Brazil’s Landless Lesson: the Bounty of the Land Is for All

MST march arrives in Brasília, Brazil's capital cityOn May 17th, Brazilian news media reported that 50 people were injured as landless peasants clashed with police. Like our corporate media in the U.S., this focus overshadowed the real story.

That is, that 12,000 poor landless peasants had recently completed a Herculean 150 mile, 17 day-long march across the country to raise awareness about the crucial need for land reform in Brazil.

What motivated thousands of Brazilians to leave their homes to march across hot, dusty terrain, sleep on the ground, and eat camping food for over two weeks? What did they want to accomplish? And most importantly, what can we learn from it here in the U.S.?

Brazil is a land of contrasts. According to the UN, it is the 4th most economically unequal country in the world. In the face of enormous productive capacity, a dazzling geographical landscape, awe-inspiring natural resources, and amazing cultural diversity, millions of Brazilians suffer from hunger, malnutrition, and lack of access to basic social services.

Unequal distribution of land – harking back to the Portuguese colonization of Brazil hundreds of years ago – is a signature cause of the human inequalities.

It has created enormous divisions in society between giant landowners – who grow crops like sugar, soy, and citrus for export – and the 4.6 million families with no access to land to grow food for their children.

The Brazilian film Eu, Tu, Eles dramatized the depth of poverty and instability of rural landless life in the Northeast, much as Central Station did for urban homeless children in Rio de Janeiro.

Land reform in Brazil is absolutely essential for ending hunger, the #1 stated goal of President Lula’s administration.

For over 21 years, the landless peasants movement, Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra, or MST, has fought hard, life and death battles to change that inequality.

The MST, one of the largest social movements in the hemisphere, has organized over 1.5 million members in 23 states across Brazil.

They have successfully settled tens of thousands of families by taking over unproductive land and founding communities that work together to meet their own needs – not only cultivating food, but building water treatment systems, creating housing, and developing schools.

After two decades of building a movement to change power at the roots, the MST has learned to combine savvy political advocacy with taking care of each other’s human needs, building political consciousness through popular education, and envisioning the alternative world that we collectively want to live in.

President Lula before winning the presidency told the landless movement, “You can be sure of one thing, that if I am ever elected President, I will redistribute so much land, that you won’t know even what to do with it all.”

The MST played a huge role in Lula’s election to the presidency, because he had promised to give access to land for 430,000 families by the end of his term in 2006.

The results of Lula’s government for landless peasants has not just been disappointing, it has been crushing. Under the current administration, only 60 thousand families have been settled – that’s less families than were settled under the previous neoliberal government.

At that rate, it would take about 150 years to ensure land for all in Brazil. Lula’s government has frozen the land reform budget in order to save money that will be used to pay the foreign debt.

Coming out of a more than 20-year dictatorship in 1985, Brazilian hopes for economic growth under democratic governments have been disappointed.

The largest country in South America suffers from a gigantic debt that has made policymakers subject to economic guidelines set by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, including privatization of essential services, deregulation of private industry, and emphasis on production for export rather than domestic consumption.

Finally, with the 2002 election of Lula, a metalworker from a working-class background and strong ties to social movements, the vast majority of Brazilians believed that democracy would finally be combined with sensible national economic policies, and the poor could hope for a better future.

But Lula has pinned his hopes on agribusiness to export Brazil’s way out of debt. According to the Ministry of Agricultural Development in Brazil, the government-run Bank of Brazil destined over $6 billion in supports for agribusiness in 2003.

The same year, 73 landless peasants were killed in incidents linked to land struggles with agribusiness. According to the Pastoral Land Commission’s Antonio Canuto, “it’s important to demystify the agribusiness industry, because its growth is not linked to the national development, as many say; it’s linked to the exploitation of workers.”

What has been remarkable about the MST’s political position with respect to Lula is that they have engaged critically with the government, stating loudly and in factual terms their profound disappointment, but without rescinding their support – yet.

During this march, it was made public that the MST was reconsidering their potential support of Lula during the elections next year. This is a key factor in holding a rhetorically but not politically progressive government accountable to its stated position, and one that we in the U.S. could learn from.

An important goal of the march was to engage the Lula government on key issues of the domestic and international political agenda.

Through a mass consultative process, they created a list of 16 demands that ranged from settling the promised 430 thousand families, releasing the frozen funds so that real land reform could be accomplished, doubling the minimum wage, and defending Amazonian biodiversity, to renegotiating the debt, opposing the FTAA, and refusing to expand the WTO.

The linking of their domestic political agenda for justice with the global trade agenda is another hint of the incisive political analysis of the MST.

In fact, the overwhelming importance of Brazilian agribusiness in the national political arena has been the determining factor in the derailment of the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas and the stalemate in the WTO.

The MST has recently honed in on the importance of transforming their mass mobilization against the FTAA into a strategic campaign to pressure their government to represent not agribusiness, but small farmer interests, in the WTO, as the global umbrella federation of small farmers, Via Campesina, calls for “Agriculture Out of the WTO!”

U.S. activists, who have long struggled to link global and local issues, could take this lesson from the playbook of the MST.

But Brazilian social movements are too strategic to pin all their hopes on government. While they sharpen their analysis, engage in critical debate with the government, and mobilize thousands through farmers groups and trade unions to pressure their elected officials to represent them in international fora, Brazilians have also been exceptionally successful in deploying a lesser-utilized strategy our movement for global justice; the visioning of alternatives. And for them, this means creating the world we want to live in by building it.

The self-sufficiency and organizing capacity of the movement was clearly demonstrated during the march. Providing food, shelter, and sanitation for 12,000 marching people for 17 days is no minor accomplishment.

Each day, a team of 415 activists awoke before dawn to prepare three meals – using 4,610 pounds of rice, 3,130 pounds of beans, 761 pounds of cornmeal, and 215 pounds of meat a day.

According to reports, a major source of the provisions is the MST’s own productive settlements. Each day, approximately 66 thousand gallons of water were used for drinking and bathing.

Each day, hundreds of volunteers participated in the setting up and striking of mobile tents. Each day, mobile units handled the waste of 12,000 marchers so as not to leave a trace.

As Leonardo Boff commented, “the ecological concern was almost obsessive. If, on the following day, someone would like to know where these thousands of people had been camping, they wouldn’t be able to, because the cleanup was so detailed that not even a scrap of paper was left behind.”

But the MST has also long realized that in order to grow, you have to organize. So their goals have always included not only bringing more and more landless peasants into the movement, but growing the quality of their participation in the movement through democratic popular education.

This is, after all, the country that produced the great Paulo Freire, world visionary of popular education, as well as Augusto Boal, inventor of Theater of the Oppressed, both ardent supporters of the MST.

During the daily walk, marchers tuned their headphones in to a mobile radio station that beamed political education on various topics – the economy, sustainable farming, movement building, land reform.

Then, each afternoon, discussion groups were formed to debate and reflect on various topics, knowing that space must be created for each participant to share their views, reflect, grow, and learn.

Perhaps one of the most profound lessons we can draw from this movement is their vision for shifting our understanding of the human relationship to food.

Though landless themselves, these farmers have a deep sense of the sacredness of land as the sustainer of life. To those that fight their whole lives for access to land, the earth is not just a clump of dirt waiting to be turned into money.

It is a public good, and we humans are its stewards; we have a right to share in its bounty, but also a responsibility to conserve it for our grandchildren.

And that includes a very strong opposition to the genetic modification of seeds and plants, and a complete rejection of the patenting of life. The earth sustains life, and life is to be spent in struggle, in creation, in learning, and in celebration.

Marchers were inspired and sustained by the immense support they received from the local communities along the route.

Luiz Basseigo commented with amazement, “early in the morning, before the sunrise, hundreds of people – all the inhabitants of the city – went out to the road; women, children, the elderly, basically all the population of the city – expressing their unconditional support for the marchers.”

Living in the U.S., pondering the achievements of Latin American social movements, I dream of a day when we create the road by walking it, and everyone comes out to cheer.

Deborah James is the Global Economy Director of Global Exchange.

Global Exchange


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