The Rural Landless Workers Movement Of Brazil

Essay, Research Paper

The Rural Landless Workers Movement of Brazil: New Direction in a Time of Crisis

The MST, or the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra ( the Rural Landless Workers Movement) is the largest social movement in South America, with about 5000,000 supporters (Epstein 2). Under the slogan of “Ocupar, Resistir, Produzir” (”Occupy, Resist, Produce”), the MST uses non-violent civil disobedience to pressure the government to speed up agrarian reform and close the gap between the rich and the poor. The goal of the MST is to provide land to the millions of landless peasants who can cultivate and subsist on what appears to be a highly disproportionate amount of unproductive and under utilized land. The current economic crisis in Brazil could translate to more support for the MST movement and signal a change in the percentage of land use and landless workers as they currently stand.

The tradition of Brazil’s unequal distribution of land dates back to early colonial times. Between 1534 and 1536, the king of Portugal set up a system of land distribution through which he divided the territory of Brazil into 12 captaincies drawn from the coastline of Brazil to the line established by the Treaty of Tordesillas that separated Spanish from Portuguese land claims. The captaincies were given to those who were in favor of the crown and who agreed to send back one sixth of any accrued revenue to the crown. This was in response to a perceived need to occupy the territory to prevent French and Dutch from occupying the land and claiming it for their countries. This was the beginning of the tradition of single owners possessing large tracts of land, sometimes as large as small European countries, and this tradition continues in modern Brazil.

The MST carries out its non-violent protest in a unique and, fairly often, successful manner. It’s modus operandi is to organize land invasions by occupying up to 2000 people at a time on idle government or private lands that are often being held by wealthy land owners as tax shelters or as ways to garner government subsidies. Essentially, the land is unused, unproductive and, in the eyes of the MST, should not be tied up in the hands of the oligarchy. Once the squatters establish a camp on the edge of the land in an acampamento (encampment), the MST petitions the government to begin the process of distributing land to the squatters. The handing over of land to the squatters involves the government’s responsibility to compensate the landowner for the loss of the land. In the 14 years since the MST began, it has settled 200,000 families on 17 million acres of forcibly taken land, a figure unprecedented in Brazilian history (Epstein 13). Currently, there are about 50,000 families camped outside of idle plantations and tracts of unproductive land awaiting land grants (Epstein 3).

During land occupation squatters begin to plant and grow crops on which they subsist, to “produce,” to show the government that they are using the once idle land productively. Ideally, at this stage, there is little resistance from the landowner and much cooperation and efficiency on the part of the government, and the squatters might generally receive 60 acres of land per family if there is little opposition by the original landowner. Frequently, however, the landowner tries to forcefully remove the squatters from the land using hired, armed gunmen, or sometimes police, to flush the squatters out. If they are forced off they often return to “resist” again. This process of resistance often turns bloody, with the squatters occasionally having return to the same land again and again and defend themselves against armed gunmen controlled by the landowner or sometimes, it has been speculated, by the government itself. Despite the non-violent efforts of the squatters, over 1000 squatters have died during land invasions and the subsequent struggle between the wealthy and powerful and the poor and organized (Amnesty International 1).

The MST not only strives for land and agrarian reform, but they also call for a “society more just.” Under the auspices of this sentiment, the MST has established 8,5000 makeshift schools across Brazil that teach and are supported by the families of the landless (Epstein 14). Almost 1,500 teachers use MST educational materials to teach at least 40,000 students how to read, write and engage in political debate (Maxwell 50). In addition to teaching basic education, they also reinforce the MST political rhetoric in order to keep the movement strong (Epstein, 2). In this way, the MST and its supporters are making a progressive and self-sufficient contribution to the furthering of their cause. In a country where the literacy rate is high and the educational system badly neglected, especially in light of the recent economic woes, the self-education of the MST’s offspring could prove to be a powerful factor in their success.

Today in Brazil less than 3 percent of the population owns nearly two thirds of the land, out of nearly 917 million acres of land that could potentially support agriculture, about 45 million are unproductive. As a result there are four million landless families in Brazil (Amnesty International 1).

Since the MST was founded in the mid-1980s, it has posed a threat to the Brazilian elite and to rural land owners who hold large amounts of unproductive land. In light of the recent economic crisis in Brazil, the MST stands to gain ground, both figuratively and literally. Brazil’s acceptance in 1998 of bail-out funds from the IMF means strict austerity measures must be enforced by the government. Fernando Henrique Cardoso, president of the country in his second term in office, won re-election in the fall of 1998 as the Asian and Russian economic catastrophes sent tidal waves of panic into Brazil’s markets, effectively crashing investor confidence and triggering a huge rush to pull foreign investment out of Brazil. The Brazilian people had confidence that Cardoso could effectively tame the crisis, as his claim to fame and the feather in the hat of his presidency was his design of the Plano Real (the Real Plan) as Finance Minister under his predecessor president Itamar Franco. With the Real Plan Cardoso tamed inflation that sometimes soared at 5000 percent and created a new currency, the Real, which was pegged into a tightly controlled bracket against the US dollar. Riding the wave of popularity created by a new found buying power for Brazil’s poor and effectively widening the middle class, Cardoso seemed to be in control of this powerful country’s long perceived grandeur. This aura of control won the 1998 election for Cardoso, even though his most threatening opponent, Lula Inacio da Silva of the Worker’s Party (PT) garnered 32 percent of the vote and was widely seen as a loser because he spoke poorly of the Real Plan. As 1998 came to close it became clear that Cardoso was less in control of the country and the Real was not as strong as his election results might have drawn it.

The close of 1998 and the first two months of 1999 showed every sign of pending disaster for the Brazilian economy. Foreign investment, at times, left the country at the rate of 3 billion dollars a day and the Real, allowed to float freely against the dollar as dollar reserves became increasingly low, lost as much as 40 percent of its value against the dollar. Overnight Brazilians had lost half of their buying power and the country began to feel the euphoria of the previous four years begin to wear off.

Cardoso had crafted a stability plan with the IMF in October of 1998, effectively securing a credit line of 45 billion dollars for the country. However, the floating of the currency in January and the subsequent plunge in the value of the Real meant all debt had to be restructured and a new agreement made with the IMF. The budget targets made with the IMF were the good news, the bad news were the measures the president would take and enforce upon the country to reach the goals set by the IMF. The austerity measures translate to sweeping cuts in everything from education to health care, but the hardest hit and deepest cut was to agrarian reform and subsidies at nearly 50 percent (Maxwell 50). This has effectively cut any government support for agrarian reform and left the MST without governmental support, which, although generally lacking, was nonetheless better than no help at all.

The increase in interest rates has left Brazilians without the power to make large purchases of items like cars and washing machines lowering the demand for these items and effectively lowering production and creating layoffs. Some economists say millions could lose their jobs and their homes (Epstein 2).

The new generation of poor being created by the sweeping cuts and astronomical interest rates, coupled with growing political uncertainty, could inspire multitudes to join the already large numbers of the MST and force, by a large popular vote, land reform and a new era in land distribution and increased productivity and self sufficiency, helping to stimulate growth and eventually wrest power from the oligarchy back into the hands of the workers people.

In a country where nearly half of the population survives on less than $2 a day, and the wealthiest 10 percent take about half the nation’s income, a force as strong as the MST stands to gain on the heels of an economic disaster (Epstein 2). It is ironic that the Real Plan that carried Cardoso into the presidency and subsequent re-election could now be the greatest threat to his popularity, and indeed, to the country as a whole. The MST has an opportunity through crisis to increase its numbers, strengthen its voice and show the way of the workers as the way of the country. As Cardoso has come from a Marxist background with full support of the Brazilian Communist party in his early days, he has come full circle to his center-right position of today, so the MST can persuade those in desperation in the center and elsewhere to climb out of the pockets of banks, business and foreign interest to create a new Brazil in the hands of the Brazilian worker.

Amnesty International. Report – August 1997 Brazil Politically Motivated

Criminal Charges Against Land Reform Activists, AMR 19/17/97.

Epstein, Jack. Brazil On the Brink. Scholastic Update. 2/8/99, 131, p 3.

Maxwell, Kenneth. The Two Brazils. The Wilson Quarterly. 12/19/99, 23, p 50.

Zalaquette, Jose. From Dictatorship to Democracy. The New Republic. 12/16/85, v193, p 17.

Zimbler, Brian. Brazil’s Morning After. The New Leader. 9/9/85, v68, p 9.


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