In January 1984, there was a process of re-ascension of mass movements in Brazil. The working class was reorganizing, accumulating organic forces. Underground parties, such as the Brazilian Communist Party (PCB), the Communist Party of Brazil, etc., were in the streets. We had achieved a partial amnesty, but the majority of the exiles had returned.
The Worker’s Party (PT), the Central Workers’ Union (CUT) were taking shape, as well as the National Congress of the Working Class (CONCLAT) promoted by the communists, which later merged into the CUT.
Broad sectors of the Christian churches broadened their beaver-like efforts, to keep building consciousness and “núcleos de base” in defense of the poor, inspired by liberation theology. There was enthusiasm everywhere, because the dictatorship was being defeated and the Brazilian working class was on the offense; fighting and organizing.
The peasants in the countryside lived in that same climate, amidst the same offensive. Between 1979 and 1984 dozens of land occupations were carried out throughout the country. The “posseiros” (squatters), the landless, salaried country-dwellers, lost their fear. And they fought. They did not want to migrate to the cities like bullocks to the slaughterhouse (in the words of our dear Uruguayan poet Zitarroza).
As the fruit of all that, we met in Cascavel, in January 1984, encouraged by the pastoral work of the Pastoral Land Commission (CPT), leaders of the land struggle in 16 Brazilian states. And there, after 5 days of debates, discussions, collective reflections, we founded the MST: the Landless Workers Movement.
Our objectives were clear. To organize a mass movement at a national level, that could raise the consciousness of the peasants so that they would struggle for land, for agrarian reform (entailing broader changes in agriculture) and for a more just and equal society. We wanted, in short, to fight poverty and social inequality. And the principal cause of this situation in the countryside was the concentration of land ownership, known as latifundium.
We did not have the slightest idea if this was possible. Nor how much time would pass as we sought out our goals.
25 years have passed. Much time. They were years of many mobilizations, many struggles, and constant obstinacy, ongoing struggle and mobilization against the latifundia.
We paid dearly for that obstinacy. During the Collor administration we were firmly repressed, with the installation of a department specializing in the landless in the Federal Police bureau. After, with the victory of neoliberalism of the Fernando Henrique Cardoso government, there was a green light for the latifundistas and their provincial police to attack the movement. And in a short time we had two massacres: Corumbiara and Carajás. Throughout those years, hundreds of rural workers paid with their own lives, for the dream of free land.
But we continue the struggle.
We have held back the neoliberalism selected by the Lula government. We had hope that the electoral victory could unleash a new re-ascent of the mass movement and that the agrarian reform would have a larger impetus behind its implementation. There was no agrarian reform during the Lula government.
On the contrary, the forces of international and financial capital, through their multi-national corporations, have increased their control over Brazilian agriculture.
Today, the greater part of our riches, the production and distribution of agricultural commodities are beneath the control of transnational corporations. They have allied themselves with capitalist landowners and generated the agro-business economic model. Many of their spokesmen hurried to announce in the columns of the great bourgeois newspapers that the MST was finished. A mistaken deceit.
The hegemony of finance capital and of the multi-nationals over agriculture did not manage, happily, to put an end to the MST. For one sole reason: agribusiness does not present any solution for the problems of millions of poor people who live in the countryside. And the MST is the expression of the desire for liberation of those poor people.
The struggle for agrarian reform, which earlier had been based solely on occupying the land of latifundia, is now more complex. We must struggle against capital. Against the domination of multi-national corporations. And the agrarian reform is no longer that classic tool: expropriating great latifundium and distributing them in parcels to the poor peasants.
Now, changes in the countryside, to combat poverty, inequality, and the concentration of wealth, depend on changes not only in land ownership, but also the production model. Now, the enemies are also internationalized businesses, which dominate world markets. This also means that peasants will depend more and more on alliances with the workers in the cities in order to advance their battle.
Happily, the MST acquired experience in those 25 years. The knowledge necessary to develop new methods, new forms of mass struggle, that can resolve the problems of the people.
João Pedro Stédile is a member of the National Coordination of the MST and of the Vía Campesina Brasil. The article originally appeared in the Brazilian left-wing monthly Caros Amigos in January 2009.
Max Ajl, who translated this piece, has written on Latin American politics and economics for the Guardian, NACLA, and the New Statesman, and blogs at Jewbonics.