Along with the United States and Argentina, Brazil is now one of the strongest bastions of agribusiness on a global level. The world’s tenth largest economy, Brazil is now the nation which suffers the greatest inequality, on a subcontinent which, in its turn, experiences the greatest wealth gap.
Just 1.6% of Brazilian landholders control 46.78% of the nation’s privately owned land. According to the NGO Council of Information on Biotechnologies, Brazil was responsible for 12% of the world’s genetically modified crops in 2007.
Some 25 years ago, given the shameful concentration of land ownership, one of the region’s principal social movements was born in the thriving south: the Landless Rural Workers’ Movement (MST).
As one of the national coordinators, João Pedro Stédile, explains, the aim was “to organize a mass movement on a national level, capable of raising the campesino consciousness in fighting for land, for agrarian reform (which implies broader agricultural changes), and for a more just and equal society. Ultimately, we wanted to fight poverty and social inequality. And in the countryside, the principal cause of that underlying situation was the concentration of land ownership, known as the latifúndio (large estate).”
The organization’s core struggle is therefore the democratization of land ownership. They aim for the expropriation of latifúndios (based on the legitimacy and legality of the 1988 constitution) and the definition of a maximum acreage for rural properties. This is complemented by the fight for an agrarian policy designed to benefit the small producer; the movement publicizes its cause via land recuperations, occupations, and camps, all based on a solid political analysis.
The map of rural Brazil has been redrawn in recent years, thanks to the surge in agribusiness. This new phenomenon has forced the MST to consider that traditional agrarian reform, which breaks up latifúndios and redistributes the land, is no longer sufficient.
It argues that with the onset of neoliberalism, Brazil’s middle class negotiated directly with the transnational companies and abandoned the nation’s internal markets. The business of the middle classes is now based on imposing monocultures, creating a monopoly in seed sales, and patenting genetically modified organisms (GMOs). For this reason, the MST believes the struggle must be renewed and revitalized.
The political aspect, the land struggle as it will become in the future, implies several challenges. One of the dangers is that the cause of the MST will become isolated in rural matters and forget to include the cities. This is a great risk, as one consequence of successive internal migrations is that the majority of Brazil’s population is now urban.
The redefinition of the enemy and its objectives is also resulting in a restructuring of political alliances. From now on, as Stédile himself says, campesinos will become more reliant on establishing relationships with urban workers to achieve their aims.
One of the tools used to consolidate this connection between urban and rural workers are the settlements in the poorer suburbs of the big cities, or on the outskirts of urban centers. These settlements attract the most weakened sectors of society, those who survive in the margins of the system. The residents understand the movement’s rural slogans, since many of them are second-generation internal migrants who moved from the country to the city: the regional newspapers, community radios, and bulletins are aimed at them.
So while the consciousness-raising efforts of the grassroots within the MST utilize Paulo Freire’s techniques of “popular education,” for those outside the tool of choice is “popular communication.” This strategy promotes participation, creates class solidarity, and seeks mass distribution. In this battle, preaching to the converted doesn’t make much sense.
The Alternative Agenda
In these times when politics distances and isolates itself from society, and a crisis in representation invades the Latin American region, political parties are changing strategies. Aiming to win elections, they dedicate the greater part of their efforts not to building a grassroots base, but to visibility in the media. With a few honorable exceptions, political marketing is currently the key to gaining the control of institutions in representative democracies on the subcontinent.
As the mass media ceases to be a transmitter of news, the same can be said of the news itself. Its role has become that of demarcating the agenda, defining the political field of play, deciding what should be discussed.
“Before, we could say that the media was a branch of the Brazilian elite, but today, with the growth of financial capital in the hands of the media, we can say they are an organic part of the elite itself,” states Igor Felipe from the MST’s communication department. He highlights the fact that the bank Bradesco is one of the major shareholders of the daily paper O Estado de São Paulo, and adds that agrarian reform “is necessary for media democratization.”
In the MST’s battle for land, it is clear that at its root is a political and cultural struggle. According to João Paulo Rodrigues, member of the MST’s national coordinating committee, “Just as agrarian reform can’t coexist with latifúndios, the MST believes that it is essential to destroy the media monopoly in order to diversify the media. The struggle to democratize communication requires the construction of a broader political project, capable of radically transforming the structures of our societies. This will only become possible with the united advancement of social struggles.”
With more than 180 million inhabitants in a territory greater than 8.5 million square kilometers, Brazil operates on a continental scale. As such, any organization or movement which dreams of having national impact must consider its own construction in those terms. There is not just one Brazil, but many.
For organizational reasons, hierarchies operate in the MST. At the top are the national leaders, who coordinate the organization’s position on strategic issues. There is also a state-level coordination, with representatives of the 24 states (out of 27) where the MST operates, followed by a regional leadership.
In communication terms, the national leadership is responsible for coordinating the movement’s three principal media outlets: the monthly Jornal Sem Terra, the Revista Sem Terra, and the website http://www.mst.org.br/. These media sources, particularly the magazine Revista Sem Terra, are directed toward the general public.
The idea at the heart of the project is to provide more detailed coverage of the campesino context for those in the urban centers, even though settlement residents are generally always ready to support the slogans and arguments of the MST. The publications are distributed free from strategic locations, and subscription is encouraged so the enterprise can support itself financially.
The Jornal dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra appeared before the official launch of the MST. It has a print run of 20,000 copies every month, and its aim is to “join forces in the struggle for agrarian reform and for a people’s project in Brazil.”
The web page is the sum of the movement’s mechanisms and proclamations and links are provided to both aspects of the MST’s work. The movement’s manifestoes on a wide range of topics are published, and radio programs, books in PDF format, videos, and photos can all be downloaded.
At the same time, many diverse communications experiences have come into being on the regional level, such as community radio stations, newspapers, and news lists. For the most part, these are directed at local communities. A common feature of alternatives is the vocation for involving the grassroots in the production of the materials. As a general rule, unless the article is produced by a nationally known participant, articles are given no byline in a unification strategy.
The recipients are both the campesinos themselves, and other individuals who identify with the MST’s causes. The aim, as in the case of the newspaper Semeando (Sowing), recently launched by the regional branch in Campinas de São Paulo, is “both to influence popular opinion and to call them to participate in the movement.”
The connection between the regional offices and their superiors in the hierarchy is harmonious, although not entirely free of minor conflicts. It is a relationship of support and control.
The newspaper Semeando, as the militants themselves recognize, has the particularity of being created by the grassroots. This factor surprised the state leaders even as it filled them with pride. They plan to make a documentary to share this experience with other Brazilian regions and states.
In national terms, the MST, together with many other social organizations in Brazil, has spent a number of years highlighting the need for a serious discussion on the ownership of the media and its role. Nationwide, “less than 10 groups – made up of families or religious groups – control the major communication networks, including television, radio, newspapers, magazines, and web pages.”
The communiqué continues, “The use of public concessions for media outlets as a source of income should be banned. Communication is not merchandise. It is a public service for the benefit of the people, as determined by the Brazilian Constitution, and cannot be subordinated to the logic of the free market. Any international investment or involvement in any media outlet should be prohibited.”
Similarly, point 16 in the document produced at the last national congress of the MST, held June 11-15, 2007, defines the following strategic objective: “Fight so that each settlement or community in inland Brazil has its own popular media outlet, such as a free community radio station. Fight for the democratization of all of society’s media, contributing to raising people’s political conscience and valuing the culture of the people.”
This debate, like so many others, has always been a point of negotiation with the government of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, of the Workers’ Party. As a consequence, the nation’s executive branch decided to call the first National Communications Conference, to be held December 1-3, 2009, in Brasília.
The space, which allows the communications issue to be put on the agenda, is considered a hard-fought win by the nation’s social movements (the MST supported and accompanied the Pro-Conference Committee). However, the official announcement has inspired little trust, not only in the MST, but across Brazilian popular movements.
João Paulo Rodrigues states, “The conference has been a standard demand of social movements in their call for the democratization of the media. They see it as a potential space to discuss and design proposals related to communications in Brazil, its monopolized and exclusive structure, and the need to create working-class media outlets. The fact that the conference is being held at all is therefore a result of the social movements’ long-held demands.”
Lula’s government saw to it that obstacles were placed before any potential modifications that could be initiated by the conference itself. In the organizing committee in charge of internal regulations, eight members are representatives of the business world, while seven come from social movements.
“We believe that there are measures in the communications field which, together with radical political and economic transformations, contribute to the implementation of the necessary changes for a truly just and equal society. For this reason, we demand the end to the criminalization of popular and alternative radio stations, and the revision of all public radio and TV concessions,” adds Rodrigues.
The MST has set out its objectives, the ones that it doubts the conference will resolve: the execution of effective proposals to make electronic media accessible to the public, the creation of measures so that everyone has access to these spaces, and the destruction of the barrier between transmitters and receptors of information.
The debate on media democratization is relevant across Latin America, as the media has become a key factor in the definition of allies and enemies in countries throughout the region. In more progressive nations, the media has ceased to be a communicator and instead become a protagonist; given the crisis of representation and the post-neoliberal debacle on the right, in many cases the media used an anti-politics discourse to operate as the political opposition.
It is evident that to counteract the subcontinent’s swing to the left, the media has boycotted the left’s integration in the region and worked systematically to erode the support of governments that show a Latin Americanist vocation. The tools normally used are the silencing of information, biased reporting, and constant editorializing.
A clear case of this occurred in the attacks against Lula, when the Bolivian president decided to nationalize Petrobras’s oilfields. Likewise in Paraguay when campesinos began occupying the feudal lands controlled by Brazilian landholders. Or again, when the Venezuelan president chose to nationalize the businesses belonging to Techint, a transnational operating with Italian and Argentine capital which is principally involved in metallurgy.
Each of these cases stars an entrepreneurial business which extends its tentacles into other countries, promoting a kind of sub-imperialism. The alleged merit of the enterprise is that its interests are also those of the nation, an argument which enables the company to demand of its government ruptures and enmities that work against the integration of Latin American peoples. Its weapons are generally mass media outlets, of which the enterprise will be, if not the owner, at least a business partner.
In addition, the struggles now facing the MST are related to the role played by the region in the world market. The fight for land democratization can no longer be limited to the national level, as the forces which promote agribusiness are the same in every country.
Paraguay’s situation is an eloquent case in point. It is the world’s fourth largest soy producer. Between 1995 and 2006, the land under cultivation almost quadrupled, going from 735,000 to 2.4 million hectares, the equivalent of nearly 25% of the nation’s arable land. Its production, equal to 10% of Paraguay’s gross domestic product (GDP) and 40% of the country’s exports, cannot be disassociated from the “Brazilian invasion,” as it is termed in Guaraní territory.
According to one estimate by researcher Sylvain Souchaud, the number of Brazilians and their descendents – known in Paraguay as “brasiguayos” (Braziguayans) – approximates half a million. As a result, one of the main electoral promises of then-presidential candidate Fernando Lugo was agrarian reform. In August 2008, shortly after the ex-bishop came to power, campesino social movements began occupying land belonging to Brazilians without the government’s explicit permission. It was then that Brazil mobilized troops to the borderlands, an organic, class-based response.
Although radically different in terms of the actors and the dreams of the social movements concerned, the issue of agribusiness also plays a central role in the current Argentine political debate. A similar situation is occurring in Bolivia, as beneath the autonomist slogans of the departments in the “Half Moon” (Media Luna) is hidden the issue of regional land control as a means of avoiding the agrarian reform which Evo Morales’ government plans to implement.
For situations like these, the need to create bonds of solidarity with social movements in (at least) the neighboring countries is becoming more urgent. In organizational terms, this was precisely the reason behind the birth of La Vía Campesina, a coalition of 148 organizations in 69 countries around the world. Their principal rallying cry is that genuine food sovereignty should be based on sustainable family agriculture.
Using the Internet as its communication tool, the movement’s web page creates solidarity with other movements and promotes the international campaign in defense of the five Cubans accused of espionage and detained in the United States.
There is also a section of contacts for organizations with which the MST is in solidarity. Among them are Amnesty International, Brazilian human rights organizations, organizations working on the issue of forcibly disappeared people such as the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina, the Unique Workers’ Center (CUT) in Brazil, and the Latin American Coordination of Farm Organizations (CLOC).
Also mentioned are government institutions and 24 alternative media outlets in Latin America, among them Venezuela’s state-run media. The connection with the CUT speaks of the organic nature required between workers’ movements, particularly the urban ones. In the same way, a relationship with the Homeless Workers’ Movement has been established. It is they who survive in the corners of Brazil’s cities, the poorest among the poor.
In summary, the challenges are many and arduous. As a result, despite the fact that Lula’s government isn’t considered a hostile one, it is essential to unite social movements from different nations in order to seek a common defense to shared structural problems.
* The design of an effective means of communication between the countryside and the city, to ensure that predominantly rural concerns such as agrarian reform are not removed from the urban movements.
* Given Brazil’s scale, one of the primary tasks is to develop fluid communication channels so the movement can progress with a unified national strategy.
* The counterweight to this is that any central control should not clash with the movement’s grassroots, who implement their own innovative projects.
* The need to communicate in a style which is commonly understood, enough to make an impact in Brazil’s cities where media monopolies dominate public information.
* The case of the newspaper Semeando in the settlement of Elizabeth Teixeira, on the outskirts of São Paulo, offers various lessons. The most important was the genuine approval and support of the grassroots participants in the project.
* Popular communication, as in popular education, is centered on the actors’ own appropriation of the process they are participating in. It is the actors themselves who execute, question, and direct the output of their own project.
* The constant broad scale circulation of these media outlets in areas which are considered strategic can encourage the growth of the movement.
* The creation of a strong identity among the grassroots participants.
Demands and Proposals
* The primary demand is for the democratization of the media. The main achievement of the social organizations was their success in pressuring the government into holding the first National Communications Conference.
* The promotion of electronic media which out-of-date legislation has yet to completely control.
* The creation of options and conditions so everyone can create and access spaces of media production.
* As part of popular communication, the destruction of barriers between the transmitters and receivers of information.
* The creation of alternative information, rather than that of Brazil’s media monopoly.
* The movement proposes that “the use of public concessions for media outlets as a source of income” be banned. The MST maintains that “communication is not merchandise. It is a public service for the benefit of the people, as determined by the Brazilian Constitution, and cannot be subordinated to the logic of the free market. Any international investment or involvement in any media outlet should be prohibited.”
For More Information
Radio Ñomndaa, The Word of the Water
Argentina’s Community Media Fights for Access and Legal Reform
Citizen Groups Organize to End “Soft Censorship,” Guarantee Freedom of Expression
Indigenous Community Radio in Mexico
Indigenous Communication in a Global World: Strategies Used by the FIOB in the United States and Mexico
Mexican Environmental Journalists Improve Coverage
Diego González is an independent journalist in Buenos Aires and an analyst for the CIP Americas Policy Program, www.americaspolicy.org.
Translated from “Comunicación popular en el MST” by Jodie Lea Martire.