Hundreds of rural workers occupied the offices of the National Agrarian Reform Institute in Brasilia, and thousands more invaded farms and blocked roads on April 16, demanding the government speed up moves to give land to small farmers and peasants. Protesters stormed the building at dawn and shut the doors to staff. They moved to the cellar by early evening, after authorities agreed to dialogue.
“The movement demands the federal government meet its obligation to settle 150,000 families living under plastic sheets throughout the country in the name of the struggle for agrarian reform,” the Landless Rural Workers’ Movement (MST) said in a statement.
Thousands of MST adherents also marched in the state of Bahia and several hundreds invaded farms in Goias, Espirito Santo and other states. Five hundred protesters blocked the main road linking Brasilia to Belem in the Amazon region. The protests are part of a month of coordinated activities dubbed “Red April” in honor of 19 peasants killed by police at an Amazon settlement 11 years ago.
In the latest MST campaign, which began two weeks ago, peasants have occupied dozens of farms, torched sugar cane fields, and staged rallies across Brazil. President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva met with land reform groups April 13 and pledged to consider their demands to ease criteria for land expropriation. (Reuters, April 16)
Some 7,500 MST followers invaded plots of government-owned land near Petrolina, in Pernambuco state. The protest was launched as thousands of rural workers were forced to leave their lands because of the diversion project on the Sao Francisco river, Brazil’s fourth largest. An MST statement said the irrigation mega-project gives agribusiness companies the best land, leaving the rural poor with unproductive areas. The project, first proposed as far back as 1886, would create a new channel for the 1,600-mile-long river. Brazil’s environmental protection agency IBAMA last month approved the $2 billion project.
In 2005, Roman Catholic Bishop Luiz Flavio Cappio held an 11-day hunger strike in an attempt to stop the project. He called it off after the federal government agreed to open the project to further discussions. (AP, April 16)
Indigenous people also held protests in Brasilia, pitching black plastic tents in front of government buildings. Some 1,500 indigenous from 100 tribal groups, some in traditional dress, participated in the “Free Land Encampment” on the Esplanade of the Ministries. Jecinaldo Cabral, a coordinator of Indigenous Organizations in the Brazilian Amazon, said government projects like dams and hydroelectric plants must be discussed with indigenous peoples.
Marcio Meira, head of the National Foundation for Indian Affairs (FUNAI), said the indigenous point of view will always be taken into consideration and that his agency would make sure “the rights of Indians are always respected.”
The Indians will camp out in Brasilia until April 19—National Indian Day—when they hope to meet with President da Silva. Under Brazil’s 1988 Constitution, unproductive land may be expropriated as long as the owner is compensated. (AP, April 16)
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More land occupations in Brazil
From Weekly News Update on the Americas, Aug. 5:
On July 23 as many as 500 people occupied part of a eucalyptus plantation run by the Brazilian pulp and paper company Aracruz in the coastal state of Espirito Santo. The invaders, the descendants of slaves, cut down trees and blocked roads as they occupied some 10,000 hectares they claimed belonged to them. The next day, on July 24, an indigenous group invaded the plantation and claimed about 11,000 hectares, according to a statement from the Indigenist Missionary Council (CIMI).
A spokesperson for Aracruz, the world’s largest producer of bleached eucalyptus pulp, said she could not yet calculate the impact of the seizure. The land the slave descendants seized was planted with trees that would be harvested in two years. Brazilian law recognizes the rights of communities of descendants of former slaves to lands they traditionally inhabited, but the government has been slow to process the claims. A spokesperson for the government’s National Institute of Colonization and Agrarian Reform (INCRA) said rights to the Aracruz plantation were still being investigated. The slave descendants “are protesting because the process is stalled,” she said. A strike at the agency has slowed progress on the case, according to the spokesperson. (Reuters, July 24 via Friends of the MST)