[News] Occupy, Resist, Produce: The Strategy and Political Vision of Brazil’s Landless Workers’ Movement

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Thu May 31 11:28:43 EDT 2018


  Occupy, Resist, Produce: The Strategy and Political Vision of Brazil’s
  Landless Workers’ Movement

by Ben Dangl <https://www.counterpunch.org/author/bresp5zexefetha/> - 
May 31, 2018

/Brazil’s Landless Workers’ Movement (MST) is one of Latin America’s 
largest social movements, with roughly 1.5 million members. For decades 
the MST has operated under their slogan “Occupy, Resist, Produce” to 
settle landless farmers on unused land in Brazil, where roughly 3% of 
the population owns over 2/3 of the vast country’s arable land. In the 
midst of Brazil’s current political crisis 
the MST continues to work for justice and against the right-wing Michel 
Temer government. Most recently, it has mobilized for the release 
unjustly imprisoned 
<https://www.thenation.com/article/lula-may-be-in-jail-but-brazils-occupy-movement-wont-let-hope-die/> former 
Brazilian President, recent presidential candidate, and Workers’ Party 
leader, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva 
<https://www.alternet.org/world/lula-caravan-brazil-populism>. The 
following is a brief overview of the history, tactics and political 
vision of this powerful movement./

In the early hours of the morning on October 29, 1985, 2,500 landless 
families arrived in trucks, buses, and motorcycles to occupy Fazenda 
Annoni, a roughly 23,000-acre plot of land in Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil. 
The families were forced to occupy the land out of desperation. For many 
of these activists, the alternative was grueling, slavery-like labor on 
large estates, or crushing poverty in city slums. Darci Bonato, a 
participant in the occupation, recalled that the families had only what 
they could carry on their backs with them to start their new lives.

    We had a [grill] that we could use over an open fire, saucepans,
    food and bedclothes. The children had fallen asleep by the time we
    arrived and we laid them on a mattress under a tree, covering them
    with a blanket. Then we went back to the road to help guard the
    camp. That first night, none of the adults slept. There was a full
    moon, I remember, and it was quite bright. When dawn came, some
    policemen arrived. Strung out along the fence, we were ready to stop
    them coming in. There were rumors that we were armed, but we
    weren’t. The only weapons we had were our hoes and scythes.[1]

Police tried to in vain to push them off the land, but the activists had 
strength in numbers and successfully resisted the police as they 
continued preparing for their new lives. “People began putting up their 
tents, collecting water from the river, and lighting a fire for the 
cooking,” Bonato recalled.[2] 

The police siege of the camp went on for a year, making it hard for the 
families to come and go, and receive food and supplies. The MST 
activists eventually opened up a school to teach their children, and 
more people joined family members in the camp as it became further 
established. The police blockade made it necessary for everyone in the 
camp to share supplies, labor, and food. At one point, children 
approached the police and gave them flowers, explaining that they 
weren’t against the police, but against the government. By 1987, the 
government agreed to let the farmers stay on the land. Bonato spoke of 
the years she spent at the camp:

    I don’t regret it. If hadn’t done that, I would have worked for
    thirty years as a farm laborer and ended up without a single
    hectare. So for me it was a huge victory. Today my sons are living
    on the settlement with me, each with his plot of land. They lived
    through it all with me, and now they’re ten times better off than
    they would have been if I’d gone on working as a hired hand.[3]

The MST members who occupied Fazenda Annoni saw the direct rewards of 
their hard work, and inspired new landless activists in Brazil.

The tactics of the MST speak to the creativity and resourcefulness of 
its members. The ability among participants in this occupation to build 
a close-knit community of self-sufficient farmers, raise children, and 
resist the police all at once is reflective of the MST’s capacities and 
persistence on a national level. Over the course of the MST’s twenty-six 
years of work, it has expropriated over thirty-five million acres, and 
settled over 400,000 families.[4] 
<https://towardfreedom.org/archives/americas/occupy-resist-produce-the-strategy-and-political-vision-of-brazils-landless-workers-movement/#_edn4> The 
settlements, which are often cooperatively organized (with some notable 
exceptions), are home to hundreds of MST-built schools, which have 
enabled tens of thousands of people to learn to read and write.[5] 
<https://towardfreedom.org/archives/americas/occupy-resist-produce-the-strategy-and-political-vision-of-brazils-landless-workers-movement/#_edn5> As 
the movement has grown, it has carved its own autonomous social presence 
through direct action and has become a major political force in Brazil.

*Occupy, Resist, Produce*

The MST began in 1984, when for four days in January, approximately one 
hundred landless farmers met in the southern state of Paraná. Because 
the organizers knew that the movement needed to be broad, landless 
leaders from thirteen different states were invited. This gathering was 
a break from the traditional land struggles, which had largely been led 
by unions. Many in large Brazilian labor unions believed the fight for 
agrarian reform should take place within union ranks—but unions didn’t 
accept landless farmers as members. João Pedro Stédile, the Rio Grande 
do Sul Secretary of Agriculture at the time, along with other 
participants in the meeting, saw that the entire family of a landless 
farmer is affected by injustice, and therefore should be empowered to 
define what an alternative should look like. On that basis, Stédile 
believed leaders should incorporate families into the movement. Thus, 
all members of the landless families were given rights to participate in 
the movement from the beginning of the MST. Besides empowering women 
outside of the traditional patriarchal structure, Stédile explained in 
1999, “By including all members of the family, the movement acquires a 
remarkable potential force. Adolescents, for example, who are used to 
being oppressed by their fathers, realize that their votes in an 
assembly are as important as their father’s [vote].”[6] 
<https://towardfreedom.org/archives/americas/occupy-resist-produce-the-strategy-and-political-vision-of-brazils-landless-workers-movement/#_edn6> Over 
time, this breadth of membership contributed to the movement’s longevity 
and strength in numbers when occupying land and creating objectives that 
took into account the needs of all family members.

The MST – whose slogan is “Occupy, Resist, Produce” – has been 
peacefully occupying unused land since 1985. Typically, when the 
activists take over land, they develop cooperative farms and build 
houses, schools, and health clinics on it. They manage the land 
collectively in a sustainable way, as well as educate children and 
advance gender equality.[7] 
<https://towardfreedom.org/archives/americas/occupy-resist-produce-the-strategy-and-political-vision-of-brazils-landless-workers-movement/#_edn7> Since 
the founding of the movement, the MST did not just take over land, they 
also participated in marches, blockades, and occupations aimed at 
acquiring government assistance for their members, including improved 
access to credit, education, and healthcare. For decades, the MST has 
actively fought against the use of genetically modified organisms (GMO) 
and large-scale, industrial farming, while also working within their own 
camps to grow healthy food on a small-scale that generates employment 
for MST members.[8] 
<https://towardfreedom.org/archives/americas/occupy-resist-produce-the-strategy-and-political-vision-of-brazils-landless-workers-movement/#_edn8> Moving 
from its initial focus on land occupations, this diverse set of tactics 
and goals has helped the movement remain flexible over time, and able to 
adapt to new agricultural practices and changes in the political 
landscape of the country.

Among the reforms following the fall of the Brazilian dictatorship in 
1985 was a new constitution written in 1988, establishing the right of 
the government to redistribute unused land to landless farmers. The land 
reform measure established that all land must be used for the good of 
society. If land does not fulfill a social function, the constitution 
stated, then the government reserves the right to take over and 
redistribute that land.[9] 
<https://towardfreedom.org/archives/americas/occupy-resist-produce-the-strategy-and-political-vision-of-brazils-landless-workers-movement/#_edn9> The 
institutional tool that carries out this redistribution is the National 
Colonization and Agrarian Reform Institute (INCRA). Once INCRA certifies 
that land should be redistributed, the government appropriates it by 
paying the landowner for the land, and in the case of MST occupations, 
gives the title of the property to the landless farmers. The MST has 
used this constitutional reform to pressure the government and INCRA to 
follow their own legal procedures—first by occupying the unused land, 
and then by demanding ownership of that land, or land nearby the 

Much of the MST’s success lies in the democratic structures of its 
leadership, decision-making, and mobilization. Decisions and activities 
of the movement are debated in elected committees at various levels of 
the movement, ranging from the encampments to the regional offices. 
Within the MST, every member belongs to their own Base Group, a 
participatory committee that keeps power among the roots of the 
movement. The Base Groups in each encampment or settlement are made up 
of ten to twenty families, and each group has both a male and female 

“That’s our democracy,” MST member João Amaral of Rio Grande do Sul, 
said of the Base Groups’ process and general operations. Using consensus 
to arrive at decisions is an important part of the Base Groups’ 
functionality, according to Amaral. “Perhaps that’s one of the secrets 
of the unity of the MST. That we have not been divided over every issue 
where you have to make a decision. That’s just it. We look for 
consensus, respecting the positions in the minority, until we arrive at 
consensus. There have been cases where positions which were at first in 
the minority became majority in the discussion process.”[12] 

This emphasis on a decentralized, bottom-up approach adds to the 
movement’s sustainability and popularity among members. It is largely 
through the land occupations that MST leaders emerge; their skills are 
further developed in classes and meetings. The focus on bringing new 
leadership into the fold has spanned generations and undermines moves to 
centralize decision-making power in the hands of a few.

The actual occupation of land generates momentum and increases the 
number of MST members. Generally, once MST leaders decide on a parcel of 
unused land to occupy in a given area, they organize in the communities 
surrounding the land, describing the process INCRA goes through, and 
recruiting people to participate in the occupation. This community-based 
process brings people into the MST, incorporating participants into the 
necessary logistical tasks and preparation for the occupation, and then 
cementing relations through the solidarity that the occupation itself 
requires. After all of the planning is complete and the MST members 
decide to occupy the land, everyone is alerted at the last minute to 
maintain an element of surprise. Finally, participants enter the land, 
setting up their camp before dawn.[13] 
<https://towardfreedom.org/archives/americas/occupy-resist-produce-the-strategy-and-political-vision-of-brazils-landless-workers-movement/#_edn13> While 
this is a typical approach, over time MST members have also set up 
encampments in which people rotate through the camp during a 
two-to-five-year period as people are awarded land.

As Stédile explained in 2002,

    On the night [of the occupation], the hired trucks arrive, well
    before daybreak, and go around the communities, pick up all they can
    carry and then set off for the property. The families have one night
    to take possession of the area and build their shelters, so that
    early the next morning, when the proprietor realizes what’s
    happened, the encampment is already set up. The committee chooses a
    family to reconnoiter the place, to find where there are sources of
    water, where there are trees for shade.[14]

The goal is to remain in the fight in spite of any repression from 
police or thugs hired by the landowner: “[T]he main thing for a group, 
once it’s gathered in an encampment, is to stay united, to keep putting 
pressure on the government.”[15] 
<https://towardfreedom.org/archives/americas/occupy-resist-produce-the-strategy-and-political-vision-of-brazils-landless-workers-movement/#_edn15> The 
MST’s persistence and technique of direct action has been incredibly 
successful over the years and empowers its capacity to build an 
autonomous space for survival while pressuring the government at the 
same time.

After setting up camp, the group begins to push INCRA, court officials, 
and/or politicians for land. The activists often wait two to four years. 
In the meantime, landowners, their thugs, and police usually try to push 
the people off the land through harassment and assassinations. The 
organizational power of the MST, the solidarity of other groups that 
support it, and the dedication of settling families is decisive in 
whether or not the occupation will be successful.[16] 

For many MST activists, life turns out to be better than what was 
suffered through before occupying the new land. Sonia Bergamasco, a 
professor of agrarian engineering at Campinas State University and the 
author of an MST settlement survey, said, “95 percent of people respond 
that they’re better off now [after entering a settlement]. At least they 
have housing, they grow food and their kids go to school. Once they’re 
settled, one of the first things communities do is start a school.”[17] 

The difficulty of life in the encampments pushes some to leave, but the 
adversity also brings MST members together. The living conditions are 
often tough in the camps, with plastic homemade tents to live in and 
poor water supplies. It is hard to remain healthy and prevent the spread 
of illness when an encampment is far from a hospital. To inspire 
solidarity, educate the children, and strengthen the will to stay in the 
fight, MST committees organize dances, soccer games, and theater 

Pacote, an MST member, recalled,

    We lost what little we had when we went to the encampment. We could
    take little even of those few things we owned into the new
    encampment, the only thing we took was our [wood-burning] cook
    stove. What little savings we had were soon gone, because we were
    earning nothing. We had no house or land to return to, no household
    goods, hardly any clothing, very few of our tools—everything was
    lost. And there was no way to go back and be the same person again
    to the old neighbors, the friends on the outside. Everything
    depended on the future and on the friends we had made in the
    encampment. There was no way back.[19]

In general, for people living in squalor or essentially enslavement as 
farm laborers, in slums, facing fierce poverty, drug addiction, crime, 
and lack of education and healthcare for their families, the MST 
encampments have been a clear improvement.[20] 

At first, the MST’s main focus was the fight for land. But quickly the 
activists discussed the need to educate their children to be able 
community members. The MST families wanted an empowering education for 
their children, so they could, “fight for their rights, to work 
together, to value the healthy life they could live in the country and 
to resist the lure of the city.” The movement decided they needed to set 
up their own, more liberating education system. In 1990, they developed 
their aims for this system, which focused on training new leaders, 
showing the reality of society and how it can be changed, in addition to 
classes in reading, writing, and analytical skills. Problems arose if 
children attending distant schools moved around a lot from camp to camp, 
and if the schools were outdoors, children were exposed to the elements. 
In response to such difficulties, MST activists set up itinerant schools 
in which teachers traveled with all of their supplies, including 
blackboards and desks.[21] 

In March of 1998, when the police evicted MST members from a camp in Rio 
Grande do Sul, the activists decided to march to the state capital in 
protest. The itinerant schools went with them, operating in various 
settings along the march. One teacher described this educational experience:

    Our desks and seats were the hard, cold ground, the blackboard was a
    piece of paper taped to the wall, to the railings, to the trees or
    just held in the teacher’s hand. We learned by seeing, living, and
    doing. We calculated the kilometers, meters, centimeters of the road
    we had to take, the number of days it would take to arrive in the
    capital, what was produced in the towns we went through… We saw
    cars, horses, carts, trains, planes, a helicopter, boats, ships, so
    we studied means of transport. We sang in front of 2,000 people [at
    the teachers’ union assembly in Porto Alegre]… When we decided to
    write a letter to the governor, we talked about the theme, we wrote
    about it, each one giving an idea, then it was read and approved by
    the collective school.[22]

This educational approach is illustrative of the MST’s general focus on 
providing an alternative to the state and traditional Brazilian 
institutions. In the classroom, the farming fields, and the meetings, 
the MST has built its own world without waiting for the right election 
results, policy change, or political party backing; it has taken matters 
into its own hands to build the society it needs to survive and thrive.

“In whatever society, and even more so in Brazil, social change doesn’t 
depend on the government but on the organization and the mobilization of 
society. It is the people that make the change,” noted Stédile. “The 
people have to realize that it’s useless looking to the government for 
everything. The government forms part of society and it’s preferable 
that it’s progressive… But the essential changes of society do not come 
from the government but from the energies that the working class 
succeeds in mobilizing when organizing for its rights.”[23] 

/This article is excerpted and adapted from Dancing with Dynamite: 
Social Movements and States in Latin America 
<https://www.amazon.com/Dancing-Dynamite-Social-Movements-America/dp/1849350159> by 
Benjamin Dangl, (AK Press, 2010)./


<https://towardfreedom.org/archives/americas/occupy-resist-produce-the-strategy-and-political-vision-of-brazils-landless-workers-movement/#_ednref1> Quoted 
in Sue Branford and Jan Rocha, /Cutting the Wire: The Story of the 
Landless Movement in Brazil/(London: Latin America Bureau, 2002), 35–36. 
Encruzilhada Natalino, located near the Fazena Annoni, was the first MST 
encampment: “History of the MST,” MSTBrazil.org, 

<https://towardfreedom.org/archives/americas/occupy-resist-produce-the-strategy-and-political-vision-of-brazils-landless-workers-movement/#_ednref2> Quoted 
in Branford and Rocha, /Cutting the Wire/, 35–36.

<https://towardfreedom.org/archives/americas/occupy-resist-produce-the-strategy-and-political-vision-of-brazils-landless-workers-movement/#_ednref3> Quoted 
in Ibid., 37–39.

<https://towardfreedom.org/archives/americas/occupy-resist-produce-the-strategy-and-political-vision-of-brazils-landless-workers-movement/#_ednref4> Michael 
Fox, “Brazil’s Landless Movement Turns 25, Opens ‘New Phase’ of 
Struggle,” /Upside Down World/, January 28, 2009, 
http://upsidedownworld.org/main/ content/view/1688/63/.

<https://towardfreedom.org/archives/americas/occupy-resist-produce-the-strategy-and-political-vision-of-brazils-landless-workers-movement/#_ednref5> For 
example, at Fazenda Annoni some families are organized into coops, while 
others are not and farm their own 20 hectares.

<https://towardfreedom.org/archives/americas/occupy-resist-produce-the-strategy-and-political-vision-of-brazils-landless-workers-movement/#_ednref6> Quoted 
in Branford and Rocha, /Cutting the Wire/, 21–23.

<https://towardfreedom.org/archives/americas/occupy-resist-produce-the-strategy-and-political-vision-of-brazils-landless-workers-movement/#_ednref7> “About 
the MST,” MSTBrazil.org, http://www.mstbrazil.org/?q=about.

<https://towardfreedom.org/archives/americas/occupy-resist-produce-the-strategy-and-political-vision-of-brazils-landless-workers-movement/#_ednref8> “History 
of the MST.”

<https://towardfreedom.org/archives/americas/occupy-resist-produce-the-strategy-and-political-vision-of-brazils-landless-workers-movement/#_ednref9> Richard 
Plevin, “The World Bank Project Subverts Land Reform in Brazil,” /Global 
Exchange/, August 6, 1999, http://www.mstbrazil.org/wbsubverts.html.

<https://towardfreedom.org/archives/americas/occupy-resist-produce-the-strategy-and-political-vision-of-brazils-landless-workers-movement/#_ednref10> Matthew 
Flynn, “Brazil’s Landless Workers Movement,” /Americas Program/, April, 
2003, http://americas.irc-online.org/citizen-action/series/06-mst_body.html.

<https://towardfreedom.org/archives/americas/occupy-resist-produce-the-strategy-and-political-vision-of-brazils-landless-workers-movement/#_ednref11> Sílvia 
Leindecker and Michael Fox, /Beyond Elections: Redefining Democracy in 
the Americas/ (Oakland: PM Press/Estreito Meios Productions, 2008), 
http://www. beyondelections.com/. Interview from documentary segment at: 
http://www. youtube.com/watch?v=dK0IAM-DIaA.

<https://towardfreedom.org/archives/americas/occupy-resist-produce-the-strategy-and-political-vision-of-brazils-landless-workers-movement/#_ednref12> Quoted 
in Ibid.

<https://towardfreedom.org/archives/americas/occupy-resist-produce-the-strategy-and-political-vision-of-brazils-landless-workers-movement/#_ednref13> Flynn, 
“Brazil’s Landless Workers Movement.”

<https://towardfreedom.org/archives/americas/occupy-resist-produce-the-strategy-and-political-vision-of-brazils-landless-workers-movement/#_ednref14> Joao 
Pedro Stédile, “Landless Battalions,” /New Left Review/, May/June 2002, 

<https://towardfreedom.org/archives/americas/occupy-resist-produce-the-strategy-and-political-vision-of-brazils-landless-workers-movement/#_ednref15> Ibid.

<https://towardfreedom.org/archives/americas/occupy-resist-produce-the-strategy-and-political-vision-of-brazils-landless-workers-movement/#_ednref16> Melissa 
Moore, “Now It Is Time: The MST and Grassroots Land Reform in Brazil,” 
/Food First/, March 8, 2003, http://www.foodfirst.org/en/node/49.

<https://towardfreedom.org/archives/americas/occupy-resist-produce-the-strategy-and-political-vision-of-brazils-landless-workers-movement/#_ednref17> Quoted 
in Bill Hinchberger, “The Brazilian Landless Workers Movement (MST),” 
/The Nation/, March 2, 1998, 

<https://towardfreedom.org/archives/americas/occupy-resist-produce-the-strategy-and-political-vision-of-brazils-landless-workers-movement/#_ednref18> Angus 
Lindsay Wright and Wendy Wolford, /To Inherit the Earth: The Landless 
Movement and the Struggle for a New Brazil/ (Oakland: Food First Books, 
2003), 46–51

<https://towardfreedom.org/archives/americas/occupy-resist-produce-the-strategy-and-political-vision-of-brazils-landless-workers-movement/#_ednref19> Quoted 
in Ibid., 54, 264.

<https://towardfreedom.org/archives/americas/occupy-resist-produce-the-strategy-and-political-vision-of-brazils-landless-workers-movement/#_ednref20> Ibid.

<https://towardfreedom.org/archives/americas/occupy-resist-produce-the-strategy-and-political-vision-of-brazils-landless-workers-movement/#_ednref21> Branford 
and Rocha, /Cutting the Wire/, 114–118. Also see Michael Fox, “Landless 
Women Launch Protests Across Brazil,” /NACLA Report on the Americas/, 
March 12, 2009, https://nacla.org/node/5611.

<https://towardfreedom.org/archives/americas/occupy-resist-produce-the-strategy-and-political-vision-of-brazils-landless-workers-movement/#_ednref22> Quoted 
in Branford and Rocha, /Cutting the Wire/, 119.

<https://towardfreedom.org/archives/americas/occupy-resist-produce-the-strategy-and-political-vision-of-brazils-landless-workers-movement/#_ednref23> Quoted 
in Marc Saint-Upéry, /El Sueño de Bolívar: El Desafío de Las Izquierdas 
Sudamericanas/(Barcelona: Paidós, 2008), 65–67.

/*Benjamin Dangl <https://twitter.com/bendangl>* has a PhD in history 
from McGill University and is the editor of TowardFreedom.com 
<https://towardfreedom.com/>, a progressive perspective on world events./

Freedom Archives 522 Valencia Street San Francisco, CA 94110 415 
863.9977 https://freedomarchives.org/
-------------- next part --------------
An HTML attachment was scrubbed...
URL: <http://freedomarchives.org/pipermail/news_freedomarchives.org/attachments/20180531/b274786d/attachment.html>

More information about the News mailing list