Brazil’s landless movement, known as the Movimento dos Sem Terra (MST), is on the march. Some 12,000 members of the movement have spent the last two weeks walking along the highway that links Goiânia, the capital of the state of Goiás, to the federal capital of Brasília.
With their red flags flying and wearing straw hats to protect themselves from the sun, men, women and children have trudged 15 kilometers each day.
It’s only when you see the march in action, the biggest that the MST has organized that you realize just what a remarkable achievement it is.
The sem-terra – landless – as MST members are known, walk in an orderly file, about four or five people wide, along the road. The march stretches for about three miles down the federal highway.
Many of the marchers chat or sing. Others listen to small portable radios, donated by the World Social Forum. Most carry backpacks, printed with the MST’s red flag, which were given to them by international supporters.
Landless families converged in Goiás, central Brazil, from all corners of the country. Some spent three days in a bus, travelling 1,500 miles from the hot and dusty state of Pernambuco in the impoverished Northeast. Others, also travelling by bus, came from the cooler, temperate state of Rio Grande do Sul, travelling 1,000 miles.
The families on the march are organized by their 23 states of origin. Groups from the various states take it in turn to lead the march, and to stay behind to clean up the camp site after the march has left in the morning.
Each state also has its own large tent – a circus tent – where the marchers sleep on thin mattresses or in hammocks at night. Partly because different Brazilians have different eating habits, the states also each organize their cooking arrangements.
The characteristic trademark of the MST is land occupation – the occupation of big estates to force the government to expropriate them.
The sem-terra are employing this tactic on the march, occupying large private farms beside the road to set up camp at night. The landowners, who were not consulted beforehand, have been protesting but so far there has been no violence.
A small group of federal policemen is accompanying the march and they look on rather uneasily when these occupations take place.
Several big trucks, carrying the tents, cooking equipment, rice, beans, huge water containers and 100 chemical toilets, accompany the march.
Once the land has been occupied, the camp is quickly mapped out and the 23 groups, which have organized their own “commissions” for tent erection, cooking, health, security and so on, quickly leap into action.
The priority is to set up the kitchens so that the sem-terra, hungry after their walking, can have their lunch, the biggest meal of the day.
In the afternoons there are a myriad of different activities. There are some 100 children on the march and the MST’s famous “itinerant school” gives them lessons.
Reflecting the MST’s great concern for education, some of the teachers are even providing training courses for some of the less experienced teachers from more isolated camps and settlements.
There are many leisure options for the adults. They can watch television, projected on a large screen from a truck, play music, pass around a chimarrão (a gourd of maté tea), attend classes in political education, go to church (there are Catholics, Protestants and evangelicals among the marchers), get to know other sem-terra from distant states or just doze in a hammock. As always in Brazil, there is a lot of laughter and dancing.
There is a strict routine. No alcohol is allowed on the march or in the camp, and the sem-terra go to bed early. Fireworks wake them up at 4 am so that they can set off early, still in the dark. By midday they have covered the necessary miles and occupied another estate. The march has its own dynamic and everyone seems to be having fun.
But there is a serious point to the march – and one that has gained in importance as the marchers have got closer to Brasília, the seat of political power.
The sem-terra have organized the march to put pressure on Lula, the former industrial worker who is now President of Brazil. They want him to honor his electoral promise to implement a radical program of agrarian reform.
They are pointing out that despite Lula’s timid attempts at reform Brazil has one of the most unjust systems of land distribution in the world.
Giant landowners, who represent just 0.6 percent of the population, occupy 40 percent of the land. Peasant farmers, 31 percent of the population, have to make do with 1.4 percent of the land.
The marchers are not hostile to Lula. Many of them are still proud that an ordinary working class man has been elected to Brazil’s highest office.
They are pleased that Lula himself has welcomed their initiative, saying that social movements need to mobilize if Brazil is to achieve change. But for all that, there is a growing sense of frustration among the sem-terra.
During his electoral campaign Lula had told them, “I will give you so much land that you won’t be able to occupy it all!”
Some 200,000 sem-terra families were so excited at the prospect of finally winning a plot of land that they set up temporary camps by the side of roads, thinking that they would thus be among the first to benefit from the promised program.
Almost all the families are still there, squatting by the roadside and waiting for land. The government, now in power for two and a half years, has not yet fulfilled its promise.
In late 2003, Lula, under pressure from the MST, called in one of the country’s most respected left wing intellectuals, Plínio de Arruda Sampaio, to draw up a land reform program.
From the beginning, Plínio was adamant that the reform had to be ambitious, so peasant families would win enough land to become important economic actors and to challenge the domination of the big farmers.
After consulting widely with social movements and agrarian experts, Plínio drew up a plan for settling one million families on land over a three-year period. He carefully costed the program as 24 billion Brazilian reais (about US$ 9.7 billion) over three years.
When the government protested, horrified at the cost, Plínio replied, “For a country that spends 170 billion reais (US$ 69 billion) a year in the servicing of its debt, this is affordable.”
Affordable it might have been, but only if Lula had been prepared to stand up to the International Monetary Fund. Lula, fearful of sparking a damaging confrontation with foreign creditors, refused to do this.
During his campaign he had repeatedly promised “to put social change before the demands of foreign creditors”, but since he has been in office he has doggedly followed the advice of his conservative and timorous Finance Minister, Antonio Palocci.
Palocci insists that Brazil must run a huge budget surplus, equivalent to 4 percent of gross domestic product, so that it can service its debts.
This has meant the government has been strapped for cash. After months of prevarication Lula agreed to implement a watered-down version of Plínio’s plan, settling 430,000 families on the land during his government.
But the minister for agrarian reform, Miguel Rossetto, who is an ally of the MST, has been unable to achieve even this more modest goal. Only 73,000 families have been settled on the land.
The government has repeatedly slashed the budgets for key social areas – education, health, welfare and agrarian reform.
To be fair, many of the sem-terra say that there have been some improvements under Lula. “Under the previous government of Fernando Henrique Cardoso, we suffered a great deal,” said one of the marchers.
“We faced a very hostile state bureaucracy. Now we have people who support our cause in positions of authority. That makes a difference.”
The government is supplying many more subsidized loans for peasant farmers and sending in more agronomists to help them on their farms. All this is a great help to the sem-terra who have already won land and are living on settlements, but it is little consolation for the four million landless families.
Most sem-terra, even those with land, feel disappointed and let down, if not yet openly hostile to Lula, who they still see as a comrade.
João Pedro Stédile is one of the MST’s main thinkers and I asked him why Lula had carried on with neo-liberal policies, instead of opting for the more progressive policies that so many people had been expecting.
“I don’t think Lula is a dishonest person,” he replied, “but he made a bet. He calculated that he could make an alliance with the right, including financial capital, and still carry out reforms.
“But he miscalculated – these allies of his are very strong and used to outwitting would-be reformers – so he is now ruling with a highly adverse correlation of forces.”
When could the situation change? “I personally now think that real agrarian reform will only come about in a new historical moment with the renaissance of mass movements in general, with the renaissance of the Brazilian people.
“It doesn’t depend on the government, which is very divided, and it doesn’t even depend just on the MST. It is going to depend on broader changes.
“So our criticism of the government isn’t over its diagnosis. It’s over the fact that it is doing very little to change the correlation of forces. It seems as if it thinks it is in charge of a little local government. It accepts things as they are and just wants to balance the books.
“The government has lost the political initiative. It’s not encouraging the people, not speaking clearly to the people about the difficulties it faces, not talking about the need for a new project for the country.
“It’s just concerned with political marketing. It says that the conditions don’t allow it to do anything else.
“But the art of politics, the art of being a leader in a class struggle, is precisely this – to create conditions so that the impossible becomes possible. We don’t need left wing parties to administer the status quo. The right does that far more efficiently.”
Plínio de Arruda Sampaio has a similar explanation: “When Lula’s party, the Workers Party (PT), was created in the late 1970s, it decided on two lines of development – within state institutions, with the objective of winning electoral power, and outside state institutions, with the objective of using direct popular pressure to change the nature of the state. In the early days, the PT gave great importance to the second line of action.”
However, as the years went by, the option for direct action weakened. “To press for changes in the state, it is necessary to have a strong proletariat, a strong peasantry or both. But in the 1980s and 1990s the proletariat was weakened by massive unemployment, caused first by the debt crisis and then by neo-liberal reforms. And the MST was still in its infancy.”
In contrast, the PT’s growth within the state institutions was very rapid. “The conditions were very favorable for this. The PT offered a new, ethical way forward, a real alternative to the old, corrupt parties.
“The PT realized that it could actually win power through the electoral route,” said Sampaio. “The PT leaders were aware that the other ‘leg’ wasn’t developing, but they reassured themselves – once we get into power, we’ll reform the state.
“In order to be elected, the PT found that it had to compromise and make alliances with the old parties. Now that it has power, it finds that it is bound hand and foot, unable to revolutionize the state as it had always intended.”
In some ways, the MST leaders are not surprised by the difficulties they are facing in getting the government to meet their demands. Since they founded their movement in the rural south of Brazil in the late 1970s (as Lula and other trade unionists were setting up the PT in the industrial suburbs of Sao Paulo), they have been wary of governments.
Over the years they have “conquered” some six million hectares (about 15 million acres) of land and set up about 1,000 land settlements.
They often say that they haven’t won a single hectare of land without first carrying out an occupation. They have never had much faith in governments and have always believed in direct action. Their experience under Lula will do nothing to change that conviction.
Sue Branford is the author, with Jan Rocha, of “Cutting the Wire – the Story of the Landless Movement in Brazil.”
This article appeared originally in Socialist Worker