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Partnership with the Landless Workers Movement of Brazil

May 2023

Coupling resource mobilization with international solidarity building

With the same territorial area as mainland United States, and a similar colonial past, Brazil is home to extreme concentration of land ownership and staggering social inequalities that go hand-in-hand. Just 1% of landowners control nearly 50% of the land in rural Brazil. Internal displacement by agribusiness, mining, and hydropower corporations has generated widespread landlessness in the country. Legacies of colonization and slavery persist, with many Indigenous, Afro-descendant, and peasant families working as farmworkers in plantations in their own ancestral lands. Against this backdrop, the accomplishments of Brazil’s Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (Landless Workers Movement, MST) are nothing short of extraordinary.

The MST works toward a vision of popular agrarian reform grounded in food sovereignty. A central strategy is large-scale land occupations by landless people. The occupations target land that is not fulfilling a social function, in accordance with the Brazilian Constitution of 1988. Those occupying the land create encampments while they are waiting for the government to issue them land titles. The encampments are highly organized, addressing needs such as health, education, and food. When the rights to the land are won, a settlement is formed, and the land is divided into agricultural plots and a central village with a school and community meeting space.

Since its founding in 1984, the movement has organized more than 2,500 land occupations, and successfully secured land for over 370,000 families on 17 million acres – a territory equivalent to the size of Uruguay. As of 2023, there are approximately 900 encampments holding 150,000 landless families in Brazil, who are organizing for the official recognition of their collective land rights. Over time, the MST has created a wide variety of cooperatively run enterprises, including farms, processing plants, technical assistance units, credit cooperatives, and more, producing a wide variety of products and services. With a production model grounded in agroecology, farming in sync with natural cycles and without synthetic agrochemicals, the MST is presently the largest producer of organic rice in Latin America.

Grassroots International and the MST initiated their relationship in 1998, as Brazil was becoming a hotbed of resistance to neoliberal globalization. From that time, the relationship has blossomed on multiple fronts, from the scaling of agroecology to human rights defense to advancement of grassroots feminisms. According to Cássia Bechara of the MST’s international relations collective, “Grassroots International is more than a partner. You’re comrades with whom we share dreams of a better world.”

The partnership proved especially vital when Brazil was among the countries hardest hit by the Covid-19 pandemic. With support from Grassroots International’s emergency Covid response fund, the MST’s multifaceted pandemic response included conversion of one of its agroecology schools into a field hospital; activation of its National Health Collective to send out cohorts of popular health agents into communities; distribution of over one million lunchboxes and more than six thousand tons of food, largely to urban dwellers in need; and advocacy around vaccine access, restoration of essential services slashed by the government, and broader system change.

In 2022, the far-right Bolsonaro government sought to lift a national moratorium on evictions, threatening half a million Brazilians with homelessness. The MST once again sprang into action and mobilized a massive popular response, amplified by Grassroots International and Friends of the MST via an international solidarity campaign. Through a range of actions, including thousands of letters sent to Brazilian officials, the Zero Evictions campaign was a resounding success. Work around advocacy and communications remains a growing area of partnership.

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