A thin red line
May 19th 2005 | BRASíLIA
From The Economist print edition
Land reform makes sense, but its loudest advocates often do not
THEY had been marching for two weeks, red-flag-waving protesters forming a procession two miles long, and on May 16th they swarmed into Brasília, Brazil's capital, to press their demands on the government: reversal of its tough economic policies, “rescue” of Brazilian culture and, above all, redistribution of land.
This was the big set-piece of the Movement of Landless Rural Workers (MST), the noisiest representative of Brazil's 4m landless rural families. No political force in Brazil is more divisive. To sympathisers, the MST represents a thrilling act of self-assertion by the normally quiescent poor. (Noam Chomsky, an American leftist, deems it “the most important and exciting popular movement in the world”.) To foes, it is utopian, lawless and dangerous to Brazil's economy.
The MST helped elect Brazil's left-leaning president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, in 2002, but has been an irritant to him ever since. Lula had promised to ramp up land reform by distributing to poor families “unproductive” land expropriated by the state and other federal property. Hamstrung by tight budgets, he has so far failed to deliver. His government has settled an average of 59,000 families a year (fewer, claims the MST), compared with 66,000 under the previous administration.
The protests threaten Brazil's investment climate more than they do the government. Across Brazil, property deemed unproductive by the MST is subject to invasion by landless groups hundreds strong. Unproductive is defined loosely: a eucalyptus forest in São Paulo state that feeds a paper factory owned by Votorantim, a conglomerate, has been invaded three times this year.
Sometimes families occupy private property close to the intended homestead to force the government to award title. Police have not dealt as firmly with this as property owners would like. By sympathising with the MST, Lula often finds himself accused of undermining property rights, and thus Brazil's competitiveness.
The protesters' opponents can behave even worse. More than 1,000 rural activists have been murdered, many of them from the 20-year-old MST; last year, 39 people died in Brazil's land wars, according to the church-linked Comissão Pastoral da Terra.
The MST has some odd ideas. “We have to stop this business of producing for export,” says Vicente Almeida, an MST official, toppling in his imagination a pillar of Brazil's economy. But its basic point is sound: Brazil's land ownership is one of the most unequal in the world, with just 1% of Brazilians owning half of all fertile land. Rural poverty is a blight and part of the cure is land reform.
Family farms, whatever their size, are more productive than those worked by hired labour. How should the land be distributed? Handing it out to poorly educated labourers, many of them escaping dead-end lives in cities, is not a sure-fire recipe for prosperity. The press regularly carries stories of abandoned plots and unrelieved misery on settlements established by the government.
Rates of failure vary, however, and the overall record is not that bleak. As Gerd Sparovek of the University of São Paulo's agricultural school, points out, at least settlers no longer have to leave their families to chase seasonal employment and most do manage to feed themselves, which is an improvement over their landless state. He reckons that little more than a tenth of settlers abandon their plots.
The World Bank backs another model entailing negotiated sales of land to groups of farmers financed by government grants and loans. One pilot study suggests that such projects have raised farmers' incomes by 75% since 1999. The MST complains that this “market-based model” saddles farmers with unmanageable debts and poor land. But the World Bank says that 85% of borrowers are paying on time. The government persists with the programme, but quietly.
As expected, Lula paid court to the 15,000 activists camped on his doorstep this week, promising extra funds for land redistribution, the settlement of 430,000 families by the end of his term next year and an even looser official definition of what constitutes unproductive land. If he fails again, he can expect “a much bigger demonstration”, says Jacinto Jomualdo, an MST activist from São Paulo state. But the landless do not really blame their former comrade for the slow pace of progress. What Brazil really needs, says Mr Jomualdo, is “a social revolution.”
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