Brazil has close to 12 million landless peasants. Although the
country’s constitution guarantees the right of property to everyone there has never been
an effective agrarian reform in a land that is the fifth largest nation on the planet. The
grassroots Landless Rural Workers Movement was born to give a voice to the landless.
By Marco Pinto
Brazil is known all over the world for its natural beauty, warm people, Carnaval and
other marvelous festivals, soccer, caipirinha (a margarita-like concoction), the
Amazon Rainforest, Iguaçu Falls, Sugar Loaf Hill, and the Corcovado Mountain with the
Statue of Christ on its top, with his open arms, embracing Rio de Janeiro. Those are
beauties of a country full of dreams. Nonetheless, such features just reveal a small part
of the reality that most Brazilians live.
Like the majority of the Latin American countries in the ’90s, the Brazilian federal
government has opted to adopt the neoliberal economic model, privatizing state-owned
factories, cutting social services, and opening the economy to foreign investment. Yet,
despite being the world’s fifth largest country in territorial area, the government has
never implemented an effective agrarian reform to distribute idle lands in the
countryside. In Brazil, people can acquire land through purchase, inheritance, peaceful
occupation, cultivation as well as government expropriation. The Brazilian Constitution of
1988 guarantees the right of property as long as the property fulfills a social function.
Hence, it is not surprising that less than one percent of the people in Brazil hold
almost half of the nation’s arable land. Indeed, the wealthiest 20 percent of the
Brazilian population own 90 percent of the land, much of it being idle, used for ranching,
tax write-offs, or to produce crops exclusively for export, while millions starve in the
country. Therefore, Brazil is one of the most unjust countries today should we look at the
existing gap between the rich people and the poor rural masses. Land distribution has been
almost absent until last decade. Some 4.8 million families in the rural areas have barely
survived, working for miserable wages in a temporary basis. Others, in the interior of the
country, cultivate the soil using slash and burning techniques.
Despite the peasant struggle throughout Brazilian history, it was only in 1984 that a
national movement to address their plight took shape. During that year, the landless
peasants formed the Landless Rural Workers Movement (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais
Sem Terra, or MST), to defend their rights to land in the Brazilian rural areas. The MST
is a grassroots movement. It consists of landless workers who have no access to the land
or proper conditions to crop the land; as a consequence, they cannot sustain their
The Movement is quite political; nevertheless, it has no affiliation with any political
party. It has a progressive tendency, but it works in a free market structure. The members
of the MST believe they can create conditions to fight unemployment, illiteracy, and poor
health facilities they have been coping for ages in the rural areas. Those are people who
want to become more productive for the good of the entire nation. They became tired of
being exploited by the élite, and then left behindhopeless and helplessas the
The Landless Rural Workers leaders aim to organize and prepare the nearly 12 million
landless peasants socially, educationally and politically so that they can take a better
control of their lives. As a matter of fact, the Movement directs much of its efforts to
provide the rural workers with education and agricultural training. Additionally, the MST
organizes the peasants to struggle against human rights violations in the countryside.
Lastly, the MST demands an improvement of health facilities, more education institutions
for the impoverished people, and justice for the victims of violence in the rural areas.
Since its formation, the MST has organized thousands of landless peasants, as well as
small tenant farmers, to persuade and pressure the Brazilian government to do a national
agrarian reform. Through dramatic land appropriation and standoff with police and
landowners, the Movement has enabled nearly 200,000 landless families to successfully
settle on seven million hectares of idle land. MST leaders see education as a priority for
its members. Thus, there are at least 40,000 students and 1,500 teachers in 850 schools
who use the educational materials produced by the Movement. UNESCO has recognized and
awarded the MST for its educational work. Indeed, during the ’90s, the Movement received
several awards for its work including the Alternative Nobel Prize in 1993, the King
Baldouin Prize in Belgium last year, and the Human Rights International Prize in France.
Responding to the needs of the rural workers, the MST created a cooperative system that
has enabled families who live on its settlements to earn up to three times more than poor
families with the same amount of land in the same region. Today, the Movement controls
over 100 cooperatives, and has begun to export its products to the United States and
Europe. According to a recent MST publication, the Movement has an annual nationwide
budget of around $20 million, that passes through its legal entity ANCANational
Association of Agriculture Cooperation. During 1996, the MST had enough earnings to
finance 167 land appropriations; to publish its newspaper, and to pay for travel expenses,
education, and wages of hundreds of its activists.
Throughout times, landless rural workers have been suffering from poverty to human
rights violations in rural Brazil. Brutality, torture and killings have become routine
when dealing with the issue of the land. For decades, human lives have been at stake in
the shantytowns of the big cities as well as in the countryside, where the poorest are
often suppressed and kept voiceless. There have been enough facts proving that
paramilitary groups, landowners and local government authorities have used violence as a
means to expel the landless from the sites where they settled.
Recently, Amnesty International, among other human rights organizations, has issued
several reports denouncing grave human rights violations that occurred in the Brazilian
rural areas. For example, in the last couple of years there were two violent
confrontations between the landless peasants and Brazilian local authorities. As a result,
two state police officers, dozens of landless rural workers, including two children, died
in northern Brazil. Those massacres happened in Curumbiara, Rondônia state, on August 9,
1995, and Eldorado dos Carajás, Pará state on April, 17, 1996.
In addition to those killings, Global Exchange, a human rights organization based in
San Francisco, issued a note reporting that, just over a month ago, a group of farmers and
policemen gunned down two more MST leaders in Pará state while the government delivered
its justifications for the Brazilian rural situation to Pope John Paul II. So far, the
local authorities have not arrested anybody connected with those deaths. It is true that
the Brazilian federal government has taken initiatives to uphold human rights; however,
there is still an enormous gap between its promises and its actual actions.
After a year of the massacre in Eldorado dos Carajás, there was a march on foot,
organized by the MST, covering 620 miles from its three points of origin to the federal
capital Brasília. The manifestation counted with the participation of around 100,000
people. They urged the Brazilian authorities to find the culprits of that massacre, and
demanded the end of violence against the peasants in the rural areas. The demonstration
united people from different backgrounds and social classes. There were union people,
representatives of different churches, members of political parties that supported land
reform, unemployed and retired people. Soon after, there was a popular survey in Brazil
that indicated that around 90 percent of the interviewed people agreed with the movement’s
struggle for agrarian reform.
Last April, Daniel Correia, 26, the leader of MST in the southern state of Rio Grande
do Sul, came to the United States for a speaking tour. He visited several cities, and
spoke at various universities. In Los Angeles, a number of political, social and human
rights activists, as well as several educators volunteered to form and sponsor a committee
to have Correia talking about the MST on April 23rd at Santa Monica College, UCLA, and Cal
State University Los Angeles.
In all his speeches Correia said, "Agrarian reform can only happen if there is a
broad participation of the masses, both in the urban areas and in the countryside."
"Only about 25 percent of the Brazilian population live in the rural areas," he
noted. Correia talked about the relevance of education in the countryside. He looked quite
excited as he mentioned the education the "little landless" children are getting
in the rural areas. He acknowledged the efforts of the rural educators, who teach the
"little landless," not only arithmetic and science, but also self-esteem and the
importance of collective work, thus enabling the children to form their committees to
discuss about matters that concern specifically themselves.
"Agrarian reform is the solution, not only for the countryside, where the peasants
can get jobs, but also for the urban areas, where people will have access to more products
of good quality and at a better price," Correia said, adding: "It will also help
solve the problem of migration to the urban cities, keeping the peasants in the
countryside. This reform will help in preserving the Brazilian natural resources by
training rural workers to work the soil more efficiently."
Lastly, Correia explained the reasons for the discontentment of the MST with the
federal plan for agrarian reform, "Notwithstanding the settlement of 55,000 families
during the first two years of the presidency of Fernando Henrique Cardoso, there have been
around 1.2 million rural workers that have lost their land or their jobs in the
countryside in that period of time."
The question now lies in what we can do to demonstrate our individual solidarity with
the peasants in Brazil. Regardless of our political opinion on this issue, it makes sense
to show our respect and care for a number of families whose plight bases upon conquering
the right to live decently and with dignity without being used and abused. This is not a
question of politics. It is a social shame, and ought to be corrected before it is too
Some of us might agree with the methods of the MST; others might oppose them. However,
it appears there is more than just a struggle for land titles and power in the Brazilian
rural areas. There is a struggle to rescue the dignity of millions of people who seek
social justice, and are tired of waiting and believing in official broken promises for
better days. It seems that only when people get together, and bring out the voices of the
poor and oppressed, changes start to take place.
Thus, it is through the union, not only of those who struggle for what they believe to
be their right, but also of people who believe in such struggles, that social justice
takes its rightful place in society. We must always have in mind that, above all, human
lives are priceless; to fight injustices should not be a privilege. Standing up for what
we believe is an inherent condition of each human being. As the new millennium approaches,
Brazil becomes much more than just a place to visit. It is a country of social struggles
and courageous people. It is a country that grows each and every day, not territorially
per se, but in political and social consciousness.
The author, Marco Aurélio Pinto Ribeiro was born in 1966 in Rio de
Janeiro, Brazil. He is fluent in English, French, Portuguese and Spanish. His majors are
anthropology, journalism and political science. He volunteers for several human rights
organizations, including Amnesty International USA, Brazilian Sociocultural Committee, and
Movimento Social Humanista (MSH). If you wish to know more about the
landless movement in Brazil or the organizations the author works with, feel free to call
(310) 281-6652, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or
write to MSH, 13601 Ventura Blvd. # 288, Sherman Oaks, CA 91423, USA.