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Brazil's Landless Farmers Try to Take Root

SANTILHO PR'OSIMO DE OLIVEIRA is a farmer without land who wears dark glasses. That is because last August he was partially blinded when thugs shot their way into the squatter settlement he was helping set up on the Timbor'e farm near Andradina, in Brazil's Sao Paulo state. Mr. Oliveira is one of nearly 200,000 Brazilians hurt in violent disputes over land in the last year, according to the Comissao Pastoral da Terra, an arm of the Roman Catholic church that helps the landless. Oliveira's family is one of an estimated 6 million families who are misfits in both Brazil's growing urban economy and its fast-changing countryside. For decades, the government has promised land reforms, but the programs have never had large-scale success. In the absence of such a solution, landless families have few choices. They can move to urban shantytowns, riddled with disease and crime; squat on others' land and be shot at; or ride open trucks on bad roads to earn low wages doing seasonal farm work.

Oliveira has tried all of these. He left home at age 11 ``to find a better life,'' he recalls. ``The family farm was too small.'' He drifted, planting and harvesting other farmers' crops. He spent a year as a kitchen worker in the army. He cut and loaded sugar cane onto trucks at a sugar and alcohol mill. He tried a city job in Sao Paulo packaging magazines, got married, and got through the sixth grade by attending night school. ``I wanted to be a person of value,'' he says, ``like a bank manager, a boss or a small landowner.''

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But Oliveira left his city job because of health problems and ended up back in the countryside with his wife and four children. Eventually, he got involved in the rural organizing done by the Catholic church and the independent Movimento Sem Terra, or Landless Movement. Then he joined the group that invaded the idle Timbor'e farm.

The landless in Brazil today have much in common with Santilho Oliveira. They come from large farming families. Often, they or their parents lost land because of illness or hard times. They have experience growing subsistence crops, clearing, planting, and reaping by hand or with animals. Their schooling is minimal.

Meanwhile, Brazil's thriving agribusinesses supply the world with huge volumes of soybean products, orange juice, coffee, and cocoa, bringing new prosperity to some rural areas. Millions of acres of land lie idle in the hands of the government, or are tied up in court battles over ownership.

Land reform programs have not worked in Brazil for two basic reasons, experts say. One is that large landowners are able to influence politicians, judges, and bureaucrats, slowing down any plan to give away land. Also, the landless do not have the education, funds, or technology to farm efficiently. During the five years of former President Jos'e Sarney's government that ended last March, only 115,000 families were settled onto land. The goal was to distribute land to 1.4 million families.

Organized land invasions by peasants have pushed the government to take action in some cases. The Landless Movement takes credit for the settlement of 95,000 families during the last decade. But the settling process is slow and difficult.

Some 130 families have lived at Andradina since last August. Collectively they work about 720 acres. ``We made some money selling rice retail,'' says Lino Prado, an Andradina organizer, ``and we have some stored. But it isn't enough to get through to the next harvest and we are asking the state government for food.''

The farmers have no meat, but sometimes catch fish in the nearby Tiet^e River to add to their diet of rice, beans, and vegetables. Medical care is scant. The local mayor sends a bus to take Andradina's children to public school, but makes a fuss about them not having uniforms.

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A judge has ruled that the squatters can stay on the land for now. They say the land will be given to them, since the owner has not been able to prove, as the law requires, that his farm was productive. But the National Institute for Colonization and Agrarian Reform has not yet acted on the case.

Several past administrations have tried to deal with the landless by turning them into colonists in the country's vast interior. But because of poor organization and faulty selection criteria, many colonists end up abandoning or selling their properties. Some private-sector ventures have done better, choosing small farmers with the skills and capital to succeed.

Now, the new administration of President Fernando Collor de Mello has plans to settle 500,000 landless families during his term and will provide roads, schools, health clinics, storage facilities, technical assistance, and credit. Says energetic young Agriculture Minister Antonio Cabrera: ``Until now, agrarian reform has been the mere distribution of land, just dumping people on empty land.'' His policy will favor proven but landless farmers, help organize cooperatives, and straighten out tangled land-ownership battles.

As for the millions of landless Brazilians without many skills to offer either in the field or city, the government so far has few plans. One idea, says Mr. Cabrera, is to help such people set up cooperatives to offer services in unskilled agriculture or urban jobs, such as milking cows, harvesting crops, fencing land, clearing pastures, cleaning highways, or wiping windows. ``We will instruct people on the margin of the process to organize themselves,'' he adds.

At the heart of the land reform question is a basic disagreement about food production and the small and large farmers' roles in the Brazilian economy.

Rural organizers believe that large agribusinesses are bad for Brazil. They want to preserve the small farmer's way of life by giving him land and the means to live off of it. ``With the present trend, those who control food will control populations, and is that where we want to go?'' asks Fr. John Kilcrann, an Irish priest who works with rural squatters. ``I am not against using agricultural methods of the year 2000, but the rights of the people must be respected. I wonder about the philosophy of `bigger is better.'''

Farmers with large acreages see things differently. The economics of feeding people cannot be changed, they say. Ellen Gold, an American who has been farming in Brazil for almost 40 years, says big is not always best. But ``with crops like soybeans, wheat, and rice, you have to have at least enough land to justify your investment in machinery,'' she says. As fewer people produce more food ``the big gap is with education and preparing people to make the transition from agricultural life to industrial life.''

``Even those who stay on the land need more schooling,'' she adds. ``It's been as though you don't need an education to farm. People don't realize how complicated and scientific a profession farming is.''

Meanwhile, Santilho Oliveira has not lost sight of his dreams. The rice is harvested and it is bean season at Andradina. ``Even though you have to get up early in the morning, get rained on, and go barefoot in the mud, it's better than the city,'' he says. ``The countryside is more peaceful.''

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