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Case #378

Landless Rural Workers Coalition Successfully Challenges Brazilian Government


The Movement of Landless Rural Workers (MST) was created in 1984 by a coalition of Catholic liberation theologians, land-reform groups and rural workers' unions. Twelve years later it is active in 24 of the 28 Brazilian states and has become an immovable object in the path of the free-market economic policies of the Brazilian Government. It has challenged the face of political power in Brazil by placing the urgent need for agrarian reform at the very center of the country's political agenda.

The MST has already improved the conditions of some 150,000 squatter families. Today almost all of them have a better standard of living than the majority of small farmers in Brazil. Within the MST there are currently 44,000 families - 220,000 people. Organized by the Movement, they occupy land that they hope to settle permanently.

The MST gets 80 per cent of its funding in small amounts from each of its member co-operatives; 15 per cent comes from local progressive organizations and trade unions. Unlike other large social movements in Brazil, it receives less than five per cent of its budget from foreign-aid agencies. Almost all the foreign aid it does receive is devoted to political education.

MST leaders feel that international solidarity shown at crucial moments in the fight for land has been much more important than money. More expressions of international solidarity are being organized by rural workers in the rest of Latin America and around the world. The MST is a member of Via Campesina - a worldwide network of small farmers - and the Latin American Coordinating Group of Rural Organizations.

Foreign aid is a comparatively small part of its budget because the MST has a clearly defined view of the state. `The Brazilian state has a lot of money and an obligation to guarantee investment in health, education and other basic services,' says Mauro. `We don't just want land. We also require schools, hospitals and roads to carry our products. This role can only be undertaken by the Brazilian state. Any purely economic assistance from foreign aid agencies is a palliative for specific situations and doesn't help to resolve the crucial question, which is the concentration of power in Brazil.'

The future plans of the MST are ambitious. It aims to settle up to 25,000 families permanently on the most fertile land in Brazil, in the region known as Pontal or Paranapanema. This is where the richest of all Brazilian landowners installed themselves in the middle of the last century. By falsifying land titles and expelling rural workers, they built their fame, fortune and power in Pontal, which today has almost 15,000 people camped on roadside verges. It is here that the MST has founded what is already being dubbed the `MST Republic'. As a start, landless people are also gradually achieving more political power in the ten municipalities in the region.


Popular movements in the South frequently have to face the `deep structures' of poverty on their own. The best kind of aid shows solidarity with them. The MST has three basic commitments: to fight for land, for agrarian reform and for social transformation. Putting them into practice has involved not just people who are landless but the whole of society as active participants in change. Through the settlement of people, MST has proved that land reform is viable, even in Brazil. This will enable millions of rural Brazilians to be freed from extreme poverty - without recourse to charity.

The political line taken by the MST has aroused the antagonism of Brazil's rulers and landowners. Time and again the MST has been accused of having links with guerrilla organizations in Latin America, like Sendero Luminoso (`Shining Path') in Peru or the Zapatistas in Mexico. But the Movement is armed only with its organization and an inclination to fight for agrarian reform that has taken many sectors of Brazilian society by surprise. Says one leader, ?If the MST had taken the military option it would no longer exist. We have the support of society, and we've put land reform on the agenda. I think we can offer a better example to the Latin American guerrilla organizations than they can offer us.?
Location: Brazil
Setting: Third World
Extent of Action: Regional (within a country)
Issues: Worker Rights
Year(s): 1984
Outcome in progress
Source: New Internationalist, November 1996, p.12


Carlos Tautz (tautzCax.apc.org)
Prepared By: sl 1/02
Rating: 1
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