Do or Die

An article from Do or Die Issue 7. In the paper edition, this article appears on page(s) 88-96.

Occupy, Resist, Produce

Brasil's Landless Peasants - Movimento Sem Terra


In 1997 hundreds of thousands of landless peasants banded together and occupied over 200 stretches of unused land in Brasil. In addition, 140,000 families have been resettled on land following direct action over the past 10 years. They are Brasil's, and in Noam Chomsky's eyes, the world's most important social movement. Over 90 % of Brasilians agree with what 'Movimento Sem Terra' do. Now the focus is on the cities and the centres of power. I hung out with MST recently, here's what I learnt...

The pompously titled book, 'The World in 1998', produced by the people of 'The Economist' magazine predict only two things can rock Brasil in 1998 - currency fluctuations' and 'increasingly aggressive protests by landless would-be farmers'1. The militant peasants who threaten to, and are, putting the fifth largest country in the world (and seventh largest economy) on the back foot are 'Movimento (dos Trabalhadores Rurais) Sem Terra' - literally 'Movement (of Rural Workers) Without Land', or Sem Terra for short. Sem Terra is the linking-up of Brasil's dispossessed; those thrown off their land by mechanisation and industrialisation of farming, croppers, casual pickers, those returned from the Amazon poorer than when they went. Sem Terra call for, and take direct action to get, all Brasil's unused but potentially productive land taken from the large landowners (latifundios) and corporations, and given as small parcels to the poor. Like many of the most profound ideas the basic equation is deceptively simple. However, what flows is truly radical. One result is large numbers of politically active people with control over their own lives. Not passively asking the government for assistance, but taking what they need off the over-privileged. They have built a mass-scale social movement of the poor forming into small-scale co-operative communities producing what they need themselves. On their own terms. Actions have taken the form of land occupations, marches, multi-week office occupations, highway blockades and hunger strikes. They are heading for where much of the European radical environmental movement wants to go: a decentralised, militant, mass movement challenging capital and the state to allow the poor to take control, and in their case farming co-operatively in small autonomous groups.

Following this very short introduction to Sem Terra I will firstly describe the process of land invasion drawing on my own vivid experiences and what I have read about Sem Terra. Secondly I will focus on the history of the struggle for land in Brasil and political development of MST over its 13 years of existence which need to be put in a historical context to be understood. The idea is to understand how Sem Terra got to where they are so we can learn from them, while showing what MST are about, warts and all, not a romanticised anglo-radical-ecologist view. The broad range of Sem Terra action and the ferocious backlash from the state and landowners against Sem Terra is explored in the next section. The essay finishes with some suggestions of what we can learn from them and what we can do in solidarity with Sem Terra.

Land For All. Now.

Those who say no; no to drifting into the cities of Brasil, to joining the 30 million plus forced from their land who have swelled the urban slum-dweller and homeless numbers over the past 20 years, gather by roadsides in the rural nowhere land2. Seeing whole communities lining the grass verges of the roads it is incredible that anyone survives. Some get by on picking crops for wages of less than Brasil's national minimum wage of about £70 a month. For comparison, food prices are comparative to those in the UK. Surrounded by idle land, there's no work. Not even any rich to beg off or rob. These are forgotten people.

Sabastiao Salgado, the internationally acclaimed photojournalist, summarises, 'Everything is lacking; water, food, lack of sanitary facilities, schools for children, medical attention, etc. In addition, the people live in the greatest insecurity, subject to the provocations and violence from jaguncoes, or hired gunmen, and other forces of oppression organised by the estate owners, who fear the occupation of their unproductive lands by the landless. In reality, the situation in these 'cities' of the landless is worse than the refugee camp in Africa, for they cannot depend on any protection from the authorities, they do not receive the slightest international assistance and neither the United Nations nor any humanitarian organisation comes to their aid.'3. However this seemingly unrelenting bleakness is punctured by one all-important factor; a hope, a dream, of land. And solid direct political action to get it.

When a large enough group has gathered meticulous plans are laid down for an occupation. An example of this was the invasion in April 1996 of the 205,090 acre Giacomete plantation. In the dead of night over 12,000 people accumulate in a secret location. Once gathered, in silence, this human column snakes the 13.5 miles to the increasingly obvious destination. Silence, punctuated by heavy breathing, the only sign of the arrival of the army, scythes and pitchforks at the ready, in search of a dignified life. Everyone backs up. Everyone knows, no turning back - a 12,000 rag-tag group on one side of an insubstantial fence, a latifundio army of unknown magnitude the other side. With the full selection of local farm implements raised, the red flag of Sem Terra aloft - one brave, or foolhardy, soul bellows 'Agrarian reform - the struggle for all'. Gate locks smash. The dam breaks. The human river pours. There is no resistance from the well armed latifundio army. Sem Terra slogans are shouted with abandon.

The whole Sem Terra project at Giacomete, if fully implemented, would provide 4,000 families with the means to provide food, shelter and a dignified life for themselves, and an estimated total of about 8,000 jobs4. The land invasion sets a whole legal machinery into action. Under Brasil's constitution (like many other formerly colonised countries) unused land can be appropriated by the state. A three stage process takes place, firstly INCRA (the government's National Institute of Agrarian Reform) examines the area to identify if it is a latifundio. Secondly, a judge decides on the land's fate, and finally the landowner is paid compensation in national Treasury Bonds and the land passes to belonging to the peasants.

Visiting Giacomete some four months after the occupation started the initial chaotic scenes are now filled with tranquillity fused with boredom. The land is subtropical, cold at night in the winter, with steam rising in the morning, lifting off the camp like the insulation all should have, but few do. The afternoons are hot. As far as the eye can see are neat rows of black bin-bag plastic houses secured with string or vines. A permanent slight haze of smoke hangs above as maybe a thousand or more wood stoves cook another meagre meal (for those wealthy enough) of rice and beans. In several days I had still not seen any of the piped-media third world images, stagnant pools of water, drunks, piles of rubbish, prostitutes, open sewers, or drug dealers. Many pass their time playing football, chatting, playing cards, practising self defence, whatever. And of course, attending meetings.


'Gate locks smash. The dam breaks. The human river pours.' 12,000 occupy Giacomete, April 1996.

The camp is run by an impressive system of direct participatory meetings. Each family belongs to a group of about 30 other families. All individual and group problems are addressed by regular meetings. In addition, co-ordinators from these groups are nominated to deal with camp-level crises, in separate areas such as women's issues, health issues, security, and children's issues. The co-ordinators from each of the 92 groups meet regularly to discuss camp problems. The camp is its own autonomous unit. The main problem is, of course, poverty. There is no work for 12,000 people in a field. The government know this, using it to great effect. One tactic seems to be to starve the peasants out. As the peasants need money for food, when things get to such a desperate level they will be forced to leave to earn some money for food. The government generally drags land expropriations out as long as possible knowing this. The result is devastating: in four months 12 children had died as a result of a mix of hunger, cold and disease. Their deaths lay firmly with the government.

Camp life is squarely DIY. Everyone is landless and wants land, except those in the shop selling food at the cheapest possible prices direct from those who have gained land. The school is run by the landless, as is the pharmacy - carefully split into two - one half with modern white packets filling wooden shelves, the other stocked with a plethora of roots, leaves and twigs. Perhaps the most scandalous aspect of camp life is that there is no resident doctor. The state only provides a frankly dodgy looking mini-ambulance (read estate car) to ferry the really sick to hospital.

In each case a judge can decide to give the peasants the land. Or send in the dreaded military police. Their main weapon is violence. Take this example: in Corumbiara in the state of Rondonia, on the southern fringe of the Amazon Basin 600 landless families in a camp called Santa Elina were attacked by police troops. At 3 am on 9th August 1995 police laid siege to the camp. The peasants fought back with rifles through the night. However, at daybreak the police backed by land-owner hired killers, all behelmeted and faces blacked swept through the camp with shotguns burning houses to flush the peasants out. Ten peasants and two police were killed. The police claimed self defence. However the fact that one of the dead peasants was a 7 year old girl, shot in the back, from close range, fleeing her attackers speaks for itself.

History of the Struggle for Land in Brasil

Since the Europeans arrived various indigenous groups and Black slaves fought the Portuguese, in a sporadic, uncoordinated way. For the indigenous it was war against the encroaching whites. For the Black slaves the quest for land was bound with the struggle for freedom. Looting of the land was (is) so prevalent that Brasil even got its name from a wood - pau-Brasil - cut for export. The period 1850-1940 was characterised by many uncoordinated local struggles against politically well connected fazendeiros (farmers), struggles which were led by 'messianic' cultish figures. These struggles became more militant and less cult followings by the 1950's.

The period from about 1950 to the US-backed military coup in 1964 was characterised by radical struggles by large groups of peasants, principally: Ultabs (Unioes de Lavradores e Tradalhadores Agricolas do Brasil) in the Southern Brasilian states, Ligas Campesinas (Peasant League) in the state of Pernambuco, and Master (Movimento dos Agricultores Sem Terra) in the state of Rio Grande do Sul. In 1964, thanks to the good ol' U. S. of A. peace was brought to the countryside. The peace of the cemetery. The military regime ruthlessly crushed all dissent. Most leaders were murdered or fled abroad. Things were so bad, that even the current Neoliberal technocrat president of Brasil, Ferdinando Henrique Cardoso, a then nonradical sociology professor, was forced to flee the country.

The military regime, forgetting that the Amazon rainforest was already populated sought to diffuse social tension and consolidate Brasil against attack from other countries by flooding the Amazon with Posseiros (direct producers on the land working without title).5

Once frontiers were opened up the fazendieros and southern land-based corporations gained title to the land and began forcing the Posseiros off the land (see Box). Meanwhile in various states in the late 1970's and early 1980's the pro-democracy movement was gaining momentum (three million industrial workers went on strike in 1979 alone) and peasants in various states invaded land, and impressively were mostly successful. Most importantly, one pivotal struggle was by the 7,400 or so Kaingang Indians expelled from the Nonoai reserve, where they had been working the land as Posseiros. They refused to leave the local area, and eventually gained land. In addition, those relocated by the creation of what was then the largest hydroelectric dam in the world, the Utaipu, generated the 'Terra e Justicia' (Land and Justice) movement, which also formed the backbone of MST.

In January 1984, the religious group that monitors violence against rural people - Commisao Pastoral da Terra - brought together these disparate groups, and in Cascavel in the state of Parana Movimento Sem Terra was born.

Fate of the Amazon

The fate of the Amazon rainforest is intimately tied to the quest of MST for land redistribution. The Amazon has and is used as Brasil's social pressure release valve. Land reform would stem the tide of those relocating to the Amazon to escape dire poverty in the north and south-east of Brasil. In addition, those that are already in the Amazon can make a positive contribution by getting land off the large fazendeiros who own the cattle ranches. If peasants had these lands they would have a stake (eating) to make these areas into long-term sustainable enterprises.

This is not what cattle ranchers or most loggers have in mind. It would be the peasants' permanent home, not a playground as it is for the rich. This would have the added benefit of producing food within Amazonia for Amazonians, and not relying on expensive imports from the South of Brasil. ["Outside the Amazon but within Brazil, an area of farmland the size of India lies uncultivated, as its owners treat it simply as a financial investment."

- George Monbiot, Guardian Earth Summit supplement, June 1992.]

Political Development of Sem Terra

Movimento Sem Terra, born in 1984, has burgeoned from a few thousand uncoordinated land-squats, to at present one of the worlds largest direct action movements. In 1985, MST organised 35 land settlements, mobilising about 10,500 families6. A decade later 30,476 families occupied 146 tracts of land7. By 1997 about 40,000 families live on over 200 stretches of illegally occupied land. In addition 140,000 families have got land through direct action8. How has this formidable rise been possible, especially in the face of 1,636 murders between 1964 and 1995, with jail sentences being served in only two cases?

The first problem in analysing MST's emergence, consolidation and evolution is that they often defy simple classification. The left see Sem Terra as union-like. And yes, when it suits them they appear as union-like. Such that the collective struggle for land is to resolve its members' economic problems. Though this is where union likeness stops. Sem Terra define themselves as a) a social movement of landless peasants, b) popular, i.e. a mass organisation based on the actions of 'the people', for 'the people', and c) political - but not in the sense of a political party, but a commitment to a wide and radical plan of social change. No wonder the left are bemused and the right call them communists!

The political structure is fairly simple. Firstly there is no such thing as 'membership'9. Those who are landless and do something about it are MST. Secondly decentralisation is the buzzword, as Joao Stedile explains, "Everything is decentralised: this is the secret of our success. The only thing centralised is a political line". This central line is 20 activists, 15 from camps (to keep power as far down as possible), and is designed to give Sem Terra a national voice where government, media and other groups can go to get information about MST. The clever part of the structure is that only 5 of these names are ever made public. Thus even if all five were murdered within a short time-frame Sem Terra would march forth. Also having 5 names stops the media focusing on only one personality.

Starting from the bottom, each family on a land-squat is in a group with other families. These groups form a single, independent, autonomous, camp. These independent camps work together at a state level. This is perhaps the most crucial tier, as this networking allows the possible mobilisation of thousands and links those who have won land with those still struggling. There is only a skeleton at the national level. One tiny dull office in Sao Paulo where the monthly MST newspaper, Journal dos Sem Terra, is compiled, the 20 paid 'national co-ordinators' (who are always to be seen touring the camps, who travel by bus or shared van only as these are the only options available to the rest of the peasants movement), and that's about it. The national stuff is paid for by voluntary donations from the regional groups.

Straight out of the military dictatorship, MST living in slightly less oppressive times started with the slogan 'Without land reform we don't have democracy'. A year later (1985) the slogan of choice was 'Occupation is the only solution'. The need for greater militancy to achieve anything rapidly being noted even within the wider boundaries of democracy.

By 1987, times were changing. Again, for the better: 'Occupy, Resist, Produce' went the slogan. The important word and change here is 'Produce'. While Sem Terra had been getting some land off the large landowners they spent all effort on staging more invasions. However, the transformation from starving peasant living in a bin-bag tent to farmer was difficult for some to achieve; peasants with land were often losing it and ending up at square one again. The major change was to invest time and energy into keeping those with land on their land.

Co-operative farming was seen as the solution, the superior method of production. Producers on their communal farms then pass food on to secondary coops, run by ex-landless peasants, who pack the food off to markets and supermarkets. It is cool to buy rice and beans with 'LAND REFORM NOW' stamped on in huge letters. Sem Terra then put the icing on the cake by getting all these secondary coops together under the name 'Confederacao das Cooperativas de Reforma Agraria do Brasil', providing muscle against large companies. Even more practically, as MST (regionally) funds itself by levying a 2% tax on all that the farmers sell this makes MST a very circular organisation. As it grows, gets more land and sells more food it generates more income to help those without land, and organises even more spectacular actions.

By 1995, more land occupations were deemed not enough. A new slogan: 'Agrarian reform - the struggle of all' was coined. The plan now is to take on the cities. They say Brasil has to believe, be persuaded, that land reform is in its own interests. That the problem is central to everyone, including the bulk of the population who live in the cities. Not just those 'Sem Terra'.

These strategy points are bashed out at two-yearly 'National Meetings', of limited (200 people) attendance, and five-yearly 'National Congresses', the last of which had over 5000 in attendance, including those from over 20 peasant groups world-wide. The information is broadcast by the monthly newspaper, 'Journal dos Sem Terra'.

Sem Terra in Action

The main actions are the land occupations. However, perhaps their most spectacular 'action' to date was the convergence of 120,000 people on the Brasilian capital, Brasilia, in April 1997. To coincide with the one year anniversary of 19 'Sem Terra' being summarily executed in a highway blockade in the state of Para, peasants marched from the North-East, the far South and Sao Paulo areas of Brasil, for over 6 weeks, finally converging on Brasilia. When the scale of the march became apparent the day was hastily made a holiday for those in the capital city. Everyone was tripping over themselves to be friendly to what they usually term 'vagabundos' (which my Portuguese dictionary translates as vagrant/vagabond/of wretched quality/third rate/no-good). Four presidents went out to meet the march (Senate, Chamber of Deputies, Supreme Court, Republic), such is the worry that MST are causing. The government announced measures to speed land reform, and the World Bank stumped up loan money for land reform.


Not that money is a problem in all this. It would cost $20 billion to settle 2 million families over 4 years. A lot. However the Brasilian government in 1995 spent $12 billion on rescue operations for private companies and banks, according to University of Campinas economist Manoel Cardoso. Of course Sem Terra don't need fancy calculations to see what's happening. The killings continue. Large-scale land reform remains elusive. The politicians are ostensibly polite because everyone's watching. In the background they continue to plot against MST. As one unnamed activist said on the day, "We will believe them when they put their promises into practice. There have been thousands of promises. We have been continually betrayed. For now, it is just the politics of television, and the cemeteries"10.

Movimento Sem Terra have tried all sorts of other tactics. These range from the tried and tested (finding it doesn't work is still a test) petitioning. A cool 1,600,000 signatures calling for large-scale land reform in 1987 8. In 1996, after the decision to focus on the cities was taken, over 2000 landless would-be farmers blockaded downtown Sao Paulo highways. Within minutes, the metro workers ground the city's underground transport to a halt. The third largest city ground to a standstill. Like in the UK, office occupations can help those get what they want, with Sem Terra often shutting down INCRA (Brasil's National Institute for Agrarian Reform) offices until their claims are dealt with. Marches, hunger strikes, town hall occupations, you name it, they've probably tried it. Except one thing. Armed struggle has been absent from their repertoire of action.

The question of the use of violence is a thorny issue in the UK. Much less so in a society where you are likely, if you make too much of an impact, to be silenced by a bullet. On the world stage, as MST spokesperson Joao Stedile puts it, "Many people think that a struggle is only radical when the masses are armed" [but note armed struggle is not necessarily radical: some Latin American radicals have dismissed the Zapatistas as 'armed reformists' or 'armed propagandists']. He then continues, "Our struggle has always been radical and never pacifist. But there is a grave sullenness to joining armed struggle, with new confrontations with the state and military police. Our only chance of victory is to get everyone aware and participating, using whatever arms they are able to use. In our [land] occupations women, children and old people use what they have: wooden sticks, stones knives, scythes...Another has a 0.38 revolver. We don't recommended using firearms. This tactic is certain to frighten…"9. Or as an activist told me on my travels in Brasil: armed struggle is inherently undemocratic, unegalitarian, as not everyone can afford a gun. This would then marginalise the struggle to those with guns only. It then couldn't be mass-scale. Of course it would be the men of each family who would go off fighting….Thus it seems clear that MST are not opposed to violence, just opposed to having some elite armed force and being pigeon-holed as not radical because they don't bear (fire)arms.


Sem Terra activists have been threatened, imprisoned, tortured and murdered. All for wanting, and trying to get, a piece of land to use to feed themselves. Those in power are not taking the rise of Sem Terra lying down. Oppression comes from two major sources: the state and its dreaded Policia Militar (military police) and the landowners who hire gunmen and buy-off the courts.

Jovially swapping anecdotes and stores about radical protest in the UK and Brasil, silence diffuses rapidly down the rickety old transit-style van packed with Sem Terra activists and me. Not so far ahead is a roadblock. Manned by the armed Policia Militar. This is Pontal da Paranapenema, the place where Sem Terra activity is at its most militant. The police probably merely want to monitor movements so thousands can't get to the same place. Conflicting thoughts jar my mind: 'they wouldn't shoot me, I'm a foreigner' (arrogant but probably true), and 'fuck! these guys can do anything. Anything. Two cases solved out of 1,600 murders. They have nothing to fear'.

A darkly dressed man peers as we slow, but the wave of the semi-automatic means we can pass. Audibly we collectively sigh. But the spectre of violence lingers. Knowing these guys have no limits. They can kill and walk away. Take the most (in)famous case of violence against landless activists. The time was four-thirty pm, April 17th 1996 in the state of Para near a town called Eldorado dos Carajas (some readers will note that this is the place of the Grande Carajas project, the single largest piece of deforestation ever, cut to smelt pig iron - part funded by Lloyds Bank, coupled with crunching poverty as people flock to the scheme for work, but find none). [See also: "Bound in Misery and Iron: The Impact of the Grande Carajas Programme on the Indians of Brazil", Dave Treece, Survival International 1987.] One-thousand five hundred Sem Terra activists campaigning against the government's delay in settling families on the Macacheira plantation, which had been occupied for several months, blockaded the PA-150 highway. All day. In the late afternoon 155 troops were sent in from two barracks. They surrounded the protesters from both sides. And began to fire on the crowd with machine guns and rifles. A chaotic melee ensued. By the time all who could had scattered, the road was strewn with the bodies of 19 dead and 57 wounded activists. The operations commander on the day, Coronel Mario Collares Pantoja, was widely reported as saying, "Mission complete. Nobody saw anything".

The Coronel was wrong. A home-movie video camera has most of the action on it. This caused a public outcry. Immediately Nelson Massini, professor of forensic pathology at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, was dispatched by the Senate Human Rights Committee. He confirmed that at least 10 of the dead had been removed from the road and were summarily executed via bullets in the back of the head and neck. With powder burns showing the bullets were discharged at very close range. Seven of the other bodies had been hacked to pieces with a scythe or machete.

Events took an uglier twist a week later, when a landowner went on the radio anonymously, to allege that the local landowners had paid police US$100,000 to remove known 'ringleaders' and halt protest in the area. In the usual Brasilian tactic, of waiting until the media-circus blows over then do what you were going to do anyway, after 3 months the Para state police appointed itself judge in the case, declaring publicly the innocence of its 155 troops. They alleged all acts were in self defence. If that were not enough: they also brought charges against activists for contempt, causing injuries to police and illegal possession of weapons. The weapons amounted to rocks, farm tools like scythes, and the huge arsenal of three pistols. Over a year after the killings 155 police are still on active duty.

The other main architect of violence against MST are the jaguncos, the big landowners' hired gunmen. In the mid-1990's there were, on average, about 40-50 murders in land disputes a year, mostly carried out by hired gunmen. Though this is only the extreme end of the problem. There were, in 1995, over 500 land conflicts involving about 381,000 people. Thousands of families were on the receiving end of violence against their property and possessions. The landowners link together in the 'Rural Democratic Union' (Uniao Demorcratica Ruralista - UDR), a plain misnomer. They used membership fees to buy and distribute guns to intimidate activists. These were behind the killing of Chico Mendes along with several prominent MST workers11.

The backlash against MST is not just violence. Activists have been imprisoned under a system of 'prisao preventitiva' (preventative prison) designed to get prominent activists out of the way for a while and intimidate them. Every year without fail many activists are imprisoned. Several activists have been 'fitted up' on bogus charges. And, of course, the media are used to distort the picture of Sem Terra. This is particularly relevant to the international view of MST as the few media items in Europe seem to be biased toward reporting when landless peasants chop a piece of rainforest to grow food.

Life on the farm

The goal of the landless peasants is control over their own lives. Speaking with either those with land, or those on camps, the word 'dignity' keeps surfacing. The prospect of a dignified life is what drives. Not that once the landless get land life becomes suddenly easy. It has been shown from surveys that for the first 3 to 5 years after getting land life is still tough due to combining food production with building your house while growing enough to sell to pay off the credit to get farm tools and the like. However after this period the farms generate a good income. Sem Terra use technology if it helps them get what they need. As they live in a harsh economic world they use the tricks of capitalism as needed. For example, an inland co-operative I visited was toying with an experimental fish farming scheme, as fish could command high prices.

The da Silva family seem typical, mother, father, and three children. All the children were born in bin-bag plastic MST tents. His family lived on, and got thrown off, land and roadsides for 11 years before finally getting 20 hectares of land, as part of a group of 15 other families in the southern Brasilian state of Parana. The houses are all in a small group planted with fruit trees. The houses differ considerably from two-room wooden cabins, to the da Silva's multi-bedroom brick affair. I arrive at night and we eat the usual simple meal of rice and beans, but with a good green salad and meat which is unusual. I decline the meat, but as the vegetarianism discussion has already been broached we settle, with wife and children, to that cross-cultural barometer of working-class taste: football on the TV.

Early morning sees the two younger children off to school and the eldest off to agricultural college. Probably to get some farming tips for his fellow MSTers. I tour the farm. They grow lots of rice and vegetables, but not beans as their area is not so good for that. They have pigs, cows and chickens. All free range. Unfortunately, the first Monday in the month is chicken day. I am not prepared for this really. This squeamish veggie Brit was forced to watch and video a field of chickens being: hung by their legs from a washing line, necks sliced, stillness, passed indoors, feather removal, head removal, foot removal, innards removal, thorough wash (of bird), into a bag, and into a chest freezer. I'm sure it's better than what happens in the UK. But it still doesn't look nice, though apparently the profit is larger if you sell the finished clean item, not a whole live chicken (some grumble that the young Brazilians don't know how to cook properly). We spend lunch discussing the problems of co-operative living. What happens if someone doesn't pull their weight and the like. This group have a system whereby a core number of hours are to be worked which keeps the farm running. For this the family gets all its food from the coop and a sum of cash. Extra hours can be done for more cash. It had not happened there but those not doing the prerequisite hours without excuses would be asked to leave. After this its off to town to check out the local co-operative.

In each settlement one person is often liberated from farming to allow them to be a political activist full-time and force on the Sem Terra agenda. This fulfils the vital function of getting 'off-farm' stuff done, like the organisation of new occupations and secondary coops. It importantly keeps those with and without land together. Fighting the same battle. The secondary coop is a hive of political activity, as those liberated from farming from about 10 communities gather to swap politico-gossip. The system seems impressive. These people seem happy.

Scale of MST Activity

To show what Sem Terra do here is everything that happened in July 1995: MORI style poll shows MST are more credible than the police or politicians; Leading Brasilian sociologist backs Sem Terra struggle; New co-operative starts in Parana; MST hold seminar about the mess of Rondonia; Seminar about teaching basic numeracy in camps and assentamentoes; 300 families invade 480 ha estate in Sao Paulo state; 1000+ celebrate in a 'The Land Lives' march; food from those with land handed to poor in Dionisio, Santa Catarina; 200 families invade 217 ha property of Ministry of Agriculture (used by only 4 horses!) including students from Santa Catarina University; Daily TV soap opera continues to feature MST; UN lobby Brasilian government for enquiry into April 1996 Eldorado massacre; MST activist sent to prison; Indigenous people from 34 tribes protest in Brasilia against new laws; Articulacao National de Mulheres (National Women's Articulation) have national meeting about violence and women living on camps.

The Future - for Us and Them

The MST of five years in the future is impossible to predict with accuracy. While they have consolidated and captured a few hard-won gains, at its most basic level they have so far failed to secure large-scale land redistribution. But Sem Terra are at the top of the political agenda. If the current strategy of linking with the voluminous urban poor takes effect things could spiral up and into MST's lap.

There are some things we in the UK can do. We could do solidarity actions. Sem Terra have called for April 17th to be 'International Day of the Struggle for Land'. In the UK, where we have the 5th worst land concentration record in the world, it would be cool to have a major militant action drawing what is happening in the UK, with the struggles in Brasil, Mexico and other regions of the world.

Perhaps most importantly (third world activists often say this) is that those in the South need to see similar agendas to theirs being pushed in the North. This is an extremely important aspect to solidarity. Not only campaigning 'for' them and their efforts, but 'with' them and against the common enemy. Activists in Brasil were genuinely enthused and excited (even though I was embarrassed) when I said we now, as of 1995, have a land rights campaign in the UK, and that there were people planning to live on their land and grow food, who were poor and not agribusiness. In times of suffering and doubt, this can really help those in the South 'legitimise' their struggle and take strength that they are part of something even bigger.

The radical environmental movement in the UK could learn lots from Sem Terra, as in many ways they have got much further than we have in the direction we want to go. They have built a large-scale mass movement rooted in the people in a decentralised way. They have worked around potential problems like violence (and at present are in a phase of confronting the problems of sexism within the movement) coming up with often clever, novel, ways around conflicts. Everything, even to being a national spokesperson, has been carefully kept within the reach and skill of peasants who may never have attended school. That is a seriously 'everything open to all' policy. While Western academics have failed to study Sem Terra it is up to activists to learn about them and their tricks. How do they inspire people? How do people stay active when they have land? How exactly do they come to decisions such as 'let's focus on getting the cities and urban poor involved in our struggle'? To this end some of us are getting hold of some MST literature and getting it translated into English.

Whether it's our radical environmental movement doing Sem Terra style land invasions in the future, the latest atrocity read about in the Guardian, or the BBC with footage of half a million armed peasants attacking the Brasilian congress. Or thousands more than the 140,000 families now living a dignified life, we'll be hearing a lot more about Movimento Sem Terra I'm sure.

Notes and references

1 Anon (1988). The World in 1998. Economist Intelligence Unit.

2 Thirty million people excluded from land have migrated to large cities over the last 20 years. This is well reported in the Brasilian press. Source: Tribuna Popular: Os Fluxos Migratorios Para a Cidadge de Sao Paulo e a Reforma Agraria. Camara Municipal de Sao Paulo.

3 Salgado, S. (1997). Terra: Struggle for Land, pp 141. Phaidon Press, London.

4 Salgado, ibid.

5 "There was another constituency that the (post-coup development) strategy sought to satisfy: the generals' security concerns. On the maps in their offices the Araguaia and Tocantins valley, running south from the mouth of the Amazon at Belem had special significance. Here, in the estimation of the generals, was an artery which could carry the toxins of subversion from the north to the heartland." From: "The Fate of the Forest", Susaana Hecht and Alexander Cockburn, Verso 1989, p.105.

6 Veltmeyer, H., Petra, J & Vieux, S. (1997). Neoliberalism and Class Conflict in Latin America: a comparative perspective on the political economy of structural adjustment. Macmillan Press Ltd., London.

7 Commisao Pastoral da Terra (1996). Conflictos no Campo Brasil 1995. Booklet produced yearly by the religious monitoring group which collates information on violence against the landless.

8 Anonymous (no date). Elementos fundamentais da Historia do MST. MST-produced document explaining historical roots and current state (1994-ish) of the movement.

9 Altman, B, Brener J. & Arbex, J (1996). Joao Sem Terra. Atencao!, June, p. 7-13. Brasilian magazine interview with Joao Pebro Stedile, a named MST spokesperson.

10 Vidal, J. (1997). The Long March Home. The Guardian Weekend Magazine. April 26th, p. 14-20.

11 "Green Backlash", Andrew Rowell, Routledge 1996, p.214.


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