Brazil: Landless Workers' Movement marks 25th anniversary, announces `new phase' in struggle

Joao Pedro Stedile addresses the January 24, 2009, national meeting of Brazil's Landless Workers' Movement, marking the MST's 25th anniversary. Stedile is co-founder of the MST. Below the videos Michael Fox reports on the MST's ``new phase'' in the agrarian reform struggle, against Brazil's mainly US-owned agro-industry.

Part 1

Part 2

Brazil's Landless Workers' Movement turns 25, opens `new phase' of struggle

By Michael Fox

January 28, 2009 -- In the dying days of Brazil’s military dictatorship, in late January 1984, a group of nearly a hundred "landless" farmers from across Brazil met in Cascavel, Paran to debate the founding of a movement for agrarian reform which would unite landless campesinos and farm workers from around the country. It was an unlikely challenge in the world’s fifth-largest nation, where even today less than 2 per cent of landowners control nearly half of the total territory.

Two and a half decades later, the tiny Landless Worker’s Movement (MST -- Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra) has grown in to a formidable force. According to MST co-founder Joao Pedro Stedile, the movement has forced the expropriation of 35 million acres of land -- larger than the country of Uruguay. MST numbers show that in the last 25 years, 370,000 families have acquired their own land, and 100,000 families are currently in encampments waiting for land. The movement has built hundreds of public schools and taught tens of thousands of its members to read and write. MST members have formed 400 associations and cooperatives to collectively produce their food.

"But those are just statistics", said Stedile in his closing comments of the movement’s 25th birthday celebration on January 24. "The most important thing that we have built over these last 25 years is that when someone joins the MST, he or she stops walking with their head down, and acquires dignity, and thinks with their brains, organising their companions in struggle."

The birthday celebration marked the close of the 13th national meeting of the MST, in which 1500 MST members from across the country descended on the southern Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul to debate the direction of the movement.

"It’s been great", says Joao Paulo Cardoso, one of a delegation of 47 MST members that made the four-day bus trip from the northern Brazilian state of Ceará. "It’s really good to make new friends, and see old ones. Also the debates and discussions are important to acquire new understanding."

The meeting was held at the MST Anonni settlement in the north of the southern state -- one of the first settlements occupied and won by the landless farmers two decades ago. Four hundred and eighteen families now live in seven communities on tens of thousands of acres of land. Except for the red MST flags, which fly in front of most homes, it’s hard to tell the difference between this MST settlement and any closely knit rural community.

While fighting for the land these families lived for years in makeshift huts of black plastic tarps, now their homes are reminiscent of that of any humble small family farm in the mid-western United States. Most have an vehicle and farming equipment -- which they share –- like a tractor or a combine. Each family has about 50 acres of land to farm. A dozen families on the settlement have for many years been farming and selling their products collectively through their local cooperative.

"See those folks over there?", asks Miguel Carter pointing out a group of people 20 metres away, "They’re founders of the movement. When I met them they didn’t have anything, and now their daughter is studying medicine in Cuba." Carter is an American University professor who has studied the MST for more than two decades, and who attended the 25-year anniversary celebration.

"The MST has become the most sophisticated and the largest, and the most energetic of all the social movements that have flourished in Brazilian society… but they have to permanently do it against a really steep hill."

While Brazilian law states that unproductive land may bought by the Brazilian government and distributed to landless farmers through Brazil’s Agrarian Reform Institute (INCRA), large landowners have violently defended their properties. To counter the MST "threat", landowners formed their own organisation, the Rural Democratic Union (UDR), in 1985. According to Brazil’s Pastoral Land Commission (CPT), dozens of campesinos are assassinated each year across Brazil.

In Rio Grande do Sul, under the conservative governorship of Yeda Crusius, the state police force has also been cracking down on the movement. Last June, the state justice department called for the disbanding of the MST throughout the state.

The repercussions were felt even at the January 24 event, where a police helicopter kept vigil over the meeting, and the Rio Grande do Sul justice department and department of investigation erected a barricade on the road to the Anonni settlement, where they controlled entry in to the event by inspecting names, cars and belongings.

"On top of the state military brigade here watching us, they also put a battalion of shock troops over there to protect the area of Monsanto", said Stedile.

In a press conference on January 23, MST leader Marina dos Santos warned landowners that in 2009, the MST would be "intensifying (its) struggle for agrarian reform". But she also admitted that the MST's "struggle for land, is much more difficult, because it is not just against the landowner, but a multinational corporation, and this means that there is no space for land distribution and agrarian reform."

At this year’s conference, MST members ratified that they are now primarily fighting against the multinational agro-industry.

"We spent many years struggling against the large landowners alone, because we believed -- and we believe -- that the latifundio is the principal cause of the poverty and inequality in the rural area", said Stedile during his January 24 speech. "But over the last few years, capitalism has transformed itself… and dramatically altered the model of agricultural production in the world, and in our country. Now, because of this new dominance of financial capital, large multinational corporations indirectly control the land, the production, the seeds, and the agricultural riches."

Over the last ten years, the agroindustry in Brazil-- led by US companies Cargill, Bunge, ADM, and Monsanto -- has grown. The Minnesota-based Cargill is the largest agribusiness in the world. According to Brasil de Fato, in Brazil, in 2005 alone Cargill had a gross income of more than US$4 billion. With the biofuel "revolution", ethanol production has increased. In 2008, sugarcane plantations in Brazil grew by 14 per cent, to more than 17 million acres in production. Monsanto controls a healthy chunk of the Brazilian chemical pesticide and genetically-modified (GMO) seed market.

Even on the Anonni settlement, many residents have been forced to use Monsanto pesticides and cultivate genetically modified soy because of their marketability and constant seed contamination from nearby farms. Jorge dos Santos, one of the founders of the Anonni settlement pointed out where crop dusting from the neighbouring plantation had killed part of his garden.

In order to counter the growth of the agroindustry, the MST declared that it is entering "a new phase".

"It’s not just about acquiring one farm here and there. That’s still important, but it’s not sufficient", says Stedile, who called for "grassroots agrarian reform", but stated that it "cannot be carried out by the landless alone".

In what could mark a notable shift in their organising strategy, MST leaders announced they will be building alliances with trade unions, activists and progressive leaders in both the countryside and in the cities across Brazil, in order to create a united front against the agroindustry and "neoliberalism".

"Changes in the economic model are only possible in Brazil, if we can join with all of the union federations, with all of the leftist parties, with all of the activists who want changes for the country", said Stedile.

[Michael Fox is a South America-based journalist, reporter, translator and documentary filmmaker. He maintains a blog at This article first appeared at Upside Down World. It has been posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with the author's permission.]