The atmosphere was part political rally, part trade fair, part music festival. Inside, delegates and politicians gave speeches extolling the importance of worker solidarity, Marxist ideology, gender equality and education programs to applause and waving flags. Outside, stall-holders sold Ernesto “Che” Guevara, Mohandas Gandhi and Bob Marley T-shirts, books and DVDs on the principles of revolution, and badges with white doves, red stars and hammers and sickles. There were several concert venues, a children’s camp and wandering bands of folk musicians. Around them all, tents displayed the rich variety of regional produce — manioc and sugarcane from the northwest, apples and milk from the south, honey and nuts from the Amazon.
The aim was to expand the market for members’ produce, which they say is more diverse, healthier and ecological than the goods produced with industrial agriculture’s practice of creating monoculture farming tracts. Along with a greater focus on education and women’s issues, this is part of a rethink of MST strategy in the face of overwhelming competition from large-scale agribusinesses.
The congress was to address the changed circumstances of MST, which was formed in 1984 by groups associated with the Liberation Theology movement of the Catholic Church. Strongest in the northeast, the groups campaigned across the country to change a semi-feudal situation in which, they said, less than 3 percent of the population owns two-thirds of the land and more than half the farmland lies idle, while millions of rural workers lack employment.
That was an era of military dictatorship in Brazil, but even when democracy was ushered in, the struggle for land was no less intense. Although Brazil’s Constitution says land must be used for social benefit, which is the workers’ main justification for occupations, property laws often run against them and lead to violent expulsions by police or vigilante attacks by landowners fighting against — as they see it — illegal invasion by a mob.
Brazil’s Pastoral Land Commission (PLC) estimates that 1,465 land-reform activists and peasants were killed between 1985 and 2006. The perpetrators were brought to trial in less than one in 10 cases. Under the presidencies of Fernando Henrique Cardoso and Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, more land was redistributed, but the MST says this progress has ground to a halt under Rousseff.
This is disputed by Brazilian officials, who say about 30,000 families were resettled last year. However, in the vast majority of these cases, they were moved on to “regularized” land, mostly in the Amazon, rather than given a share of the unproductive property concentrated in the hands of landowners.
Many in the MST feel the impact of their work has waned in the past decade. This is also the result of the government’s bolsa familia poverty alleviation program, the growing influence of the landowners’ lobby in congress and the increasing dependence of the economy on commodity exports. Brazil is now the second-biggest food exporter in the world, which means that the MST’s rivals for land are not just the latifundio (large) estate owners, but big corporations and global finance houses.