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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)


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Bernardo Manšano Fernandes
(Translated by Malcolm K. McNee. Edited by Else R P Vieira)


The MST, its Genealogy and the Struggle for Agrarian Reform in Brazil

The MST (Movement of the Landless Rural Workers) is a social movement well known for its actions, principally its occupations of land and buildings and confrontations with the government. Through these actions, the MST has conquered land and a set of public policies directed toward the socio-economic development of land reform settlements. In this way, the landless have been re-socializing and fighting against exclusion.

In the long history of the struggle for the land, the MST is a continuation of the Ligas Camponesas (Peasant Leagues), organized in 1945, repressed and destroyed in 1947, re-organized in 1954 and made extinct by the military government of 1964. The Peasant Leagues were organized all over the country and had as one of their objectives the struggle for agrarian reform. With the extinction of the peasants' movements, the Catholic Church created the Comissão Pastoral da Terra - CPT (Pastoral Land Commission), which started to mobilize the rural workers to resist expulsion and to struggle for the land. In these experiences of struggle, the MST had its genealogy.

During the formative years of the MST (1979-1984), the landless constructed their first experiences, aware that they were heirs to a long history of peasant resistance. Since then, knowing well that the agrarian situation would not change in their favor if not through their actions, these rural workers began the construction of a social movement that would become in the 1990s one of the most important social organizations in Brazil. In January, 1984, they founded the Movement of the Landless Rural Workers. During the first half of the 1980s, with the support of the Pastoral Land Commission, the landless organized themselves in five states: Paraná, São Paulo, Rio Grande do Sul, Santa Catarina, and Mato Grosso do Sul.

During the period from 1983-1990, the MST was territorialized in the North-East, South-East, Central-West, and part of the Amazon region. Territorializing meant developing a process of struggling for and conquering land. This happens through the occupation of properties that are not fulfilling their social function. As they carry out an occupation and establish an encampment, the families create a certain political environment that will be modified through negotiations involving the landless, the landowner and the government, among other organizations that support agrarian reform, including unions, political parties, etc.

A political negotiation mediated by different forces and interests is necessary in order to change that conjuncture. On the one hand, there is the reaction of the landowners (latifundiários), involving the hiring of gunmen and the filing of preliminary appeals for the re-integration of the property. On the other hand, the landless resist re-integration and confront the gunmen. They march to the cities, organize protests, and occupy public buildings as forms of pressure on the government to find a solution to the conflict. In this context, the federal and state governments look for an answer to the agrarian question through disappropriation or purchase of the occupied area. In other instances, the landless are violently evicted by the police and then occupy another latifundium, from which they also may be expelled. The landless occupy and re-occupy land until they conquer the settlement.

This is how the struggle for land is territorialized. Each settlement conquered is a fraction of territory where the landless will construct a new community. The struggle for land involves territorialization because with the conquest of a settlement the prospects for the conquest of additional settlements are opened up. Thus, with each conquered settlement, the MST is territorialized. This is exactly what differentiates the MST from other social movements, making it a socio-territorial movement. When the struggle ends with the conquest of the land, territorialization does not exist. This is what characterizes the isolated social movements that are created in various Brazilian states. The landless organized in the MST, upon winning access to the land, foresee a new conquest. Thus, they also add further dimensions to the struggle for land by fighting for education, health care, housing, agricultural credit and co-operation, etc.

This process has as its point of departure and return grassroots organization. This includes meetings that the already settled hold with families interested in struggling for land. These meetings take place in rural neighborhoods, settlements, encampments, and in the peripheries of various cities in all regions of Brazil: in schools, in parish halls, in unions, etc. These efforts are constructed spaces of political socialization, where the actions of the struggle for land are defined. These organizing efforts may last from months to years, from the formation of groups of families to the occupation of one or more latifundia, from the confrontations with gunmen and with the police to the negotiations with the government and the implantation of the settlements.

During the 1990s, the MST became a national movement. It was territorialized in the states of Pará, Mato Grosso, Tocantins, and the Federal District, ultimately organizing itself in twenty-three states of the federation. Since 1996, the movement has intensified discussions with respect to the organization of labor and production on the settlements. Knowing well the achievements and failures of the historic peasant struggle and the logic of capitalism's unequal and contradictory development, the landless determined the following as a principle of the MST: to never separate the economic dimension from the political dimension in the struggle for land and agrarian reform. They sought to develop the understanding that the struggle does not end with the conquest of land. This is only one stage. Thus, they simultaneously organize agricultural co-operation and the occupation of land, in technical and political formation. This conception leads the MST to act directly in technological training and education, and to concern itself with the socialization of the conquests, keeping in mind the quality of life of the settled families.

Primarily during the second half of the 1990s, the MST became known throughout Brazil as well as in a number of other countries. Still, unfortunately, this widespread recognition was more a result of the massacres the landless suffered than the realization of the movement's demands. In 1995, the Corumbiara massacre in Rondônia and, in 1996, the Eldorado dos Carajás massacre in Pará projected the Brazilian agrarian question and its main protagonists: the landless. On the other hand, the MST has also become well-known for the massive land occupations and the process of re-socialization of part of the population excluded by the model of agricultural economic development.

1995-1999 was the period during which most settlements were implanted in Brazil (see Table 1). It was also the period of the majority of land occupations in the country (see Table 2). The growth of occupations occurred principally due to the territorialization of the MST. From 1996 to 1998, the number of occupations grew by 50%, and the number of families increased by 21%. The organization of the social movements and the growth of unemployment in the countryside and the city forced the federal government to undertake a policy of rural settlements. The tendency of the occupations and the number of families is one of growth. The recession of the number of MST occupations and families is due to the accumulation of encamped families. On December 31, 1999, 67,704 families organized in the MST were encamped.

Table 1 -- Brazil -- Rural Settlements - 1979-1999





























Source: DATALUTA - Databank of the Struggle for Land - UNESP/MST.

Databases: INCRA - MST - ITESP - CPT.

Table 2

1996/1999 - Brazil - Number of occupations and families - MST participation




MST occupations


MST Families





































Source: DATALUTA: Databank of the Struggle for Land, 1999.

Databases: CPT - MST - INCRA. *until April. ** until May.

The Agrarian Question in Brazil at the Turn of the 21st Century

In fact, the MST has been struggling to transform the Brazilian agrarian question. Still, this change is in order to avoid the worst. The model of agricultural economic development implanted by the military governments (1964-1984) intensified land concentration with the expropriation and expulsion of small farmers. This was due to the fact that the model privileged capitalist producers at the expense of peasant producers. With technological development - mechanization, use of agricultural inputs - productivity was increased with the reduction of the area cultivated. During this process, unemployment grew in the countryside and the city, becoming a structural problem. Thus, the number of landless families increased at the same time that capitalist agriculture utilized less land. This reality makes it impossible to avoid land occupations and to contain the struggle for land, no matter how much the landlords develop discourses affirming that the occupations are an affront to private property. In truth, when an occupation takes place, it is the survival of the landless that is in question.

On the other hand, the price of land has been falling. Under these conditions, income from the land also decreases, encouraging landowners to sell their lands to the National Institute for Colonization and Agrarian Reform (INCRA) because it is more advantageous than keeping the land, with the risk of having it occupied by the landless. In addition, in order to avoid occupations, the Federal Government created the Land Bank, a way to mercantilize the agrarian question. The fact is that given the absence of an agrarian reform plan, palliative measures have been sought out, and all of them seek to avoid penalizing the agrarian elite that, with the sale of lands, transfers its capital to another sector of the economy.

No matter how much they attempt to stop occupations, criminalizing them and considering them only as political protests, in reality the State has only one way to avoid them: implement agrarian reform, which is its exclusive responsibility according to the constitution. As it fails to do so, the government attempts to incriminate the landless, passing laws that condemn those that occupy land, even though this has been the most effective means of guaranteeing the survival of their families.

In reality, in the confrontation between the exclusion caused by the agricultural economic development model and the resocialization caused by the implantation of the settlements resulting from occupations or government projects, the landless are losing. The exclusion is greater than the re-socialization. The number of families settled is still less than the number of dispossessed families. The area destined to the settlements is still less than the areas comprised by the latifundia. That is, the land concentration continues. Up to the present, neither the landless occupations nor the government projects have been sufficient to change the land tenure structure.

This process makes up part of the logic of the development of capitalism. In agriculture, the tendency is the destruction and re-creation of the peasantry. With economic development, there grows a differentiation between these farmers: a small part buys more land and contracts wage labor; a large part is impoverished, loses its land and goes to work as wage laborers; another intermediary part attempts to maintains itself between these two conditions. It is evident that the landless are from among the majority part.

Apart from unequal, this development is contradictory. For example, in the region of Pontal de Paranapanema, in the state of São Paulo, some ranchers rented lands to small producers for a determined period of time for the cultivation of cotton, manioc, corn, etc. Afterwards, the tenants had to turn over the land, planted with grass, to the owner. Instead of the landowners having to invest in order to plant grass for grazing cattle, they profit with the rental because they keep part of the income that was generated with the cultivation of crops and then have the replanted grasslands at no additional cost. These types of rentals re-create family labor. Another form of the re-creation of the peasantry is through the occupation of land, the action that has most intensified in Brazil.

Faced with this reality, the MST resists and struggles to transform the agrarian question. However, given the actual political circumstances, it is more a form of resistance than of transformation. Without the occupations and the conquest of land, the landless families would be in the peripheries of the cities, joining the countless other excluded.

In this sense, it is important to point out that the number of urban unemployed engaging in the struggle for land is increasing. In the state of São Paulo, the MST carried out land occupations exclusively with urban unemployed, fighting against the perception that only rural workers should be settled. Many of the participating families suffered with the rural exodus that took place between 1950 and 1980, when more than 30 million peasants migrated to the cities to work in industry and commerce. Today they are unable to find employment and part of this population cannot secure access to basic means of survival in the cities. Thus, many urban workers occupy the land and transform themselves into small farmers through the land occupations.

The implantation of the settlements has an important socio-territorial impact, promoting local development. In these areas, the landless construct their own existence through the work and income generation. There exist many struggles after the conquest of the land: the struggles for agricultural credit, for education on the settlement, for housing, for roads, for public transportation, for electricity, for health care, etc., that lead to the improvement of the quality of life of the settled families. The conquest of land is the essential condition for the advancement of this struggle for citizenship. Thus, the landless contribute to the growth of family agriculture. And in doing so they cut the fences of the latifundia and the old rigid thesis that defends the end of family agriculture as an inevitable tendency of the development of capitalism.

During the past decade, the MST created a network of co-operatives in all regions of Brazil, and it founded the Confederation of Agrarian Reform Co-operatives of Brazil (CONCRAB). It also founded schools, created primary and secondary education courses, and built partnerships with diverse universities for the realization of higher education courses, for technical and political formation. It amplified, in this way, its participation in the agrarian question, elaborating studies that propose another model of development for the agricultural sector. In this sense, it advanced in the political and economic struggles at the same time that it suffered attacks from other institutions, principally those of the government and of landlords. In reality, what is in question is the political project of development for Brazil.

On the one hand, the government and the landlords want to maintain the old economic model of exclusion of the workers. On the other hand, there is a proposal that discusses the democratic participation of the workers and a project of development for agriculture and the country in general. Still, in the history of Brazil, the majority of the population has always been at the margins of political decision-making. Clientelistic politics covered this marginalization with a pseudo-democratic discourse. But each time this population protested, breaking with the rooted conception of dependency, the State responded with violence and left it to the media to construct the idea that those who revolt are the ones that are violent. This is what happened with the principle peasant revolts, and the pattern was repeated during the protests of Indigenous Brazilians and the landless in Porto Seguro, during the week of April 22, 2000, when the federal government commemorated the "500 years of the discovery of Brazil."

In this sense, the MST makes the elites uncomfortable. During the month of May, 2000, the Movement suffered one of the most ferocious attacks of the media and the government. The government accused the Movement, that had occupied public buildings in the principle capital cities of the country, of "putting democracy at risk," and it ordered the arrests of various leaders. In truth, what is in question is not democracy, which is also supported by the social movements, but instead a model of economic development that offers no future prospects for workers.

There is no way to avoid agrarian reform. There is no way to continue postponing this process that has dragged on for centuries. The experiences constructed during these twenty years, through the land occupations and the implantation of settlements, are lessons that help to project the possiblity of a better future for the countryside and, thus, for Brazil.


Benjamin, César, ed. A opção brasileira. Rio de Janeiro: Contraponto, 1998.

Fernandes, Bernardo Mançano. A formação do MST no Brasil. Petrópolis: Editora Vozes, 2000.

Stédile, João Pedro and Fernandes, Bernardo Mançano. Brava gente. Buenos Aires: Associación Madres de la Plaza de Mayo - Revista América Libre, 2000.

Martins, José de Souza. O poder do atraso. São Paulo: Hucitec, 1994.

Editors Note:Bernardo Mançano Fernandes, Professor, Department of Geography, Faculty of Science and Technology - UNESP - (Universidade Estadual Paulista), Presidente Prudente Campus. Coordinator of NERA (Núcleo de Estudos, Pesquisas e Projetos de Reforma Agrária/ Nucleus for Studies, Research and Projects on Agrarian Reform), which hosts the Dataluta (Banco de Dados da Luta pela Terra/ Database on the Struggle for the Land). Member of Education Sector of the MST. Member of the board of the Associação dos Geógrafos Brasileiros - AGB (Association of Brazilian Geographers), 1986-1994. Author of MST: Formação e territorialização (Editora Hucitec) and A formação do MST no Brasil (Editora Vozes). PhD obtained at the University of São Paulo (USP).


November 2002

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