Brazil landless peasants aim to extend fight to oil

Brazil’s Landless Workers’ Movement marked its 25th anniversary on Jan. 19 by pledging to extend its fight against capitalism to ensuring the country’s new oil wealth remains in state hands.

Since state energy company Petrobras announced in 2007 it had discovered massive light oil reserves off Brazil’s southern coast, talk has swirled that the government would take greater control over the oil wealth.

President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva is considering whether to create a new state-run oil company to manage oil production from new “subsalt” reserves, but foreign oil firms like Royal Dutch Shell will still have a major role in production.

“The MST is ready to do what is needed to guarantee that Brazil’s oil, especially the subsalt discovery, won’t be privatized. This means battles, marches, occupations, public campaigns – a series of actions,” Joao Paulo Rodrigues, one of the movement’s leaders, told a news conference in Sao Paulo.

The movement, probably the world’s largest land reform group, is known as the MST.

Rodrigues denied that the movement’s new focus was a reaction to a loss of supporters in the countryside, where its campaign has struggled in the face of an agriculture boom and a lack of help from the Lula government.

“We fight to improve Brazilian society and so we are pledging this campaign of ‘the oil is ours,’” Rodrigues said, echoing a campaign slogan that led to the creation of Petrobras in the 1950s.

Soured relations

The movement is celebrating its anniversary in the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul where peasants mounted their first land occupation in 1981. No government officials were invited, a sign of how Lula’s relations with the group have soured since it mobilized its supporters behind his election in 2002 and, less wholeheartedly, in 2006.

“We can appreciate the Lula government because it didn’t criminalize the MST, it wasn’t a repressive government, it wasn’t a government that refused dialogue,” said Rodrigues. “In practice this doesn’t represent better conditions for settled people or the number of settled people that was foreseen.”

The group, which has pushed Brazilian governments for 25 years to expropriate land and settle poor peasants, says Lula has abandoned their cause to back big farm business, which has boomed under his administration.

Redistribution

The movement says it has settled about 350,000 families during its existence. About 100,000 families occupy land it wants the government to redistribute in a country where 47 per cent of land is owned by 1.6 per cent of the population.

Brazil’s powerful farm lobby says the movement scares off investment by challenging the right to private property.

The MST and similar groups frequently occupy farms, block highways, torch crops and stage rallies to protest against Brazilian and multinational companies. Landowners often hire armed guards and hit men to repel land invasions.

Government data shows that between 2003 and 2007, 449,000 families were settled on land. But the number fell from a peak of 136,300 families in 2006 to 67,500 in 2007 and the MST estimated that only 20,000 families were settled in 2008.

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