A visit to a settlement of landless farmers near Porto Alegre, capital
of the state of Rio Grande do Sul, reveals a group of utopian settlers.
Even subsidized by the government they have a tough time making ends meet
and they know they will never be able to earn enough to support a modern
When I told an American friend I was researching the Landless Farmers’
(Sem Terra) movement in Brazil, she found the concept hard to understand.
If they don’t have land, she asked, why don’t they buy some? Isn’t their
real problem a lack of money? Why do they think the government should give
them land for nothing? These questions were on my mind when I spoke with
Jonas Ricardo, a spokesman for the Movimento Sem Terra in Porto Alegre,
Rio Grande do Sul. He responded with a long lecture on Brazilian history.
Ever since the 1500s, when Brazil was discovered by the Portuguese, land
has been unjustly distributed. Most of the Indians were exterminated and
Africans were enslaved.
Wealthy landowners have exploited rural workers, who have no real chance
to start their own farms. Much land is not even used, but held for speculative
purposes, while the landless go hungry. The Landless Farmers’ movement
wants the government to take this land and distribute it to the hundreds
of thousands of poor farmers who have no land of their own.
But doesn’t this go against the trend towards free markets and private
enterprise, I asked? Did they want a socialist economy such as that in
Cuba? Jonas insisted that their movement was not based on any foreign model.
What they wanted was for everyone to have a secure place to live, with
a decent income, health care, education and a supportive community life.
It’s an appealing vision, much like we remember life among homesteaders
living on free land on the American frontier. But can it work today? Can
small farmers compete with large commercial agriculture? Can life on a
small plot of land be attractive in a world which is entering the twenty-first
The press coverage of the Landless Farmers’ movement has focused on
the dramatic invasions which occur when groups of would be farmers move
onto land they want the government to give to them. These invasions are
often resisted by the people who own the land, leading to bitter conflicts
and sometimes even to killings. The government wants the would be farmers
to request the land legally through the government’s land reform agency,
instead of simply seizing it. The Movement believes that invasions are
justified because without them the government won’t really do anything.
This is a hard principle for a democratic society to accept. Why should
people follow the rules of the game, if benefits are given first to those
who violate them? Brazilian tradition, however, has often recognized squatters’
rights because of the need to find some way to meet people’s needs when
the legal system is ineffective.
I was not so much interested in the ethics of land invasions, however,
as in the question of what the Landless Farmers would do with the land
once they got it. So I asked Jonas to arrange a visit to one of the most
successful settlements. He recommended a visit to Nova Santa Rita, a rural
community on the outskirts of Porto Alegre. This settlement has been legally
recognized for ten years. The land which they occupy was a private farm
and alcohol factory which had gone bankrupt and been repossessed by the
Bank of Brazil. The Bank wasn’t doing anything with it, so it was a comparatively
easy matter for the National Agrarian Reform Institute (INCRA) to turn
it over to them.
We had the good luck to arrive at Nova Santa Rita on a Sunday afternoon
just as they were celebrating a wedding. Everyone was singing and dancing
and feasting on skewered meat in the traditional Gaúcho style.
The happy scene was reminiscent of an Israeli Kibbutz, not as they are
now, but as they were back in the 1940s when the movement was just getting
established. A tightly knit community held together by a common cause and
a vision of a better future.
There is, in fact, some organizational similarity to a Kibbutz. Many
of the residents of Nova Santa Rita have formed a cooperative called Coopan.
Most of the members grew up on small family farms, and they saw that their
parents just scraped by financially. They hope they can do better as a
cooperative, because they will be able to afford to buy agricultural equipment
such as tractors, one of which can serve twenty families. They can also
organize day care centers, and purchase supplies more cheaply. Membership
in the cooperative is completely voluntary, however, and most of the families
in the settlement have chosen to remain on private plots. The cooperative
has 800 of the 2040 hectares of land.
Living in an agricultural settlement is an appealing way of life, as
long as one does not mind the absence of television, movie theaters, night
clubs, shopping centers or other pleasures of modern life. The residents
entertain themselves with sports, and have a rich spiritual life thanks
to the presence of several nuns who live with the community. The Landless
Farmer’s movement is strongly supported by progressive activists within
the Catholic Church, who see it as an assertion of human dignity and concern
for the poor.
One might think that the residents would be grateful to the government
which made this rural idyll possible. But they are not. The residents are
certain that, left to its own initiative, the government would do nothing
to help them. The government responds only to pressure, and then it gives
them less than they really need. The leader of the cooperative thought
that President Fernando Henrique Cardoso was a very intelligent man who
was following the same liberal policies as in other countries. The real
power in Brazil, he thought, was the United States. The Brazilian government
acted for the upper middle class, not the workers. This was just his opinion,
he hastened to add. The community is not affiliated with any political
party, and members have a variety of ideological views.
As is often the case with utopian communities, economics is a fly in
the ointment. In a sense, my American friend was right. The Landless Farmers’
movement is not so much about land as about money. Without government subsidies,
the farms would not be viable, at least in the short run. They receive
subsidized credit from the government, paying an interest rate of 2%. Even
so, they have difficulty making ends meet. Last year, Nova Santa Rita had
no harvest because of a drought, and was unable to make the payments on
its subsidized government loans.
On the way home from Nova Santa Rita, I asked our escort whether they
had analyzed the agricultural economics of the settlement. Is it possible
for 100 families to make a decent living on 2040 hectares of land? He said
they knew that it was impossible. At best, the settlers might scrape out
a bare subsistence from the land, eating food they have grown themselves
and living in homes they build with their own hands. There would never
be enough income to support a modern lifestyle. What they hope is that
they can organize industries or businesses on the settlements to supplement
the agricultural income. For this, also, they would require government
This has been the experience, also, of the Israeli Kibbutzim. Despite
generous state subsidies, they have often been forced to go into nonagricultural
activities in order to survive. Sometimes the members work off the Kibbutz
to bring in income.
The law assumes that the settlers will eventually break away from the
government programs and become independent farmers. But the movement discourages
this, and as yet, none have done so. Their survival depends on government
subsidies. The Cardoso administration extends them this support, because
they see it as a dignified way of helping people who are eager to help
themselves. They view the program as a way of providing at least a temporary
respite for people who are excluded from the modern economy. First Lady
Ruth Cardoso is proud of the fact that they have settled 40,000 families,
many more than any previous administration, and they hope to settle 100,000.
The activists deny that the government is doing its best to help, and
demand that the government instantly turn over any land they occupy. This
leads to conflict with land owners, and a breakdown in orderly process
as land invaders push themselves ahead of people who have waited their
turn in line. One thing both the settlers and the administration agree
on is the unresponsiveness of the government bureaucracy. Ruth Cardoso
told me that the biggest problem in all the social services has not been
the lack of money but simply the incapacity of the government apparatus
to carry out its functions. They have appointed a new director of INCRA
and given him great flexibility to reorganize the bureaucracy.
President Cardoso’s other initiative is to extend many of the benefits
given to settlements to small farmers throughout the country. In August,
1997, he announced a program which will allow farmers a line of credit
up to $10,000 to purchase land.
In keeping with the principle of decentralization, he plans to turn
responsibility for administering the agrarian reform over to the states.
Funding, will come from $150 million of federal money, which they hope
will be supplemented by $250 million from the Interamerican Development
Bank. With this program, Cardoso believes it will be possible to settle
297,000 families by the end of 1988.
With this new program in place, invasions may no longer be viewed as
the only effective way to get government support for small farmers.
Ted Goertzel is a Sociology professor at the Rutgers
University in Camden, New Jersey. He is the author of five books, the latest
two being Linus Pauling: A Life in Science and Politics and Turncoats
and True Believers: The Dynamics of Political Belief and Disillusionment.
You can contact him through his E-mail: email@example.com
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