Brazil’s Landless Movement

The MST – Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Terra

Neo-liberal economics and increasing mechanisation have left millions of Brazil’s poor and landless out in the cold. With hundreds of thousands of hectares of land held by the privileged landowning classes and large companies lying idle, increasing numbers of the poor are losing patience with the Government’s unfulfilled promises of major land reform and are turning to the Movement of Landless Rural Workers, the MST, which has been actively fighting for land reform for over a decade. The MST seems the only realistic hope for the country’s poor, who are swelling its ranks every day. The struggle began with the rural landless, but recently a new front has opened up, and the MST is taking the poor living in the slums and on the city streets back to the land

from the favelas

To the Promised Land

MST marchers with hoes pass through the downtown São Paulo
São Paulo · 1993

São Paulo, 6.30 in the morning, and the first trickle of commuters descend upon the vast metropolis. More cars and more packed-to-bursting buses spill onto the highways at each new intersection and the trickle swells to a deluge, rushing past the little shacks made of wood and corrugated sheet along the road verges. They are the favelas, the city’s slums and shantytowns, homes to the millions of marginalised poor – the ‘excluded’ – one-time rural migrants whose city hopes never materialised and who are condemned to eke out a living as best they can. Their homes are squeezed into any spare piece of marginal city land; nestling beneath flyovers, alongside drainage ditches, and even on the chevrons painted on the tarmac at slip roads

The two worlds come together at the traffic lights. There, children wait on the roadside for the streams of vehicles to pause. They spark into life on red, sweeping on the stationary lines, tapping glass windows with small, outstretched hands. Beckoning for change with well-rehearsed, pleading eyes. A few minutes pass, some loose coins change hands, and their catch slips away on the green light. The children are a reality away from the impassive faces behind the steering wheels. Left stood at the junction, these kids are out of step with that other world: they go on red and stop on go. Playing out their survival strategies, there is no work for their parents and, so, no school for the children. The family’s breadwinner is cast at a tender age.

Beneath a road bridge, groups of men mill about on the pavement stamping the cold morning from their bones and passing round plastic cups of coffee. Their conversation is drowned by the drone of engines flying overhead. Only a child’s voice breaks through the din – “Bahia! Bahia!” it calls. A small boy flounders across the pavement towards his mother who is combing, tucking and tugging his two sisters into shape. “Bahia! Bahia!” – pleased with himself, innocent and ignorant, Jonny chants the sounds – a name of a distant land that no doubt he has heard his father and mother speak numerous times.

“I’m ashamed to go back to my family in Bahia,” says Jonas, keeping a watchful eye on his two-year-old son. “I can’t let them see the state I’m in – a married man, with three children…” pausing he turns to his wife, Elizabeth, placing his palm on her pregnant belly, adding. “… with four children – and living in the street.” Three months have passed since Jonas brought Elizabeth and their children – Indiani (6), Indiaria (4) and Jonny – to São Paulo from their native Bahia, over 1000 km to the north.

Jonas Gomez Alunez. (30) Elizabeth Levis dos Santos. Indiaria (4), Jonny (2) and Indiani (6) behind. The family moved from the north-east in search of work and have ended up living on the streets of São Paulo

For the first few days in the city, they rented a space in a cortizo, a large hostel that houses hundreds, but that was while the hopes of employment and remaking their lives in this new world still lived. However, as the refusals mounted and the little money they had dwindled Jonas and Elizabeth realised they could not eat and pay to stay in the cortizo. They took the only course open to them. The street became their home.

Since then each monotonous day has seemed like the last. The morning combing and tidying at 6.30; coffee from a plastic cup; dry bread from a plastic bag; the short walk up the hill to the Praça de Sé, the central square where they idle away their hours. Back in Bahia they had worked hard labouring for large landowners, latifundistas, receiving three réis (£2) for each back-breaking day of cutting or harvesting. They had also farmed their own plot of land, but even this meant working for a latifundista. The soil they tilled was not their own, and half their produce was given away as rent. With the cost of seeds, fertilisers and insecticides to take into account, they enjoyed less than half the fruits of their labour and their investment.

It was obvious they could not survive in Bahia. So, they embarked on a well-trodden route; abandoning the countryside and heading for the big city. Jonas is by no means the first to make the pilgrimage to São Paulo from Bahia in search of economic salvation, and he will not be the last. Over the past two decades over 30 million Brazilians have done likewise. But they too have found that their dreams were vain illusions. In the city, as in the country, they do not feature – like the majority of the Brazilian population who exist in poverty – they are excluded from the market and from society. They represent nothing economically – they are nobodies.

Sat in the Praça de Sé Jonas has enough time on his hands to contemplate their future. In fact, the options are on display on the pavements around them. Hundreds of ambulant vendors hawk batteries, telephone tokens, cassettes, socks and all manner of trinkets. With luck, Jonas could join their ranks, or maybe he could become another passive human billboard, stood on the sidewalk for hours on end. Failing that, Jonas could swallow his pride and beg on the streets with a cardboard sign written in biro, or worse still, send his children to work the traffic signals.

“Today is the most important day of my life!” proclaims Jonas. “It is the last day of my suffering. I’ll be leaving all this behind me and, God willing, I will return to a place where I can help my children and build them a future.”

“With the help of these people we’ll be taken from here, and I shall never have to subject this suffering on my children again. We’re entering a struggle and, God willing, we’ll succeed.”

The people on whom Jonas is depending are the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra, Brazil’s landless rural workers’ movement, more simply known as MST or Sem Terra (Portuguese for “without land”). A bizarre stroke of luck has befallen the family and tomorrow – probably it is then that is the most important day of Jonas’ life – they will take part in their first land occupation and be initiated into the ranks of the most happening mass movement in Latin America.

Since its beginnings in 1984, the MST has been forcing the issue of land reform. The base of its support is that of Brazil’s landless peasants (there are around 4.8 million of them), and the cutting edge of its activities are its occupations (or invasions, depending on which side of the fence you stand) of  ‘unproductive’ land – usually those of vast cattle ranches.

Over 130 000 families have been settled through the Movement’s activities, but the Government (although it includes these numbers in its own statistics to show its commitment to agrarian reform) criticises the MST, saying it only complicates the issue and hinders the process of land reform. The MST, on the other hand, argue that successive governments dither and side-step the issue, merely paying it lip service.

To ignore the issue altogether, or openly oppose it would be political suicide. 86% of Brazilians support agrarian reform, according to newspaper surveys. The injustice of land tenure and the burgeoning social problems resulting are not wasted on the majority of the population. In Brazil, one per cent of the farmers own 46% of the land (the second most unequal distribution of land on the planet, after neighbouring Paraguay), the largest landowners owning millions of hectares each. But challenging the latifundistas is not an easy task: political power in Brazil is firmly rooted in the ownership of land, and that power reaches deep into government and the economy.

“When God gave us the earth he didn’t give it to just one, he didn’t give it to just a few, he gave it to all of us,” in a dingy church room Jonas and Elizabeth sit with dozens of fellow street dwellers, listening to the words of a priest. Indiani, Indiaria and Jonny are curled-up, asleep behind an old sofa, enjoying the comforts of the indoors. It is the last meeting before the occupation and old ground is run over to psychologically prepare the troops. The emphasis is on justice, a God who represents that justice and Jesus, the crusader for the oppressed who wished to break the chains of Roman overlords.

“What will you do when you have land?” the priest asks of the room. “When I have my plot I’ll till the soil and plant cassava, beans and sweet potatoes,” quickly volunteers one middle-aged man dressed in blue overalls. “And I’ll… I’ll…” he cannot find the words and, lost in a sea of hopes, tears fill his eyes and he buries his face in his hands. The meeting is now highly charged, and the emotion is infectious. Eyes twinkle and optimism bubbles up inside the gathered, bursting and pushing smiles onto faces. “I’ll build a house and grow flowers in my garden,” offers a woman’s voice from the corner. “I’ll…,” the discussion disintegrates into a cacophony of dreams.

Calling the room to order, the priest stands, holding a loaf aloft. “Who makes the bread?” he asks. “The labourer,” cries cassava-man, now more collected. “And who makes the wine?” “The labourer,” half a dozen voices offer in unison. The message is home. After the sacraments and muddled MST slogans – “Agrarian Reform – Everyone’s struggle” – the animated group breaks up and melts into the city for one last time.

Headlamps cut a swathe through the infinite darkness speckled with stars as a long convoy of buses winds its way along narrow country lanes. They are on their way to a place called Itapetininga, though none of them knows it. Sleeping hamlets pass on one side, farm buildings on the other. The few trees that still stand loom run to mark the boundaries of owned land.  Apart from the inevitable whirr of the engine and the blip-blip-blip of a Gameboy, a pensive silence pervades the bus and its passengers. The occupation is minutes away and nobody knows what to expect. It is the first of its kind – consisting exclusively of people on the streets and favelas. The buses, guided to their destination by little, white Volkswagen vans carry people from São Paulo and thirteen other cities and towns in the east of São Paulo State.

The convoy comes to rest in a nondescript stretch of the lane and the new-Sem Terras spill out onto the dirt road bringing it to life and confusion. A padlock is forced open and a crowd surges into the field to a shout of “This is our land!” from one, who flings his arms skywards. Along the track wire cutters, clip wire and hesitant figures step over the fallen fence to loiter on the grass with hands in their pockets.

Choking clouds of diesel fumes hang heavy on the cold morning air. The bus headlamps illuminate their own noxious haze. People cough and splutter in the toxic air and people cover their mouths and noses with handkerchiefs. For some, like Lene, 19, it is their first taste of the countryside. “I hate it! Let’s go back to the favela,” she complains to a fellow first-timer, Nika, who remains unresponsive, somnolent and wrapped tight in a blanket.

There seems little to do before daybreak, so fires are started and the new arrivals check out the strange faces in the flickering glow. It is the first time the different groups have come together. Boxes and bundles are unloaded from the trucks and buses, and all around shadows stumble and trip through the blackness and the unfamiliar terrain. As the sky lightens the scene appears of an encampment of plastic sheeting, blankets, mattresses, boxes, gas cookers and the like litter the field. 

Sharpening knives on stones, the men begin hacking into bamboo and trees for poles on which they will drape their plastic sheeting and make their shelters, called barracos. Many of the hoes and scythes with which they work still sport their yellow-sticker price tags.

Among the new-Sem Terras are Ãrlinda and her husband, Antonio. They had left the countryside of the neighbouring state of Paraná for the city of São Paulo some 13 years previous. After the familiar runabout of rented accommodation – no work – no money – and street – they found the favela of Vila Elba. There they staked out their plot, built their home out of wooden boards and corrugated steel sheets, and raised five children.

The structure of their home had not changed a great deal in those 13 years, as hadn’t their economic situation. It had been a hand-to-mouth survival, but things were not all that bad: they had made many friends and lived in a close, supportive community. However, recently things had taken a turn for the worse and they decided the time had come to leave.”Life there was deteriorating.” says Ãrlinda. Crack cocaine had appeared in the favela and outside their home, where the kids used to play in the dirt, there was a boca de crack, the sales point for the five-dollar ‘rocks’ of crack the dealers dealt to local kids and the cars which descended on the favela to score.

“You see these kids grow up. You take them places with you; look after them while their mothers work or go out, and then at fourteen or fifteen years old they’re there – selling crack in the boca, and earning 300 or 400 reales a day,” tells Ãrlinda sat outside her new plastic home far from the favela. Surrounded by the few bags of clothes they have brought and an upright gas stove, she is certain they have made the right decision. “For us, Sem Terra was our last chance of salvation… a way out of the favela.” Although the dealers were affable, and her children were unlikely to mix with the whole sordid business, it was still a risk. Ãrlinda saw the temptation and, so, perceived the danger.” I think if I were them,” she says, presumably referring to the dealers. “I’d sooner sell crack in the boca than work like a donkey for a starvation wage.” 

Ãrlinda was won over by the idea of returning to the land after visiting an MST settlement. It was the first time her children had seen the countryside, and they too were taken with it.  The unity within the family had made it easier. Nonetheless, it had taken courage to leave the familiarity and security of the favela. Many others had dropped out of the occupation in the final hours.

Shirley bemoaned the streets where she said kids were “hooked on crack at 12 years old”. She feared for her six-year-old adopted daughter. “I can’t let her grow up in this,” she would reclaim. However, she hesitated at the last moment and, as the buses left for Itapetininga, she returned to her shack and her partner who would sometimes beat her when drunk. And she wasn’t the only one to waver: Severina, who “was born with a hoe in her hands”, and Ana also slipped away as the buses left, returning to the deep ravine and the homes they feared would be washed away with the February rains. It was the women who expressed the greatest desire to leave, but the favela offered security, albeit in abject poverty, but it was the lack of interest from husbands and partners that dissuaded most.

“It’s the men who keep their women there,” Ãrlinda explains. “They’re comfortable. They have their friends and they have their cachaso (cheap cane alcohol). They get used to living in misery – resigned to living in a little shack, in a little gully, and working a little bit so they don’t die of hunger.” She despairs at the apathy and motives which held many friends in Vila Elba. “We were both enthusiastic and frightened about the occupation,” she recalls. “Frightened of leaving there. Frightened of arriving here. And frightened of the police… we’re scared because of what happened in Parã.”

The massacre of 19 members of MST by Police in the northern state of Pará brought the MST a wave of international attention and the sympathy of almost the entire country. However, for the poor and marginalized it served as just another reminder of how cheap their lives can be. The killings and the still unpunished killers featured as another deterrent for those who stayed in the favela, and as living fears for those who left. The police always serve the paymaster and, while the poor may cheer the legions ‘invading’ the ranches of the wealthy, in the favelas, they recall the dead. One man perhaps summed up the feeling of most: “I’m not going to take a bullet for a little piece of land so they can bury me in it. “

“No one in power in Brazil has done anything for the poor in over 500 years,” says Wenzel, an activist with the MST. He is one of the brains behind the present occupation. “Still we have enormous latifundas, and they’re unproductive while in the countryside and cities there are millions who haven’t enough to eat because there is no work and they have no land.” Wenzel readily identifies with the new Sem Terras: he too had laboured other’s land for a pittance before he joined the MST and, after years in the camps and several occupations and evictions, was settled on a plot of land.

“We are recuperating these people here and helping turn them into productive people. They are ex-agricultural workers and the sons and daughters of agricultural workers. The government does nothing for them – it only speaks of agricultural reform and at the same time does nothing, but try and split the movement.” explains Wenzel. “We do something – that’s the difference between the State and the Movement. Through occupations and struggle, we can recuperate the identity of these people – their rural identity. All those people who are settled on a little piece of land and are feeding their families are there because they participated in the struggle, not because they waited for the government to do something for them.”

Agrarian reform, as well as being supported by the majority of the population, does seem to make sound economic sense. Only three days before the Itapetininga occupation the results of a report by the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) had been published in the Brazilian press. The report stated that small, family producers are more efficient than rural ‘impresarios’; with less land and little or no access to financial credit they, relatively, produce more. Unsurprisingly, the body representing the latifundistas, the National Agricultural Confederation, criticized the report as “optimistic”.

Activists, or militantes, in the MST, are well versed in the arguments surrounding the land reform question. “Not only do we produce more,” says Wenzel, running through his case, well aware of the FAO report. ” but we also pay our taxes. The latifundistas pay significantly less rural property tax per hectare than the small landholder, and they even avoid paying all their product sales taxes.” Wenzel does not look outraged by each new damning fact, as he sees it they merely strengthen the argument for agrarian reform. “They [the government] are stupid! Don’t they see that agrarian reform would improve the economy of the country?” He rests his case with a triumphant smile, having established the moral and economic high ground.

Some historical background:

Land ownership has always been the apex of the elite’s power in Brazil, as lack of land has always been the central cause of poverty. Private ownership of land did not exist until the Portuguese Crown sold vast tracts to the nobles in 1850. Unlike in the United States, where colonists gained property rights over land by occupying it and tilling the land the poor could not buy the vast estates on offer and were excluded, and condemned to toil as labourers. The unjust system of land tenure has always formed the rallying cry of numerous peasant uprisings, but it was not until the 1950s and early 60s that the call for reform was coordinated on a regional and national scale. Agricultural reform came onto the political agenda and the struggle was led by the Ligas Campeneses, the Peasant Leagues. However, it was the height of the Cold War and the cry for an ‘agricultural revolution’ was perceived as a communist threat by the oligarchies and military. The Ligas were decimated following the 1964 military coup and the position of the latifundistas consolidated.

Shortly after the coup, the military put a new land law, the Estatuto da Terra, into the statute books. The law stated that unproductive agricultural land could be expropriated and used for land reform. A reasonable proposal, but the military’s policy was one of consolidating Brazilian territory by populating it, and in the process appeasing the poor masses and relaxing the pressure for real land reform. This new wave of colonization accelerated the destruction of the rainforest. However, poor soil caused most farms to fail and disease decimated many families. The new settlers were forced to abandon their land and drift back to the littoral and the big cities. In their wake, large cattle ranchers moved into the new frontier regions.

During the years of dictatorship, the call for agrarian reform never died. In 1979, six years before the dictatorship ended, the first land occupation since the coup took place. Organised by the Pastoral Land Commission of the Catholic Church, they were the precursor to the MST which was formed later in 1984. Paradoxically, it is the Estatuto da Terra – expropriating unproductive land for agrarian reform – on which the movement’s struggle hinges, allowing them to occupy land with the hope of resolving the case through negotiation.

The government say the agrarian reform programme projected by the MST would seriously prejudice the economy, and that there just isn’t enough money to pay for it. They do seem to have a case: for every hectare expropriated for agrarian reform, the large landowners must be indemnified at the market price. The bill to settle two million families by the end of the millennium, as the MST is suggesting, would cost an estimated $20 billion. However, the government’s argument that it is financial concerns which are holding up the agrarian reform process and not a lack of resolution on their part, is undermined by their ‘generosity’ towards other sectors of Brazilian society. In 1995 the government spent US$12 billion bailing out several private companies and banks, paying an estimated US$4.8 to rescue one bank, Banco Economico, alone.

While the new recruits in the Itapetininga camp are almost as cynical of the government’s commitment to agrarian reform as the seasoned campaigners, they remain largely ignorant of the economic and political arguments behind the struggle they have just joined. Just now they are united in the dream of having a little piece of land to call their own. It is during the years in the camps, the waiting, the evictions and the new occupations, that politicisation takes place. The arguments supporting their cause will slowly filter through in the conversations, meetings and assemblies that are a part of camp life. There is little else to do but wait it out, surviving on the donations sent from the settlements and the movement’s supporters and sympathisers.

The first assembly is held in the shadow of a large, wooden cross. Already a people’s democratic republic in miniature is forming. Slogans rally the assembled – “Agrarian Reform! – Everybody’s Struggle”,  “Occupar! Resistir! Producir!” – the militantes sketch out how the camp will be run, and – for maybe the first time in their lives – the new Sem Terras are consulted and asked to vote on decisions that will affect them. “Are we going to allow drugs here?” comes a rhetorical question from the mound of earth that forms the speaking platform. “No! That’s why we left the favela,” rebounds the answer.

Most of the groups have been brought together under the red banner of the MST through Christain Base Communities and progressive church groups. An ecumenical ceremony commemorates their arrival on the land. Thanks are given, tools are blessed, and each anoints their neighbour on the forehead with the soil they hope to till. Fists in the air the militantes sing the MST’s anthem over the open country – “together we’re going to awake this sleeping land” – Jonas, Elizabeth and even their children raise their fists, Ãrlinda and Antonio too, though none have as yet learnt the words. The ‘excluded” are now included in a struggle beyond that of surviving from day to day. There is pride in the eyes of the ex-street dwellers as they chant the slogans that underpin a dream they can believe in; a dream of their own making.

Above (left) – A protest through the streets of São Paulo to the stock exchange. (Right) – José Rainha, a local leader and organiser of the MST in Paranapanema. Rainha, currently in jail, has been imprisoned by the State for alleged crimes linked to his work with the MST land issues.

As I watch them stand in that field, full of hope and pride, I remember the man who approached me on a downtown avenue in São Paulo as an MST demonstration held back traffic and made its way to the stock exchange. “Who are these people? What political party are they?” he asked. “It’s the landless movement,” I replied. A loudhailer carried a woman’s voice above the city din. The emphasis was on hope from despair, recuperating the dignity of the poor and giving their children a future. “Her words are so beautiful,” he said. “She speaks such sense… They’re going to win,” he slipped back into the watching crowd on the pavement and turning to the marchers shouted, “You people have my vote. You people are going to win. You’re going to win.”

Gallery (out-takes)

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