Landless Workers' Movement

MST supporters in Brazil.

Landless Workers' Movement (Portuguese: Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra - MST) is a social movement in Brazil; it is the largest in Latin America, with an estimated 1.5 million landless members organized in 23 out of Brazil's 26 states. The MST states it carries out land reform in a country mired by unjust land distribution[citation needed]. 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 for the restoration of a social contract that provides a sustainable way of life for the poor living in rural areas.[1] In Brazil, 1.6% of the landowners control roughly half (46.8%) of the land on which crops could be grown.

The MST claims land occupations are rooted in the most recent Constitution of Brazil (1988), by interpreting a passage which states that land should serve a "larger social function".


[edit] 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 in 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 [5]).

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. Conversely, all later attempts at land reform by legal means would therefore be directed by a tendency to counter the existing landed property structure by means of an appeal to the allegedly social function of property.

The principle that private property should serve a social function was rooted on the social doctrine of the Catholic Church as it developed during the XIXth. Century, since Pope Leo XIII's Rerum Novarum encyclical; on the eve of the 1964 military coup, that was the principle evoked by President Joo Goulart in his famous "Central rally" (a mamooth 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.[2]

Paradoxically, in Brazilian constitutional history, land reform was first mentioned as a guiding principle for government action in the text of the Constitution of 1967 (Article 157, III), which wanted to institucionalize 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, – 1– , as amended by Institucional Act no.9, 1969).[3]

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.

The MST identifies what it believes to be unproductive rural land that does not meet its social function and occupies it. Upon occupation, a legal process commences to expropriate the land and grant title to the landless workers, while the owners do likewise to regain possession of it. 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. Sometimes the courts require the families to leave. Other times, courts refuse the landowners' request and allow the families to stay and engage 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.

For example, in August 1999, Chief Judge Rui Portanova overruled the decision of a trial court granting a landowner's petition to evict the MST off his property. The Court reasoned:

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 [that] want to plant a product that feeds and enriches Brazil in this world so globalized and hungry. But Brazil turns its back. The executive deflects money to the banks. The Legislature . . . wants to make laws to forgive the debts of the large farmers. The press accuses the MST of violence. The landless, in spite of all this, have hope . . . that they can plant and harvest with their hands. For this they pray and sing. The Federal Constitution and Article 5 . . . offers interpretive space in favor of the MST. The pressure of the MST is legitimate. [I]n the terms of paragraph 23 of Article 5 of the Federal Constitution [that land shall attend it social function], I suspended [the eviction.] (Decision #70000092288, Rui Portanova, State Court of Rio Grande do Sul, Porto Alegre)

The expropriation process can take years.

[edit] History

Monument by Oscar Niemeyer dedicated to the MST.

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. The location became known as the Encruzilhada Natalino. With the support of civil society, including the progressive branch of the Catholic Church, the families pressured the Military Government into expropriating nearby lands for the purposes of agrarian reform.

The MST was officially founded in 1984, as Brazil's Military dictatorship came to a close.

[edit] 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. The basic organizational unit, representing 10 to 15 families living in either an MST encampment or MST settlement, 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. Joo Pedro Stdile, economist and author of several important texts on land reform in Brazil, is a member of the MST's National Coordinating Body.

Over 90% of the MST's Coordinators, Regional, State and National, live in MST settlements or encampments.[citation needed] 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. 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'.

[edit] Ideology

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.

The landless found institutional support in the Catholic Church through their teachings of social justice and equality. The priests of the church organized the Christian Ecclesiastical Base, whom which advocated liberation theology and more specifically anti-hierarchical social relations. This theology became the basis of the MST–s founding ideologies and organizational structure.[4]

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 the traditional classroom structures, of 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 promote the activists to break passive dependence from oppressive social conditions and become individuals 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 also to prevent corrupt leadership.[4]

Individuals who are members of the MST have focused on making autonomous subjectivity an important characteristic of their actions. MST fights for the democratization of society, in which popular politics is built from vast networks, anti-authoritarian organization, direct action through non-violence, and consciousness-raising. This strategy has become modular and has been commonly used within the Global Justice Movement, proving the MST one of the must influential movements surrounding global land struggles.[4]

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 escalating actions began to include the fight to eliminate fields of genetically modified crops, to carry out marches, hunger strikes and other political actions. The MST is not only invested in fighting against struggle in Brazil and neighboring Latin America. The MST also cooperates with a number of rural worker movements and urban movements in other areas of Brazil. Furthermore the MST continues to remain in touch with broader international movements in other countries that embrace the same cause.[5]

[edit] Education

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)[6]- also called Florestan Fernandes School (FFS), from its campus in Guararema, So 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 Braslia, 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.[6]. 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[7].

The MST formed its education sector in Rio Grande do Sul in 1986, a year after its first national convention.[8] 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.[9]

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 (and well known for its advocacy of right-wing views) 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.[7]

Oscar Niemeyer, one of the most internationally renowned Brazilian architects, will be designing the Auditorium Building that will be part of the complex of the MST's National Florestan Fernandes School outside So Paulo. [8]

[edit] Sustainable agriculture

The movement is also developing a model of sustainable agriculture on the lands the families farm. These efforts are gaining increasing importance as movement families gain access to an increasing amount of Brazil's unproductive land. For example, the Chico Mendes Center for Agroecology, founded May 15, 2004 in Ponta Grossa, Paran¡, Brazil on land formerly used by Monsanto Company to grow genetically modified crops, intends to produce organic, native seed to distribute through MST.

In 2005, the MST partnered with the Federal Government of Venezuela, the State Government of Paran¡, the Federal University of Paran¡ (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.

The first undergraduate course in Agroecology already has 100 students enrolled and will be administered by the UFPR. The students, who are associated with peasant farmer organizations from all over Latin America, will become agroecology technicians. The course, which will alternate periods in school with periods in the community, will last three years.[9]

[edit] 2005 March for Agrarian Reform

After a two week, 200+ kilometer march from the city of Goinia, 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].

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. 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.

[edit] Violent confrontations

In the long history of violent land conflicts in Brazil, the emergence of the MST has led to the movement having been involved 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, in the 1996 incident usually called Eldorado dos Caraj¡s massacre, 19 MST members were gunned down dead (and other 69 wounded) by police while they were blocking a state road in Par¡, all policemen involved going still unpunished as of late 2009 [10]. The MST has also often been accused by the mainstream media of being involved in criminal activities: in 2005, for instance, 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.[11]

In 2002, the MST occupied the private farm of then-president Fernando Henrique Cardoso's sons [12] in the state of Minas Gerais, in a move which was publicly condemned by then Left opposition leader Lula[13] and other proeminent members of the PT Party[14][15]. The farm was damaged and looted in the occupation, despite the MST having been granted its demands for a meeting with Raul Jungmann, the Agrarian Reform minister. Damage included the destruction of two harvesters, a tractor and several pieces of furniture.[16] The MST members also drank the entire stock of alcoholic beverages at the farm, something they publicly apologized for later [17]. Overall, 16 leaders of the MST were charged with theft, vandalism, trespassing, resisting arrest and for holding others in captivity.[18]

During the early 2000s, in addition to occupying derelict farms and public buildings, the MST has also invaded and despoiled functioning properties 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 Joo Pedro Stdile 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 [19]. In April 2006, the MST invaded 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. [20] Eucalyptus, a non-native plant, has been blamed for environmental degradation in Northeast Brazil.[21]

In June 2003, the MST also invaded the R&D farm of Monsanto Company in the state of Goi¡s [22]. 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 So Paulo, where a nursery and an experimental patch of genetically modified maize were destroyed as a way to protest about the government's support for the extensive use of GMOs supplied by transnational corporations in agriculture, a practice the MST sees as detrimental to the development of organic agriculture as well as offering the possibility of a future health hazard[10].

Between September 27 and October 7, 2009, the MST occupied an orange plantation in Borebi, State of So Paulo, allegedly 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 equipement, missing pesticide, destroyed crops and trees cut by MST activists[11]. 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[12].

The MST also repeatedly creates roadblocks, blocking highways [23] [24] [25] [26] and railroads [27].

In May 2005, the MST was reported by weekly news magazine Veja to have helped the PCC, the most powerful prison-gang criminal organization in the State of So Paulo. The evidence offered by the magazine was a police telephone tapping record 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 [28] about the better way of staging what was to be the largest prisoners' relatives protest in Brazilian history, on April 18, 2005, with more than 4000 prisoners' relatives protesting against prevailing conditions in So Paulo State correctional facilities.[13] The MST "leaders" to which the tape refers were not named, no MST actvist, actual or allegedly, having 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.[14]

[edit] External links

[edit] See also

[edit] Notes

  1. ^ James, Deborah (2007). Gaining Ground? Rights and Property in South African Land Reform. New York, New York: Routledge Cavendish. pp. 148–149. ISBN 0415420318. 
  2. ^
  3. ^ For the text of the 1967 Constitution, see
  4. ^ a b c Gautney, Heather; Omar Dahbour, Ashley Dawson, Neil Smith (2009). Democracy, States, and the Struggle for Global Justice. New York, New York: Routledge Cavendish. pp. 244–245. ISBN 0415989833. 
  5. ^ "History of the MST". MST. 
  6. ^ See homepage, English version
  7. ^ Cf. Amrica Latina en Movimiento news website, January the 19th. 2005: "MST inaugura Escola Nacional Florestan Fernandes", text available at [1]
  8. ^ Fernandes, Barnard Mancano. The Formation of the MST in Brazil. Editora Vozes, Petropolis 2000, page 78
  9. ^ Jan Rocha and Sue Branford. Cutting the Wire: The story of the landless movement in Brasil. 2002, Latin American Bureau
  10. ^ [2]
  11. ^ [3]
  12. ^ [4]
  13. ^ Carlos Rydlewski; F¡bio Portela (2005-05-10). "Clipping 10 de maio de 2005". Ministrio Plbico de Santa Catarina. Retrieved 2006-05-22. 
  14. ^ "MST descarta ligao com PCC". Terra. 2006-05-16.,,OI1007590-EI7061,00.html. Retrieved 2006-05-22. 

[edit] References

  • 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, So Paulo, 2002.

Related topics in the Connexions Subject Index

Alternatives  –  Left History  –  Libraries & Archives  –  Social Change  – 

This article is based on one or more articles in Wikipedia, with modifications and additional content contributed by Connexions editors. This article, and any information from Wikipedia, is covered by a Creative Commons Attribution-Sharealike 3.0 Unported License (CC-BY-SA) and the GNU Free Documentation License (GFDL).

We welcome your help in improving and expanding the content of Connexipedia articles, and in correcting errors. Connexipedia is not a wiki: please contact Connexions by email if you wish to contribute. We are also looking for contributors interested in writing articles on topics, persons, events and organizations related to social justice and the history of social change movements.

For more information contact Connexions