The Multinational Monitor

Jan./Feb. 2001 - VOLUME 22 - NUMBER 1 & 2


W i n n i n g   C a m p a i g n s

Brazil's MST: Taking Back the Land

By Jason Mark

Eron Domingos de Rocha used to work in a shoe factory in the Franca district of Sao Paolo. He earned 220 reales a month there (about US$110) - not enough, he says, to "allow you to survive." Then he met an organizer with Brazil's Landless Workers Movement (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra - MST), who convinced him that there was a better way of life.

Soon Domingos, along with his mother and father, were involved in a land occupation. One early morning, hundreds of miles south of Sao Paolo, in the countryside of the state of Rio Grande do Sul, Domingos and his parents, along with about 400 other families, entered and occupied the property of a local rancher. The families moved onto the farm at 4:00 a.m., Domingos says, and by sunrise hundreds of black plastic tents - the signature structure of the MST - were installed on the rancher's formerly fallow land.

Now Domingos, 21, is an active MST member. He spends half of his time at a MST-run high school taking technical courses and learning the skills to manage a farming cooperative. He uses the rest of his time working in the settlement's own fields and, as he says, "practicing what I'm learning in school." He seems happy working in agriculture, "just like my dad," he says.

Hundreds of thousands of similar success stories explain why the MST is the largest, and arguably the most successful, popular movement against neo-liberalism in the Western Hemisphere. Since its founding in 1984, the MST has won land titles for 250,000 families. The movement has founded approximately 1,000 schools in its settlements and formed an impressive network of profitable cooperatives. Combining savvy political strategy, creative non-violent direct action and pragmatic entrepreneurship, the MST has distinguished itself as a model for progressive citizen movements around the world.

DIRECT ACTION AND SELF-RELIANCE
According to conventional GDP figures, Brazil is a modestly prosperous country, one of the largest economies in the world. But Brazil also maintains one of the world's largest gaps between a wealthy elite and an impoverished majority.

The inequities are particularly stark when it comes to land distribution. The country's legacy of colonialism has left just 3 percent of the population holding nearly two-thirds of the nation's arable land. According to the Brazilian government, 30 percent of Brazilian farmers own just 20 acres of land or less. In contrast, the country's largest farms, those of 2,000 acres or more, comprise only 1.6 percent of all farms but sit on 53.2 percent of the usable land. Another 4.8 million rural families - approximately 25 million people in a country with a total population of 167 million - have no land at all and survive as temporary laborers.

Perhaps worst of all, much of Brazil's more than 1.2 billion acres of arable land lies unused. At least 40 percent of agricultural land - the MST says 60 percent - lies fallow or, at best, is used only for cattle grazing. Among the largest farms - those geared for the export market or held only for speculative reasons - an estimated 88 percent of the land is permanently idle. The twin injustices of land concentration and idle farms are largely responsible for the poverty and chronic malnutrition that plague Brazil.

The MST battles these injustices through a novel fusion of direct action and self-reliance. First, it seizes unused land, then it uses that land to provide real, workable alternatives to the corporate globalization sweeping the world.

The MST is best known in Brazil and internationally for its daring land occupations, the first of which took place in Rio Grande do Sul in October 1985. The strategy is fairly straightforward: identify idle farmland and then, armed only with farm tools, occupy the land, squatting there and cultivating it until legal ownership over the property is granted. An average land occupation will involve about 300 families. Although the 1988 post-dictatorship Brazilian Constitution explicitly states that land must be used for the benefit of all society and contains mechanisms for land distribution, it can take years for a settlement to obtain title to its occupied land. About 70,000 families are currently involved in MST land occupations waiting for land titles.

The MST's work doesn't end with the acquisition of land titles. The movement, which is at once decentralized and highly coordinated, also provides its members with basic social services that the Brazilian government is unable, or unwilling, to supply. The MST's 1,600 government-recognized settlements, spread across 23 Brazilian states, boast medical clinics for members and even training centers for health care workers. The movement's educational programs are especially impressive. Twelve hundred public schools employ an estimated 3,800 teachers serving about 150,000 children at any one time. Adult literacy classes are offered to 25,000 people through a UNESCO grant, and the MST also sponsors technical classes and teacher training. The landless workers have even established their own college in the southern town of Veranópolis. The MST gives some students scholarships to attend other universities.

Naturally all of this takes cash, and the MST has been very adept at making money and supporting its programs. MST enterprises generate an estimated $50 million a year. Most of this money goes directly to member families; a share is used to support the MST's $20 million budget for its social services and other infrastructure. The movement operates a wide range of mid-size agricultural cooperatives that provide jobs for thousands of members. Settlement co-ops process fruits and vegetables, dairy products, meats and coffee both for MST consumption and sale to Brazilian and international markets. MST teas, rums, jams and preserved vegetables - many of which are organic - are popular throughout Brazil. The movement even has a clothing factory in Rio Grande do Sul.

These collective enterprises show why the MST is considered a leader in the international fair trade movement. Ideas that in other countries are only talked about in academic circles are actually being implemented on a large scale in MST settlements. The movement is supplying a real, workable alternative to corporate globalization, putting community values and environmental stewardship before profit-making. MST co-ops offer a glimpse of what environmentally sustainable and socially just commerce would look like.

THE BACKLASH
Not surprisingly, perhaps, the MST's success has come at a cost, as wealthy landowners and other elites use force to halt land expropriations. Attacks on the MST by the military police, as well as the landowner's private militias, are commonplace, claiming the lives of 1,517 rural workers since 1988, according to Brazil's Pastoral Land Commission. Hundreds of people are severely injured every year during police raids on encampments. In 2000, according to the land commission, 11 landless workers were killed and 258 arrested in clashes with police. Very few of the murder cases have ever been brought to trial.

Aside from attacks against rank-and-file landless workers, Brazilian security forces in the past have also targeted MST leaders in apparent attempts to weaken the movement. In 1997, José Rainha, a leader of several land occupations, was convicted of killing a landowner and the landowner's bodyguard in a 1989 clash. For years the MST protested that Rainha had been framed, and in April 2000 an appeals court finally set Rainha free, ruling that Rainha was nowhere near the scene of the crime.

The struggle of Brazil's rural poor is a microcosm of the battles being waged worldwide in the era of globalization. Not only does the MST often clash with local elites, but in recent years it has had to battle against the neo-liberal policies of President Fernando Henrique Cardoso and economic plans dictated by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

"Currently our main problem is the neo-liberal policies of a government that isn't concerned with the social needs of the Brazilian people," says Delwek Matheus, 43, an elected member of the MST's national board. "In the six years of the current government, 900,000 families on small farms have lost their land. It doesn't help to make settlements if at the same time other families are being thrown off their land. It's clear that there's a political intention to not make agrarian reform a fact."

The Cardoso administration likes to boast that it has accomplished more land reform than any previous government, distributing more than 28 million acres. (Government officials concede that such distribution wouldn't have occurred without grassroots pressure from the MST.) But at the same time structural adjustment "reforms" have been devastating for Brazil's small farmers. Bankruptcies of small farmers skyrocketed in the late 1990s as the government boosted interest rates to stratospheric levels in an attempt to maintain investor confidence. Redistribution of land has been further undermined by the government's favoritism toward massive plantations that produce food for export. These sorts of policies have worsened the exodus of rural families to Brazil's already overcrowded and underresourced cities. According to government figures, between 1995 and 1999 an estimated 4 million Brazilians left the countryside for the cities.

The MST has also recently faced off directly against the World Bank. The Bank, in cooperation with the Brazilian government, is pushing a land reform project that the MST says will undermine the movement and the rights it claims under the Brazilian constitution. Under the World Bank's plan, land reform would be privatized: the landless would apply for loans from the Brazilian government with which they could purchase land from landowners at market prices. However, no landowners will be forced to sell, no matter how much of their property is lying unused. Also, the tough terms of the loans make it likely that many poor farmers will lose the land again within a few years. Under the Land Bank program, there is only a three-year grace period (an earlier government program had a five-year grace period), and little way to get credit for supplies or seeds. Interest rates on the loans will be as high as 18 percent.

AN ABUNDANT HARVEST
Still, in spite of such challenges, MST leaders and rank-and-file members remain confident of keeping their momentum. The movement enjoys a great deal of support from progressives in Europe, where the MST is well known. Brazil's Catholic Church is also an important supporter of the MST's work, with many leading members, including Delwek Matheus, coming from Catholic activist backgrounds. And recent electoral gains by Brazil's Workers Party, a traditional MST ally, bode well for the movement.

Most importantly, citizens continue to pour into the movement, where they gain an invaluable sense of empowerment and a lasting commitment to social change.

"From the moment in which you involve yourself in the struggle, you begin to acquire a bit of consciousness and you begin to fight not just for your rights but for the rights of all the exploited in Brazil and the world," says Domingos, the former shoemaker. "You find many friends, and this lets you feel powerful, and even with all the difficulties, you continue strong, fighting."


Jason Mark is the communications director at Global Exchange, an international human rights organization.