What do you get when you fuse the most brutal landowners of the Global South
with some of the most powerful corporations of the North, such as Monsanto,
DuPont, British Petroleum and Morgan Stanley? You get transnational corporations
that reap billions of dollars in profits, Brazil’s landowning elite with a new
lease on its degenerate lifestyle, the devastation of Brazil’s precious
You also get people who inherit polluted aquifers, exhausted soils and genetically contaminated agricultural systems. Fortunately for all of us, Brazil’s Landless Workers’ Movement (MST) has its eyes, minds, hands and sickles directed at corporate agrofuel expansion.
With the new hype about substituting petroleum-based energy products with agrofuels, international investment in Brazil’s large-scale production of sugarcane, soy and other agrofuel monoculture is providing nothing less than a lifeline to the feudal lords of Brazil’s colonial past.
Last year, US$ 9 billion in international investments went into the agrofuel industry. In Brazil, three percent of landowners own two-thirds of all land on which food crops could be grown.
According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, in 1999, more than a quarter of Brazil’s population (or 44 million people) lived in absolute poverty; (on $1.06 per day). Recent figures suggest that this number is now more than 50 million.
It is also estimated that poverty forces three million Brazilian children out of schools and into work – 40 percent of them in the agricultural sector.
As a class, the feudal lords who benefit from land concentration have been facing real threats to their existence since the 1950s, and even more so in recent decades.
Brazil’s 1988 constitution, rewritten after 20 years of military dictatorship, empowered the state to expropriate and redistribute idle agricultural lands, leading thousands of organized landless peasants – waving MST flags and banners – to occupy vacant lots to pressure the government to implement real agrarian reform.
By 2002, thanks to the efforts of the MST, 20 million acres of agricultural lands had been redistributed to roughly 350,000 previously landless families.
When Brazil’s first working-class president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, was elected that year, many predicted the arrival of the long-awaited democratization of land resources. Doubts grew when the Lula government granted US$ 12 billion to subsidize agribusiness in 2003, and only US$ 2.3 billion for agrarian reform.
Five years and one re-election later, it is safe to say international pressures to promote large-scale agro-export commodities have halted advances in Brazil’s agrarian reform.
George Soros – an investor whose net worth is estimated to be US$ 8.5 billion – recently purchased 66,718 acres of land in Brazil. Shortly after this purchase, Soros established a business partnership with the colonial-era coffee-growing Vieri Family. The partnership now has plans to mill 12 million tons of sugar cane annually, much of it to be converted to ethanol.
During a recent visit to Brazil, Soros spoke of “distinct competitive advantages.” Was Soros referring to the slave labor currently used in Brazilian cane production, like the 1,108 slaves freed just a few weeks ago from a sugar cane-for-ethanol plantation in northern Brazil – the largest raid against debt slavery in Brazil’s history?
Or is it Brazil’s untapped land and water resources that make it “competitive”? Maybe he was thinking of Brazil’s Pantanal wetland, which forms part of the world’s largest tropical wetlands – home to at least 650 bird species, more than 190 species of mammals, 50 kinds of reptiles, more than 1,100 butterfly species and 270 fish species.
According to the Global Nature Fund, the installment of new ethanol distilleries is threatening the wetlands’ hydrological cycles.
And don’t forget our friends in the biotech industry who, faced with worldwide opposition to human consumption of genetically modified (GM) foods, see agrofuel production as a new market for their GM creations.
Monsanto, for example, has created a RoundUp Ready soy variety, which is modified to withstand massive applications of Monsanto’s infamous RoundUp herbicide. And coming soon: RoundUp Ready sugarcane varieties, expected in Brazilian cane fields by 2009.
The MST, respected worldwide for its ability to organize, educate and mobilize the rural poor in the fight for the democratization of land and resources, has announced its every intention to impede corporate agrofuel expansion.
With more than 20 years of experience under its belt and a praxis built upon the experiences of hundreds of thousands of organized landless workers, the MST is wholly prepared for the challenges it will face.
As a result of the land occupations conducted over the years by hundreds of families at once – a tactic that wards off eviction by government or private armies – two million people now live on lands secured through direct action.
These two million people, who carry an understanding of the importance of collective mass action, continually mobilize to pressure local, state and federal governments for improved access to schools, roads, health care and more.
They are joined by an additional 120,000 MST families who currently occupy unproductive estates across Brazil. These three million people make up the MST’s militant base of operations, a force that no one can ignore.
Marina dos Santos is the daughter of small farmers who lost their lands in the 1980s. She is now a member of the MST’s National Coordinating Body. Marina recently identified corporate agrofuel expansion as “the principal enemy of the movement” for its role in subordinating Brazil’s lands and other natural resources to the needs of transnational corporations.
During the MST’s Fifth National Congress, a week-long gathering held in June, 18,000 MST delegates announced their plans to “fight for the production of agrofuels under peasant and rural worker control, as part of a polycultural agricultural system, with environmental protections and with the objective of energy sovereignty for the people living in each ecological region.”
Far from being an empty threat, this declaration was made following two years of in-depth analysis and discussion on the part of the three million MST militants who sent their delegates to the congress.
Already, the MST has begun occupying plantations and mills operated by transnational corporations. It also occupied a major river diversion project that, if constructed, will inundate critical habitat to provide irrigated lands for new agro-export and agrofuel plantations.
After 2,000 activists from more than 25 social movements joined together to occupy a construction site of the Brazilian government’s Rio São Francisco Diversion Project, they declared their determination to “continue struggling so that the needs and priorities of the people and the environment in which they live prevail over the interests of capital.”
If you’re looking for a starting point in the collective struggle for a more just environment and economy – and if it is to succeed, it must be collective – the MST’s João Pedro Stédile has some suggestions for how movements, organizations and individuals in the Global North can help:
“The first thing is to bring down your neoliberal governments. Second, help us to get rid of foreign debt… Third, fight; build mass struggles. Don’t delude yourself that because you have a higher living standard than us, you can build a better world.
It’s impossible for you to maintain your current patterns of consumption without exploiting us, so you have to battle to change the type of consumerism that you’re caught up in.”
Juan Reardon, is a student of agroecology and a member of Friends of the MST. Reardon writes for EarthFirst.