President Fernando Henrique Cardoso has been slow to honor his promises
of settling landless peasants in Brazil and land invasions have increased
throughout the country. In the last 10 years 961 peasants and their supporters have
been killed in land disputes. Land reform cannot be delayed any more.
Land reform has become one of the most controversial issues in Brazilian politics over the past few months.
The government’s perceived lackluster effort in redistributing land to landless peasants and poor workers has sparked
land invasions across Brazil, which in turn have provoked bloody confrontations between the peasants occupying the
lands and the large landholders, many backed by the military police. But agrarian reform is not a new issue nor is it
exclusive to Brazil.
Wherever you go in Latin America, most farms are huge and most peasants are landless. In the 1970s and
1980s the half-continent’s big farms grew bigger, its small farms shrunk and its landless laborers multiplied. There has
been talk of land reform throughout Latin America but with few positive results. Brazil is no different. Since colonial
days, Brazil’s countryside has been a parquetry of privilege, where a handful of barons rule over rambling estates the
size of counties, even countries, while millions of peasants scratch a living from meager patches.
In the mid 1980s, nearly half the farmland in Brazil was owned by one percent of farmers. The
Sarney administration promised to settle 1.4 million families by the end of 1989 but by mid 1987 (two and a half years
after taking office) only 15,000 families had been settled — only five percent of those the government had wanted to
help by then. In the late 1980s, Brazilian landowners delayed expropriation by filing interminable law suits and
lobbying friendly politicians.
When frustrated peasants invaded estates earmarked for expropriation, the landlords hired armed gangs to
defend them. In 1986 they killed at least 260 people. Legislation passed in 1993 to spur reform along instead has helped
the landholders. According to the law, landholders must be notified of expropriations. Landowners stop the processes
in court by claiming to have never received the notification. The law also excludes medium-size estates, which
benefits landholders who simply divide up their land into smaller portions making them no longer subject to expropriation.
At the one year anniversary of the current administration, President Fernando Henrique Cardoso claimed
a substantial victory in the area of land reform, declaring in an interview with
Veja (a weekly Brazilian magazine) that under his administration
over 40,000 families were given land in 1995, twice as much as former
president José Sarney gave out per year during his tenure in office
However, much more was expected from Cardoso, whose ideological background (not to mention his
campaign promises) suggested he would have placed even more emphasis on this issue. In addition, the number of
landless families and jobless workers has increased since the early 1990s with the opening of Brazil’s commercial borders
to agricultural goods from abroad — at least 500,000 countryside jobs have disappeared since 1990.
This increase has placed tremendous pressure on the President and Congress to push ahead with land reform
that will distribute uncultivated land to those in need. The absence of significant improvement in dealing with the issue
has led to greater number of land invasions and loss of life. Over the past 10 years 961 peasants and supporters have
been killed in land disputes. In the first six months of 1996 alone violence in the countryside has produced 30 deaths.
The inability (or unwillingness) of the government to move ahead on this delicate issue has led social
movements to rely less and less on the government and instead to take matters into their own hands. Protests and
demonstrations, even in large urban areas, have become more frequent. In April, 10 thousand landless workers and peasants
(in Portuguese they are simply called sem
terra, which means without land) organized protests in 20 states.
Land invasions also took place throughout Brazil. In the southern state of Paraná three thousand landless
families occupied over 200 thousand acres of land. In São Paulo state 1,700 families occupied land in a county where
President Cardoso has co-ownership of a large farm. In Pará, a state in northern Brazil, more than 3,000 landless peasants
and workers demanded the settlement of vast tracts of unused land in the state.
The breaking point occurred in Pará, where at the beginning of April the state’s military police were called in
to break up the road blockade set by the sem
terra, and this eventually led to one of the worst massacres in
Brazilian history. The military police gunned down over 20 mostly unarmed peasants from close range, and tortured and
injured scores of others. The massacre in Pará was broadcast around the world and placed the issue of land reform
squarely on the government’s shoulders.
The increase in the numbers of land invasions is due not only to the lackadaisical efforts of the government or
the national legislature’s repeated successes in blocking reform but also because of the social organization behind
most of the land invasions: the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Terra (Movement of Landless Workers), or simply
Prior to 1996, the organization that most promoted and defended the interests of the landless workers and
peasants in the countryside was the Confederação Nacional dos Trabalhadores na Agricultura or CONTAG
(National Confederation of Agricultural Workers). CONTAG comprises both the formal and informal sector and is the
most encompassing organization in Brazilian society. The strategy pursued by CONTAG is non-confrontational.
The MST, founded in the late 1970s, pursues a more radical strategy, especially on the crucial question of
agrarian reform. Up until very recently, MST found support mainly in the south of Brazil. This picture has changed
dramatically and now the MST has supporters across the country, thus challenging the position of CONTAG as the
principal representative of rural labor. The greater presence of MST throughout Brazil has translated into more
violent confrontations with landowners and the government (state and national).
In late June, President Cardoso warned the MST that future land invasions would be treated as a national
security problem, and that the armed forces would be used to help the police with eviction. Cardoso lost his patience after
700 MST members blocked one of the main access roads to Brasília (the nation’s capital), causing a six mile tailback,
and 200 others occupied buildings in Vitória, capital of Espírito Santo state.
Despite the president’s threat, MST leader Gilmar Moura stated that land occupations would continue as long
as the government failed to carry out a massive land distribution program. Land invasions continue to occur (as in
the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul in July), the
sem terra are becoming more restless (in the state of Bahia,
for example), and the MST continues to organize future land invasions, demonstrations and other forms of protest to
put pressure on the government.
It would be inaccurate to claim that the Brazilian government has done absolutely nothing to promote
agrarian reform. Although funds to the official land reform agency, the Instituto Nacional de Reforma Agrária
(National Institute for Land Reform) or INCRA, have been cut, the government has created the Ministry of Agrarian
Reform, headed by Raul Jungmann, acquired over one million acres of land to distribute to 11,340 families, and
introduced legislation in Congress that would make the sale of uncultivated land more attractive to large landholders. With
this in mind the government proposed an increase in land taxes, for example.
One of the main difficulties the executive faces, however, is the passage of pro-land reform legislation in
the national legislature. The bancada ruralista
(the landowners’ lobby in Congress) has repeatedly voted down
legislation that hurts rural interests. In early June, the president made a short-lived alliance with the PT (the socialist
Workers Party) to block a maneuver promoted by the
bancada ruralista that would have led to legislation allowing
landowners to evict peasants found camping out on their lands. This leftist strategy was quickly abandoned when the
executive accused the PT of inciting a conflict in the northeastern state of Maranhão that led to four deaths.
Not surprisingly, the main presidential foe is Congress. The lower house of Congress (the Chamber of
Deputies) especially presents problems because it is where conservative forces are stronger. Despite persistent difficulties
with Congress, on July 12 the president unilaterally expropriated just under 55 thousand acres of land in six states,
enough to settle roughly 400 families. On July 27, the Minister of Agrarian Reform presented a land reform package to
state governors that the executive will introduce in Congress. The central feature of the reform package is the
decentralization of power to state and local levels to carry out the necessary reforms.
The increased efforts of the government (mainly the executive) occurred simultaneously with a sizable
land donation by the armed forces and promises by the Catholic church also to donate unused land it owns. In May,
the Brazilian Army donated 15.3 million acres of land from seven states in the rural Center-West and North and in late
July the National Council of Brazilian Bishops (CNBB) announced that it is sending out surveys to its 250 dioceses and
900 plus congregations spread across Brazil to find out what land could be used for settling landless peasants.
According to a CNBB spokesperson, “If there is land available, the CNBB will ask the local diocese to give up the properties
to help in the process of land reform.”
Poverty is a serious issue in Brazil, and elsewhere in Latin America. The inequality in the distribution of
income has long been a salient feature of Latin American economies. In the late 1970s, the percentage of income received
by the poorest 20 percent was lower in Latin America than in any other part of the developing world. The distribution
of wealth is especially acute in Brazil. The settlement of landless peasants and workers in Brazil, with technical
and financial assistance provided by all three levels of government, is one way of reducing poverty.
The failure of the government to enact significant reform in land distribution over the past decade is
unfortunate but not surprising. According to American political scientist Kurt Weyland, government institutions are partly
to blame for the absence of equity-enhancing agrarian reform. As long as the institutional structure of
government remains intact, agrarian reform that benefits the
sem terra will be long in coming.