Across Brazil’s vast landscape, poor people, in groups of hundreds, are moving onto land that is claimed by others. The poor are demanding that land be distributed to them as part of an ongoing national agrarian program.
Powerful landholders are threatening to drive the occupiers off at gunpoint. Governors of several states have announced that if necessary they will mobilize police and military to keep the peace and enforce the law in the countryside.
President Luis Inacio da Silva’s new center-left national government, known as Lula, is committed to agrarian reform, but it is also committed to international bankers for a favorable investment climate and support of agricultural exports.
The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Christian Science Monitor have run stories portraying these events in ominous terms. Do the land occupations foretell a crisis? Will the Lula government’s promises of stability, growth and credit worthiness be undermined by help to Brazil’s poorest people?
The story of the organization leading the wave of recent land occupations provides much of the answer.
The MST, whose Portuguese name translates as the Movement of Landless Rural Workers, has settled more than 1 million people, some 350,000 families, on more than 20 million acres. It educates thousands of teachers, agricultural extension agents and health workers. In spite of many difficulties and disappointments, the settlers enjoy higher living standards, including in schools and health care. Not only are they eating better themselves, they are providing basic food to regional markets.
Their organization, which started with the chemical and machine intensive methods of Brazil’s thriving agribusiness, has now officially turned to an “agro-ecological model.” The MST promotes strong land conservation measures. Its farmers market organic produce in many cities. Seventy percent of them work individually, by choice, though the movement continues to experiment with cooperative and collective production.
Most of all, participation in the MST and the experience of becoming productive farmers have turned tens of thousands of people who were passive victims into active citizens. Before they were called “the marginalized” and “the vagabonds.” Now they are voting and holding political offices. These people, along with millions of others in Brazil’s newly flourishing social movements, are shaping a democracy that is still recovering from years of military dictatorship.
The landless movement that would officially become the MST in 1984 arose from collaboration by progressive Catholic priests, secular political activists and the rural poor, beginning in the late 1970s. They discovered that they could make creative use of the force of numbers and Brazilian law to force the government to redistribute land.
For centuries, landowners had so ruthlessly abused the land, exploited labor and twisted the law that legislators, even the generals operating through decree law, began requiring that ownership be subjected to a test of whether the land was “serving its social function.” If it can be proven that land is held fraudulently or is not being used productively, or that it is not being used in accordance with labor and conservation laws, a counter-claimant can move onto it and serve legal notice in demand of title.
This has brought violent reaction. The Catholic Church’s Pastoral Commission on Land reports that more than 1,000 of the landless have been assassinated in land conflicts over the past 20 years. Only a handful of these cases have gone to trial. The landless themselves have only rarely been violent.
Keeping law and order in Brazil will require going forward with agrarian reform, not suppressing it. And the health of the Brazilian economy will be best served by encouraging the formation of small and medium scale family farms, found by various independent studies to be the most productive farms in the country.
The message of agrarian reform in Brazil is one of hope. The poor must keep pressuring the government to meet all its fundamental commitments, not just the ones it made to the international bankers.
ANGUS WRIGHT is a member of the Prairie Writers Circle at The Land Insitute in Salina, Kan. He is co-author with Wendy Wolford of “To Inherit the Earth: The Landless Movement in the Struggle for a New Brazil.” Wright teaches environmental studies at California State University, Sacramento.