What’s Behind The Attack Against Brazil’s Landless Rural Workers’ Movement?
In the Atalaia, Alagoas, the Carlos Marighella Brigade of the MST, organized tree planting next to the Paraíba River. Photo: Mykesio Max
The Landless Rural Workers’ Movement (MST), Brazil’s largest social organization and a major force for land reform, is under attack from the country’s conservative forces in the parliament and the mass media.
On April 26, the Chamber of Deputies of the National Congress, dominated by right-wing opposition parties, approved the establishment of a Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry (CPI) to investigate “the activities,” “the real purpose,” and “the means of funding” of the MST.
The announcement came amid the movement’s National Commemoration of Struggles in Defense of Agrarian Reform. On this occasion, the movement organizes activities to “reaffirm the centrality of the struggle for land in Brazil and the importance of implementing an Agrarian Reform project to develop the countryside, produce healthy food, and combat hunger.”
As part of this month of struggle, which the mainstream media has termed “Red April,” the movement carries out peaceful occupations of abandoned and unproductive areas in the countryside with the objective of converting them into a place to live and grow food. Land occupation is a tactic used by the movement throughout the rest of the year to push for agrarian reform and settle landless families on unproductive land. This April, the MST carried out 33 land occupations.
These actions have unsurprisingly provoked the ire of the country’s large landowning right-wing and the media apparatus, and the movement has been subject to slanderous media campaigns, vitriolic diatribes by right-wing politicians, and the victim of criminalization and legal processes, including four prior CPIs. The latest attack on the MST is thus nothing new.
What is land occupation?
Since it was founded in 1984, the MST has occupied land to promote agrarian reform in the country. As part of the land occupation, landless families and workers build communities, called encampments, which become settlements when the government officially incorporates them as agrarian reform lands. In these areas, the landless families produce food and build homes and schools.
For the movement, the occupation of unproductive lands is a legitimate way of fighting for land redistribution, for the right to housing and work, and for combating inequality in the countryside.
MST land occupation. Photo: Sebastião Salgado
Land is a fundamental question in Brazil where, according to the most recent agrarian census, around 1% of landowners control almost 50% of the land in rural Brazil. Furthermore, as a 2020 dossier by the Tricontinental Institute highlights, “Half of all rural landowners have holdings that are less than 10 hectares [a soccer field is about one hectare], but these holdings account for barely 2% of the total land. In other words, most holdings are enormous and are held by a small minority—the landowning elite.”
The Brazilian Federal Constitution of 1988 outlines in Article 184 that the Union should “expropriate for social interest, for agrarian reform, rural property that is not fulfilling its social function.” The constitution defines that social function is met when the rural property meets the following requirements: “I – rational and adequate use; II – adequate use of available natural resources and preservation of the environment; III – compliance with the provisions that regulate labor relations; IV – exploitation that favors the well-being of the owners and workers.”
The MST exclusively occupies unproductive lands, and areas where environmental violations have taken place, or are used for illegal labor activities such as slavery, child labor, or human trafficking, and which are involved in cases of tax fraud—in other words, lands that the constitution stipulates that the state must expropriate for land reform.
Why is the MST a threat?
The MST emerged during the resistance to the military dictatorship and its policies of consolidating and strengthening large rural landholdings, and excluding and abandoning small and medium-scale farmers. Today, there are around 500,000 families living in MST settlements and 100,000 families in camps.
With over one million members, the MST is the largest radical movement in the country and also fights for democracy, social justice, and the fundamental rights for all Brazilians. The movement is also the largest producer of organic rice in Latin America and the Caribbean.
During the devastating COVID-19 pandemic which caused over 700,000 deaths and led to high levels of food insecurity and hunger, the MST donated more than 8,500 tons of healthy food to the most needy people in villages and cities across the country.
Solidarity Christmas without hunger in Pernambuco. Photo: Nicolas Gandhi
The movement contributed decisively in the campaign to elect President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in the 2022 general elections. Six state and federal deputies from the movement also won elections.
A central part of the MST’s platform is the fight for not just the redistribution of land, but a new society, conceptualized in the People’s Agrarian Reform, which “guarantees access to land as a human right; produces healthy and sustainable food for the entire Brazilian society; offers the market wholesome foods free of pesticides; values the role of rural working women; expands the number of agroecology cooperatives; and expands food sovereignty and biodiversity in the fight against hunger and food insecurity.”
The movement’s active and militant struggle for radical change in all parts of society has made it the enemy not only of large landowners, represented by the ‘ruralist caucus’ in Congress, but also of other sectors of Brazil’s far-right. It is these sectors that spearheaded the latest congressional investigation against the movement.
In an article penned by Divina Lopes and Pablo Neri of the movement’s National Board, they explain the centrality of the land question to who hold political and economic power in the country: “The monopoly of land ownership combined with monoculture farming in our country has always played a decisive role because it is designed by an agro-export market that controls not only agricultural production, but much of the political and economic power.”
The investigation and the accompanying attack campaigns by media and right-wing activists have been widely rejected by progressive movements and organizations in Brazil, cultural and media personalities, and people across the globe.
The leaders of the six major trade union federations in the country released a joint statement manifesting their solidarity with the MST and affirming the long and rich history of militant struggle for land in the country. They declared: “We repudiate the maneuvers of political groups… to criminalize the manifestations of the Landless movement, including the absurd proposal to open a CPI.”
The Association of Judges for Democracy termed the CPI “an attack on Brazilian democracy,” in a public letter in support of the MST.
A social media campaign #TôComoMST (#ImWithTheMST) was launched which saw hundreds of thousands of people express their support for the movement and post selfies wearing the movement’s iconic red hats.
João Paulo Rodrigues, a member of MST’s National Board, told Brasil de Fato that, “It is another example of political persecution of the MST. [It is] a CPI that has no pre-defined objective. It will be one more stage, a theater for the Parliament to make hate speech about the peasants, about the agrarian reform agenda and, at the same time, to embarrass the government and the judiciary about the issues involving the land issue in Brazil. It is a shame that we have to go through this fifth CPI, as part of our political struggle.”
Rodrigues affirmed that the movement, which will celebrate 40 years of struggle next year, “will face it with our heads held high and, at the same time, we will build an agenda of support for people to stand in solidarity with our struggle and of the agrarian reform agenda.”
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