From Brazil’s Amazon through arid northeast backlands to the rich cane country of Sao Paulo, some 150,000 families are camped by the roadside ready to resume the fight for a plot of land.
Leaders of the Landless Workers Movement have threatened to restart invasions of idle farmland even if Brazil’s working-class president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, wins a second term in Sunday’s run-off election.
Land reform highlights the social divide in Latin America’s largest country, the size of continental United States, where nearly half the land belongs to less than 1 percent of landowners.
Landless Brazilians complain that Lula hasn’t fulfilled a pledge to settle 400,000 families during his first four-year term.
The Landless Workers Movement invaded 180 farms during the first eight months of 2006 before calling an election truce. Between 2003 and 2005 they occupied nearly 750 farms.
During the same period, 150 people were killed in land disputes, Pastoral Land Commission data show.
“While agrarian reform is unresolved, we aren’t going to control the problem of (land) invasions. I’m against them, but they happen,” Lula said in an election debate on Brazil’s Record TV last week.
Lula enjoys a huge lead in opinion polls over his centrist rival, Geraldo Alckmin, the former governor of Brazil’s richest state Sao Paulo. But he faces a tough task satisfying his traditional landless supporters.
Landless losing patience
Brazil’s landless are impatient with Lula who is lagging on a pledge to settle 400,000 families during his first mandate, which started in January 2003.
Data from the land reform agency Incra showed that in the first three years of his term only 245,000 families received farmland.
Rebutting criticism that Lula’s government had moved too slowly on land reform, Incra said that between 2003 and 2005 the government tripled spending on land purchase to $1.3 billion and distributed 22.5 million hectares (56 million acres) of land, against 8.8 million hectares between 1999 and 2002.
But the Landless Workers Movement said that government figures were grossly inflated and that only 26,000 families were settled in 2005, compared with a government figure of 127,000.
A family can only be considered settled when it has water, electricity, sanitation as well as farm credit, according to the movement.
It says two-thirds of settlements were in the Amazon region, lacking roads and a long way from the nearest market.
Alckmin argues that the Lula government’s land reform policy is chaotic and inefficient.
“Land reform must be orderly, respecting the law and accompanied by education, health, credit and technical aid to ensure the economic viability of settled families,” Alckmin said in his election manifesto.
The settlements must be integrated into local farming and food marketing network, he added.
Landowners say Lula’s land reform policy is outdated.
“Buying land and handing it out is expensive, inefficient, and open to corruption,” said Joao Sampaio Filho, President of the influential Brazilian Rural Society.
Sampaio Filho said that the government needs to improve access to farm credit, technology, management and marketing.
“The government is shutting its eyes to land invasions, signs agreements, finances, feeds and transports these movements - indirectly it encourages them,” he complained.