Now It Is Time:
The MST and Grassroots Land Reform in Brazil
by Angus Wright and Wendy
Food First Backgrounder newsletter,
Since the late 1970s, more than one million
people in Brazil have transformed their lives. They have done
so by organizing peaceful protests that have forced the Brazilian
government to redistribute approximately 20 million acres of agricultural
land to 350,000 families and to assist them further in creating
new livelihoods. These people have vastly improved the quality
of education and health care available to their families, achieving
these gains by successfully challenging the institutions and some
of the most powerful people of Brazil, a nation of 175 million
people and one of the world's ten largest economies.
The million people-men, women, and children-who
are members of the MST (o Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem-Terra,
the Landless Workers' Movement) have faced down police, the military,
and gangs of hired gunmen, suffering imprisonment, beatings, and
sometimes death. Instead of waiting for the government to meet
its long-standing promises to redistribute land, members of the
MST have occupied land claimed by others, continuing the occupations
until the government has met their immediate needs for land. And
they continue to do so: at this writing more than 80,000 MST families
who have not yet benefited from land distributions are occupying
land in the continuing battle to make agrarian reform an enduring
reality in Brazil. In addition, approximately 200,000 families
who are not members of the MST have also received land in the
agrarian reform sparked by the MST.
The Social Function of Land
Although MST members often have had to
confront police, military troops, and the court system to gain
land, the MST strategy of land occupations does not usually break
the law but instead is based on forcing the government to comply
with the law.
Brazil has for nearly five centuries been
plagued by a radically unequal distribution of land. Wealthy landholders
ruled the countryside with impunity, grabbing land through fair
means and foul, intimidating and even murdering those who stood
in the way of their dominance of the land. They held sway over
state legislatures and courts and there were few who could challenge
them. They were encouraged by their dominance and impunity to
use the land wastefully, retarding the development of the economy
and trapping millions of Brazilians in poverty. To combat this
problem, successive Brazilian national governments beginning in
the nineteenth century asserted the idea (which also had roots
in the colonial legal tradition) that land, in order to be legally
claimed by an owner, had to "serve its social function."
Brazilian governments repeatedly promised to make this concept
meaningful by redistributing land to the poor, but the power of
landholding families and their domestic and foreign allies has
kept the governments from fulfilling their promises.
In the late 1970s, landless rural people
realized that they might be able to achieve reform by occupying
land and demanding that the government apply the "social
function" principle. They were also often able to successfully
challenge the titles held by wealthy landowners because so many
of the titles were based on fraud. The key was organization. Land
occupations needed to be carried out by enough people-usually
several hundred or more-and enlist enough community support that
the government and large landholders could not displace them except
through embarrassingly large and politically costly jailings or
massacres. Catholic priests inspired by liberation theology (a
movement within the Church emphasizing social justice) and lay
political activists helped the landless organize these occupations.
Once proven successful, occupations began to break out throughout
Brazil, and by 1984 the landless were able to create a national
organization, the MST. Significant agrarian reform had begun for
the first time in Brazilian history.
The Land Occupation Encampments
It is not easy to organize or maintain
successful land occupations. The greatest motivator is the desperation
of the rural poor, pressed to the wall by ongoing inequalities
that continue to throw them off the land-inequalities exacerbated
by the aggressive development of capital-intensive agricultural
operations. MST organizers must identify enough people in an area
ready to take on the difficulties of an occupation. They must
also keep a constant eye out for land that is held under terms
that can be legally contested. When the landless first move onto
a piece of land, they are usually thrown off it one or more times
by gunmen employed by landowners or by police forces under landowner
control. The landless set up camps on the land itself or nearby
with shelters made of large sheets of black plastic-whatever materials
may come to hand. They plant any ground available often just small
gardens-and usually must rely on support from the MST state and
national offices, other settlements, labor unions, church groups,
and sympathetic political organizations. It is difficult to maintain
the morale of the families in the camps in the face of hunger,
disease, and demoralizing delay.
It is essential to stay put until a court
and/or the government's agrarian reform ministry makes a decision
to grant land-a process that typically takes two to four years.
In the meantime, landlords or police may attack the encampment
repeatedly, abusing, beating, and imprisoning people. Several
hundred MST leaders have been assassinated in these struggles.
Even more rural leaders not affiliated with the MST have been
murdered, as they do not enjoy the support and protection the
MST affords. In spite of the problems, however, the people's deep
hunger for land and the organizational skill of the MST have made
it possible for people in thousands of encampments to succeed
in getting land.
The Challenges of Success: Making Agrarian
People in agrarian reform settlements
say again and again that "the land is only a first step."
They mean this in three ways. First, it is not easy for small
farmers in Brazil (or anywhere) to succeed against government
and corporate policies that favor large operations. Second, agrarian
reform does not in itself solve many of the social and economic
problems that rural poor people face. Third, the MST and most
of its members see themselves as a revolutionary force leading
the transformation of Brazil into a more just and prosperous nation.
Agrarian reform settlers carry into their
communities most of the ingrained problems of their society as
a whole: sexism, racism, and the tendency to rely on hierarchical,
paternalistic, and personality-based relationships. The difference
in MST settlements is that the organization and a large share
of the settlers are deeply committed to fighting these old problems.
The organization was founded in part on the educational ideas
of Paulo Freire, who insisted that the awakening of critical consciousness
and a sense of social responsibility are the foundations of learning
and positive change. Settlers engage in formal and informal discussion
of the problems and establish rules and understandings meant to
create a more egalitarian society, both for Brazil and for each
settlement. The MST trains thousands of elementary and secondary
teachers and community organizers to help carry the vision of
social equality forward.
Settlers must also struggle to make their
landholdings productive and sustainable. The MST has trained hundreds
of its own agronomists and technical advisors, and it pressures
the government to provide more. The organization demands, with
occasional and partial success, adequate production credit. They
work with other family farmers to try to transform government
policy favoring export and large-scale agriculture into policy
that would favor feeding Brazilians and supporting small-scale
In its earliest years, the MST was influenced
by the idea that "modern," chemical-intensive agriculture
was the most viable. Now, the organization has been educated by
experience to see that the most successful small-scale farms are
those that produce a diverse range of products for local markets
and that conserve and enhance the productive quality of the land.
The MST has adopted this sustainable model (called an "agro-ecology"
model) as its goal for all MST settlers, though both the organization
and the settlers themselves recognize that most settlements are
far from realizing this vision. Some settlements, however, have
already become successful models of organic and agro-ecological
The MST has also played a significant
role in redefining the debate over the fate of the Brazilian Amazon,
insisting from the very beginning that agrarian reform on existing
agricultural land is the solution for Brazil's rural poor, and
that expansion of the frontier into forested land is not. Within
the Amazon itself, the MST endeavors to stabilize agricultural
settlements through the practice of agro-ecological and agro-forestry
models that end or reduce the need for settlers to clear new ground.
A More Promising Future Has Arrived
The MST is one of a larger set of social
movements that arose against a brutal but tottering military dictatorship
in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Among the other movements was
a "new unionism" led by Luis Inacio ("Lula")
da Silva of the Brazilian Metal Workers' Union. Lula and his cohorts
founded a new national labor confederation and a new political
party, the Workers' Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores, or PT).
Lula and the newly militant unions supported the MST from the
beginning and vice versa. There have been some divergent views
among the MST, Lula, and the dominant faction of the PT over the
years. Nonetheless, Lula's inauguration as the President of Brazil
on January 1, 2003 almost certainly means that the MST will for
the first time enjoy a more active and sympathetic response from
government than it has at any other time in its history. The kind
of financial and technical support agrarian reform settlers need
will also most likely be more forthcoming.
However, there is strong international
pressure on the Lula government (as on those of many other countries)
to promote large-scale, export-oriented agriculture. In this context,
it's important that the MST maintain one of its core strengths:
its policy of independence from its allies, which include indigenous
peoples movements, church organizations, unions, and political
parties like the PT. Its clarity of purpose and structural independence
from these groups will stand the movement in good stead whatever
the policies of the Lula government.
The future is brightening a bit for Brazil's
poor and landless, and most MST settlers would agree that today
more than ever, "now is the time." But they would also
agree that they are just beginning to take a second step on the
long journey of constructing a genuinely egalitarian Brazil.