The Brazilian Landless Workers’ Movement or the MST – Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra

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Enroute from Sao Paulo to Curitiba, 15-17 February 2010

Fields replete with tall corn stalks nodding in the gentle breeze, goats looking rather sulky in a small pen, while the pigs seemed more content in their larger shed. Fruit trees planted amid food crops, demonstrating the eco-friendly practice of agro forestry. An untidy herbal plants garden that provides the basis for the small-scale production of soaps and home remedies.

At first glance, an agro villa of the MST, the largest and arguably the most successful land rights movement in the world – looks like any medium-sized farming operation in any tropical country. But this estate belonged once to a wealthy, Brazilian landowner, was occupied by MST members after careful planning some 8 years ago, was taken over in stages, settled and cultivated, and now feeds the residents and brings in an income.

“According to the Brazilian Census Bureau, 1% of the landowners control 45% of the nation’s land and close to 37% hold only 1%,” writes academic Miguel Carter. Rooted in the colonial era and worsened by subsequent policies or lack thereof (no land reform for example), these figures point to one of the most unequal land distribution patterns in the world.

The MST strategically uses a clause in the Brazilian Constitution, which says that land must be socially productive, as a quasi-legal basis for its occupations, and its thriving land rights activism. They research and take over (for the most part) estates that are not in good standing. Interestingly, once they settle and start cultivating the land, a process that usually takes many years, and can include being set upon by militia, and resulting violence and bloodshed, the government actually buys the land from the owner and gives it to the MST on a 90-year, renewable lease. It also provides some agricultural subsidies.

The process is long, arduous, complex and very political, in every sense of the term, as a MST documentary film demonstrates. The people who join the movement are typically landless labourers or former peasants who are forced to migrate and populate the spreading favelas in cities like Sao Paulo. (The Roofless Movement is a parallel squatters movement in the cities, but is not as well organized, unified and successful as MST.)

The fact that the government buys these estates and leases them to the MST, shows, in my opinion, the collective clout of civil society and social movements in Brazil, the amazing organizing, bargaining, communication and movement building strategies of the MST, and the essentially democratic nature of the Brazilian state. Don’t you feel that in many other countries this just would not happen? The landowners would mow the settlers down using a kind of private army (while the state looked the other way) or the state itself may take the initiative to imprison them, or more shrewdly, just tie everything up in endless legal suits.

It’s true that this state is denying them comprehensive and legitimate land reform. (A wealthy landowners lobby and other factors sees to that.) But it is allowing a sort of grudging land redistribution to take place through the back door. Consider that 350,000 families have been settled on 1300 settlements and the government has bought some seven million hectares of land on their behalf. (MST has been around for around 25 years.)

Fascinating stuff which makes me applaud the movement, Brazilian civil society and Brazilian democracy. By the way, Brazilian agricultural as a whole is industrialized and modern. Sao Paulo is a competitive, global city (with decrepit parts). Brazil embraced scientific research in all fields decades ago and has for its motto – Order and Progress. It is also one of the emerging economies under the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) rubric.

Middle-class Brazilians and mainstream media are very critical of the MST accusing it of being too radical, corrupt, anti-state, and god knows what else. Since it is made up of humans, it must certainly be very imperfect and far from ideal!

Our 2-day visit to the agro villas in the peaceful, green countryside brought up a host of issues and debates among the students around absolute vs. relative rights to private property, the correct way to address historic wrongs and inequity issues, ideas about civil disobedience, socialism/communism vs. capitalism, cooperative vs. competitive values, and many others.

Each MST settlement organizes itself along different lines. Some are cooperative farms, others not. Some members of the agro villas we visited spoke of social transformation and living by alternative values, including ecological ones. They are likely representative of the MST and this is perhaps what disturbs citizens of neo-liberal and even liberal persuasions?

I adored the politics, ideals and activism of the MST and openly supported them, causing some students to look at me strangely! (That is not the only reason why I receive those looks either!) Since I live to be oppositional, this did not bother me. In fact I loved it! It provided a glimpse of what radical academics must face on a daily basis. Professors must be “rational,” non-committal, dignified and reasonable at all times, don’t you think?!

The MST visit, one of the highpoints of our Brazilian exploration, was certainly very inspirational for me, despite the minimal living conditions that it entailed for a couple of days.