Like in so many other Latin American countries, Brazil’s national history is rooted in colonialism, exploitation and class warfare. After emerging in 1985 from a 20-year dictatorship, the newly democratic Brazil was faced with the social upheaval caused by structural adjustment policies attached to loans made from the World Bank.
Because of land acquisition by foreign companies and industrial agriculture production associated with the “green revolution” much of the agricultural working class was driven into the cities seeking work, where they found low wages and high unemployment. The effects of this situation still lingers today in Brazil’s many favelas, or urban slums. Accordingly, Brazil suffers from some of the most egregious wealth and land ownership disparity in the western hemisphere; three percent of the population owns two-thirds of Brazil’s farmable land.
The Brazilian constitution, drafted in 1988, stipulates that “property shall fulfill a social function” and that the government can “expropriate for the purpose of agrarian reform, rural property that is not performing its social function.” This is one of the strongest official policies in the world stating that land is a commons that should benefit everyone. Historically, this mandate of “expropriation” has been carried out by the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Terra, or the Landless Workers’ Movement (MST), an organization that has come to represent one of the most successful social movements in Latin American history.
The methods of land redistribution are disarmingly simple: MST identifies a plot of unproductive land, then organizes a makeshift camp on the land with groups sometimes numbering in the thousands, living there until the legal owner of the land makes the first move. If this sounds risky, it is—thousands of squatters have been brutalized or killed at the hands of state or private military forces. If the camp is broken up MST comes back in larger numbers, often drawing upon a reserve of members from coalition organizations such as the Pastoral Land Commission or the Movement of Small Farmers.
MST’s victories ultimately stem from the rule of law, not physical confrontation. It was a victory in Brazil’s Supreme Court which set the precedent for this kind of direct action in the first place back with an occupation in the state of Rio Grande do Sul in 1985. Part of the legal strategy adopted by MST is the art of making appeals. The local or state courts tend to rule in the favor of the original land owner. Rulings at the higher courts, however, have often backed MST’s efforts to apply the principles of the constitution.
Victories in the court room are possible due to the National Network of People’s Lawyers (RENAP), a coalition of legal practitioners organized in 1995 to provide legal help to urban and social movements, including MST. RENAP has served as a crucial liaison between peasants and the academic community; the movement often enlists the help of university legal scholars and opens their doors for active student participation.
Today, the Landless Workers’ Movement can lay claim to finding land for more than 350,000 families in over 2000 settlements. MST is recognized by UNESCO, UNICEF and the Catholic Church for the community development initiatives that have sprung up in these communities—some 1,500 grade schools, medical clinics, credit unions and partnerships with Brazil’s technical colleges and universities. Good relations with Amnesty International and the administration of Brazilian President Lula da Silva have broadened the scope of MST’s goals, broadening them beyond land reform to challenge the practices of agribusiness giants like Monstanto and Syngenta whose commercialized GM crops and monocropping practices undermine the security of small farmers all over the world.