Landless Voices -> Sights & Voices -> Studies … -> Essays

English | Português

The Sights and Voices of Dispossession: The Fight for the Land and the Emerging Culture of the MST (The Movement of the Landless Rural Workers of Brazil)


English (mude para Português)

This page:

Studies, statements & references -> Essays 9 resources (Edited by Else R P Vieira. Translation © Thomas Burns.)

PreviousPrevious    resource: 3 of 9    Next


Frei Betto
(Translated by Thomas L Burns
Revised by Catherine McGuirk.)


The church and social movements

April 17, 1997, was a very special day in Brazil. The national march promoted by the MST (Movement of Landless Rural Workers) for justice, employment, and agrarian reform came to an end in Brasília. More than 100,000 people in the streets of the federal capital applauded the agricultural workers who, coming from different regions of the country, had been marching for more than a month.

Brazil is a country of continental dimensions. It has 600 million hectares of arable lands. Nevertheless, since it was occupied by the Portuguese in 1500, there has never been agrarian reform. Suffice to say that only 1% of the rural proprietors are the owners of 44% of the nation’s land. There are latifundia of an area greater than the territory of Holland or Belgium.

Inhabited by 170 million people, Brazil has 53 million people living below the poverty line, with a monthly income of less than 60 dollars, and 32 million barely surviving as indigents, with a daily income of less than one dollar. There have been 15 million landless people excluded from farming in the last thirty years, through the extension of the landed estates, the building of dams, and the inability to pay off debts in the face of high interest rates.

The Sem-Terra (Landless) Movement

The MST was founded in 1984 by an initiative of rural workers associated with the Catholic Church. Since then, it has organized landless families in encampments at the side of roads and in settlements that work with a cooperative system. There are currently about 300 000 families living under the black plastic tents beside the highways. And there are more than 1500 rural settlements throughout the country, in which around 100 000 children and adolescents receive their schooling.

The MST expects the present Brazilian government, presided over by Fernando Henrique Cardoso, to promote agrarian reform. As a political organ, the MST has mobilized its militants to occupy idle and unproductive farms, especially the property of grileiros t those who by violence and secret means appropriated land belonging to the government or who falsified deeds of ownership, as often happens in the Amazonian region.

In March 1997, research funded by the National Confederation of Industry found that 85% of those interviewed supported the land occupations, as long as there were no violence or deaths; 94% considered the MST’s struggle for agrarian reform just; and 77% saw the MST as a legitimate movement. The most significant fact represented a challenge to Cardoso’s government: 88% said that the government should confiscate unproductive lands and distribute them to the landless.

When a priest defends agrarian reform, there are those who ask why the Church does not begin with its own lands. The answer is simple; because it has done so for a long time and, according to the federal government, it has 179 300 hectares remaining in its possession, spread all over the country. This area is the equivalent of 0.05% of the landed-estates of Brazil, which total 362,000,818 hectares. Hopefully these remaining lands will soon be delivered over to the hands of the landless. Presently, the twenty largest rural proprietors together hold the same amount of land as 3.3 million small family farmers!

Because of media bias, many are unaware that the MST is organized in 21 states where, thanks to the occupation of unworked areas, it has settled around 138 thousand families, with an average income today of 3.7 monthly minimum salaries (FAO data). The Brazilian minimum wage is equivalent today to 71 dollars, enough for two people to have dinner in one of the better restaurants in São Paulo, as long as the wine is a cheaper brand. Yet 19% of the Brazilian population live on a monthly income less than half a minimum wage.

If it were not for the MST, millions of landless people would now live in favelas (shanty-towns), adding to the parcel of excluded and marginal people, increasing violence in the cities and swelling the unemployment rolls, which today affects 7% of the 60 million Brazilian workers.

The MST Achievements

Many ask whether there is a point of occupying lands if there is no credit, technical assistance and infra-structure. But this question in itself suggests its bearer would rather focus on the supposed inability of farm-workers than the large areas of unworked lands in the latifundia.

In 1992, the MST founded the Settlers Cooperative System (SCA) as a part of the Confederation of the Cooperatives of Agrarian Reform in Brazil (CONCRAB). This organization joins together 45 stock-breeding cooperatives, 10 regional marketing cooperatives, and dozens of central associations and cooperatives in eight states.

CONCRAB makes booklets on accounting, social welfare, and labour questions, and sponsors technical training courses, among which are the Organizational Field Laboratories and the courses for Integrated Development in Production. To improve technical education, CONCRAB maintains the Technical Institute of Training and Research in Agrarian Reform (ITERRA) in Veranópolis, Rio Grande do Sul, which is equivalent to secondary schooling in adminstration of cooperatives.

In recent years, the CONCRAB channeled more than 300 million reais to the settlements, thanks to the Special Credit Program for Agrarian Reform (PROCERA) and agreements made with the Ministries of Labour (Secretariat of Professional Education) and Agriculture (National Department of Cooperativism).

If seeing is believing, a visit to the highly productive settlements is recommended. For example Santa Maria do Oeste, Paraná, which produces 3500 kg/hour of green mate tea; São Mateus, Espírito Santo, with a capacity of 10 000 bags of coffee in the harvest period; Sarandi, Rio Grande do Sul, which cools 13 000 litres of milk per day.

It is also worth seeing the seven storehouses of flour, in Itarema, Ceará; the cheese-making plant of Monsenhor Tabosa, Ceará; the peach processing plant in Piratini, Rio Grande do Sul. In Dionísio Cerquera, Santa Catarina, there is a jeans factory that turns out 1000 pairs of pants per month and proves that the settlements are able to create jobs for young people with no motivation for work on the land.

The largest producer of oleraceous seeds in Latin America is Cooperal, in Bagé, Rio Grande do Sul, an associate of CONCRAB. The settlements of Hulha Negra and Bagé in that state are responsible for 40% of the national production of green vegetables.

In short, the MST occupies land in order to work it and produce from it. The latifunddium accumulates land in order to speculate. The MST is not in the wrong, it is the law that defends unproductive possession and punishes those who want to farm. From the Gospel, however, "the Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath" (Mark 2:27). Property, especially that which is idle and superfluous, cannot be above the human right to life.

The MST deserved the Vladimir Herzog National Human Rights Prize, the Chico Mendes Medal for their struggle against violence in the field, the Alternative Nobel Prize of the Swedish Parliament (1991), the Honorable Mention of the King Baldwin Prize, from Belgium (1994), the UNICEF-Itaú Prize (1995) for its educational work with children, at a ceremony in which Paulo Renato, Minister of Education, took part.

Agrarian Reform : Everyone’s Struggle!

The Brazilian people live in a country of 8,500,000 square kilometers. A large part of the land is unproductive latifundia. Big companies cut down forests like the Amazonian in order to pasture cattle or smuggle out wood. They pour mercury in our rivers to extract precious minerals, invade the lands of indigenous peoples and squatters, sowing death and violence, while men and women are driven out of the rural regions, condemned to fill the ranks of the poor, who swell the favelas surrounding the cities.

They want land and are received with bullets. They want to sow and are made to dig graves. They want to raise crops and they carve out crosses. They want to stay on the land and are driven into the cities. They want to wield a hoe and are hand-cuffed. They want to harvest food and they reap sadness. They want to settle on unproductive land and the government sends police to force them to stay on the other side of the fence, as if the idle property were of more value than human life.

In the 500 years of history since the Portuguese colonization, Brazil has known only one act of agrarian reform; that which cut the country up into Hereditary Captaincies, implanting the model of the latifundium. In the 19th century, access to the land was denied to the freed Negro slaves, and even today they are doubly discriminated against, for being black and for being poor. It is worth noting that Brazil is the second largest black nation in the world, after Nigeria, with a black population of over 50 million people.

The poet prophesied that "the backlands will turn into sea, the sea into backlands." If agrarian reform does not come urgently, the backlands will become a sea of the homeless in the asphalt of the cities, making urban violence worse. Today, almost 80% of the Brazilian population live in the cities. There will be no citizenship, nor will there be any end to the escalation of violence that ravages the great urban centres as long as there is no agrarian reform.

If migration continues at this rate, urban unemployment will rise, since the areas for expansion of the agricultural frontiers are not enough to attract the families ejected from their lands by mechanization, by the construction of hydroelectric dams, and by the concentration of land. In former times, a family driven off its land in Paraná would go to Rondônia or Transamazônica. This possibility is over, as Brazil is completely divided up into latifundia. When people lose their land they have nowhere to go, nor can they find other land, ending up by the side of the road or in a favela.

Brazil has the solution. If the land is redivided, the favelas will be reduced. If there are more schools, it will not be necessary to build more jails. If the farm-workers have fair access to agricultural materials and equipment, they will not find themselves in the hands of middlemen who pay absurd prices to those who farm and charge exhorbitant prices from consumers. If there are direct channels between producers and consumers, production will stop being at the mercy and greed of the supermarkets and large wholesalers.

Disappropriation is the principal resource for redistributing farm-land. In principle, unproductive lands with an area greater than 500 hectares, located in the southern, southeastern, and northeastern regions should be disappropriated; in the central-western region, unproductive property with an area greater than 1000 hectares, and in the northern region, with an area greater than 1500 hectares.

The government also lacks the political will in the land question. If it wanted, the lands for settlements would come: a) from the disappropriations of arable areas that are not being cultivated, especially land in areas of conflicts and occupations, as provided for in law no. 8.629/93; b) from the review of irregular deals made with government land, as determined by article 51 of the Constitution; c) from negotiating the lands of the mill-owners in exchange for pardoning their debts; d) from the lands of state companies; and e) from the mortgages of large landowners in debt to government banks.

Article 51 of the Constitution of 1988 establishes that donations, sales and concessions of public lands that took place between February 1, 1962 and December 31, 1987 should be reviewed. In that period, the Senate approved 51 resolutions, which transferred more than 10 million hectares to only 45 companies in 12 states. This area would potentially permit the settlement of more than 300 000 families. It all must be rigorously investigated, as the Constitution determines, with the aim of disposing of land for settlements. Public lands in the border regions of Brazil should also be earmarked for recovery for the agrarian reform of the illegally expropriated land.

A minimum term of five years should be guaranteed for leasing, partnership and commodation contracts, as well the right of those who work the land to renew the contract for more than a period of five years. The area can only be repossessed for the owner’s use, for direct working of the land. The longer the term of lease, the less tax the landowner would pay. The higher the land rent, the more tax the owner would pay.

It is necessary to put an end to the "fiscal amenity" with which the estate-owner has been treated and adopt the real value of the bare land as a base for taxes, using real, progressive aliquots for abandoned land and regressive ones for rationally farmed areas. Also, to use presumed income as a criterion for income taxes for unfarmed rural properties. The final aliquot Rural Territorial Tax must take into account, for the effect of progression, is the owner’s total area of real-estate.

Agrarian reform is the solution for Brazil. And it does not depend on the struggle of the farm-workers alone. It depends on all Brazilians. It is a struggle for all of our people: individuals, social classes, popular movements, unions, churches and religious groups, civil servants and political parties.

"Without agrarian reform, there will be no democracy in Brazil," Pope John Paul II declared in 1981, when he received President José Sarney in Rome.

Church, Sower of Social Movements

The Catholic Church in Brazil is at the origin of the MST and the social movements that are active in our country today. For the majority of Brazilians, the Christian religion makes up the substratum of their world-vision, their way of facing life, the world, and history. In other words, the ideology of our people is woven into religious categories. We have never known the "disenchantment of the world" of which Max Weber spoke in his analysis of European modernity.

After the Second World War, social Catholicism, mainly of French inspiration, came to Brazil, encouraging the Catholic Action movements. The prophecy of Dom Helder Câmara had a decisive role for the Church in our country, for its progressive approach to the poor. At the beginning of the 1960s, the Base Ecclesial Communities (BECs) arose. These were popular centres for strengthening the faith and moblization for social rights. There were around 100 000 by the mid-1980s, congregating more than 5 million people.

Ruled by the See/Judge/Act method, the Base Communities, by joining faith and social rights, produced the core that served as the cornerstone for Liberation Theology, which is therefore the second act. The first act is the practice of the poor in search of overcoming the state of oppression in which they live.

In 1964, Brazil fell into the hands of a military dictatorship. Although the Catholic Church had hailed the new regime on seeing that "it had freed the country from the communist peril," soon the defense of the rights of the poor began a series of conflicts between government and church. Bishops, priests, nuns, and lay people were persecuted, tortured, imprisoned, exiled and/or murdered. I myself spent four years in the jails of the dictatorship. This "persecution adventurism" resulted in a greater cooperation between the pastoral movements of the Catholic Church and social movements.

In the 1970s, the Base Communities became the bases of social movements, encouraging the organization of women, youth, people of favelas, the unemployed, landless and homeless people. The Pastoral Land Commission caused the farm-workers, organized in the struggle for their rights, to recognize that it was not enough to demand agrarian reform but to begin to make it happen. It was mainly necessary to demand a change in the neo-liberal, dependent, and exclusive economic model that the IMF imposes on our country. The MST then arose at the side of many other movements, like the Central Única de Trabalhadores (CUT)/ Single Workers Central and the Central de Movimentos Populares (CMP)/ Popular Movements Central.

The Catholic Church does not intend to monitor the social movements, even less make them denominational. It contributes so that they may organize and remain autonomous lay movements, maintaining the social-pastoral relations of partnership in projects of common interest, like the recovery of ethics in politics, and in crucial moments of national union, like the convocation of the Plebiscite for Foreign Debt in 2000. They also join hands around the social programme of the Conferência Nacional dos Bispos (CNBB)/ National Conference of the Bishops of Brazil. Also, the cases of the Fraternity Campaign in Lent, which every year adopts a social theme, the Cry of the Excluded on September 7, date of Brazilian Independence, and the defense of human rights.

The Catholic Church in Brazil does not want to be a kind of denominational political party, nor does it hope to substitute the work of the State. It rather wishes to be faithful to the Gospel of Jesus, who came "so that all may have life and have it abundantly" (John 10: 10). Life is the greatest gift of God. In a continent and in a country under the burden of structures of death, to fight for life is to be on the side of those are unwillingly and unjustly deprived of access to the material goods able to ensure a free and happy existence.

For the Christian faith, the social movements are the "tools" with which the Kingdom of God is built in human history. With the mediation of these movements, the promise of the Kingdom becomes a utopia, and social inequality a perennial punishment for so many who, in Latin America, were born into the biological lottery without winning a dignified life.


November 2002

Resource ID:


		to Queen Mary University Of London welcome page

Landless Voices hosted by the
School of Languages, Linguistics and Film
Queen Mary University Of London, UK

Project Director & Academic Editor: Else R P Vieira
Web Site Producer: John Walsh
Web Site created: January 2003
Last updated: July 5th 2016