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A rural revolution

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Brazil is one of the most unequal societies in the world. But, as Alex Kawakami tells Rowenna Davis, there is a movement for change – and it’s getting bigger.

Alex Kawakami calls himself an agronomist, but really he’s a revolutionary. He works for the landless people’s movement Movimento dos Trabalhardores Rurais Sem Terra (MST), a social movement of some 370,000 people organizing in over 1,000 settlements in Brazil, in addition to 90,000 families living in camps. For them, agricultural reform is more than organic farming – it’s an answer to land inequality, global food shortages and climate change.

In bed with the senators

These rural campaigners are fighting against deeply ingrained power structures. The notoriously influential agribusiness lobby, Bancada Ruralista, plays a part in the formation of all major agricultural policy in Brazil, insuring that large exporting businesses are untaxed where family farmers are forced to pay. MST claims that Brazilian landowners are in bed with senators, and senators are in bed with judges. Meanwhile they say the country’s largest media group Organizacoes Globo, perpetually misrepresents the movement.

‘We say occupation because it’s different from invasion. Invasion is what happened in Iraq. We are occupying lands because they are unproductive, they rely on slave labour or they’re destroying the environment. And we don’t use violence’

Kawakami believes that such corrupt legal and political systems will never deliver social justice or environmental sustainability. MST’s answer is direct action: occupation has been a technique used by MST since it became a national movement in 1984. ‘We say occupation because it’s different from invasion,’ says Kawakami. ‘Invasion is what happened in Iraq. We are occupying lands because they are unproductive, they rely on slave labour or they’re destroying the environment. And we don’t use violence.’

Once the land has been occupied, MST fills it with landless families – who have often lost their farming jobs to modern agribusiness giants – and helps them to establish functioning communities. MST agronomists like Kawakami help peasants construct houses and schools, regenerate the local environment and farm more productively by using traditional, small-scale techniques.

Talking synergy

English might not be Kawakami’s first language, but he chooses his words carefully, anxious not to be misrepresented. ‘We don’t talk about ‘organic farming’, we talk about agro-ecological farming,’ he says. ‘Organic farming is considered expensive and out of touch with ordinary people; agro-ecological farming is about a synergy between the environment and the farmers. It has a social dimension, and draws on traditional knowledge about sustainability.’

‘Food security’ is another term Kawakami doesn’t like to be associated with. ‘Food security is used to promote the agenda of large companies – genetic engineering, nanotechnology and the exportation of value. Food sovereignty is about changing the paradigm of production so that local people can feed themselves.’

The Government has responded violently to these occupations, evicting settlements across the country. The worst case occurred in 1996, when 19 workers were killed by military police after a farm in the northern state of Para was occupied.

What makes these evictions particularly shocking is that MST’s occupations are justified under Brazilian law. After years of campaigning, rural workers managed to get a clause in the 1988 constitution declaring that if land was ‘unproductive’ or serving no valuable social purpose, then it should be given to the people as part of a progressive agricultural and land reform agenda. Kawakami says the reality is very different:

‘Food security is used to promote the agenda of large companies – genetic engineering, nanotechnology and the exportation of value. Food sovereignty is about changing the paradigm of production so that local people can feed themselves’

‘Many large-scale farmers are friends with the judges, so the courts refuse to rule that land is unproductive, he says. ‘We occupy the law and press the Government to abide by their own laws, but they don’t. They continue to use the police to throw families out with violence.’

Today the violence continues. In January this year, 19 leaders of MST were arrested after they occupied the property of Cutrale, the world’s largest orange juice producer, in Sao Paulo. According to Kawakami, such events have become highly politically motivated. National elections are coming up this year, and the right-wing government that holds the state of Sao Paulo is keen to embarrass the national Lula Government, whose left-wing members have expressed sympathy for MST’s cause. After an MST march on central government in August, Lula said he would relook at the classification of productive and unproductive farms, opening up the doors to land redistribution from rich to poor.

We are not thieves

‘The (Sao Paulo) state government wants to portray us as a violent and thieving organization, but it’s all lies. They just want to embarrass the Lula Government out of supporting us.’ explains Kawakami. ‘Meanwhile, local judges continue to criminalize us. Farmers are accused of being thieves even when they can present receipts.’

Activists were optimistic when Lula first won the Presidency in 2002, but so far there has been little change. Seventy-six per cent of the land is owned by just 16 per cent of farmers. And the Gini Index, which measures concentration of land-ownership, reveals that at 0.854 (where 0 = low concentration and 1 = high concentration), Brazil remains one of the most unequal countries in the world.

Where individuals have failed, a grassroots coalition might do better. MST doesn’t have a president, and is highly democratically organized. A simple system manages to represent 90,000 families across 23 out of the 26 states in Brazil. Ten or fifteen local families form a ‘nucleus’ and are given two co-ordinators. In a radical move for a country associated with machismo, one must always be a woman. These co-ordinators feed into national MST discussions, insuring that every family is represented. Although originally funded by Brazilian churches, MST is now supported by international organizations, trade unions, universities and direct contributions from families.

Although this movement remains firmly rooted in local communities, Kawakami insists it has global implications. Just last month he was addressing British activists about how MST’s model could be adopted more broadly. ‘One billion people go hungry every day, and 70 per cent of those people live in rural areas,’ he reveals. ‘Agricultural reform can help with that, and climate change too. We can empower farmers to become self-sufficient and gain autonomy from multinationals. We want to show how we organize ourselves, and support others to do the same.’

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