The Brazilian Landless Movement Won’t Rest Until They Get Their Revolution

MST occupies Usina Aliança in Pernambuco state, BrazilOne of the most radical social movements in Brazil is the Landless Movement (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem-Terra – MST). The MST is not just fighting for land reform. The MST also fights, in the words of its main leader João Pedro Stédile, for “a different way of farming that guarantees that [every] land is not seen as private property.”

The actions of the MST are invariably oriented towards “the fulfillment of an absolute, non-negotiable goal,” explains Miguel Carter, a research fellow in Politics at the Center for Brazilian Studies, Oxford University. As he also explains, activities of the MST normally display “dense collective repertories” (i.e.; flags, songs, chants, marches, etc.), which are desired “to stir courage and vitality among its participants.”

The MST also proposes to construct an organic model of community life that can generate a ‘new man’ in Brazil. According to Elena Calvo Gonzales, a social anthropologist who holds a PhD at the University of Manchester, the idea is basically to forge a ‘new man’ that could bring about a socialistic revolution based on the principles of “self-discipline and the control of others.”

The website of the MST explicitly declares that one of its ultimate objectives is to carry out a ‘cultural revolution’ in Brazil (impulsionar a revolução cultural). Since there are many self-defined Maoists in the MST, we can reasonably conclude that the phrase is inspired by the brutal Chinese ‘Cultural Revolution’ from the 1960s.

For instance, Maria José Jaime, the president of the MST’s major propaganda apparatus, the Institute of Socio-Economic Studies (INESC), was a central committee member of the Maoist guerrilla movement during the 1970s. She received political and military training in China in 1969.

During the ‘cultural revolution’ in China, Mao Tse-tung aimed also to produce a ‘new man’ devoted to the cause of revolutionary socialism. Under the pretext of eradicating so-called ‘black categories’ (landlords, prosperous peasants, and non-communists in general), such ‘cultural revolution’ led to the slaughter of at least three million people.

Curiously, Mao’s ‘Cultural Revolution’ was also preceded by a movement for land reform. The key element of the land reform in China was the institution of ‘bitterness meetings’, by which landowners were convoked by ‘popular assemblies’ in order to be humiliated, tortured, and killed. The precise number of victims during this ‘land reform’ is unknown, but authors normally agree on a figure of between 2 and 5 million dead.

The MST now possesses a membership of 1.5 million people and around 100,000 full-time ‘professional militants.’ João Pedro Stédile, the MST main leader, is a hard-line communist who openly describes the MST activists as ‘our army’. He often calls his ‘army’ to finish with ranchers and landowners, in what he quite properly describes as ‘our fight in the countryside.’ “That is the dispute – he says – [and] we won’t sleep until we do away with them”.

In a May-June 2002 interview to New Left Review, Stédile says that he thinks the only force that can produce social change “is the organized mass of the people, and that people organize themselves through struggle, not through vote”.

He also says that the MST rejects any form of dialogue with ‘the Right,’ because, as he puts it, “the Left has to regain the belief that we alone are going to alter the balance of forces, through mass struggles against the bourgeoisie.”

Finally, he goes to say that, “as far as violence is concerned,” the MST has “learned a lot” with the Vietnamese dictator Ho Chi Min. According to the MST leader, “Ho systematically taught the Vietnamese peasants that their strength lay not in what they held in their hands, but in what they carried in their heads.

“The achievements of the Vietnamese soldier – a farmer, illiterate, and poor – came from his being conscious of what he is fighting for, as a soldier and as a man. Everything he could lay hold of, he turned into a weapon… If we ever decide to use the same weapons as our enemies, we would be doomed to defeat.”(1)

As an admirer of Ho Chi Min, the leader of Brazil’s most important land reform movement must certainly know that when Ho took control of North Vietnam, in 1954, the first thing he did was to launch a land reform that resulted in the killing of hundreds of thousands of people.

According to Quynh Dao, a member of the Australian-Vietnam Human Rights Committee, “Under Ho’s ‘land reform’ campaign, people deemed wealthy were summarily executed. In war-torn, impoverished, backward Vietnam, ‘wealthy’ might involve merely owning a few blocks of land, a brick house or a fabrics shop.

“This campaign was carried out following the Chinese Maoist Model, under the directives of Chinese communist advisors…, which set a quota of people who must be declared ‘class enemies’. So there were people who were killed just so that the quota was reached”.(2)

In 1997, Stédile advised voters that if they failed to elect the then presidential candidate Lula da Silva, Brazil could turn into a ‘new Colombia’, plagued by “uncontrolled violence and perhaps even armed conflict.”

In fact, army officers have already warned about the risks of the MST to eventually become a FARC-like terrorist organization. A source from the FARC, a member of its High Revolutionary Command, has confirmed to daily Jornal da Tarde, on April 24, 2000, that the MST and the Colombian drug guerrillas maintain excellent ties of relationship.

In April 2004, the MST leadership fulfilled its promise of “giving hell” to Brazil, carrying out its ‘Red April’ as a monthly period of massive land invasions. As fully reported, the agricultural sector, the only which gives trade surpluses for the country, was the main target of land invasions. However, an MST official informs that this movement also fights “to stop the business of producing for export.”(3)

In reality, farms invaded during the ‘Red April’ were those applying the latest technology in the agriculture. In the state of Goiás, for example, the MST invaded the farm owned by the biotech conglomerate Monsanto. It is a highly productive property, used for research, training, and seed processing.

In a statement, the company informs that repeated land invasions are not just compromising the progress of science in Brazil, but also damaging the country’s image on international markets and threatening the development of its agriculture.

It seems however that state authorities paid no attention to the warning. In May 2005, the Governor of Goiás, Marconi Perillo, financed with taxpayers’ money a massive march of the MST from the city of Goiânia (the capital-city of Goiás state) right through Brasília, the capital of Brazil.

Each one of its 12,000 participants received books of Karl Marx, red flags with the image of Che Guevara, and posters of the greatest ‘icons’ of revolutionary communism.

However, President Lula welcomed the initiative, suggesting that social movements like the MST “need to mobilize Brazil to achieve change”. Also supportive to the march was D. Washington Cruz, the Archbishop of Goiânia.

As everybody knows in Brazil, the MST is a product of the Pastoral Land Commission (CPT), the bastion of liberation theology radicals within the Catholic Church. The links between the MST and the clergy are so evident and organic that the main MST offices operate out of a place granted by Cardinal Evaristo Arns, at the time he was archbishop in São Paulo.

In late September this year the MST coordinated the parallel invasion of not less than eight branches of the Banco do Brasil (Brazil’s Federal Bank) in São Paulo, seven tollbooths on highways in Paraná, six farms in Rio Grande do Sul, and twenty-one public buildings from the Land Reform Institute (Instituto Nacional de Colonização e Reforma Agrária – Incra), in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.

The MST then released a statement informing that these violent activities are part of a new ‘National Struggle Movement.’ Yet, such invasions, especially the ones against Incra’s buildings, are detrimental to land reform, as they have prevented Incra’s employees from working in order to ensure the settlement of 400,000 rural families by the end of 2006.

According to Luiz Antônio N. Garcia, president of a farmers’ rights group called Democratic Rural Union (União Democrática Rural – UDR), when land invasions take place, “the police stand by with arms crossed, because the government has no will to enforce the law”.

Farmers are hiring armed private militias to protect their properties against invasions. In what resembles an authentic situation of civil war, violent conflicts are currently taking place on almost every corner of Brazil.

According to the U.S. State Department, “Many persons were killed in recent years in conflicts involving disputes over land ownership and usage. The land rights organization known as the ‘Movement of the Landless’ (MST) continued its campaign of invasion and occupation of private and public lands that it wanted the federal and state governments to expropriate for land reform. The MST also continued its occupation of public buildings. MST activists often used confrontational and violent tactics, and destroyed private property during some occupations.”(4)

Despite all this, successive governments in Brazil have legitimised the violent tactics of the MST, treating its radical leaders as normal social activists. During the last administration, for example, President Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1994-2002) held a June 1995 meeting with the MST leadership but afterwards refused himself to meet with representatives of the agricultural sector from around the country.

President Lula da Silva is also supportive to the MST. He has even donned the red cap of this organization at a public meeting. There are rumours in Brazil that the President’s Workers’ Party (PT) could indirectly control the MST, as the majority of MST activists are also members of this ruling party.

Frei Betto, a key adviser to the MST and PT leaderships, has declared that the PT regards the MST as “the best organized people’s movement in the country.” Moreover, Stédile, who once stated that “this government plays on our team,” also explains that there is indeed a “natural overlap of giving mutual assistance” between the PT and the MST.

As he points out, “The MST has historical connections to the PT… In the countryside there are many activists who helped to form the PT and work for the MST, and vice versa… The majority of our activists, when they opt for a party, generally choose the PT…” (5)

A high authority who openly supports the MST is Miguel Rossetto, currently the Minister for Agrarian Development. A self-defined Trotskyist, he left the MST cadres especially to become a minister in the current administration. Minister Rossetto thinks the astonishing number of violent land invasions – the biggest ever in Brazil – is “a normal fact in democracy”. As an editorial from the country’s leading newspaper, Folha de S. Paulo, comments,

“On the one hand, the minister for Agrarian Development administers the governmental protection of the landless movement. On the other, he makes use of the state bureaucratic machinery to ‘build up’ forces for a future rural revolution”.(6)

In the same way, the Minister of Justice, Márcio Thomaz Bastos, has argued that the government decided to adopt ‘tactical tolerance’ towards land invasions.  This means, in practice, that this government is no longer interested in always enforcing the law.

At a June 2004 conference for education in the countryside, the then Minister of Agriculture, Tasso Genro, was very clear that the Lula administration acknowledges the “strategic importance” of social movements like the MST, which, as he puts it, are provoking “great social changes… from outside the government”.

If it is an undeniable fact that Brazil’s land ownership is indeed one of the most unequal in the world, one can reasonably agree with land reform without having to endorse the violent actions of the MST, which, as reported, have included lootings, highway robberies, and even hostage-takings.

In this sense, a renowned lawyer, Ives Gandra da Silva Martins, has already accused the MST leadership of “trampling upon the rule of law.” by constantly disobeying judicial rulings and promoting the violent occupation of both productive farms and public buildings, usually destroying them.

Of course, any social movement that promises to conceive a ‘new man’ and bring about a ‘cultural revolution’ cannot possibly respect the constitutional order unless in appearance. After all, one cannot aspire to rebuilt society, and, at the same time, respect its legal system.

If so, the only option of MST leaders is to just keep on manipulating the law until their revolutionary objectives are eventually achieved. In brief, the MST actions threaten very much the future of democratic legal institutions, having already prompted a quite dramatic situation of violence and lawlessness in Brazil, particularly in the countryside.


(1) Landless Battalions: Sem-Terra Movement of Brazil. Interview with João Pedro Stédile, New Left Review No. 15, May-June 2002.

(2) Dao, Quynh; The Vietnam War – 30 Years On. News Weekly, No. 2705, Melbourne, 23 April 2005, pp. 12-13.

(3) A Thin Red Line, The Economist, 19 May 2005.

(4) U.S. Department of State; Country Reports on Human Rights Practices – Brazil.  Released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labour, February 25, 2004.

(5) Landless Battalions: Sem-Terra Movement of Brazil. Interview with João Pedro Stédile, New Left Review No. 15, May-June 2002.

(6) O Outro Lado do Governo. Folha de S. Paulo, 25 November 2004.

Augusto Zimmermann is a Brazilian Law Professor and the author of the well-known books Teoria Geral do Federalismo Democrático (General Theory of Democratic Federalism – Second Edition, 2005) and Curso de Direito Constitutional (Course on Constitutional Law, Fourth Edition – 2005). His e-mail is:


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