A Movement of Meaning
Peasants Struggle for Land and Dignity in Brazil
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The Landless Laborers' Movement (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem-Terra or MST) is the most important new social movement in contemporary Latin America with over 1.5 million participants. In Brazil, 1.6 percent of the landowners control roughly half of the land on which crops could be grown, and the MST is organizing nonviolently for land reform and a higher quality of living for the landless. So far the MST's land occupation struggle has gained re-appropriation of enough land to award more than 350,000 families land titles in 2,000 settlements. A further 180,000 encamped families currently await government recognition. In their effort to improve lives, the MST has worked to build co-operative living communities and farming communities, schools, and teacher training programs. Along with land occupation actions, these self-improvement projects are the backbone of the MST movement.
Birth of a Movement
The MST, which is lead by poor and landless Brazilians,
has vigorously struggled to persuade landowners to concede
their unused land through land occupations and has chosen
to organize their resistance almost completely without
violence. The movement has achieved both land rights and
social rehumanization for the landless workers of Brazil.
Brazilians of all classes are slowly beginning to recognize
these masses of poor, landless people as inherently worthy.
This is a significant step, considering Brazil's history
of dehumanizing its poor, laboring class.
The MST is not the first organization to promote agricultural
reform in Brazil but it has been the most successful.
From 1950 to 1964, the Peasant Leagues (Ligas Camponesas)
and MASTER (Movimento dos Agricultores Sem Terra or the
Landless Farmers' Movement) began organizing for reform.
Building on the inspiration of predecessors as well as
the Brazilian constitution's declaration that land must
be put to good use by its owner - and unused land can
be expropriated by the government and distributed - the
MST has persuaded the Brazilian government to redistribute
over 20 million acres of agricultural land over the past
20 years. While this is only a trickle in the agricultural-reform
bucket, considering Brazil's deeply imbedded injustice,
violence and inequity, the MST victories thus far are
monumental. Brazilian journalist Wilson Braga illustrates
the degree of inequality found in Brazil:
In the Amazon, where the devastation of settlers' lives
and the rainforest has been overwhelming, the internal
transformation of activists has been critical in making
the MST effective. In their book To Inherit the Earth:
The Landless Movement and the Struggle for a New Brazil
(2003), Angus Lindsay Wright and Wendy Wolford write,
"Their ability to make this stand [against deforestation
and for land rights] will depend on the transformation
of the larger society and of the people themselves
What Paulo Freire called conscientizaçao, the awakening
of consciousness, is surely the most important single
thing in such an adaptive process
But it is not
just the consciousness of
all the MST members in
. Humanity has to have its consciousness awakened
The MST has awakened both its members and sympathizers
abroad to the sentience of the marginalized people, the
significance of land reform and the value of the environment.
Fundamentally related to the development of this internal
change is the MST's promotion of co-operatives. Co-operative
farms, living communities, credit unions and dairy plants
have functioned as both a source of community building
and economic efficiency. On several farms MST members
have placed their houses together creating agrovilas and
cultivate the land co-operatively. MST leaders believe
co-ops and collective work are essential to "promote
Christian and socialist values." Co-ops also relieve
farmers from the isolation they experienced as uprooted
landless workers. Co-operatives are considered to be a
form of what Gandhi called "constructive program,"
or internal improvement.
In The Search for a Nonviolent Future (2004) Michael
For the MST, the use of nonviolence has in many cases
"succeeded" in getting land throughout Brazil
redistributed and in improving the lives of MST members
- but not in every case. In 2005, the MST lost a legal
battle in Para, which left 10,000 homeless, and more than
64 people died in the struggle. But ultimately, the actions
of the MST always work on a profound level by bringing
to light the truths of interdependence and the value of
life by planting seeds for the improvement of the lives
of MST members and Brazilian society. They have triggered
a social transformation where the poor are being rehumanized
and empowered, while the wealthy are provided with opportunities
to redistribute their land and improve the quality of
life for everyone.
Jerlina Love is a graduate student in the African Diaspora Studies program at UC Berkeley with a love for peace, vegetables and dancing.