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Brazilian President Faces Land Reform Pressure - 2003-07-29


Brazil's new president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, faces new challenges as thousands of poor Brazilian squatters invade urban and rural property in an effort to pressure the federal government to provide land and social aid. The former radical union leader, who has had close ties to several leftist groups over the years, faces a delicate balancing act as he tries to stabilize the country's economy with conservative policies.

Back when President da Silva was a union leader in Sao Paulo's industrial suburbs, he was an ally of leftist groups like the so-called "MST," who seek to have land distributed to the rural poor. In an effort to get Mr. da Silva's attention, the MST last week invaded land owned by carmaker Volkswagon on the outskirts of Sao Paulo. More than 4,000 set up camp demanding title to the 22 hectare plot of land. A news photographer was shot dead by men at the encampment who, according to news reports, may have been robbing a nearby gas station, and then disappeared into the camp.

Days later things escalated further as MST members invaded vacant buildings in Sao Paulo. They have blocked highways and looted milk and food from passing trucks. They also invaded ranches in at least three states. Land owners are upset by the speeches of the group's founder, Joao Pedro Stedile, encouraging more civil disobedience. "God made the earth, not men. So no one can say, this land is mine!" Mr.Stedile told a recent gathering of farm workers.

The number of land invasions by squatters is up 147 percent over last year, according to the government agency that oversees land reform. There are currently an estimated 150,000 people living in these settlements.

Landowners and politicians have criticized Mr. da Silva's government for not doing enough to rein in the squatters. Jose Genoino, the head of Mr. da Silva's Workers Party, called for dialogue between the government and the squatters. "The fight for land reform is a priority," said Mr. Genoino. "The respect for social movements is a democratic principal for the Workers Party. But we can't go along with this climate of fear and insecurity. We think the right road is negotiation," he added.

But President Da Silva's government lacks the funds to purchase land for everyone who wants it. The budget allows for fewer than 7,000 families to be resettled this year, in contrast to his campaign pledge of providing farms for 60,000 people.

Meanwhile violence is escalating as landowners arm themselves and threaten to use force to keep squatters away. Brazil's Justice Minister Thomas Bastos has been one of the most vocal in calling for order. "We will not allow this, and we'll use all the resources necessary including use of force, to prevent anyone from taking a route that is not legal," he said. "This is just as true for the MST as for the landowners."

Members of the homeless movement voluntarily left one of the buildings they were occupying in Sao Paulo last week, but analysts say their actions highlight the need for immediate social reforms.

They say the key is Mr. da Silva getting his pension-reform package through Congress in order to free up the funding for social programs. But with unemployment rate at 13 percent, up from 10.5 percent when Mr. da Silva first took office, he faces a daunting task.

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