Appraisal of the mst in brazil
Carter (2005) aptly conveyed the situation in Brazil when he opined that Brazil is the fifth largest country in the world, both in terms of population and territory, the tenth leading economy and one of the most unequal societies in the world, with regard to land and income distribution, and also one of the world’s worst cases of land concentration (Carter, 2005 p.7). It is a country of continental proportion, extending the entire length of the South American continent; however, more than sixty percent of the arable land remains unproductive, while more than two million of its people have no means of survival (Meszaros, 2000; Frank; 2002; Carter, 2005).
Several authors have reported the astounding levels of land concentration in the country. Infact, Vergara-Camus (2005) asserts that Brazil stands today as the second country in the world, after Paraguay, with respect to land concentration. The author reports that the GINI coefficient for Brazil stood at 0.802 in 2001, with 0 representing a totally equalitarian land distribution and 1 a complete concentration. Langevin and Rosset (1997) add that reports from the new Super Ministry of Land Policy state that small family farmers with less than 10 hectares of land represented about 30.4 percent of Brazil’s total farming population, but together, the families hold just about 1.5percent of the country’s total agricultural land. Vergara-Camus (2005), however, paints a more vivid picture of the situation. He reports that data from 1995/96 show that the top 5 percent of landholders controlled 68.8 percent of the land, while the bottom 50 percent controlled just about 2.3 percent of the country’s land.
It is for this reason that the Landless Rural Workers’ Movement or Movimento Dos Trabalhadores Sem-Terra (MST) was birthed. Carter argues that the movement was established to advance agrarian and land reform in Brazil, to strengthen the country’s civil society through mobilization of the grassroots and by ‘engendering’ a sense of ‘utopia’ and affirmation of ideals in the country’s democratic process. The activities and successes of this movement have been widely reported, although critics have been quick to point out the weakness and alleged excesses of the movement. The objective of this paper is, therefore, to critically examine the movement, structurally and organizationally; to look at its success/achievements and also weakness/challenges and in the end to determine if such structures and strategy could be replicated in another country with success.
In this regard, the next section will look at the history of land concentration in Brazil that necessitated the formation of the MST. This will be followed by a critical look at the strengths and achievements of the movement, and then its challenges and weakness. Lastly, it will be argued that the peculiarities of the Brazilian governmental structures could limit the possibility of replicating the MST strategies in another country.
History of The MST
Writing about the history of land struggles in Brazil, Souza Martins (2002) explained that unlike most South American countries, Brazil lacked a history of independent smallholding cultivation based on an indigenous peasantry. The country’s land and land concentration history was a legacy of the Portuguese colonization. Meszaros (2000) noted that the Portuguese colonization of Brazil in the 1530s was carried out through a massive distribution of land to a chosen few who were believed to be able to administer the land. Under the Portuguese Sesmaria laws, the crown granted lands to privileged colonial families, with the provision that such land would be reverted to the crown, if it remained unused for five years, to be passed to another occupant. In reality, however, land “was divided up, privatized and under-utilized on a massive scale” (Meszaros, 2000 p.5), with no regards, whatsoever, to the claims of populations living on, and making use of the land for sustenance.
While the Sesmaria law was suspended in 1822 when Brazil got its independence, no law was enacted in its place. This legislative ‘vacuum’ created an enabling environment for the rapid occupations of land. This was to end in 1850 when the Land Law (Lei de Terras) was enacted. This law made purchase the only legal way to acquire land and privatize possession, thus consolidating the power and control over land, of the landed oligarchy (Vergara-Camus, 2005). Through the different regimes, empire, oligarchic republic, military dictatorship, and democracy, from 1850 till date, this inequality not only persisted, but greatly increased.
Meszaros (2000) gave an indication of the worsening land concentration situation in the following statements: “In 1966, properties of less than 100 hectares accounted for 20.4 per cent of land while properties over 1,000 hectares accounted for 45.1 per cent; in 1972, the figures were 16.4 per cent and 47 per cent respectively; by 1978, this was 13.5 per cent and 53.3 per cent and, by 1992, the figures were 15.4 per cent and 55.2 per cent” (2000 p.3). Such is the context that necessitated the formation, development and growth of the MST.
It must be noted that several land struggles and social movement predate the MST, but during the 20 years of military dictatorship, the activities of social movement were seriously repressed. The birth of democracy in the mid 1980s, however, allowed for the resurgence of such social activities, and this was when MST was formed. The movement was formally inaugurated in January of 1984 in the city of Cascavel on the south-western edge of the state of Paraná (Carter, 2005) as a coalition of several peasant groups got involved in land reform struggle in different parts of the country, under the ecumenical Pastoral Land Commission (Commissão Pastoral da Terra, CPT) of the Catholic Church (Stedile, 2002).
The inauguration of the MST was marked by what was adjudged to be the largest and most thoroughly planned land occupation in Brazilian history in the southernmost state of Rio Grande do Sul, when on October 1985, 200 buses, trucks and cars came from over thirty two municipal districts to forcefully occupy an idle 9,200 hectare cattle ranch, known as the Anoni Estate (Carter, 2005 p.3). Carter has discussed a couple of factors that were responsible for the birth of the MST at that period in time, and also the fact that MST started from the southern part of Brazil.
According to Carter, the birth of MST could be alluded to the following: previous land mobilizations of the 1950s and 1960s that set a historical precedent; the rapid move towards agricultural modernization of the 1960s and 1970s that cost several small landowners their land; construction of hydroelectric dams in the 1970s and 1980s that displaced several peasant farmers; lastly and perhaps most importantly, the Catholic Church, and other religious bodies’ inclination towards the theology of liberation and their engagement in land reform struggles. Moreover, southern Brazil’s relatively high levels of rural development, as compared to other parts, in addition to state capital and education created better conditions for the genesis of the MST (Carter, 2005).
Achievements of the MST
Guided by the slogan “Occupy, Resist and Produce,” the major plank of the MST’s operations have been to mobilize peasants and landless farmers to forcefully occupy land that is known to be unproductive or with questionable/illegal ownership, and then pressure the government to exercise land reform programs, such as land redistribution. New settlements are established on lands gained or conquered in this manner, and these settlements are treated as a collective enterprise (Frank, 2002; Wolford, 2003).
Discussing the modus operandi of the movement, Frank (2002) explains how the movement has been able to achieve the degree of land redistribution it has achieved, so far. The author explains thus:
Typically, a land occupation is preceded by a substantial amount of preparation
including agricultural training. Once the occupation begins, the MST applies to
INCRA to certify that the land qualifies for expropriation. According to Sérgio Sauer,
a former coordinator and advisor for the Pastoral Land Commission and currently an
aide to a federal senator of the Partido Trabalhadores (Workers Party), once a decision
is made to expropriate a parcel of land, INCRA is responsible for everything—all legal
and economic procedures. INCRA issues a 20-year bond to the land owner, as the
MST model is not without compensation, although the purchase price is usually set
below market price. INCRA also funds production credits once the landless have won
land rights. Rosset cautions that “the INCRA model would not work without the MST.
Before the MST, INCRA did nothing (Frank, 2002)
Using this strategy, the MST has gone through its two decades of existence successfully acquired millions of hectares of redistributed lands, built schools, operated cooperatives and lots more. There are numerous accounts of the wide reaching successes of the movement. Frank (2002) reports that by participating in occupations organized by the movement, more than 350, 000 families have gained access to land consisting of over 15million acres. However, it is grossly erroneous to describe the achievements of the movement in terms of land acquisition alone. In this regard, Vergara-Camus (2005) opine that in its years of existence of the movement, “the MST has not only organized the struggle for land but has also taken on numerous tasks that go from child and adult education, to provision of basic health care, to training educators, agronomists, administrator of co-operatives and health care providers” (Vergara-Camus, 2005 p.2). Furthermore, it is worth noting that in the numerous settlements across the country, the movement has established about 88 cooperatives; 96 processing plants, of varying sizes and degree of success; more than a 100 schools, both primary and secondary, and a university, among other achievements (Carter, 2005; Meszaros, 2000). More importantly, however, Wolford (2003) has argued that the movement’s greatest strength and achievement lie in its ability to create what is termed an ‘imagined community’ among its members. The author argued that the high rate of participation in the movement’s activities, such as marches, occupations, etc, and hence its success, is hinged on its ability to establish this ‘imagined community’ – organized around ideas, practices, symbols, slogans and rituals; and also its ability to effectively mediate between the state and the landless (Wolford, 2003). Vergara-Camus (2003) takes this argument further. He adds that the ability of the movement to maintain an organizational structure that encourages participation and not only creates an imagined community, but also real concrete ‘autonomous’ rural communities, to a large extent, accounts for the success of the movement.
Carter (2005), on the other hand, highlights the strengths of the movement that has facilitated such rapid achievements. He mentions the following factors as the strengths helping the movement forward: the presence of large membership and the adroit ability to mobilize masses of people; MST has not only developed a sophisticated organizational structure and sharpened its strategic capacities, but also fostered inventive means for dealing with its logistical problems; the movement’s national coordination, decentralized bodies, and organic leadership, enable it to function in a cohesive yet flexible manner; the continuous education of its members; the ideal interest that permeate the organization creating a strong sense of identity, intense social energy and forceful convictions in the movement’s members; and lastly, the movement has established, and relies on a strong network of local, regional and international allies that provide multifaceted support and resources to the movement (Carter, 2005 p.8-12).
Weakness/Challenges of the MST
Unfortunately, the movement is not without its shortcomings and challenges. The first challenge the movement has to deal with is that, most people join the movement with a definite end in mind, i.e. to acquire land. Once this goal is achieved, the incentive to continue with the movement’s activities is greatly diminished. Thus, the movement must continually evolve strategies that encourage those who became land owners through the movement to participate actively in the movement’s activities (Meszaros, 2000).
Carter (2005) joins this argument. He adds that despite the often inflated perception of MST held by many people, the movement is essentially an organization of poor people, operating with very scanty resources and facing problems with collective action that is peculiar to grassroots organizations. Meszaros (2000) adds that for the most part, the strength of the movement is merely ‘circumstantial and conjunctural’ and considering the fact that the success of the movement has often depended on this media inflation, there is an urgent need to construct another viable strategy of social struggle for agrarian reform before the present strategy runs out of steam.
Of course, the present strategy of the MST is a dangerous one for the movement to continue to pursue on a long term basis. Invading land despite threat to the lives of its members appears foolish seeing that more than a thousand Brazilian people have already lost their lives in conflicts over land during the last ten years (“Movimento”). The MST continues to remember the Eldorado de Carajas Massacre, which was a massacre by the Brazilian military policy that had started out as an absolutely nonviolent protest by members of the MST and ended with the death of 19 members while at least 69 MST members were wounded. In spite of the fact that the Eldorado de Carajas Massacre turned out to be the biggest criminal case in Brazil; MST is, after all, a movement to help the poor obtain their human rights instead of losing them completely to the military police (Issa, 2007). Giving that MST’s strategy is forceful invasion, however, the movement must be wary of governmental policies and evaluate the pros and cons of its existence each time governmental power changes hands. What is more, a poor people’s movement in Brazil is expected to remain under threat so long as pure democracy remains a dream in the country. According to Issa, Navaro (2002, p. 11) argues that the mobilization of the MST has not been able to emancipate its members either. After all, the global status quo allows only the rich to get richer and enjoy their human rights in totality.
Can the MST be Replicated Elsewhere?
This is apparently a difficult question that cannot be sufficiently answered without first looking at the context under which the movement carries out its activities in Brazil. In this regard it is pertinent to state that much of the strategies adopted by the movement, and thus, the achievements made through the use of such strategies, have been greatly influenced by the political environment in which the movement operated.
Carter (2005) brings this to the fore, when he opines that the movement’s relations with the country’s political system are multifarious and dynamic, owing to the assorted structure of the Brazilian state. The author describes this ‘assorted structure’ of Brazilian political environment as including multiple layers of power/authority, decentralized institutions, and ‘variegated forms of access’. The Brazilian political structure is composed of a federalist regime, strong local governments, distinct electoral system and an intricate bureaucratic apparatus (Carter, 2005 p.12), and all these influences the choice of strategies, actions and tactics employed by the movement.
Moreover, land occupations and pressure politics carried out by the movement has been mostly successful because the local and state governments possess sufficient powers to negotiate with the movement and when favorable, implement resolutions made; secondly, the INCRA is a decentralized body that can act in line with the activities of the movement. Also, the movement’s resort to strong arm politics; public activism, civil disobedience and pressure politics is often justifiable, due to the apparent inefficiency and class bias present in the judicial system. Carter states that “Brazil’s justice system is cripplingly bureaucratic and saturated with class bias” (2005 p.15), therefore the possibility of resorting to legal means of achieving its aims is not present.
From the foregoing, it is convenient to argue that replicating the strategies and activities of the MST in another country would not likely achieve the success MST has so far enjoyed in Brazil. The country has its numerous peculiarities and the success of MST’s current strategies have been shown to be dependent, to a large extent, on these peculiarities; therefore, replicating MST’s tactics in another country is most likely to meet with huge failures.
The MST was birthed in Brazil as a consequence of long standing inequality in a country with one of the world’s largest land mass. In its two decades of existence, the movement, through the use of various tactics including protests, marches, forceful occupation etc, has not only been able to achieve large proportion of land redistributed, but it has also been able to establish numerous independent settlements, with schools, agricultural processing plants, cooperatives and several other amenities. However, the success of the movement is largely dependent on the political environment in which it has been forced to operate, and as a result, replicating these strategies elsewhere is not likely to meet with the same degree of success.
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Langevin, Mark S and Rosset, Peter (1997) Land Reform From Below: The Landless Workers Movement in Brazil, Available at- http://www.mstbrazil.org/rosset.html
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