Landless workers reignite campaign in Brazil to mark 30th anniversary

After three decades of struggle, thousands of displaced farmers meet in the capital in a renewed effort for widespread agrarian reform

By Jonathan Watts  /  The Guardian, BRASILIA, Brazil

Tue, Feb 18, 2014 - Page 9

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.

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.

DIFFICULT STRUGGLE

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.

Shootings and attacks continue, but at a diminished level. Nonetheless, the MST says its struggle has become more difficult.

“It’s harder to fight the big companies than the cowboys,” said Kelly Maforatu, the gender secretary of the movement.

“They have more power so they don’t need physical violence. Instead they use, banks, the media and the government. We have to be more innovative to face that,” she said.

The changes were apparent in Brasilia. Numbers and energy levels were said to be somewhat down compared with the MST’s first big march on the capital in 1997, when 100,000 gathered in front of the congress. Living standards also seem to have improved. Instead of the makeshift tarpaulin coverings of the past, almost all of the activists this year had modern tents.

Maira Martins, a former member who is now with the non-governmental organization ActionAid, said the MST needed this year’s congress to remind Brazil’s politicians that it remains a dynamic force.

“It’s important to show the strength of the movement. The government is not prioritizing the landless movement. This congress is a way to show that it is still strong and that the occupations are viable and productive,” she said.

Around the camp on the concrete of the capital, it was clear the struggle is far from over for many of the families who have tried to make new lives by occupying land. Living in contested space, they have countless stories of expulsions, violence and pressure from the authorities, vilification by the domestic media and rulings of criminality by judges.

Jean Paulo Alves said he, his family and 70 others were expelled from a camp in Canguaretama in Rio Grande de Norte less than two months ago by police who used pepper spray on children and destroyed their crops. The families had lived there just five months, erecting mud houses and planting manioc.

Despite the struggle against the odds and the law, he vowed — like many others — to try again.

“The MST has arranged lawyers for us to contest the judge’s ruling against us. We want to show that we’re fulfilling a social role by using the land, something the landowner was failing to do,” he said.

TRAGEDY AND TRIUMPH

Among the greatest tragedies and triumphs of the MST was the campaign to occupy a ranch near Eldorado dos Carajas, which led to one of the worst massacres in recent Brazilian history.

Several delegates at last week’s 30th anniversary congress were among the band of more than 100 MST activists on highway PA-150 in Para state on April 17, 1996, when Brazilian military police opened fire, killing 19 of the farmers.

“We tried to negotiate. When that failed, we occupied the road and they started using guns and batons. I saw a lot of blood, people injured and children running,” said Carlos Alberto, who fled into the forest and hid.

He said others survived by pretending to be dead.

The Eldorado dos Carajas massacre prompted a national outcry, speeches in the National Congress of Brazil and eventually — with the help of MST lawyers — compensation for the families of the dead and wounded.

While rarely on such a scale, such killings are far from unusual. According to the PLC, almost 1,500 land reform activists and farmers were killed in the first 20 years of the MST’s existence. The perpetrators are prosecuted less than 10 percent of the time and convictions can take many years.

It was not until 2012 that the two police commanders who gave the orders during the Eldorado dos Carajas massacre were finally jailed.

However, the MST gained the land at the nearby Macaxeira camp, which has been renamed the 17 April Settlement. According to Gilberto “Nena” de Oliveira, a lead of the Para MST, it is now the biggest settlement in Brazil, with 3,000 families.

The violence has reduced, but there is still conflict in the area. Just 32km away at a camp in Curionopolis, de Oliveira said there was recently a month-long series of attacks designed to scare the settlers away.

“It failed. We called in other MST members so the camp numbers swelled from 200 to more than 1,000. That showed we would not go away,” he said.