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Brazil - Cablegate : how the US sees the landless movement in Brazil

Natalia Viana, 22 December 2010, 14.00 GMT

New cables published by Wikileaks reveal that the U.S. embassy and consulates in Brazil are deeply concerned about the Landless People’s Movement (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra or MST). The diplomats claim that the three decade old movement is losing power because of outgoing President Lula’s land poverty reduction programs.

MST began after a December 1980 takeover of three unproductive farms in Brazil’s southern-most state of Rio Grande do Sul by 6,000 landless families. The organization came into formal existence in 1984 when Brazil’s military dictatorship came to a close. Today MST claims an estimated 1.5 million landless members in 23 out of Brazil’s 26 states and is easily the most powerful agricultural movement in Latin America.

Over the past few years U.S. consular officials around Brazil have dispatched a series of assessments to Washington about the movement, its membership, and its political techniques and power.

Land Occupation Concerns Embassy

An October 2005 cable demonstrates the serious concern of U.S. diplomats when 300 landless workers occupied Agroreservas, a farm in Minas Gerais state in south-eastern Brazil owned by the Utah-based group Farm Management Company. Agroreservas has long been a showcase for the U.S. mission in Brazil, to demonstrate large scale technologically advanced farms in Brazil to foreign visitors.

The U.S. embassy in Brasília sent its agricultural attache to meet Genevil, the manager of the farm, and investigate the situation. “According to Genevil, military police officials have confined the MST to the housing area on the property, and farming equipment has not been damaged," wrote John Danilovitch, U.S. ambassador to Brazil, in a dispatch to Washington.

The embassy memo reveals how justice in Brazilian countryside is strongly influenced by the powerful landowners. "Genevil subsequently told Embassy Agricultural Attache that the judge who wanted to negotiate with the MST has been replaced by a ’new, more reasonable judge’. Genevil sounded pleased with this decision and believed that an eviction order would be issued during the week of October 10," the diplomat added.

Genevil added that state police would remain on the land until the eviction order was issued - which the embassy expected to happen soon. Danilovitch concluded : “(T)his invasion marks the first time that the MST has occupied an American farm, and while the invasion of the farm causes concern, post (ie the U.S. embassy) does not believe that the invasion was linked to the farm’s connections to the United States. ”.

MST Marginalized ?

Other cables assert that MST has become "marginalized as a political force" in the past few years because of the success of programs like Bolsa-Familia - a government program that provides about $115 per month to 12 million poor families throughout Brazil.

One assessment dispatched by Thomas White, the U.S. consul in Sao Paulo on 16 May 2008, states : "Many Bolsa Familia recipients are reluctant to join MST for fear of losing their benefits. It is difficult for them to comply with the program’s conditions - keeping their children in school and ensuring they are vaccinated on schedule - when living in an MST "acampamento."

White accuses MST of taking advantage of environmental issues - such as protests against Vale, a Brazilian mining giant - to keep its "political constituency." “Instead of land occupations, the MST is now promoting quick actions designed for high media attention and impact," White wrote, "The actions against Vale, besides generating publicity, are also designed to satisfy MST’s political constituency. MST leaders accuse the company of labor exploitation and environmental degradation, and many on the left have called for the reversal of its privatization”.

The cable ended on a note of caution : “Although the MST may be in decline, it is unlikely to fade away any time soon. Its activities remain a source of concern to many landowners," White added.

Alienating the Locals

White continued to send critical memos to Washington about the landless people’s movement. A May 2009 memo titled : “The MST Method : Work the State, Alienate the Locals” addresses the work of Clifford Welch, an associate professor of history at Grand Valley State University in Michigan, on loan to Presidente Prudente in Sao Paulo state city.

Data provided by Welch accused the MST of profitting unethically after the land has been distributed. “In a practice, both cynical and ironic, MST members sometimes wind up renting to agribusinesses the very lands they seized. The demographic profile of MST members shows them to be primarily small families and retired couples.”

MST “follows a pre-planned methodology in its land seizures that includes leveraging contacts within the GOB’s National Institute of Colonization and Agricultural Reform (INCRA) to help select targets”.

The consulate also interviewed several "locals" in President Prudente such as the president of the chapter of the Sao Paulo Federation of Businesses and the city’s vice-mayor, who claimed that fears of land seizures had pushed the real estate price for the fertile land down to one third.

“Conversations with citizens in the city of Presidente Prudente in the interior of Sao Paulo State indicated that few people in the community support the MST," writes White. “Non-MST locals would prefer their MST neighbors leave, fearful that MST tactics will scare off foreign investment."

Thomas White concludes : “The MST’s practice of distributing fertile parcels of land to the faithful and the subsequent ability for these individuals to rent the land back to agribusiness is ironic, to say the least. President Lula has been conspicuously silent on his early-career promises to support the MST for a good reason : An organization that seizes land in the name of the landless and then rents it back to the very same sorts of people from whom they took it has a serious credibility problem."