Brazilian peasants march for land

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Brasilia - Landless peasants marched into the Brazilian capital to the cheers of more than 25,000 demonstrators in the biggest protest faced by President Fernando Henrique Cardoso.

The demonstrators opposed to Mr Cardoso's pro-market reforms braved a rainstorm to cheer the 1,500 peasants of the Landless Movement (MST) as they filed into Brasilia's massive Ministries Esplanade after a 750-mile march to demand land and justice for colleagues who have lost their lives.

"Comrades, do not give in. We can still dream of a better future," MST leader Joao Pedro Stedile urged protesters waving red flags as left-wing luminaries, trade union leaders and liberal Catholic bishops jostled for space behind him.

The MST has emerged as a new left-wing force in Brazil that has captured the imagination of the public with its high-profile tactic of invading and cultivating unused farmland.

Mr Stedile said the MST would defy calls from the government to give up the occupations which can lead to violence.

"There will be more and more occupations. We don't expect the government to carry out proper land reform programme as an act of generosi- ty," Mr Stedile said.

Brazil has one of the world's worst land-distribution ratios, with about half its arable land in the hands of 2 per cent of landowners.

The struggle for land ownership is also one of the main factors behind Brazil's soaring levels of violence. More than 100 people have been killed in land disputes since Mr Cardoso took office in January 1995.

Thursday's protest marked the first anniversary of the killing by police of 19 peasants demanding land. The massacre heaped criticism from international rights groups on Brazil and spurred Mr Cardoso to declare land reform a priority.

No one has been arrested for that killing, despite television pictures clearly showing police officers firing indiscriminately into the crowd of protestors.