A recent piece about Brazil’s Landless Workers Movement (MST) in the New York Times (“If You Don’t Use Your Land, These Marxists May Take It”) irresponsibly feeds into right-wing efforts to distort, discredit, and criminalize the MST’s critical work. As long-term supporters of the MST, we feel compelled to share highlights of the things we know to be true about them, based on more than twenty years of friendship and accompaniment of their work.
Grassroots International has been in deep partnership with the MST, the largest social movement in the Americas, for more than two decades. Created in 1983 by families displaced from their ancestral land, the MST has organized over a million landless farmers throughout the country.
As a public foundation based in the US, it is our honor and privilege to accompany the MST in their efforts to build a dynamic grassroots movement to create a sustainable and equitable future in Brazil and across the globe. We do this through raising funds; engaging donors, funders, and allies in solidarity actions; and connecting people in the US with the work of the MST.
Part of our role as a movement support organization includes uplifting and amplifying the analysis, vision, and work of our movement partners, particularly when underrepresented or misrepresented in mainstream media. Here’s what you should know about the MST.
According to the Pastoral Land Commission, violence against peasants and Indigenous Peoples in Brazil spiked under the Bolsonaro administration. Last year, 47 people were assassinated.
1. The MST addresses the chronic problem of landlessness in Brazil caused by forced displacement and colonization.
With the same territorial area as the mainland of the United States, and a similar colonial past, Brazil is home to extreme concentration of land ownership and extreme 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. But just as legacies of oppression run deep, so too do legacies of resistance. Long before the MST existed, Indigenous Peoples, those who escaped slavery, and peasants battled against colonizers. Quilombos — communities of formerly enslaved peoples and their descendants — resisted the rules of a slavery society alongside Indigenous Peoples. Over time, these and other forms of resistance coalesced into Brazil’s powerful social movements like the MST. Through their organizing, Brazil’s Indigenous, Afro-descendant, and peasant families continue to push for the realization of their rights — to food, land, education, healthcare, etc. — and for broader social transformation.
2. The MST’s work is in alignment with the Brazilian Constitution of 1988, which assigns a social function to all land and requires the government to transfer land that is not performing its social function.
Brazil’s 1988 National Constitution protects the rights of Indigenous People and Afro-descendant communities and codifies the social function of land in the country. The Brazilian government is required to demarcate ancestral lands and transfer farmland that is not benefiting communities, such as land used for money laundering and modern-day slavery, to families who are willing to produce food to feed themselves and their communities. Unfortunately, the government does not fulfill this constitutional obligation without pressure, so landless families have to organize and occupy land for the government to “take notice” and initiate the process of assessing and purchasing the land to execute the transfer to the families. The MST is thus fulfilling an essential function by occupying the land of large-scale landholders who are in violation of the constitution. In four decades, 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. Currently, there are approximately 900 encampments holding 150,000 landless families in Brazil, who are organizing for the official recognition of their collective land rights.
[W]ith a small percentage of the elite holding almost all the available land while much of the population experiences extreme poverty, the MST offers a viable economic and political alternative.
3. The MST advances a vision of a People’s Agrarian Reform to create more sustainable communities and end hunger and landlessness altogether.
The protection of the rights of Indigenous, Afro-descendant, and peasant families is the foundation for the democratization of any country, not only Brazil. MST families want to take care of the land as their cultural heritage and live with dignity. Their proposal for a People’s Agrarian Reform is not grounded in land ownership, but in a vision of holistic democracy where everyone has access to fresh, healthy foods. They believe that the classic model of agrarian reform is based on extractivism and competition, often perpetuating cycles of land expulsion. Through the People’s Agrarian Reform, MST and other social movements are aiming to create more sustainable communities and to end hunger and landlessness altogether.
4. The MST is working in a context of ongoing threats, violence, and criminalization by large landholders and the Brazilian elite.
When the MST starts an occupation, the land transfer process often takes years. Generally the first thing the families do is start growing food and organizing their community. But during this precarious period of land transfer, families often face harassment and threats by the absentee landowner, the police, and paid militias. The families of the MST thus face ongoing death threats and criminalization as they struggle to live with dignity and create a better world. According to the Pastoral Land Commission, violence against peasants and Indigenous Peoples in Brazil spiked under the Bolsonaro administration. Last year, 47 people were assassinated. In 27% of the areas where these crimes took place, militias had visited and threatened families.
5. The MST challenges the extractive economy by fostering cooperative, regenerative, sustainable economies.
In an economic context of deep inequality, with a small percentage of the elite holding almost all the available land while much of the population experiences extreme poverty, the MST offers a viable economic and political alternative. In an occupation, the organized families create encampments known as acampamentos while they are waiting for the government to issue them title to the land. The acampamentos are highly organized, with families taking on responsibility for various areas, such as health, education, and food. When the rights to the land are won, a settlement (assentamento) is formed, and the land is divided into agricultural plots and a central village where the school and meeting space are located. In many settlements, the families farm the land collectively. Over time, the MST has created a wide variety of cooperatively run enterprises — farms, processing plants, technical assistance units, credit cooperative, and more — producing a wide variety of products and services. For the last five years, the MST has been the largest producer of organic rice in Latin America.
As of January 2022, the MST had distributed well over one million lunch boxes and more than six thousand tons of food since the start of the pandemic, largely to urban dwellers in need.
6. The MST led Brazil’s COVID crisis response — organizing health care, health education, and food distribution programs rooted in community-driven, cooperative models.
Early into the pandemic, the MST sprang into action. In a rural area in dire need of health facilities, it converted one of its agroecology schools into a field hospital while advocating for government action. And it activated its National Health Collective to send out cohorts of “popular health agents” into communities to raise awareness of the virus and help curb its spread. The MST also turned its attention to the “hunger pandemic” accompanying COVID, with massive distributions of food produced in its settlements through agroecology methods. As of January 2022, the MST had distributed well over one million lunch boxes and more than six thousand tons of food since the start of the pandemic, largely to urban dwellers in need. Essential to these still-ongoing efforts has been their organizing component. The MST is clear that this is not a one-way distribution of food, but a form of popular organizing across the urban-rural divide, building essential linkages toward a vision of food sovereignty.
7. The MST is an internationalist social movement, providing global leadership to agroecology, food sovereignty, and ecological justice movements.
The MST is the founding member of several global spaces and organizations, including La Via Campesina, a global social movement in 81 countries representing 220 million rural people. With a vision of building solidarity that transcends geographical borders, the MST has organized solidarity brigades with other peasant and Indigenous movements in more than a dozen countries. Years before the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, the MST played a central role in the Jacques Dessaline Solidarity Brigade, building the capacity of local organizations to teach sustainable agricultural practices and helping to launch the first national school of agroecology. During the earthquake, the MST was able to send food, clothing, and medical supplies to Haiti, as well as sending its own members with specializations in healthcare, agronomy, and more. Similar MST brigades have gone to Zambia, Palestine, Paraguay, Guatemala, and Mozambique.
8. One of the pillars of the MST’s success is education.
Schools and meeting spaces are at the center of the MST’s encampments and settlements. The MST families have access to early education for children and adult literacy programs based on the “Pedagogy of the Earth,” a method based on realities of rural families and their own cultures. The MST trains members to lead the schools; organizes classes in partnership with local universities; and offers a wide variety of community-based education opportunities in agroecology, communications, health care, and more. Today, a growing number of MST members are lawyers, doctors, and agronomists and/or taking graduate classes in Masters and PhD programs throughout Brazil. The MST’s agroecology schools have served as models and inspiration for a growing network of agroecology schools across Latin America and globally.
During the [2010 Haiti] earthquake, the MST was able to send food, clothing, and medical supplies… as well as sending its own members with specializations in healthcare, agronomy, and more.
9. The MST incorporates struggles for gender justice, grassroots feminisms, racial justice, and the end of all oppressions.
The close to two million people who have been involved with the MST have come from different socioeconomic, regional, and cultural backgrounds. Recognizing that their movement is diverse, as are rural peoples in general, and that the protagonism of all is necessary for a strong movement and the creation of a just society, the MST organizes for the rights of women-identified, gender nonconforming, and LGBTQI+ people, as well as Black/Afro-descendent, Indigenous, and all other oppressed and marginalized communities. The work of MST’s Gender Sector, in particular, has contributed greatly to the articulation of global grassroots feminisms through a wide range of programs with diverse leadership. As the MST explains: “without these programs, values such as exploitation, discrimination, violence, authoritarianism and individualism… will exist in our homes, communities of camps and settlements and in the body of the organization.” This is why the movement is simultaneously looking inward and outward in its work toward transformation.
10. The criminalization of the MST is part of a broader effort by the right wing in Brazil to undermine social justice organizations at this time.
It is concerning that the article from the New York Times coincides with a recent proposal to establish a Parliamentary Investigation Commission targeting Brazilian social movements like the MST. This proposal is coming from right-wing politicians, who continue to control Brazil’s parliament, and who have long felt their interests threatened by the MST and its vision for social transformation. This is not the first time that such an initiative has taken place, but it represents an alarming escalation of right-wing attacks against popular movements in the wake of the election loss of Bolsonaro — at a critical moment for efforts toward deepening democracy and eradicating poverty in Brazil.