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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)


Occupation as a form of access to land


The model of agricultural development implemented in Brazil since the 1960s has intensified the concentration of land-tenure, with the expropriation and the expulsion of millions of families from the country. Thus, over the last two decades, the occupation of latifundia has become the main action of landless families and an important form of access to land, in that it pressures the government in the disappropriation of latifundia and in rendering effective a policy of rural settlements. As a form of intervention by workers in the political and economic process of expropriation, occupations force an agrarian reform that the government has elaborated but failed to implement withthe Land Statute (1964) and the National Agrarian Reform Plan (1986). Occupation is thus part of a movement of resistance and of defense of the workers’ interests, aiming at the production and reproduction of family labor, co-operation, the creation of agricultural policies for the development of peasant agriculture and the generation of public policies destined for the basic rights of citizenship. By means of occupations, the landless spatialize the struggle, conquer land and territorialize the Landless Rural Workers Movement MST. It is a complex socio-spatial and political process developed as a form of resistance of the peasantry, built upon the experiences of popular struggle against the hegemonic power of capital.

Occupation, as a form of struggle and access to land, is a constant in the history of the Brazilian peasantry. From the beginning of their formation, the peasants, in their process of creation and re-creation, have occupied land. Over the past four decades, the settlers (posseiros) and the landless have been the principal subjects of this struggle. The posseiros the peasants that possess land but do not own it, for which it is necessary to have possession and dominion through a property certification that in Brazil is known as titling or escritura occupy lands predominantly at the edges or fronts of expansion, in frontier areas. With the advancement of the frontier, there occur processes of expropriation of these peasants, developed primarily by landgrabbing (grilagem) by large landowners and businesspeople (grilagem is the act by which landowners falsify documents to take possesion of and legalize areas of public land). The landless occupy lands predominantly in regions where capital has already been territorialized. They occupy latifundia capitalist properties lands of commerce and exploitation lands forfeited or grabbed with no legal claim. The struggles for fractions of territory the settlements represent a process of territorialization in the conquest of land for work against land for commerce and exploitation. This difference is fundamental because the grileiro (landgrabber), the landlord, and the businessperson eventually arrive where the posseiros are. The landless are, or are arriving where the landgrabber, the landlord and the businessperson already are. Since the mid-1980s, when the MST territorialized throughout Brazil, the landless workers, along with the posseiros, small farm owners, sharecroppers, renters and contracted farmers intensified the process of the formation of the Brazilian peasantry.

Within this scenario, occupation of unproductive latifundia is a form of re-socialization of the landless worker, an important process of creation and re-creation of the peasantry.

To criminalize occupations is to avoid dealing with the socio-political and economic problems they represent. It is to condemn landless families that are struggling for the re-creation of their existences as workers. It is to accept the interests of the large landowners and the process of intensification of land-tenure concentration. It is necessary to understand that occupation is an action resulting from needs and expectations, that it introduces questions, creates facts and reveals situations. It is apparent that this set of elements modifies reality, increasing the flux of social relations. It is the workers challenging the State, which always represented the interests of the rural bourgeoisie and the capitalists in general. For this reason, the State only presents policies that attenuate the processes of expulsion and exploitation, under intense pressure from the workers.

The intensification of land occupations had great political impact, such that the landless became the main interlocutors in their confrontation with the State in the struggle for land and agrarian reform. These rural and urban workers are struggling for land in all regions of the country.

Such a reality requires theoretical studies that contribute to the understanding of the phenomenon. Our objective in this paper is to analyze this extraordinary form of popular struggle; the groundwork involved in the organization of an occupation; the processes, types and ways of occupying; the encampments as spaces for struggle, resistance and transformation of reality; the meaning of occupations for the current policies of settlements and the actions of the federal government in attempting to impede the territorialization of the struggle for land developed by the MST and other social movements. Throughout the text, I offer an analytical construction of the processes of (re)creation of the peasantry through these forms of struggle and resistance against exploitation and exclusion, further providing data on the origin of settlements in the intensified struggle for land in some states in Brazil.

Presenting occupation as a form of access to land, I understand it as an action of resistance inherent to the formation of the peasantry within the contradictory process of capitalist development, because:

capital does not expand wage work, its typical labor relationship, everywhere in an absolute manner, destroying totally and absolutely peasant family labor. On the contrary, capital creates and re-creates it, so that its production is possible and with it there may be as well the creation of new capitalists. (Oliveira, 199, p.20)

In this reality in which creation and re-creation are developed, there occurs exclusion in the process of differentiation of the peasantry. This process does not necessarily lead to proletarianization or the transformation of the peasant into a capitalist, resulting in the so-called disintegration of the peasantry (Lenin, 1985, p.35 and Kautsky, 1986, p.149). It also leads to the re-creation of the peasantry through different forms. One is by the subjection of income from land to capital that happens "with the subordination of peasant production to capital that dominates and expropriates income from the land and, in addition, expropriates practically all of the surplus produced, reducing the income of the peasant to the minimum necessary for his/her physical reproduction". (Oliveira, 1991, p.11). Thus, the movement of the formation of the peasantry occurs simultaneously through the exclusion and through the generation of the conditions for the realization of family labor in the creation, destruction, and re-creation of social relations such as peasant ownership of land, squatting, rental, sharecropping, and contract farming.

The struggle for land is a constant struggle against capital. Occupation and conquest of the land are a form of materialization of class conflict. In its amplified reproduction, capital cannot contract everyone, and it always excludes a large part of the workers. In the same way, within Brazilian reality, capital, in its contradictory process of reproduction of non-capitalist relations, does not re-create the peasantry with the same intensity as it excludes it. Thus, by means of the land occupation, they re-insert themselves into the ‘capitalist production of non-capitalist relations of production’ (Martins, 1981). Those expropriated and exploited by the uneven development of capitalism make use of the land occupation as a form of reproduction of family labor. Thus, in resistance to the process of exclusion, the workers create a political form in order to re-socialize themselves, struggling for land and against proletarianization. It is the struggle against expropriation and exploitation, against exclusion caused by the capitalists and/or the landowners.

The territorialization of capital means the de-territorialization of the peasantry and vice-versa. It is evident that these processes are not linear, nor separate, and they contain a contradiction because in the territorialization of one is contained the production and reproduction of the other. Within the process of territorialization of capital, there is the creation, destruction, and re-creation of family labor. Through the territorialization of the peasantry, wage labor and the capitalist are produced. The advances and retreats of these processes within a territory are determined by a set of political and economic factors. I will highlight a number of those factors that have been determinants for the formation of the current rural question in Brazil.

1. Grassroots work, spatialization, and negotation

The organization of an occupation results from the needs of survival. It stems from the consciousness constructed within the lived reality. It is, therefore, an apprenticeship in a historical process of construction of experiences of resistance. When a group of families begins to organize with the objective of occupying land, it develops a set of procedures that take form, defining a methodology of popular struggle. This experience has its logic constructed in praxis. This logic has as constitutive components indignation and revolt, necessity and interests, consciousness and identity, experience and resistance, the concept of land for work rather than land for commerce and exploitation, movement and overcoming.

In the formation of the MST, the landless have created distinct methodologies of struggle. They are procedures of resistance developed in the trajectory of the struggle. These actions are differentiated throughout Brazil. In the spatialization of the struggle for land, the spaces of political socialization can occur in distinct moments, with greater or lesser frequency. The encampments are of diverse types: permanent or determined by one group of families. The forms of pressure and negotiation are distinct, according to the political conjuncture. These practices are the result of the knowledge of experiences, of exchanges and reflection on them, as well as the situations in which the fractions of territories are located, in different regions of Brazil. The elements that compose the methodologies are the formation, organization, tactics of struggle and negotiations with the State and the landowners, all with their starting point in grassroots work. The Base Ecclesial Communities (CEBs), rural workers unions, schools, and even homes are some of the principle social places and spaces where grassroots organizing meetings take place. The grassroots efforts may be the result of the spatialization or spatiality of the struggle for land. They are always born from the very needs of the communities.

Spatialization is a process of concrete movement of the action in its reproduction in space and territory. In this manner, the grassroots efforts may be organized by people who came from elsewhere, where they constituted their experiences. For example, one or more landless from one state may move to other regions of the country to organize landless families. And, in this manner, they create the Movement in its territorialization.

Spatiality is a continuous process of an action upon reality. It is the dimensioning of the meaning of an action. Thus, the people of that very place begin the grassroots work because they heard about, saw or read about land occupations or, that is, they became aware through a variety of means expression: spoken, written, newspapers, television, etc. And so they begin the struggle for land, constructing their experiences.

Therefore the grassroots efforts are carried out in different places and under distinct conditions. They occur through the construction of the space of political socialization. This space involves three dimensions: communicative space, interactive space, and the space of struggle and resistance.

Communicative space is constructed from the first meetings. It is the first moment of meeting and learning about each other and defining the objectives; of knowing why they are in that place, their motives and interests; of elaborating the cause of their revolt and indignation attitudes and feelings that will determine the time and means to occupy land. It is the beginning of an experience of transformation of their realities.

Interactive space is a continuous process of learning. Depending on the methodology it is realized before, during, or after the land occupation. In the development of these practices, a form of social organization is constructed. The interactive space is a continuous process of apprenticeship. The meaning of the interaction is located in the exchanges of experiences, in the knowledge of life trajectories, in the conscientization of the condition of expropriated and exploited, in the construction of landless identity. The content of the grassroots meetings is the recuperation of life histories associated with the development of the rural question. Thus, life is experienced as a producer of interactions. They make their analyses of the conjuncture, of the relationships of political forces, of the formation of articulations and alliances for political and economic support. In this way, they develop subjective conditions by means of interests and will, recognizing their rights and participating in the construction of their destinies. They come face to face with the objective conditions of the struggle against landlords and their hired gunmen, and with the confrontation with police and the State.

This is a process of political formation, generator of the militancy that strengthens the social organization. All of these processes, practices and procedures put the people in movement, in the construction of the consciousness of their rights, in an effort to overcome the condition of expropriated and exploited. The overcoming of their realities begins with deliberation regarding participation in the land occupation. This decision has its basis in the understanding that only with this action will they be able to find a solution for the state of misery in which they live. They then must decide which land to occupy. The latifundia are numerous and it is not difficult to locate them. Various information sources on the location of lands that are not fulfilling their social function exist, from the knowledge the communities possess of the many latifundia, by which they are often surrounded, to information obtained through diverse governmental and non-governmental organizations working on the agrarian question.

Then the contours of the space of struggle and resistance are defined. Once the land is identified, the only decision remaining is when to occupy. It is through the effective occupation of the latifundium that the landless present themselves to the public and dimension the space of political socialization, intervening in reality and constructing the space of struggles and resistance, whether occupying the land or camping on the sides of the highways.

Participation in an occupation is not a simple decision. After all, in addition to experience, it means the transformation of one's own life. For this reason, often for some families there is indecision and fear. In order to overcome fear it is necessary to trust the people that comprise and co-ordinate the Movement. Thus, while defending an occupation, a leader has the responsibility of presenting ideas and references that will enable an overcoming of any doubts. These are arguments developed in the grassroots meetings, in the dimensioning of the space of political socialization. In this context, the coordinators, the priests, the union leaders become important references for indecisive workers. Another means of reassurance are visits to existing encampments and settlements, or when settled families give testimony of their struggles. Still, many remain on the sidelines, observing, and only go to the encampment after the occupation has been realized. These attitudes end up generating an internal debate, as many families complain that they feel like cannon fodder. There are also those who are known as "swallows" (andorinhas), those that appear once in a while at the encampment. They are an expression of indecision or opportunism. There are also those that participate in various groups of families, assisting with the realization of various occupations, until they themselves decide to occupy.

The grassroots meetings are generative spaces of subjects constructing their own existences. These meetings may last from one to many months or even years, depending on the circumstances. They may involve a municipality, various municipalities of a micro-region, various municipalities of various micro-regions, or even more than one state in border areas. During the dictatorship, these meetings had to be organized with a great deal of secrecy, due to repression. With the territorialization of the struggle and the growth of the participation of families, these meetings multiplied and no longer were meetings of dozens but of hundreds of families. This growth also brought problems. Police and gunmen began to infiltrate meetings to spy on their development and interrupt the struggle. These spies often are never discovered, and the occupation ends up frustrated. In order to avoid this, the leaders resort to informing the co-ordinators of groups of families of the day and place of the occupations only hours before their taking place. On the other hand, the growth of the occupations results not only from the organization of the landless but also from the growth of forms of support. Increasingly, the families that participate in these meetings receive support from urban communities and rural settlements as well as from prefects that offer transportation even for participation in the occupation.

During this process, the co-ordinators attempt to negotiate with the State the settlement of the families. Promises and compromises, that for the most part are never realized, are always the answers they receive. With the knowledge of experience, they learn that they must construct the conditions necessary to win the land, participating in the creation of commissions, nuclei, sectors, and co-ordinations. They are part of the form of organization in the Movement. Each one composed of groups of people responsible for the diverse needs of the families, beginning with food and the provision of education for children, adolescents, and adults. They create commissions in order to accompany the progress of negotiations with the other institutions and to inform the society of their actions; nuclei and co-ordinations in order to maintain the encampment informed and organized; education and health sectors, and so on. In the MST, these tasks are realized by diverse sectors, with the "Front of Masses" responsible for grassroots work and the development of actions.

The landless workers are the main subjects of this process. From the beginning of the struggle, they have received the support of different institutions, through alliances that form a political articulation. The institutions involved defend occupation as a form of access to land. During the twenty years of formation of the MST, in different circumstances, it has received support from the Pastoral Land Commission (CPT), the Workers Party (PT) and other political parties, and a diversity of other organizations. Still, the relationships within the articulation have always generated certain political collisions, due to the different conceptions of the roles that the parts of the alliances have in the development of the struggle for land. Some of the issues involved in this clash are related to the autonomy of the workers. Often, the organizations attempt to interfere in the decisions of the workers, failing to recognize their respective competencies. This happens, for example, when they attempt to co-ordinate the struggles, trying to represent the workers and arguing that the MST should only support the landless when in fact the landless are those that make up the Movement.

The clash also occurs due to different conceptions of struggle. These are extremely differentiated in all regions of the country. There are conceptions favorable to defensive postures and others that support offensive postures in the realization of occupations, understood as different forms of resistance to the actions of police and gunmen. The more defensive postures privilege non-confrontation, opting only for negotiation, while the offensive postures privilege negotiation and confrontation. The overcoming of the disagreement occurs through the recognition of the autonomy of the workers and the competencies of each institution. In the formation of the MST, this was possible only after the rupture and re-establishment of relations, through the lessons constructed in the struggles. This was, for all organizations involved in the struggle, a learning process. In different forms, there has always persisted the idea that occupation is the solution.

Until the mid-1990s, the landless confronted this issue. After years of tension, the institutions recognized the experiences and autonomy of the landless. Thus, these landless peasants speak their own languages, winning the respect and admiration of some and the aversion of others. It was the incessant struggle for political autonomy that greatly contributed to the spatialization and territorialization of the MST throughout Brazil. In this sense, the MST is not the result of a proposal of a political party, nor is it the fruit of a proposal or policy of the Church, nor is it a labor movement, although it has received support from a conjugation of these political forces. The MST is a reality that developed out of the unequal logic of the capitalist mode of production. The MST is the fruit of this reality, not of these institutions.

2. Processes of occupation: types and forms spatialization and territorialization

Taking as a reference the analytical approach in Eric Hobsbawm's ‘Peasant Land Occupations’, I intend to reflect on the question of occupations. In this work, the author, using the above expression, points to the component land. In this essay, I utilize other components, such as family and experiences. In this manner, the types of occupation are related to the ownership of land public, capitalist, by non-governmental organizations to the forms of organization of the families and to the types of experiences they construct. I work with the expressions, types and forms, attempting to understand the processes of development of the land occupation and to deepen my reflections with respect to the processes of spatialization and territorialization of the struggle for land.

Hobsbawm points to three types of occupations: a) recuperation or reconquered lands for work lands that were occupied for decades by peasants but ended up being contested due to the territorialization of capital in the expropriation of peasant families; b) forfeited lands, when the peasants occupy land pertaining to the state in frontier areas which in the end was grabbed by landlords; and c) occupation of latifundia. In this study, Hobsbawm is primarily concerned with occupations of the first type, which are also relevant in Brazil, especially in the Amazon region where part of the settlers’ lands was appropriated and seized by landlords and businessmen. Nevertheless, in Brazil, the occupations of forfeited and/or public lands and the occupations of latifundia predominate. These have been important forms of access to the land.

With respect to the form of organization of the groups of families, there are two types: isolated movements and territorialized movements. The meanings of the isolated movements and the territorialized movements have as a reference the social organization and the geographic space.

I understand as an isolated movement a social organization that is realized in a determined territorial base. They are those that are organized in a municipality or a small group of municipalities in order to carry out an occupation and that have their territory of actuation defined by circumstances inherent to the movements. That is, they are born in different points of geographic space, in struggles of resistance. They spring up in latifundium lands through the spatiality of the struggle. These movements receive support from one or more parishes, through pastorals or not, from unions, parties, etc. However, their territorial base of action is limited by the action of the movement. Failing to overcome these circumstances, the isolated movements are extinguished. The perspective of territorialization is related to its form of socio-political organization. When the movement is the result of immediate interests of the community, defended by personalist leaders and populist practices that create relationships of dependency, the tendency is the exhaustion of the movement. Overcoming this condition, it may become a territorialized movement, organizing actions beyond its original territorial base, or it may attach itself to a territorialized organization. It was in this way that recent social movements of the struggle for land developed.

The territorialized movements are constructed by the workers, and their structures can take two forms: social movement or labor movement. These movements receive support from different institutions, in isolation or combination, through articulations or alliances, as political or economic support. The social movement may receive support and/or be attached to a Pastoral of the Catholic Church. Like the labor movement, it may receive the support of labor unions, political parties or non-governmental organizations. These are the institutions that have supported the struggle for land, principally the occupations. The territorialized or socio-territorial movement is organized and acts in different places at the same time, made possible by its form of organization that permits the spatialization of the struggle to conquer new fractions of territory, multiplying itself in the process of territorialization. An example of a socio-territorial movement is the MST.

When the movements contemplate broader objectives that are not only to resolve their own problems but to insert themselves in a larger process of struggle, and the leaders promote spaces of political socialization for the formation of new leaderships and experiences, the tendency is the continued development of the form of organization, spatialization and territorialization. In this manner, frequently, they work not only on their own problems, but also carry forward the dimension of the struggle for land, organizing new groups of families, inaugurating new places, spatializing and territorializing the movement and the struggle. Every socio-territorial movement is born of one or more isolated social movements. As a matter of fact, they are interactive processes; thus spatialization creates territorialization and is reproduced in it.

In this sense, it can be affirmed that the socio-territorial movements possess a political dimension that overcomes the limits of quotidian problems and issues of place. For a movement to territorialize, it is necessary to understand the logic of capitalist society, its inequalities and contradictions. Territorialization, in this case, means moving beyond, as much in terms of space as in terms of time, always with the perspective of the construction of a new reality.

The occupations realized by these movements may be developed by means of the following types of experiences: spontaneous and isolated, organized and isolated, organized and spatialized. The experiences are always forms of struggle and resistance because they inaugurate a space in the struggle for land that is the encampment. With respect to the number of families involved, they may be small or large groups.

Isolated and spontaneous occupations occur primarily with small groups in a singular action of survival when some families occupy an area without configuring a form of social organization. They enter the land in groups and then, by necessity, begin to constitute a social movement. The characteristic of spontaneity is located in the fact of not having a prior concern with the construction of a form of organization, which ends up happening or not in the process of occupation. These occupations may result in an isolated social movement.

The isolated and organized occupations are realized by isolated social movements from one or more municipalities. The formation of small groups predominates, but massive occupations have also occurred. The families form the movement before occupying the land. They organize grassroots tasks, holding various meetings until the consumation of the fact. The tendencies of these movements are the following: they end after the conquest of the land or they transform into territorialized movements.

These two types of occupation are fruits of the spatiality and territoriality of the land struggle. These types differ from occupations realized by socio-territorial movements that execute organized and spatialized occupations. These are experiences of struggle that result from experiences brought from other places. They are contained within a broader political project and can make up part of an agenda of struggles. The meaning of spatialization has as a reference the participation of workers that already have lived the experience of occupation in diverse places and regions, and as militants they spatialize these experiences, working with the organization of new occupations, territorializing the struggle and the movement in the conquest of new fractions of territory the settlement the land for work. It is within this process that they are educated, in a constant remaking, or, to use the expression of Thompson (1987), making oneself in social movements, constructing their spaces and their times, transforming their realities.

With the diagram below, I attempt to illustrate the ideas presented in this analysis.

The experience of occupation in the process of territorialization is an apprenticeship. It is in the construction of knowledge of the realities of the groups of families and referential struggles that they learn to make their own struggle. Referential struggles are those that they have been told about or that they have known. The socio-territorial movements, in their processes of formation, multiply their actions and begin to undertake various occupations in a short period of time or at the same time. In the entretanto (a set of intervals) during the negotiation process of these occupations to establish settlements they undertake new occupations, in a continuous spatialization and territorialization. Because of this, we define the entretanto (meantime) as an important interval of time, when during the struggle another begins to be born. Thus, it is possible to intensify the number of occupations, mobilizing and organizing more and more families. In this sense, the occupation is a socio-spatial process, it is a collective action, it is a socio-political investment of the workers in the construction of their consciousness of resistance to the process of exclusion. And, in this way, the occupations and the number of participants are multiplied.

The process of territorialization strengthened the movements because it permitted the spatialization of experiences that contributed greatly to the advance of the struggle in other states and regions. Spatialized experiences speed up the organization because the groups of families work from these lived and evaluated experiences. In this sense, the beginning of a struggle has as references other struggles and conquests. And so, upon achieving their conquests, territorializing themselves, they will have their struggles related in the spatialization of the movement. Thus, they continue constructing their histories, their existences.

In the course of their experiences, the landless end up combining various forms of struggle. These occur separately from, or simultaneously to, land occupations. They include marches or demonstrations, occupations of public buildings and protests in front of credit agencies. These acts intensify the struggles and increase the power or pressure of the landless in negotiations with different government organs. Equally, they expose their realities, receiving support and criticisms of public opinion and diverse sectors of society. The marches and demonstrations are forms of political protest produced in spatialization and producers of spatialities.

Through the development of the procedures of activist practices, in the processes of spatialization and territorialization, it is possible to define two types of occupation: occupation of a determined area and mass occupation. The main difference between these types is in the fact that, with the first, a single area may be occupied, by small groups or even larger groups, massifying the struggle. In the second, the mobilization and organization have as a goal the settlement of all the landless families, occupying as many areas as necessary.

In the first type, the occupation is realized with the objective of acquiring only the occupied land. Thus, the families are mobilized and organized to demand the occupied land. If there are more families than can be settled in that area, they begin a new action to gain access to another area. Each occupation results in the establishment of a settlement. The logic of the organization of the families is to mobilize according to the areas demanded.

This logic changes with mass occupations. In this case, the landless overcome the condition of remaining constrained by the size of the demanded area. The meaning of the occupation is no longer only the conquest of a determined area and becomes the settlement of all the families, such that the occupation may result in various settlements. This form of occupation intensified and territorialized the struggle. The main criteria for the settlement of families is no longer the territorial limit, but instead the time and the forms in which the families participate in the struggle. Thus, as they conquer fractions of territory, more families are joined with the groups of remaining families.

An occupation of a determined area may transform into a mass occupation, not only by the number of families that participate, but also by the unfolding of the struggle. This happens when, after winning access to the demanded land, they become aware of other groups of areas that can be demanded and also consider the possibility of joining diverse groups of families in the same occupation. Thus, it is important to point out that massification does not only involve quantity but also quality. This is determined by the dimensioning of the space of political socialization, principally in the strengthening of interactive space that happens by means of diffusion of nuclei, sectors, and commissions, as a way of strengthening the movement. In these spaces, the families begin to work more intensely on their needs and perspectives, such as food, healthcare, education, negotiation, etc.

With these practices, the landless meet with each other in movement. They overcome territorial bases and official borders. In the organization of the mass occupations, families from various municipalities and from more than one state in border areas join together. In this manner, they break with localisms and other strategies based in interests that they see as impeding or making more difficult the development of the workers’ struggle. Thus, the criteria for selection of the families to be settled cannot remain restricted to the origins of the families. The people who make up the selection committees need to consider as criteria, among those determined by the government, the history of the struggle.

In the execution of the occupations, the landless may realize different forms of establishing themselves on the land. There are cases in which they occupy a strip of land and begin with negotiations, demanding the disappropriation of the area. There are other experiences in which they occupy the land, divide it into lots and begin to work. In others, they demarcate a single area and plant collectively. These practices are the result of the development of the organization of the landless. They are forms of resistance that assert the notion of land for work versus land for exploitation.

The processes of spatialization and territorialization diminish and may end when the landless families conquer all of the latifundia of one or more municipalities. Thus is brought to a close what we call the cycle of the occupations. This cycle begins with the first occupations and lasts as long as there exists land to be conquered.

No matter how much one plans, the spatialization of the struggle through the occupation of land is always a ‘becoming’. It contains the meaning of all the possible, incessant transformations, when the constructed conjunctures are dissolved or connected, forming new conjunctures, expanding or retreating. Thus, no matter how much the landless have constructed diverse experiences, the spatialization of an occupation is never a competely known fact, nor is it completely unknown.

3. The encampments: spaces of struggles and resistance

To be encamped is to be landless with the objective of becoming settled. There are thus two categories of an identity in formation. The encampments are the result of decisions based upon desires and interests, aiming at the transformation of reality. They are spaces and times of transition in the struggle for land. They are, consequently, realities in transformation. They are forms of materialization of the organization of the landless and they embody the main organizational elements of the movement. As predominately the result of occupations and, thus, spaces of struggles and resistance, they demarcate within the latifundia the first moments of the process of territorialization of the struggle.

The encampments may be located within a latifundium or on the sides of a highway, according to the political conjuncture and the correlation of forces. They may be the first actions of the families, or they may be the repeated reproduction of this action. There are cases in which the encampment is the place of mobilization to press the government in the disappropriation of land. Still, through their experiences, the landless understand that camping without occupying will only rarely result in the conquest of land. The occupation of the land is the trump card in the negotiations. Many campers remain for years on the sides of the highways without ever being settled. Only with the occupation have they achieved success in the struggle.

At first glance, the encampments appear to be disorganized groupings of shacks. However, they reveal certain arrangements according to the topography of the site and the conditions of development of resistance to eviction and the prospect of confrontation with gunmen. They may be located in valley bottoms or on ridges. The arrangements of the encampments are predominantly circular or linear. In these sites there often exist spaces where the landless plant their gardens, establish a ‘school’ and ‘pharmacy’, as well as the location for assemblies.

Upon organizing an encampment, the landless create diverse commissions or teams that give form to the organization. Entire families or some of their members participate, creating the basic conditions for meeting their necessities: healthcare, education, security, negotiation, work, etc. In this manner, the encampments frequently have schools or, that is, plastic-covered shacks in which classes are held, primarily the first four grades of primary education; they have a tent or shack that functions as an improvised ‘pharmacy’, and, when located in a latifundium, they plant collectively in order to guarantee part of the foods they need. When on the side of a highway, they plant between the road and the fence. When next to settlements, the encamped work on the lots of the already settled, as daily wage laborers or in different forms of sharecropping. They also sell their labor as migrant workers to sugar or alcohol mills or other capitalist enterprises, or to ranchers.

During the 1980s, the encamped received food, clothing, and medicine principally from the communities and institutions supporting the struggle. Since the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s, with the growth of the number of settlements, these as well began to contribute to the struggle in various ways. Many loaned trucks for the realization of occupations, tractors for the preparation of the land, and food for the encamped population. This support is more significant when the settled families are joined together in a co-operative. This is a sign of the organicity of the MST. With the growth of support from communities, institutions, and settlements, and with the consolidation of the MST, the landless have been able to intensify the number of occupations and develop resistance so as to be able to carry out dozens of simultaneous occupations.

In the second half of the 1990s, in some states, the MST began to experience what it called the permanent or open encampment. This encampment is established in a region where many latifundia exist. It is a space of struggle and resistance where many families from diverse municipalities are directed and organized. From this permanent encampment, the landless leave for various occupations, where they may be able to settle, or, in the case of eviction, from which they can return to the encampment. Also, as they continue to gain title to land, they continue to mobilize and organize new families that then make up the encampment. As we have affirmed, the encampment takes place in the process of spatialization of the struggle, inaugurating the territorialization. When organizing the land occupation, the landless promote a concrete action of immediate repercussion. This action is political and is effected as an act of resistance, as a condition for negotiation, the unfolding of which is conditioned by the establishment of the fact. The occupation places in question capitalist ownership of the land, in the process of the creation of family property.

The encampment is a place of constant mobilization. Apart from a space of struggle and resistance, it is an interactive and communicative one. These three dimensions of space of political socialization are developed in the encampment in different situations. At the beginning of the process of formation of the MST, in the 1980s, during different experiences of encampments, the families left for an occupation only after months of grassroots preparation. During this period, the landless visited communities, related their experiences, provoked debate and intensely developed the space of political socialization in its communicative and interactive dimensions. This procedure makes possible the establishment of a better-organized space of struggle and resistance, since the families are aware of the types of confrontations of the struggle. During its process of formation, through the very demands of the struggle, the MST constructed other experiences. Thus, during the grassroots efforts, the interactive dimensions were not developed and ended up developing in the space of struggle and resistance. Moreover, when there is a permanent or open encampment, the families can begin the struggle inaugurating the communicative space, developing the interactive space in the space of struggle and resistance. This is the case when the landless are struggling to win various estates and the families arrive at the encampment as others are being settled.

In the encampment, the landless periodically analyze the political conjuncture of the struggle. This political reading is facilitated for the socio-territorial movements because they are in permanent contact with their co-ordinating offices, so that they are able to make analyses from broad political references such as, for example, the negotiations that are occurring in the state capitals and Brasília. Thus, they associate forms of local struggle with those in the capitals. They occupy land many times as a form of pressure to open negotiations, and they stage marches to the cities, occupy public buildings, organize protests and meetings, etc. Through the correspondence between these spaces of activism in the countryside and the city, there is always a determination of one over the other. The local realities are very diverse, such that the realities of the families that are engaged in the struggle tend to predominate in the final decisions. Thus, the political lines of actuation are constructed from these parameters. And the representative moments of the MST carry this spatiality and this logic, since a member of the co-ordination or national directory participates in the process from the encampment to the broader scales: regional, state and national.

With these actions, counting on the support of political articulations, the landless seek to change the circumstances in order to stimulate the process of negotiation. Still, they are not always able to change the situation. When negotiations arrive at an impasse, violent confrontations can take place, such as, for example: the Praça da Matriz in Porto Alegre and the massacre at Eldorado dos Carajás.

All of the encampments have their histories in the struggles of the landless families. It is worth highlighting at least two of the historic encampments in the process of formation and territorialization of the MST: the encampment of Encruzilhada Natalino, in Ronda Alta, Rio Grande do Sul, and the encampment of the Capuchins, in Itamaraju, Bahia. These encampments suffered the most diverse forms of pressure from the government and the landlords but persisted and conquered the land. Today, they are references and examples of resistance. Guaranteeing the existence of the encampment by means of resistance, impeding the dispersion caused by different forms of violence, is fundamental for the success of the struggle for land reform.

Saving the occupation, with the transferal of families out of the latifundium but always with the guarantee of a place for the encampment, makes up part of the logic of resistance. When an eviction takes place the word despejo (eviction) in Portuguese also means to free oneself from impediments, so that people are treated like things, in an act of violence legitimated by the relegation of the struggle for land reform to the power of the judiciary (Fernandes, 1997; Moreyra, 1998) the families transfer the encampment to other areas such as the sides of highways or to lands ceded by city governments or other institutions. When they are expelled from the edges of highways, they mount encampments within nearby settlements those landless territories that are the expression of the conquest of land and resistance.

Sustaining the encampment is a form of pressure to demand the settlement. And this is one of the MST's practices, to guarantee the encampment until all of the families are settled. For the other movements, this practice is not as permanent. Often they negotiate a settlement with the government and, believing in the promises, the families return to their municipalities. Such that, evidently, the majority of settlements are not realized. It is not uncommon, too, that many families that remain encamped end up conceding for a number of reasons, principally lack of perspective and because of the violence of expulsions and gunmen.

For the federal government's politics on implantation of rural settlements, the encamped (and the families participating in grassroots work and being mobilized to occupy) are also a form of pressure and a contribution of the landless to the realization of the registration of the benefiting families, as well as to the intensification of the assessment of areas. This is indisputable proof that the actions of the federal and state governments derive from the actions of the social movements. Between the time of the encampment and the conquest of the settlement (that configures the territorialization), spatialization is developed.

Important actions in the process of struggle are pilgrimages and/or marches. The march is a necessity in order to expand the possibilities of negotiation, to establish new facts. In their teachings and lessons learned, through their experiences, the landless have had diverse historical references. Some examples used in the ‘mística’ (collective acts or rituals of meaning and identity production) of the movement are: the migration of the Jewish people to the promised land, in the struggle against slavery in Egypt; the march of Ghandi and the Hindus to the sea, in the struggle against British imperialism; the marches of the Mexican and Chinese revolutions, among others. In this manner, the landless occupy land, public buildings, and transform them into political spaces from which to denounce exploitation and expropriation, struggling to change their realities.

4. Occupation as a form of access to land

In little more than two decades of struggle, occupation has become an important form of access to land. Approximately 77% of the settlements implanted in the South and Southeast, in the states of Mato Grosso do Sul and Goiás, and the states of Ceará, Alagoas, Sergipe, and Pernambuco between 1986 and 1997 originated through land occupations, as can be observed in table 1.

Table 1 - 1986/1997 Number of settlements according to their origin






Rio Grande do Sul




Santa Catarina








São Paulo




Rio de Janeiro




Espírito Santo




Minas Gerais




Mato Grosso do Sul
























Source: DATALUTA, 1998.

It is clear that the interpretation of this data is necessarily linked to analyses made from the processes of spatialization and territorialization of this struggle, in which the MST has participated intensely. When the federal government claims to have settled hundreds of thousands of families, in truth this reality resulted primarily from the pressures caused by the land occupations, principally in the Northeast, Central West, Southeast and Southern regions of Brazil.

From 1995 to April 1999, 2,750 land reform settlements with 299,323 families were created. However, there were 1,853 occupations with 256,467 families participating, or, that is, proportionally the number of occupying families represents 85% of those settled. It is important to point out that part of what the government calls land reform settlements are, in fact, formal regulation of the lands of the settlers, if you recall the distinction between this category of rural workers and the landless.

For the Northeast and Central West, the number of occupying families represents proportionally 84% of the settled families. For the South and Southeast regions, they represent, respectively, 273% and 175%. That is, 45,845 families struggled for land in the South as the government settled 12,272. Of the 44,225 families that struggled for land in the Southeast, the settlements implanted benefited only 16,068 families. The most intense activity of the government occurred in the North, where it settled or regularized ownership of 98,657 families.

According to table 1, the state of Ceará is where the greatest number of government-created settlements is located. This is the result, in large part, of the policies of the state government and of the implementation of the Land Registration and Land Bank programs. Still, this data does not have the same correspondence in the states of Pernambuco and Minas Gerais, where these projects were also implemented. Moreover, in the states of the Southeast and South, where 24% of the total settlements implanted up to June, 1999 are located, approximately 92% of the settlements originated in land occupations.

In this sense, the struggle for land stimulated the rural settlement policies of the federal government. It is for this reason that we ask: What agrarian reform? (Fernandes, 1998). To call this reality agrarian reform is to interpret it in the language of the State and of the dominant classes. In fact, the settlements implanted are the result of the struggle for land, which has contributed to render effective the policies of rural settlements. And this is what many incorrectly call agrarian reform.

As demonstrated by these analyses, the agrarian question in Brazil will remain far from resolved as long as it is treated with compensatory policies. The struggle for democratization of access to land has been growing, as we have demonstrated throughout this paper. The land-tenure structure has remained concentrated, and the number of landless has grown, principally due to the growth of unemployment. According to recent studies by Gasques and Conceição, 1999, considering as the potential public for agrarian reform small farmers, renters, contracted farmers, occupants and wage workers, and taking as references the data of the 1995/1996 Agricultural Census, the researchers arrive at 4,514 million families. From this data, the researchers estimate the area needed for settlement, based upon the module in hectares for a family-sized landholding, as approximately 160 million hectares. From 1979 to June 1999, 475,801 families were settled. That is, the equivalent of 10.5% of the potential public, while the area represents 14%.

Without the implementation of a policy of agrarian reform that speeds up this process, the struggle for land will continue to develop through the actions of landless families. Thus, land occupation has become a form of access to land in Brazil. And through the processes of spatialization and territorialization, the workers construct the basic conditions of their existence, in the processes of the formation of the Brazilian peasantry.

5. The reaction of the Fernando Henrique Cardoso government

Government policies have been tied to the actions of peasant movements. Although the Cardoso government has implemented a policy of rural settlements, in fact it has not been able to slow the increase of land occupations. In the field of confrontation, the government understood that it would not be able to overcome the conditions of conflict constructed by the processes of spatialization and territorialization of the struggle for land. Thus, it was necessary to construct policies that would impede the expansion of these processes.

Still, during the 1990s, with the advancement of neo-liberal policies and, consequently, structural unemployment, the land occupations have intensified, passing from 11,000 families in 1991 to 79,000 families in 1999. Thus, the struggle for land has grown and unemployed urban workers have begun to participate as well. They are, in large part, families that in recent decades were expelled from the land and now are without prospects for employment in the city. They see in the rural settlements the conditions for a dignified life.

The government has always treated the agrarian question with compensatory policies, implanting settlements where the landless had occupied the latifundia. Since 1997, through agreements with the World Bank, the government has created policies, known as Land Registration and the Land Bank, for the buying and selling of land. It has also created "agrarian reform through the post office" in an effort to demobilize social movements and end their grassroots organization and occupations. Still, these policies have not been sufficient to de-concentrate the land-tenure structure. In reality, what we are witnessing is a process of implantation of rural settlements simultaneous to the intensification of land-tenure concentration, as can be observed in the agricultural census. In the attempt to control the agrarian question, impeding the growth of land occupations, the government has also created provisional decrees to criminalize the landless, refusing to disappropriate occupied lands for a period of two years and not settling families that participate in occupations.

This policy has made the landowning and capitalist classes stronger since it attempts to end occupations by means of criminalization of this action, with the struggle for agrarian reform pushed further into the judiciary branch of government. Also, in part, the government relieved itself of its responsibility and mercantilized the land question, further benefiting the landlords, who now receive money up front, strengthening their hand and weakening that of the workers. In this sense, the government created an enormous inequality in the political negotiations since the market ends up being the condition for access to land instead of actions of the workers and the intervention of the State. Thus, the implantation of the settlements the results of the land occupations, the tenure formalization of settlers’ lands, and the lands purchased through the Land Bank is what is denominated as "agrarian reform" by the government and some scientists that make up part of its intelligentsia.

In order to speak of agrarian reform, there needs to exist, in fact, a policy in this sense, a plan with objectives and goals for land-tenure de-concentration. The government has tried to solve conflicts in the countryside with some disappropriations and land purchases, responding to the pressures of landless families. If the families don’t occupy the land, there is no settlement. To call the actual settlement policies agrarian reform is to ignore the history of the struggle for land and, subsequently, its protagonists. Still, at the same time one family is settled, at least two are expropriated and expelled. Moreover, the over-appraisal of the disappropriations often enables the latifundium owner to acquire an area even larger than that transformed into a settlement. Thus, the implantation of the settlements grows simultaneously with land-tenure concentration. Therefore, it must be understood that the resolution to the squatting conditions of settlers is land-tenure regularization. And settlements implanted as the result of an occupation is the struggle for land. These policies and the purchase of land are not agrarian reform, and should not be designated as such.

To maintain the character of agrarian reform as a public policy for the democratization of land access, with the disappropriation and penalization of latifundium owners, as stipulated by constitutional law, is a question of demarcating theoretical and political territories. Because the debate today is not about whether or not to settle the families, but about how they will be settled. We can thus understand that the question of agrarian reform is losing force at the same time that other policies occupy that space, such as the Land Bank, and are called agrarian reform. Thus, the concept has been banalized and everything has become agrarian reform. In this context, in the media in general, the government produces propaganda affirming that it is doing one thing as it is doing something else.

Just as the government appropriates for itself concepts and attempts to transfigure them, it also tries to dominate political spaces, such as, for example, the establishment of public policies. In this space, many confrontations take place between the government and the MST. Logically, the landless seek to participate in the entire process of struggle. Thus, the policies generated by the government in any sector of the development of the settlements are important spaces to be occupied. This means working to advance principles, to struggle and construct new experiences. The challenge of the government is to impede the landless from participating in this way. Its objective is to insure that its program cannot be politically appropriated by the MST. For this reason, the government ended PROCERA The Special Credit Program for Agrarian Reform, and the technical assistance program, ‘Lumiar’. Without any alternative proposal, it left millions of farmers without technical assistance because this program was strengthening the workers.

The objective of the government is to control the struggle of rural workers, confining it to a determined political space, the space of capital. This is the strategic action of the government because it touches upon principles and attempts to destroy the values of a historical institution that is the peasantry. The theses developed by the intelligentsia of the government defending the subservient integration of the peasantry into capital contribute to this annihilation. Thus the expropriation of rural workers is not only the result of the unequal logic of capital, but also of the theories that enable the elaboration of policies to activate this process. With these policies, the government becomes the main adversary of the MST. In this confrontation between the government and the MST, rural conflicts have intensified. This conflict is of a selective form. In 2000 alone, the MST suffered approximately 180 trials, and 10 of its organizers were killed. From a qualitative analysis, it is evident that violence in the Brazilian countryside is centered on those that struggle for land and challenge the project of the government. This reality effectively reduced the number of occupations, a situation of which the government is proud. But it is important to point out that the reduction of occupations is related to the intensification of different forms of violence and the criminalization of the landless, with the closing circle of judicialization.

In the struggle for land, occupation is confirmation that dialogue is not impossible. Upon occupying the land, the landless come to the public and initiate negotiations, facing up to all the political forces. When they occupy political spaces, they demand their rights. When the government criminalizes these actions, it cuts dialogue and begins to give orders. It attempts to destroy the struggle for land without implementing agrarian reform. The struggle against capital is a form of resistance of the peasants. In order to break this perspective, the government attempts to treat the rural question exactly within the camp of the enemy: the territory of capital. It thus attempts to destroy the forms of struggle of the landless, exactly in the political dimension of the struggle for land. This means a political exclusion that may result in the intensification of the struggle or the subservience of social movements in the countryside, which may repress or eliminate the organization of the workers. This moment places in question, once again, the resistance of the peasant movements. At diverse moments of our history, forms to destroy the peasant movement were created by the government and the elite. This is what happened with Canudos, with the Peasant Leagues, and today there is a new political form. The peasantry is accepted as long as it is accepted as subaltern, in its destiny of subordination.

These new elements of the agrarian question place challenges before us. There still does not exist a more profound analysis of the problems and impasses that have been recently generated. Next year, the twentieth anniversary of the Encruzilhada do Natalino occupation will be celebrated, when the MST was in gestation. In the resistance that resulted in the cutting of the fence of the then Coronel Curió, accomplice to General Figueiredo, is to be found the meaning of the peasant struggle. From these forms of resistance, experiences and lessons will be harvested that will allow the cutting of the new fences that today are being built.


Fernandes, Bernardo Mançano. MST: formação e territorialização. São Paulo: Hucitec, 1996.

Fernandes, Bernardo Mançano. "A judiciarização da luta pela reforma agrária." In GEOUSP Revista de Pós-Graduação em Geografia. São Paulo: Departamento de Geografia da FFLCH-USP, 1997, p. 35-9.

Fernandes, Bernardo Mançano Fernandes. "Que Reforma Agrária ?" In A questão agrária na virada do século. Vol. II Mesas Redondas. XIV Encontro Nacional de Geografia Agrária. Presidente Prudente, 1998.

Fernandes, Bernardo Mançano. A formação do MST no Brasil. Petrópolis: Vozes, 2.000.

Gasques, José Garcia. Conceição, Júnia Cristina P. R. da. A demanda de terra para reforma agrária no Brasil. Rio de Janeiro:, 1999.

Hobsbawm, Eric. Pessoas Extraordinárias. São Paulo: Paz e Terra, 1998.

Kautsky, Karl. A questão agrária. São Paulo: Nova Cultural, (1899) 1986.

Lenin, Vladimir Ilyich. O desenvolvimento do capitalismo na Rússia. São Paulo: Nova Cultural, (1899) 1985.

Martins, José de Souza. Os camponeses e a política no Brasil. Petrópolis: Vozes, 1981.

Moreyra, Sérgio Paulo. As novas caras da violência no campo brasileiro. In Conflitos no campo Brasil 97. Goiânia: CPT, 1998, p. 7-21.

Oliveira, Ariosvaldo Umbelino de. A agricultura camponesa no Brasil. São Paulo: Contexto, 1991.

Stedile, João Pedro e Fernandes Bernardo Mançano. Brava gente: a trajetória do MST e a luta pela terra no Brasil. São Paulo: Fundação Perseu Abramo, 1999.

Thompson, Edward H. A formação da classe operária inglesa. Rio de Janeiro: Paz e Terra, 1987.

Tho mpson, Edward H. Costumes em comum estudos sobre a cultura popular tradicional. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 1998.

1 For example, Decree 35.852 of the Government of the State of São Paulo. In its article 1, § 1 determines that families not residing at least two years in the region cannot be settled.

2 Among the criteria determined by the government are: to be a rural worker, not be a landowner or a public functionary, etc.

3 Rare examples are the municipalities of Mirante do Paranapanema, São Paulo, Ronda Alta, Rio Grande do Sul, and Pontão, Rio Grande do Sul, where the landless conquered the majority of the latifundia.

4 See Fernandes, 2000.

5 See: Stedile, João Pedro and Fernandes, Bernardo Mançano. Brava Gente: a trajetória do MST e a luta pela terra no Brasil. São Paulo: Editora Fundação Perseu Abramo, 1999, p. 149-155.

6 See Fernandes, 2000.

7 Idem.

8 Owners of small farms whose area does not reach the modular dimensions of a family-sized landholding.

9 With respect to the process of judicialization, see Fernandes, 1997.

10 It is interesting how some members of the government seek to emphasize that it is necessary to “depoliticize” agrarian reform. This is translated into the politicization of the government’s program

11 See Fernandes, 2000.



Editors Note: Bernardo Mançano Fernandes,Professor, Department of Geography, Faculty of Science and Technology - UNESP - Universidade Estadual Paulista, Presidente Prudente Campus. Co-ordinator 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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