Implementing an agrarian land reform in Brazil is a major goal of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s administration. To do this, the President chose Trotskyite-leaning Miguel Rossetto, the most radical member in his cabinet, as Land Reform Minister. This issue of Lulawatch will deal with the present status of land reform in Brazil.
1. Brazilian land reform before 2003
The left has always been obsessed with land reform. They cannot conceive a platform without a land reform plank which would deeply undermine and eventually destroy rural private property. French sociologist Alain Touraine, a well-known Brazilianist, says “the ideological share in the land reform plan is very heavy, while the economic projections of its effectiveness are relatively weak” (O Estado de S. Paulo, 4-20-03).
As in the ex- Soviet Union and today’s Cuba, the pretext for land reform is to favor poor farmers. However, such farmers have actually been victims, rather than beneficiaries of land reform.
Over the last few decades, the media have saturated the Brazilian public with reports favoring land reform. However, the public has not jumped on the bandwagon. A recent Ibope/CNI survey shows that land reform holds a modest 11th place among the 18 main concerns of the population.
Land reform is hardly new to Brazil. The government started implementing it in 1960. It later gained momentum in 1985 with the end of the military regime, and was carried out on a large scale during the eight years of President Fernando Henrique Cardoso just prior to Lula’s election.
Thus, Brazil has plenty of experience when it comes to land reform. The problem is that all of that experience has turned out to be bad. Wherever it has been tried, land reform has been a monumental failure.
In theory, Brazilian land reform is supposed to follow the following procedure:
a)Expropriation of “large unproductive farms.” This is a misnomer since such farms are usually not unproductive lands. Actually, they often are quite productive but deemed “unproductive” because they fail to meet the high degree of productivity set by government agencies. Expropriations are not paid in cash but with long-term government-issued bonds of low market value;
b)Once in possession of the land, the government divides it up in settlements (small plots) that are given to landless peasants for cultivation. The new owners are also given financing to set up operations, tend to their basic needs, and start planting;
c)These settlements or plots are usually brought together in cooperatives that administer the money coming from the government, buy machinery, seeds and other materials and turn over the land to the settler families as soon as they can function on their own.
This is the land reform theory in Brazil. What happens in the real world is quite different. Even the theory has a very strong dose of statism, as in socialist countries. Nothing is done naturally. The state is omnipresent at every stage. It expropriates the land, divides up the plots, inspects cooperatives, and decides when people can function on their own. It is the real owner. The great loser is the right of private property, which is profoundly weakened and even tends to disappear.
Today Brazil is one of the world’s largest agricultural producers, particularly of grain and meat. However, this ever-increasing production comes from lands unaffected by land reform. Where land reform is implemented, production grinds to a halt. In the best of cases, settlement plots produce only enough for subsistence farming.
2. The Landless Movement (MST)
Land reform in practice is even more draconian than in theory. Pressure groups like the Landless Movement (MST) and similar organizations frequently invade and occupy lands in the hopes of forcing expropriations and hastening implementation of land reform policies.
The MST is a highly revolutionary movement whose writings explicitly call for seizing power and imposing socialism in Brazil. It has always been closely linked with the Workers Party (PT) of President Lula. Furthermore, many publications highlight MST links with Colombia’s FARC and Mexico’s Zapatista movement.
“MST’s armed clashes with police, the Army and security guards on farms invaded or under threat can lead Brazil to a bloody armed conflict like the one plaguing Colombia for more than three decades.” This warning comes from none other than a member of the Central Staff of FARC-EP (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – People’s Army). ‘Open your eyes! That’s how it started here,’ advised Comandante Iván Rios in an exclusive interview with Jornal da Tarde (JT) in the village of Los Pozos in the demilitarized zone of Southern Colombia. … JT has learned from a well- placed source in the high command of FARC-EP that the organization ‘maintains relations, in Brazil, with MST and Lula’s party” (Jornal da Tarde, 5-24-2000).
The MST also foments unrest in the country. One of the MST’s most conspicuous leaders, José Rainha Jr., speaks about freeing criminals as a stage to achieve social revolution. The press reports on drug-trafficking and cannabis production and consumption on land reform settlements. Illegal weapons have also been seized in the settlements with some frequency.
The MST was born from, and is driven by, the so-called Catholic left. The latter is made up by bishops, priests and laity who discarded traditional Catholic doctrine and adopted Marxism, though still cloaked in religion. This brand of “religious Marxism” is also known as Liberation Theology.
The Pastoral Commission on the Land (CPT) is one of the most active arms of the Brazilian National Bishops Conference (CNBB) and the main organization of the “Catholic left” active in rural areas. It encourages MST and participates in land invasions. CPT President, Bishop Tomás Balduíno, in an interview with Jornal dos Sem-Terra (translated as “Landless People’s Newspaper”) said “the name agrarian land reform is only barely acceptable; in fact what we seek is an agrarian revolution.”
The MST breaks the law by invading farms, killing cattle, demolishing homes, destroying crops, taking hostages and fomenting violence even to the point of killing people. On occasion, they have clashed with or attacked the police. However, the leftist government and media have designated the MST as a “social movement,” which puts it in a privileged position where it can break the law of the land with impunity.
The MST is an extremely useful vehicle for social revolution. It pressures and threatens landowners and thus facilitates government confiscation of farms. Many landowners are intimidated by the possibility of a MST invasion and destruction of their farms. They resign themselves to government expropriation under the law. Thus, land reform moves with a pincer-like movement. On one hand, the MST uses violent and threatening methods; on the other hand, the government implements legal and peaceful legislation. Both favor the same socialist and confiscatory goals.
The MST also controls settlers’ cooperatives and (illegally) takes a cut in the government monies. Accusations of corruption are rife.
Finally, the MST constantly carries out other political activities unrelated to land reform. Its members, for example, can be seen demonstrating in front of American consulates against the Iraq war, the Free Trade Association of the Americas, and other issues. Its leaders admire Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez.
3. The failure of Brazilian land reform
Prof. Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira, founder of the Brazilian TFP and its president for several decades, often emphasized the communist aspect of the land reform process and the fact that it was destined to fail. Yet, Brazilian governments shunned his warning and allowed land reform to be adopted as an untouchable myth. Today the fiasco of land reform is recognized by economists and journalists from all ideological hues. Even the PT, an ardently pro-agrarian reform party, and the government itself are forced to admit the failure.
It has failed economically. Settlements now cover an impressive 20 million hectares (the size of Panama and Nicaragua combined). Almost all of this area is completely unproductive. Only a few units produce enough for subsistence. Nearly a third of the settlements have been abandoned by their occupants. Other settlers linger on but find other jobs to survive. Finally, some settlers merely wander from one invasion to the next.
Socially, the failure is even greater. Without production, the settler cannot progress. He becomes dependent on the state and almost its slave. Without hope or future, he receives everything from the government in order to survive in his rural slum. He spends his life at protests begging for credit and benefits. He can do nothing by himself.
Financially, land reform has been an almost unbearable burden. The Fernando Henrique administration (1996-2002), settled 600,000 families at a cost of $12 billion, a hefty drag on Brazil’s coffers, with no practical result (save to maintain the MST and its land invasion program).
The socialist left, nevertheless, has reaped some fruits from land reform. in its quest to implant a Marxist, Cuban-style government. To a certain extent it has wrought havoc to Brazilian farming and broken the traditional agricultural structures that have made Brazil great.
4. An even more socialist land reform under Lula
After so many resounding failures, now would seem the worst possible time to force land reform upon Brazil. Reflection about the issue is required. Brazilian TFP experts and other specialists claim not land reform but incentives to generate more jobs in the farm sector and to improve farm worker conditions are what can bring peace to rural areas and well-being for farmers.
Unfortunately, this is not happening. The Lula da Silva government seeks to carry land reform even further and throw even more good tax money after bad. Here are some of the proposals being debated:
a)A disastrous bill is already well advanced in Congress that would further relax the norms for land expropriation. Until now, the National Institute for Colonization and Agrarian Reform (INCRA), which implements land reform, offers farmers much less than market value for their farms and immediately takes possession of them. All the legitimate owner can do is fight that figure in court in suits that often take years. Presently, the owner can claim the interest due to him during the years at court. The proposed bill would deny payment of interest to the owners of expropriated areas. It also excludes from compensation areas of natural forest that the law obliges owners to maintain.
b)There is talk of a draconian application of a previous law without great concern for legal recourse that would revoke titles of property given by the government in the distant past in all areas within 100 miles of the country’s borders. This strip of land involves some 30,000 rural properties. The new application would extend this measure not only to the distant past but to all those who later received the land in good faith. These could be stripped of their property.
c)Another crucial development is the ongoing legislative efforts to approve a law limiting the size of rural property. PT deputy Luci Choinaki proposed a constitutional amendment limiting the size of rural properties in Brazil to 35 rural modules (in Southern Brazil, a module is about 20 hectares). This attack against the principle of private property can have disastrous consequences on farming and cattle ranching.
d)Legislators want to review productivity requirements so that properties presently meeting productivity criteria can be labeled “unproductive” and thus expropriated by a land-grabbing Big Brother.
e)President Lula declared he would launch a great program extending credit to cooperatives so farm workers can organize. The organization of settlers in cooperatives has been often done by MST, which uses them as a means to socialize the land-reformed area. Such measures could eventually lead to the implantation of a new type of Soviet kolkhoz system.
f)One goal of Minister Rossetto is to withhold property titles from settlers. The government would own the land while settlers would have neither property nor possession but only a right to use the land. This would amount to a type of collectivization of lands similar to that carried out by communist governments.
5. The ‘Zero Hunger’ program at the service of the MST
The Zero Hunger Program of the Lula administration provides yet more support for the MST by supplying the ‘landless’ agitators with a large quantity of basic ‘food baskets.’ This may reduce poverty but, above all, it keeps the MST actively invading lands. According INCRA’s superintendent in the State of Piauí, Fr. Ladislau João da Silva, distributing food baskets “helps the men and women workers to resist in their struggle for land” (Meio Norte, Teresina, 4-30-03).
INCRA president Marcelo Resende claimed that “the question of resources [for land reform] will be linked to the Zero Hunger Program. We will tie it in with Zero Hunger in order to optimize the actions of INCRA” (“Zero para otimizar as ações do INCRA,” Zero Hora, 1-16-03).
Brazilian sociologist Prof. Zander Navarro teaches the post-graduate program on rural development at Rio Grande do Sul’s Federal University. He is a specialist on rural social movements. He also has a doctorate from Sussex University in England and a post-doctorate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He states: “MST is actually the Party [PT] founder in dozens of municipalities and its leading militants are active in Party life. … We can affirm, with no margin of error, that it is presently an organization that survives mainly from public funds and is therefore a quasi-state organization” (O Estado de S. Paulo, 5-5-03).
The government is quick to disregard MST’s illegal actions like land invasions. The Minister for Agrarian Development, Miguel Rossetto, said: “Repressing demonstrations is not the ministry’s business.”
It is no wonder that Pará State’s main newspaper, O Liberal, commented: “The landless peasants have arrived in power with their weapons, luggage and tents. There is no question that we will see a scenario where the tendency is an advance of illegality and criminal daring that translates into [land] invasions” (4-14-03).
6. MST has now become government
In the Lula da Silva administration, members of MST and CPT have been placed in strategic posts where they can implement land reform in accordance with their own socialist-communist imaginings.
Members of the MST and CPT now hold the posts of state supervisors of INCRA. The presidency of INCRA was given to Marcelo Resende, a CPT member. When asked if the federal government has means to prevent land invasions, Mr. Resende was peremptory: “Absolutely not. There is no instrument for that” (Zero Hora, 1-16-03).
“Under Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva,” comments the Folha de S. Paulo (2-19-03), “INCRA has been turned into an extension of MST, CUT, the left wing of PT and the progressive current of the Catholic Church. … The lottery of posts [of INCRA state supervisors] was guided by ideological criteria.” According to O Globo (5-6-03) the Ministry of Land Reform gave “the state apparatus over to one of the litigants [MST].”
Faithful to its socialist principles that produce equality in misery, the MST is against large scale agricultural production for export. The movement’s leaders are already studying the launching of a campaign to combat the capitalist agricultural model now in force, a vigorous and enterprising agribusiness with a highly positive impact on the Brazilian balance of trade.
Friar Betto, a special aide to the President, is a key man of the “Catholic left” both because of his past links with communist guerrillas, terrorists and Nicaragua’s Sandinistas, and his present close connections with Fidel Castro. This Dominican friar believes nothing can shake the “partnership” between MST and the government, not even the recent invasions and vandalizing of public buildings (Jornal do Brasil, 3-8-03).
Landowners say that they “can no longer put up” with the MST and that “the goal of farmers is to demonstrate publicly their indignation with the position of the Lula da Silva government in the land dispute” (Folha de S. Paulo, 5-5-03).
All indications are that if the Lula government maintains its orientation on land reform, the failures of this program will be aggravated even further and can cause the terrible traumas it produced in communist countries.
That concludes this issue of LulaWatch. Until next time,
C. Preston Noell III