Brazil’s Landless Workers’ Movement (MST) has been pushing for land reform in Latin America’s largest country for the past 25 years. It’s a force to be reckoned with – the largest social movement in the region.
All photos by Gibby Zobel.
What has been described as the most dynamic social movement in the world, Brazil’s Landless Workers’ Movement (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra/MST) marked its 25th anniversary this year.
With more than a million and a half members, the MST has been fêted worldwide by human and workers’ rights organizations. Meanwhile, inside Brazil, the organization’s fight for land reform continues in the face of Government inertia and continued attacks from the élite-owned press.
Its provocative and successful direct action tactics of taking over unproductive farms en masse have always irked the authorities – even though their right to the land is enshrined in the 1988 post-dictatorship constitution.
Brazil has 190 million people in an area of 8.5 million square kilometres – twice the size of Europe. Yet just 35,000 families control roughly half of all farmland and three per cent of the population owns two-thirds of all arable land.
To escape near-slavery conditions, millions flocked to urban areas in the 1970s, creating booming megacities and vast slums, known as favelas.
The MST’s back-to-the-land ethos has been a resounding success. Since 1984 the movement has settled 377,000 families on arable land that had been left unused.
But the very fact the movement continues to survive, let alone thrive, is a remarkable tale. Opposition from wealthy landowners and their supporters in Government and business has been relentless.
Just last year, one state prosecutor attempted to launch a legal challenge for ‘the dissolution of the MST and a declaration of their illegality’. The prosecutor claimed the MST was ‘a paramilitary organization and a threat to national security’. This attack followed a previous proposal to label land occupation as ‘a terrorist act’. Together, the charges sparked yet another Government inquiry into the movement.
In a recent newspaper poll, 80 per cent agreed that MST land invasions should be criminalized. Just seven families control the country’s major media outlets, where MST members are consistently vilified as dangerous outlaws.
The irony is rich. On 21 August, Elton Brum, an MST member from Rio Grande do Sul, became the latest victim of violence in land conflicts. He was shot and killed by military police during an eviction. The Government’s human rights secretary criticized the police for torturing children and using electric shock batons during the action.
Unfortunately, such treatment of the landless by police or hired thugs is commonplace.
Figures released in September by the ecumenical Pastoral Land Commission (Comissão Pastoral da Terra or CPT), found that 12 MST members were murdered in the first half of the year. In addition, there were 44 attempted murders, 22 death threats and 6 cases of torture.
The press typically reported this as ‘violence in the countryside goes down’.
In total, the CPT says, 1,482 people were killed in land conflicts between 1985 and 2008 – more than one death a week on average. Landowners know they can act with impunity – only a handful of cases ever make it to court. And there is little hope of a conviction.
Take the notorious massacre of Eldorado do Carajás on 17 April 1996. Nineteen sem terra (landless people) died after being shot by police. Thirteen years later, no police officer is in jail for the crime, no compensation has been paid to the victims’ families and the injured have yet to receive medical care to remove bullets from their bodies.
The MST push on regardless. Now spanning two generations, they have developed organically, with a flexible structure that allows for both bottom-up and top-down decision-making. Nuclei of 10 families form brigades 500 families-strong and there are tens of thousands of family groupings in each state. National co-ordinators are elected from each state to form an elected governing body. The MST is also part of Via Campesina, a network of 120 social movements active in 70 countries.
Day-to-day, this means establishing more and more autonomous communally run settlements and creating parallel health and education systems in a network that spans 25 of Brazil’s 28 states.
Currently there are an estimated 230,000 landless families living in straw huts under black plastic sheeting in camps, waiting for the government land agency to legalize their land claims. It can take years.
Maria Helena (pictured left) is one of those who fought and won. A 50-year-old single woman, she worked as a domestic in São Paulo from childhood onwards. When her bosses asked her if she wanted to be a maid on their farm, she said ‘yes’ and went to work at the farmhouse.
Soon she met MST members who were camped nearby. At first, she says, she was wary because of what she had seen on TV about the movement. But that doubt soon vanished as she became convinced of the justice of the cause. In 2003 she gave up her job and joined the fight for land. Within two years, Maria and her colleagues had won the right to stay on 750 hectares at the Olga Benário camp in the interior of the state of São Paulo. Maria now has her own five hectares where she is building a house with the help of the community.
A short bus ride away from the camp is an extraordinary sight: a state-of-the-art university campus has been built, brick by brick, by MST brigades from all over the country.
The Escola Nacional Florestan Fernandes(Florestan Fernandes University) is named after a famous Brazilian sociologist from humble beginnings. More than 1,000 MST volunteers built it over a period of five years. The modern-looking campus, covering 30,000 square metres, is equipped with a computer room running on open-source software, a cinema, a library with tens of thousands of donated books, a refectory, a 200-seater auditorium, four classrooms and four dormitories which can sleep 200 people.
... just 35,000 families control roughly half of all farmland and three per cent of the population owns two-thirds of all arable land
You can study inspirational leaders in Latin America’s turbulent past, from the Frente Sandinista in 1980s Nicaragua to Chile’s Salvador Allende. But the Escola Nacional also offers a broad range of courses in partnership with 13 public universities. The school’s degrees and diplomas are officially recognized by the Ministry of Education and Culture. The campus is run by the students themselves, who work a rota for cleaning and cooking, and it operates as a base for many social movements.
Sympathetic professors from Brazil’s leading universities help out. One of those is Florestan Fernandes’ daughter, Heloísa Fernandes, a professor of philosophy at Latin America’s leading academic institution, the University of São Paulo.
‘These are people who want to take what they know and apply that in their work. What they learn is folded into the experiences that they bring from the camps and the settlements,’ she says.
The MST exploded into life in 1984 and continued to grow in strength despite a series of rightwing governments. Since then the landless movement has sent members to Cuban medical schools for training, developed cutting edge agro-ecology centres and established major co-operatives. In 1985 more than 550 MST families formed Terra Viva (Living Land) in the southern state of Santa Catarina. The dairy co-op is now the biggest milk producer in the region, pumping out 350,000 litres of milk a day.
MST also took a stand against genetically modified crops, destroying the laboratories of industry leader Monsanto and protesting the mass planting of eucalyptus trees, a monoculture which creates ‘green deserts’ where nothing else can live or grow.
But it was the election of former metalworker and union leader, Luiz Inácio ‘Lula’ da Silva, as Brazil’s first working-class president in 2002 which gave the MST its greatest hope.
Lula founded a new political force, the Workers’ Party, in 1980 just as the nascent landless movement was occupying its first farms.
The two had pushed for social change as allies. With Lula as President the MST expected a radical plan for agrarian reform. But to gain power Lula had had to compromise.
Charles Trocate, MST co-ordinator for the northeastern state of Pará explains:
‘Brazil is perhaps the only country which has two ministries in charge of farming policy and land use. The Ministry of Agrarian Development oversees the National Plan for Agrarian Reform while the Ministry of Agriculture acts as the Ministry of Big Landowners and Agribusiness. This Government has ministers from the Left and from the Right,’ he says.
In 2005, as promises of land reform faded, the MST attempted to resurrect its concerns by organizing the biggest march in Brazilian history.
The march lasted 17 days – 12,000 men, women and children marched 16 kilometres daily in the dry heat, occupied land and camped on it. Their aim was to arrive in the capital Brasilía en masse for a showdown with the President.
Months of planning
Elenice Vanelli (pictured above), an 18-year-old from Christ the King settlement in the southern state of Santa Catarina, was eight months pregnant when she joined the protest.
‘It wasn’t easy. You eat late, you eat early, you have to find a place to wash your clothes, to shower; you don’t have time for anything. Each day you had to do so many kilometres. For most families it was too hard,’ she says.
Like a giant festival on the move, the march was an epic that took eight months of planning.
Hundreds of participants from across the vast country took part. Many spent three or four nights travelling by bus to get to the starting point – a football stadium in Goiania in the centre of Brazil.
Each marcher was asked to bring a knife and fork, four rolls of toilet paper, a water bottle, a straw hat, a roll-up mattress, Bermuda shorts, havaianas (flipflops), a bucket for washing and tablets for headaches. MST caps and t-shirts were standard gear. Marchers were provided with a rucksack, a plastic rain poncho, an ID card for their name and state, a pen and notebook, a book on agrarian reform, as well as a transistor radio and headphones.
Each day began with a wake-up call at 4.30 in the morning. In 30 minutes three lines of people stretched four-and-a-half kilometres along the BR-060 motorway – accompanied by two sound systems, six ambulances and 15 water trucks. Four or five hours later the marchers would reach the campsite.
Meanwhile, another 350-strong team would pack up the entire camp in 31 trucks and 8 buses and drive to a patch of idle farmland chosen as the next site. The camp would be sketched on paper and reconstructed entirely before the marchers arrived around 10.00am.
The movement now believes Lula has ‘abandoned’ agrarian reform despite the country having the second worst land distribution in the world
Kitchens were set up at two points along the route. A team of 420 cooks – a group from each state – would rise at 3.30am to prepare 24,000 meals of rice, beans, vegetables and a little meat. The hot food was then packed into metal trays and driven to the campsite twice a day.
After showering, washing clothes and eating lunch there were ‘study hours’ from 3.00 to 5.00pm. At the same time, two teams of 30 negotiators would take it in turns to travel by bus to Brasilía, spending all day going from ministry to ministry hammering out their demands before coming back to camp.
And then there were the teams for healthcare, finances, security, transport, childcare, tents, toilets and the press.
Ex-Catholic priest Leonardo Boff, known as a father of the movement, says the march radiated ‘an almost mystical aura of affection’ and ‘a profound friendliness which seemed like a little rehearsal of a happy humanity’.
Reflection and action
In the 1970s Boff was a key advocate of ‘liberation theology’, a radical Catholic critique of capitalism. His outspoken views led to his expulsion from the Church by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI. He later became a central figure helping to organize the MST.
Boff believes the huge march was a milestone because it combined study and reflection with action. ‘Uniting practice with theory prevents excesses, creates roots and hardens the resolve to fight to free the land,’ according to Boff.
Gilmar Mauro, MST national co-ordinator for the state of São Paulo, agrees. He sees the march as part of a long history of protest, from Gandhi’s salt march in India to marches in support of indigenous rights throughout Latin America.
Juarez Santana Rocha (pictured above), from the northeastern state of Bahia, was 23 when he took part in the march. He had been part of a land occupation for three years, with little sign of legal success. But as a direct result of pressure from the march, Rocha and his comrades at Camp Good Luck won their right to 4,500 hectares of land, enough for 422 families.
‘Government is like beans,’ he quips. ‘It needs pressure to cook.’
Rocha was lucky. Despite President Lula’s pledge to resettle 430,000 families by the end of 2008, his Government failed to come close. In fact, none of his land reform targets were met – a heart-breaking disappointment for the MST. The movement now believes Lula has ‘abandoned’ agrarian reform despite the country having the second-worst land distribution in the world, next to neighbouring Paraguay.
In 2010 Brazil will elect a new leader – by law Lula cannot stand for a third term. At this point three of the four likely candidates are women. Lula’s party, the PT, is expected to field home affairs minister Dilma Rousseff, while two ex-PT members have also declared their candidacy. Marina Silva, the former environment minister, will stand for the Green Party. And Heloísa Helena will run for the PSOL – rebels from the PT who quit the party in its first elected year. Challenging from the Right are former health minister and São Paulo governor José Serra and the current Governor of Minais Gerais, Aécio Neves.
The MST says their election strategy is under discussion. They are firmly focused on the next 25 years.
‘There is no way to achieve agrarian reform if we are on our own,’ stresses MST national co-ordinator Gilmar Mauro. ‘We must continue mobilizing, organizing and fighting because from above or below it will be very difficult for us to achieve change. Change will only be long-lasting if it is a process the people themselves manage to win. Whether from pressure on the Government or by directly occupying land, the people must participate and be keen to fight.’
25 years of the MST
The final years of Brazil’s 21-year military dictatorship saw the formation of two radical new forces – the Workers’ Party (PT) and the Landless Workers’ Movement (MST). As allies they pushed for social progress and became the foremost political and social influences to shape the new Brazil.
1978-80 Metalworker Luiz Inácio ‘Lula’ da Silva leads an unprecedented wave of strikes against the military dictatorship.
1979 Landless farmers from the state of Rio Grande do Sul occupy land in Ronda Alta and begin organizing under the name Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (MST).
1980 Lula becomes one of the founders of the new Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT), the Brazilian Workers’ Party.
1984 Official founding of the MST. First national meeting is held in Cascavel, in the southern state of Paraná.
1985 End of the dictatorship.
1988 New Brazilian Constitution agreed. Land left unproductive for two years is subject to agrarian reform.
1989 First free Presidential elections. Powerful Globo TV attacks Lula and previously unknown rightwing candidate Fernando Collor is elected.
1994 President Fernando Henrique Cardoso is elected after Collor flees to Miami, escaping impeachment for fraud.
1996 Massacre of Eldorado de Carajás. Nineteen MST members die after being shot by police on 17 April in Pará state.
1998 Lula (pictured) fails for third time to be elected President. Cardoso wins second term.
2002 MST occupies the land of President Cardoso in April in a symbolic action in the state of Minas Gerais.
2002 Lula elected in October as Brazil’s first working-class President.
2005 Inauguration of MST’s most ambitious single project – the Florestan Fernandes National University in the state of São Paulo.
2005 MST stages the biggest march in Brazilian history in May, the National March for Agrarian Reform, to push Lula to implement land reform promises.
2006 Lula re-elected.
2009 MST marks 25th anniversary and denounces Lula for ‘abandoning’ land reform.
2010 Presidential elections will guarantee Brazil a new leader, since Lula can’t legally stand for a third term.
March with us, march
And it’s Brazil in columns
The dream isn’t Utopia
In the flutter of the flags.
Pay attention, my country
Wake up to reality
What is happening
In the countryside and the city
Only the power of the people
Will change society.
(From the MST song, March Brazil)