Monday Apr 15

SPECIAL REPORT: Occupy, Resist, Produce: The Landless Workers Movement

Organizing Forum International Dialogue in Salvador & Recife, Brazil

In September the Organizers’ Forum of the Labor Neighbor Research and Training Center (LNRTC) assembled a delegation of community and union organizers from the US and Canada to northeast Brazil to meet with leaders of several community and labor organizations in Salvador, Bahia, Recife and rural Pernambuco.  This was my first trip with the LNRTC and my third trip to Brazil. On one of my trips, I spent two weeks with the Landless Workers Movement or the MST in southern Brazil. So, I was thrilled by the invitation to join the LNRTC on this trip and by the opportunity to reconnect with the MST.

The MST is considered to be the largest social movements in Latin America.  It is deeply rooted in Brazil’s long history of rural uprisings that include early resistance by indigenous people to Portuguese colonizers, slave uprisings and quilombos (runaway slave communities), peasant uprisings in the late 19th century, and the peasant leagues of the 1950s and 60s that were repressed by the military dictatorship after the coup of 1964.

Under the dictatorship, land ownership by wealthy people and corporations accelerated as did the mechanization and industrialization of agriculture.  This trend drove millions of rural Brazilians to urban areas in the country.  Brazil became the fourth most urbanized country in the world.  Poverty in both urban and rural regions increased as a result.  As social movements began organizing in the 1970s in opposition to the dictatorship, the military's grip on the people weakened, finally ending in the 1980s.  The MST was officially formed in 1984 in Cascavel in the state of Paraná and was the union of two rural organizing groups from two states in southern Brazil that had occupied land and built cooperatives. The first national congress of the MST took place the following year. 

In 1988 a new constitution was adopted in Brazil.  The new constitution stated that property should serve a social function and gave government the right to expropriate land for the purpose of agrarian reform if rural property is not performing its social function.  Under Article 186 a social function is served if land meets several requirements such as compliance with labor regulations, preserving the environment and practices that favor the well-being of owners and workers.  The MST has used the land reform section of the 1988 constitution as a handle to win and develop land for poor rural workers.

The MST has carried out successful land occupations that have developed into settlements in 24 of the 26 Brazilian states.  Displaced rural workers are the base of the movement’s membership.  The MST works with its membership to identify land that has been unproductive or abandoned, provides training, and moves people onto the land to create an occupation.  These occupations often involve confrontations with the military police and the owners.  Once the occupation becomes an encampment, negotiations with the owners and the government take place.  When an agreement is reached, the people who have settled on the land begin to develop it with the goal of building a settlement by cultivating the land and getting the financing to build homes, farms and schools.

State repression and push back from corporations such as Monsanto and wealthy landowners is ever present and can be violent.  The path to making the land productive and sustainable is not easy.  The struggle can be long and hard with the threat of raids by the military police.

Our delegation traveled to the small city of Caruaru southwest of Recife where we met with MST leaders in three locations – an administrative and training center in the city, a settlement on the outskirts of Caruaru called Normandia that houses the Paulo Freire Education Center, and an encampment in the countryside.

It took us a while to find the administrative/training center because it did not have a sign or any markings due to the potential of more attacks by people opposed to the work of the MST (see below).   These attacks occurred during the four years that Jair Bolsonaro was president.  Once we found the building, we met with the staff at the center and had a discussion about the financing of the land once an agreement is made with the owner and/or the government.  In the discussion a lot of numbers were thrown out and questions asked.  Essentially, the land is financed by a loan from one of two government banks.  Two-thirds goes for land acquisition and one third goes to develop the land.  Each family would owe 115,000 reais over 25 years and has a 3-year grace period before they start paying.  There is a 40% bonus for families who pay on time.  The staff said that ninety- two percent of the families pay on time.  In dollars, the yearly payment would be from $1,500 to $2,000 per family.

From the center in Caruaru, we drove to the Normandy settlement (Assentamento Normandia) on the outskirts of the city.  We met with Jaime Amorim, the director pf the settlement and the MST national director for Pernambuco.  He took us on a tour of their impressive plant where produce from settlements such as manioc, corn, carrots and other vegetables are processed and cakes and breads are baked. The products have been mostly sold to schools and at MST markets.  He also spoke about plans to expand the food processing work to include cheese production and manioc meal.  At one point the plant was producing almost 10,000 items per day.

After the tour we met with several MST leaders and activists over lunch.  One of them was a primary school teacher.  She told us that MST schools are public, but that the government cannot dictate the curriculum.  Education and schools are a central part of the MST’s work.  According to the movement’s website, there are around 2,000 schools in encampments and settlements, 200,000 children who have received education from the schools and 50,000 adults who are now able to read.

Jaime Amorim spoke about the relief work done by the MST during the COVID 19 pandemic in cities such as Recife where solidarity kitchens, food banks and community gardens were set up.  Nationally, the MST distributed 800 tons of food and 4 million food packages to the poor during the pandemic.  The organization also opened solidarity kitchens in 2022 to help feed people who were displaced by the flooding caused by heavy rains in Pernambuco.

He gave a rough outline of the governing structure of the MST that begins with groups of families in the settlements and encampments then to regional and state levels and finally to the national directorate with one representative from each state. He also mentioned that there were LGBTQ and Black collectives within the organization.

The farming done by the MST is in stark contrast to the monoculture done by wealthy landowners and corporations that depends on pesticides, chemical fertilizers and genetically modified seeds.  Some of us took a tour of the settlement’s fields and saw different crops growing together – companion planting.  We were told that the agriculture is completely organic.

Jaime Amorim also spoke about the repression and attacks on the MST during the four years of Jair Bolsonaro’s presidency (more information on this can be found here).  In 2019 the Bolsonaro government filed an eviction order against the Paulo Freire Education Center (more information here).  In November 2022 the center was attacked by Bolsonoristas who painted swastikas and graffiti on the walls and started a fire (a report on the attack here). No one was injured.   The center was not open during our visit last September.

On one of the walls of a building in the settlement there was a painting of a cage containing a swastika and a cartoon image of Bolsonaro.  On top of the cage was the word Democracia or democracy.  In the 2022 election former president Luis Inácio Lula da Silva narrowly defeated Bolsonaro.  Lula won 67% of the vote in Pernambuco in the run-off election.  The MST was very active in the election and worked with the Workers Party, unions and other groups to form popular committees that would develop a common agenda and build strength on the ground.   The MST also recruited some of its own members to run for office.  They ran on the Workers Party ticket.  Rosa Amorim, the daughter of Jaime, made a successful run for a state legislative seat in Pernambuco.  This was the first time the MST has recruited candidates.

After our visit at the Normandia settlement, we next drove to an encampment deep in the countryside.  We were greeted enthusiastically by the members and had a rally and a tour of the encampment.  The housing in the camp was made of lonas pretas or black plastic tarps and wood. There were some plots and a beautiful circle of different herbs divided by lines made of plastic jugs to signify the hours. The residents had access to electricity and water.  The children had access to education.  Health care was also available. 

The time we spent with the leaders and members of the MST was very informative and exciting with many takeaways that can be useful in our organizing work in the United States and Canada, especially now in the US with the 2024 elections on the horizon. 

Here are some of them:

1. Be bold in our strategies and tactics. The MST organizes poor rural workers who have little hope of having a stable income.  The land occupations and the education they receive from the MST provide a way forward for them in spite of the violent resistance by the landowners, corporations and the right wing.  The MST also organizes large and militant marches against corporations such as Monsanto and government entities.  The marches and other actions also help build solidarity among the members and help bring issues to the public’s attention.

2. When you win, hold your ground, institutionalize your wins, defend them and keep moving forward. Keep organizing, keep growing, and build power. 

3. Build a strong organizational culture that is rooted in the cultures of the people you are organizing, and that can grow and evolve. The MST has built a culture that is informed by the history of poor people’s struggles in Brazil over the centuries, the experiences of the leftwing Catholic base communities in Brazil and other Latin American countries, Marxism, the teachings of Paulo Freire (the author of the Pedagogy of the Oppressed), and the experiences of their membership.  One aspect of the MST’s organizational culture is the mistica or a play or dance that members create to act out their struggles or an issue.  Our delegation saw a version of this in Recife when we visited with the Wonder Woman Group.  At that meeting young people performed a dance about prejudice and social exclusion.

4. Build principled and strong alliances and help new organizations that share your organizing culture in other sectors. The MST builds relationships with other organizations such as the Marvelous Woman Group in Recife and the central labor council in Pernambuco.  A housing group called the MTST or the Movement of Workers Without Homes is occupying buildings and lots in Sao Paulo and creating homes for the poor.  This group is closely aligned with the MST.  The popular committees helped in the 2002 and could be useful in holding the Workers Party accountable and in organizing against a resurgence of the Bolsonaristas.

5. Build international alliances. Many of the issues social justice movements and organizations face are international in scope.  The MST participated in 1999 demonstrations in Seattle, established Friends of the MST groups in several countries and brigadas or brigades in a few countries including the Brigada Ghassan Kanafani in Palestine that has helped with the olive harvest in the West Bank.  The MST has sent two tons of food to Gaza and has a goal of sending 100 tons.


To learn more about the MST, go to their website at https://www.mst.org.br
Join the Friends of the MST at: https://www. mstbrazil.org

Neil Sealy is the head organizer of Arkansas Community Organizations, as he had been head organizer of Arkansas ACORN, headquartered in Little Rock, Arkansas.