VI-Congresso-MST-foto-PabloVergaraAfter three decades of struggle for agrarian reform, Brazil’s Landless Movement paused during its 6th Congress to evaluate its experience and reflect on the new reality. The goal: to change while changing themselves.

“Our greatest victory was to build an organization of campesinos that rescued the history of land struggle, that lasts over time, that maintains its internal unity, and that has become a point of reference, even internationally,” reflects Gilmar Mauro, historical leader of one of the largest social movements in the world.[1] From February 10-14, the Landless Workerss Movement (MST, by its Portuguese initials) held its sixth congress in Brasília. The Congress sought to define new directions in the thirty year history of the MST.

Between 12,000 and 15,000 delegates participated in the meeting, marked by the solid organization based in discipline and collective work that is characeristic of the the movement. Far from being a bureaucratic affair, the Congress stood out for its many colors and the songs, plays and performances that animated the members and have become a hallmark of the peasant organization. A huge camp managed by movement leaders housed the delegates.

Before the end of the sixth Congress, delegates marched to the Palacio de Planalto, where clashes with police were reported. A large delegation was received by [Brazilian President] Dilma Rousseff on Thursday, February 13. Before the extensive list of unmet demands presented by the landless–who accuse her government of giving the fewest number of peasant farmers land since the end of the dictatorship–the president responded with a terse: “Pass on all the information you can about what wrong is being done and we will make changes.”

It was the first time that Rousseff received  the landless, who complained that they were received several times by [former President] Lula da Silva, as well as conservative [former president] Henrique Cardoso. Three days later, in her weekly radio program “Coffee with the President,” Rousseff seemed happy that Brazil will become the world’s largest producer of soybeans this year. Its bumper crop (estimated at 90 million tons) will overtake the United States.

She stated, “The record crop of 2013-2014 is the result of the joint efforts of our producers, the development of new agricultural technologies, and the support given by government programs to farmers in the country”.[2] She stressed that to store the entire harvest, her government has released a line of credit for about $10.4 billion for the construction of silos in the next five years. Just the opposite of what the landless–for whom agribusiness is the principal problem–demand.

Historical crossroads

For a little over a year, the Landless Movement debated the evaluation of their thirty years of existence. They identified the main problems the movement faces and drew lines of action to confront them. Jorge Edgar Kolling, teacher and member of the education sector of the movement, highlighted in a preparatory work of the Congress entitled “Reinventing the MST so it continues to be the MST,” that “Our movement is experiencing a major crossroads in its history: agrarian reform is blocked”.[3]

Kolling does a close reading of the Brazilian political reality and the role played by the MST. He asserts that agrarian reform is no longer on the political agenda, while agribusiness advances with million-dollar government support.

Meanwhile, public opinion, influenced by mainstream media, “is satisfied with or acquiescent to this model” and does not understand that two conflicting projects vie for dominance in the countryside: agribusiness and family farming.

Kolling doesn’t beat around the bush in his analysis of the movement. “There are very few landless families willing to fight for land, especially in south-central Brazil. In the northeast and northern regions, where most of our families are concentrated, the fight for land still has life, but it also has declined in recent years.”

This analysis is important because the movement now has its major weaknesses precisely where it was born. Looking inward, Kolling wrote, “we see a wide gap between the political commitment to popular agrarian reform and its implementation by settler families. There are many settlers that prioritize monoculture, planting genetically modified seeds, using pesticides, and, in sum, reproducing the perverse agribusiness package that that MST combats.”

By contrast, he points out that the families that produce ecologically are the minority since the movement hasn’t worked to promote a different technological approach in the settlements. For this reason, he proposes “to place settlements at the center of the MST’s actions, build them up as an example of production and labor organization, and of consistency in selecting technological packages.”

The approximately 1,500 settlements nationwide should be places where people live well, in balance with nature and community. “They should serve as an example in the fight for hegemony in the over 1,000 municipalities in which we operate,” Kolling notes.

This perspective represents a shift from the movement’s first three decades. A courageous and realistic reading, though uncomfortable, that reveals that the movement is alive, that it has the will and the energy to overcome (and not accommodate) the situation, faced with the predominantly positive view of agribusiness, even among the settlers, which is winning the battle for land.

In 2011, during Rousseff’s first term, just 22,000 families were given land–the lowest number in the last 20 years. To change that relationship of forces, the MST proposes to “drink from its own well,” using a maxim of the liberation theology that played a major role in the birth of the movement. The movement set off a collective process of discussion and debate in late 2011. It was channeled into the Congress through meetings, seminars, courses and workshops, involving thousands of peasant farmers.

The results could be rewarding and the idea is to assure that the movement carries through into the next thirty years, “taking steps to make changes in the organizational structure, forms of struggle, management methods, and identifying our limits, progress, and challenges,” Kolling stated.

Shifting Strategies: A New Agrarian Reform

The MST was born by occupying property owners’ unused estates, resisting and working to turn them into living spaces. Their slogan–”Occupy, resist, produce”–has been flown since the movement’s first meetings.

During this long period, one of the symbols of their identity, as Sebastian Salgado’s photos recall, was the moment of occupation. Sickles in hand, intense focus on their faces, the photographer captured the peasants in the iconic moment of downing fences and entering the estates. The black plastic camps at the side of the highways where they lived sometimes for years as they mobilized for expropriation of large landholdings announced to passersby that there, land was being fought for.

“It is not enough to expropriate unproductive estates and divide the land among the families,” Cedenir de Oliveira of the MST’s National Coordination reasons. That kind of land reform has been overtaken by a new reality.

Now, the movement should “be the bearer of an agricultural model focused on ecological food production in a system of agricultural cooperation associated with small agro-industries that respect the environment and ensure the health of producers and consumers, while contributing to attaining the food sovereignty in the country.”

congresso_tallesTo take that step, the movement must be enter into “dialogue with society,” create alliances with the populations of rural municipalities that are most affected by fumigation and the joblessness brought about by mechanization that forces them to migrate to urban slums.

The MST’s new program, called Popular Agrarian Reform, adapts the logic of the movement to the unstoppable expansion of agribusiness. Huge investments by banks and multinational corporations have caused a geometric increase in the price of land, ruling out expropriations by the state.  These investments went to monocultures such as soy, sugarcane, and eucalyptus (to produce rations, fuel and paper) to the detriment of food crops.

“Agribusiness uses its economic power to impose monoculture production on society, pressing for banks to release more credit for those crops than for products that are not traded on the international exchange,” Miguel Stédile, member of the MST’s National Directorate, stated. For this reason, the agricultural area devoted to food production decreases every year. Much of the rice and beans that make up the traditional Brazilian diet are now imported from Mexico and China, because the land that formerly produced basic foods has been taken over by agribusiness export crops.

The movement is committed to continue its dialogue and partnership with the society around food sovereignty. Diversified, ecological production–coupled with rural social infrastructure (schools, roads, jobs, spaces for leisure and entertainment)–are the crucial part of the new program. Through it, the MST hopes to gain allies, especially in cities.

This shift responds to other more subtle, but no less problematic, changes for the future of the movement as well. Late last year, the federal government issued Provisional Measure 636 that includes a provision that could wipe out the gains of thirty years of struggle for land. Under the provision, the lands granted to people under agrarian reform, which up to now have been public, granting families the right to make use of them, will become private property. Families will be able to sell their parcels. Two decades ago, Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s government tried to impose this project, then it stalled during Lula’s two terms.

“The argument is that by granting the land title, the farmer would no longer be dependent on government and public policy,” explains Debora Nunes of the MST National Coordination.[4] Many families want to have a land title, but the problem could be solved with titles that concede use of land, including the right to inheritance but not sale. “The sale of agrarian reform lands paves the road for an increase in land concentration,” she says.

Women’s and youth participation to build new paths

This was the first time in 30 years that the MST Congress included discussions on the participation of women. According to Nivia Regina of the National Coordination, the MST is coming to an understanding that “the struggle of women is an essential condition for the transformation of society.” The first step, in her view, is to overcome the idea grounded in the history of peasant farmer movements that the role of women consists simply in being the militants’ lovers.

According to Conceição Dantas of the Worldwide March of Women, this lack of recognition is due to the close link between capitalism and patriarchy, since capitalism benefits from a sexual division of labor that places women in less valued jobs.

“A good example is inspecting fruit, in which women are forced to wear diapers because they can’t even leave work to go to the bathroom,” said Adriana Mezadri from the Women’s Peasant Movement, referring the agribusiness assembly lines.[5]

Even before the Congress, the movement had fully entered the nation’s current political debates. This is in an election year, with mounting demonstrations against the World Cup investments for megaprojects, oppsed by 75% of Brazilians.[6]

João Pedro Stédile, the coordinator and leading public figure of the movement recognizes that the period of agrarian reform and new settlements has ended. He says that what is needed are “changes in the political system that doesn’t represent anyone” and changes in the economic model.[7] He views the emergence of a new youth movement in the June 2013 demonstrations with enthusiasm as a form of “reinstating politics in the streets.” The movement encourages social mobilization, and participates in a social front with the Workers’ United Center.  

But Stédile opposes the strategy of protests during the World Cup. “I prefer demonstrations afterwards, because [if they happen] during the Cup, they’re going to confuse the people who want the Cup and reduce the demonstrations to just protests against the money spent on the Cup.”

On this point, Stédile agrees with the Workers’ Party (PT) government, the party to which he belongs. Still, he is convinced that ” real changes don’t depend most on the electoral calendar, but rather the capacity of workers to build a unified program.”

As in any large organization, there are diverse viewpoints although no organized currents exist. In many ways, the MST is an example of discipline and especially of the ability of its members to train and study.

“It’s not that the demand for land reform has diminished, but now many of the workers have the possibility of getting jobs and are no longer staying in the camps as in the 1990s,” reflects Gilmar Mauro. He looks ahead to new problems. “I wish we had strength to bring about  agrarian reform on our own, but that’s unrealistic. So the MST has to fight and negotiate,” he reflects. He is convinced that both the MST and other worker organizations have to find other ways to organize, because otherwise they can’t reach the bulk of workers.

“The challenge is to build organizations of another kind. The organizational format of the MST is kind of like a tight shirt for a kid growing up quickly, one that makes it hard for the kid to move. We need to remake the shirt.” He believes that “the challenge is to build more horizontal, participatory organizations.”

To young people, he says, “Change everything, turn the table, build new ways, experiment. That’s how the movement was born.”

Raul Zibechi is international relations editor at the magazine Brecha in Montevideo, adviser to grassroots organizations and writer of the monthly Zibechi Report of the CIP Americas Program www.cipamericas.org

Translator: Paige Patchin

Editor: Laura Carlsen



[1] Carta Capital, February 10, 2014

[2] Xinghua, February 17, 2014

[3] MST, October 21, 2013

[4] MST, February 18, 2014

[5] MST, February 13, 2014

[6] Exame, February 18, 2014

[7] Brasil de Fato, February 4, 2014

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