By Rebecca Tarlau
On Sunday, February 9, 2014, hundreds of buses carrying thousands of peasant farmers from across Brazil arrived in the capital city of Brasília. These farmers travelled to the capital to participate in the Sixth National Congress of the Brazilian Landless Workers Movement (MST), the largest and most well-known agrarian reform movement in Latin America. Over the past 30 years, through occupations of privately and publically owned landed estates, the MST has succeeded in forcing the government to redistribute land rights to approximately 150,000 landless families. In addition, tens of thousands of families are still camped out illegally across the country, living for years at a time under the now-iconic black plastic makeshift tents, waiting for land.
The 2014 congress coincided with the movement’s 30th anniversary. Unlike the national congresses of unions and other social movements, the objective of this congress was not to create a five-day forum for debate and voting. Rather, as an activist explained to a group of international delegates the night before the congress began, “The MST congress has been in construction for two years. The process of debate has already happened and matured in the base (grassroots). We have already discussed the challenges that we are facing. For us, on this 30th anniversary, we want to deepen our assessment and critique of our movement over these 30 years, and also deepen our understanding of the current political climate, the economy, the region, and the rest of the world . . . as well as celebrate our victories.” In other words, the congress was the culmination and celebration of two years of debate among thousands of peasant families about the future of the struggle for agrarian reform in Brazil.
This debate is critical. The barriers to agrarian reform are immense. Although the Workers’ Party (PT) government, in power since 2003, has succeeded in lifting millions of people out of abject poverty through cash transfer programs such as Bolsa Família and other social benefits, the government has primarily funded these projects through investments in export-oriented industrial agricultural production. The MST refers to this form of social change as neo-developmentalism. As MST leader João Pedro Stédile explained at the congress, for the MST neo-developmentalism is a vast improvement over the previous neoliberal economic policies, which completely subordinated the state to the market at the expense of human welfare. However, the massive protests in June and July of 2013 have illustrated that this model of development has reached its limit. The PT’s compromise between the working-class population and the industrial sectors is no longer sustainable. Thus, the MST is advocating for a different economic model.
The reaffirmation of this new program—known as the People’s Agrarian Reform—is undoubtedly the most important contribution of the congress. As MST activists explained countless times throughout the weeklong gathering, in the “classical” agrarian reform model land redistribution is subordinated to a society that is urban-industrial. In this model, agrarian reform and small farming exist within an economy that is predominantly focused on primary exports. In contrast, the People’s Agrarian Reform is not just about the distribution of land, it also contests the entire agricultural and economic production model. This shift is necessary because the “enemy” of the MST is no longer the traditional unproductive oligarchical landowner, but rather, transnational corporations such as Monsanto and Cargill. Although Brazil’s civil society was generally supportive of the MST’s previous struggle against “backwards” landowners, this new fight against “modern” agricultural producers is not as universally embraced. Nonetheless, as the MST’s Program for People’s Agrarian Reform states, “This type of agrarian reform now depends on a consolidated alliance between the peasants and all urban workers. Alone the landless will never achieve People’s Agrarian Reform.” Thus, a critical aspect of the new program is a strategic alliance with the urban working-class for the promotion of this alternative economic model.
In addition to discussions about the People’s Agrarian Reform, a powerful part of the congress was the daily místicas—lengthy performances of singing, dance, and theater that allow delegates to embody the struggle for agrarian reform, peasant culture, and resistance. Another aspect of the congress was an international delegation of over 250 people, representing grassroots organizations from 27 different countries from around the world. Delegates from Cuba, Palestine, and Haiti played a particularly important role in the congress, as the former country is considered a symbol of socialist resistance and the latter two countries examples of extremely oppressive social and economic contexts. There was also a delegation of 15 representatives from political and social organizations in the United States, who came to learn from the MST in order to strengthen their own domestic struggles. I helped to lead this latter delegation as a member of the Friends of the MST in the United States.
Finally, for the MST, discussion must be linked to action. On Wednesday, February 12, hundreds of children occupied the Ministry of Education and demanded an end to school closures in the countryside. This children’s occupation was followed by an afternoon march of 15,000 peasant-activists through the capital, shutting down the streets with lines of red flags that extended for miles. Both of these political actions resulted in immediate meetings with the Minister of Education and President Dilma Rousseff.
The future of the People’s Agrarian Reform in Brazil is unclear. However, there is no doubt that the movement — and its fight for agrarian reform, food sovereignty, and a dignified life in the countryside — still has an active presence in the current political context. These self-identified landless peasants are demanding a role in defining Brazil’s future development model. And as the 2014 Congress made explicitly clear, these activists plan to continue struggling for this new agrarian program even if it takes them another 30 years.
Rebecca Tarlau is a student in the Graduate School of Education at UC Berkeley.