Lula Government: The Frustrated Dream

There is no doubt that the arrival of the first working class president of Brazil, Luis Ignacio Lula da Silva, brought hope to Brazilian social movements. 2002 was the year of the historic victory of the left in Latin America ‘s largest country. Lula’s inauguration brought thousands of activists and supporters of the Workers Party (PT) to Brasilia, which was a sea of red to greet the new president. Beyond the symbolic importance of having a working class president, the PT government’s platform brought the promise of eradicating poverty, generating millions of jobs and the promotion of greater social justice in a country where inequality was one of its structural characteristics.

For the Movement of Landless Workers (MST) those promises represented the potential arrival of a new era. The infamous movement advocates and defends land reform, the redefinition of land ownership and for new social relations for the Brazilian countryside. Its organizing strategy – the occupation of under or unused plantations and estates – led to its harsh persecution by Lula’s predecessor, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, as well as being labeled as criminals by the mainstream media and the upper classes. At the time, the PT’s arrival to power meant the possibility of decriminalizing the MST movement, a chance for dialogue and negotiations and the implementation of structural reforms. Lula had been a great supporter of the movement from its origins and made his intentions very clear that once as president land reform and the MST would be addressed with the dignity they deserved.

Despite the promises and expectations, what occurred in Brazil during the Lula government in regards to the countryside, was an actual annual decrease in the number of estates and private land expropriated for agrarian reform. The 1988 Constitution recognizes the social function of property in urban areas with the substitution of individual property ownership for one that reflects human dignity and, in rural areas, for the protection of labor and environmental rights. Rural property must meet the standards of sustainable development. Even if this is fulfilled the government has the right to expropriate it for greater public use. This is particularly true in the case of properties that are underused or that don’t have a sufficient number of officials compared to its amount of area.

The previous governments during the period of redemocratization were left with the important task of promoting the social uses of rural land and urban property and it was assumed that Lula was the most qualified to meet this demand, given his proximity to the MST. However, the number of expropriations in his two terms was significantly lower than his predecessor, the Social Democrat Fernando Henrique Cardoso. Lula expropriated only 1,990 properties compared to the 3,532 under President Cardoso.

2005 was the turning point year of expropriations. Since then, properties expropriated for family farming has decreased steadily. Coincidentally or not, that same year a presidential decree was made for the legal use of genetically modified (GMO) seeds for agricultural production.

Monsanto GMO soybeans began to be smuggled into Brazil from Argentina in 1998, without any regulation or control until Lula took legal action seven years later. Today it is estimated that GMO seeds account for 85 percent of the total production of soybeans in the country – a percentage that may be even bigger, since these seeds have a high rate of contaminating other fields, making it impossible to strictly control their presence.

The combination of these two factors, along with the growth of exports to Asia, has benefited large agribusiness entrepreneurs. The advertised trade balance figures for Brazil gave it nationally and internationally the image of a social revolution. Meanwhile, legislators of the House of Deputies and the Senate (representing the interests of agro-exporters) grew their influence in the PT and the government’s land reform proposal remained untouched with the MST forgotten.

The advertised figures of increased productivity and the increasing presence of Brazil on the International scene are unreliable, since it overshadows less encouraging data. 10 percent of landowners hold 85 percent of production and 85 percent of cultivated land in Brazil is reserved for the production of corn, soybeans, pasture and sugar cane – that is, it is intended for animal feed, exportation, or for ethanol fuel. Cane production, historically connected to colonial slavery, was celebrated by Lula as the great solution to an excessive dependence on oil as a fuel. What he forgot to say is that the sugar cane plant, when grown extensively and continuously, causes soil destruction and the radical transformation of ecosystems. Likewise, he forgot to mention that sugar plantation workers work in inhumane conditions, with documented cases of modern day slavery and children workers.

Dilma Government: Poverty Eradication or Full Support for Agribusiness?

Dilma Rousseff came to power with less hope and expectations from social movements. Still, she represented another change: the first woman, ex-guerrilla who fought against authoritarianism in the dictatorial period. With a reputation for being a hard worker and an image of honesty, the “daughter” of Lula won the election after a massive campaign led by the unions of the left to prevent the threat of the return of the right to power, embodied in the authoritarian figure of José Serra (PSDB).

Her government’s main campaigns are the eradication of poverty and the expansion of development in the country, conducted through two multi-ministerial programs: Brazil Without Poverty and the Growth Acceleration Plan (PAC).

The Brazil Without Poverty Plan focuses 47 percent of its efforts on the countryside, primarily through the promotion of family farming, generating non-repayable financial benefits to purchase supplies and equipment for agriculture. With the Food Acquisition Program (PAA), the federal government seeks to incentivise family farming by purchasing harvests for use in healthcare organizations, hospitals, colleges, prisons, and for storage facilities. Besides that, the program has also focused on access to water.

On March 8th, the president [Dilma] announced a measure that is intended to work for the development of family agriculture, which accounts for 70 percent of food consumed in Brazilian homes. All basic food stuffs and products will become exempt from federal taxes, representing a reduction of 9.25 percent for food costs (meats, whole milk, eggs, rice, beans, bread, fruit, vegetables, etc.) and 12.25 for items such as toilet paper, shower soap and toothpaste. Aside from seeking to stimulate higher consumption among the lower classes, the measure seeks to create more dynamic businesses in small communities, as well as a greater presence of family farming.

Obviously these measures are welcomed, but they must be put into context to understand how this “revolution in the countryside”, which Dilma speaks proudly of, is true.

Despite recurring promises of land reform – the last made in a March meeting with farm workers to sign the National Policy for Employed Rural Workers – Dilma, now in her third year in office, is the head of State that has expropriated less land for agrarian reform with only 86 properties expropriated. Former president, Fernando Collor de Mello (1990 -1992), is the only other head of state that has expropriated less land. He was forced out of office due to an economic policy that confiscated the savings of citizens and for accusations of corruption. During his time in power only 28 estates were expropriated. Incidentally, the former president, now Senator of the Republic, is part of Dilma’s large support base in the legislature.

Speaking of the legislature, it is impossible not to notice the large increase of influence of the rural caucus during the Dilma government. In 2012 this group of legislators succeeded in passing a proposed Forest Code bill, which translates to an affront on rural social movements, environmentalists and indigenous peoples. The measure allows for carbon credits and environmental quotas to be placed on the market for speculation, putting the Brazilian Amazon on the path to globalization. Private estate owners would now justify the social function of their underused property as being for the exploitation of carbon in areas with environmental reserve quotas. If they decide to use the land for agricultural production – which means logging forests – they would just need to compensate for the [environmental] devastation by reforesting a small parcel of the property (which would be less than 10 percent). Moreover, this measure would allow for these large landowners to avoid giving up their lands for the purpose of small-scale family farming, which would amount to 4.9 million hectares of devastated Amazon forest. These legislatures also pushed for another measure that would not penalize landowners who deforest areas.

The federal government was unable to generate opposition in the legislature to block the new law, and thus allow for Dilma to veto it, for the simple reason that most of the proponents of the law are part of Dilma’s base. Social movements and environmentalists expected that Dilma’s veto of the proposal was certain. However, the president only banned nine articles of the law and passed the Environmental Adjustment Program, which exempted landowners who devastated forests of fines, on the condition that they submit a plan for recovery and reforestation of degraded areas. This recovery will be at most 20 percent of the property, without taking into consideration that many properties of the Central-West and North of the Amazon region are entirely deforested.

If Dilma was weak on the topic of environmentalism, allowing the expansion of landowner power, than it could be said that her relationship to the situation of indigenous rights is no better. The Brazilian government, since Lula, advertises that it has demarcated more land for indigenous communities than the rest of Latin American. What is not said is that 95 percent of these lands are located in the Amazon or in regions close to urban centers – therefore, in areas with lower land disputes. Indigenous peoples who inhabit regions with a presence of agribusiness farms have been virtually ignored in their demands for the demarcation of reserves, and suffer daily violence by the landowner’s foremen. This violence threatens the existence of these indigenous peoples. An example is the case of the Guarani-Kaiowá people, from the state of Mato Grosso do Sul, which in 2012 received the state order of the dispossession of their ancestral lands, in a context of murder, rape and indigenous suicides.

The conflict between a rural project based on family agriculture for food production and one that is of large private rural estates with production focused on grain exports is far from fair and just. Despite the aid programs announced by the government, it is clear that the scale of power favors agribusiness. Apart from its strong presence in the administration, it has access to an abundance of resources, without any being proportioned to those for family farming.

In February, the president announced that 133 billion reales will be invested in her agricultural plan for 2013/2014. The amount is impressive, but what is more impressive is the division: 115 billion reales will be invested into corporate agriculture, with 18 billion for family farming. Money will be invested primarily in the purchase of machinery to modernize production. At a trade show targeted to agribusiness, Dilma Rousseff said that there will always be more resources for them [agribusiness], “All that you spend, we’ll cover.” Days later, the PT member again embraced agricultural exporters, announcing with great pride that in 2013 Brazil will have the largest grain harvest in its history, reaching 185 million tons. Of course, all this without considering food crops – that received nothing more than a brief mention in the president’s speech.

The context as a whole is confusing. If Dilma wants to encourage family farming and local economies, thus removing taxes of basic food crops and buying the crops from small farmers, why not approve land reform? Why allow the passage of a nearly comprehensive Forest Code bill that in practice destroys the legitimacy of the expropriation of unproductive landholdings? Why invest proportionally much more for large private landowners? Why not defend indigenous peoples and guarantee their right to land?

With a friendly discourse and a lot of investment in advertising, the PT government displays that its national family farming project is only valued if it does not interfere in development and the country’s greater integration into globalization.

“A rich country is a country without poverty,” is the Dilma government’s slogan, seeking to raise Brazil in international rankings and to create a large body of consumer citizens. Yet, to what degree is Dilma’s rich country “a country of all”, the slogan of the Lula government?

Brisa Araujo is an editor of desinformé, an “autonomous, global communications project” and sister organization to the Americas Program

Originally published at Desinformémonos

Translation: Clayton Conn