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Republic Of The Landless


Republic of the landless
Carlos Tautz reports on a movement of the dispossessed in Brazil
that believes you can only travel far if you use your own feet.


Popular movements in the South frequently have to face the ‘deep structures’ of poverty on their own. The best kind of aid shows solidarity with them.

On 15 May this year 50 rural workers processed proudly with their tractors through the streets of Teodoro Sampaio, a town in the Brazilian interior. They were showing the people of the town the first industrial products of their newly-established agricultural co-operative. It is the most recent of 59 demos organized so far by the Movement of Landless Rural Workers (MST).

The MST was created in 1984 by a coalition of Catholic liberation theologians, land-reform groups and rural workers’ unions. Twelve years later it is active in 24 of the 28 Brazilian states and has become an immovable object in the path of the free-market economic policies of the Brazilian Government. It has challenged the face of political power in Brazil by placing the urgent need for agrarian reform at the very centre of the country’s political agenda.

Brazil has one of the greatest concentrations of land ownership anywhere in the world: the richest 10 per cent of the population own 52 per cent of the agricultural land. According to surveys by the MST, there are 1,457 estates in Brazil larger than 10,000 hectares, totalling 65 million hectares in all – enough to accommodate more than 3 million families. There are about 4.8 million landless families – 20 million people.

The MST has already improved the conditions of some 150,000 squatter families. Today almost all of them have a better standard of living than the majority of small farmers in Brazil. Research conducted during the 1980s by the Food and Agricultural Organization of the UN found that squatter families had an income almost double that of other small rural producers. Their levels of education and life expectancy were also much higher.

Within the MST there are currently 44,000 families – 220,000 people. Organized by the Movement, they occupy land which they hope to settle permanently. Otherwise these families will simply be swallowed up by the big cities.

‘This issue is of concern to society as a whole,’ says Gilmar Mauro, a farmer and one of the 17 national co-ordinators of the MST. According to public-opinion polls taken in 1996, he is right. They show that on average at least 70 per cent of Brazilians support land reform.

The largest mass movement in the country, the MST gets 80 per cent of its funding in small amounts from each of its member co-operatives; 15 per cent comes from local progressive organizations and trade unions. Unlike other large social movements in Brazil, it receives less than five per cent of its budget from foreign-aid agencies. Almost all the foreign aid it does receive is devoted to political education.

‘We believe you can only travel far if you use your own feet. Aid is welcome, but only to help our own organization,’ says Mauro. ‘We are critical of some forms of co-operation, which do not help at all.’

For him, international solidarity shown at crucial moments in the fight for land has been much more important than money. When the Brazilian President, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, visited France in June this year he was surprised by public protests about the massacre of 19 rural workers in Brazil on 17 April. The massacre took place in the state of Pará, where the police and private militias worked together and, under the command of a colonel in the Military Police, killed workers who were demonstrating peacefully. The protest in France demanded the punishment of those responsible, who remain at liberty to this day. ‘That’s the kind of solidarity we like – solidarity that strengthens friendship between peoples at moments of difficulty,’ says Mauro emphatically.

Meanwhile, more expressions of international solidarity are being organized by rural workers in the rest of Latin America and around the world. The MST is a member of Via Campesina – a worldwide network of small farmers – and the Latin American Co-ordinating Group of Rural Organizations.

Foreign aid is a comparatively small part of its budget because the MST has a clearly defined view of the state. ‘The Brazilian state has a lot of money and an obligation to guarantee investment in health, education and other basic services,’ says Mauro. ‘We don’t just want land. We also require schools, hospitals and roads to carry our products. This role can only be undertaken by the Brazilian state. Any purely economic assistance from foreign-aid agencies is a palliative for specific situations and doesn’t help to resolve the crucial question, which is the concentration of power in Brazil.’

The political line taken by the MST has aroused the antagonism of Brazil’s rulers and landowners. Time and again the MST has been accused of having links with guerrilla organizations in Latin America, like Sendero Luminoso (‘Shining Path’) in Peru or the Zapatistas in Mexico. But the Movement is armed only with its organization and an inclination to fight for agrarian reform that has taken many sectors of Brazilian society by surprise.

‘This link with the guerrillas is a fiction dreamed up as much by the Left as by the Right,’ says Mauro. ‘The Left imagines we can form an army like the Zapatistas and the Right is looking for an excuse to repress us. If the MST had taken the military option it would no longer exist. We have the support of society, and we’ve put land reform on the agenda. I think we can offer a better example to the Latin American guerrilla organizations than they can offer us.’

The future plans of the MST are ambitious. It aims to settle up to 25,000 families permanently on the most fertile land in Brazil, in the region known as Pontal or Paranapanema. This is where the richest of all Brazilian landowners installed themselves in the middle of the last century. By falsifying land titles and expelling rural workers, they built their fame, fortune and power in Pontal, which today has almost 15,000 people camped on roadside verges. It is here that the MST has founded what is already being dubbed the ‘MST Republic’.

The squatters first aim to occupy almost 100 hectares of uncultivated land that now belongs to the state government. Then, says the leadership, the target is unproductive land on the large private estates. The preparations for a mass occupation have already begun. The landless have contracted five agronomists to help them to organize their settlements. ‘Pontal will be a focus for the development of family farming. We’re going to invest in subsistence agriculture, but we want access to the best technology to achieve development and provide small farmers with the conditions for economic growth,’ says Gilmar Mauro.

Gradually, landless people are also achieving more political power in the ten municipalities in the region. Many militants stood for election as local councillors and prefects in the municipal elections of 3 October. Almost all of them were candidates for the Workers Party (PT), with which the MST has a friendly but independent relationship.

The MST has three basic commitments: to fight for land, for agrarian reform and for social transformation. Putting them into practice has involved not just people who are landless but the whole of society as active participants in change. The settlement of these people has, says the MST, proved that land reform is viable, even in Brazil. And it will enable millions of rural Brazilians to be freed from extreme poverty – without recourse to charity.

Carlos Tautz ( [email protected] ) is a freelance journalist based in Rio de Janeiro who works for several foreign magazines. He usually covers social and environmental issues.

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©Copyright: New Internationalist 1996

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