Brazil’s Landless Workers Rise Up

Brazil’s Landless Workers Rise Up

An MST stall at Brazil’s National Fair of Agrarian Reform, São Paulo, October 2015. Photo by Alf Ribeiro via Shutterstock.

It is notoriously difficult to convict corporations of a crime in a foreign country. But on November 17, 2015, a Brazilian judge found the Swiss transnational agribusiness Syngenta liable for instigating deadly violence. The company was held responsible for attacking a group of landless activists camped out on a Syngenta test site in southern Brazil. The activists were members of the Brazilian landless workers movement, the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (MST), and the transnational peasant movement, Via Campesina. They had occupied the property early on the morning of October 21, 2007, with the intention of drawing attention to genetically modified crop (GMO) experiments on the site. Private security guards hired by Syngenta responded quickly and, in the unequal struggle that followed, one landless activist was killed and several others injured.

The MST has been organizing the rural poor in Brazil for thirty years now. Over that time, the movement has gone from a handful of squatters in southern Brazil to become the largest grassroots social movement in Latin American history. Founded in 1984, as the country’s twenty-one-year military dictatorship was weakening, the MST brought together activists from the Catholic and Lutheran Church, the opposition trade unions, former Communist Party members who had been in exile since the 1960s, and others. Movement activists organized the rural and urban poor, teaching them about their legal right to land: according to Article 186 of Brazil’s latest constitution, rewritten as the country returned to civilian rule in the mid-1980s, the state can expropriate and redistribute rural land that is not being used “productively” for agriculture, ranching, or conservation. The movement’s main tactic was occupying property that groups of members identified as unproductive and squatting there in temporary encampments to pressure the government to distribute the land to the poor. Today there are approximately 1.5 million MST members on 2,000 permanent settlements around the country; another 120,000 families are squatting on temporary encampments to pressure the government to distribute the land to the rural poor.

The MST’s struggle first began over land. But through the years, movement leaders have articulated a vision of social transformation that includes not only the specific elements needed to make life on the land viable—education, heath services, access to credit, infrastructure—but to address systemic inequality more broadly, in Brazil and around the world. From its inception, the MST has organized across rural and urban sectors against the Brazilian state, agribusiness, transnational capital and, increasingly, the global model of extractive development.

As it has grown, the MST has also come to wield significant influence in national politics. Movement leaders were early supporters of the workers’ movement in Brazil, particularly the Workers’ Party and former president Lula himself. It is not an exaggeration to say that MST mobilization helped to usher in the Lula presidency, as part of the group’s broader struggle against neoliberalism. Lula in turn vastly increased education funding for land reform settlements, offering programs to promote adult literacy and forge bonds with nearby public universities. In 2004 the MST opened its own government-backed university near São Paulo, with a working organic farm and training programs in agroecology. The movement has helped educate a generation of Brazilians about the struggle for land and, consequently, about the need to transform the model of development that has privileged urban areas and industrial growth, and exploited rural areas for natural resources and cheap labor. For over thirty years, the MST has argued that this transformation is necessary if issues such as inequality, violence against the poor, and environmental harm—from deforestation to climate change—are to be addressed.


There is much that the MST could teach the international community as we take up the gauntlet of imagining a sustainable future. In multilateral international fora, such as the global climate meetings, the conversation is stunted by a fundamental problem: a mode of thinking shaped by the Enlightenment and deepened by the industrial revolution, colonization, and the rise of urban modernity. In a framework where the commodification of life—of human labor and ecological resources—is taken for granted, climate change is a technical problem; it is unintended collateral damage, one that we can mitigate and adapt to by refining the tools that produced it. Climate change is a thing, something that can be identified, photographed, explained in scientific terms, measured with relative confidence, and addressed by isolated or individual changes—turning the lights off, quantifying nature’s market value better, storing carbon in the ground, painting the clouds white, eating less meat, building more fuel-efficient cars.

Those solutions might have some marginal effect, but they are unlikely to be sufficient because the real problem isn’t lack of technological innovation. The real problem, one that is hinted at in the turn to climate justice, is that climate change is not a thing; it is a relationship. It is a relationship between the past, the present, and the future. It is a relationship between country and city, one rooted in stepwise notions of development as urbanization and industrial progress. It is a relationship between production and consumption, where both have become increasingly segmented and separated, in part by the legacies of colonization and now globalization. Likewise, climate change is a relationship between North and South, rich and poor, where those who have historically polluted less are paying more in terms of degraded environments and restricted livelihoods. Predatory elite efforts to mitigate climate change, including the international land grabs conducted in the name of carbon offsets, are only exacerbating these inequalities. None of these are contradictions; they are built into the very nature of the system.

Our global food production system is a critical example of the relationships that constitute climate change. Powerful political lobbies fight to win subsidies for large-scale producers of commodity crops such as corn and soy, which are well known to pollute soil, water, and air. Those subsidies encourage excess production, which is channeled into cheap but heavily processed food with the residual purchased and sent abroad as food aid, rather than aid dollars supporting local farmers in regions of need. Meanwhile we grow approximately 5 billion bushels of corn for ethanol to put in our cars, instead of developing long-term alternatives to gasoline. As the earth grows drier, we patent “drought-resistant” seeds and send them to countries like India, driving farmers into crippling levels of debt.

The MST sees all of these problems as interconnected, and seeks to confront them accordingly. The struggle for agrarian reform in Brazil and Latin America more generally is a reflection of the historical inequalities brought about by Portuguese and Spanish colonization. To this day, land ownership is highly unequal in the region, an injustice tied to racism, poverty, violence, and political corruption. Colonial Brazil was founded on the extraction of natural resources—namely trees, sugar, gold, cattle, and coffee—and industrialization in the early 1900s only further entrenched traditional hierarchies of power. Postwar development policy glorified select industrial sectors, such as automobiles and pharmaceuticals, established in isolated modern “islands,” as Andre Gunder Frank famously called them. Agricultural production and the ongoing extraction of natural resources also advanced through modern technologies and production methods, with a privileged group of large-scale farmers awarded subsidies and state support to ramp up production of key commodity crops, including corn, soybeans, cotton, and sugar.

Today, Brazil is one of the top agricultural producers and exporters in the world, an accomplishment that has been hailed as a “miracle.” The model of production responsible for this miracle has been predicated on large-scale farmers and resulted in the expulsion of millions of small farmers from the countryside into urban areas where they now live in shantytowns infamous for their precarity and violence. In just forty years, from 1945 to 1985, the rural population in Brazil shrank from 70 percent to just 15 percent. It has also been predicated on rampant deforestation, only further accelerating climate disruption. Brazil loses roughly 10,000 square miles of forest every year—an area roughly the size of Haiti—to agriculture and livestock farming. Globally, agriculture accounts for three-quarters of deforestation and roughly a quarter of total greenhouse gas emissions. At the core of this heavily polluting food system are major monocrops, especially soy and corn, whose production and trade are dominated by a small number of mega-corporations.

The MST rejects this system outright and proposes that we rethink modernity from the ground up. How? Through the deceptively simple vision of food sovereignty, a banner under which the MST has joined with hundreds of movements around the world to enact a relational, remodernizing (as opposed to rewilding) response to climate change.

Food sovereignty is a concept and a struggle introduced by Via Campesina in 1996. The aim has been to promote the sovereignty of local producers and consumers, from smallholder farmers to the urban grocery shopper. For the MST, food sovereignty links the global dimensions of climate change with the recuperation and preservation of local food systems. The MST believes that food is not simply a commodity that can be created in a laboratory and then transferred to mechanized fields of monocultures saturated with high levels of veneno (poison). Food sovereignty for the MST means breaking with international trade rules that encourage standardized forms of production (such as GMOs) without respect for the land, biodiversity, or the specificities of each region. Food sovereignty, in short, represents a break with the capitalist logic of agricultural production.

That model of agriculture has led to a silent tragedy in Brazil. Amid all the talk about how productive it is, few have noted that Brazilian agribusiness is the largest consumer of pesticides in the world (surpassing the United States in 2012). Sales of pesticides jumped from $2.5 billion in 2000 to over $12 billion in 2014. Brazilian agriculture was responsible in 2013 for one-fifth of world pesticide consumption, at about 1 million tons per year, equivalent to the consumption of 5.2 liters of pesticides per capita on average. These chemicals contaminate the earth, the air, the water, and, of course, poison the people who live and work with them. In Mato Grosso (a key soybean producing state), each inhabitant essentially consumes 43 liters of pesticides per year, according to medical data compiled by researcher Wanderlei Pignati at the Federal University of Mato Grosso. The National Cancer Institute (INCA) estimates that there are 500,000 new cases of cancer a year in Brazil, a significant cause of which is pesticides in food. And cancer is only one of the many acute and chronic illnesses caused by intensive pesticide use.

The widespread use of pesticides and lack of regulation or enforcement stems from the power that large-scale farmers still maintain in Brazil’s legislature. It also comes from the strength of a few transnational corporations in Brazilian agriculture, where seven companies dominate the market: Monsanto, Syngenta, BASF, FMC, Bayer CropScience, Dow AgroSciences, and DuPont. These seven are also the largest owners of genetically modified seed patents authorized in Brazil. Genetic modification, in large part, makes soy, corn, and cotton resistant to pesticides, so they allow (or require) higher doses of pesticides to control new pests and diseases. The producer is obliged to buy seed and input packages from the same transnational corporation they then sell their product to, so they cannot have their own native seeds. Brazilian law also allows aerial spraying and pesticides that have been banned in the United States and the European Union. The country provides tax incentives and subsidies to its manufacturers. Meanwhile, wielding the power of their quasi-monopoly, the top seed companies have continuously raised the price of their genetically-engineered seeds, doubling, tripling, and quintupling the cost per hectare of planting corn, soy, and cotton respectively.

Large-scale industrial agriculture and climate disruption are thus two sides of the same coin. The climate crisis coupled with widespread and recurring economic crises—like the one currently facing Brazil—are expressions of the ultimate failure of a model based on booms and busts and on large-scale, high-yielding production for export at the expense of local communities, the production of healthy food, and stewardship of nature. If we can change the production model, we will begin to bring the climate back into balance.

Food sovereignty means both redistribution of the means of production (land reform) and a new model of production (agroecology). It is “a permanent dialogue,” as the MST says, with the biodiversity of each region, with the people of that region and their ways of life, traditions, customs, and agricultures. In the Brazilian context, food sovereignty also means generating jobs in the countryside. According to data from the Ministry of Agrarian Development (MDA), there were more than 4 million small family farms in Brazil in 2014. These farms employ 74 percent of the workforce in the field and account for 70 percent of food production, but generate only 33 percent of the country’s GDP in agriculture; the remainder is derived from agribusiness, which mainly produces biofuel and commodities for export or animal feed.

As settlers work with the land, they also work with each other: MST members have created one hundred producer and credit cooperatives and ninety-six small agro-industries. These cooperatives allow MST settlers to work together on the land or in regional food processing industries, or to collaborate to hire machinery for the harvest. Through economies of scale that the workers control, the MST strengthens local and regional economies and the wellbeing of thousands of Sem Terra families in settlements and in encampments throughout Brazil. Food sovereignty doesn’t promote small, local farms merely for their own sake, but as part of a whole network of households and communities.

So much for the model of production. As for the means? Agrarian reform may seem like an old problem, but it is vitally important for a new vision of modernity. It means tearing down three fences, as the MST puts it—fences around land, capital, and knowledge. As part of a larger effort to democratize access to resources, agrarian reform and food sovereignty can encompass everything from providing credit for settlers in land reform areas so that they can practice agroecological methods, to establishing good public schools and universities in every region. It might start with diversified local economies supported through farmers markets, but it also envisions universal health services, access to the internet, public transport, movie theaters, and more in every town.


Over the course of Dilma Rousseff’s presidency, as the initial triumph of the Workers’ Party program has been tested by a collapse in global commodity prices, elite backlash, and a gradual retreat to neoliberal policies, Brazil has been rocked by successive waves of protest from both the left and the right. Urban movements have included strikes by both public- and private-sector workers since 2011, ranging from university professors to health inspectors to construction workers; the mass protests of 2013, Brazil’s largest in over twenty years, which grew from a local revolt over bus fares to a movement of hundreds of thousands across dozens of cities; the 2014 demonstrations of favela residents and activists against the World Cup; and, over the last year, enormous middle-class protests over corruption scandals. Meanwhile in the Brazilian Amazon, decades-long indigenous protests against big dams—notably the Belo Monte mega-dam, set to be the world’s fourth-largest hydropower plant—have come to a head.

The MST has played a role in all of these battles, defending Brazil’s “commons” as they come under attack both from private interests and from the state (in many cases, from the two in tandem). Notably, the MST is involved in the struggle against large dams, which encapsulate the environmental, human, economic, and political disasters of profit-driven modernism. This is evident in the aftermath of two dams rupturing in the town of Bento Rodrigues, Minas Gerais, leaving seventeen dead, dozens injured, and hundreds homeless since November 5, 2015. The two dams—Fundão and Santarém—are operated by Samarco, a venture owned jointly by two of the world’s largest mining companies: Vale, on the Brazilian side, and BHP Billiton, based in Australia. The iron-heavy mud created by the bursting of the dams is destroying the land and water, though the full ecological impact of 62 million liters of mining sewage sludge on both is still unclear. At a news conference on January 7, the President of the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA), Marilene Ramos, and Cláudio Maretti from the Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation (ICMBio) said they are monitoring an area in the ocean that has reached southern Bahia and affected the Abrolhos Marine National Park, a park that boasts the greatest biodiversity of Atlantic corals in the world. Species are at risk of extinction. As of mid-February, Samarco was approaching a several-billion-dollar compensation deal with Brazilian authorities over the dam rupture. But, as we’ve seen in disaster after disaster, even such a settlement would pale in comparison to the environmental harm done.

The example of the dams is a telling reminder that the current model of growth in Brazil—as in the world more generally—relies on the extraction of natural resources at virtually any cost. Human lives, the soil, and marine waters are equally at risk when “development” is driven by profit. In all of this it is the poor who continue to suffer most, whether they are petty traders in informal markets, smallholder farmers, or even workers employed by these very companies. It is no small irony that even as Brazil claimed leadership in the recent global climate talks (COP21) and boasts of declining deforestation rates, the state-owned oil company Petrobras was greedily exploiting newly discovered reserves of oil just off the coast of Rio de Janeiro. Still, when the Brazilian state moved to privatize Petrobras in order to gain foreign currency, the MST joined protests organized by Petrobras workers. They fought alongside oil workers for national autonomy and sovereign control over resources. Movement leaders argued that the subservience of the Brazilian state to global capital is part of the system against which the MST has mobilized for over thirty years.


In Cascavel, the southern region where landless activist Valmir Mota de Oliveira (better known as Keno) was killed by Syngenta guards in 2007, the company’s recent conviction has buoyed MST activists. “Now I can hold my head up, and try to forget a little of the suffering we’ve faced,” said Isabel Nascimento dos Santos, who was seriously injured in the 2007 attack. But dos Santos and her fellow organizers were hardly biding their time in the eight years before the verdict came down. In 2009, on the former Syngenta site where Keno was killed, they helped open an agroecology research center in his name. In 2012, shortly before the fifth anniversary of the activist’s death, dozens of families received government recognition of their adjacent settlement, also in his name.

The settlement and research center (which is now managed by the Environmental Institute of Paraná) are testament to the power of a movement that is bridging the gap between research and practice, science and politics, to build real political alternatives. As scholars and activists, we have much to learn from the MST. If we are to truly deal with inequality, exploitation, and the climate crisis, our models of research and political practices, too, will need to be transformed. We need research not just on alternative plants or practices but on alternative models of development. For the MST, that alternative hinges on a new set of relationships between people and the land, such that life is created and protected rather than simply commodified, extracted, and sold. Climate change science might be about developing better technologies to keep the crisis at bay, but climate justice science is about developing better relationships to fundamentally transform a crisis-prone system.

Wendy Wolford is Polson Professor of Development Sociology at Cornell University, and Faculty Director for Economic Development in Cornell’s Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future. This article was written in collaboration with Judite Stronzake, international relations liaison for the MST, activist with Via Campesina Brazil, and educator at Florestan Fernandes National School.

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