Brazil landless end standoff, take heart from Lula

By Andrew Hay, Reuters

BRASILIA, Brazil, July 7, 2003 -- CropChoice news, 07/04/03, Reuters: Brazilian peasants ended a two-week ranch invasion on Friday saying they expected to win land rights after President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva threw his weight behind land reform this week.

Vans and buses flying the red flag of the Landless Workers Movement, or MST, streamed out of the ranch 25 miles west of Lula's palace.

"Lula said there was going to be agricultural reform and this has encouraged government organizations to take action," said MST lawyer Elmano Freitas. He said activists were leaving the ranch with a promise from Brazil's land reform agency they would be given some of the land as it was public property.

Lula, Brazil's first working-class president, this week donned an MST baseball cap as he met with leaders of the radical movement and promised to speed up reforms and raise funds to redistribute land to Brazil's poor.

His chief of staff described the 19-year-old MST, which is inspired by the Mexican and Cuban revolutions, as a legitimate and necessary force in Brazil's agrarian reform.

The previous center-right government of Fernando Henrique Cardoso tried to prevent MST invasions and stop members taking land they had occupied.

Opposition politicians accused Lula and his left-wing government of siding with the MST, which occupies land it believes should be given to the poor, to the detriment of landowners.

The owner of the 1,950-acre (800-hectare) ranch invaded by the MST west of Brasilia said the law was on his side.

"They've been thrown out because this is private property," said Mario Zinato, who gathered more than 100 ranch hands to protect his land, saying he had guns for them.

The showdown on Lula's doorstep came as his newly elected government scrambled to quell a nationwide wave of MST looting, blockades and invasions and calm a growing climate of rural confrontation between peasant activists and landowners.