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Corn+Soybean Digest

Is Land Reform Unfair?

Early on March 14, militants invaded the nearly 5,000-acre Canhambola Farm, which had been in the Andrade family for 100 years. The farm has cattle, corn, soybeans and sugarcane. Later, a judge evicted the landless militants.

Shortly after their ejection from the farm, the landless group disrupted a town council meeting in nearby Uberaba, and then invaded the federal House of Representatives building in Brasilia, destroying $35,000 worth of information terminals. At least one member of the group is under indictment for kidnapping from an earlier farm invasion — this time they were armed.

The chairman of the Paraná state Federation of Agriculture spoke out. “Property invasion,” declared Ágide Meneguette, “is illegal and we are always positioned against such practices because they disrespect property rights.”

This statement came after members of yet another landless movement took over the farm belonging to the chairman of the Agriculture Committee in the lower house of the Brazilian congress.

“Nobody's against land reform for its social aspect,” says Ma Tien Min, who grows 1,500-2,000 acres of seed beans. He's also chairman of the Grains Committee of the Minas Gerais Agricultural Federation. “But land reform has to be done wisely.” He says some small farmers lose their land after obtaining loans they can't pay. And they are sometimes replaced by settlers who are given not only the land, but also other assistance the original owner could not get.

Land reform has always been an issue in this country of extremes between wealth and poverty. We hear about the vast soybean estates, for instance, but few foreigners know that by one estimate a few years ago 70% of all Brazilian farm holdings are of fewer than 60 acres. When military rule ended in 1985, activist groups — sometimes with the support of churches — got active about addressing the uneven distribution of land here.

In the last 10 years, nearly a million families have been resettled on land that more than equals the U.S. soybean acreage. The violence continues.

The decision to confiscate or buy farmland for distribution to the landless has more to do with whether it's being used than with the crop that's on it, says Sílvia Cavichioli of Incra, the federal agency in charge of land redistribution.

Evaldo Garcia was part of a group that took over the farm he lives on back in 1993. The owner let property tax bills pile up, and Garcia and others heard it was targeted for eventual distribution.

Today Garcia farms a plot of about 75 acres. He's got a job driving heavy vehicles for the local municipality. He's also got a daughter in college, which is why the movement provided him with a temporary dispensation from living on his land.

Garcia drove tractors on cotton farms before he took part in the 1993 occupation of the farm across the highway from the shacks.

Later, the group of settlers began to sharecrop land to a local soybean farmer on a 50-50 basis. A cheap dollar and high fuel costs cut the soybean crop back last year, but in 2003 Garcia estimates, “we had about 3,700 acres in soybeans.”

Not long after the invasion of the Canhambola farm, back in March, a commentator wrote in the local paper regarding the incident:

“It was due to skin cancer that he died,” the commentator said. “Be shocked, readers, the skin cancer comes from his hard work under the sun on that farm, that today is invaded by the landless. So I ask you: Is that not enough to make anyone indignant? And to make it worse, family members are sharing space with the bandits on the farm, afraid they will destroy the patrimony earned with plenty of sweat and pain.”

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