Brazil’s Landless Movement: “Our Aim Is to Topple Three Walls...”
“We feel proud and victorious because we elected President Lula.”
“Now we have the chance to implement a real agrarian reform.”
“We see latifundia as our enemy and Lula’s government will play
a fundamental role in democratizing land ownership in Brazil…” “We’re motivated by hope and trust that another Brazil is possible.”
Brazil’s Landless Movement, Latin America’s most important and
combative social movement, greeted Lula’s victory with these words.
What are the key aspects of its emergence, growth and achievements?
João Pedro Stedile
One of the great challenges Lula faces is how to achieve agrarian reform in Brazil, where 500 latifundistas (large estate owners) own unproductive properties jointly equaling the size of the European Union; the 20 largest own the same amount of land as owned by 3.5 million smallholders; and some 4 million families are landless. Such inequity explains the abundance of hungry people that Lula has promised to help to fulfill his “life’s mission.”
The Landless Rural Workers Movement (MST) has been struggling for agrarian reform for almost 20 years now. To provide better knowledge of the MST’s genesis and achievements, envío offers a summary of Brava Gente (Brave People), a book based on university professor Bernando Mançano Fernandes’ February 1998 interview with João Pedro Stedile, an MST founder and one of the best-known members of its current national directorate. The son of small farmers of Italian origin, Stedile studied economics at the Rio Grande do Sul Pontificia Catholic University and has been struggling to bring about agrarian reform in Brazil since 1979.
According to Mançano Fernandes, the aim of the interview “was to dig up from his memory the most representative moments and events generated by the landless people’s actions…. Stedile was involved in this history right from the beginning; he was one of the people who built the MST based on the country’s reality, their knowledge and their own ideas. Every ‘landless person’ from every corner of Brazil made his or her own contribution, which allowed the socialization of this struggle for human dignity.” What follows is told in Stedile’s own words.
“Painful modernization” The MST’s genesis was determined by several different factors. The main one was socioeconomic, caused by the transformations of Brazilian agriculture during the seventies, which produced a development process José Graziano da Silva termed “painful modernization.” That period saw the quickest and most intense mechanization of work in Brazil’s history. In the south, considered the birthplace of the MST, the introduction of soy speeded up the mechanization of agriculture, in both Rio Grande do Sul, where it was grown between furrows of wheat, a crop that already had a certain tradition, and Paraná, where it was introduced as an alternative to coffee.
and the “Brazilian miracle”
The mechanization of work and the introduction of a form of agriculture with more capitalist characteristics rapidly expelled large parts of the population from the countryside during that period. These families had lived as tenant farmers or smallholders, or else the children of farmers who had been given a plot of land from their parents’ already small agricultural holdings. It was a period in which intensive use of labor was the main agricultural characteristic.
At first the population emigrated to rural zones being colonized, particularly Rondonia, Pará and Mato Grosso. Soon after, news came back from those regions that the migrants had been unable to set themselves up again as peasants, partly because there was no custom of family agriculture there. Another big problem was that the government, which was promoting the colonization of the agricultural frontiers, was seeking to stimulate livestock activities. Actually, the big project concealed behind the relocation of labor was that the government wanted to promote the transfer of labor towards garimpo activities (small-scale mining of gold and precious stones) and timber extraction. Although land was available in the regions under colonization—and all peasants dream of their own piece of land—the prospects of emigrating to the north were undermined by the news being sent back by the first to arrive. An important part of the population expelled from the countryside thus went to the cities, motivated by the accelerated industrialization process. That was the period known as the “Brazilian miracle.”
The end of the seventies saw the appearance of the first signs of a crisis in Brazilian industry that would last throughout the eighties, a period known as the “lost decade.” In social and economic terms, the peasants expelled by agricultural mechanization saw both of their possible ways out—exodus to the cities or to the agricultural frontiers—closed off. This forced them into two decisions: to try to hold out in the countryside and to seek other forms of struggle more in keeping with the regions in which they lived. That social base generated the MST. It is a grass roots willing to fight; they do not accept colonization or emigration to the cities as solutions to their problems. These people want to stay in the countryside, and particularly in the region where they live.
Although there is still debate over the exact date of the MST’s creation, we think of it as January 1984, when it was formalized as a national movement. That’s when we held the Rural Landless Workers Movement’s First National Conference in the city of Cascavel in the state of Paraná, involving 80 representatives from 13 states. During the conference, we defined the movement’s principles, forms of organization, demands, structure and methods of struggle. Certain important ideas were already present and a number of fundamental ideological debates took place. The first concerned the MST’s name. The press was already calling us the Landless Movement, but the leaders didn’t really want to accept that. The term “landless” was first used in Brazil’s 1946 constituent assembly, which generated the first debates on the need for an agrarian reform law. Nonetheless, we finally took advantage of the label by which society already knew us and unanimously approved the name “Movement of Rural Landless Workers.”
“Don’t wait for heaven; organize here”In addition to this socioeconomic factor, a second element was very important in the MST’s formation. It is ideological in nature and is based on the pastoral work carried out mainly by the Catholic and Lutheran churches. The emergence of the Pastoral Land Commission (CPT)—an organ of the Catholic Church linked to the Brazilian Bishops’ Conference—in Goiania in 1975 was a very important factor in reorganizing the peasants’ struggles. Initially, the CPT had a regional motivation and brought together bishops from the Amazon region who had witnessed the extreme violence being used against squatters without land titles in the country’s northern and central-western regions.
By 1976, the CPT had expanded right across the country. In the middle of the military dictatorship, the commission generated a movement of bishops, priests and pastoral agents opposed to the model being established in the countryside. Within the CPT, priests, pastors and other religious workers discussed with the peasants the need to organize. The church stopped carrying out messianic work and telling peasants they would get their land in heaven and started telling them to organize and solve their problems here on earth. They did very important work raising the peasants’ awareness. And something else very important for the emergence of the MST: by drawing the Lutheran sector around it, mainly in the states of Paraná and Santa Catarina, the CPT took on an ecumenical quality. If the CPT had not been ecumenical, had not had that broader vision, various movements would have sprung up and the struggle would have fragmented into various organizations.
“Popular” because the A third important factor in the emergence of the MST was the political situation, involving the country’s democratization process. We cannot divorce the MST’s emergence from the Brazilian political situation of the time. The MST did not just grow out of the peasants’ will; it was only able to become an important social movement because it coincided with a broader struggle for the country’s democratization. The struggle for agrarian reform came on top of the reemergence of workers’ strikes in 1978 and 1979 and the struggle for the democratization of the whole of society. The MST would not have emerged had the struggle against military dictatorship not also reached the cities.
whole peasant family participates
The MST was born as a movement of peasant farmers used to family work who decided to fight for land. I feel that the word “peasant” is a little schematic. Peasants in Brazil have never used the word. The only organization to use the term has been the Brazilian Communist Party. Here, people from the country generally refer to themselves as farmers, rural workers, smallholders or tenants.
We emerged with three banners: land, agrarian reform and general transformations of society. Later, we realized that the MST was different from historical peasant movements, which limited themselves to fighting for land. Right from the beginning, all of the forms of struggle we developed were of the masses, which gave the MST three fundamental characteristics.
One, it is a popular movement in which everybody can participate, and this “popular” nature has two aspects. It is popular first in the sense that the whole family participates, including the elderly, women and children, which differentiates it from unions, where traditionally only the adult male participates in assemblies. We realized that this was where our strength lay because as well as being sexist, men tend to be conservative and individualistic. By including all family members, the movement acquired an incredible potential. For example, adolescents who were previously oppressed by their father realized they had the same vote as him in a landless people’s assembly, the same decision-making weight, the same power, a presence and a voice, and they feel valued.
It is popular also in that we were never very sectarian, maybe due to the church’s previous work. Although we are a peasant movement that wants to struggle for agrarian reform, the MST is able to incorporate urban militants, rural technicians, priests... Nobody has asked anyone to present credentials. This provides us with greater consistency. The MST was able to open up to what existed in society. Quite simply it did not and does not close itself off within the limits set by typical peasant movements that only admit those who physically work the land. In the beginning there were even jokes about the differences between those with rough hands and smooth hands.
The rough hands are those who wield hoes: rural workers and farmers. The soft hands are those who don’t work in the countryside, in agriculture, but commit themselves to the movement from other social sectors. The important thing is that while there were jokes, everyone is treated equally. Nobody ever said: “You, smooth hands, wait outside while we decide and then we’ll all meet up.” And nobody ever said, “You, rough hands, you don’t know enough, so leave this matter to those of us with a better education.” Everybody is equal, feels equal and receives the same treatment and the same opportunities, despite the cultural, formative and educational differences. No differentiation was ever established for those who participated in the political leadership, although most of them were rural workers.
That breadth helped the movement create its organizational cadres. If it had closed itself up within typically peasant limits, just open to the rough hands, it would easily have fallen pray to corporativism, to individual interests. The popular nature that led it to open up to other professions, without discrimination, but at the same time without losing the characteristics of a movement of rural workers, ended up providing a consistency that helped create an organic movement with a broader political interpretation of society.
We weren’t just fighting for land; Another characteristic is the “union” component, in the corporative sense of the word. It is the possibility of winning a piece of land that motivates a family to participate in a land occupation or stay in a squatter encampment for an undetermined length of time. The first instance, the occupation, is essentially a struggle for an economic demand. But once the family has settled, it starts to fight for credit for production, for a road to be built, to get decent prices for what it produces. So the MST also includes a corporative union component that only covers the farmers. This is something else we’ve been able to incorporate into the movement during our historical development. It would have been easier to say, “Join the union,” but we realized that the MST’s very nature demanded this kind of struggle as well. We learned this lesson from previous land struggles.
we were fighting the whole latifundista class
We also learned that the struggle for land can’t be restricted to its corporative character, to the union element; it has to reach farther. If a family fights alone for its piece of land and loses contact with a greater level of organization, then the land struggle has no future. It is precisely that greater organization that transforms the fight for land into the struggle for agrarian reform. And that is already a higher phase of the corporative struggle, adding a political element to it.
That political element is what provides the third characteristic. The MST only managed to survive because it brought private and corporative interests together with class interests. If we had created a peasant movement that only fought for land, the movement would have finished by now. Any peasant movement that restricts its struggle to the corporative, union aspect is condemned to failure. The struggle comes to an end once land or agricultural credits have been won, or as soon as the leader is elected as a local councilor…
The movement has had a political nature from the moment the organization started up. We understood that although it had a peasant social base, the struggle for land, for agrarian reform would only move forward if it was part of the class struggle. We knew from the beginning that we weren’t fighting against a swindling landowner, but against the whole latifundista class. We weren’t just struggling to apply the 1964 Land Statute; we were struggling against a bourgeois state. Our enemies are the latifundistas and also the state, which doesn’t democratize social relations in the countryside and is imbued with class interests.
At various moments in our history, people have stated that the MST would end up as a political party. The MST has never envisaged becoming a political party, but neither has that stopped us participating in the country’s political life. It is true that the emergence of the MST practically coincided with the emergence of the Workers Party (PT), but it has always been quite clear to us that our relationship with the PT is an autonomous one. Many leaders who emerged from the fight for land went on to become PT leaders or parliamentary representatives. The PT’s agrarian reform proposal has also always been very closely related to the MST’s; at times it has even been more radical. There’s an almost natural proximity between a popular, union and political movement and the political proposal of a working class party, but that proximity has never endangered the autonomy of either organization.
The need for humility and to We’ve learned a lot from history, from our own history. There has been a struggle for land in Brazil ever since the arrival of the Portuguese in 1500. How could we not recognize the legacy we’ve inherited from the martyrs of a 500-year struggle? We haven’t invented anything. Today’s bourgeoisie is no new invention either; it’s the result of a 500-year exploitation of the Brazilian people. Those who came before made their mistakes and had their successes. We’ve tried to learn from them to repeat the successes and avoid the mistakes.
learn from other experiences
We also emphasize what we’ve learned because we need to reestablish the value of humility. To keep the situation just as it is, the bourgeoisie constantly tries to feed a certain Brazilian vanity: we’ve got “the best football in the world,” “the greatest bridge in the world,” “the biggest hydroelectric plant in the world,” “the river bearing the most water”… Sometimes the working class falls into the same trap and talks of the “the biggest land occupations,” “Latin America’s largest peasant movement,” “the biggest political party”…
What’s the point of that? It does nothing except feed certain people’s egos and cover over weaknesses and deficiencies. Behind the promotion of such silly vanity, the bourgeoisie hides its destruction of the country as a nation, its political submission to the rich countries and the destruction of our culture that it is promoting. We boast of being the “biggest country in the world,” when the truth is that we’re losing our cultural identity.
We need to have the humility to learn from those who came before us. After all, they were only great because they learned from those who went before them and were coherent with the past that they inherited from other people’s struggles. In this sense, it’s important for us to recover the history of our struggles because doing so provides us with a precise notion of the limitations and temporal nature of our participation.
We haven’t invented fire or the wheel. We only want to exploit existing inventions to build a better world. The struggle will be continued later by those who come after us. We hope to have the conditions and the capacity to leave behind a useful legacy of struggle. The MST is the continuation of an historical process of popular struggles. We hope to provide a link that joins them to future struggles. That is our historical role.
We’ve always been willing to learn from others, both Brazilian organizations and other Latin American peasant organizations. We learned that we have to concern ourselves with applying certain organizational principles, because respect for these principles would guarantee the continuity of the organization.
We have collective leadership, no flowchartWhat organizational principles did we learn from other organizations? The first is to have a collective or collegiate leadership. If a peasant movement has just one leader, he or she will either be assassinated or will betray it. Why be president if you already know how you’ll end up? All presidents, even the least reformist ones, can easily be co-opted through personal vanity or class betrayal. There are many examples of leaders who have exploited their projection by union or grassroots organizations to be elected to parliament or as mayor. Some people contest or occupy such posts to further the class struggle, but others use them solely for personal gain out of vanity or pure ambition.
One lesson we learned was that we should not mix internal electoral contests with conferences and national congresses. We don’t want to disperse our forces, use resources and waste organizational work just to fill leadership posts. We don’t want to follow the example of certain leftist organizations that turn internal elections into an end in themselves. In our national events we prioritize bringing together activists from all over the country, discussing the movement’s general guidelines and promoting cultural and festive fraternization.
The MST’s national directorate has 21 members chosen through a process that emphasizes discussions within the different states. To be accepted, candidates must receive at least a simple majority of the votes. All people who occupy posts have to represent at least half of the movement. If they don’t it’s because they aren’t well known and don’t have grassroots support. That protects us from the problem of mercenaries or opportunists getting onto the national directorate. Everyone knows each other in the states and they all know the characteristics and qualities of the activists.
There are 6 women on the 21-person national directorate. We don’t have a rule establishing quotas for women. Their participation is defined by their collaboration in the struggle. We are permanently concerned about promoting women’s participation in all of the MST’s authorities, sectors and activities.
Three years ago we started working specifically with women. We have a national collective that produces materials and engages in a more theoretical reflection on the gender question, but it isn’t a sector, nor do all the states have women’s collectives. It is a collective carrying out a certain activity. It might continue being a collective for the rest of its life, or tomorrow or a little later it might turn into a sector.
We’ve never given much importance to terminology: sectors, commissions, secretariats... or to organizational flowcharts. In fact, the MST has never had a flowchart. We always say that such charts are for intellectuals who don’t have anything better to do with their time, or for people who are used to formalizing everything. I think that’s maybe why anarchists like us. If it doesn’t work, we get rid of it and create something else. We’re not committed to bureaucracy.
Organizations grow Another of our principles is the division of tasks, which allows the organization to grow and attracts personal aptitudes. We’ve learned that the first question that should be asked of an activist is: “What would you like to do in the MST?” The different answers reveal a diversity of aptitudes and abilities. That makes the organization grow, because people feel happy with what they’re doing. What kind of sacrifice would teachers have to make if asked to organize a cooperative or the occupation of a latifundium? They would almost certainly not feel very good about it because of their personal characteristics. So if they like being teachers or researchers, they can contribute to the MST in that area. That’s only possible if there’s a real division of tasks within the organization.
if people like what they’re doing
Another principle is discipline. You can’t build an organization without a minimum level of discipline that makes people respect the decisions made by the authorities. One of the rules of democracy is accepting the ground rules. If I join a movement but don’t subject myself to its internal organization, it’s never going to work. We’ve even learned from the Catholic Church, which is one of the oldest organizations in the world. What’s the secret? One of them is undoubtedly the discipline of the members, if they voluntarily accept it, of course.
Studying is another principle that we’ve learned and try to apply as best we can. It isn’t enough for the struggle to be just if you don’t learn anything. Studying helps us fight against willfulness. Soccer players have to train to shoot penalties every day after tactical training, no matter how good they may be. If not, they’ll miss. The same is true of the social struggle; you have to study. We were told this by all of the leaders we talked to who had historical experience of struggles.
Another principle is studying and cadre formation in particular. A social organization that doesn’t form its own cadres will never have a future. Nobody from outside the organization is going to form them for us, and we need technical, political, organizational and professional cadres in all of the different spheres.
People will only make gains if Another principle we discovered for ourselves is that our struggle for land and agrarian reform will only progress if there’s a struggle of the masses. If we content ourselves with a front organization with no mobilizing power or if we sidle up to the government or wait to be granted our rights just because they’re written down in the law, we ‘ll win nothing at all. A right that has been established in the law guarantees no gain for the people. Attention will be paid to it only as a result of popular pressure. Cooptation is the first weapon bourgeoisie uses against organized workers. Only after that is repression used. The bourgeoisie tries to neutralize our strength through by coopting us, handing us a few crumbs or adulating vain, egoistic or ideologically weak leaders.
they wage a struggle of the masses
We’ve learned one fundamental thing: the governments of the Brazilian elite will always apply to any workers’ movement—particularly ours—the classic tactic that the bourgeoisie has been using since the development of industrial capitalism. This consists of three components: coopting leaders, dividing the movement and repression. The bourgeoisie has acted this way throughout the history of class struggle.
People will only make gains if they wage a struggle of the masses, which is what changes the correlation of political forces in society. If not, the status quo will take it upon itself to resolve the problem. Social problems are only resolved through social struggle, incorporated into the struggle of one class against the other.
The need to defend indigenous lands was assimilated as one of the MST’s ideological stamps right from the start of this social struggle. The same was true of the fight for agrarian reform on lands owned by multinational companies. Yet another was the movement’s anti-imperialist nature, born of the awareness that foreigners cannot own land in the country as long as there is a single landless Brazilian.
Another of our principles is maintaining links with the grass roots. No matter how high a level the leaders may reach, how much they’ve studied or how combative they have proved to be, they won’t get very far if they don’t keep their feet on the ground, continue to work on the grassroots level and sustain links with their base. Mechanisms need to be created with which to listen, consult and assimilate the people’s force and determination. We all make fewer mistakes when we listen to the people.
“Occupation is the only solution”With the coming of the New Republic, the name given by the press to the government of Tancredo Neves and José Sarney, which replaced the military regime in 1984, leftists started saying “Calm down, the agrarian reform is going to be voted through now.” But we were increasingly convinced that the agrarian reform would only progress in response to land occupations, a struggle of the masses. We knew that even with the new civilian government we couldn’t sit around waiting for the authorities to show their good will. The people had to exert pressure and that’s where the slogan “Occupation is the only solution” came from. If the MST had adhered to the New Republic, it would have finished us off.
At that time big land occupations started to multiply across the country, including the greatest wave of occupations we carried out in a single region, in the west of Santa Catarina in May 1985. While President José Sarney and Agrarian Reform Minister Nelson Ribeiro were making a thousand and one promises, 5,000 of our families occupied 18 haciendas in western Santa Catarina. Those occupations mobilized over 40 municipalities and practically amounted to a revolution in that region. There was uproar. The masses understood that they couldn’t carry on waiting for the government and that a democratic opening could only be taken advantage of by those who mobilized and fought for it.
Trained gunmen, two murders During Sarney’s time, although the government didn’t streamline the settlement process, nobody evicted us from the occupied lands, which in practice turned into settlements. As the state couldn’t unleash massive repression, given how massive our occupations were, the Ruralist Democratic Union (UDR) emerged as an organization defending latifundista interests. Its two aims were to repress the MST and, above all, to pressure the government into repressing us.
with national repercussions
But the UDR made two serious mistakes. As it didn’t know the MST or our tactic of mass land occupations very well, it opted for professional gunmen. Up to then, gunmen were jagunços, semi-cowboy, half-crazy bullies who’d do anything for a few drinks. The UDR professionalized those gunmen based on an erroneous political interpretation of the struggle for agrarian reform. It started to murder people who were not directly involved in the mass occupations that were proliferating and those murders had serious repercussions.
Two killings in particular had a great impact; those of black CPT priest Josimo Tavares in Imperatriz in 1986 and of Chico Mendes in Xapuri in 1988. They spotlighted the UDR’s activities and affected not only the agrarian reform and the MST, but society as a whole. It was quite absurd to kill a priest and an internationally famous union leader as a way to hit back at the agrarian reform struggle. By killing social fighters engaged in a broader struggle they missed their target and hit society as a whole. The UDR thus turned itself into a symbol of violence.
Collor’s government: The national conference that most marked our history was the fifth one, which took place in 1989 in a very agitated atmosphere due to the possibility of Lula being elected President. There was a general growth of the mass movement, mainly the Single Confederation of Workers (CUT), and the PT, and leftist candidates were elected in Sao Paulo and other capitals. During that conference we coined the slogan, “Occupy, resist and produce,” which reinforced a growing feeling that we had to generate a new kind of society in the settlements that resulted from land occupations, organizing production and creating a new agricultural model. At the same time there was a political will to elect Lula to transform Brazil.
The movement’s baptism of fire
Lula’s defeat was a political blow that followed ten years of the mass movement’s upward growth in Brazil. As we were in our adolescence, we were still a very weak movement and it was as if we had just lost a father while still young. We didn’t have the maturity to understand the historical moment we were living through. The defeat greatly affected the spirits of our activists and the feeling that it was possible to carry out an agrarian reform quickly, which was what we expected from a possible Lula government.
Collor de Melo’s election wasn’t just an electoral victory for him; it was a political defeat for the entire working class. We suffered tremendously during his government. It was the worst government we’ve had, not just because of the corruption that Collor symbolized, but also because of the way he treated organizations and dealt with the country’s social problems.
Collor was determined to finish off the MST. In addition to not implementing an agrarian reform, his government decided to repress the MST. He activated the Federal Police, a force used for purely political repression. So we found ourselves getting hit on the head rather than the shins. The repression affected us a lot and many people were thrown into jail. Phones began to be tapped and the Federal Police raided at least four of our secretariats.
The Collor government was our baptism of fire. If it had lasted the full five years and squeezed us a little more, it could have destroyed us; not the settlements, which had already been established, but the social movement. Our second National Congress in 1990 reflected on this critical situation. We didn’t change the slogan, but we did focus more on the idea of “resisting.”
We realized that the struggle of the masses would be harder, that we would have to use the times to build a greater organizational framework in the settlements. We dedicated more time to the debate on the Settlers Cooperative System (SCA), from which emerged the Confederation of Brazilian Agrarian Reform Cooperatives (CONCRAB), founded in 1992 with over 60 cooperatives. We had to turn inward to strengthen the MST and resist the enemy.
Opposing Cardoso’s neoliberalism: The third national congress mainly concentrated on the struggle against the neoliberalism of Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s government. Our reflection led us to conclude that we had to do away with the neoliberal plan in order to achieve agrarian reform, that agrarian reform depended on transforming the economic model. In order to advance it is necessary for the whole of society to embrace the struggle of the landless, the rural poor, as a legitimate struggle that will also have positive consequences for society as a whole. That’s when we launched the slogan, “Agrarian reform is everyone’s struggle.”
Agrarian reform will benefit us all
The Cardoso government interpreted the Brazilian agrarian situation in such a way that it concluded there was no agrarian problem in our society. It therefore had no plans for rural development, let alone agricultural development. And if there is no problem, then ownership of large estates is not an obstacle to developing Brazilian capitalism and there is no need for a capitalist-style agrarian reform.
They argued that agriculture had already given what it had to give. Why worry if agriculture only represented 11% of Brazil’s GDP? The government worked on the idea that in a model centered on financial capital, our economy would aim for the US agricultural system: large properties producing grain for export and capital-intensive, highly specialized small production units—family agriculture—integrated into the big agro-industrial complexes.
Another characteristic of this US model is the reduction of the economically active agricultural population by 5% a year, so that within eight years it would amount to only 4% of the rural population. There was no room for any agricultural policy aimed at family agriculture or any broader policy for land settlements, let alone a classical agrarian reform policy.
The MST and the other progressive forces in Brazil believe that our country is facing a serious agrarian problem: the concentration of land ownership. Solving this problem requires quick and regionalized implementation of a broad land confiscation program, distributing the resulting land to the country’s 4.5 million landless families. At this point, the main thing is to organize the millions of poor in rural areas to fight for a solution to their problems.
Proving we’re not “a detergent”Fernando Henrique Cardoso gambled that the movement only influenced society through our propaganda, the space we occupied in the mass media. The agrarian reform minister appointed by the President, Raúl Jungmann, and his “marketing men” planned to fight it out with us like a brand name detergent taking on its rival. It was to be a fight to see whom society preferred the most. But any sociologist knows that social conflicts are not resolved with propaganda. Where there is conflict there is social organization. Without any training in social matters, Jungmann managed to sell his idea to Cardoso. Both believed that they could defeat the MST by aiming their propaganda against us and isolating us. They didn’t understand that a movement isn’t an inert box of detergent on a shop shelf.
But we couldn’t sit around and hope that their tactic would fail. We had to carry out initiatives that proved to society that a social problem can be resolved only by adopting political measures, not through marketing or generous budgets for media publicity. If we could achieve this, we would have society on our side and that would defend us against the government’s offensive. That’s why we held the National March to Brasilia in 1997, which was a milestone for our movement.
The idea of such marches is nothing new; it was not thought up by the MST or peasant or worker organizations. There have been marches throughout history. Massive and long marches have always characterized the noblest human struggles. It’s a collective gesture that has now become historical. More than just an idea, the march to Brasilia was part of a counter-tactic against the government’s tactic of isolating us. And as a result we weren’t isolated.
Fighting against latifundia and ignoranceThe MST also carried out sectoral stadium events. One very important such event was the National Conference of Agrarian Reform Educators, which brought together over 700 educators, most of them primary teachers from the settlements. It took place in July 1997 in Brasilia University and had a very big impact on the whole country’s academic and educational community, because for the first time in Brazil’s history rural educators gathered to debate education and agrarian reform. It was organized by the MST’s educational sector, with help from Brasilia University, UNESCO and UNICEF, and helped demonstrate that in addition to land, the MST is interested in schools and education, that we have an education proposal for rural areas. And the elite? Whose side are the latifundistas on and what do they propose?
Education is very important for the MST. The educational front is as important as the occupation of latifundia or the mass movement. Our struggle aims to topple three walls: latifundia, ignorance and capital.
The MST founded the Technical Institute for Teaching and Research on Agrarian Reform (ITE-RRA) in Veranópolis to offer primary and secondary courses with an alternative modality. Our concern for building knowledge, for research and education has various sources, one of which is the need we felt in the settlements. If a settlement develops forms of agricultural cooperation, if it starts to develop agro-industry, to work as a cooperative, its activists need to include agricultural, livestock, agronomic and veterinary technicians who are also imbued with the movement’s ideology.
Literacy is not enough; Another source of inspiration was what we learned from all the other organizations and from old activists. All of them repeatedly stated that no organization has a future if it does not form its own cadres in all areas of human knowledge. We’re obviously not going to create nuclear physicists, because we don’t need them, but we do need trained people. Those old activists repeatedly quote the Chinese proverb that he who doesn’t walk on his own legs doesn’t get very far.
knowledge has to be democratized
Another source of inspiration was ideological: struggling against ignorance doesn’t just involve making people literate, which is relatively easy. We want to democratize knowledge for a greater number of people, because that’s what development depends on.
A fourth source of inspiration was the evolution of the agrarian program itself. Between 1993 and 1995 we held a great ideological debate that resulted in an agrarian program. This provided a qualitative leap forward by imagining a superior way of organizing production that neither sticks to the peasant mold, nor joins the capitalist market. We neither fell into collectivism nor just sat and waited for socialism to resolve all of our problems.
Those would be two leftist deviations: assuming that collectivism can resolve everything and sitting around waiting for socialism. There is also a backward rightist deviation that defends the idea that peasants can resolve their own problems or only have to integrate themselves into the market and become small capitalists. Our agrarian program tries to overcome such dichotomies ideologically and offers a proposal for reorganizing the Brazilian countryside to democratize land and knowledge.
For the first time ever, the MST proposed access to education and the organizing of schools as a necessary goal, as part of an agrarian program and agrarian reform. The classic vision of agrarian reform had previously been that the problem was limited to the ownership and distribution of land. We feel that it’s just as important to share knowledge as it is to share land. We form part of a broader, people-based process to develop rural areas in order to make people happier and more educated even if they live in the countryside.
A risky and false idea: The elite vision predominates in Brazil that people in the countryside are backward, that it’s the back of beyond, has no future, is hell. Meanwhile the city is seen as representing everything good. The vision we’ve set out in the agrarian program is exactly the opposite: it’s only possible for Brazil to develop, for the poor to have a better life, by developing the countryside. Bringing poor people from the countryside to the cities will only end up making everyone’s life hell.
The infernal, backward rural world
We also include the idea of agro-industry, because we’ve broken with the tradition of being purely a movement of peasants who only think about agriculture. Agriculture is fundamental, because we work with the earth, but we can’t limit ourselves to producing raw materials and leaving the capitalists to get rich at our expense. We have to take a step forward and become the ones who transform the raw materials produced by the land so we are not exploited by the agro-industrial multinationals, so we can add value to our own produce and sell it cheaper, with greater access to the massive urban market. The agrarian program took this step forward. From 1995, all of those involved in the MST dedicated themselves to studying with greater determination.
The land occupations: The land occupations are one of the MST’s contributions to the social struggle in Brazil. It is no coincidence that certain urban social movements are beginning to copy us, not only by occupying lands—that’s been happening for a long time now—but also in the idea of occupying space as a form of struggle. We have received news of many factories occupied by the unemployed, or rather by their former employees. When mothers camp outside schools to fight to get their children a place, deep down this is also a form of occupation.
A contribution from the landless
We could talk about many aspects of the land occupations. First, it’s a form of offensive struggle that doesn’t allow anyone to stay on the fence; all sectors of society are obliged to say whether they are for or against it. It doesn’t allow the social problem to be covered up. Argentine writer Luís Fernando Verissimo once wrote that the worst crime the Right can accuse the landless of committing is that of being landless.
In this country a poor, organized guy is a threat. If the poor are dispersed then nobody complains about them, but if they are organized and carry out an occupation, that action is so obvious, so forceful, that it obliges society to take a stance. Or as professor Plínio de Arruda Sampaio said: “The elite can come to accept that the poor ask for favors or charity, but they will never accept that they organize to demand their rights.” Occupation brings people together; it’s not an isolated cry.
On one occasion José Gomes da Silva gave a brilliant answer on the National Opinion program on São Paulo’s Cultural TV. Without malice, a journalist asked him: “You justify occupations so much, so how would you react if unemployed workers occupied Volkswagen? Isn’t that an outrage? Isn’t that the same as occupying land?” Gomes da Silva answered, “The difference lies precisely in the fact that everything that Volkswagen has in its factory was made by human beings. The company can claim its rights because it paid for the work and it built the building and the machinery. But nobody can say they made the land. It is one of nature’s riches that should be at the service of the whole of society.” End of discussion.
Occupations unite people and expose the lawOccupation provides people with a feeling of unity in fighting for the same objective. Experiencing the hardships of living in a camp creates a feeling of community, of alliance. That’s why occupations don’t work when only men participate in them. It’s got to be the whole family, because that allows the initiation of the community-building process.
Another aspect is that occupations unmask the law. If we don’t carry out occupations, we don’t demonstrate that the law is on our side. That’s why confiscations have only taken place when there are occupations. This can be proved by a simple comparison. There have been no confiscations where the MST has no presence and there have been fewer confiscations and families benefited where the movement is weakest. The law is only applied when there’s a social initiative; that’s the legal norm. Our students learn that lesson on the first day of class. Application of the law comes after the social event, never before. In the case of agrarian reform, the social event is occupation by people who want land.
Nobody knows exactly how many occupations the MST has carried out. We lost count, partly because many situations involve several re-occupations by families in the same zone. In Pontal, the San Bento hacienda had to be re-occupied 23 times before the government turned it over to the settlement. But I think the total must now be over 1,500 occupations throughout the country during 15 years of activity. It’s also difficult to say what was the biggest occupation. One or two areas a year generally produce a greater impact on local society. Personally, I consider several occupations historical, such as the 1996 occupation of the Giacometi hacienda, which was the biggest estate in Paraná, with 86,000 hectares. The main achievement is that the landless workers have now assimilated and understood that occupation is the most effective form of action and the number of occupations increases every year.
Two legal victories in the last two yearsFrom the legal viewpoint we’ve achieved two very important victories in the last two years. First, an initiative from the PT’s agrarian nucleus of parliamentary representatives led to the passing of a law that forces proceedings in any eviction process to include the presence of the Attorney General’s office and a judge who hears the parties involved before making any decision. Unfortunately, judges supporting the latifundia continue to illegally authorize many evictions without instituting such proceedings or hearing the Attorney General’s office.
The second victory was more important: the Supreme Court approved a sentence stating that massive land occupations by a social movement with the aim of pressuring for agrarian reform do not amount to the illegal dispossession of land and are therefore not crimes. Such activities cannot therefore be judged according to the penal code—as judges tend to do—but rather according to the Constitution, which stipulates that the government is obliged to confiscate all large unproductive properties. That sentence from the country’s highest-level judicial court set a very important precedent, because legally speaking mass occupations are finally being dealt with as social problems and not—as the latifundistas would like—as the dispossession of private patrimony.
Territorialization: Territorializing the struggle for land is another of the MST’s contributions to the social struggle. Each settlement conquered is a piece of territory in which the landless have determined to create a new community. The settlement is a territory belonging to the landless. The struggle for land leads to territorialization. The conquest of each new settlement increases the prospects of the conquest of a new one. Each settlement is a fraction of conquered land and what we term territorialization is the different conquests grouped together.
Another landless movement contribution
With each settlement achieved by the MST, the movement territorializes itself. This is exactly what differentiates the MST from other social movements. When the struggle ends with the conquest of land, there is no territorialization. That’s what happens with most movements that fight for land, which we consider isolated movements because they begin with the struggle for land and end with its conquest. The landless organized in the MST always see the possibility of a new conquest when they capture a piece of land, and that’s why the movement has a socio-territorial nature.
The policy of settlements is not a conquest in itself. It is the result of confrontation, of class struggle. But the settlements are conquests, truly liberated zones conquered by the workers. That’s why we should exploit them to the full, so that even if they are partial conquests and face many difficulties, such settlement zones offer reserve forces for continuing the wider struggle for agrarian reform. That’s why it’s important for the settlers to remain organized within the MST.
The challenge of mass The settlements also face a production-related challenge. During the movement’s first stage—from the first occupation in 1979 to 1985—we had a romantic vision of production. That was because the historic memory of the peasants who conquered land still dated back to the previous stage of agricultural modernization. Families were expelled by machines, but the historic memory was one of oxen and hoes.
production for the national market
The families dreamed that if they could get their land back they could raise their children and push ahead with oxen and hoes. Our parents raised us that way in the sixties and that was the people’s techno-productive memory. It was thus very hard to debate the organization of production with the workers. And that, to a certain extent, favored the government because it freed it from other obligations linked to production. The only debate we managed to hold during that time was around the idealistic, Christian idea that it would be better to work together, that we could live more fraternally if we united in our work.
Later came the division of labor, which grew out of the development of productive forces. Capitalism uses the division of labor to exploit people, but it can also be used to improve everybody’s living conditions. Many people oppose the division of labor because they confuse it with capitalism. We understand the division of labor to be closely linked to the technical development of the productive forces in any given society.
We are currently building a sociological concept of “rural worker.” If we take all people whose work, whatever their profession, is related to the countryside—veterinary surgeon, agronomist, economist, cooperative vehicle driver, small farmer—and if the result of each person’s work is distributed among them all, they are all rural workers. We’re going to overcome the narrow concept that only farmers and those who work the land or in the countryside are rural workers.
We also have to consider mass production for the national mass market. There’s no point in thinking about producing cherry jam to sell in middle-class markets. It might even generate money, but only for the ten families that produce cherries. That’s not our main aim. Above all we want to produce for the population. That’s our reward for their support for the agrarian reform.
We want the settlements We want the settlements to be the MST’s letter of introduction to society. We want both those who live there and visitors to feel good, happy and proud of the results of the struggle for land. We have to transform the settlements into pleasant places. We are encouraging the reforestation of areas deforested by the latifundia, planting flowers and trees in backyards and squares, tending streets and settlement entrances and promoting parties and cultural activities.
to be a letter of introduction
Another challenge for the settlements is to exercise intensive solidarity with society. Such solidarity should be manifested in practical things, such as establishing a blood donor bank for public hospitals in nearby cities. We should be the first to offer voluntary aid during natural disasters such as floods, storms and droughts. The settlements should form solidarity brigades to deal with such events when and as they happen.
We also have another line of solidarity in the area of production that consists of developing community or other kinds of crops to donate to churches, hospitals, asylums. While we won’t resolve the economic problem this way, we can at least palliate it and above all can demonstrate social integration with such institutions. We want to repay the solidarity from the cities that helped create the settlements.
It may not change a hospital’s economy, but that hospital will surely be grateful if a truck of vegetables turns up once a month. People read every day in the papers that public schools have no money to provide meals, so improving the food they offer the students would be a significant indication that agrarian reform is worthwhile. But we don’t want to develop solidarity for mere propaganda or vanity; we want to develop it as a permanent value in the hearts of our grass roots.
The pride of being Brazilian and Another line of action, more closely linked to our project, is the recovery in our settlements of national values such as Brazil’s flag, hymn, songs and culture. We want to recover the pride of belonging to the Brazilian people. We have to act as a reference point and tell society that it’s good to be Brazilian, that we’re a privileged people, and that we have no reason to continue imitating Europeans or Americans.
the mystique of belonging to the MST
What’s new about this social movement known as the MST, apart from what I’ve just said? If I had to sum it up, I’d point to two aspects. The first is how we work on the idea of mystique to help forge unity among us. Neither the Left—because it felt embarrassed—nor the Right have developed mystique. We include mystique as a social practice related to making people feel good about participating in the struggle. The other aspect is the organizational principles I mentioned. Mystique and organizational principles are thus two novelties produced by the movement that provide it with ideological and political sustenance and that can be assimilated by other kinds of social movements.
We want people to get excited We can’t limit mystique to exclusive moments, such as congresses or national and stadium gatherings. We have to practice it at all events that bring people together, because mystique is a way of collectively manifesting a feeling. We want that feeling to reach towards an ideal, not to be an obligation. Nobody gets excited because they are ordered to; they get excited because they’re motivated by something. It’s also not a metaphysical or idealistic distraction, such as preaching that we’re all going to paradise. If that were the case, it would be better to cry, like they do in so many religious sects. Charismatics use mystique to back up an unreachable ideal. But that is unsustainable and people end up realizing that it’s a fraud. We worked on ways of generating mystique. At the beginning, we imitated the Church, which uses a determined liturgy to maintain unity around the Gospel. But when we forced this imitation, it didn’t work. People need to have their feelings deposited in some project of their own. Based on continually greater understanding during the movement’s different moments and activities, we were stressing a facet of the project as a way of motivating people.
about a common project
The MST’s symbols are its flag, its hymn, its slogans and the use of caps, armbands and songs. The songs are a very important symbol, as is the paper Jornal Sem Terra, which is more than just a means of communication. The color red, which represents the tradition of struggle and working class identity, is a very strong ideological element of our flag. The couple that appears on the flag comes from the poster for the first congress. We borrowed the idea from a Nicaraguan poster that showed a man and woman at a demonstration in order to show that nothing is created from nothing in this world. That couple clutching a machete excited the people at the first national congress in 1985. It’s a nice emblem. We also took the decision to place the MST letters and symbol on all of the agro-industrial produce from the settlements and our cooperatives. We want society to feel that the flag isn’t just linked to occupations.
We have to show the world A front that recently started up in the settlements, and doesn’t just depend on us, is the idea of starting to treat the development of the countryside as an alternative to the city and the general development of society. Here again we’re going against what the imperialist forces tell us. The developed countries preach that the countryside has already given what it had to give. We have to prove that resolving the problem of the poor in Latin America and the Third World requires taking development to the countryside. We’re going to have to build that development we dream about in our settlements in order to prove that it’s viable. As rural development is a broader concept, it’s not enough to create it in just one settlement; it has to affect a whole region, it has to be regional. And that takes more time and involves the whole of society. That’s a challenge we’re currently facing.
a new concept of “rural”
The MST is creating a new conception of “rural.” We have criticisms of certain statements being bandied about. Believing that everything has to be urbanized, that public policies only have to be created for the city is a colonized vision of the world. The Third World lives in the countryside. I was lucky enough to visit China, where 80% of the population lives in the countryside. The same is true of India. It is plain stupid, the result of European and American cultural colonialism, that societies that took 250 years to urbanize themselves now believe that their model serves for the whole world. It’s the same stupidity practiced by those who idealize an American living standard. If every family on the planet had a car, as tends to happen in America, the Earth would be finished off by carbon emissions.
Another Brazil is possibleSome misread our defense of agrarian reform as a kind of looking to the past. They identify our struggle with backwardness. Nothing could be further from the truth. The fact that we defend rural development as a way of improving everyone’s lives doesn’t mean that we’re against social agglomeration. We’re very much in favor of the creation of agro-towns, for example. We’re not against industry, which is a result of the development of humanity and can provide numerous benefits to the population. But why does industry have to be in the city? Why should it promote the increasing exploitation of the working class? Why should it produce an insane destruction of the environment? Just to generate wealth that is concentrated in the hands of a minority? The whole of humanity has to pay a very high cost for such a model; and we want to change it.
We propose taking industry into the countryside. First we’ll take agro-industry into rural areas, because it is most closely linked to the day-to-day production of food. We can also take other kinds of industry, those that use raw materials from agriculture, from nature. The experiences of Israel and China show that it is possible to develop the countryside in a homogenous way and take development to the poorest populations. These are examples of two different economic systems, both of which show that it’s possible to think of an alternative development model to the one neoliberalism is trying to impose on Brazil. Another Brazil is possible.