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Thousands of landless peasants protest in Brazil's capital, call for reform

About 15,000 landless peasants protested in Brazil's capital on Wednesday to demand land reform. The gathering was mostly peaceful, but a few isolated clashes between demonstrators and police broke out and officers used tear gas to disperse demonstrators.

The Landless Workers Movement, one of the globe's biggest agrarian reform movements, called the protest to demand that the government hand over more unused land to the farmers who have none of their own.

Brazil, which was hit by widespread anti-government protests last year, and while demonstrations have lessened in size, some remain violent.

Under Brazil's 1988 constitution, unproductive terrain may be expropriated as long as the owner is compensated. Agrarian reform remains a hot issue, with about 3.5 percent of big landowners controlling half of the farming land in one of the world's biggest agriculture powers.

Landless leaders had hoped that would change after the leftist Workers Party took power in 2003; the party and the activist group have strong ties going back three decades. But President Dilma Rousseff has come under withering criticism from activists, who say she's slowed the pace in giving peasants unused land.

"Dilma's government has been the worst in terms of land reform," said Alexandre Conceicao, a member of the Movement's national coordination committee. "She's done nothing to help Brazil shirk off being a country with one of the most unequal distributions of land in the world.

Rousseff and her ministers have defended their work on land reform, with presidential secretary Gilberto Carvalho telling a gathering of Movement leaders this week that the government was proud of its record on the issue.

But leaders of the movement known as the MST said that since Rousseff took office on Jan. 1, 2011, just 4,700 families have been given land by the government, which they claim is the smallest amount under a president since Brazil's return to democracy in 1985.

In Rio de Janeiro on Wednesday, police jailed 22-year-old Caio Souza, a demonstrator accused of firing a flare during a protest last week in Rio that hit Band TV cameraman Santiago Andrade in the head, leading to his death this week. Souza had been arrested earlier in the day in the state of Bahia.

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Associated Press writer Bradley Brooks contributed to this report from Rio de Janeiro.