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Rough Cut
Brazil: Hired Guns
Fighting for a share of the land
 

 

siri_schubert

Siri Schubert is a reporter and former fellow with the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley. She is also a contributor to FRONTLINE/World's corruption site, "The Business of Bribes." Her work has been published in The New York Times, Fortune International, Business 2.0, The Wall Street Journal (Europe) and Scientific American Mind.

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Length: 14:40

Should food be genetically modified or grown from heirloom seeds? Produced on large industrial farms or organic community-owned lots? These questions lie at the heart of many, sometimes fierce, debates -- in political committees, on university campuses, and in cafes and homes. But I have never heard of anyone being killed during these disputes in the U.S.

In Brazil, matters are different. When I first learned about a double homicide on a farm in Santa Teresa in Southern Brazil in October 2007 in a dispute over land use, I wanted to understand how conflicts like these could lead to violence and deaths. In Brazil, 1 percent of the population owns about 45 percent of the land; reforms have been promised by many, including President Luiz Inacio "Lula" da Silva, but progress has been slow.

Inequalities persist and clashes between those who want land and those who have land seem unavoidable. To find out why two men lost their lives, I traveled to the state of Parana, a hot spot for land conflicts, in Southern Brazil, about 600 miles southwest of Sao Paulo.

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In 1993, Brazil passed a law permitting landless farmers to occupy land if it was sitting idle or not being used in a way that benefited the population.

In Santa Teresa, a small town surrounded by corn and soy bean fields and close to the famous Iguacu National Park, I met with Sebastiao, a farmer who has been fighting for land reform for many years and was a witness to the shootings.

Sebastiao belongs to the MST, the Movimento Sem Terra, an organization of landless farmers founded in 1984 in the town of Cascavel, just a few miles from Santa Teresa. Sebastiao explained the MST's motivation: "We want a piece of land for every person. We need land for food, because there is still hunger in Brazil."

He told me that large estate holders are planting sugar cane for ethanol production or corn and soy for export. Meanwhile, the people who used to work on small farms are losing their land and being forced to move to city slums where they struggle to feed themselves and their families.

In 1993, Brazil passed a law permitting landless farmers to occupy land if it was sitting idle or not being used in a way that benefited the population. Under the law, the MST has occupied thousands of Brazilian farms during the last 25 years and kept land reform high on the political agenda. Several courts have ruled in favor of MST members and allowed them to settle permanently on the occupied land.

The movement has mainly used the land to set up organic farming cooperatives and schools. While the law legalizes some of the occupations, there is no clear-cut definition of what "unproductive land" means and, in many cases, the MST has been evicted following an occupation. Still, according to the group's own figures, 350,000 families have obtained land in the last 25 years.

Despite these successful settlements, the fight for land has often been brutal. In 2005, the murder of the American nun Sister Dorothy Stang, who helped peasants set up organic farms in the Amazon region, made headlines around the world. Although the case stirred international condemnation, the violence continued. Twenty-eight landless farmers were killed in Brazil in 2008 alone.

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Several courts have ruled in favor of the MST and allowed them to settle permanently on the land they had occupied.

In many of these conflicts, large landowners hire private security firms to intimidate farmers to get them to abandon their encampments. Terra di Direitos (PDF), a human rights organization in Brazil, warned the Human Rights Commission in the Brazilian State of Parana that violence between the landowners and the MST could erupt at any moment and that security firms acting like mercenary militias were adding to the tension.

The group's statement was portentous: Three days later, two men were shot dead on the farm in Santa Teresa and the news of the killings sent shockwaves through the country.

What made this double murder different from other land disputes in Brazil is that it happened on the property of Swiss agricultural giant Syngenta, the world's largest producer of pesticides and a producer of genetically modified seeds. The company had planted genetically modified soybean close to the Iguacu National Park and thus violated environmental law.

Leaders of the MST were not only upset by the fact that the foreign corporation owned land while many Brazilians did not, but also feared that the company's research farm could endanger their health and food supply, and they made plans to occupy the land. The Swiss company responded by hiring armed security.

With pressure mounting from all sides, even the police warned that the conflict was about to erupt into bloodshed. And soon it did.

-- Siri Schubert

Related Stories
Brazil: Cutting the Wire
In a nation known for its stark division between rich and poor, much of it fueled by inequities in land ownership, FRONTLINE/World Fellows Adam Raney and Chad Heeter travel to a dusty patch of rural Brazil to witness a land occupation by the MST and report on the movement's battle for agrarian reform. Watch more of our student Fellows stories.

Changing times for Brazil's landless
This BBC story reports on the controversial history of Brazil's landless movement and how its priorities have shifted as Brazil has become a global economic force.

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REACTIONS

An American teacher - Budapest, Hungary
Thank you Frontline for consistently reporting stories th=at other outlets ignore. I have shared this story and video widely. When I talk with my students in Europe about the sorry state of American news and media these days, my students know they will always hear the caveat, "Except PBS!" :)

(anonymous)
I recently saw Jean Michel Cousteau at PSU. He praised Brazil's 'freedom' from foreign oil because of their production of ethanol from sugarcane. He praised Dow for opening a plant to use the pulverized sugar cane fibers. I find it incredulous that an international figure such as he, out to save the planet, could be ignorant of the consequences of the corporate takeover of agricultural land at the expense of local farmers. The spin doctors want us to believe that ethanol is the answer to our fuel needs. At what expense? Human rights, local economic viability, and food production are seriously compromised.

(anonymous)
Thanks -- great work! Opened up a lot of new information for me.

san rafael, CA
great story. I want more.