The Government and the Landowners
The Government and the Landowners
INTERVIEW WITH JoÃ£o Pedro Stedile, director of the Movimento dos Sem Terra (MST) about the agrarian issue, food sovereignty, genetically modified foods and international agriculture commerce.
1 â€“ PUCviva Magazine â€“ Will the fight for agrarian reform move to a new platform with the rise of Lulaâ€™s government?
Response: Certainly whatâ€™s happening now is a change in the association of forces. In the previous government, the government was allied with the large estate owners, and the forces of agrarian reform, the MST, and other social movements fought against the government and the large estate owners. Now in a government elected to create change, certainly the large estate owners will be fought against by the government as well. But the change of just the association of forces does not alter the pace of agrarian reform as a process to combat the concentration of land ownership in and of itself. The pace and dimension of agrarian reform will be set by the capacity of social movements to continue organizing and mobilizing the rural poor to fight for this reform. And by maintaining the governmentâ€™s promise to truly combat the concentration of land ownership in the rural world.
2 â€“ PUCviva Magazine â€“ What are the new concepts in fighting for land in Brazil and in other Latin American countries?
Response: During the capitalist industrial period, rural workers in general fought for land to work. And they believed that it was enough to have the land to be able to keep farming in the family, support their families and make their lives better.
In todayâ€™s stage of capitalism, dominated by financial imperialism and by transnational corporations, agrarian reform changes character. It is not enough to simply distribute the land, because in and of itself it is not a guarantee or condition that the farmers will be able to continue and better their lives. It is necessary to think of a new type of agrarian reform, in which not only land ownership is democratized, but agro-industries and agricultural businesses as well, which is wedded with a model of development that prioritizes the internal market and the food supply. And that also guarantees access to and production of seeds. In other words, along with the democratization of land ownership, it is necessary to build a new model of agricultural production and a new form of social organization of production in rural areas. This challenge is present in Brazil, in Latin America, and in all of the third world, because the wrath of todayâ€™s stage of monopolistic and international capitalism is dominating the way things are produced in agriculture worldwide. And this puts into question the survival of small farmers, farm workers, and the population that works in rural areas.
3 â€“ PUCviva Magazine â€“ What has been done to combat the idea spread by the media that the MST is going to oppose Lula?
Response: First of all, the media is divided when it comes to Lula. There are some sectors of the large business in Sao Paulo that are already against the government, and this opens up space to start controversies and make noise to try to ruin the image of the popular promises of the new government. And this is present in the ways in which they edit their material.
The real politics of the MST as it relates to the new government is to marry partnership with autonomy. We will be the governmentâ€™s partners and we will support all of the programs that represent the betterment of the living conditions of our people. In all of these measures, we represent the fight against the neo-liberal economy.
But we maintain our autonomy, necessary in preserving our primary role and function, which is to make peasants conscious of the issues, and organize them so they can fight and mobilize for their rights. Only with ample social mobilization can we achieve the campaign promises that the government is able to advance and accomplish. Nothing will be obtained without social mobilization.
4 - PUCviva Magazine â€“ Food sovereigntyâ€”the theme that was addressed by the panel on which you satâ€”is a large, strategic fight. Does the Zero Hunger Campaign add to or impair this fight in terms of being a curtain of smoke in the structural issue of food sovereignty?
Response: The concept of food sovereignty developed by the Via Campesina in Brazil and at the international level is to recuperate the belief that every people, in their specific space, be it at the national, state, or community level, needs to produce their own food. Only this will give them the necessary independence, and will guarantee them sovereignty over their destiny. It is present in all political doctrines, the manifests of MartÃ, Gandhi, Che Guevara, and even in Islam, that no people will be effectively free if they do not produce their own food. It is this that we defend as our policy. The hunger program, which is still being developed as a concept because it works with the concept of food security, begins with the principle that it is the governmentâ€™s responsibility to guarantee all citizens access to quality food year round. But in a way it is the preamble to our concept, which is more extensive and in-depth.
From the point of view of political economy proposals to combat hunger, which is what is detailed in our governmentâ€™s documents, its character satisfies us, because we understand that it is a part of this process of transition. Transition to a future of food sovereignty. The government program is clear that we need emergency policies which include the distribution of staple food baskets or coupons, at least so that people do not die. Specific policies for specific circumstance, such as semi-arid regions, that on top of everything else have to deal with droughts, lack of water, etcâ€¦and policies regarding structural fights, where agrarian reform and a extensive program of redistribution of wealth are necessary, will only be achieved with a change from the neo-liberal economic model.
5 â€“ PUCviva Magazine â€“ â€œThe peasants want to change Humanity, but want to change it with you.â€ â€“ How can this affirmation made on the panel of the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre be translated in the day-to-day actions of Brazilian social movements for the rest of the world?
Response: The rural population in Brazil is a minority, we are approximately 20%, although if the population of small cities that also depend on agriculture or agroindustry are included, that number grows to almost 50% of the population. In the majority of third world countries, the rural population is above 50%, but is also facing a process of growing migration as a consequence of neo-liberal policies.
The expression ultimately serves to call attention to the fact that the problems that the rural population faces today, such as poverty, social inequity, hunger, lack of conditions in which to produce, lack of education, are the problems of the entire society. They can only be resolved if society as a whole involves itself, fights, and mobilizes. Peasants alone, or even the entire rural population, cannot achieve more, producing necessary social change alone, not in Brazil, not in India, not in China, where the rural population is still the vast majority.
6 â€“ PUCviva Magazine â€“ What is Lulaâ€™s governmentâ€™s action, in relation to the question of estates, that is positive for the MST and a conquest for the fight for land?
Response: Lulaâ€™s government needs to have the courage to really stand up to the large estate owners. To do so, it must take quick measures that minimize the bureaucracy surrounding the dispossession of all of the large non-producing tracts of land. According to a survey carried out by the late Jose Gomes da Silva, father of the current Ministry of Hunger, using official statistics, if the Agrarian Law were applied, we could divide up more than 120 million hectares of land. If this were done, there would not be any families without land.
In other words, the government needs to give a clear signal that it is against large estate ownership. It could begin to dispossess/divide up the largest estate in each state. Or who knows, the largest estate owned by a multinational corporation for whom agriculture is not the principal activity. The government could also collect in land all of the debt that factory owners and landowners owe with public money.
It could also prohibit the purchase of land by foreign legal companies or people that already possess more than 36 million hectares.
To sum up, there is not just one, but many practical and symbolic ways for the government to demonstrate its determination to eliminate the large estate owner from Brazilian society.
7 â€“ PUCviva Magazine â€“ In what way does the MST fight against agribusiness action and the industry of genetically modified seeds?
Response: During the government of Fernando Enrique Cardoso, there was total support in official politics of the so-called North American agricultural model, which is to submit our agriculture to transnational corporations, be they in agricultural commerce, agro-industry, or the agro-industry of seed production.
We are going to fight in every way we can for a new agricultural model that reorients agricultural production toward food production and the internal market. That democratizes the agroindustries stimulating decentralization, a turn to internal markets, and the installation of cooperative agroindustries. We are going to fight for state control of the commerce of food products, controlling stock and prices.
As far as genetically modified seeds are concerned, first it is necessary to understand that the campaign that exists to liberate genetically modified seeds serves only the greed of increasing the rate of profit of eight large multinational corporations that control their production. And that promote the joint sales of agrotoxics that go along with the monopoly of genetically modified seeds, and the growersâ€™ dependence on buying seeds from these corporations for every crop.
We are going to fight every way we can to stop this. If it is necessary we will destroy illegal crops, we will denounce the practice of these transnational corporations, we will boycott their products, we will fight. Because the food sovereignty of our people, the possibility of a healthy agricultural business, and the interest of our people all depend on the possibility of the farmer taking control of the seeds.
8 â€“ PUCviva Magazine â€“ Where can technology help in the development of the acquired land?
Response: Technology is an important tool for agriculture. It is the practical application of what science develops about the knowledge of plants and animals. We are in favor of the use of biotechnology, which farmers have applied empirically since the beginning of humanity.
We are in favor of the research and application of new techniques adapted to the environment, and healthier, organic agriculture. The principle should be the production of healthy food in balance with the environment, which we are obliged to deliver to future generations.
For this reason, we also have hope that with the new government and in partnership with the rural social movements, a new program of agricultural and cattle raising research will be developed, of diffusion and promotion of good techniques for farmers, like for example the use of natural and native raw materials and seed production at the local level. And a new program of technical assistance, in which the agronomists and experts can really take their scientific knowledge to farmers and interact with them.
9 â€“ PUCviva Magazine â€“ It is possible that the 2003 Brazilian harvest reaches 100 million tons of grain. Why do we produce so little, compared with Argentina, for example?
Response: The low level agricultural production in Brazil is due to the joining of many factors at the same time. First: the concentration of land ownership, in which just one percent of the owners control 47% of the land. This results in arable land going unused, being used for cattle ranching, or being used inadequately. For example, the most fertile lands in the Northeast, which are in a forested zone, are only used for sugarcane, when they could produce food and be used more productively.
The low diffusion of agricultural techniques could increase productivity without as much use of industrial raw materials.
Today we utilize less than 40 million hectares but we have a potential area of fertile land of 300 million hectares, even leaving the Amazon region intact, which is considered improper for intensive agriculture for annual farm work.
The priority of official policy in stimulating only agriculture for export ends up generating this distortion that results in developing monoculture farms. This is detrimental to the intensification of the use of manual labor with less intensity of capital, but that can produce a lot, as is the case in China, for example.
10 â€“ PUCviva Magazine â€“ What does Via Campesinaâ€™s participation signify for the MST?
Response: Since its inception, the MST has had an international and Latin American calling. We have always maintained an exchange of experiences with other sister organizations in other Latin American countries. Thus, we organized CLOC: The Latin American Coordenation of Peasant Workers Organizations. To this day it assembles all the Latin American organizations and its headquarters are in Guatemala.
From the mid-90s on, this form of development of financial, international and neo-liberal capitalism has expanded. Capitalism expanded the same way to exploit farmers all over the world. The farmers in India, Japan, the United States, Mexico, South Africa, and Brazil all face the same exploiters, such as Monsanto, Cargill, NestlÃ©, etc.
This obligated us to increase the international integration and exchange between rural organizations and movements. From that came the Via Campesina, as an international articulation of all the peasant movements around the world. It is growing every day, and today we have organizations in 87 countries, on all continents. Recently at the last assembly, we had the addition of the Arab Agricultural Union, which unites peasants from 16 countries with 330 million farmers as its base.
To sum it up in one phrase, the Via Campesina represents the international unit and unity, to stand up together to the same wrath of international capital on agricultural workers across the world.
And you can write down that, at the end of the story, we are going to win.
11 â€“ PUCviva Magazine â€“ There is a debate about the question of agricultural subsidies done by the United States and the European Community. What subsidies can Brazil have? What does the MST think about the external market?
Response: Clearly there is a lot of debate in the international Via Campesina about this issue. We defend the idea that the State should have a strong stance on the protection of our agriculture. And it supports agriculture in many ways, including through subsidies, our prices and our rural credit.
But what we defend is that each country has the right and even the responsibility to practice subsidies to protect its farmers against other sectors of production, like industry, etc. It is a way to protect those who produce food, which should not be treated like other kinds of merchandise.
But what we are against is that this policy of subsidies be used for competition in the international agriculture market. In that case, there should not be any subsidies, not for rich countries or for poor countries.
Even when Europe and the United States subsidize their farmers to compete in the international market, the small farmers from there tell us that these subsidies are not really for the small farmers who generally dedicate themselves just to production for the internal, local market. These subsidies serve only the large farmers and the monopolizing companies in agribusiness.
In summary, subsidies are an important instrument to distribute income between small farmers, protect them from bankruptcy, impede rural exodus, and stimulate them to increase food production to then guarantee food sovereignty in each country.
But subsidies should be fought against as a way to regulate international agriculture business. For this reason we are against not just subsidies for exportation, but also the regulation of commercial agriculture by the OMC.
Unfortunately Brazil also uses subsidies for farmers, but just for export. When the Kandir law exempted ICMSâ€™s payment for soy export, or any other agricultural product, then immediately there is a subsidy transfer of 17%. Those who produce beans, rice, milk, or chicken for the internal market have to pay ICMS.
Published in PUC-VIVA Magazine, #19, February-April 2003, Sao Paulo, Trimonthly publication of the Association of the Professors of the Pontificial Catholic University of Sao Paulo-SP.