“When the state military police kill squatters, the President sometimes sends investigators,” Diana Jean Schemo reported a quarter century ago in the New York Times, “but eventually they go home. And the killers are almost never punished.” Schemo was in Brazil covering the struggle for land reform, a process guaranteed in the 1988 Constitution, which had been drafted after the end of the military dictatorship. President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, a former left-wing academic who came to embody the neoliberal turn of the 1990s, supported distributing vast tracts of private, unproductive land to peasants. The issue became more salient after nineteen rural workers associated with the Landless Workers’ Movement (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra, or MST) were massacred in the northern state of Pará early in his administration. According to political scientist Gabriel Ondetti, the Cardoso government provided settlements for more families than all previous Brazilian presidents combined. Still, Schemo noted, “the process is often derailed by local judges and the military police.” Entrenched power stood in the way. The situation today, though less violent, remains highly contentious. The desire for land among those who have none is often matched by the voracious appetite of those who already own land yet want more.
Founded during Brazil’s transition to democracy in 1984, the MST has since become one of the largest social movements in the country and a model for land rights activists worldwide. Demanding that the government act on the promises of the new Constitution, the MST occupies and farms large landed estates. They have very often succeeded at forming sophisticated family-based agricultural enterprises on land its members determined was not fulfilling any social function. In practice, this means that the property was either degrading the environment in some way, exploiting workers, or simply going unused. By occupying territory meeting one or more of those criteria, the MST puts pressure on the National Institute of Colonization and Agrarian Reform, the government agency charged with carrying out agrarian reform in Latin America’s largest nation, to accelerate the expropriation and redistribution of land.
As of last year, the MST comprised some 450,000 legally settled families, along with 90,000 families informally camped out across Brazil waiting for the often slow process of redistribution to kick in. A recent New York Times piece put the movement’s total membership at around 2 million. According to BrasildeFato, these families operate 1,900 community associations, 160 cooperatives, and 120 agro-industries. Famously, the MST is the largest producer of organic rice in Latin America.
When former metalworker and union leader Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva steered his Workers’ Party (PT) to power in 2002, the MST for the first time could count on a vocal ally in the presidency. Lula’s first stint in office brought to the fore the dilemma he faces today, early in his third term: whether to prioritize the interests of large-scale agribusiness geared primarily toward export markets—a segment of the economy that has only grown in importance over the past two decades—or the demands of the MST and other advocates of far-reaching agrarian reform. Lula likely cannot satisfy both. And with Big Ag serving as a pillar of reaction in recent years, there is more at stake in this delicate moment than the fate of disputed territory.
Given his left-wing background and his praise for the MST on the campaign trail, many assumed Lula would support the movement when he first took office. Yet compared to his market-friendly predecessor, sociologist Wendy Wolford wrote in 2010, “Lula came under much greater pressure from the international financial and business community, which expressed its concern that Lula might prejudice international agribusiness interests by supporting the landless movements and conducting agrarian reform.” The prospect of capital flight followed by the devaluation of Brazil’s currency and the likely return of inflation hung over Lula’s head early on. He mostly assuaged the concerns of the market by governing as a moderate. He delivered real material gains to poor and working-class Brazilians through a host of innovative social programs, but his approach to land reform was more conservative. Hundreds of thousands of families received their own plots of land, but activists in the MST and beyond complained about the pace of reform and pointed out that some settlements were located in remote and less fertile areas.
Most worrisome from the point of view of the MST, however, was the Lula administration’s embrace of agribusiness. As economist Maria Beatriz de Albuquerque David and Paula de Andrade Rollo wrote at the end of Lula’s first term, the PT government effectively continued a decades-long process of agricultural concentration among a small set of major players, “thus imposing significant barriers to sustainable rural development and the generation of jobs and opportunities in the poorest segments of the rural sector community.” The PT and the MST may have seen themselves as political allies, but “the Lula government’s performance in terms of agrarian reform has been very poor,” the authors concluded. The PT’s support for major agricultural producers carried over into the government of Dilma Rousseff, Lula’s successor. In fact, in 2014, the MST went so far as to call Rousseff’s administration the worst ever on the issue of agrarian reform. The subsequent right-wing governments of Michel Temer and Jair Bolsonaro, however, were worse still. Among other things, Temer abolished the Ministry of Agrarian Reform, while Bolsonaro made it easier for major landowners to arm themselves. As one MST activist put it in 2018, the Temer government’s approach to land reform wasn’t neglectful—it was “a project of annihilation.” So there was never any doubt that the MST would get behind Lula’s candidacy last year.
Out of power since a right-wing legislature impeached Rousseff for transparently partisan ends in 2016, the PT found itself targeted by major agrarian interests. Agribusiness was one of what became known as the “three Bs” supporting the Bolsonaro government—the beef, bible, and bullet caucus in Congress. There was something ironic in the hostility Lula faced from agricultural interests. In his first two terms as president, he helped make Brazil into one of the largest producers of animal protein in the world. But Bolsonaro’s crass authoritarianism and total disregard for environmental regulations aligned more neatly with the priorities of Big Ag, which seeks ever more land for commodity production even at the expense of rampant deforestation. Lula struggled to appeal to the giants of soy, sugarcane, and beef, many of whom allegedly helped finance the insurrection in the Brazilian capital on January 8.
Lula’s victory in 2022 was a defeat for the destructive reactionary movement that coalesced around Bolsonaro. It was also a win for a broad front strategy that argued the interests of landless peasants, middle-class families, urban professionals, the poor, and the working class were all best served by a turn back to the PT’s brand of social democracy. Unsurprisingly, not everyone in that loose confederation is on board with the MST’s tactics, which conservatives in government and the media have vilified for years. Since his inauguration in January, Lula has had the difficult task of holding together the diverse coalition that elected him.
The New York Times reported recently on a wave of land occupations since Lula took office, sparking fears of a backlash and potential confrontation that could turn deadly, as the speaker of Brazil’s lower house of Congress recently noted. But the MST has learned from history that progressive governments need to be pushed to address what remains a deeply unequal distribution of land. “The government is ours, we helped build it,” João Paulo Rodrigues, the MST’s national coordinator, said in a recent defiant interview. “The MST has autonomy in relation to the PT and the government. We are not a transmission belt [for the government] and we do not accept any type of collar or muzzle on the organization of the MST.” During the first Lula administration, Rodrigues, then an MST National Directorate member, was similarly careful to separate the MST from the PT, complaining that “in 25 years of work, we have made much progress in organizing, but we have not encountered a people’s government truly committed to agrarian reform.”
In contrast with previous administrations, which described MST members as “terrorists” and sought to crack down on their occupations, the worry among some in Lula’s government today is not about the legality of the group’s actions, but whether they could backfire and hurt the administration. Late last month, conservatives managed to open a congressional inquiry into the MST. Congressman Ricardo Salles, who oversaw a devastating escalation of deforestation as Bolsonaro’s former minister of the environment before leaving the cabinet under allegations that he personally profited from the illicit trafficking of Amazonian hardwood, could play a lead role. MST leaders, however, are uncowed by the prospect of congressional confrontation. After all, previous inquiries did little lasting damage to the movement, and its members are convinced that their tactics and ultimate aims are righteous.
The 1988 Constitution enshrined the principle that private property must serve a useful end. Article 184 enabled the federal government to expropriate, “for the purposes of agrarian reform, rural property that is not fulfilling its social function, upon prior and fair compensation.” That provision has always been at the heart of the MST’s activities. As Lula’s unprecedented third term gathers momentum, the MST aims to remind the president that its needs remain—and that they are not necessarily compatible with the desires of agribusiness. The Lula administration is sensitive to such prodding. On May 1, Minister of Agrarian Development Paulo Teixeira said the government would be kicking off an emergency agrarian reform to deal with pent up demand after years of government inaction. Lula, renowned for his ability to mediate competing interests, will face yet another crucial test.
Andre Pagliarini is an assistant professor of history at Hampden-Sydney College in central Virginia, a faculty fellow at the Washington Brazil Office, and non-resident expert at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. In addition to writing a monthly column for the Brazilian Report, he is finalizing a book on the politics of nationalism in twentieth-century Brazil.