Criminalized, marginalized and often subjected to murderous attacks, Brazil’s Landless Workers Movement celebrated 30 years on the agricultural front line last week with a raucous gathering in Brasilia aimed at setting a new course for the flagging campaign for agrarian reform.
An estimated 15,000 activist farmers descended on the capital, setting up camp outside Brazil’s World Cup stadium, marching on the president’s residential palace and clashing with police in a cloud of tear gas.
They came from settlements across the country to attend the first congress in seven years of a group that has been variously described as the most important social movement in Latin America and a menace to the Brazilian economy.
Over the past three decades, Brazil’s Landless Workers Movement (MST) has fought to settle “unproductive” plots of land held by the state, banks or big landowners, putting activists in the vanguard of campaigns against monocultures, genetically modified crops, forest conservation and inequality.
The MST claims to have 350,000 families in long-term, legally recognized settlements while another 90,000 members are living more precariously in camps on contested property.
The benefits, it says, are poverty reduction, food production and a more efficient use of otherwise idle land. However, the occupations have brought members into conflict with landowners, agribusinesses and police.
Their struggle is usually carried out in remote and lawless hinterlands, but on Thursday last week, it faced off at the state palace against Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, who is accused by the MST of doing more than any previous national leader to promote the interests of “Big Agro.”
With drums, whistles, flags and banners, the red-shirted activists marched through the futurist government district in columns — a product of Leninist discipline and a long history of epic cross-country marches. In chants and speeches, they railed against a global and national trend that has consolidated food production into ever bigger and less diverse farms.
“Dilma’s government has taken a step back on agrarian reform because she is in an alliance with conservatives,” national coordinator Marina dos Santos said.
“Industrial capital has appropriated the countryside and brought agrarian reform to a standstill,” she added.
There were several skirmishes with the police. When the group tried to enter Brazil’s Supreme Federal Court, judicial hearings were held up for an hour as tear gas and rubber bullets were used to clear the building. Outside the Planalto Palace — Dilma’s residence — there was more violence, resulting in injuries to 12 protesters and 30 police officers.
Along with other rural groups, there are thought to be more than 2 million landless farmers in Brazil, which makes them a modest political force in a population of 200 million. During the presidential election in October last year, the MST said it would not support anyone in the first round and then the most left-leaning candidate in the second round. Representatives of the MST said they would also back workers’ movements in the cities if there were protests during this year’s FIFA World Cup soccer tournament, though they have no plans to mount demonstrations at that time.
In Brasilia, the activists erected tents under the shadow of the newly constructed World Cup stadium at the Nilson Nelson Gymnasium — which has been turned into a congressional hall and concert venue — and planned to stay until Sunday.