesty plans to adopt him as a political prisoner. According to Fiona Macauley: "The case against Rainha is an attempt to discredit the movement's most prominent leader and is pant of a wider campaign of harassment, designed to intimidate the landless."Amnesty International's report Brazil: Politically motivated criminal charges against land reform activists, August 1997, is available from Amnesty International, 1 Easton Street, London WCIX BDJ (+44 171 413 5500; fax 956 1157; email@example.com; http://www.amnesty.org/).