The leaders of Brazil’s Landless Workers Movement (MST) have been trying to secure a meeting with President Dilma Rousseff ever since she took office at the start of 2011. For three years, Dilma, as she is known, has refused to speak to them. Until 12 February this year, that is, when 15,000 MST activists marched through the Brazilian capital in a protest that ended up outside the presidential palace.
The march took place in the middle of the MST’s national congress, a week-long gathering that happens every five years. This year celebrated 30 years of the movement, and nearly 16,000 of the MST’s 1.5 million members attended. I took part in the congress on behalf of the World Development Movement (WDM), which is launching a new campaign in April against the British government’s role in helping corporations take over African agriculture. There are clear parallels between what is happening in Africa and the MST’s struggle against agribusiness and the type of agricultural model it promotes: industrial use of pesticides, genetically modified crops and the corporate control of seeds.
Congress was a chance for MST activists to come together to celebrate their success as a movement and the land that has been won by hundreds of thousands of families. It was also the launch of the MST’s new political strategy.
I could feel the excitement in the air as I entered the grounds of the Nielson Nelson stadium in Brasilia. People had come from all over Brazil, many travelling for two days by coach to get there. The stadium grounds had been transformed into what felt like a social justice festival, with kitchen tents, agricultural markets selling produce from each of Brazil’s regions, and thousands of people camping. Walking through the space, I was surrounded by photo displays and art about the MST’s history and allied struggles in Venezuela and Palestine. And often a samba drumming group would suddenly start playing.
In the MST’s early years its focus was on democratizing land ownership for Brazil’s peasantry. But since the 1990s the power of international financial capital has grown stronger and has become a defining force in agriculture.
During the past decade, the MST has met with brutal repression: in January 2013, two MST leaders were murdered in Rio de Janeiro. In 2004, a large-scale landowner in Brazil killed five landless rural workers and wounded 12 others who were occupying unproductive land. None of the perpetrators have been brought to justice.
João Pedro Stedile, one of the MST’s founders, talks of ‘a new alliance of the ruling classes’ made up of landowners, transnational corporations and the mainstream media. Working through the judiciary and the Brazilian Congress, these powers, he believes, are together attempting to suppress movement towards agrarian reform. And with the rising power of international financial capital, big global agribusiness is the model of agriculture that these ‘ruling classes’ are pushing.
Agribusiness takes land, denationalizes it and concentrates it in the hands of a few businesses, as well as promoting an unsustainable model of agriculture. Because of this, the MST argues, it is no longer enough to simply call for the redistribution of land within the current capitalist system.
So instead, the MST is calling for ‘popular agrarian reform’, with a new model of agriculture based on agroecology, co-operation and an alliance of the working class. The aim is to produce healthy and organic food that benefits the workers.
The political impact of the congress
After three years of trying to meet with President Dilma, the movement’s national co-ordinating committee received an invitation, within hours of the march ending, to talk to her the next day. MST representatives presented Dilma with the movement’s programme for popular agrarian reform and spoke out against the president’s plans to grant land titles for people living in MST settlements – the privatization of these settlements would dissolve the progress made in building a co-operative model of agriculture.
Despite the political importance of meeting with Dilma, the MST believes that the only thing that will lead to real change is mass struggle against agribusiness and the power of financial capital. There’s a lot that activists can learn from the MST, and a lot that we can do in solidarity, including denouncing the impunity of those responsible for murdering members of the movement and countering the aggressive media campaign against the MST. But the central message to international allies is that the best way to support the MST’s struggle is to fight against agribusiness and capitalist powers in our own countries. In the words of Friends of MST ‘Globalize struggle! Globalize hope!’
Sarah Reader is a campaigner at the World Development Movement.
Find out more about the MST and what you can do.