Fri, Oct 27, 2006 - Page 7 News List

Furious farmers favor Alckmin over Lula

DISILLUSIONEDHaving seen their crop prices fall and the Brazilian real surge against dollar under Lula's rule, soybean farmers are looking to his rival for hope

AP , PULINOPOLIS, BRAZIL

Soybean producer Ricardo Visioli poses on top of a tractor at his family's farm in Pulinopolis, Brazil, on Oct. 16.

PHOTO: AP

Three years ago, farmers raced to plant more soybeans from Brazil's rolling southern hills all the way to the Amazon, profiting handsomely as the nation prepared to surpass the US as the world's top soy producer.

Now they're cutting the area they plant amid sharply lower soy prices and mounting production costs, and blaming Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva for failing to support the agribusiness that fuels a third of the country's economy.

Farmers who helped Silva to the presidency in 2002 are pledging to deny him a second term in his Oct. 29 runoff against the centrist Geraldo Alckmin, a former governor of Sao Paulo, Brazil's richest and most populous state.

Slammed hardest by a Brazilian currency that has grown ever stronger against the US dollar under Silva's administration, the farmers now grimly sowing their new crop are getting much less cash for soy, Brazil's most lucrative agricultural commodity.

Brazil's shoe and clothing exporters are also hurting, and factory jobs of many kinds have been cut as the Brazilian real's rise against the greenback has made products made in Brazil more expensive abroad.

Shoes and clothing from China and Argentina are now cheaper in dollar terms for importers from the US and Europe. And analysts no longer predict when Brazil will be crowned the planet's king of soy, used in everything from animal feed to prepared foods.

In Pulinopolis, not far from the Paraguay border, Ricardo Visioli grimaces atop his tractor and ticks off the reasons why he will plant 496 hectares of soy this year, down from 544 hectares last year.

There's the 40 percent drop in soy prices since 2003, and higher diesel and fertilizer prices. But worst of all, he said, are double-digit interest rates imposed by Silva's administration. Making it more expensive for Brazilians to borrow has controlled inflation, but made financing tight and strengthened the real.

"A country doesn't get ahead by punishing producers," fumes the 34-year-old Visioli, who has farmed his family's land in the southwestern state of Parana since age 7. "This is kamikaze agricultural policy, and if it stays the same way next year, I won't plant soy. God willing, my son won't be a farmer."

Seven of Brazil's 10 main farming states chose Alckmin over Silva on Oct. 1, helping to deny the president a first-round victory. Silva got 49 percent of the vote compared with Alckmin's 42 percent.

Now it's a two-man race, and analysts say these votes could prove crucial, even though farm states have far fewer voters than more industrialized parts of Brazil.

Though Silva has a commanding lead in the polls, a similar edge evaporated just before the first round amid a last-minute corruption scandal involving his Workers' Party.

"The vote from farm states is important because you are down to low margins," said David Fleischer, a University of Brasilia political scientist who has analyzed Brazilian elections since 1989.

Farm state votes "could make the margin of difference."

Many experts say Silva isn't to blame for many of the farmers' problems because he can't control the international agricultural markets. Some key Brazilian soy growing regions, like Parana, have also suffered from dry weather.

But try telling that to Parana's soy farmers, who remember Silva's repeated promises to help them during his 2002 campaign.

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