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Only Huge Mass Mobilizations Will Bring Change, Says Brazil’s Landless Leader

MST leader João Pedro Stédile

The main leader of Brazil’s Movement of Landless Rural Workers (MST), João
Pedro Stédile, defends the need for the Brazilian agrarian policy to prioritize
income distribution. The MST considers classical land reform finished off and is
proposing a new type of reform to the government. They believe the current
model, which has been coopted by the Brazilian elite, is dominated by
international financial capital.

According to Stédile, member of the national leadership of the MST, the first step is the democratization of land ownership, a demand that could be met through limits on the size of rural estates. “We cannot accept that a company would own 100 thousand or one million hectares just because they have money”, he emphasizes.


Stédile claims that Brazil needs a new agricultural model, based on small and medium size properties. “Before we do anything else we need to defeat neoliberalism by building a national development model that prioritizes income distribution.”


Do you admit that the agrarian reform model defended by the MST is finished off? What should be done?


During the 20th century, peasant movements in Latin America struggled for so-called classical agrarian reform, through the combination of land distribution and a project for developing national industry, thereby strengthening the internal market and income distribution. This model would remove peasants from poverty and promote a more just development. That was the case in all countries of the Northern Hemisphere, but the Brazilian elite adhered to neoliberalism, a model dominated by international finance capital. Agrarian reform is finished in this model.


This model was finished off by the Brazilian elite; we did not want it to happen. However, the agrarian issue is not solved and we have 150 thousand families in encampments and another four million landless families in the country. Keeping that in mind, the MST will struggle for a new agrarian reform, for the democratization of the land combined with the reorganization of production, prioritizing food for the internal market, without the current control of the transnational corporations.


We also need an agrarian reform that adopts a new technological model, respects the environment, brings agro-industries structured in cooperatives to rural areas and gives access to schools and education.


What is the answer for Brazilian agriculture? What is the new agricultural model?


The country needs a new agricultural model, based on small and medium size rural properties. In order to do that we first need to defeat neoliberalism, building a new national development model, which prioritizes income, national industry, and puts top priority on the creation of work and jobs so that the people have income.


The first step for the new kind of agrarian reform is the democratization of the ownership of land, a demand that can be met by limiting the size of rural properties.


It is not acceptable for a company to own 100 thousand or 1 million hectares of land just because it has money. True farmers, even the capitalist ones, know that 1,000 hectares can make a lot of money. The organization of production, before anything else, must meet the needs of the internal market. Europe and the US are not the largest potential market for agricultural products, but rather the Brazilian poor. Here 60% of the population is malnourished.


In other words, we have 120 million Brazilians who want to consume, but do not have income. Nowadays transnational corporations come here and control production, marketing, pricing. That is wrong. As an alternative to control the production and processing of food, we have to take the small agro-industries to the countryside, generating jobs and income in the rural areas of the country.


We also need a new production system in the countryside, using environmentally correct techniques to produce healthy food without agrochemicals. The agrochemicals affect the health of the population, including the urban population, who may think that they have nothing to do with those issues. But they pay later for their lack of information in the form of a hospital bill.


Finally, we need to bring public services to rural areas, especially formal education and knowledge to educate the peasant citizen. A peasant without education can see only the land in front of him and does not understand the complexity of Brazilian society and class struggle. We are making an enormous effort to elevate their cultural level and political awareness.


We launched in our congress a national literacy campaign in the countryside, based on the Cuban method. “Yes, I can”. We have to have control over words and advance formal education. Those who are attending primary school have to move on to secondary school, and those who are attending secondary school have to attend the university. To accomplish this, we put out the call: to be an activist in the landless people’s movement, you must be studying.


How should we define the MST encampments in the country?


The encampments are put together by the families of poor rural workers, who receive the lowest wages in Brazilian society and feel that the land must belong to those who work the land, not those who turn land into an investment or produce to export. They are the poor who rent the land, day laborers, sharecroppers, and they want to have their own land to plant.


There are also poor families, who have been evicted from the countryside and moved to the outskirts of big cities, but wish to return and see the movement as an alternative to obtain land in order to improve their living conditions, to have a house, a garden to work the land, to have access to education, leisure and access to health services for their families.


Has the victory of agribusiness in the countryside compelled the MST to politicize and search for new demands?


We do not believe in the victory of agribusiness or of neoliberalism. In the two elections of President Lula, the people voted against neoliberalism, a model that concentrates land, wealth, and incomes, that creates more poverty and unemployment, and that does not have the conditions to resolve society’s problems.


Agribusiness politicized our movement, because the current struggle for agrarian reform involves the defeat of the economic model of neoliberalism and the construction of a project that resolves the problems of Brazil’s people, creating the conditions for a process of a new type of land redistribution.


The reform of labor laws is controversial. What is your position on this topic?


We are against the withdrawal of historic rights won through much struggle by the workers during the 20th century. We, together with the union, popular, and student movements, are in a big campaign against the social welfare reforms, against all reforms that withdraw rights, like Amendment 3. The government needs a project to create jobs, guarantee a dignified salary, places to live and to carry out agrarian reform.


Their economic policy, based on the primary surplus, high interest and on debt repayment, harms the working class and the country’s sovereignty and enriches bankers and wealthy entrepreneurs. It strangles any possibility for investment in social policies and maintains the perverse concentration of income.


For the first time since the founding of the MST, in 1984, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was not invited to the movement’s national conference recently in Brasília. Why?


Lula is aware that our Congress has its own agenda and is not ruled by the government. It is this that the press does not understand. We have never invited any president of the Republic because it is an activity for our activists and for the internal discussion of our Movement. The authorities who participated did so by their own initiative as friends of the movement.


How do you sum up the MST’s 5th National Congress?


The Congress was a large gathering of activists from 24 states, a time for reflection and collective analysis about the state of agrarian reform and Brazilian society. It was also a time for mobilization, with a march to denounce how the Brazilian state, represented by the three Powers of the Republic, impedes agrarian reform. Furthermore, after two years of discussion in the encampments and settlements, we finalized our Agrarian Program which presents our proposal for Brazilian agriculture.


The minister of Agrarian Development, Guilherme Cassel, refutes your criticisms. He classified the discourse of the movement’s key arguments as “medieval” and outdated. How do you see this?


We do not want to lose time with secondary questions that do not help realize agrarian reform. We want to discuss with society, including with the government, a new model for agriculture that gives priority to family farming oriented to the internal market, to the poor of the country. This should begin with a massive process of agrarian reform beginning with the settlement of 150 thousand families who are now camped on the edge of highways.


We cannot pursue that model of agribusiness that hands over our lands to transnational businesses, expels people from the countryside, destroys the environment, imposes transgenics and agro-toxins. The new model for agricultural that we are calling for entails a development project based on the defense of popular sovereignty and on a new economic model, which has at its core a strong internal market, the distribution of income, a national industry that sustains the creation of jobs and income for the people.


The issue is that President Lula owes a debt to the MST and to the farmers of all of Brazil because his government has not carried out agrarian reform. On the contrary, the concentration of land has increased.


What is your opinion about income inequality in the country?


The inequality between the rich and the poor in the country is shameful and is the result of the choices made by the Brazilian elite in the past and in the present. According to studies by professor Márcio Pochmann, five thousand families control 40% of the national wealth, 10% of the rich population control 75%, while 90% of the Brazilian people have only 25% of the wealth.


Neoliberal economic policies, effective since the middle of the 1990s, increases that inequality. The Brazilian people actually spend, through their taxes, nearly 150 billion reais (about US$ 75 billion) a year in the payment of public debt that are given to 20 thousand families of bankers and speculators. Even Vice-President José de Alencar denounced that absurd transfer.


In the countryside, because of choices made by the ruling classes, we have lost four historic opportunities to undertake what is called classical agrarian reform, combining the distribution of land with a national project of industrial development to develop an internal market.


The first was during the process of the abolition of slavery, when the black rural workers wanted to work in the countryside, but were impeded by the Law of the Lands of 1850 (Lei de Terras de 1850). After that, in the implementation of the national project of industrialization, in the decade of the 30s. In the beginning of the 60s, with the rise of the mass movement around the proposals of João Goulart, especially agrarian reform.


Finally, during the Rights Now! Campaign, when there was a favorable climate in the Party of the Brazilian Democratic Movement (PMDB) to make a national development project. Starting then, the Brazilian elites left aside the national project and imposed neoliberalism on the country, which subordinates the Brazilian economy to international finance capital and increases social inequality and poverty.


How about violence in the countryside? How would you combat this?


Ending the deaths of rural workers depends on carrying out agrarian reform and on the strength of the social movements in the countryside, that when organized, has more strength to resist violence, as the last report of the Pastoral on the Land showed. The deaths and the impunity that allows gunmen and latifúndio owners responsible for the deaths to go free, show the intransigency of the ruling classes with the social problems of the Brazilian people and are always “resolved” by means of violence and death. The death of comrades is a consequence of our unjust structure of land ownership and of the backward mentality of the large latifúndio owners.


It also shows the anti-social character of the Brazilian state, which does not resolve the peoples’ problems. We have a Judiciary that protects the rich and is missing when it comes to the peoples’ rights. A Legislature that for 10 years has not approved a bill to expropriate without compensation the lands of farmers that use slave labor. An Executive that does not have the courage to comply with the Constitution, which specifies that all large estates that do not serve a social function should be expropriated.


Is Lula now an enemy of agrarian reform?


Our enemies are agribusiness, transnational corporations, the banks and the financial market. We also accuse the Legislative, Executive, and Judiciary powers of impeding agrarian reform by protecting the latifúndio and supporting agribusiness. In relation to the government, we have already given them a proposal and we want to discuss a medium-range and long-range plan for Brazilian agriculture to combat poverty in the countryside and carry out agrarian reform. We are going to maintain our autonomy and criticize the economic policy, the support for agribusiness and for large corporations by means of loans from public banks and exemption from export taxes.


How do you see the Brazilian Left?


The Brazilian Left is going through a learning process and is understanding that social changes don’t happen because of the will of a president, a party, or a government, as much as they may be our friends whom we have helped to elect. The transformation of the country will come about with the mobilization of the Brazilian people around a national development project that changes the structure of Brazilian society and sustains economic growth with the creation of jobs, agrarian reform, investments in public services of education and health and the distribution of income and wealth.


The mass movements of the Left have been at an ebb since 1989. In the 80s, the country went through a period when the mass movement was on the rise and succeeded in imposing democracy and pointed toward very profound changes in Brazilian society. In the 90s, the ebb involved a loss of strength in the union movement, which had its social base affected by neoliberal policies, which caused unemployment.


What is your analysis of the Lula government?


The people voted for Lula against neoliberalism. However, the alliances made to win the elections created a government made up of various forces that was weighted toward the neoliberal forces. There was no rise in the mass movement in society. Despite having a more progressive government, the correlation of forces was not changed in relation to the economic model.


Our society is very complex and the forces of capital, allied with international capital, are very powerful. The changes in Brazil will come when the people are more conscious, more organized, and carry out huge mass mobilizations as we did against the military regime.


How do you analyze the series of scandals in the country?


The Brazilian state was built historically by means of patrimonialism, a corrupt system where favors were exchanged to favor a bureaucracy tied to businessmen. It’s nothing new. We need to get beyond the superficial and find the root of these deviations, which is the tight relationships between senators and deputies with businessmen, contractors, and with the financial market. It doesn’t help to carry out a political reform that does not change the system, which has the Vale do Rio Doce Corporation with 47 deputies, Aracruz with 16 deputies, the Itaú Bank with 27 and the Gerdau Group with 27.


The problem of Brazilian democracy is deeper than what appears in the newspapers and on television. Yes, we need political reform, but we need to put the powers and institutions at the service of the people by means of real participation and representation.


The Constitution in Article 14 allows for plebiscites, referendums, and popular consultations to be carried out. Along with other social movements and groups like the Organization of Brazilian Lawyers and the National Conference of Brazilian Bishops, we are in a campaign coordinated by Professor Fábio Comparato to defend democracy and the republic.


This interview was published originally in Rio’s daily newspaper Tribuna da Imprensa.

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