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Basically, the Sem Terra are not armed guerillas seeking violent
revolt or upheaval in Brazil. Rather, they are landless workers who have grown sick and
tired of Brazil’s starkly unjust social situation and have resigned to organize and,
through grassroots democracy, improve the lot of Brazil’s majority.
By A reply

Basically, the Sem Terra are not armed guerillas seeking violent
revolt or upheaval in Brazil. Rather, they are landless workers who have grown sick and
tired of Brazil’s starkly unjust social situation and have resigned to organize and,
through grassroots democracy, improve the lot of Brazil’s majority.

Susanna Shapiro

I’m writing in response to a false and misleading reference contained in Janer
Cristaldo’s March 1999 article called "The Yanomami Bluff and Other Myths."
Aside from problems with the article’s content and serious problems with the translation,
my concern focuses on a short but disturbing reference to the Landless Workers Movement in
Brazil (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra-MST).

Cristaldo mentioned the MST in the context of discussing how Brazilian Indian’s are
some of the largest landowners on the planet. "Ironically," he wrote "[the
Indians] inhabit the same country in which the Movimento dos Sem Terra (groups armed with
rifles, sickles and machetes, organized by the Catholic Church) invade and raze productive
properties with guerilla tactics and under the flags of Mao Tse Tung and Che
Guevara." The only part of this quote that is technically accurate, is that the MST
and the Indians do occupy the same country. However, in contrast to the dismal picture
Cristaldo paints, the Movimento Sem Terra (which involves more than 500,000 Brazilians)
has been recognized for years by scholars and social scientists to be the largest,
strongest and best organized movement in Brazil (see Petras, James. Latin America: The
Resurgence of the Left, 1996).

In contrast to Cristaldo’s quote, the primary goal of the MST is, in fact, to
peacefully occupy unproductive land. The MST’s land occupations, partly legalized by a
provision in the Brazilian constitution, serve both as a practical and symbolic means of
restoring social justice in Brazil. One need only look at the statistics to understand the
desperate need for distribution of resources in Brazil. Although 1% of Brazil’s population
holds over 50% of the country’s land (NACLA Report, 1996), a national land reform policy
has never been implemented in Brazil.

Still, the MST do not just occupy land, they also produce upon it and set up
democratically-functioning communities with schools, communication networks, and
agricultural cooperatives. In addition to settling over 200,000 landless people on
unproductive land and improving these people’s standard of living, the MST has also won an
award by UNICEF in 1995 for its "public schools of quality education in settlement
areas."

To remain unified in their struggle for land reform, social justice and democracy in
Brazil, the MST has designed their own flag, which they use in addition to the Brazilian
flag. The MST flag was carefully and symbolically designed with colors and images that
represent this specific social movement, and does not attempt to represent Mao Tse Tung’s
Communist China or Che Guevara’s socialist Cuba.

Basically, the Sem Terra are not armed guerillas seeking violent revolt or upheaval in
Brazil. Rather, they are landless workers who have grown sick and tired of Brazil’s
starkly unjust social situation and have resigned to organize and, through grassroots
democracy, improve the lot of Brazil’s majority. To get more information about the MST,
look on their web page at http://www.mst.org.br, or contact Global Exchange, a non-profit
organization in San Francisco.

My name is Susanna Shapiro and I have conducted research on the Movimento Sem Terra and
lived among them for two months. I do not claim to have authority about the MST or to
represent the views of the Sem Terra. I only hope to use the knowledge gained from my
field experience to correct false representations of this organized struggle and to call
attention to the fact that the violence is usually initiated by the landowners not by the
"rifle-toting sem terra" since they are not armed (they use their machetes to
clear the unproductive land for farming!).

I completed an 80-page honor thesis on this social movement for Stanford University and
if anyone would like to read it, please contact me at (301) 294-9274.

To the author of the article "Yanomami Bluff and Other Myths": Hopefully my
response to this quote will encourage Janer Cristaldo to look a little deeper into issues
and possibly try to reference sources if he cannot be there to see for himself. Even
though the reference to the MST was brief, it was unfortunately many people’s first
impression of this successful and dynamic social movement. Aware of this fact, numerous
MST supporters in and outside of Brazil were extremely upset by such a distorted and
misleading reference. Mr. Cristaldo, I suggest you write Brazzil to apologize for this
harmful comment, educate yourself on the MST, and in the future, be careful what you write
about issues with which you are not familiar!

You can reach Susanna Shapiro at susannashapiro@hotmail.com
 

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