[04/20/08] Activists Call for Urgent Land Reform

Inter-Press Service (IPS) By Walter Sotomayor BRASILIA, Apr 17 (IPS) - An urgent call to speed up the land reform process in Latin America was issued Thursday by rural activists at the 30th FAO Regional Conference for Latin America and the Caribbean, who also sharply criticised agribusiness interests and large estates in the region.

"We are carrying out occupations of land, marches and protests to demand the settlement of 150,000 families living in camps and greater investment in rural development," said a communiqué released by Brazil’s Landless Movement (MST).

The MST has held demonstrations this week in memory of the 19 peasant farmers massacred by police 12 years ago in Eldorado dos Carajás, in the northern Brazilian state of Pará.

The delegates of 33 Latin America and Caribbean countries taking part in the Apr. 14-18 FAO (Food and Agriculture Organisation) conference paused in their deliberations Thursday to receive two dozen representatives of the MST and other social movements and to pay homage to the victims of Eldorado, who were shot by the police while taking part in a peaceful march for land reform.

Brazilian activist Maria das Graças Amorim, the spokeswoman for the Agrarian Reform Forum, a coalition of 47 organisations, urged the government delegates to consider the need to set a limit on the size of rural estates in Latin America. "How can it be that a few have so much property while so many have so little," she said.

More than 2,000 MST activists who were camping out near Brazil’s Foreign Ministry, which is hosting the conference, took part in a simultaneous march that ended in front of Congress.

Brazil’s Minister of Agrarian Development, Guilherme Cassel, said the FAO had learned a great deal from the exchange with the rural activists. "An agency like the FAO, which forms part of the United Nations, cannot operate at the margins of civil society, without taking advantage of its knowledge and experience. This is living democracy," said the official.

FAO regional representative José Francisco Graciano acknowledged that the inequality that characterises Latin America also marks the countryside, and said agrarian reform is an imperative for the region.

But he clarified that the FAO can only point out possible directions to take, and that it is up to each government to reach its own decisions.

The FAO conference incorporated this week in its debates the demands of a number of social organisations that held a parallel gathering in Brasilia.

Small farmers and representatives of indigenous communities and non-governmental organisations who met for four days in the Brazilian capital issued a declaration in which they defended food sovereignty, called for a moratorium on production of biofuels, and condemned the use of genetically modified organisms.

"We assert that hunger and poverty are not the product of chance, but part of a model that violates people’s right to a decent life," says the document, which also declared support for South America’s coca farmers.

"Economic liberalisation, seen as the sole route to development, is directly proportional to the growth of poverty and hunger in the region," adds the declaration.

The MST called demonstrations in 16 of Brazil’s 27 states to commemorate Apr. 17, the International Day of Peasant Struggle.

Tens of thousands of small farmers took part in roadblocks, protests outside of government buildings and large corporations, occupations of state-owned banks and companies considered enemies of agrarian reform, and marches on rural highways and in cities around the country.

The MST is calling for the urgent distribution of land to 150,000 families who are living in camps along highways or on unproductive portions of large estates, waiting for plots of their own on which to grow crops for survival.

Since the 1980s, nearly one million rural families in Brazil have received land as part of the ongoing agrarian reform process, according to official figures. (END/2008)

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