Brazilians' long march to land reform

Mark mark at
Mon May 16 19:25:27 BST 2005

Brazilians' long march to land reform

Gibby Zobel in Alexania, Brazil
Saturday May 14, 2005
The Guardian

It's still dark when Juarez Santana Rocha tumbles off of his mattress,
woken by music suddenly blaring from the truck carrying a noisy sound
He and more than a thousand others from the northeastern Brazilian state
of Bahia have half an hour to gather their backpacks, grab some bread,
gulp a coffee and form a line on the BR-060 motorway.

Ahead of them the day will bring yet another leg of their epic 130-mile
walk to the capital, Brasilia, calling for agrarian reform. At the same
moment thousands of others are whooping their colleagues from slumber in
22 other giant tents in the camp, each from a different state, for the
17-day haul.

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By first light there are 11,000 landless farmers, members of the Movimento
Sem Terra, or MST, lined up in three strict columns along the motorway, a
thin red line stretching for more than two miles.
"Each day when I wake up I'm ready and everyone is excited," says Juarez,
22. "Before the march we'd talk a lot about it in our camp in Valdete
Correa in the Chapada Diamantina. We are 510 families in tents made of
straw and black plastic, waiting for land. We brought mattresses, sheets,
food, medicine, sandals and 10 reais [£2] for each person for cigarettes
and things."

Dressed in a luminous green MST T-shirt in a mass of red ones - "just to
be different" - Juarez represents one of the new generation of militants
in the 20-year-old organisation. The MST has undertaken many long marches
but nothing on this scale.

The thousands on the road reflect dismay with the government of President
Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

Lula, swept to power on a wave of popular enthusiasm in 2002, the
country's first working-class president.With him he carried the hopes of
many Brazilians tired of low wages and corruption.

Yet although the Brazilian economy is buoyant and the country's
international stature is rallying, the social and domestic reforms of the
Workers party government have been limited.

Promises set out in the 2003 national plan for agrarian reform to settle
430,000 families by the end of Lula's term, have stagnated, with just
60,000 settled.

Land is a potent issue in Brazil, dating back to colonial times. The
powerful landowners, latifundos, have always had political allies in
power. With Lula, a historical ally of the landless movement, as
president, many imagined change would come more quickly. But critics claim
the ministry of agriculture, on the side of agribusiness, and the ministry
of agrarian development, on the side of reform, are pulling in opposite

Charles Trocate, the national coordinator of the MST, is from the
north-eastern state of Para where the US missionary nun Dorothy Stang, 74,
was murdered in February and where 521 people have been killed in land
conflicts since 1985.

"The death of Dorothy was nothing more than those with vested interests
shutting the mouth of someone who defended the landless, agrarian reform
and sustainable environmental development," he says.

"The atmosphere of tension is still there. Anyone who stands in the way of
large mining companies and other interests becomes a target, and in many
cases this results in deaths."

The MST, due to arrive in Brasilia on Monday, will deliver a 16-point
demand to Lula's government. "Clearly, Lula has not done enough. In many
ways he is a hostage to international finance organisations," says Gilmar
Mauro, an MST leader.

"But if he doesn't contribute to agrarian reform, Latin America has many
examples of presidents who have been put into power by people and taken
out of power by the same people - the most recent example is Ecuador. I
hope it doesn't happen with Lula."

For Juarez the march is a somewhat risky adventure. "I joined the movement
two years ago. I thought it was bad when I was a kid. Lots of people were
always saying how dangerous it was. But I visited a lot of camps, looked
inside and I thought it was really good, very important," he says.

"It's the first march I've been on. It's very disciplined. But I'm not
used to sleeping with lots of poisonous snakes. It's scary. We've already
killed one in our camp. The daily journeys are tiring but we have a firm

Each day the entire camp is packed up, carried on 31 trucks, and
reconstructed at the next point along the route before the marchers

No one knows exactly where the next camp will be until the day itself. An
advance team finds a farm, cuts the fences and sets up.

Chico Lobo woke up to find 10 people in his farmhouse and hundreds milling
about on his land, Fazenda Buriti in Abadiania, when the MST came to town
last weekend.

"They didn't warn us, they invaded the farm," he says. "I'm not against
the movement for agrarian reform, very much to the contrary, but this type
of action I'm against. When I went to find out what was going on they
threatened me and told me that if I didn't shut my mouth things would be
worse for me. They are bringing terror to whatever municipality they

Meanwhile, health problems among the marchers are causing concern. Altilno
da Silva Soares, 76, from Rondonopolis in the state of Mato Grosso, died
from a heart attack on May 5. More than 100 marchers are treated daily for
flu, hypertension, foot sores, insect bites and exhaustion.

For Juarez the big march can only fortify the movement. "Here I sell
peanut sweets from tent to tent so I've become well known. We don't have
many chances to meet people from other states. I've made a lot of good
friends and met a girl from Sao Paulo."

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