[5/04/10] A republican and democratic reform is necessary in Brazil--Pagina 64 interview with Joao Pedro Stedile
Most advanced land reform project to date is still the one presented by João Goulart‘s administration Published on May 4, 2010 A republican and democratic reform necessary in Brazil By Mário Augusto Jakobskind - Editor in Chief / Página 64 (Page 64) In this exclusive interview with Página 64, the Landless Rural Workers Movement (MST) coordinator, João Pedro Stédile, outlines the history of the Brazilian struggle for agrarian reform, a democratic and republican reform, still not fully carried out in Brazil, which even served as a pretext to overthrow constitutionally elected President João Goulart on April 1, 1964. Stédile acknowledges that the land reform project idealized by Celso Furtado under Goulart’s administration is still the most advanced one to date and, had it been implemented, would have transformed Brazil, strengthening the country by developing its domestic market. The MST coordinator also analyzes Brazil’s current situation and explains the role played by the media, some of them strongly linked to agribusiness and the land issue. Stédile shows optimism about Brazil after Lula, envisioning a new historical cycle of greater consciousness and participation of the masses, which will help mobilize society towards solving the people’s historical issues. (Mário Augusto Jakobskind) Página 64 - How is the national agrarian reform process going?
João Peter Stédile: The expression ‘agrarian reform’ always generates different interpretations. And each individual interprets it based on their own degree of information. Many people who are ‘povão’ (a Brazilian expression used to refer to poverty-stricken masses with limited access to education) are influenced by television and confuse agrarian reform with land conflicts. Agrarian reform is a public policy program that a specific government, on behalf of a society, puts into practice to democratize the access to land for all citizens of that society. Therefore, agrarian reform is synonymous with democratization, decentralization, and distribution of land ownership. Unfortunately, Brazil has never gone through a true agrarian reform process. So much so that the latest census data has disclosed that today (2006 data) the concentration of land ownership in Brazil is greater than it was in 1920, when we had just banned slavery. To give the readers an idea, one percent of land owners control 46% of all the land. And the 15 thousand farmers who own areas greater than two thousand acres, hold 98 million acres together. Brazil is still the country with the greatest concentration of land in the world. Because of that, the fight for land continues, and social movements that fight for land democratization continue to multiply all over the country. And the MST modestly tries to take part in it, to organize the poor people from the fields, so that they are conscious of their rights and fight for the land to be divided, according to what is written in our Constitution. P64- Over the last few years, the MST has been the object of a series of denunciations formulated by landowners and in reports by the media. How do you explain these attacks? Do you think that this offensive is weakening the movement? The MST is being discredited from the way it was represented at the time of the movement’s inception. Wouldn’t now be the time to display a new politics with respect to settlements, leaving aside confrontational practices, for the reasons of achieving agrarian reform? Stédile: Brazilian elites have always fought against and searched for ways to impede the organized struggle by the poor, in both the countryside and the city, for their rights. In each historical period, they have adopted different tactics that suit their objectives. Remember what they did during the 400 years of slavery? The workers that risked their lives by fleeing were summarily condemned to death. Or they were tortured and whipped while in the stocks that one can still find today on old plantations. In the 20th century, they modernized and began to adopt different tactics, first by co-opting leaders. If this doesn’t work, they try to demoralize the movements by fabricating almost anything. And if this doesn’t work, then they again repress, either through juridical means such as through prisons and trials, or even by resorting to physical violence, with murders or attempts on people’s lives. Every year there are murders in the countryside of about 40 workers at the orders of large landowners. So, the MST, over the course of its 25 years of existence, has had to confront all of these scenarios. And as in each historical period, we are seeing how the elites are applying their methods against us. We have seen many imprisoned, on trial, defamatory campaigns on television and persecution through various laws. They feared during Lula’s administration that agrarian reform was gaining speed, and then to impede governmental action, they attacked us by created three Parliamentary commissions of inquiry. I don’t recall a time of such persecution in Brazilian legislative history, in these seven years of inquiry.. They also use those means through which they have the most hegemony, like in the Judiciary, where they transformed Gilmar Mendes, the spokesman for rural conservatism, who reached an agreement with the National Confederation of Agriculture (Confederação Nacional de Agricultura- CNA). Thus the judiciary is above social classes. Imagine if there was an agreement between the judiciary and the MST? And the other instrument that they use is the media, over which they have complete control. Yet none of this diffuses our will to struggle. While there is no true agrarian reform in Brazil, there will continue to be poverty in the countryside. The poor will continue to struggle against injustice and oppression. Brazilian elites are ignorant and don’t realize that what provokes struggle is injustice. P64- Did the events concerning the Cutrale business, even being a case where land had been taken illegally from the nation, further alienate the public from the MST? What’s the role of TV Globo in this story? Does this media conglomerate’s actions have repercussions on the world of agribusiness? Stédile: Of course. This is an emblematic case. Cutrale is part of an oligopoly that has absolute control over the Brazilian orange market, along with two other businesses. They sell 80% of their juice for export, in association with Coca-Cola. Cutrale invaded land that belongs to the nation and that is registered and everything. Incra (Instituto Nacional de Colonização e Reforma Agrária/ National institute for Colonization and Agrarian Reform) began litigation to remove them and regain the land. We then occupied the land in order to denounce the illegal land seizure by the business. Globo’s reaction was pathetic; they are allied with the governor, José Serra, and produced images that repeatedly attempted to create a certain dislike of the MST. There are the economic interests, since Coca-Cola is one of the biggest advertisers for Globo, We also see political interests, with Serra attempting to demoralize us in the eyes of the public Furthermore, there are the ideological interests of the dominant class. It is worth noting that TV Globo is also associated with the Brazilian Agribusiness Association (Associação Brasileira de Agronegocio). Interesting, isn’t it? Why would a television network be associated with agribusiness? There are at least 30 businesses within the association, the majority being transnational corporations, such as Monsanto, Bungue, Cargill, Cutrale and TV Globo. TV Globo has transformed itself into the custodian of capital’s ideological interests within Brazil. P64 - People have spoken of reforming the Brazilian countryside throughout the history of Brazil, even under the Empire. José Bonifácio, the father of Independence, was one of those who concerned himself with the question and spoke about it. Ultimately, why has agrarian reform - a reform that was part of the French Revolution - never been realized in Brazil? Stédile: Brazil has lost various historic opportunities to carry out a program of agrarian reform which could democratize land ownership and create the conditions for the development of a fairer, more egalitarian economic model. When we left slavery behind, unlike other countries which carried out agrarian reform - like the United States in 1862 - here the elites formulated the first Land Law (No. 601, 1850) to prevent the slave workers from having access to land when they were freed. We lost a second opportunity with the Republic. The Republic is dedicated to the introduction of equal rights for the whole of society. But here nothing was done after that, in the Revolution of 1930. Most of the industrialized countries combined industrialization with income distribution and agrarian reform, to create an internal market for industrial goods. Here, the organized elites didn't want to carry out agrarian reform. They preferred to retain the great estate holdings, producing goods for export, and to use the dollars and pounds sterling from the exports to pay for the imported industrial machinery. The fourth opportunity came when this industrial model went into crisis, in the 1960s. And then the Goulart government presented agrarian reform as a way out. It was overthrown. The fifth opportunity came with the reintroduction of democracy. Tancredo Neves invited the late José Gomes da Silva, a leading specialist in Brazilian agrarian reform, to be president of INCRA. He formulated the First Plan For Agrarian Reform, which provided for the settlement of 1.4 million families in four years. He presented the plan on October 4, 1985, and fell eight days later. And we have lost the sixth opportunity right now, with the Lula government, which preferred to ally itself with agribusiness in order to stay in government than to carry out agrarian reform, and postponed it once again. Under Lula we have arrived at the final ridicule of Roberto Rodrigues as minister of agriculture, when he was previously invited to be a minister under Serra, and campaigned openly in Serra's favor. P64 - You have followed the agrarian reform movements throughout the history of Brazil. Can you tell us which of the projects presented to the Brazilian people can be considered the most advanced, and why? Stédile: Well, from a historical point of view, I think the greatest opportunity we lost was in not handing over land to the former slave workers. They would have changed the structure of Brazilian society. Until 1888, Brazil and the US were equal in economic and productive terms. What caused the take-off of the US, which transformed itself into a world power? They undertook radical agrarian reform, which imposed a maximum land ownership threshold of 160 acres and distributed land to all. And from the point of view of political and theoretical formulation, the best project, which was created but we lost the opportunity, was that prepared by the team of Celso Furtado, a wise man from the Northeast, who was very well acquainted with the problems of the concentration of land ownership as a cause of poverty. And he prepared a project, under Goulart, that would have revolutionized Brazilian society and the Brazilian countryside in its time and today. He redeemed the ideas of the CEPAL (Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean), to implement income redistribution policies, to create an internal market for national industry, and so he would have carried out a form of industrialization aimed at the Brazilian masses. And in this way agrarian reform would have a fundamental weight, since 75% of the population lived in the countryside, poor people without income. With this design for a new project for national development, the proposed agrarian reform set the land ownership threshold at 500 hectares. All farms exceeding this would be expropriated. But not in the country as a whole; just in the 10 kilometers to either side of the federal highways. Thus he envisioned that the rural population would have easier access to channel their products into the urban consumer market. And inversely, it would be easier to bring electric light to all the settlements and, beyond electric light, refrigeration, television and goods from national industry. The project was presented to the people on March 13, 1964. It was referred to Congress in that same week. There, a young deputy from the Christian Left was chosen to oversee the project, Plínio de Arruda Sampaio. You know the rest of the story. On April 1, 1964, the elites overthrew the Goulart government. And Celso Furtado, Plínio, President Goulart, Prestes and Brizola had to endure exile, and many others paid with their lives or with long years in prison. P64 - And today, is it worth it for INCRA to expropriate vast rural areas in the Amazon, Mato Grosso, Rondônia (since it’s only in these states that likely unproductive areas can be found), and put there a large number of people, often unemployed people from the cities, with no technical knowledge, without sewers, without supplies and without a market? Would not it be more logical to expropriate a smaller area alongside the roads (Rio-Sao Paulo, say), with infrastructure in place? For example, a plot of 80 hectares, would be enough. You could put 160 families in an agricultural community there, producing vegetables and food for two major capital, 360 days per year? And alongside federal dams? Huge volumes of water, often only producing electricity without producing food on the banks of the water. How to bring agriculture to these large unproductive areas without technical conditions that are favorable to the development of production? Stédile: In Brazil, we do not currently have an agrarian program. We have a policy of settlements, to resolve social conflicts, or simply to distribute public land already occupied by small farmers in the Amazon. We cannot call the policy of Lula’s government, agrarian reform. Agrarian reform, once again, is when government action can democratize the distribution of land and prevent its concentration. What is happening is the opposite. The settlements are just conquests by determined small farmers, who are struggling and this creates conflicts and the government acts as a fire extinguisher. And generally in the expropriations, farmers receive millions in compensation, which they will apply in other regions. We need to build and discuss with all movements and social and political forces of the country, a new type of agrarian reform that takes into account regional characteristics, which combines land distribution with cooperative agribusinesses. That will change agricultural techniques and intensive use of pesticides that poison the food to techniques that are mainly ecological. And above all bring the school to the countryside, as was the dream of Celso Furtado, Darci Ribeiro and Leonel Brizola. Today local governments receive federal subsidies to take the children and adolescents from rural areas and bring them to schools in the city, spending hours and money wasted on the journey. Besides the absurdity of bringing young people from the countryside to another medium. P64 - The creation of green stamps for settlements, warning the consumer that the product comes from a settlement and therefore with lower quality, isn’t this a form of exclusion of production? Let's buy from the poor creatures who have not yet learned to produce? Stédile: We have a huge domestic consumer market for food. It’s a pity that the farmers and the elite do not realize this. The biggest buyer of Brazilian foods is not the foreign market, but are Brazilians, who are malnourished, lack access to food etc.. Farmers are still deluded into selling raw materials abroad, but the ones who are gaining from that are corporations like Bunge, Monsanto etc. So for small farmers to have access to the internal market, we can develop various policies. I have said we need to organize cooperatives for small scale agricultural industries to be installed in all rural communities. And leverage CONAB, as the large state supply enterprise, ensuring on one hand the purchase of all the farmer’s products and on the other hand the distribution of food to the population in cities, especially the poorer segments. P64 - The vast majority of settlers in Brazil who had access to PRONAF A, B or C or never paid even ten percent of the share of investment, not to mention of course the cost, as there is no production compatible with the consumer market. Should this policy of expropriation and settlement continue? Stedile: The policy of finance, of rural credit, is only secondary, a subsidiary of a broader agricultural policy. The broader agricultural policy of the State, of a government, should be focused on ensuring prices and income to farmers. With prices and income, everyone plants, and there is a guaranteed purchase of this product. Hence the importance of CONAB. On the other hand, we have a policy of technical assistance, to promote new agricultural techniques, agro-ecology, without poisons, and a policy of crop insurance, which ensures that all farmers will not lose their crops, or their work. Well, credit is only an advance to purchase goods within the industry. It’s necessary, but it’s not the main thing. And this is why, of the four million small farmers, only one million will get PRONAF (National Program to Strengthen Family Agriculture). PRONAF has money left over. Because the small farmer knows that it doesn’t help to borrow money, if he has no one to sell the production to or if prices are unfair. And small farmers who get money from the bank, then get martyred, do not sleep because they know they have to pay anyway, otherwise they lose the land. This is why the degree of default of the small farmers is at least less than 10%. Among the landowners, the default rate reaches more than 50% because they do just that, divert investment to other opportunities and then deny the account, and the government, because of political pressure does not prosecute. If the government collected in lands the billions of dollars that the big landowners, over a thousand hectares they owe to the Bank of Brazil, then we could carry out the biggest agrarian reform in the world. Future governments will need to review the public funding policy. P64 - In the case of Jango, the President was overthrown by a coup d'état backed by the US State Department a little over two weeks after the implementation of land reform was announced. According to many analysts, land reform was precisely one of the motivations for the breaking of constitutional order. How do you think our governments will finally be able to carry out land reform that will be really favourable to family agriculture, and consequently to the majority of the Brazilian population? Stédile: Agrarian reform is a republican, democratic standard. It is not socialist. Socialism is when a society establishes that there will no longer be private ownership of this natural commodity. We are not saying this; we are defending the idea that all Brazilians have the same rights. To work, income, education and land. In Brazil right now it is difficult to apply democratic and republican justice, precisely because there is a small minority of the elite - allied with politicians, with the communications companies and with the multinational companies - which have amassed the majority of the land and, accordingly, combine land, economic power, active media power and political power. The landowning class is mixed together with other sectors. Hence the difficulty. This is also why President Goulart was overthrown, and Lula is not allowed to carry out agrarian reform. P64 - Today there is a conflict between family agriculture and agribusiness. Which interests are at play? Where do the multinational companies enter the picture? Stédile: In Brazil today, there is a dispute between two big agricultural projects. On one hand, agriculture shaped by the external market, producing only raw materials with no added value. Produced through monoculture, which destroys the environmental balance, with a high use of agrotoxins. Brazil has become the world's biggest consumer of agricultural poisons. This model drives out manual labour, as it favors the intensive use of farming machinery. This is an attack on the environment in every sense of the word. As well as the use of genetically modified seeds, which give no assurance in terms of public health and cause environmental imbalances, since genetically modified seeds cannot be used together with natural products; they contaminate everything. And this model is allied with the multinational companies, which provide the poison, the machinery and the investment, and control the world market and its prices. This is the agribusiness model. On the other hand, we have the family, or peasant model of agriculture. In this model, we prioritise diversified agriculture, which produces various crops in the same area. This is on a small and medium scale. Combined with co-operative agroindustry and producing for the internal market. This kind of agriculture uses a lot of manual labour, keeps people in the countryside, preserves our culture and nutritional habits. It develops the country. When a small or medium scale farmer earns money, he invests it in his region. When an estate farmer earns money, he invests it in a flat in the big city. It is very telling that Goiânia, the estate farming capital of the mid-West, has been named by the UN as the city with the greatest income disparity in Brazil. Only small and medium scale family agriculture is capable of producing healthy food. Moreover, this is about the survival of Brazilian society. The city must decide if people will continue to eat garbage, which will give them cancer, just to give profit to the estate farmers and to Bunque, Cargill, Nestle etc.; or if they want a more socially just, environmentally balanced agriculture. P64 - What are the differences between the present period of the struggle for land reform and other periods? Stédile: Right now the fight for land reform is harder, precisely because there is a big alliance between the large scale estate farmers, the media and the multinational companies. Therefore they have a lot of economic and political power. But they are increasingly outnumbered. Even at Cutrale, in order to establish an orange oligopoly with just two other companies, they had to destroy thousands of small and medium scale orange producers in São Paulo. These contradictions are growing, and one day will turn on them. P64 - When did you start to fight for agrarian reform? Stédile: Well, I have been consciously involved in these struggles more or less since 1975, when the activism began in my region, aiding the rural workers' union to organise grape producers and fighting against the companies that were exploiting them. P64 - Did you expect more of the current government, or do you think it is doing all it can to advance social issues? Stédile: All governments are the outcome of a combination of political and social forces within society. Of course, if we look at the programmes set out by the PT, Lula's government has not fulfilled the PT's promises. But on the other hand it would be idealistic simply to expect change from one person, from one government. Change comes from society and the ability of the people to organise and fight for their historic interests. And, unfortunately, we are living in a historic low period in the mass movement, a period of apathy for struggle; and, moreover, the Lula government was restricted by this combination of unfavourable forces, in which the bourgeoisie together with international capital continues to determine the outcome of the Brazilian political conflict. P64 - Brazil is beginning a new presidential election campaign, this time for President Lula's successor. How does the MST intend to position itself in this campaign, which will elect the next President of Brazil on October 3? Stédile: As a social movement, the MST never takes a stance for this or that candidate in any election. Nonetheless, it is of course the obligation of its activists, as citizens, to analyse the different proposals and take a progressive decision. That is, most of our activists will always vote for candidates who commit to agrarian reform and to change, at municipal, state or national level. Now, I have noticed in these elections that the MST activists, and those of the Brazilian social movements in general, have a strong tendency to vote and campaign against Serra. Nobody wants to go back to neoliberalism and all this represents as a proposed economic and political model. P64 - How do you imagine Brazil after Lula? Stédile; I am an optimist. I think we are entering a new cycle of history, one of greater mass consciousness, greater participation, which will mean the people will have to discuss, debate and mobilise in an organised way to make structural changes in Brazilian society, in order to resolve historically, and not just through social compensation, the historic problems of the Brazilian people. We have serious problems in Brazilian society. The problem of the concentration of wealth and income. The problem of the lack of work and employment for almost 50% of the economically active population. We have the problem of education, concentrated in the existence of 16 million illiterate people at the lower end of society, and the fact that just 10% of young people have access to university. We have the problems arising from a deficit of 10 million houses... We have the concentration of land ownership, which we spoke about in answer to the other questions, and we have the concentration of media power in three or four economic groups. We have the political problem of the Legislative Assembly and the judiciary, which do not represent the interests of the majority. The elections are not democratic. And this why we need fundamental political reform. These problems will not be solved through compensatory means. They will be solved with a new economic model and with structural changes in the way society works. And with a big political reform. But all this, I repeat, will happen when the people organise and once more undertake large mass mobilisations; that is, when they recover political initiative and build the re-emergence of the mass movement.