Brazil

Landless Movement in Brazil
land reform

Brazilian Government versus Brazilian Citizens

The Guardian, best of the newspapers in the United Kingdom, recently published this article.

by Jan Rocha

British charities are being warned that the Brazilian landless movement they help fund is dangerous and illegal. Jan Rocha meets one of its leaders

They grow and sell organic produce, they are replanting mahogany in the Amazon, they even make jam - but the police treat them like criminals. This is MST, the Movement of Landless Rural Workers, Brazil's largest and most dynamic social movement, whose direct action tactics see them hoisting their red flag over farms, ranches, banks and government offices, demanding land, credits, schools, justice and a share of the wealth they help to create.

For peasant movements and small farmers round the world who believe that agriculture is not just a question of trade, but a political and social issue, and that food sovereignty is more important than food security, the MST has become a reference point, superseding Cuba as a training ground for militants. Its links with like-minded groups now stretch to the Philippines, Thailand, Korea, China, Mexico, and throughout Asia. It is the most quoted group by political and environmental activists in Europe and America and is at the forefront of forging an ideol ogy for the poor in many countries. But what exactly is the Movimento Sem Terra?

MST grew out of the despair of small farmers deprived of land in the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul just 20 years ago and has spread to nearly all of Brazil's 27 states. Its red flag flies over hundreds of small rural settlements all over Brazil, pockets of defiance located in the heart of soybean country in the south, lost in the sea of sugar cane in the north-east, or in the midst of miles of cattle grass on the giant ranches in the Amazon basin. Pock ets of family agriculture in a sea of chemically-induced cash crops.

Life in the settlements is hard, but it is still much better than it would be outside for the 600,000 families who live there. Before they joined the MST, most were illiterate rural labourers, poor small farmers, or unemployed shantytown dwellers.

In the settlements, none more than 15 years old, they grow staples such as maize, beans, rice and mandioca (cassava), rear pigs and poultry, and keep milk cows. But they have also set up farm cooperatives to process milk, fruit, flour and other products for sale. They sell to commercial food companies, to farmers' markets, or through their first shop in So Paulo.

Brazil is one of the world's biggest markets for pesticides and chemical fertilizers - Monsanto is building a huge factory there - and most of the settlements still use them, but an increasing number are going over to organic methods, encouraged by the agronomists trained by the MST. Initially, it was a question of cost: they could not afford the pesticides and fertilizers. But increasingly it is because of awareness about the damage caused by the chemicals and the advantages to health and the environment of green farming.

An MST settlement in Baje now produces and markets organic seeds. In So Paulo, MST settlers are planting thousands of saplings produced by a local state forest reserve to counteract the erosion produced by the years of deforestation practised by the ranchers who illegally occupied the land before them.

In the Amazon, where slash and burn agriculture is still the main method of small farmers, the Palmares settlement has begun replanting mahogany and native species such as the jaborandi.

One of the biggest problems remains the government's failure to finance organic farming. Credits are for conventional farming only. MST demands to get funding, for long-term regional fruit production like the Amazon fruits cupuacu or graviola have so far been ignored.

In the south, the MST has organised protests against the GM soya illegally planted by large farmers. The growing environmental awareness of the movement is fostered in the schools found in every settlement. In MST schools, the children are taught with the methods of Paulo Freire, Brazil's internationally-famed educationalist, who was exiled as a subversive by the military regime.

They learn to ask questions. The education process begins in the temporary squatters' camps where families often spend years before winning their plot of land in a settlement. Here the school might be only a rustic shelter thatched with banana leaves and where the children sit on tree trunks.

Many men and women, for whom Brazil's harshly unjust society had no other place than poverty and marginalisation, are now directors of farm or credit cooperatives, managers of meat packing plants, or schoolteachers, because of the MST.

One of them is Jorge Neri, the illiterate son of a maid, now a member of MST's coordinating committee, who has just made a marathon tour of 10 European countries at the invitation of organisations eager to know more about the MST. On the way to meet him in London, I happened to be reading EP Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class, and when we talked I was struck by the similarities between what happened 200 years ago here and what is happening now in Brazil, as Neri described what the MST see as the government's attempt to criminalise them.

"What we're doing is not new - we've been carrying out occupations for 15 years now," he says. "We don't torture, or kill or kidnap. What worries the government is our capacity to organise nationally. They see the MST as a bad example to other social movements because we question government policy, we question the economic model, we propose alternatives. We want society to question the fact that they have no say in government spending, in how their money is spent."

For Neri, it is the government which practises violence, because "they are destroying labour rights, selling off nationalised industries, increasing poverty and unemployment. They want to isolate MST, not because we want land reform, but because it is showing society that it cannot remain quiet, it must react. We've waited 500 years already; we can't wait any longer. What is clear is that this model we have is no use - the country is poorer, there is less education, less health, the people see no future."

The MST, together with other social movements, wants to organise a plebiscite on Brazil's staggering foreign debt, which is now over US$200bn, even though $125bn was repaid between 1995-98 - money that MST says could have gone on education, health and land reform. For Veja, Brazil's mass circulation news magazine, MST uses the pretext of agrarian reform to preach "socialist revolution".

MST has discovered that direct action brings results - three-quarters of today's settlements originated as land occupations - but they are an unarmed movement, unlike the ranchers, hired guns and police who oppose them. The latest MST victim was a middle-aged father of five children, shot dead by police when they intercepted busloads of unarmed protesters near Curitiba in May. Their killers often go unpunished: four years after 19 MST protesters were shot dead in Eldorado do Carajas, 155 policemen accused of their murders still await trial.

Jorge Neri found evidence during his trip to Europe that the Brazilian authorities have also launched a discreet battle to undermine overseas solidarity with the movement. Charities which fund MST activities, including some in the UK, are being warned by their governments that the MST is an organisation that resorts to illegal methods to secure land.

For the Brazilian government, there is no need for the MST, because President Fernando Henrique Cardoso has already given land to more families - 370,000 - than any other government. MST claims that most of these families already occupied their land, that the government merely gave them titles.

For Neri, there is a real danger that conservative forces in Brazil want to destroy the MST - and, besides violence, the weapon being used is an agricultural policy that favours the large agribusiness company, and has led to small farmers abandoning their land. Some MST leaders think MST settlements run as cooperatives could survive by becoming completely self-sufficient, and because they also have their own schools and, sometimes, pharmacies. Others are more pessimistic: they remember that in Brazil peasant movements have a history of being massacred.

Neri is philosophic about the future: "I think we're in for a struggle over a long period. It's not just a fight for land, but for a better form of democracy where people participate, debate, discuss what sort of policies they want. Maybe what we are proposing is an illusion?"

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This article was distributed by the Grassroots Media Network.


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