Brazil promised on Thursday to
speed land reforms after landless movement leaders met with
President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, but the pledge did little
to halt a wave of occupations by peasant activists.
Lula's chief of staff urged non-violence and cooperation
with the Landless Workers Movement, or MST, as police tried to
end a standoff between armed peasants and cowboys on a ranch
just 25 miles west of the presidential palace.
"The solution is agrarian reform, not repression," said
Chief of Staff Jose Dirceu, promising to free up funds to speed
up land reform.
Lula, Brazil's first working-class president, is keen not
to radicalize the MST, out of fear it may turn toward armed
struggle. But he also does not want to alienate powerful
Lula has asked the movement to halt occupations to allow
his newly elected government to redistribute land. The MST
seizes unused farmland that may qualify for expropriation and
helps poor people set up homes and start planting crops.
The MST initially halted land seizures following the
election of Lula, formerly a socialist and a natural ally of
the group. But MST soon organized a new series of land grabs,
saying members were too hungry to wait for the government's
excruciatingly slow bureaucracy to distribute land.
MST heads praised Lula after meeting with the former union
leader, but declared no halt to occupations.
"The president has promised to carry out massive land
reform. That is pretty positive," said Jaime Amorim, an MST
leader from Lula's home state of Pernambuco where activists
took food from four trucks this week as a protest.
A 'DOUBLE DISASTER'
Brazilian landowners have formed armed militias in response
to the wave of invasions. Many believe Lula's left-wing
government will ignore them and side with the MST.
"The (Lula) government not only failed to reach a truce
with the MST but the meeting was friendly," said political
analyst Christopher Garman, who called the meeting a "double
disaster" since it appeared to confirm landowners' worst fears.
A small number of big landowners own the vast majority of
arable land in Brazil, which has some of the world's greatest
disparities in income and education levels.
Founded in 1984, and inspired by the Mexican and Cuban
revolutions, the MST has taken land reform into its own hands.
It claims to have won land titles to more than 15 million acres
for 350,000 families. Some 80,000 families are now in camps
throughout Brazil awaiting for the government to recognize MST
land takeovers, it says.
Police on Thursday said they had taken firearms from three
MST members involved in the occupation of part of a 1,950-acre
(800-hectare) cattle ranch west of Brasilia. The MST claims
they have taken land that is public property grabbed illegally
by local landowner and rancher Mario Zinato.
"The law is going to get them out of there," said Zinato,
as his ranch hands stood guard at a nearby earth barricade.
(Additional reporting by Andrei Khalip)