Brazil: stories of a paradise

In 2010, CBS’s 60 Minutes news program interviewed Eike Baptista, the wealthiest man in Brazil, to shed some light on the situation of the country. The producers of 60 Minutes could have interviewed scholars, politicians and activists from their considerable pool of candidates, but not surprisingly executives chose Eike instead.
 
Who is the man with such connections in the United States? Eike Baptista made his fortune almost overnight by having access to government information about petroleum and gas reserves. His father was one of the leading geologists working for Brazil’s oil company, Petrobras. Eike also has connections with Hollywood celebrities and members of the Scientology Church. No matter how you slice it, Eike’s persona doesn’t resemble the majority of the Brazilians he represented on the show.
 
During the interview, report Steve Kroft asked Eike why Brazil as an economic power doesn’t have a more equipped army. Members of the Brazilian diplomatic corps might have stumbled over the question since, after all, Brazil is interested in having the same kind of hegemonic power the US but without being associated with military occupation or overbearing presence. Afterall, Brazil participated in an invasion of Haiti as part of the UN force. But Eike had a simple answer: “Why fight? All the pleasure. Sun, soccer and beach. Soccer? Let’s watch soccer. Let’s go to the beach. Let’s have a beer.”
 
Eike – who is not known for his political smarts beyond what is necessary to grab resources – played it safe by reinforcing the general idea that mainstream media like to use: Brazil is a paradise for international investors. In a sense, that may be true, but a fuller picture of reality reveals that Brazil is also a leading safe-haven for the exploits of international capitalists.
 
Rich in natural resources, Brazil is already grabbed
 
The land of soccer, beautiful people and chronic social inequality has been divided. According to a new initiative called The Owners of Brazil, 397 investment holders and companies control mostly of the land, water and minerals in the vast nation. The initiative launched by the More Democracy Institute (IMD) and the Education, Information and Technology for Self-Reliance (EITA) shows the name of investors and companies. The web of wealth includes Brazilian funds, international investors and transnational agribusinesses.
 
The Amazonian state of Pará alone is almost twice as large as Texas. In fact, Pará state is a Texas-sized region of rainforest, abundant rivers and dozens of indigenous ethnicities without any safeguard to protect their ancestral land. In that vast area, the government is bankrolling the installation of extractive industries such as mining, African palm agro-fuels plantations, and hydro-power dams. The environmental and social impacts on indigenous territories and other communities – as well as the planet as a whole – are horrendous.
 
In this political and economic context, international investors have their eyes and hands on vast tracts of land. For social movements, it represents a perfect storm of bad news in their struggle for land rights in Brazil. They had put their political weight behind former President Lula da Silva (including both his first and second administrations) and then behind Dilma Roussef in order to prevent the possible return of a right-wing government. However, social movements that the Roussef administration is subservient to international investors, and at the same time negligent of the situation of over 200,000 landless families living on road sides, struggling and waiting for a piece of land (even though they have a right to it under Brazilian constitution).
 
From the beginning, peasant leaders knew that it would be a fight to be heard even by a government they elected. Like in the Lula da Silva administration, Roussef’s presidency is supported by a coalition of political parties who are financially supported by large agribusinesses. The rumor has it that Senator Katia de Abreu, the leader of the opposition and the National Confederation of Agriculture, has been shortlisted to take the helm of the Ministry of Agriculture. De Abreu’s appointment will be very disappointing to social movements who are concerned about the growing challenges for impoverished peasants.  
 
With or without De Abreu, the future of the working poor in Brazil looks grim. Here is why:
 
1.      Income inequality in Brazil continues to be among the highest in the world. The outstanding results of the Bolsa Familia program in reducing overall population poverty levels through this government cash transfer program to over 51 million low-income families in Brazil is still far from ending poverty in Brazil. In fact, according to data from the Brazilian government, poverty levels in rural areas in the last five years have not changed. Because of the Bolsa Familia, poverty indicators show a huge improvement and the thousands of infrastructure projects (such as dams and soccer stadiums) has knocked unemployment down to 7 percent, the lowest rate in recent economic history in Brazil. But not only is that rate temporary, it also hides how wealth is being extracted at a fast pace, and how the main economic policies of the Roussef administration are giving away national resources such as land, water and funds to international investors, instead of democratizing them. Skepticism about the Bolsa Familia is growing, with many scholars seen it as a band-aid initiative whose main objective is to mitigate the effects of neoliberalism on the poor. Further, the program could easily be cut by a new administration, pushing millions of families back into poverty again.
 
2.      The reduction of unemployment in rural and peri-urban areas is also temporary. Peasant farmers are leaving their land to work on the construction of stadiums for the 2014 World Cup and mega-dams in the Amazon. And ironically, it is often peasant and indigenous families that are losing land to these projects. After the construction period is over, unemployment will increase again. Worse, migrant workers who are leaving their plots of land behind face the threat of losing their land to booming agribusinesses, and many peasant families will be landless without any prospect of work.
 
3.      Rural families are being pushed off of their land by a development policy that caters to the interests of large agribusinesses and other extractive industries. Current development policies threaten land and other resources from indigenous and Afro-descendant communities. Land conflicts are mushrooming. The Land Pastoral Commission shows in its recent report of human rights violations in Brazil that there is a 26 percent increase in the number of land conflicts because of the new infrastructure projects and the complacency of local and federal governments with foreign investments. The Roussef administration’s complete support for pro-business development policies, without respecting the rights of rural families, is creating a conflictive environment of human rights violations against peasant and indigenous communities, the de facto stewards of the land.
 
Brazil abandons peasants and indigenous people’s struggle for land
 
In her first year as the head of the government, Dilma Rousseff affirmed that “a wealthy country is a country without poverty.” She also said that her government will dedicate its energy to implementing the changes her antecessor (Lula da Silva) had started. Nevertheless, the policy changes that social movements expected have not taken place. The cash transfer program, called Bolsa Familia, remains limited to a small financial support. To get up on their feet, beneficiaries will need to have access to the tools to generate income so they can leave the Bolsa Familia program For thousands of peasant families, access to land is a constitutional right to which they aspire. Unfortunately, in the last decade fewer landless families are being settled -- and not because of any decrease in the number seeking land. To the contrary, the number of landless families remains high (an estimated of 4 million peasant families are landless in Brazil). In fact, the Brazilian government is showing favoritism toward expand agribusinesses over landless farmers.
 
Last year, the Rousseff government settled less than 22,000 of the 200,000 claims of landless families. According to the Landless Workers Movement (MST), this is a new low in the agrarian reform program. The stagnation of the agrarian reform program is compounded by the threats against the territories of traditional communities, such as fishermen, indigenous and Afro-descendent communities.
 
Rural families – peasants, indigenous and Afro-descendants – are facing a difficult scenario to advocate for policy change. As the Popular Peasant Movement’s state coordinator Altacir Bunde points out, “The political scenario in Brazil is very challenging. It is hard to get any support from the government because of the bureaucracy. The influence of international agribusinesses on the Rousseff government’s decisions is greater than during Lula’s years. The image of a heavenly Brazil as an economic powerhouse makes it harder to get political support elsewhere.”
 
Indigenous organizations disappointed with Rousseff government
 
Sonia Guajajara, co-coordinator for the Council of Indigenous Organization in the Brazilian Amazon (COIAB), affirmed for Brasil de Fato that “[the policies in Brazil] backpedaled a lot in the last period. If before we struggled for the enforcement of our rights, today we fight so those rights are not erased from the Constitution.” In the view of Grassroots’ ally the Network of Indigenous People of Brazil, the Rousseff government has neglected the indigenous communities’ demands altogether.
 
“The government doesn’t have an agenda to dialogue with the indigenous movement. Any discussions that don’t interest the government are blocked in the CNPI [National Council of Indigenous People], which serves the interests of mining companies and agribusinesses.”
Rildo Kaingang, the Network of Indigenous People of Brazil (APIB)
 
The concerns about the directions of the Brazilian government are real. Brazil’s Congress is already considering changes to the Constitutional rights of indigenous, Afro-descendent and landless peasants. Last year, the lawmakers passed a law that redefines protection areas in the Amazon region in order to allow the construction of new mega-dams in the fragile ecosystem.
 
The question of Who Owns Brazil is less about property, nationalism and anti-development, and more about justice. Unlike Eike Baptista and the others who make up the top percent of Brazil’s wealthy elite, the real owners of Brazil are the Brazilian people themselves, including small farmers, indigenous communities and Afro-descendents who have yet to receive their ownership rights over land and water. And as long they continue being excluded, there will be no meaningful development.