I published the following article in The Nation over a decade ago. Much has changed since then, but I still find the article cited in academic studies, so there must have been something to it, right? Since groups like our affiliate partner Global Exchange organize "Reality Tours" that explore Brazil’s Landless Workers Movement (MST), we decided to publish this here as a service to both travelers and scholars. We have made no changes in the original text.
Beyond São Paulo's skyscrapers and Rio de Janeiro's teeming beaches, a low-intensity civil war simmers in the rural outback of Latin America's largest and richest country. Like many things in Brazil nowadays, this conflict is largely privatized. It pits those with land against those who want it.
Outside the barbed wire stand displaced smallholders, itinerant farm workers and urban unemployed. Under the banner of a group called the Landless Movement (or MST, its abbreviation from the Portuguese), they've seized nearly 600 stretches of arable real estate during the past two years, and in many cases have convinced government officials to legalize their permanence. The MST has helped settle nearly 200,000 families since it was spawned thirteen years ago by radical Catholic clergy and others. The movement is a legacy of liberation theology, the Christian-Marxist ideology that counts among its leading theorists Brazilian theologian Leonardo Boff.
Some 51,700 families scattered in 279 tent villages nationwide await a chance to follow suit. Professedly nonviolent, the MST represents Latin America's most dynamic popular movement south of Chiapas. "In the past fifty years, there's been nothing comparable in Latin America in numerical terms or as a percentage of the national population," said rural sociologist Zander Navarro of Rio Grande do Sul Federal University in Porto Alegre.
Inside the barbed wire, ranchers dig in. Many are linked to a militant group called the Rural Democratic Union (UDR); extremists have hired mercenaries for vigilante detail. More than a hundred pro-reform activists have died in upward of 1,300 skirmishes and attacks since the January 1995 inauguration of President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, a sociologist-cum-politician and former darling of the international academic left. Since 1985, the year civilians assumed power following a twenty-one-year military dictatorship, nearly 1,000 workers, priests, lawyers and trade unionists have been murdered in the Brazilian countryside. Only fifty-six trials have resulted, leading to the conviction of just seven assassins, according to the Pastoral Land Commission, an organ of the Catholic Church. During his campaign, Cardoso promised to redistribute land to 280,000 families during his four-year term. Government officials claim he beat his 1997 goal of 80,000 by 1,000. The MST counters that the figure includes land titles delivered to already settled families, and claims that as of November there were only 16,400 genuinely new families. "The public and the social movements consider our goals extremely timid," said Milton Seligman, president of INCRA, the federal land-reform agency. "We need to improve INCRA's efficiency, but that's enormously difficult."
MST actions are invariably designed to force the government to hurry up. The movement's adherents commandeer land deemed underutilized (presumably held for speculative purposes) or with ownership of dubious legal antecedent. In either case, the 1988 Brazilian Constitution allows government officials to confiscate the property. "We sit down with them and remind them what they've promised," said leader José Rainha Jr. during a break from weeding chores at a MST cooperative farm in the Pontal de Paranapanema in the extreme southwestern corner of São Paulo state. "Then we pressure them to do it."
Ranchers may hate the MST, but they recognize its catalyzing role. "The government doesn't do anything on its own," said Roosevelt Roque dos Santos, UDR president in the Pontal de Paranapanema. "It is towed along by the MST"
Ranchers like Francisco José Jacintho characterize their actions as self-defense. When he learned that the MST planned to occupy his Santa Irene ranch, the Texas A&I alumnus dug a trench near the farm gate. There he and his cowhands crouched with .38-caliber pistols as a detachment of landless advanced behind a convoy of nine tractors. Shooting the tires full of holes, Jacintho's platoon disabled the vehicles. The landless retreated. There were no casualties, but the rancher's message was clear: "We've decided to put an end to this. Anybody who invades will get shot."
Police sometimes get their licks in-like the time in April 1996 when the governor of northern Pará state ordered officers to clear 1,500 landless from a highway they were blocking in protest. Nineteen demonstrators were killed and fifty-four injured; twelve police officers were hurt. And sometimes officers stand idly aside. "The police were there," said Jacintho, recalling the Santa Irene showdown. "But the governor had given them orders to not intervene."
Why all the ruckus? Isn't land reform a throwback to an era before globalized world trade, digitalization and booming service industries? Colonial history and contemporary macroeconomics help explain how Brazil, with more territory than the continental United States, manufactures a shortage of one of its most abundant resources: topsoil.
They might not think of themselves this way, but the ranchers are defending a skewed land tenure system rooted in grants awarded by Portuguese King João III in 1532. Nearly five centuries later, 1 percent of the largest holdings still account for 47 percent of Brazil's arable land; 50 percent of the smallest account for just 2.7 percent of the total. Slavery ended in 1888, but the plantation land ownership model endured. "There was never a rupture" with the old agrarian system, says Luis Carlos Guedes Pinto, an agricultural economist and president of the Brazilian Land Reform Association (ABRA), a group of pro¬-land reform intellectuals.
The government classifies 4.8 million of its 160 million citizens as landless farmers, many of whom scrape by as itinerant laborers. Some 16 million rural Brazilians live below the poverty line. Before the current rage of slash-and-burn corporate downsizing, urban industry offered hope to destitute rural Brazilians and, indirectly, a safety value to the elite. Migrants like Luís Inácio Lula da Silva, who became a labor leader and presidential candidate for the leftist Workers Party, abandoned their backland hometowns for jobs in urban meccas. The painful but promising trek to the metropolis is immortalized in bittersweet songs by composer Luiz Gonzaga, a Brazilian Woody Guthrie of sorts.
The pull of urban jobs lost strength, and not just because of "global competition." To quell hyperinflation (2,700 percent in 1993) and fend off an Asian-sequel run on the currency, President Cardoso is relying on two tools with perverse side effects: the world's highest interest rates (the equivalent of a U.S. prime rate of nearly 37 percent), which hamstring domestic borrowing and investment, and an overvalued currency, which penalizes exports. Inflation is down-it was 3.5 percent in 1997-but job creation remains sluggish despite a record $16 billion in direct investment by multinationals last year. The unemployment rate in the São Paulo metropolitan region reached 16.6 percent in November 1997, according to the labor union-¬supported think tank Diesse. Not much relief can be expected in the short term. Brazilian officials continue to struggle to defend their sovereignty and pride, rejecting interference from the International Monetary Fund despite continued threats of contamination by the Asian crisis. They have little of their own to offer, however-growth in 1998, predicts Morgan Stanley, Dean Witter, Discover, will reach just 1 percent.
In a historic reversal, the MST now recruits urban unemployed and homeless keen to try their luck in the fields. "Given the new economic model and the growing numbers of urbanites excluded from the economy, we think it is idiotic of the government to think that land reform is just for farmers," said MST leader João Pedro Sedile. "What activity employs more people than agriculture?"
Although it's no panacea, small-scale agriculture can lend dignity to the lives of otherwise desperate people. In the Pontal, the MST's São Bento cooperative provides work for members of 225 families; before redistribution, it employed eleven farm workers, according to José Rainha. Even if many new settlements remain precarious, "95 percent of people respond that they're better off now," said Sonia Bergamasco, author of a settlement survey and a professor of agrarian engineering at Campinas State University. "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."
When he's not at school, Rainha's son spends a lot of time with his grandparents. Dad and Mom, Diolinda Alves de Souza, head up the MST operation in the Pontal de Paranapanema. With strong MST and UDR chapters, the Pontal epitomizes Brazil's land reform struggle. It also offers a unique opportunity for the landless movement: Falsified documents dating to the nineteenth century, signed by a priest named Pacifico de Monte Falco, create legal uncertainties that could subject as much as 80 percent of the region's 1 million agricultural hectares (2.5 million acres) to confiscation and redistribution. The government recently decreed forty-two farms subject to possible confiscation.
A founding member of the MST in 1985, Rainha, like many fellow leaders, discovered the cause through the progressive Catholic clergy. Although the Brazilian church has been pushed rightward by the Vatican in recent years, many clergy continue to support the MST - some urban priests even recruit needy families to join the movement. "The church believes that one of the biggest problems today is employment," said Father Luiz Bessergio. "Within this context, land reform is important because studies show land reform is an important source of job creation."
Priests may be able to offer legitimacy and even material support, but they can't shield MST leaders from harassment. If Rainha or Diolinda aren't in the fields, at MST meetings or receiving human rights awards in Europe, they might be found in jail. Diolinda has suffered through two stints in state penitentiaries, for a total of seven weeks. She was held without bail on charges of "gang formation." Asked what sort of gang she was forming, she responded with a hearty laugh. The fact is, she was being held for ransom. Police wanted her husband on what Amnesty International considers trumped-up charges.
Rainha was accused of murdering a rancher and a police officer during a clash with MST activists in his home state of Espírito Santo in 1989. During the trial last June, he offered evidence, including press clippings and TV videotapes, proving that he was busy helping occupy the INCRA offices in another state on the day of the shootings. Nevertheless, a small-town jury found him guilty. He was sentenced to twenty-six years in prison.
Lucky for Rainha he got those twenty-six years. Retrials are mandatory in Brazil for sentences of more than twenty years. A public outcry over his conviction created a favorable climate for the second trial, which could take place as early as April. Pressure from international human rights groups, Rainha believes, forced the Cardoso administration to push for a change of venue to state capital Vitória (such relocations of trials are rare in Brazil).
The public reaction was hardly surprising. Land reform enjoys widespread support. Eighty-three percent of Brazilians favor redistribution, and a surprisingly strong minority of 40 percent defend land invasions as a legitimate tool to achieve it. Indeed, the movement has captured the popular imagination. In perhaps the ultimate homage, a fictional account of the land struggle became a prominent subplot in the top-rated 1996 telenovela O Rei do Gado (The Cattle King), a nightly drama on the dominant Globo network. Then came another phenomenon: An MST activist was recruited to pose in the local version of Playboy. (In a move roundly condemned by Brazilian public opinion, she was summarily drummed from the MST corps.)
The MST's bullish image is unique among leftist and popular movements in today's Brazil; things appear bleak for the left on the electoral horizon. Despite high unemployment and other difficulties, Cardoso is considered a sure bet for reelection later this year: At 39 percent, he enjoys a comfortable lead in the polls over his leading challenger, Lula. The MST plans to escalate its land occupations, so progressive victories may be more likely in the fields than at the ballot box. However, the Lula campaign may receive a boon if the officially nonpartisan MST decides to support his candidacy formally. Said political risk consultant Alexandre Barros: "The MST is the only opposition to the Cardoso government."
First published in The Nation on March 2, 1998