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Uruguay: land occupations

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Landless Peasants with 80 Families Occupy and Take Over Farm in Northern Uruguay

by MercoPress

Wednesday, 18 January 2012 

The landless peasants’ movement has reached Uruguay: the self called “shaggy” ones, with eighty families, have taken over a 400 hectares farm in  Artigas (see map) the extreme north of the country in Artigas and have been occupying the land.

“We have been through seven years of Broad Front government and very few peasants or paid farm hands have had access to a plot of land”, said Jorge Rodas, president of the Union of Sugar Workers from Artigas, (UTAA).

The union was originally founded in the sixties by the Uruguayan urban guerrilla leader Raul Sendic and whose organization now as a political party belongs to the ruling catch-all Broad Front coalition which extends from the conservative Christian Democrats to Communists, Socialists, anarchists, Trotskyites and obviously the former guerrillas, whose current leader was elected in 2009 as president of the country, Jose Mujica.

The idea of the ‘shaggies”, which is very similar to the MST (the landless movement in Brazil) and who have organised the 80 families, is to remain for some time to send “a strong message to the government and the people of Uruguay”.

Rodas said that the organization keeps growing in number and is targeting farms minimally exploited or belonging to absentee landlords. “This is to tell the government that if we have the strength to occupy private land, we will continue growing in the number of people who support us and are joining our movement”

“When we occupy a private farm it is to tell the government about the problems faced by farm hands, by landless workers. We want the government or whoever, to find a solution to the issue”, said Rodas who claims UTAA has 2,000 members.

Three leaders of UTAA have been summoned to court and in a brief release argue that the occupied farm belongs to a “money lender who gobbled the plots of small farmers”.

Artigas to the north of Uruguay and bordering Argentina and Brazil has an economy based on farming and the non-industrial mining of amethysts. However, it also has sugar cane plantations and a sugar mill that has been in turmoil for over six decades.

The UTAA was created in the sixties by Raul Sendic, the founder of the urban Tupamaros guerrilla movement. Sugar cane planting has long been a sensitive issue in Uruguay. The truth is that growing sugar cane in the north of Uruguay is simply not profitable compared to the huge efficient crops of Brazil and Argentina.

However, since winning the election first in 2004 and again in 2009, the ruling Broad Front coalition has made it a political question to keep the sugar cane plantations functioning,  mainly for a bio-fuel project, and it has promised to distribute land to the “shaggies”, which so far has not happened.

So, even when the occupation of farms in the north of Uruguay, in the sugar cane area of Bella Union can be interpreted as a repeat of the well organized Landless Movement in Brazil, it is in reality yet another infighting dispute among the different groups of the ruling coalition.

Some groups insist land must be distributed, as promised, while other maitian that private property and the rules of the game must be respected, if Uruguay is to keep receiving foreign investment. To this must be added a local ingredient: the Governor of Artigas, Patricia Ayala, who belongs to the ruling coalition, has seen her standing in the public opinion polls plunge.

Meanwhile, the Uruguayan Treasury is having to pay for the dispute: most of the so-called ‘shaggies” and those working for the government’s bio-fuel project to boost sugar cane plantation in small farms or cooperatives have been incorporated as government employees.

Now apparently they are also pressing for plots of land.