Landless Workers Movement - Brazil

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= Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (MST): 350,000 families occupying 20 million acres of land in Brazil


Frances Moore Lappe:

"In Brazil, almost 400,000 farmworker families have not only found their voices but gained access to land, joining the roughly half-billion small farms worldwide that produce 70 percent of the world’s food.

Elsewhere, calls for more equitable access to land in recent decades have generally gone nowhere—despite evidence that smallholders are typically more productive and better resource guardians than big operators.

So what happened in Brazil?

With the end of dictatorship in 1984 came the birth of arguably the largest social movement in the hemisphere: the Landless Workers Movement, known by its Portuguese acronym MST. Less than 4 percent of Brazil’s landowners control about half the land, often gained illegally. MST’s goal is land reform, and in 1988 Brazil’s new Constitution gave the movement legal grounding: Article 5 states that “property shall fulfill its social function,” and Article 184 affirms the government’s power to “expropriate…for purposes of agrarian reform, rural property” that fails to meet this requirement. Well-organized occupations of unused land, under the cover of night, had been MST’s early tactic; after 1988 the same approach helped compel the government to uphold the Constitution.

Because of the courage of these landless workers, a million people are building new lives on roughly 35 million acres, creating several thousand farming communities with schools serving 150,000 kids, along with hundreds of cooperative and other enterprises.

Nevertheless, MST co-founder João Pedro Stédile said early this year that the global financial crisis has led “international capitalists” to try to “protect their funds” by investing in Brazilian “land and energy projects”—driving renewed land concentration." (


By Yvonne Yen Liu:

"One outcome of Occupy can be foretold by the example of Brazil’s Landless Workers Movement or Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (MST). Today, 350,000 families occupy 20 million acres of land, a challenge to global capital, which has setup white picket fences around the world, cordoning off what was once the commons. MST’s flag celebrates the industry of the landless worker, represented by a couple holding aloft a machete, and their willingness to fight for land reform, with blood if necessary. This flag accompanied MST leader Janaina Stronzake, when she visited the Occupy Wall Street encampment, before it was evicted from Zuccotti Park. “Occupation was a time to grow,” she told the assembly, “To grow education, empowerment, and food community.” The crowd echoed after her, amplifying Janaina’s words using the human microphone, “Occupy, Resist, and Grow!”

Janaina grew up in a MST occupation. Her family lost their land to banks in the late 1970s because, like many family farmers in the global south at the time, they borrowed money in order to adopt industrial agricultural techniques. Indebted and unable to pay back what they owed, the bank seized their land, displacing newborn Janaina, her eight older brothers, and parents to the city, where they survived precariously as field laborers. But, in 1985, her family joined the MST and they moved into a camp, with 225 other families, for two years, where they studied and prepared to occupy land in the western part of the Parana state.

The MST uses a two-step method to expropriate land lying fallow, owned by corporations or latifundios, for collective use. First, families are moved in rural camps, typically dwelling in shacks alongside highways, until land is identified for settlement. This can take anywhere from six months to five years, but camp living has proved to be important preparation in transforming atomized individuals into collectively minded occupiers. Camp residents receive a rigorous dose of participatory education, on politics and critical thinking as well as practical matters such as sustainable farming techniques and how to manage a cooperative. Without this experience, families that move directly onto occupied land typically leave within a few months. But, with this preparation, more than 90 percent stay for the long run.

The second step is occupation of the land by families, usually at dawn when security guards and police are sleeping. Janaina remembers arriving early one morning with her family to an unused piece of land, but the police were waiting and prevented the families from entering the land. So, they camped on the side of the road for two months, where conditions were difficult, “hunger and cold were always stalking us,” Janaina recalled. Brazil is unique in that, beginning in the nineteenth century, one had legal claim to land if it was serving a social function. While petitioning through bureaucratic pathways for the title, the MST also moved the camp to occupy the plaza in front of the state capital, Curitiba. After participating in seven occupations, Janaina’s mother finally acquired land, collectively.

Once land is occupied, the collective immediately begins to dig in and grow roots. Peter Rossett describes how “crops are planted immediately, communal kitchens, schools, and a health clinic are set up, and defense teams trained in nonviolence secure the perimeter against the hired gunmen, thugs, and assorted police forces that the landlord usually calls down upon them.” This is the new society that the MST is building alongside the current model of global capitalism."