Sarney Acts to Salvage Brazil’s Troubled Land Reform Program

Times Staff Writer

Bloody land disputes and a crossfire of criticism by landowners and Roman Catholic bishops have forced President Jose Sarney to order a new course for Brazil’s lagging land reform program.

More than 100 people have been killed in land disputes this year, according to Catholic Church officials. Most of the victims have been peasants, but two priests, a nun and a rural education adviser have also been killed. The toll is 50% higher than it was at this time last year.

Sarney has repeatedly declared his determination to carry out land reform. But no land was distributed to peasants during his first year in office, partly because of resistance from landowners and partly because the government has been unable to implement specific programs.

Minister Replaced


Now Sarney has replaced his special minister for land-related issues, ordered the army and the police to seize weapons in troubled regions and offered some of his own family lands for redistribution under the land reform program.

How much personal land might be involved, Sarney has not made clear, but this and other aspects of his new emphasis on land reform are expected to be clarified when he travels on June 14 to Imperatriz, in his home state of Maranhao, where one of the priests was killed.

Sarney presumably will meet with people on both sides of the issue and reaffirm his promise to expropriate underutilized land and provide land for 1 million family-size farms by 1989.

On May 29, Sarney accepted the resignation of Nelson Ribeiro, who accomplished little but raised many hackles as special minister for land-related issues. To replace Ribeiro, the president named Dante de Oliveira, a dynamic young mayor who will be under pressure to follow through on the promises the government has made.


No Intimidation

“We will not be intimidated by those who arm themselves to resist the agrarian reform, nor by those who violate the law by invading private property,” Sarney said at the installation ceremony for Oliveira.

At the same time, Sarney sought to calm the alarmed landowners.

“The agrarian reform seeks peaceful coexistence in rural areas, not discord,” he said. “We want justice in land distribution so that the land can produce the food supplies we need for a country that has become industrialized and urban.”


In Latin America, since the Mexican Revolution of 1910, agrarian reform has traditionally been associated with political conflict and radical change. It helped to consolidate Fidel Castro’s revolution in Cuba. It contributed to the overthrow of the late Salvador Allende in Chile.

Interior Sparsely Settled

Brazil, a country of 135 million people, covers a land area larger than the continental United States, and much of the vast interior is unoccupied. Land conflicts have developed because of unequal distribution of the land in heavily populated areas, both in the prosperous south and in the impoverished northeast.

For two decades after the military revolt of 1964, military governments tried to relieve rural tension with colonization projects on federal lands in the west, particularly in the states of Mato Grosso and Rondonia. But the settlers spilled out of the limits of official projects into lands claimed by established ranchers, mining companies and speculators.


After elections last year, Brazil’s civilian “new democracy” came to power with a promise to provide farms for millions of landless peasants.

Sarney, who is no radical, said that his view of agrarian reform was influenced by the experience of Peru, where large estates were broken up under a military government in the 1970s.

“They disrupted the basis for food production,” Sarney said, “and they have not been able to recover what they lost.”

Development Lagged


But Ribeiro, the now-departed special minister for land-related issues, and the executive agency under his ministry, the National Agrarian Reform and Colonization Institute, proved to be slow in developing projects.

Moreover, some of the institute’s field managers were politically controversial. They made radical statements against private ownership of extensive farmland, which is a characteristic of modern mechanized farming in Brazil.

At one point, Ribeiro persuaded Sarney to sign a decree authorizing the expropriation of the entire municipality of Londrina, in one of the most advanced farming regions in the southern state of Parana. Outraged farmers managed to get the decree canceled.

Sarney’s new minister, Oliveira, a young politician from the left wing of the Brazilian Democratic Movement, the party that provides the government’s majority in Congress, marks a new start in the land reform program.


November Elections

With national elections in November for a new Congress and governors in all 23 Brazilian states, Sarney is now expected to concentrate the agrarian reform effort in the northeast, where 35 million people live.

The key to agrarian reform in the arid northeast is irrigation. The government has already announced a program to irrigate 2.4 million acres by the year 1990. But whether this will contribute to agrarian reform depends on whether the land brought under irrigation is redistributed to small farmers or remains under the control of the big landlords.

Oliveira, 34, who was elected last year as mayor of Cuiaba, the capital of Mato Grosso, is well known nationally. As a deputy in the federal legislature, he sponsored legislation under the military regime that called for direct election of the president.


His proposal fell just shy of getting the needed two-thirds majority in Congress, but the idea caught on and led to public rallies that mobilized millions of Brazilians and made direct election a reality last year. During the campaign, the northeast was singled out as priority No. 1 for agrarian reform, and Sarney seems ready to move ahead on that basis.

Modern Farms in South

Focusing on the northeast would leave relatively unaffected the modern, mechanized farms of the south, from Rio Grande do Sul to Sao Paulo states. It is this area that produces most of Brazil’s food and most of its export crops--soybeans, coffee and citrus.

As Sarney recently explained, the land to be expropriated for redistribution should be underutilized land, not productive farms. The radicals, including peasant “base communities” and rural unions organized by Roman Catholic activists, want to redistribute lands in the productive southern states, too.


Large landowners have organized against what they see as a political movement to seize their land. They have raised money for a defense fund, organized armed groups and fought expropriation in the courts.

Sarney wants a peaceful reform, before more radical measures are attempted by peasants determined to get a piece of land--and are met by violence from landowners.

Shot in Back

The most recent victim of the violence was Father Josimo Moraes Tavares, who on May 10 was shot in the back on a main street in Imperatriz.


Moraes, 33, was actively involved in organizing peasants in the so-called “Movement of the Landless,” which has the support of liberal Catholic bishops. These organized peasants have occupied disputed land in many parts of Brazil.

Moraes’ killer has been identified, and according to people in Imperatriz, a sizable city on the Belem-Brasilia Highway, a local politician and landowner paid him the equivalent of $2,000. But the alleged killer has disappeared.

The priest had received many threats, and in an earlier attempt, his jeep was hit by gunfire.

“I know I am going to die, but it is in a just cause,” Moraes wrote to his mother after the earlier attack.


Nun Assassinated

Moraes’ killing followed the assassination in February of a nun who worked with peasants. She was shot at the bus terminal in Maraba, in the state of Para, another conflict area. No one has been arrested in that incident.

Last year, an Italian priest was killed in Rondonia. He was ambushed after trying to mediate in a land dispute. Two ranch hands employed by the landowner involved were arrested as the alleged killers.

The Roman Catholic hierarchy is outraged by what it regards as an absence of official action against the killers. This was underscored when 11 bishops, led by Msgr. Paulo Andrade Ponte, the archbishop of Sao Luiz, capital of the state of Maranhao, signed a statement that sacraments will be denied Gov. Luiz Rocha and his secretary of justice because of their inaction.


Backed by Bishops

Sarney, a devout Roman Catholic, has maintained close contact on land reform with the National Conference of Bishops. It was the bishops who virtually nominated Ribeiro to head the Ministry for Land Related Issues when it was created last year.

Now, more violence seems likely. The federal police have recently seized several clandestine arms shipments, although it was not clear whether the weapons were intended for radical peasant groups or for militant land owners.