Date: Thu, 18 Sep 97 15:17:57 CDT
Subject: Brazil: Landless/ Indigenous/ World Bank
Article: 18238

The Landless Workers Movement in Brazil

By Mark S. Langevin and Peter Rosset, News from Brazil, no. 287, 17 September 1997

Cicero Lourenco da Silva Neto and eight other military police officers rode their motorcycles into Brasilia, Brazil's capital, around noon on April 17, 1997. Cicero, the son of landless rural workers from the state of Rio Grande do Norte, and his fellow officers entered the avenue of the Esplanada dos Ministerios where government buildings form a corridor leading to the National Congress, Presidential Palace, and Supreme Court. Marching behind Cicero were nearly five thousand landless rural workers, their families, and supporters.(1) They came to demand land reform. Cicero was leading them into the very heart of Brazil's body politic, a year to the day after police forces carried out the country's largest massacre of landless rural families.(2) Frustrated by government inaction, the landless in Brazil are today carrying out land reform from below.

This March to Brasilia was organized by the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (MST) or Landless Workers Movement, founded in 1985. Many of the marchers walked for two months to reach Brasilia and galvanized the largest demonstration of opposition to the government of President Fernando Henrique Cardoso. For Brazil's 4.8 million landless families, the march to Brasilia showed the nation how far the landless rural worker's struggle has come.

The MST, Land Reform, and Brazilian Democracy

Since 1985 the MST has been organizing Brazil's rural poor to include them in the economic and political life of the nation. During the past six years the MST has organized 151,427 landless families for the occupation of well over 21 million hectares of idle land.(3)

Operating on a shoestring budget and despite government repression the Landless Workers Movement now organizes more landless families to occupy and produce on idle farmland than the government's land reform measures. Landless workers are carrying out land reform from below and thus challenging the Brazilian elite's domination of so-called democratic rule. Gilmar Mauro of the MST's National Directorate explains the role of the movement:

There is a great and urgent need to restructure Brazil's land tenure system in order to guarantee access to land, promote equitable social and economic development, and insure the citizenship of the rural population. We believe that our struggle for land reform, occupying and cultivating large tracts of idle farmlands, democratizes access to land as well as to our society and government.(4)

The MST offers the rural poor an alternative, ensuring their welfare and participation in economic development and democracy. The MST is providing health care and education to landless families. The MST's National Confederation of Brazilian Land Reform Cooperatives is providing agricultural extension services. They assist in organizing production and facilitate marketing the surplus produce of the MST's squatter settlements. This has transformed MST land occupations into productive agricultural cooperatives providing ample food, cash income, and basic

services for thousands of member families. Moreover, this social movement has created small industries among the most advanced cooperatives, including a clothing factory in Rio Grande do Sul, a tea processing plant in Parana, and a dairy processing operation in Santa Catarina.

The MST's alternative rural development strategy is challenging the political and policy limitations of the Cardoso government by providing a more just and productive alternative to the dominant system's preferential austerity for the poor.

According to Joao Pedro Stedile of the MST, the struggle for land reform unfolds in the countryside, but it will eventually be resolved in the city where there is the political power for structural change.(5) Since its formation in 1985 the MST has worked closely with the Workers Party, many of whose leaders and elected officials come from the ranks of landless workers.

Today, the MST's struggle for land reform is supported by a majority of Brazilians and threatens to turn Brazilian politics on its head. A March 1997 public opinion poll sponsored by Brazil's elite National Confederation of Industry, reported that 77 percent of respondents approve of the MST and 85 percent approve of the non-violent occupation of idle farmland.(6) Even the conservative president of the Brazilian National Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Reverend Lucas Moreira Neves, recently met with the Minister of Land Policy, Raul Jungmann, to request that the government work with the MST to solve the problem of rural poverty.(7) On March 20, 1997 the Brazilian Association of Journalists honored the MST and sponsored a declaration of support signed by more than 200 journalists, artists and renowned intellectuals. The day before the MST received Belgium's prestigious King Boudouin Foundation Award, given every two years to recognize outstanding contributions to development worldwide. President Cardoso's own political party, the Brazilian Social Democratic Party, is split over the MST and land reform. Many of the party's elected officials, from federal deputies to city mayors, openly support the MST and its demands for a sweeping national land reform.

Land Ownership

Most of Brazil's rich agricultural land is increasingly concentrated in a few wealthy hands after decades of monocrop export agriculture and successive waves of government sponsored repression against rural workers and their organizations. According to Brazil's new Super Ministry of Land Policy, created immediately after the Eldorado dos Carajas massacre, small family farmers with 10 hectares of land or less comprise 30.4 percent of all Brazilian farmers, but together hold only 1.5 percent of all agricultural lands.(8) Since 1985 the number of small farms has sharply decreased from just over 3 million to under 1 million.(9)

In contrast the country's largest farms, of 1,000 hectares

or more, comprise only 1.6 percent of all farms, but hold 53.2 percent of all agricultural land.(10) The largest 75 farms, with 100,000 hectares or more, control over five times the combined total area of all small farms.(11) The consolidation of farmland increased agricultural exports and provided an effective hedge against inflation for the wealthy. However, the major imapact of land concentration has been inescapable poverty and the spread of chronic malnutrition.

Further aggravating rural poverty and hunger is the pervasive use of agricultural lands for pasture and the high proportion of idle land among the country's largest landholdings. 42.6 percent of agricultural land is not cultivated, and among Brazil's largest landholdings of 1,000 hectares or more 88.7 percent of arable land is permanently idle.(12) Today, idle farmland may be the most important cause of both rural and urban poverty and hunger in Brazil.

The control and use of Brazil's vast and rich agricultural landholdings is a national problem, challenging the country's decade old democracy. For Dr. Ladislau Dowbor, Professor of Economics at Sao Paulo's Catholic University, to maintain this situation when millions of agriculturists want to cultivate, but do not have access to land, while millions of people go hungry in the cities, demonstrates the level of absurdity reached in the absence of true participatory democracy. In the context of rising tensions in our cities we can only conclude the obvious; land reform is not just a rural problem, but a key question for urban society. We will all have to subsidize the poor management of our rich agricultural soils if our agrarian structure is not reformed.(13)

Reform and Repression

The transition from military dictatorship to civilian democracy in 1985 promised a sweeping national land reform. Months after the MST was founded to advocate land reform under democracy, the new civilian government announced the National Land Reform Plan.

The Plan was originally designed to redistribute farmlands to 1.4 million landless rural families during President Sarney's tenure from 1985-89.(14) However, the land reform plan drew strident opposition from large landowner organizations which effectively stalled efforts to redistribute idle lands to rural workers. Since 1985 only a small fraction of the proposed beneficiary landless families have received land through government measures.

This slow pace of reform was matched with violence and repression against the MST and those struggling for social justice in the Brazilian countryside. From 1985 to 1996 there were 969 assassinations of rural workers and MST activists.(15) Between 1985-95 there were 820 documented assassination attempts and 2,412 rural workers, family members, and MST leaders were

threatened with death because of their support for land reform.(16) Since 1985 Brazilian government authorities have convicted only five people of crimes associated with the violence against the landless and the MST.

In 1994 the Minister of the Economy and world renowned sociologist, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, promised economic stabilization and land reform if Brazil would elect him president. He promised to redistribute land to 280,000 families over four years. Since taking office in 1995 President Cardoso's land reform record has been greatly tarnished by the slow pace of reform, questionable government claims, the brutal massacres of landless rural families and the continued impunity of those responsible for the violence against those who struggle for land reform.

The Cardoso government reported that 42,912 families were settled by the official program in 1995 and 50,238 in 1996.(17) However, these claims have been called into question by both the MST and the National Confederation of Professional Associations of INCRA (representing the employees of the Ministry of Land Policy) and the National Institute of Resettlement and Land Reform (known by the acronym INCRA).(18) Moreover, President Cardoso has repeatedly cut the budgets of INCRA and the Ministry of Land Policy to fight inflation. False claims and budget cuts aside, the Cardoso administration does not appear willing or able to fulfill its campaign promise of redistributing land to 280,000 landless families in four years.

Not only has the current administration raised and then frustrated expectations for land reform. It has also governed over the horrific massacres at Corumbiara and Eldorado dos Carajas. During the first two years of Cardoso's term in office at least 86 rural workers, family members, and MST activists were assassinated, most by the military police.(19) In 1997, violence, sponsored or condoned by the government, rages on against those who struggle for land and defend democracy. Yet, the government's brutality against the rural poor is now challenged by the MST's national campaign to cultivate democracy in the countryside, to occupy idle lands, resist repression, and produce food for the nation.

Brazil's land reform from below now plays an important role in shaping the emerging challenge to the global economic and political order imposed by the World Bank, the IMF and the World Trade Organization. These efforts are central to the MST's push to replace rural poverty with equitable access to land and participatory democracy.

The struggle for land, social justice, and participatory democracy, from the MST in Brazil to the Chiapas land takeovers in the wake of the Zapatista uprising in Mexico,(20) now depend on our global efforts to guarantee the human rights of those who struggle against hunger, disease, and poverty at the margins of the global order.

I ask myself if land reform in Brazil is being directed from below, since the government is not carrying it out.

-- Sepulveda Pertence, Brazilian Supreme Court Justice


Year Occupations Families Hectares of Land
1990 43 11,484 ----
1991 51 9,862 7,037,722
1992 49 18,885 5,692,211
1993 54 17,587 3,221,252
1994 52 16,860 1,819,963
1995 93 31,531 3,250,731
1996 176 45,218 ----
Totals 518 151,427 21,021,879*

*This total number of hectares of land occupied by the MST does not include data for 1990 and 1996.

Sources: MST Informa. No. 15. January 1997 and Conflitos da Terra Brasil 1995. Commissao Pastoral da Terra. Goiania. 1996.

Who are the Rural Poor?

According to the Brazilian Government's Institute of Applied Economic Research, the rural poor number over 16 million. Over half of these Brazilians endure dire poverty and hunger.(21) Most of the rural poor do not have sufficient land, permanent employment, or secure land tenure rights to escape poverty and provide adequate nutrition, housing, health care, and education for their families. Only a small portion of the rural poor have permanent employment, and fewer yet earn the minimum wage of $100 per month. Of the total number of landless or land poor agricultural workers only 17.4 percent are permanently employed.(22) 20.5 percent can only find temporary employment, 5.8 percent are sharecroppers and another 4.9 percent rent small parcels of land for subsistence farming.(23) Another 38 percent of rural workers own land, but most do not have enough land to produce for commercial purposes and thereby guarantee their tenure rights.(24) Today, 13.4 percent of Brazil's rural workers are squatting on idle lands to claim land tenure rights in accord with the 1988 Federal Constitution.(25)



1 Elio Gaspari, O Globo. April 21, 1997.

2 On April 17, 1996 over 200 military police troops attacked approximately 1,500 landless workers and their children as they blocked Highway 150 just outside Eldorado dos Carajas. Within minutes 19 landless were dead and 51 severely injured. The landless were engaged in non-violent civil disobedience to draw attention to their struggle for land and protest the governmentMs failed promise of land reform.

3 MST Informa. No. 15 (Jan., 1997).

4 Estado De Sao Paulo. Nov. 3, 1995.

5 Veja. Aug. 28, 1996:74.

6 Noticias da Terra. No. 1 (March 21, 1997).

7 IstoE'. March 5, 1997:35.

8 Ministerio Extraordinario de Politica Fundiaria. Atlas Fundiario Brasileiro. 1996.

9 Comparison based on the 1985 IBGE Agricultural Census and the Atlas Fundiario Brasileiro.

10 Atlas Fundiario Brasileiro. 1996.

11 Ibid.

12 IBGEMs 1985 Agricultural Census.

13 Ladislau Dowbor. Reforma Agraria dados basicos. Estado de Sao Paulo. Oct. 3, 1995.

14 Francisco Graziano. A Tragedia Da Terra. Sao Paulo. Iglu Editora. 1991:17.

15 Boletim da Commisso Pastoral da Terra-CPT. No.136 (August, 1996:7) with 1996 data provided by the Documentation Sector of the Commisso Pastoral da Terra.

16 Ibid.

17 Ministerio Extraordinario de Politica Fundiaria. Atlas Fundiario Brasileiro. 1996.

18 Jornal dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra. No.162 (1996:6).

19 Boletim da Commissao Pastoral da Terra-CPT. No.136 (August, 1996:7) with 1996 data provided by the Documentation Sector of the Commissao Pastoral da Terra.

20 White, Peter. A New Kind of Mexican Land Reform, In These Times, May 2, 1994.

21 Instituto de Pesquisa Economica Aplicada (IPEA). O Mapa da Fome: Subsidios = Formulacao de uma Politica de Seguranca Alimentar. March, 1993.

22 Ariovaldo de Oliveira. Realidade Agraria do Brasil:1995 unpublished manuscript circulated by the Department of Geography, University of Sao Paulo and based on the Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatisticas (IBGE) Agricultural Census of 1985.

23 Ibid.

24 Ibid.

25 Ibid.