CLAS Summer Research Report
Choices and Strategic Challenges:
The Landless Rural Workers' Movement (MST) in Brazil"
dramatic emergence of the Landless Rural Workers’ Movement
(MST) in Brazil—involving hundreds of thousands
of families—is a remarkable political phenomenon.
As of January 2003, the MST boasted about one million
members, and had gained over five million hectares of
land for approximately 350,000 families. Yet at the same
time, the number of rural workers in Latin America has
been declining over the past 40 years, and migration
from rural to urban areas has increased during this same
period. One would not expect peasants to engage in sustained
collective action pressing the boundaries of social and
political change, yet the MST has been doing exactly
that for over twenty years.
At the same time, the movement has charted an interesting
course in terms of its coalitional choices. Originally
a staunch ally of the Catholic Church,
the movement later eschewed all external associations and became fiercely independent,
only to reach out to a wide range of international allies ten years later.
This raises the question: what are some of the steps involved as we explore
social movements that make transitions from dependence to autonomy and back
again? The objective of my summer research was to address this question in
part, through gaining a better understanding of the impact of external alliances
on the MST, and how these might relate to the movement’s current challenges
and strategic choices. This fieldwork directly relates to my dissertation topic,
which will address popular social movements in Brazil and in one or two other
Latin American countries.
used my CLAS funding to travel to Brazil, where I spent
five weeks carrying out two parallel investigations.
First, I conducted semi-structured interviews with MST
leaders at the national, regional, and local levels.
Interspersed within these administrative interviews were
visits to MST encampments and settlements in the states
of São Paulo, Brasília, and Bahia. I was
invited to live with a local family at each location,
and became involved in the activities of the community
as a participant observer. In addition, I also had the
opportunity to attend part of a meeting for State and
Regional MST Directors from the state of Bahia. Finally,
I obtained primary and secondary source materials containing
data on Brazilian agricultural reform from academic contacts
at the Universities of São Paulo and Brasília.
my time in Brazil was fairly brief, and I cannot draw
conclusive inferences from my interactions with an
admittedly non-representative sample of leaders
and activists, I was able to gain further insight into the current situation
facing the MST. My preliminary conclusion is that, given the rapid influx
of new and primarily urban members to the MST, it may
be time for the movement
to revisit their current coalitional position and attendant strategic choices.
Coalitional Position: International and Local Alliances
MST’s major alliances at present are with
international NGOs and social movements that have a progressive
orientation. Environmental protection, indigenous rights,
and the international campaign against war and militarization
have risen to the forefront of the MST’s agenda.
The movement receives organizational support (and occasionally
financial assistance) from transnational social movements
concerned with these issues. Since 2000, the MST has
also developed strong ties with transnational peasant
organizations, such as the Confederation of Latin American
Rural Organizations (CLOC) and Via Campesina. These movements
share resources, skilled personnel, and conduct joint
mobilizations on the international and national levels.
some of the movement’s strongest international
allies are with NGOs that are challenging the neoliberal
economic model. Arguably the two most prevalent issues
on the MST’s agenda are the international campaign
against genetically modified food, and the regional effort
opposing the creation of a Free Trade Area of the Americas.
Some MST leaders would also like to see the movement
develop ties with the major economic powers in the Southern
hemisphere, such as India and South Africa. These links
would facilitate the exchange of agricultural production
information and technology, as well as eventually create
an alternative center of economic power.
farming is an important component of MST settlement
life. These members
spend two days
each month working in the community-owned cacao fields.
After the cacao is sold to a Swiss chocolate-making
company, the profits are reinvested into the settlement
At present, national institutions such as political
parties and unions are not significant coalitional
partners for the MST. While unions and leftist
political parties will mobilize in conjunction with the MST on occasion,
their activities are generally separate. Although
it might appear that the MST and
the Worker’s Party (PT) have strong ties, officials stress their mutual
autonomy. One MST leader at the national level explained to me that, since
political parties gain and lose power over time, it is in the best interests
of the MST to remain outside of partisan politics, supporting any candidate
whose views are in accordance with the movement’s agenda. In this way,
while the MST actively supported Luiz Inácio “Lula” da
presidential campaign (and now that he has gained power, expect him to remember
this support by increasing the pace of agricultural reform), the movement
has no formal alliances with the PT.
many MST leaders stress that their most important domestic
relationships are with local mayors and governors.
This is because most conflicts take place at the city
and state level, and their resolution depends in large
part on the actions –or inactions –of these
officials. With the power to either facilitate MST projects
or increase bureaucratic red tape surrounding them, to
casually overlook or violently destroy MST encampments,
it is evident that these personal relationships on the
local level are some of the most crucial for the movement’s
Members: Poor Urban Residents
years ago, the MST was principally composed of rural
workers and family
farmers who had lost their land and/or their jobs due to agricultural modernization.
Many of these individuals still play a vital role within the movement,
as well as their children, who are some of the movement’s most outspoken
and ideologically committed activists. Yet within recent years –and
especially within the months following Lula’s election –a new
group of actors has been joining the MST in exponential numbers: poor urban
residents. The best way to describe them is to allow them to speak for themselves;
three composite descriptions follow that are representative of this new category
of MST members.
|A partial view of an MST encampment.
Most dwellings are constructed of bamboo and plastic
tarp, and members
might spend years “baixo da lona preta” (under
the black tarp) waiting for title to the land.
was working as a housekeeper in the city when some
guys with a loudspeaker attached to their bicycle came
through the town, talking about the MST. I cook,
clean, and do laundry all day and barely earn enough to eat and pay rent.
never been able to save money. Life in the encampment is hard, but I would
rather be here struggling for land than working all day for almost nothing
for someone else.”
“I’m 60 years old, I have three children
and seven grandchildren, but nothing to leave them. I
joined the MST right after Lula’s election, because
he supports land reform and I think this encampment has
a good chance of becoming a settlement. Besides, all
my kids live in a distant city, and it’s been lonely.
I like being part of a community again.”
I heard about the MST through my cousin. I’m
a construction worker, but I haven’t been able
to find much work lately. My grandfather used to farm,
and I think it’s something I might like to try.
I still work in construction when I can find it, but
it would be nice to have some land eventually.”
As these composites show, the MST is actively reaching
out toward, and attracting, urban residents who are unhappy
with their economic situation. For these new members,
gaining land is their most important goal, and it is
the primary reason why they decide to ally themselves
with the MST.
of the MST’s main challenges throughout their
history has been pressuring the government to actually
implement agricultural reform. Within the past decade,
the movement’s goals have broadened to encompass
overall social and economic justice, and their attendant
international alliances reflect these changes. However,
there is a potential disconnect between the MST’s
international partners and local grassroots activists
that increasingly include an urban component. Therefore,
one of the most important challenges for the MST is making
their broader ideological concerns relevant to these
new actors, whose primary goal remains obtaining land
for themselves and their families.
some MST leaders acknowledge that it can be difficult
to keep members actively involved in
the struggle for social justice after they have received
a land title. While people who participated in the encampments
are often very willing to contribute toward future collective
farming projects of the settlement, their extended family
members who join them in the settlement are often less
enthusiastic. Moreover, urban newcomers sometimes decide
that a rural lifestyle really isn’t for them. If
this happens after they have received a land title, they
can sell the structures on their property, and the buyers
may or may not be inclined to participate in the collective
life of the settlement.
|Once an MST encampment becomes a settlement, members
are free to construct permanent houses, similar to
the same time, the MST is having some difficulty differentiating
itself from other, more radical movements.
In São Paulo state alone, there are about 40 leftist
organizations, some of which engage in violent protest
under the banner of agrarian reform. When the media does
not carefully distinguish between these groups and the
MST –which is often the case –their reputation
as a radical organization grows.
appears that infusing new actors with a collectivist
orientation, and making fairly abstract ideology relevant
to their practical concerns, are some of the MST’s
most pressing challenges. Continued land reform is necessary
to meet the interests of new members, but actions that
pressure the government for land reform, such as more
frequent land invasions, may simultaneously alienate
more moderate factions within Brazilian society. Combined
with public confusion over the instigators of increasingly
radical land invasions, the MST appears to be on the
threshold of significant change.
I were to suggest a manner in which the MST could address
these strategic challenges, I would recommend
that the MST revisit their emphasis on international
alliances, and possibly develop stronger ties to national
institutions, such as Brazilian NGOs, unions, and political
parties. Public opinion remains firmly in support of
the MST’s original grievances regarding agricultural
reform, but if this support begins to erode, the movement’s
ability to pressure the government through mass demonstrations
may diminish as well. Alliances with established Brazilian
institutions might allow the MST to successfully distinguish
themselves from more radical elements, as well as provide
official channels through which they can further their
mission of making social and economic justice a reality
for all Brazilians.