Landless Workers' Movement

Landless Workers' Movement
MST supporters in Brazil.

Landless Workers' Movement (Portuguese: Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Terra, or simply MST) is a social movement in Brazil; it is the second (or, according to others, the first[1]) largest social movement in Latin America with an estimated 1.5 million landless members[2] in 23 out of Brazil's 26 states.[3] The MST states it carries out land reform in a country it sees as mired by unjust land distribution. It organizes landless and impoverished farmers to realize their civil rights. The MST fights for access to land on behalf of the dispossessed. They demand the restoration of a social contract that provides a sustainable way of life for the poor living in rural areas.[4]

The MST claims land occupations are rooted in the most recent Constitution of Brazil (1988), by interpreting a passage which states that land property should fulfill a social function. It also claims, based on 1996 census statistics, that just 3% of the population owns two-thirds of all arable land in the country.[5]


Constitutional justification

Historically, the first statute that regulated landed property in independent Brazil was the Landed Property Act (Lei de Terras) or Law number 601, enacted on September 18, 1850. Being drafted in a process of transition from a colonial administration based on Portuguese feudal law - in which property depended on both Crown's grants (sesmarias) and primogeniture (morgadio) - to a national bourgeois independent Brazilian state, the law established that the standard mode for acquiring landed property was to be by means of a money purchase - either from the State, or for a previous private owner - and as such strongly limited opportunities to exercise squatter's right, therefore favouring the historical concentration of landed property that became one of the hallmarks of modern Brazilian social history (see [26]). Historically, the Lei de Terras favoured economies of scale by means of land concentration, at the same time creating serious difficulties for small planters and peasants to have access to the land in order to practice subsistence agriculture as well as small scale farming.[6]

Since concentration of landed property was tied to the development of a capitalist Brazilian economy, opposition to the existing property structure by insurrectional means had, during the 19th and early 20th century, the character of a vindication of older property forms, by means of an ideology centered on a fabled, millenarian return to feudal order, as was the case in the 1890s Canudos War and the 1910s Contestado War.Throughout the later Republican history of Brazil, there were continuous episodes of peasant resistance to evictions and land-grabbing by powerful ranchers (Teófilo Otoni, Minas Gerais, in 1948; Porecatu, Paraná, in 1951; South-west Paraná, in 1957; Trombas, Goiás, 1952–1958);[7] but those were mostly local affairs that were repressed or settled according to local conditions and didn't give rise to an alternative ideology to "modernizing" agrobusiness.

Conversely, all later attempts at land reform by legal means, starting with the 1960s organization of peasant leagues (Ligas Camponesas) in Northeastern Brazil[8] which opposed mostly eviction of peasants from rented plots and transformation of plantations into cattle ranches,[9] would be nationally directed by a tendency to counter the existing landed property structure by means of a more rational appeal to the allegedly social function of property. Nowadays, it is argued that undeniable development of a highly dynamic and economically well developed agricultural business was furthered at the price of extensive social exclusion of the rural poor.[10] According to MST's ideologues, the allgedly efficiency gained by this arrangement was by no means general, as since 1850 Brazilian landed property management was tied to the particular interests of a single class - the rural bourgeoisie.[11] Although the MST explains its actions directly in socio-economic terms, it still points to Canudos (and its allegedly millenarism)[12] as a legitimizing episode, a way to justify its existence in an historical perspective,[13] as well as a means to develop a powerful mystique of its own.[14]

As much of the driving force at the early organizing of the MST came from Catholic base communities,[15] much of the MST ideology and actual practice are rooted on the principle, taken from the social doctrine of the Catholic Church, that private property should serve a social function[16] - a principle developed during the XIXth. Century,[17] and made into Catholic official doctrine since Pope Leo XIII's Rerum Novarum encyclical;[18] on the eve of the 1964 military coup, that was the principle evoked by President João Goulart in his famous "Central rally" (a mammoth rally held in Rio de Janeiro, near to the city's greatest railroad station, where the president made a speech offering a blueprint for various political and social reforms) when proposing the expropriation of estates of more than 600 hectares in area situated at the vicinity of federal facilities (roads, railroads and reservatoirs as well as sanitation works)- a move that triggered the strong conservative resistance leading to Goulart's downfall.[19] Nevertheless, this same principle would be formally acknowledged by the Brazilian Catholic hierarchy in 1980, when the National Conference of Brazilian Bishops (CNBB) would issue a document - Church and Land Problems - recognizing and pleading for public acknowledgement of communal rights to the land.[20]

In Brazilian constitutional history, land reform - understood in terms of public management of natural resources[21] - was first explicitly mentioned as a guiding principle for government action in the text of the Constitution of 1967 (Article 157, III), which wanted to institutionalize a political authoritarian consensus in the wake of the 1964 coup. In 1969, during the most repressive phase of the military dictatorship, the same constitutional text was amended by a decree (ato institucional) of the military junta that held interim power during the last illness of the military President Arthur da Costa e Silva, in order to authorize government compensation for land expropriated for purposes of land reform to be made in government bonds, instead of cash, as had been formerly the only legally admitted practice (Art.157, § 1º, as amended by Institucional Act no.9, 1969).[22]

Following the same principles, the present Brazilian 1988 constitution also requires that land serve a social function. (Article 5, XXIII.) As such, the constitution requires the Brazilian government to "expropriate for the purpose of agrarian reform, rural property that is not performing its social function." (Article 184.)

According to Article 186 of the constitution, the social function is performed when rural property simultaneously meets the following requirements:

  • Rational and adequate use.
  • Adequate use of available natural resources and preservation of the environment.
  • Compliance with the provisions which regulate labor relations.
  • Exploitation which favors the well-being of the owners and workers.

Since such requirements are vague and not objectively defined, however, the acceptance of the "social interest" principle for land reform into the Constitution was seen as a mixed blessing, in that the principle was accepted in general, but under constraints - introduced by landowners' lobbying, organized since 1985 at the landowners' organization named União Democrática Ruralista (Democratic Union of Rural People, or UDR for short) whose rise and organization paralled that of the MST, and that, even after self-dissolving in the early 1990s, is believed to still exist in the form of informal regional ties between landowners.[23] UDR lobbying over the constitutional text is believed to have watered down the "social interest" principle as far as concrete enforcement was at stake.[24]

The MST identifies what it believes to be unproductive rural land that does not meet its social function and occupies it, through a strategy of continuous and massive occupations throughout the entire national territory,[25] afterwards moving to ascertain the legality of the occupations.The MST is represented in these activities by public interest legal counsel, including their own lawyers, sons and daughters of MST families, as well as organizations such as Terra de Direitos, a human rights organization of civil society co-founded by Darci Frigo, the 2001 Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Human Rights Award Laureate. The courts might eventually issue a warrant requiring the occupiers' families to leave, or to refuse the landowners' request and allow the families to stay and engage provisionally in subsistence farming until the federal agency responsible for agrarian reform, Brazil's National Institute for Colonization and Agrarian reform (INCRA), is able to determine if the occupied property is, indeed, unproductive. The MST's legal activity bases itself on the idea that, since property rights are in a continuous process of social construction, engaging in litigation and trying to striking sympathies among members of the Juditiary are essential to the legitimacy of the movement and to have its claims for citizenship granted.[26] Traditionally, Brazilian courts tend to side with the landowners and charge MST members with offences quoted by some as "frivolous and bizarre",[27] but there are many individual judges who have shown themselves sympathetic to the movement[28] Brazilian higher courts have usually regarded the MST with reserve: in February 2009, for instance, the then President of the Brazilian Supreme Court, Gilmar Mendes, declared the MST to engage in "illicit" activities, opposed granting of public monies to it, and supported an "adequate" judicial response towards land occupation.[29]


Monument by Oscar Niemeyer dedicated to the MST.

The smashing of the peasant leagues in the wake of the 1964 coup opened the way for a process of commercialization of agriculture and ensuing landed property concentration that proceeded unabated throughout the military dictatorship and expressed itself in an absolute decline of the rural population during the 1970s.[30] In the mid-1980s, out of a grand total of 370 million hectares of farm land, 285 million hectares (77%) were held by latifundia.[31] The redemocratization process during the 1980s, however, allowed for grassroots movements to pursue their own interests[32] as against the state and the ruling classes, and it is into this framework that the emergence of the MST fits.

Beginning in December 1980 and early 1981, over 6,000 landless families established an encampment on a portion of land located between three unproductive estates in Brazil's southern-most state of Rio Grande do Sul. These families which included part of 600 families that had previously been expropriated and dislocated in 1974 from neighbourling Passo Real for the construction an hydroeletric dam[33] who had been joined by some other 300 families in an invasion of the Indian Reserve in Nonoai. Local mobilization of the Passo Real and Nonoai people had already achieved some land distribution outside the reservation, followed by demobilization. It were those who had not received land from these claims, joined by others, and led by the same leaders from the already existing reginal movement MASTER (Rio Grande do Sul landless farmers' movement), who eventually came to compose the 1980/1981 encampment.[34] The location became known as the Encruzilhada Natalino. With the support of civil society, including the progressive branch of the Catholic Church, the families resisted a blockade imposed by military forces led by an officer notorious for his past experience in counter-insurgency, refused the alternative of being resettled on the Amazonian frontier, and eventually pressured the Military Government into expropriating nearby lands for the purposes of agrarian reform.[35] Most of the early development of the MST concerned exctly areas of Southern Brazil where, in the absence of an open frontier, an ideological appeal at an alternate foundation of access to the land other than formal private property was developed as response to the growing difficulties posed by agribusiness at the reproduction of family farming.[36]

The MST was officially founded in Januery 1984, during a National Encounter of landless workers in Cascavel, Paraná,[37] as Brazil's Military dictatorship came to a close. The founding process itself was very much connected with Catholic Church base organizations such as Pastoral Land Commission, which provided support and infrastructure.[38] During much of the 1980s, the MST faced political competition from the National Confederacy of Agrarian Workers' (CONTAG), heir to the 1960s Peasant Leagues, who sought to address the issue of land reform strictly by legal means, by favoring tradeunionism and striving after corporatist concessions to rural workers. However, the more aggressive tactics of the MST allowed it to gather a capital of political legitimacy that soon outshone CONTAG, who was allowed to linger a shadowy existence as a mere rural branch to the trade union central CUT,[39] while MST monopolized political attention as overall rural workers' representative.[40] From the 1980s until today, the MST hasn't enjoyed a monopoly of land occupations, many of which are carried out by a host of grassroots organizations (dissidents from the MST, trade unions, informal coalitions of land workers); however, it is the MST who is by far the most organized group dealing in occupations, enjoying political leverage enough to turn occupation into formal expropriation for public purposes: already in 1995, out of 198 occupations carried out, 89 (45%) were organized by the MST, but these included 20,500 (65%) out of the grand total of 31,400 families involved.[41]

Organizational structure

The MST is organized entirely, from the grassroots level up to the State and National Coordinating Bodies, into collective units that make decisions through discussion, reflection and consensus.This non-hierarchical pattern of orgazation, reflecting Liberation Theology & Freirean pedagogy influences, was also dictated by the actual need to avoid clear-cut leaderships that could be bought off or assassinated.[42] The basic organizational unit, representing 10 to 15 families living in either an MST encampment or MST settlement ("encampment" standing for a non-legally recognized occupation, "settlement" for an already recognized one)[43] is known as a 'Nucleo de Base' in Portuguese. A Nucleo de Base is responsible for addressing the issues faced by the member-families, and members elect two representatives, one woman and one man, to represent them at settlement/encampment meetings. These same elected representatives attend regional meetings, where they elect regional representatives who then vote for members of the State Coordinating Body of the MST. In total, there are 400 members of the MST's State Coordinating Bodies (+/- 20 per state) and 60 members of the MST's National Coordinating Body (+/- 2 per state). It is important to point out that every MST family participates in a Nucleo de Base, and that this represents roughly 475,000 families, or 1.5 million people. João Pedro Stédile, economist and author of several important texts on land reform in Brazil, is a member of the MST's National Coordinating Body.

The MST is not a political party and has no formal leadership other than a dispersed group of some 15 leaders, whose public appearances are scarce. This secretive mood allows for minimizing risks of arrest[44] and also for preserving a grassroots, decentralized organizational model.This is an important strategy of the MST and serves to maintain an ongoing and direct flow of communication between member-families and their representatives. Coordinators are aware of the realities faced by member-families and are encouraged to discuss important issues with said families. This organizational blueprint seeks, in a way to empower people politically by having them acting "in the way they see fit, true to local context".[45] To assist with communication between Coordinators and member-families, and as an attempt to democratize the media, the MST produces the Jornal Sem Terra and the MST Informa.


The MST is an ideologically eclectic rural movement of hundreds of thousands of landless peasants (and some who live in small cities) striving to achieve land reform in Brazil. The MST has been inspired since its inception by liberation theology, Marxism, the Cuban Revolution, and a variety of other leftist ideologies. That flexible mix of a discourse including "marxist concepts, popular religion, communal practices, citizenship principles and radical democracy", has increased the movement's power of attraction[46]

The landless claim to have found institutional support in the Catholic Church through their teachings of social justice and equality, as embodied in the activities of Catholic Base Committees (Comissões Eclesiais de Base, or CEBs for short) which in general advocate liberation theology and more specifically anti-hierarchical social relations. This theology became the basis of the MST’s founding ideologies and organizational structure.[42] The loss of influence of progressives in the later Catholic Chrurch, however, has reduced the closeness of the relationship between the MST and the Church as such.[47]

MST was further influenced to be a movement of anti-hierarchical stance through the teachings of Paulo Freire. After working with poor communities in the rural Brazilian state of Pernambuco, Freire observed that aspects of traditional classroom structures, such as teachers being more powerful than the students, were hindering the potential for success in adults participating in adult literacy programs. He determined that the students’ individual abilities to independently learn and absorb information were severely stalled due to their passive positions in the classroom. His teachings were used to encourage the activists to break passive dependence on oppressive social conditions and become engaged in active modes of behavior and condition. In the mid-1980s the MST created a new infrastructure for the movement directly guided by liberation theology and Freirian pedagogy. They did not elect leaders so as to not create hierarchies and to prevent corrupt leadership.[42]

The MST has widened the scope of their movement by organizing more than just encampments and occupations of large farms. They have invaded the headquarters of public and multinational institutions. Their actions began to include fighting to eliminate fields of genetically modified crops and the carrying out marches, hunger strikes and other political actions. MST acts have damage the agricultural economy of productive regions of Brazil. The MST is not only invested in fighting against struggle in Brazil and neighboring Latin America, but also cooperates with a number of rural worker movements and urban movements in other areas of Brazil. The MST also continues to remain in touch with broader international movements in other countries that embrace the same cause.[48] The MST congregates not only landless workers strictu sensu - that is to say rural workers or people recently evicted from the land - but also urban jobless and homeless people who want to make a living by working in the land, therefore its affinity with movements concerned with urban and housing reform.[49]


According to the MST, it has taught over 50,000 landless workers to read and write between the years 2002 and 2005. The MST also owns a Popular University of Social Movements (PUSM)[50]- also called Florestan Fernandes School (FFS), from its campus in Guararema, São Paulo, named for the marxist scholar Florestan Fernandes - which offers various classes on the secondary (i.e., high school ) level in a variety of fields: its first graduating class received its degrees in Specialized Rural Education and Development in 2005. These 53 graduates had participated in five stages of specialization, each of which lasted 20 days. In total, they spent 600 hours in study/class. Along with the Specialization Course, a partnership with the University of Brasília, the Government and Via Campesina, over 40 agreements were developed with Federal, State and Community Colleges to hold an array of thematic courses (i.e., Pedagogy, History, Agronomy) as well as technical courses of different skill levels.[27]. The FFS building was erected by means mostly of voluntary labor performed by work brigades employing soil cement bricks made on the school's premises.[51] Oscar Niemeyer will be designing the Auditorium Building that will be part of the school's complex. [28]

The MST formed its education sector in Rio Grande do Sul in 1986, a year after its first national convention.[52] By 2001, about 150,000 children were enrolled in 1,200 primary and secondary schools in its settlements and camps. The schools employ 3,800 teachers, many of them MST-trained. The movement has trained 1,200 educators who run courses for 25,000 young people and adults. It trains primary-school teachers in most states, and has set up partnerships with international agencies, such as UNESCO and UNICEF, as well with the Catholic Church. It reached agreement with seven institutions of higher education in different regions to provide degree courses in education for MST teachers.[53] Some scholars agree that these MST communal schools tend to be markedly better than its conventional counterparts in rural communities, in both quantitative and qualitative terms.[54]

Media Coverage

The role of the MST as a grassroots organization engaged in "charter schools" activity has attracted considerable attention from the Brazilian press, much of it accusatory. In an issue of the magazine Veja, Brazil's largest (known for its militant hostility against social grassroots movements in general[55]) dated September 8, 2004, titled "The MST's Madrassas", journalist Monica Weinberg tells about her visiting of two of the MST's schools in the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul. In her report, the MST is said to be "indoctrinating" children between the ages of 7 and 14 - a conclusion reached by the journalist after a quote from the MST publication "Education Notebook, no. 8" stating that one of the MST's stated goals for the children is to "develop class and revolutionary conscience". According to the same story, children in the schools were also shown what the journalist calls propaganda films, and were allegedly taught that GMO products contain "poison" and told not to eat margarine for fear of containing GMO soybeans. The conclusion reached by Ms. Weinberg was such as the Brazilian government has no control over most of the schools, and that they do not follow the curriculum set forth by the Ministry of Education which calls for "pluralism of ideas" and "tolerance". In the journalist's analysis, the allegedly "preaching" of Marxism in these schools is to be taken as analogous to the preaching of radical Islam found in Middle-Eastern Madrassas.[29]

There is a long history of mutual and very bitter animosity between the MST and Veja: already in 1993, the magazine described the MST as "a peasant organization of leninist character" and charged its leaders and activists with faking a homeless condition.[56] This accusatory stance only raised pitch throughout the years: in February 2009, one finds the magazine opposing public support to the "criminal" activities of the movement[57] and the MST in turn, for instance, charging the magazine, a year later, with "vandalizing" both journalism and truth itself.[58] In its latest mention to the MST, Veja calls it outrightly "a criminal mob".[59] This case-history in journalistic mud-slinging has justified the writing of at least two academic monographies wholly dedicated to it.[60][61]

In general, the relation of mainstream media towards the MST has been ambiguous: 1990s media tended to support the goal of land reform in general and to present it under a sympathetic light. One ready example is provided by the fact that, between 1996 and 1997, TV Globo broadcast the telenovela O Rei do Gado ("The cattle baron"), where a beautiful female sem terra, played by actress Patricia Pillar, fell in love with a male landowner.[62] In the same telenovela, the wake of the fictive Senator Caxias, killed while defending an MST occupation, offered the opportunity for two real senators from the Workers' Party, Eduardo Suplicy and Benedita da Silva, to make cameo appearances as themselves praising their fictive colleague's agenda.[63] The same media, however, tends to disavow what it sees as the MST's violent methods[64] - a trend that became more markedly as the movement gathered strength.[65]

Sustainable agriculture

The increased importance of technicians and experts within the MST has led some sections of the movement to strive to develop and diffuse technology suitable with a model of sustainable agriculture on the lands the families farm.[66] Such technology is seem as a hedge against small producers' dependence on chemical inputs and single-crop price fluctuations[67] These efforts are gaining increasing importance as movement families gain access to the land. For example, the Chico Mendes Center for Agroecology, founded May 15, 2004 in Ponta Grossa, Paraná, Brazil on land formerly used by Monsanto Company to grow genetically modified crops, intends to produce organic, native seed to distribute through MST. Various other experiments in reforestation, taming of native especies and medicinal uses of plant life have been carried around the MST settlements.[68]

In 2005, the MST partnered with the Federal Government of Venezuela, and the State Government of Paraná, the Federal University of Paraná (UFPR), and the International Via Campesina (an organization that brings together movements involved in the struggle for land from all over the world), to establish the Latin American School of Agroecology. The school is located within an MST agrarian reform project known as the Contestado settlement. The protocol of intentions for its creation was signed in January during the fifth World Social Forum.[69]

Violent confrontations: the 1990s and early 2000s

In the long history of violent land conflicts in Brazil, the emergence of the MST and its consolidation as the most prominent land reform movement acting in Brazil during the 1990s has led to what has been called a first "wave" of MST-led occupations (1995–1999),[70] and with it the movement's involvement in various episodes of bloody clashes and ensuing conflicting claims, where government authorities, landowners and the MST charge each other for being responsible for the eventual deaths, maimings and property damages.

In a notorious example, during the 1996 incident usually called Eldorado dos Carajás massacre, 19 MST members were gunned down (another 69 wounded) by police while they were blocking a state road in Pará.[30] In 1997 alone, similar confrontations with police and landowners' thugs accounted for two dozen internationally acknowledged deaths.[71]

In 2002, the MST occupied the family business farm of then-president Fernando Henrique Cardoso [31] in the state of Minas Gerais, in a move which was publicly condemned by then Left opposition leader Lula[32] and other preeminent members of the PT Party[33][34]. The farm was damaged and looted in the occupation. Damage included the destruction of a combine harvester, a tractor and several pieces of furniture.[35] The MST members also drank the entire stock of alcoholic beverages at the farm. Overall, 16 leaders of the MST were charged with theft, vandalism, trespassing, resisting arrest and for holding others in captivity.[72]

In 2005, two police officers who were working under cover in the investigation of cargo truck robberies in the vicinity of an MST stead in the state of Pernambuco were assaulted by criminals, one being shot dead, and another tortured, something that raised suspicions about whether the perpetrators were MST members or not.[36].

Throughout the early 2000s, in addition to the incidents described above and to various episodes of occupying derelict farms and public buildings, the MST occupied functioning facilities owned by large corporations whose activities it considers to be at variance with the principle of the social function of property. On March 8, 2005, the MST invaded a nursery and a research center in Barra do Ribeiro, 56 km from Porto Alegre, both owned by Aracruz Celulose. The MST members held the local guards captive while they proceeded to rip the plants from the ground. MST's president João Pedro Stédile said at the time that MST should oppose not only landowners as such but also agrobusiness, "the project of organization of agriculture by transnational capital allied to capitalist farming" - a model he deems as socially backwards and environmentally harmful [37]. Or, in the words of an anonymous activist: "our struggle is not only to win the land...we are building a new way of life".[73] Such a new trend had been developing since the movement's 2000 national congress, which concerned itself chiefly with the perceived threat offered by transnational corporations (Brazilian or foreign) to both small property in general as well as to Brazilian national food sovereignty[74], specially in the field of intellectual property.[75]It was this principle that led to the July 2000 MST's attacking of a ship in Recife containing GM maize from Argentina.[76]

Such a change in strategy could also have corresponded to a perceived shift in government's stances as during the late 1990s and early 2000 various spokespersons for the Cardoso government tended to consider that Brazil had no need for land reform, that small property was non-competitive, unlikely to raise personal incomes in rural areas[77] and therefore a foolhardy alternative to politics that emphasized creation of skilled wage-labor positions, as the expansion of general employment levels would eventually cause the land reform issue to "recede" into the background.[78] The MST's actions where branded by Cardoso as aiming at a throwback to an archaic agrarian past, and therefore at variance with "modernity" - "one of the enabling myths of the neoliberal discourse".[79]

In fact, although Cardoso offered lipservice to agrarian reform in general, he also described the movement as "a threat to democracy".[80] Cardoso also compared the MST's demands for subsidized credit, that had led to the 1998 occupation of various bank premises in the State of Paraná by activists, to someone "who enters a bank as a robber".[81] In a memoir written after his term, Cardoso expressed sympathy for land reform, stating that "were I not President, I would probably out marching with them", but also that "the image of mobs[sic] taking over privatly owned farms would chase away investment, both local and foreign".[82]

As far as concrete measures were concerned, Cardoso's stance towards land reform was divided: at the same time it took steps to accelerate publics acquisitions of land for settlement and increased taxes on unused land, it also forbade public inspection of invaded land - thereby precluding future expropriation - and the disbursment of public funds to people involved in such invasions.[83] Cardoso's chief land reform project, supported by a World Bank US$ 90 million loan, was addressed to individuals who had previous experience in farming and a maximum yearly income of US$ 15,000, and who were granted a loan of up to US$ 40,000 if they could associate with other rural producers in order to buy land from a willingly landholder[84] - a land reform programme that catered for substantial small farmers, as opposed to the MST's traditional constituency, the rural poor. But then, in the words of an American scholar, notwithstanding its efforts in actual resettlement, the issue evaded by the Cardoso government was precisely that of contesting the hitherto ruling mode of agricultural development: concentrated, mechanized, latifundia-friendly commodity production - as well as the larger injustices produced by it.[85] In his own words, what Cardoso could not stomach about the MST was what he saw not as a struggle for land reform, but against the capitalist system as such.[86]

Opposedly, MST leaders emphasized at the time and since that their practical activity was a response to the existence of a host of destitutes whose prospects of obtaining productive, continuous employment in conventional labor markets was bleak, as admitted even by President Cardoso, who during a 1996 interview, said: "I'm not to say that my government will be of the excluded, for that it cannot be [...] I don't know how many excluded there will be".[87] And, in a certain way, the MST's activities somewhat filled the void left by the decline of the organized labor movement in the wake of Cardoso's neoliberal policies.[88] Therefore the fact that the movement has taken steps in order to strike alliances with urban based struggles, specially those connected to housing issues.[89] Therefore the fact, admitted by some authors, that the MST activities express, in a way, the decline of a traditional peasantry wanting to preserve ancient communal rights.[90] - which is the difference between the MST and a movement for traditional communal rights such as the Zapatista Army of National Liberation.[91] According to a Leftist author like James Petras, the MST is undoubtedly a modernizing social movement, in that his main goal is to convert fallow states into viable units producing a marketable surplus - "to occupy, resist and produce", as the movement's own motto goes.[92] It is also not a movement with a clear-cut anti-capitalist stance, as what it seeks is to "create a land reform based on small individual property-owners".[93] As far as its steads are concerned, the movement has adopted a mostly private enterprise-friendly stance: with the monies it has procured, it has financed machanization, processing enterprises, livestock breeding, as well as granting access to additional credit sources.[94] Some even see the movement's aims as "quite limited" as in practice it tends to merely provide a chance for some people "to interact with the [ruling] capitalist economy".[95]

The Lula government and the 2005 March for Agrarian Reform

The beginning of the Lula government was regarded by the MST as the beginning of a Left and therefore friendly government, the movement deciding to shun occupations of public buildings in favor of actions directed solely towards private landed states, in a second wave of occupations from 2003 onwards.[96] However, the increasingly conservative positions taken by the government, including a low profile stance on land reform (out of a promised grand total of 430,000 resettled families, Lula had managed to actually settle a mere 60,000 in the first two years of his administration,[97] actually less than what had been achieved by Cardoso during his first term[98]) decided the movement to change stance already in early 2004, when it began to occupy, again, public buildings and Banco do Brasil agencies.

In June 2003, the MST also occupied the R&D farm of Monsanto Company in the state of Goiás [38]. On March 7, 2008, a similar action was performed by women activists in another Monsanto facility at Santa Cruz das Palmeiras, in the state of São Paulo, where a nursery and an experimental patch of genetically modified maize were destroyed, slowing ongoing scientific research. MST claimed to have destroyed the research facility to protest the government's support for the extensive use of GMOs supplied by transnational corporations in agriculture: Already in 2003,Lula had authorized the legal using and sale of GM soybeans, which led MSt's Stedile to label him a "transgenic politician".[99]And, indeed, the dominance of transnationals over Brazilian seed production was expressd by the fact of the Brazilian hybrid seed industry being in the early 2000s already 82% Monsanto-owned.[100] The MST views this state of affairs as detrimental to the development of organic agriculture as well as offering the possibility of a future health hazard in spite of enhanced economic activity.[101]Monsanto was later targeted by MST leader Stedile as one of the ten transnational companies controling virtually the whole of international agrarian production and commodities trading.[102]

After an exchange of barbs between Lula and Stedile over what the President saw as the unnecessary radicalization of the movement's demands,[103] the MST decided for a huge national demonstrarion: in May 2005, after a two week, 200-odd kilometer march from the city of Goiânia, nearly 13,000 landless workers arrived in their nation's capital, Brasilia. The MST march targeted the U.S. embassy and Brazilian Finance Ministry, rather than President Lula. While thousands of landless carried banners and scythes through the streets, a delegation of 50 held a three-hour meeting with Lula, who donned an MST cap for the cameras. During this session Lula recommitted to settling 430,000 families by the end of 2006 and agreed to allocate the necessary human and financial resources to accomplish this goal. He also committed to a range of related reforms, including an increase in the pool of lands available for redistribution [Ramos, 2005]. Later the Lula government would claim to have resettled 381,419 families between 2002 and 2006 - a claim that was disputed by the MST.[104] The movement claimed that the numbers had been doctored by the inclusion of people already living in areas (national forests and other managed areas of environmental protection, as well as other already existing settlements) where their presence had only been legally acknowledged by the government.[105] The MST also criticised Lula's administration to call mere land redistribution by means of handing out of small plots land reform, when it was simply a form of welfarism (assistencialismo) unable to change the productive system.[106]

The march was held to demand – among other things – that Brazil's President Lula implement his own limited agrarian reform plan rather than spend the project’s budget on servicing the national debt [Ramos, 2005]. Several leaders of the MST met with President Lula da Silva on May 18, 2005- a meeting that had been resisted by Lula since his taking of office.[107] The leaders presented President Lula with a list of 16 demands of which included economic reform, greater public spending, and public housing. Afterwards during interviews with Reuters, many of the leaders said that they still regarded President Lula as an ally but demanded that he accelerate his promised land reforms. However, late the same year, in September, João Pedro Stedile declared that, as far as land reform was concerned, Lula's government was "finished".[108] By the end of Lula's first term, it was clear that the MST had decided to act again as a separate movement, irrespective of the government's agenda.[109] As far as the MST was concerned, the greatest gain it received from the Lula government was the non-criminalization of the movement itself- the tough anti-occupation measures taken by the Cardoso government being left in abeyance through non-enforcing.[110] The Lula government never acted in tandem with the MST, according to a general pattern of keeping organized social movements outside the fostering of the government's agenda.[111]

The MST resumes direct action: from 2005 on

Lula's election to the Presidency raised the hypothetical banner of active government support to land reform, to which conservative Midia reacted by means of increased efforts towards branding the MST's activities as felonies.[112]In May 2005, the MST was reported by the Veja magazine to have helped the PCC, the most powerful prison-gang criminal organization in the State of São Paulo. The evidence offered by the magazine was a Police phone tap recording depicting a conversation between PCC leaders during which one of the members of the gang said that he had "just talked with the leaders of the MST" who were going to "give instructions" to the gang [39] about the better way of staging what was to be the largest prisoner's relatives protest in Brazilian history, on April 18, 2005, with more than 4,000 prisoners' relatives protesting against prevailing conditions in São Paulo State correctional facilities.[113] The MST "leaders" to which the tape refers were not named. No MST activist, actual or alleged, intervened in the taped conversations. The MST denied the link with a formal written statement implying the supposed evidence offered was only hearsay, supplied as an attempt to criminalize the movement.[114]It's commonly assumed that the MST's activities are continuously surveyed by military intelligence.[115]Association by proxy between the MST and terrorist movements is assumed by various intelligence organs, Brazilian as well as foreign.[116]

In late 2005, a parliamentary inquiry commission where landowners-friendly congressmen had a majority issued a report classifying the activities of the MST as "terrorist" and the movement itself as a criminal organization. The report, however, met with no support from the Workers' Party MPs in the commission, a senator ripping it up before TV cameras, saying that those who voted for it were "accomplices of murder, people who use slave labor, who embezzle land illegally".[117]

In April 2006, the MST broke into the farm of Suzano Papel e Celulose, a large maker of paper products, in the state of Bahia, due to the farm having over six square kilometres devoted to eucalyptus growth. [40] Eucalyptus, a non-native plant, has been blamed for environmental degradation in Northeast Brazil.[41] In 2011, Veja described such activities as plain theft of eucalyptus wood, quoting an estimate from the state's military police that 3,000 people earned a living in Southern Bahia from this wood thieving.[118]

Between September 27 and October 7, 2009, the MST occupied an orange plantation in Borebi, State of São Paulo, owned by orange juice multinational Cutrale, the said corporation claiming to have suffered losses worth R$ 1.2 million (roughly US$ 603,000) in damaged equipment, missing pesticide, destroyed crops and trees cut by MST activists.[119] The MST replied by declaring the farm to be government property, illegally embezzled by Cutrale, and that the occupation was intended as a protest against this state of affairs, the concomitant destruction being the work of provocateurs.[120]

During the same period, the MST also repeatedly created roadblocks, blocking highways [42] [43] [44] [45] and railroads [46].

Present general situation

Although the MST declared wholehartedly support for the candicacy of Dilma Roussef to the Presidency, her declarations after being elected offered the movement very qualified support: in a declaration on national broadcast in November 2010, she declared the land reform issue to be a question "of human rights", i.e., a purely humanitarian one.[121]Dilma's previous record as Chief of Satff to the Presidency was one of support for economic gorwth targets in variance with ecological as well as land reform concerns.[122]

Neverthless, the process of concentration of landed property in Brazil continues unabated: in 2006, according to the latest landed property census, the Gini index of land concentration stood at 0.854, while at the beginning of military regime, in 1967, it was at 0.836- meaning by that that land concentration actually increased.[123] The fact that current Brazilian economic policy - specially as far as foreign exchange is concerned - banks on the existence of trade surpluses generated by the agro-export sector means that "the correlation of forces moves against agrarian reform" as a government policy.[124] Also, with the resumption of sustained general economic growth rates during the Lula years, social demand for land reform might have been greatly diminished.[125]

See also


  1. ^ Anders Corr, No trespassing!: squatting, rent strikes, and land struggles worldwide. New York: South End Press, 1999, ISBN 0-89608-5953, page 146
  2. ^ Herbert Girardet, ed. Surviving the century: facing climate chaos and other global challenges. London, Earthscan, 2007, ISBN 978-1-84407-458-7, page 185
  3. ^ Dave Hill & Ravi Kumar, eds., Global neoliberalism and education and its consequences. New York: Routledge, 2009, ISBN 978-0-415-95774-8, page 146
  4. ^ James, Deborah (2007). Gaining Ground? Rights and Property in South African Land Reform. New York, New York: Routledge Cavendish. pp. 148–149. ISBN 0415420318. 
  5. ^ About the MST on Accessed September 9, 2006.
  6. ^ Wendy Wolford, This Land Is Ours Now: Social Mobilization and the Meanings of Land in Brazil. Duke University Press, 2010, ISBN 978-0-8223-4539-8, pages 38 sqq.
  7. ^ Anthony L. Hall, Developing Amazonia: deforestation and social conflict in Brazil's Carajás Programme. Manchester University Press: 1991, ISBN 0-71903350-3, pages 188/189
  8. ^ Sam Moyo & Paris Yeros, eds., Reclaiming the land: the resurgence of rural movements in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. London, Zed Books, ISBN 1-84277-425-5, page 342
  9. ^ Ronald H. Chilcote, ed. - Protest and resistance in Angola and Brazil: comparative studies. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972, ISBN 0-520-01878-8, page 191
  10. ^ James F. Petras, Henry Veltmeyer, Cardoso's Brazil: a land for sale. Lanham, Rowman & Littlefield, 2003, ISBN 0-7425-2631-3, page 17
  11. ^ Luiz Bezerra Neto, Sem-terra aprende e ensina: estudo sobre as práticas educativas do Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais. Campinas, SP: Autores Associados, 1999, ISBN 85-85701-82-X, page 30
  12. ^ Robert M. Levine, Vale of tears: revisiting the Canudos massacre in northeastern Brazil, 1893-1897. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995, ISBN 0-520-20343-7, page 65
  13. ^ Angela Maria de Castro Gomes & others, A República no Brasil. Rio de Janeiro: Nova Fronteira, 2002, ISBN 9788520912645, page 118
  14. ^ Ruth Reitan, Global Activism. Abingdon: Routledge, 2007, ISBN 0-203-96605-8, page 154
  15. ^ Edward L. Cleary, How Latin America Saved the Soul of the Catholic Church. Mahwah, NJ, Paulist Press, 2009, ISBN 978-0-8091-4629-1, page 32; Angus Lindsay Wright & Wendy Wolford, To inherit the earth: the landless movement and the struggle for a new Brazil. Oakland, Food First Books, 2003, ISBN 0-935028-90-0, page74
  16. ^ Petras & Veltmeyer, Cardoso's Brazil, 18
  17. ^ Sándor Agócs, The troubled origins of the Italian Catholic labor movement, 1878-1914. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1988, ISBN 0-8143-1938-6, page 25; Scott Mainwaring, The Catholic Church and politics in Brazil, 1916-1985. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1986, page 55
  18. ^ Charles C. Geisler & Gail Daneker, eds. Property and values: alternatives to public and private ownership. Washington DC: Island Press, 2000, ISBN 1-55963-766-8, page 31
  19. ^
  20. ^ José de Souza Martins, Reforma agrária: o impossível diálogo. São Paulo: EDUSP, 2004, ISBN 85-314-0591-2, page 104
  21. ^ Albert Breton, ed., Environmental governance and decentralisation. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar, 2007, ISBN 978-1-84720-398-4, page 52
  22. ^ For the text of the 1967 Constitution, see
  23. ^ Sonia Maria Ribeiro de Souza & Anthonio Thomaz Jr, "O MST E A MÍDIA: O FATO E A NOTÍCIA". 'Scripta Nova, Vol. VI, no. 119 (45), 1st. August de 2002, available at [1]
  24. ^ Alfred P. Montero, Brazilian politics: reforming a democratic state in a changing world. Cambridge (U.K.): Polity Press, 2005, ISBN 0-7456-3361-7, page 87
  25. ^ Eugene Walker Gogol, The concept of Other in Latin American liberation. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, ISBN 0-7391-0331-8, page 311
  26. ^ James K. Boyce, Sunita Narain, Elizabeth A. Stanton, Reclaiming nature: environmental justice and ecological restoration. London: Anthem Press, 2007, ISBN 1-84331235-2, page 134; Peter P. Houtzager, The movement of the landless (MST) and the juridical field in Brazil. Institute of Development Studies, 2005
  27. ^ Wilder Robles-Cameron, D. Phil. Thesis, University of Guelph. Dept. of Sociology & Anthropology, 2007: Peasant mobilization, land reform and agricultural co-operativism in Brazil. page 160. Available at [2]
  28. ^ For example, in August 1999, State Higher Court's Judge Rui Portanova overruled the decision of a trial court granting a landowner's petition to evict the MST off his property. The judge offering as justification the following reasoning:

    Before applying a law, the judge must consider the social aspects of the case: the law's repercussions, its legitimacy and the clash of interests in tension. The [MST] are landless workers who want to grow produce in order to feed and enrich Brazil, amid this globalized, starving world .... However, Brazil turns her back on them, as the Executive offers money to the banks. The Legislative . . . wants to make laws to forgive the debts of the large farmers. The press charges the MST with violence. Despite all that, the landless hope to plant and harvest with their hands, and for this they pray and sing. The Federal Constitution and Article 5 . . . offers interpretive space in favor of the MST ... [I]n the terms of paragraph 23 of Article 5 of the Federal Constitution [that landed property must fulfill a social function], I suspended [the eviction.] (Decision #70000092288, Rui Portanova, State Court of Rio Grande do Sul, Porto Alegre)

  29. ^ Mendes condena ações de sem-terra em Pernambuco e São Paulo. G1 newssite, 25 February 2009, available at [3]
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  31. ^ Lee J. Alston, Gary D. Libecap, Bernardo Mueller, Titles, conflict, and land use: the development of property rights and land reform on the Brazilian Amazonian Frontier. University of Michigan Press, 1999, ISBN 0-472-11006-3, pages 67/68
  32. ^ Biorn Maybury-Lewis, The politics of the possible: the Brazilian rural workers' trade union movement, 1964-1985. Philadelphia, Temple University Press, 1994, ISBN 1-56639-167-9, page 169
  33. ^ Local mobilization of peasants dislocated by dam constructions being one of the main sources of grassroots rural mobilization in 1980s Southern Brazil, which would give rise to a national indenpendent organization, the MAB- Movimento dos Atingidos por Barragens, or "Dam-slighted people's Movement"; cf. Franklin Daniel Rothman and Pamela E. Oliver, "FROM LOCAL TO GLOBAL: THE ANTI-DAM MOVEMENT IN SOUTHERN BRAZIL". Mobilization: An International Journal, 1999, 4(1), available at [4]. Accessed November the 16th. 2011
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  37. ^ Marlene Grade & Idaleto Malvezzi Aued, "A busca de uma nova forma do agir humano: o MST e seu ato teleológico", Paper presented at the 1st. Congress of Sociedade Brasileira de Economia Política, available at [5].
  38. ^ Mauricio Augusto Font, Transforming Brazil: a reform era in perspective. Lanham, Ma: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003, ISBN 0-8476-8355-9, page 94
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  40. ^ Mauricio Augusto Font, Transforming Brazil, 89
  41. ^ Lee J. Alston, Gary D. Libecap, Bernardo Mueller, Titles, conflict, and land use, pages 61/62
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  46. ^ Magda Zanoni, Hugues Lamarche,eds. Agriculture et ruralité au Brésil: un autre modèle de développement. Paris: Karthala,2001, ISBN 2-84586-173-7, page 114
  47. ^ John Burdick, Legacies of liberation: the progressive Catholic Church in Brazil at the start of a new millennium. Ashgate, The University of Virginia Press, 2004, ISBN 9780754615507, page 101; Lícia Soares de Souza, Utopies américaines au Québec et au Brésil. Québec, Presses de L'Université Laval, 2004, ISBN 2-7637-8075-X, page 120
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  122. ^ Gustavo de L. T. Oliveira, "Land Regularization in Brazil and the Global Land Grab: A Statemaking Framework for Analysis". International Conference on Global Land Grabbing, 6-8 April 2011, Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex, page 12.
  123. ^ Carta Capital, issue 657, July 29, 2011
  124. ^ A. Haroon Akram-Lodhi, Saturnino M. Borras, Cristóbal Kay, Land, poverty and livelihoods in an era of globalization, page 111
  125. ^ Haro Brookfield, H. C. Brookfield, Helen Parsons: Family farms: survival and prospect, page 169


  • Patel, Raj. "Stuffed & Starved" Portobello Books, London, 2007
  • Wright, Angus, and Wendy Wolford. To Inherit the Earth: The Landless Movement and the Struggle for a New Brazil. Oakland: Food First Books, 2003. ISBN 0-935028-90-0
  • Carter, Miguel.The MST and Democracy in Brazil. Working Paper CBS-60-05, Centre for Brazilian Studies, University of Oxford, 2005. SEE
  • Ramos, Tarso Luis. Brazil at the Crossroads: Landless Movement Confronts Crisis of the Left. 2005.
  • —, "Agroecology vs. Monsanto in Brazil", Food First News & Views, vol. 27, number 94, fall 2004, 3.
  • Branford, Sue and Rocha, Jan. Cutting the Wire: The story of the landless movement in Brazil. 2002. Latin American Bureau, London.
  • Questoes Agrarias: Julgado Comentados e Paraceres. Editora Metodo, São Paulo, 2002.

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