Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra

The struggle of Brazil's rural poor is a microcosm of the battles being waged worldwide in the era of corporate globalization. In a country with the second most unequal land distribution in the world, members of Brazil's Landless Worker's Movement (MST) are engaged in a radical campaign for land reform and economic rights, challenging both local and global elites. -- Global Exchange

If the land ownership in a country is severely skewed, do you sit back and politely ask the rich and powerful to hand over some land, or do you seize it?

For Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra, MST or the Brazilian Landless Workers Rural Movement, there was only one answer in a life and death struggle, they seized the land.

Brazil is a country where land ownership is extremely skewed. Less than 1% of the population owns nearly half the land in a country larger than the US. Only Paraguay has a more extreme land ownership pattern. Much of the land is owned by absentee landlords who leaved the land abandoned. Less than 3% of the population owns two-thirds of Brazil's arable land.

With the help of progressives in the Catholic Church, MST began life in 1985 with the seizure of land in the south of Brazil. Today that land is worked as a co-operative. Almost two decades on, more than 250,000 families have won land titles to over 15 million acres after MST land takeovers.

MST goes beyond land reform, and is now looking to change in the political and economic system, in particular globalisation, and the way in which agribusiness operates.

There are well meaning fools who wish to see Western markets opened up to Third World produce. If we ignore the quid pro quo the West would levy, ignore food miles and growing air pollution and climate change, we are deluding ourselves if we believe such opening of markets is going to benefit the Third World Rural poor, or even for that matter small farmers in the West.

The demand, from both the poor countries inside and the activists outside, at the WTO ministerial meeting at Cancun in Mexico was for agriculture to be removed from WTO. It is the Quad countries - US, Canada, EU and Japan, and even more so Big Business - that is driving the WTO agenda, that is calling for agricultural reform and 'free trade', not the poor countries.

Opening up markets in the West, would force up the price of land and force more people off the land. This has already happened in Mexico under NAFTA, where the 1917 Revolutionary Land Reforms have been reversed, and is happening in Brazil under IMF and WTO free trade neoliberal policies.

As fast as the MST settles people on the land, an even greater number are leaving the land as farming is no longer 'economic'. Even people settled by MST are being forced off the land, not by corrupt politicians and returning landowners, but by global economic forces.

Brazil opened itself to international markets in the 1990s. Out went government subsidies to small farmers, into the growing city slums migrated the small farmers forced off their land.

Between 1985 and 1995, the number of small family farms dropped by a fifth, the number of people employed in agriculture dropped from 23 to 18 million.

Taking advantage of the neoliberal agenda, in came the transnationals: Monsanto, AgroEvo, DuPont, Dow, and other biotech multinationals. By 1999, they had between them seized control of over 90% of the seed market.

Brazil is being turned into a commodity exporter. Export crops - cotton, soya, coffee, sugar cane – are being grown on huge plantations. By 1999, Brazil was earning $5 billion from soya alone. But it was importing $7.5 billion basic foodstuffs – maize, beans, rice – foods it had previously grown itself. Brazil is importing potatoes from Belgium!

Only the largest of the large landowners are benefiting from this neoliberal agenda. Less than 2% of farmers, around 90,000, account for 60% of agricultural income.

It is not only farmers who are suffering. The Amazonian rainforest is also under threat.

Farmers are being reduced to indentured labourers to the global markets – transnationals provide the seeds and other inputs at prices they dictate, transnationals dictate the world commodity prices – farmers bear all the risks. It is estimated that over 80% of farmers face going to the wall under the onslaught of globalisation.

This is not a situation unique to Brazil. The same is happening worldwide, in India, in France in England in Canada, even in the mighty US. In England, according to Zac Goldsmith, editor of The Ecologist, quoting figures from the National Office of Statistics, 1,000 farmers and farm workers are leaving the land every week.

We are replacing small family farms with an intimate understanding of the land with Soviet-style collectives.

A further threat to the landless, is a project being pushed by the World Bank, in cooperation with the Brazilian government. It would undermine both the movement and the rights it claims under the Brazilian constitution. Under the World Bank plan, land reform would be privatized: the landless would apply for loans from the World Bank with which they could purchase land from landowners at market prices. Owners would not be required to sell any land, no matter how much of their land is unused, and the tough terms of the loans virtually guarantee that poor farmers would lose the land again within a few years. The World Bank program will simply exacerbate Brazil's land inequality.

A growing threat in Brazil is GM crops. MST has been rather slow in moving towards organic crops, agro-ecologia. MST activists have been active in destroying GM crops. A 1999 Supreme Court ruling outlawed GM crops, but this may change as Brazil's Vice-President Jose Alencar has signed a provisional measure or decree allowing farmers to plant genetically-modified seeds. The decree is being challenged in the courts, on the basis that it was unconstitutional. The decree is intended to regularize the situation in the south where GM contamination is flowing across the border from Argentina. Farmers will be able to grow GM crops for one year and will have to sign a document making them responsible for any damage to health or the environment.

MST does not just occupy land. It creates schools to educate the children of the peasant farmers, training programmes for the peasants, co-ops to market the produce of the MST farms, which are themselves co-ops.

The Brazilian Landless Workers Movement is the largest social movement in Latin America and one of the most successful grassroots movements in the world. But this success has not come without a price. Many peasants have been killed in their pursuit of land.

MST has been instrumental in the formation of Latin American Congress of Rural Organizations and is a founder member of Via Campesina.


further reading

Dominic Bailey, Living with Brazil's landless, BBC news on-line, 14 April 2003

Jose Bove and Francois Dufour, The World is Not for Sale: Farmers Against Junk Food, Verso, 2001

Sue Branford and Jan Rocha, Cutting the Wire: The Story of the Landless Movement in Brazil, Latin American Bureau, 2002

Brazil activists target Monsanto, BBC news on-line, 3 June 2003

Brazil jails peasant massacre officer, BBC news on-line, 16 May 2002

Brazil peasants end land truce, BBC news on-line, 7 March 2003

Brazil's land violence toll 'rises', BBC news on-line, 18 April 2003

Tom Gibb, Lula faces mass land seizures, BBC news on-line, 10 March, 2003

Zac Goldsmith, Down on the farm, The Ecologist, October 2003

Bill Hinchberger, MST: Land of No Return? Not Brazil, The Nation, 2 March 1998

Paul Kingsnorth, One No, Many Yeses: A Journey to the Heart of the Global Resistance Movement, The Free Press, 2003

Geoffrey Lean and Sue Branford, GM-free nations fall to Brazil, Independent, 31 March 2002

Caroline Lucas, Stopping the Great Food Swap, March 2001

Occupy, Resist, Produce: Brasil's Landless Peasants – Movimento Sem Terra, Do or Die, No 7

Jan Rocha, Brazil gives way on GM seed, BBC news on-line, 26 September, 2003

Eric Schlosser, Fast Food Nation, Allen Lane/The Penguin Press, 2001

Trash Crop, SchNEWS, 3 October 2003

Gaia index ~ Partido dos Trabalhadores ~ participatory democracy ~ localisation ~ direct action
(c) Keith Parkins 2003 -- October 2003 rev 0