Land Reform:The Myth and the Reality
(A Summary of the book by Mr. Nelson Ramos Barretto)
The administration of former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso claimed to have implemented the greatest agrarian land reform project in the world. His successor, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, now wants to expand land reform even further.
While land reform is launched with much fanfare promising to improve the lot of the farm worker, the concrete results of this social program have been far from encouraging. As early as 1995, a TFP report on the confiscated land reform settlements (hereafter referred to as assentamentos) qualified them as unproductive rural slums. Others published similar reports.
In light of such controversy, reason and good sense should have forced the National Institute of Colonialization and Agrarian Reform (INCRA), which implements land reform in Brazil, to make detailed studies on the progress of the assentamentos before proceeding with more land confiscations. In-depth reports should have been made and all sides, both land owners and workers, should have been heard. This should have ignited a national debate to discuss the apparent failure of the assentamentos.
Unfortunately, this did not happen. The land reform course is undauntedly continuing full steam ahead inspired by radical agrarian socialism and instigated by the equally radical Pastoral Land Commission (CPT) and the Landless Rural Workers Movement (MST).
What the official agencies did not do, one serious and competent journalist did. In a veritable marathon, which took him from the north to the south of Brazil, Nelson Ramos Barretto on two separate trips investigated the conditions in Brazil’s assentamentos, many of which were hailed as model settlements by the government.
This undertaking is chronicled in the 2003 book, Land Reform: The Myth and the Reality. In this book, the TFP-associated Mr. Ramos Barretto disputes official claims about the land reform assentamentos. Here follows a summary of this revealing work.
Model Land Settlement…Model Failure
Once lands are confiscated from farmers, the National Institute of Colonialization and Agrarian Reform (INCRA) says that it takes 18 months from the installation for the assentamento to start producing. Those living in the assentamentos (hereafter referred to as settlers) are given government credits to help them with farming and housing expenses. Such settlers are often no more than squatters, since many, spurred on by agitators, illegally occupy the private lands of farmers. They are allowed to settle on the land but never properly own the land.
The above eighteen-month production schedule, however, has never been followed. Indeed, there is practically no self-sufficient assentamento in all Brazil. Until now, settlers are more like public employees on an immense unproductive state-owned farm where the landlord is INCRA!
The U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) published a report in 1992 which claimed one confiscated property project called São Pedro, in Guaíba, in the state of Rio Grande do Sul, provided each inhabitant with a monthly income twelve times minimum wage. When Mr. Ramos Barretto visited the settlement, however, every settler he interviewed contested that claim.
Sr. Teresa Schiavenato, a nun of the Congregation of the Daughters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, who lives on the assentamento with two other nuns, responded: “This must be a typographical error, or someone who increased the numbers because I remember well that they only did one interview with someone from a assentamento here below and he did not say this.”
Another assentamento called Fazendas Reunidas, in Promissão, São Paulo, was held up as a “model assentamento” by land reform enthusiasts. However, assentamento president João Francisco de Carvalho, who has lived there since 1987, disagreed strongly with the label. “Model?” he said, “If this property is a model, I pity the others! This is demagoguery! We do not even make minimum wage here!”
The response was the same at another “model” assentamento. Mr. Ramos Barreto interviewed Aparecido Baldán, who came to the farm Barreiro in Limeira do Oeste, Minas Gerais, as a leader of the landless invaders. Today he is vice-president of the City Council. He was emphatic: “This business of earning three, four and five times minimum wage does not exist. We have a subsistence economy here.”
Almost all those interviewed affirmed that they were not up to date with their bank payments to the INCRA-funded Special Credit Program for Agrarian Reform (PROCERA), which offers subsidized credit to land recipients for infrastructure and production. PROCERA loans carry a 6.5% interest rate, a ten year repayment period (with a three-year grace period) and a generous 50% rebate.
Trajano Oliveira, from the assentamento São Pedro, admits: “People actually do not pay PROCERA anything. Neither I nor anyone here pays. It will be ten years since the land was appropriated and, each year, PROCERA leaves with nothing.”
Horrible Conditions and Fraud
Once on the properties, occupants often must resort to evasive tactics to survive. Many sell or lease their lots, but remain there as house keepers to cheat their way through the annual inspection. In Iturama, Minas Gerais, the secretary of the Oquildo Severo da Silva settler association explains his difficulties: “Of the 80 original families, only 23 remain. Even many of the leaseholders who have been here for a long time have already sold their properties and would leave, but they do not have conditions to do so.”
Land reform is carried out in the name of “social concern,” but does not benefit society. In Carazinho, Rio Grande do Sul, Jairo Martins, a reporter for the local newspaper, O Noticioso, and correspondent of Porto Alegre’s Correio do Povo, was categorical: “I did ten stories on the commune at Annoni. What is going on there is insane. I consider it to be the largest rural slum of Latin America.”
Keeping Settlers on the Land
The problem is not putting the landless on the land; it is keeping them on it. The settlers complain that, in the commune, “the greater members swallow up the lesser ones.”
Gonçalo Homero Batista, from the commune at Annoni, affirmed that the directors of his association “are skimming off the top. ”
“I am an associate of their assentamento and I know them well. The assentamento was given 5,000 Brazilian Reais (US$1700) and we only received the crumbs.” At the time of his interview, Gonçalo was cutting hay with a little scythe for his two head of cattle. It was the only scythe seen at the 44 assentamentos that were visited. It would seem that the scythe, a symbol of the MST, is only used for propaganda purposes in rallies and not in agriculture.
Raquel Malanzuch, the president of the Rural Workers’ Union at Gleba XV in Pontal do Paranapanema, São Paulo, was also outspoken. Commenting on posters with the slogan, “The Land Will Free You,” she described the situation of the “prisoners” she found on the assentamentos: “Their desire is to be freed, to get financing so they feel responsible for what they do. They need the titles to these lands.”
In fact, INCRA does not supply titles to the settlers for the land, a situation that is creating juridical chaos when the settlers sell their lots. It also creates despair among the settlers themselves. Gerson Ferraz de Souza, from the assentamento Piratininga in Goias, complained: “I do not have the least role here.” Luís José de Sena of Pajeú, Bahia exclaimed: “We do not even have titles for our lands.”
In Bahia, settler Maurício Alves de Miranda, Secretary of Agriculture for the town of Ponto Novo, spoke out sharply against this regime of slavery: “You live in submission to the rules of land reform! I have been living on a commune for 10 years and I do not have a title. I do not have any document that I can take to a bank to try and develop any kind of individual project. I live under a regime of slavery to the federal government.”
In spite of all the state investments, made with taxpayer money, these assentamentos are unsustainable. The youth move into the cities while the retired elderly remain on the land. Thus, putting people on the land does not guarantee that future generations will stay. For Antonio Batista Bustos at Promissão, São Paulo: “Each of the land reform lots is sufficient only for a husband, wife and their small children. As the children grow up, they must move on to other plots of land.”
At the São Pedro assentamento in Rio Grande do Sul, held up as a model in the FAO publication, Trajano Oliveira expressed his discouragement: “I have never heard it said that anyone here bettered their situation. For me it got much worse.”
New Investigations: Deepening Failures
The third part of Mr. Ramos Barretto’s book takes a look at his second tour in November-December 2002. The 5000-mile trip only confirmed a deepening crisis inside Brazilian agriculture where assentamentos have been established.
Founded in 1994, the Nova Santo Inácio assentamento in Campo Florido, Minas Gerais, houses 115 families on 8,854 acres. It still is in phase 3 of 7 according to INCRA classifications. Nearly 80% of the settlers lease their lands to nearby soy or sugarcane producers.
In Lagoa Grande, Minas Gerais, the Barreirão assentamento has 27 families on 1,955 acres and was established in 1996. It is in the consolidation phase and was held up in a 1999 INCRA publication as an “example of a very successful assentamento.”
However, that same publications show twelve “workers” lined up with hoes in their hands, posing as if someone happened upon them working. Half of these “workers” are holding their hoes in the wrong way. They appear not to even know how to use them!
On a page inside, INCRA showcases its successful assentamentos: “Two assentamentos, founded in 1996, are producing 999 thousand kilos of passion fruit for Maguari, one of the largest juice producers of Brazil.” However, on Mr. Ramos Barretto’s visit to the Barreirão assentamento, he found that the assentamento had only planted passion fruit for one season. According to settler Lázaro Luís de Melo, they stopped production because they had lost a lot of money on it.
No Possible Progress
He also visited the “model” assentamento, Fruto D’Anta, in João Pinheiro, Minas Gerais. It was founded in 1986, with 231 families on 50,000 acres and is in similar straits. Despite being one of the oldest settlements, it is still only in phase three of its consolidation. Many of its lots had been sold four or even five times. José Wilson, who has a small neighboring farm in Olhos d’Água, recounted: “They have everything in there, a public functionary, a bank functionary, a bicycle store owner, a mechanic. They have everything in there.”
However, such personal initiatives are frowned upon. In one settlement house, for example, there is a snack bar. Its owner, Maria Moreira da Mota Rodrigues, spoke of the assentamento: “It is a model for those who do not know the reality.” She confessed that she had received pressure to close her shop and asked, “Why would I be obliged to stay on my lot, without any perspective of bettering our situation?”
Gerson Pinto Cardoso said he bought his lot seven years ago for R$14,000 (US$4700). However, since he also owns a service station in the city, INCRA has threatened to evict him. According to Gerson: “Here, everyone is condemned to remain as they entered, with nothing. No one is allowed to better their life. With my service station, I can do more with my lot than someone who had nothing to invest. But here, no one is allowed to rise up.”
Once all the forestland in the assentamento had been denuded by the settlers, they were left to use that land for diary farming. Thus, they produce about 2,000 gallons of milk per day during the rainy season. The assentamento began in 1998 and reached a height of 137 milk producers. However, the pastures were not well cared for, which led some settlers to lose as many as twenty head of cattle during the drought.
One obvious problem on all the land reform settlements is the future of the children. Celso Soares, president of the assentamento’s settlers association, said the school has around 400 students. However, due to the assentamento’s great size and a lack of resources, not all the children can get there. According to Celso: “If we do not arrange the means for these children to stay, in a short time, we will be a colony of elderly people with canes in our hands.” Ironically, at the entrance to this settlement is a plaque which states: “Fruta D’Anta Retirement Home.”
“Products” of the assentamento:
Mr. Ginger and Inner Tubes
On December 6, 2002, INCRA’s web site hailed the success of the assentamento named Nhundiaquara in Morretes, Parana which has 92 families on 3810 acres and was founded in 1984. INCRA announced that on this assentamento they plant organic ginger that is exported to the United States, United Kingdom, China and Japan. Settler Teiva Vieira, classified as a born entrepreneur, was said to be processing 70 tons of ginger per year and making an annual income of US$13.3 million. There appeared many photographs, one of which showed a box of ginger with the title: Mr. Ginger – product of Brazil.
However, this mythical idea about Mr. Ginger fell apart on the first encounter with the two functionaries from town hall who said of the assentamento‘s ginger venture: “That didn’t work out at all and they didn’t plant any more.” Reality continues to smash the myth.
Darkened by the sun and with hands burnt, Donizete Ruela de Oliveira recalled that she planted ginger for five years, but since 1996 she started to lose everything and is still nearly US$24,000 in debt. She made it clear that she never supported the Landless Rural Workers’ Movement (MST), who frequently sent its activists to invite the settlers to join it. When no one paid any attention to them, they stopped visiting. According to Donizete, the MST only wants to make confusion; and if they really wanted land, their leader, José Rainha, would be working on the plot given to him.
While INCRA’s web site speaks of a new “agriculture,” some more practical settlers have engaged in inner tube rental. Mr. Ramos Barretto spoke with Orlei Porcides, the president of the local settlers’ association. He immediately explained what happened: “Ginger nearly put me out of business. It was just an illusion. The reason for its failure was the cost of production.” Orlei thinks he is the settler that lost the least on the venture. His debt is around US$24,000. Others in the assentamento have debts as high as US$100,000. Since his lot borders Graciosa Road and is very close to the city, he lives in a shack, while turning his house into an inn. Aside from this, he rents inner tubes for tourists who pass by his house to swim in the Nhundiaquara River.
In 1989: A Green Tapestry
In 2002: A Devastated Land
A assentamento called Pirituba II – Area 1, in Itapeva, São Paulo is 6205 acres and houses 101 settlers. It was founded in 1984 and is still in phase 4 of 7. The late Governor Franco Montoro, on inaugurating it, affirmed that it would “rain money” on the assentamento members. Later on, Governor Orestes Quércia put black beans from the assentamento up for sale next to the metro stations of São Paulo city, calling them the “black beans of Land Reform.” The Rede Globo filmed Dutch-owned black bean farms, which border the assentamento, and aired the footage claiming they were “the black bean farms of land reform!”
In 1989, when Mr. Ramos Barretto visited the region for the first time, he was impressed by the glaring contrast between the Dutch farms and the situation of the neighboring settlers. On one side was a green tapestry, on the other a devastated land. In December of 2002, after the Dutch lands were invaded and transformed into assentamentos, the green tapestry also was devastated.
An expert who knows the region well and asked to remain anonymous, affirmed that, of the 94 families who received lots on the assentamento of Area 1, only four remain. The other ninety already left or leased their lands.
Government funds for land reform are used without rationality or accountability. An ex-functionary of the Bank of the State of Sao Paulo (Banespa) confessed that when experts and bank supervisors would present testimonies opposing the financing of land reform settlements due to their lack of technical viability, the bank president would simply say: “I don’t care if it is viable or not, free up more funds.” Later on, when the same experts would seek to audit the funds given, the president instructed them: “Cancel the audit and free up new lines of credit.”
The MST – “A Mafia”
Within Area I, there are two factions of settlers. One led by Delveck Mateus, MST leader who is president of Cooprocol, a cooperative which consists of the supporters of the collective farm. The other is the May 13th cooperative, led by Iolando Batista Veiga.
Mr. Ramos Barretto looked for Delveck Mateus, who was traveling, “as always” he was told. However, he found Iolando who told him why he left the MST: “They’re a mafia.” He said that he refused to pay the “toll” that the MST tried to collect. Furthermore, he advised his colleagues not to pay. “What the settlers want is work so they can take care of their families. What the MST wants is to make the settlers leave the assentamento to carry out land invasions…There is even a MST professor to teach people how to invade and occupy farms. Many vacant lots on the assentamentos are reserved for the children of MST leaders.”
An Inexplicable Insistence in Face of Failure
Someone who visited the assentamentos in 1995, and again in 2002, could have the impression that the situation has improved: some makeshift huts were replaced with brick houses, and settlers do have cows to provide some milk for their children.
These are but superficial impressions. A more in-depth analysis shows that the root causes of the failure of land reform remain. The assentamentos simply are not economically viable. Thus the settlers of nearly 20 years still do not own their land and are not free.
If the government did succeed in improving the appearance of the assentamentos, it was only because it invested an exorbitant $8.3 billion in the project where so few benefit. This same sum could have been spent to help a much greater number of the needy and with a more effective result.
This failed experiment reveals a lack of common sense among those who now seek to expand the project. Land reform has not helped anyone and has jeopardized the situation of everyone. It has not resolved anything and has thrown the whole countryside into chaos.