Latin American Report


World Bank Project will subvert Brazilian Land Reform (12/5/1999)

More Land Takeovers in Brazil (17/4/1999)

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23 June1999

Land Reform and Poverty Alleviation Project (Cedula da Terra)

By David Kane

There are over sixty families camping in huts made of wooden stakes and plastic just outside of Joćo Pessoa. They have been there for over three months now with no end to the encampment in sight. Why are they there, you ask? They are poor families trying to improve their lives by claiming a piece of land for themselves to build a house, plant crops and raise animals.

A number of the families used to live in the city dump of Joćo Pessoa and survived by picking out plastic, paper, cardboard, aluminum and tin to sell to be recycled. Many of these families from the dump were originally from the interior and used to be farmers. They rarely had their own land however, and were only able to farm on other's land by paying a large percentage to the owner or working in the sugar cane fields cutting down tons of sugar cane every day. They came to Joćo Pessoa, "the big city", hoping for a better, easier life. Instead, they found no work or support and ended up at the dump trying to scrape out a living.

Antonio da Silva came to Joćo Pessoa eleven years ago after he was forced off the land he had been planting by the owner of the land. He worked a short time cutting sugar cane, but didn't make enough to even feed himself sometimes. He came to the city desperate for work and a better life. Here he found little relief. He only found sporadic jobs, none lasting more than three months. After two years of this, he swallowed his pride and started living and working in the city dump. A couple years later he met a woman from his home town and they married. In his years at the dump, Antonio did all that he could to help people in difficult situations, helping buy medicines, helping new families build their shacks on top of the dump, etc. But all this time, Antonio dreamed of returning to the land and working on his own piece of land.

Now, Antonio, his wife Maria, and their 6 year old son, Bilu, are joining up with other families in similar desperate situations to live as farmers on their own land. They have become part of the landless movement in Brazil struggling for a better life. Unfortunately, their chances of improving their lives has been made even more difficult by changes in Brazil's land reform laws.

Until this year, Brazil's land reform law, which was created as part of the 1988 Constitution, was one of the most progressive in the world. The law worked like this: If a land owner had a piece of land larger than approximately 500 acres that was not being used, the government was to confiscate the land, pay the owner the market value for the land and then redistribute the land to landless families. As with most laws in Brazil, the government had difficulties or a lack of interest in actually enforcing the law. But landless families helped the government in fulfilling its duty. These families, often with help from the Catholic church's Pastoral Land Commission (CPT) or the national Landless Movement (MST), identified pieces of land that should have been confiscated by the government and occupied them. Usually the land owners would fight back to not lose their land, many times violently by employing hit men to intimidate and/or attack the landless families. But almost always, after a long, difficult struggle, the landless families won the title to the land and began their lives as farmers again. In addition to giving the land, the government helped the families by providing food while they were camped out waiting for the land to be confiscated as well as providing them with low or no interest loans to buy seeds and equipment to start up their farms after they had title to the land. The Brazilian land reform, at least on paper, has been a stellar example for all the world.

All of this will end, however, if President Fernando Henrique Cardoso and the World Bank have their way. They are trying to start a new way of doing land reform called the Land Reform and Poverty Alleviation Pilot Project, or Cedula da Terra here in Brazil. This project will de facto put an end to land reform in Brazil. The project creates a "land bank" of money from the World Bank to be used by landless families to buy land from landowners. The families would then have to pay back the loan within 20 years. But there are a number of problems with this project.

First, it relieves the government of its responsibility to implement land reform and forces landless families to take out high interest loans which will be extremely difficult or impossible to pay back. Currently, with fees and taxes included, the loan has a 19% interest rate, lower than the current market rate of 27%, but far to high for a poor Brazilian to pay).

Second, landowners will only sell if they want to sell and will only sell the parts of land that they choose. Thus, landowners will sell the worst pieces of land to the landless who will not be able to pay back their debts to the bank. This project also increases Brazil's already staggering external debt of US$270 billion with the bulk of the money coming from the World Bank.

The project was designed to only complement already existing agrarian reform by allowing landless families access to land that is smaller than 500 acres or is somewhat productive and thus not appropriate for confiscation. But the government is using it instead to dismantle its agrarian reform and cut its budget in order to comply with International Monetary Fund requirements of social spending reductions. According to Roberto Araujo of the CPT, there are already a number of cases where land that is appropriate to be confiscated by the government, has been declared inappropriate in order to avoid having to pay the owner with government money. In these cases, landless families were forced to buy the land with money from the land bank. At the same time the government has cut 38% from its agrarian reform budget.

The World Bank has a reputation for planning projects without any input from the people directly affected or social organizations. The Cedula da Terra is no exception. The planning meetings included only people from the government and the World Bank. No other input was solicited even though the MST is arguably the most organized landless movement in the world and has published a number of feasible projects that would truly improve Brazil's agrarian reform. This lack of input from people who are most directly affected will always result in projects with questionable benefit for the people they are designed to help.

When Antonio and others left the dump, they knew nothing about these new laws and projects. They thought the government would help provide them food while they were camping and waiting for the land to be confiscated by the government, but no food has come. It has been a huge struggle to obtain food which has weakened their organizing efforts. Antonio and others in the encampment are worried about the possibility of being forced to take out a loan for the land. " How are we going to pay the loan back if the landowner will only sell that land?" said Antonio, pointing to a portion of the land that is rocky with poor soil. "I already can't pay the $50 that I owe to the guy at the market, how am I going to pay back thousands of dollars?" Whatever happens, Antonio and the others don't want to return to the dump after finally leaving that nightmare behind them.

The landless and other movements are fighting against the implementation of the Cedula de Terra and are being supported by an international effort with the same objective. We need people to send letters to the World Bank demanding that Brazil be allowed to continue to follow the land reform project that is spelled out in the Constitution. To participate, you can look on the web page for Global Exchange <> for sample letter. You can also send money to help the families in Antonio's encampment by sending a check made out in my name to Caixa Postal 551, Joćo Pessoa-PB, 58001-970, Brazil. Your donations will go toward food and materials for the families.

David Kane is a Maryknoll lay missioner working in Joćo Pessoa, Paraķba.

NEWS FROM BRAZIL supplied by SEJUP (Serviēo Brasileiro de Justiēa e Paz). Number 355, June 18, 1999.