Lands of conflict

Published : Jun 22, 2002 00:00 IST

Big landowners in Brazil unleash violent reprisals against the agricultural workers' struggle for land and against forced labour.

JOAO RODRIGUES DE SOUZA, a 50-year-old agricultural labourer who worked in and around the Santana do Indaia Sto Antonio do Indaia farm in Ourilandia do Norte district of Para State in Brazil, was murdered in August 2001. He was the 13th victim of the violence unleashed by landowners in that year. His crime: he organised farm workers against forced labour, which is widespread in the district.

Violence against the leaders, activists and participants of the agricultural workers' movement has become a regular occurrence in Brazil, the former two groups being the prime targets. Violence takes place in all parts of the country, irrespective of social, economic and political conditions.

The northern and northeastern regions, where the concentration of land ownership is high, are the worst affected. Instances of murders of and attacks on individual activists and leaders are the highest in three States - Para, Mato Grosso and Rondonio. It is estimated that since 1984 more than 1,900 murders have been committed in rural areas; only 42 of these were brought to trial and only 18 trials ended in convictions. In 2000 alone there were 54 murders and 383 cases of conflict over land, involving as many as 2,42,196 people. A report on rural violence in Brazil, Americas Watch, describes how these murders are committed: "These are in the main murders of carefully and selectively targeted rural activists. Far too often, violence is the quick and dirty way for the rural elites to dispose of community and union 'troublemakers' who dispute their right to maintain thousands of acres of land uncultivated or stripped of all forest for cattle pasture (beef for export), while millions of Brazilians, willing to work on land, remain landless and near virtual starvation in rural poverty or urban slums."

The high concentration of land ownership, the use of slave labour in deforestation work in the Amazon regions and in alcohol and sugar refineries, and the failure of the land reforms introduced by successive regimes have provoked agitations by organisations such as the United Workers Union (Central Unica dos Trabalhadores, or CUT), and the Landless Farmers' Movement (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Terra, or MST). The organisations are adopting new forms of struggle. The land occupation movement of rural workers has gone ahead hand in hand with the struggle of the indigenous people for the demarcation of their lands and the preservation of their reserves. Further, land liberation prompted the organisations to raise the question of 'liberation of water' because many lakes, dams, wells, and mine shafts, which were built with public funds during the 10 years of drought, are fenced off for the private use of landlords. Along with this, groups, organisations and communities are now developing cooperatives for the effective use and preservation of lakes and rivers and for guaranteed livelihood.

Dom Augusto Alves do Rocha of the Pastoral Land Commission explains that land occupation has been the most significant form of struggle in recent years because of the impact it creates on society and the state. Land occupation has brought the question of land reforms to the fore at a time when the ruling elite treats it as an outdated issue. In fact, after decades of land invasions, sponsored by banks, industries, commercial enterprises, land defrauders and speculators of various kinds financed by public money, workers reacted and some organisations have given expression to their thinking.

Many families joined the rural workers in their land occupation struggle, especially in northern, mid-western and northeastern Brazil. Mass migration from the rural areas is widespread, and thousands of poor landless families live on the peripheries of big cities. They have no permanent employment, and the housing conditions are very poor. They also look at land occupation as an alternative means of survival. Dom Rocha gives the example of the occupation of Fazenda Uniao in Mundo Novo, Goias state, by more than 400 families of migrant workers. They lived on the periphery of Goiania, the capital of Goias. Land occupation by workers in a nearby village prompted them to lay claim to the surplus agricultural land. They knocked down the fences erected by big landowners to build their houses. According to data collected by CUT, since 1995 there have been more than 350 instances of land occupation across the country, in which 60,000 families were involved.

During the past decade or so, successive governments have been seized of the issues of land concentration, land reforms and violence. The so-called political opening that followed the military's decision to step down from power and the arrival of the 'new republic' and liberal regimes led to the announcement of many measures - 'Rule of economic policy towards agriculture', 'Land programme', 'National Plan of Agrarian Land Reform', to name a few. However, only 17 per cent of the target of 43 million hectares have been reallocated, and most of the reallocations are caught up in litigation. Only 40,000 families had benefited by 1998, against the target of 1.4 million. According to data released by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics after a rural census, around 1 per cent of the rural population controls about 45 per cent of the total agricultural land in Brazil.

Land concentration continues to exist along with the worst forms of slavery. Data collected by the Pastoral Land Commission show that the slave system prevails in all regions of the country, including the most economically developed southern region where the use of advanced agricultural technology is widespread. It is a familiar story: labour contractors (known as gatos) travel to distant regions to recruit workers for big landowners. They often maintain contractual arrangements with the owners of boarding houses in which the recruited workers would be asked to stay until they get work. The gatos contact workers and bait them into forced labour. The bait is in the form of promises of attractive wages and working conditions. The expenses incurred on the journey, food, and in many cases lodging are initially defrayed by the gatos. These have to be paid back by the workers after they get employment. They also pay for the tools of work. The canteen, which is usually the property of the farm owner, charges arbitrary prices. Debt is an effective instrument to subjugate the workers.

In his testimony before the Pastoral Land Commission, Vilmar Becone, a 42-year-old victim of forced labour from Santa Catarina State, said: "At the end of the job, the shopkeeper said I owed him Cr$16,000. I wanted to leave, but he said no. Whenever I tried to leave I knew they would come after me and put me to work again. The inspectors were armed with guns. I stayed at the workplace and came out only on Sundays to do shopping. There no man governs himself." Similar testimonies by workers from all over the country have been compiled.

Land is also at the core of the violence against the Indian people in Brazil. The Indianist Missionary Council has demanded that all lands traditionally occupied by Indians must be demarcated in order to put an end to these attacks. It has also demanded that the government must take direct action to remove invaders from those lands since they are responsible for the attacks on the Indian people.

Brazil's agriculture was modernised in the past two decades mainly to earn profits in the international market, pay interest on foreign debt and produce cheap raw materials. "The modernisation of agricultural technology has not been accompanied by the modernisation of work relations. Behind the good manners and the 'technical rhetoric' of the new rural companies lies the whip of the slave owner of the bygone era. Unless we propose land reform again, no amount of programmes of democracy or alternative ways of development will be successful," says Alvaro Pantoja, an activist.

Mukul Sharma is Director, Heinrich Boell Foundation, India.

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