If you drive in the Brazilian countryside, you're likely to see the broad fields where Brazil's big export surplus in agriculture is produced. Brazil produces and exports soybeans, coffee and sugar, among other products. The surplus generated by the sale of these products has helped fund the new president's program to better feed the people at the bottom of the country's economic ladder.
If you drive more than an hour, you'll also surely see encampments. Some of them are huge complexes of hovels made with a few dusty, irregular boards and tarpaulins, packed close along the highway. Laundry hangs over a fence to dry. A man with no front teeth eyes your car as you pass. And there's a big red flag signifying the Landless Agricultural Workers Movement (MST).
In July, MST's leader, João Pedro Stédile, declared war on all farmers with more than 2,000 hectares (4,400 acres). “We will not sleep until we have done with them,” Stédile reportedly told supporters at a meeting. “They are going to hell anyway, so let's make their life a hell.”
MST leaders seem set on making life difficult not only for Brazilian farmers, but also for leftist President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, whom they supported during last year's elections. In the afterglow of Lula's January inauguration, the MST appeared to have quieted down.
But in the face of what the group views as a slow settlement pace, it seems the honeymoon is over. MST invasions of farms have restarted. The group shut down some roads, demanding tolls. Members have hijacked trucks and distributed the contents among members.
These disruptions are particularly unwelcome to the Brazilian president, who is struggling to control the radicals in his camp while attempting to muscle a tough vote on social security reform through the congress.
The group's leaders remind the public that the president, as a union leader, staged sit-ins, or “occupations” of factories. When they occupy farms, therefore, they are merely exercising their political rights.
In the face of a reignited militancy on the part of the MST, some farmers say they have formed armed militias to stave off any advance on their land. In fact, at this writing, a march of some 4,000 MST members is squared off against a smaller group of farmers at a bridge in the state of Paraná. With the police in the middle, the armed farmers swear not to let the group march any farther toward their homes and farms.
Most Brazilians probably agree land reform is an important social goal and that the system is broken.
Writers backed by certain non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have declared that farmers with less than 22 acres comprise 30% of all Brazilian farmers, but they hold less than 2% of all farmland. Also, farmers owning less than 2% of all farms hold more than half of all farmland. Regardless of whether these claims are exaggerated, it's clear that a few dominate.
According to Brazilian government data, 635,000 landless families were settled on plots between 1995 and 2002. And it's reported President Lula has promised to settle another 60,000 families this year.
But it's far from enough to solve the problem. At least one NGO says up to 7 million Brazilians are landless.