The Landless Movement emerged in Brazil, and has developed
into the most important social movement in the
country. But the
movement has been the target of a pervasive attack by
the media, which misrepresents and
often fabricates stories
to mislead the Brazilian and international public.
Dawn Plummer and Betsy Ranun
Talking at the World Social Forum on January 24, in Porto Alegre, capital of Rio Grande do Sul, in Brazil, Pedro
Stédile, the main leader of the MST (Movimento dos Sem-TerraLandless Movement) announced that he and his organization
will continue organizing the poor of the country to occupy unproductive large landed estates. "There was no important
change in mankind that occurred without mobilization of the masses," he argued.
According to Stédile, the MST struggle is not limited to agrarian reform anymore. From now on the Landless
Movement leaders and members intend to step up their rhetoric and actions against multinationals and international capital, which
they see as controlling how the whole world eats and buys its products. "All the capitalist-type, assistencialist reforms that
have been made don’t work because they are not enough for the rural worker controlling the land. This kind of reform does
not change the existing social relations. A peasant who owns 10 hectares of land is still a slave. First, slave of his ideology.
Second, slave of his illusion."
The MST leader was applauded several times by 5,000 people and received a standing ovation at the end of his
conference at the sports gymnasium Gigantinho. The theme of the debate was Land, Territory and Food Sovereignty. Stédile
showed how the struggle for land has developed in the last centuries, criticized the socialist countries and pointed
globalization and giant agricultural conglomerates have altered the relationship of land and food production.
Stédile talked with enthusiasm about some land occupation projects being developed in India. For him is
fundamental that the agro industry be in the hands of the peasants. "That’s why we’ve been waging a fierce war against Nestlé,
against Monsanto and all those who want to have dominance over us." And he concluded: "Hunger is not a problem of food
production since there’s food for everybody. Hunger is the result of production concentration in the hands of the multinationals."
Poorest of Poor
To understand the situation of today’s landless in Brazil, it is important to understand the drastic changes in
agriculture and agricultural policy that Brazil has undergone since 1965, when a military coup set in motion the economic and
political model, which would persist through the turn of the 21st century, subordinating Brazil to the interests of international
finance capital, at the expense of the Brazilian people, and moreover, the Brazilian poor. The poorest of the poor in Brazil
historically have been "os sem terra"the landless. The term "landless" is the nickname that has been given to the social class of
rural workers in Brazil who work land without having title to it, whether they be tenant farmers, agricultural workers working
on large fazendas, or plantations, cultivating crops for export, or migrant workers. In total today there are 4.8 million
landless rural workers in Brazil.
During the period of the military dictatorship, from 1965 to 1984, a new model of agro-industrial development was
fiercely pursued, the goal of which was the so-called "modernization" of Brazilian agriculture. During this time rural policies
favored large-scale, export-oriented production, to the detriment of small-scale, family farming. During these years of
"modernization," the Brazilian countryside became the site of violent conflict, as socioeconomic inequalities in the rural areas became
Because the modernization model preserved the historic concentration of land in the hands of the very few and very
privileged (Brazil being one of the only countries in the world that has never undergone agrarian reform), the historic struggle over
land was intensified. Violent expulsion of working families from land became increasingly commonplace as local elites sought
to secure the interests of agribusiness and "progress" in the countryside. The result was the expropriation of millions of
peasants and their families from rural areas in Brazil during the decades of the military dictatorship.
All of Brazilian society was profoundly affected. Between 1965 and 1985 Brazil went from being a 75 percent rural
society to 75 percent urban, as literally half of the population migrated toward Brazilian cities in search of a better life, chasing
promises of salaried work in the rapidly industrializing urban centers. While some found viable work, many more did not, as the
cities could not support the influx of unskilled workers brought on by the massive rural-urban exodus.
For masses of migrants, rural poverty became urban misery. Today, Brazil is one of the most unequal societies on the
planet, with 1 percent of landowners owning 44 percent of all Brazilian land. The legacy of the "modernization" plan of the
1960’s and 70’s has been not only the 4.8 million landless families in the Brazilian countryside, but also the sprawling
favelas, or shantytowns, encircling every major Brazilian city, typically comprising anywhere from 25-50 percent of a city’s total
Genesis of the Movement
According to Stédile, the MST was the result of the conjunction of three basic factors. First, the economic crisis of
the late seventies put an end to the industrialization cycle in Brazil, which began in 1956. The second factor was the
changing orientation of the Catholic Church, with the growing ferment of liberation theology.
Says Stédile: "Before, the line had been: `No need to worry, you’ll have your land in heaven.’ Now it was: `Since
you’ve already got land in heaven, let’s struggle for it here as well.’" The third factor was the growing climate of struggle
against the military dictatorship in the late seventies, which was transforming local labor conflicts into political battles against
During the late 1970s, land occupations began to spread throughout the South, the North and the Northeast.
These occupations were clearly planned and organized by local activists, but they were uncoordinated on a national level;
there were no connections between them. Simultaneously, from 1978 onwards, the first major labor strikes during the
military dictatorship began to take place in urban areas, stoking the climate of a newfound fearlessness of the government.
The Rise of the MST
It is out of this context that the MST emerged in Brazil, and has developed into the most important social movement
in the countryindeed the largest social movement in Latin Americaand one of the most successful land reform
movements in the world. The movement is premised on the Land Statute in the Brazilian constitution: a set of laws that require that
land in Brazil fulfill a "social function."
According to federal law, land must either be cultivated for production or held for environmental preservation, and
worked in compliance with labor and environmental regulations, or it is "illegal"effectively outlawing holding large tracts of
land for speculation. The Land Statute was the product of decades of popular pressure, and was finally enacted in 1965, a
year after the military dictatorship seized control of the capitol.
Though this Statute went to the root of land inequality, as MST leader Ubiraci Stesko explains: "With the coup in
1964, the agrarian reform program was pigeonholed. The movements of the era and their leaders were assassinated, or exiled.
From 1964 to around 1984, everything stood still; no settlements were made."
In 1978 and 1979, sectors of the Catholic Church, in the tradition of liberation theology affirming the righteousness
of the poor and dispossessed, began to organize landless workers through the Pastoral Land Commission (CPT). By 1984,
with the federal government finally preparing to transition to an electoral democracy, the CPT and other segments of civil
society began to discuss the need for an autonomous movement focused specifically on the struggle for land reform, which
would unite isolated efforts that were erupting throughout the Brazilian countryside.
In 1984, 1500 representatives from 16 of Brazil’s 27 states met in Cascavel, Paraná state, and thus was born the
Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra, or MSTthe Landless Rural Workers Movement. Organized under the banner of
"land for those who work it," MST established three primary goals: 1) the immediate struggle for land for landless families
through the non-violent occupation of unproductive land; 2) agrarian reform in Brazil defined not only by the redistribution of
land but also policies that would develop and sustain rural families, and 3) a more just society.
The movement began to develop an organizational structure that would make it possible to successfully mobilize
landless workers to occupy and settle land according to the provisions set out in the Land Statute. But as one MST lawyer from
the state of Pernambuco points out, "The movement did not begin with the law to fight for land. The movement began with
the concrete necessity of workers for food, for work, for living conditions that are minimally dignified."
With the ongoing struggle, through non-violent land occupations and mass mobilizations, the MST has emerged as
one of the most powerful players in the mounting global challenge to international financial institutions and their corporate
agenda. By the time the Zapatistas took the international community by storm on January 1, 1994, the MST was commemorating
ten years as an autonomous social movement, and had not only peacefully settled thousands of families throughout the
country, but had continued to struggle for government-run schools and health clinics in these communities.
1996 marked the beginning of a new phase of the movement with the massacre of 19 members of the MST at
Eldorado dos Carajás. This massacre represented a culmination of the persistent and escalating violence by local police, private
militia and military toward rural workers. In response to the national impunity of such violence, the MST decided to take their
struggle to the international community.
The National March for Justice, Employment and Land Reform was welcomed with the applause of more than 100,000
people in Brasília on April 17, 1997, which was the one year anniversary of the massacre. Delegations of marchers came from all
corners of the country in just over a month’s time. The Campaign against impunity, which included these efforts, attracted the
attention of human rights organizations worldwide, giving rise to a new Human Rights sector of the MST and significantly
elevating the struggle for land in Brazil into international visibility.
While violence in rural Brazil has yet to de-escalate, with over 1,000 rural workers killed in land conflicts since 1985,
the massacre at Eldorado dos Carajás brought about a new sense of international solidarity with the MST, and with it an
increased expectation of accountability on behalf of the federal government to respect human rights.
Where decentralized violence on the local level becomes a less and less viable means to counteract MST’s tactics,
the federal government, large landowners and others with vested interests in unequal land distribution, developed other methods.
Perhaps the most pervasive attack on the MST comes through the media, which misrepresents and often fabricates
stories to mislead the Brazilian and international public. A more subtle form of attack experienced by the MST is through
intelligence agencies and infiltration.
The MST also suffered an economic blow with the removal of lines of credit accessible to small farmers. In April
1997, the World Bank together with Brazil’s federal government approved a US$90 million pilot program, known as the Cédula
da Terra or "Land Bank", which is designed as a free market alternative to land reform via expropriation. The plan was this:
large landowners would sell land to the World Bank at its market value, and the World Bank would in turn grant loans to
landless farmers, with which they would purchase these same lands.
The catch? The "invisible hand" of the market gives powerful landowners incentive to sell only the most marginal
territoriesrocky, hilly land which is difficult to cultivate or otherwise develop. So landowners are in effect compensated
for their socially irresponsible, illegal landholdings, which ultimately takes away the government’s responsibility to its people.
Meanwhile, the landlessthe supposed beneficiaries of the projectare left strapped in debt. A pilot project
reported that the majority of recipients of Land Bank loans did not even understand the terms of the loans granted. While the
Fernando Henrique Cardoso administration (Brazil’s President from 1994-2002) had insisted that the Land Bank was "a compliment
to agrarian reform," critics suggest otherwise. "The World Bank started to do agrarian reform because if they didn’t, the
social pressure would be too great," explains sociologist Janaine Souza from Brasilia. "If they initiate the process of agrarian
reform, they can claim that the process has already begun, and that `you need to be patient until the process comes to
completion.’ So they finance [the Land Bank], not with the intention of true agrarian reform, but to maintain social order."
As MST activist Gilberto Portes of Brasília says: "We defend the World Bank’s money for agrarian reform, but to put
it where? Into settlements, infrastructure, education. Why? Because 70 percent of peasants in Brazil are illiterate. Why
doesn’t the World Bank put this money into literacy for them? If that were the case, we would borrow and pay with no problem!
"It’s not that the MST is against the World Bank’s money. On the contrary, we’re in favor of it, but to be applied
transparently for social programs including health, education, production, agro-industry. But to use the public’s money, or
another country’s moneyincluding the American people’sto come to Brazil and put it toward large landowners and
corruption? No way!"
The MST’s evaluation is that, in the end, free-marketers in support of international agro-business will claim that the
Program failure is evidence of the economic inviability of today’s family farms. In the meantime, the Land Bank pales in
comparison to the overall improvements in standards of living on MST settlements brought about by MST education and literacy
programs, health education, art and culture, courses and training in agricultural techniques, and access to credit and
start-up capital through MST rural cooperatives. MST settlements have been recognized for their success and economic viability
by parties that would be otherwise unsympathetic to the intentions of the MSTsuch as local business people and
Portes explains: "Agrarian reform settlements organized by the MST produce more than other settlements and have
the best structure in Brazilian agriculture today. Why? Because we have developed a very strong process of internal
agricultural cooperation. We educate peasants in a way that they learn how to organize production and survive in this exploitative
economy at a level superior to others."
"Let’s globalize hope, let’s globalize the
-Via Campesina slogan
MST has located itself as a key player in networks posing the greatest challenge to the current global economic
order: the well-established worldwide network of peasants’ movements Via Campesina, the Latin America Coordination of
Rural Organizations (CLOC) and the so-called "anti-globalization" movement against corporate globalization and its "free
trade" economic agenda, manifesting itself though protests from Seattle in 1999 to Genoa in 2000, to Quebec City in 2001.
The MST has also linked up with efforts to organize working and poor people in the United States and Canada called
the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign spearheaded by the Philadelphia-based Kensington Welfare Rights
Union. The MST even marched in the 400-mile March of the Americas in 1999 from Washington, DC to the United Nations in
New York protesting poverty as a human rights violation across the continent.
The MST has also been at the forefront in organizing the World Social Forum (WSF), which, different from the
World Economic Forum, which gathers the world’s economic and political leaders each year in Davos, Switzerland, gathers
social movements, community groups, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), academics and activists to discuss
alternative strategies to today’s neoliberal globalization. Under the slogan "Another World Is Possible," the WSF has gathered for
one week in January in 2000 and 2001 and again from January 23-28, 2003 in Porto Alegre, Brazil.
Today, MST is at the forefront of the hemisphericindeed internationaleffort to stop the passage of the Free
Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), a trade agreement binding 35 of 36 countries in the Western Hemisphere (excepting Cuba)
under the dogma of neo-liberalism in a replica of NAFTA that would extend to include 800 million people under the largest
trade agreement in world history.
At the anti-FTAA protest in Quebec City in April 2001, MST was hard to miss: from the picnic members held
together with the notorious Jose Bové (of the French farmers group Confédération Paysanne denouncing GMO’s
(genetically-modified organisms), to the on-stage performance of MST songs showing that theirs is as much as anything a cultural movement,
MST demonstrated itself as a leader in the fight against the FTAA.
As awareness builds in the "developed" world around issues of food safety and organic foods, MST’s critique of
conventional agricultural production cuts through hype and goes straight to the heart of the issue. For members of MST,
"organic" food is not a luxury or a flashy marketing gimmick, but a necessity for the health of farmers and the overall human
population, the ensured sustainability of their land for generations to come, as well as the health of the consumer. And for family
farmers, these three are most often inseparable.
"In the beginning, when we were working with agrochemicals, those who worked the fields were getting sick,"
recounts Jandyra Guarneri, the director of a 26-family MST farming cooperative in the state of Paraná, in southern Brazil. "This is
why we made the change to organic. There was no other way. The change was difficult technically, and expensive at first.
But we saw an improvement in the health of the whole communityespecially the childrenas we began to consume foods
produced without agrochemicals."
The movement’s stand on GMO’s (genetically modified organisms) has been articulated with the same clarity. Early
in 2001, MST members took direct action in "experimental" fields of GMO soybeans planted by Monsanto in the
southernmost state of Rio Grande do Sul. They destroyed the entire crop, sending a message that reverberated throughout all of South
America: insofar as GMO’s have not undergone sufficient scientific testing for long term effects, or even minimal public debate,
and pose a real threat to both small producers and consumers, the cultivation of GMO crops will not be tolerated by the MST.
The MST has championed seeds as the heritage and therefore property of humanity and not corporations. The
MST’s vigilance in their resistance to GMO foods serves as an inspiration to their allies and sympathizers throughout the
world, including here in the U.S. and Canada. "They are so far ahead of us down there," says Niel Ritchie of the
Minneapolis-based Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, about the Brazilian anti-GMO campaign. "We have so much to learn from their
public relations effort, how they’ve managed to educate and communicate with the public on this issue."
Since 1985, the MST has continued to grow in numbers and gain momentum through a relentless commitment to
truly grassroots politics, sophisticated and politically savvy national coordination, and a vision of a world in which life is
valued above all else. But as the forces of neo-liberal globalization and U.S. domination grow stronger in the first years of the
21st century, so too do the challenges confronting the MST.
In the coming years, support and solidarity across national boundaries will be fundamental to the survival of the
movement. What can North Americans do to support the work of the MST? Says National Coordinator Joao Pedro Stédile:
"Bring down your neo-liberal governments, help us get rid of foreign debt, stop importing Brazilian agricultural products that
represent nothing but exploitation (wood, mahogany), and fightbuild mass struggles."
Dawn Plummer is the Coordinator of the US-based "Friends of the MST" and has worked closely with and studied
the movement for six years. As a member of the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign, she is also active in
building a similar movement to end poverty in the United States. She welcomes your message at
Betsy Ranum is a senior at Smith College and has lived and worked with the MST.
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