17TH OF APRIL SETTLEMENT, Brazil (Reuters) - Ozano dos Santos admits to knowing little about the global economic crisis beyond snippets of Brazilian television news and conversations at his small bar. But he senses it can only be a good thing for the movement he calls his “father.”
“This will give us more strength,” said Santos, who joined the Landless Rural Workers Movement (MST) in the mid-1990s, one of hundreds of thousands to take on a stubborn fight for land that turned 25 years old last month.
At the 17th of April Settlement in the northeastern Amazon state of Para, named after the date of a massacre nearby of 19 MST members by police in 1996, Santos runs his small bar at night and farms his land with about 700 other families.
“We see that the big companies are laying people off and the only thing that can happen is that these workers will enter the movement and seek land,” he said.
Santos’s view is being echoed by the leadership of the world’s biggest agrarian reform movement, who see the crisis as a chance to reinvigorate their battle against big companies they blame for perpetuating inequitable land distribution.
But at 25, the group once described as the world’s most important social movement that has won land for hundreds of thousands of Brazil’s poorest, is showing signs of middle age.
Some see it as having lost its focus as it has expanded its fight to big corporations and held fast to a Leninist-based ideology that has little broad resonance in Brazil.
Its high hopes that President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva would hasten land reform have been dashed as government redistributions of land have slowed to a crawl in Lula’s second term that started in 2007. It says the former factory worker has increasingly sided with big business and agricultural expansion.
Meanwhile, Lula’s flagship family stipend program has made huge inroads into the rural poverty that fueled the MST’s struggle and made it an irresistible force in the 1990s.
Using a strategy of sending hundreds of activists to stubbornly occupy land, the MST says it has settled 350,000 families since peasants mounted their first operation in 1984 in southern Rio Grande do Sul state. In total more than a million families have been settled since the 1990s, helping redress one of the world’s least equitable land distributions.
But the number of people settled has been falling fast since 2006 and the MST estimates it hit a low of just 20,000 families in 2008.
The slowdown is also due to urbanization and agricultural modernization that have sharply cut demand for land reform, said Zander Navarro, a Brazilian sociologist who used to be involved in the MST’s fight and is a professor at Britain’s Sussex University.
“There is no significant social demand for land anymore,” he said, adding that the country’s northeast was an exception.
He said that trend had led the MST in recent years to broaden its fight to include opposition to the NAFTA free-trade pact, genetically modified crops and actions against big businesses, alienating many who sympathized with its land struggle.
Every April, thousands of red-capped MST activists invade company premises, block roads and hold marches in a national day of action that infuriates business leaders. The MST’s lack of a legal identity is a source of frustration for farmers and businessmen, who say it often gets away with illegal acts.
“As far as I‘m concerned, they’re just thieves and robbers,” said Peter Bodman-Morris, a British businessman whose grape farm in Bahia state was invaded by 150 MST families in 2006. He said he lost investments worth $3 million and has been unable to prosecute the organization.
Said Joao Pedro Stedile, an MST founder who is seen as its driving intellectual force: “If we wanted popularity, we would form a rock band.”
“The landowners changed to modern capitalists ... who allied themselves with multinationals,” he told journalists in Para state capital Belem last month. “Times of crisis show this doesn’t work and so the crisis will open a chance for us to widen and defend popular agrarian reform.”
The crisis has chilled much of Brazil’s export-based agriculture boom of recent years. The MST’s hope is that the plunge in commodity prices will open up more unproductive land for it to occupy.
But Navarro said the crisis would not help the MST much because productivity levels had risen and Lula has declined to sign a decree that would open the way for more redistribution.
The south of Para state, a deforested region whose economy is dominated by big agribusiness and mining firm Vale, is at the forefront of the MST’s anti-corporate battle.
On an MST-organized tour of the region late last month, activists reeled off criticisms of companies, including a large steel firm, focusing largely on their environmental impact.
The region has about 500 settlements, among the highest concentrations in the country, but demand here for reform remains strong. In the town of Parauapebas, whose economy is dominated by Vale’s huge iron-ore mine nearby, trains bring 60-70 families a week from poor, neighboring Maranhao state.
Many fail to find work and end up camped out waiting for land, city officials said.
But hopes for further land reform are at a low ebb. Only three settlements have been created in the southern Para region since 2002, the MST says.
In Palmares, a settlement of about 2,000 shacks, MST leaders inaugurated the Che Guevara soccer field last month as fire crackers boomed.
Five minutes’ walk from the celebrations, 29-year-old Catia Fernandes was sitting with her sister looking after her 4 children. Separated from the father, she said there were no jobs and poor health care at the settlement and that a series of murders had convinced her to leave as soon as possible. By a decision of the MST, the community has no police presence.
“Weeks go by here without a doctor appearing,” she said. “As soon as I can get married, I want to leave.”
Editing by Philip Barbara