Saturday, December 10, 2005

A fairly disasterous thing has happened politically in Brazil this week.

A parliamentary enquiry into the land reform movement has issued its report and recommendation to the government. The committee - hijacked by right-wing land-owners' representatives - has disregarded most of the original research and suggestions, and substituted a blanket condemnation of all squatter's movements and recommended that invasion be legally declared a form of "terrorism".

The committee's original intention was to study the mounting violence in MST (and other) invasions of land, and to search for a way forward. The MST are one of the largest political, social movements in Brazil. They opperate by organizing large groups of landless, poor rural workers (and their families) to invade unproductive land and start to cultivate it. The groups can gain "squatters rights" currently recognised by the government : in that "homesteading" land left idle by it's owners is legitimate.

The legality of invasions is a response to the very unequal distribution of land in Brazil, which is largely in the hands of families who got it as gifts from the Portuguese royal family, centuries ago.

However, as the movement has grown, violence has spiralled. Violence has been instigated by both sides. But the typical pattern is a covert invasion of unoccupied and uncultivated land by the MST, followed by the owner raising an armed militia to attack the encampment. The MST are, themselves, armed and defend their encampment. The police are called to restore order, but often arrive days later, and have been accused of violently supporting the land-owners' militias. Gangs who work for the land-owners can be associated with organized crime, and several prosecutions have been made.

Nevertheless, the final report which was bitterly argued about within the committee, has no mention or condemnation of criminal activity by land-owners or their hirelings, but places all responsibility on the MST and blames the government for tolerating the situation.

Furthermore it recommends that

a) government suspends all the grants it makes to the MST as a social movement;

b) that invasion is raised to the status of a "heinous crime". Not sure if the UK has a similar category, but this crime is regarded as something between a crime against humanity and treason. It's a wholly politicised category in that it's mainly applied for armed insurections against the state ie. "terrorism", and drug-dealing.

c) that connections between the MST and Farc be investigated

d) that the political leaders of the MST also have criminal charges made against them.

This is not a compromise document. In fact, although it comes from a multi-party committee, it's been entirely steam-rollered through by a right majority. Leftish members of the committee have allegedly stormed out in tears, and torn the report up on the steps of the Congress.

How will the report be received?

Hard to tell. My friends are all leftists who, if they criticise the MST, it's for not being radical enough. On the other hand, at our local swimming class, all our lower middle-class neighbours were laughing and sneering about the last demonstration of the MST in Brasilia. Their populist conception was that the MST were lazy wastrals, living luxuriously off government grants without having or wanting to work. There'll be little sympathy there.

The PT in government, have a historic connection with the MST. But have failed to deliver very much practical support to the movement, tending to try to play a neutral, placating role, and not to upset wealthy and powerful interest groups.

But the PT are now (almost fatally?) wounded by this year's corruption scandals. They've been abandoned by supporters on the left, because of their moderate, centrists, capital friendly policies. Most erstwhile PT supports I know are revelling in the embarrassments of new corruption scandals. Senior party members and officials have been thrown out of parliament and banned from holding public office for ten years. And yet nothing has been legally proven, and precious little actual concrete evidence has come forward about the main "mensal?o" scandal. Most evidence seems to be hearsay : one politician saying that they heard that other politicians were offerered bribes.

Lula has personal popularity but falling credibility. If the public mood is against the MST, it's unlikely the PT will make a stand to defend them. Although presumably it's also unlikely that they'll rush to embrace policies based on the recommendations.

Nevertheless, it's a disturbing sign that one of the strongest, in some ways most-dynamic radical movements in South America is finding itself under concerted attack. Were the recommendations to become policies it's disturbing to think what would happen. There are over a million members of the MST and at least tens of thousands of encampments around the country. If the recommendation is that all encampments are illegal then it will be open season on these families, with government removing what protection if provides them from the militias of the land-owners.

The MST response to the report in English is here :

Bipartisan Congressional Committee of Inquiry on Land Issues (CPMI) ? A declaration of rejection | Brazil's Landless Workers' Movement

1 comment:

Mark said...

thanks for posting this -

yea WikiSym and WikiVanning were great. did you get a chance to skim the notes?

Any chance you could be in Portland Feb 3-5 for

Best, Mark