Friday, January 7, 2011

The Wiki of Belligerence

The Wiki of Belligerence 
By Anne Gough
Special to Land and People
Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (MST) or, in English, the Landless Workers Movement of Brazil is one of the best known grassroots movements in the world. Both for their strategies and their success in their 25-year history. So well know in fact, that they are the subject of several of the Wikileaks U.S. government cables. Intuitively it would make sense that the U.S., the land of private property, would be suspicious of an movement geared toward land for public use through the reform and redistribution of private property. In the cables written by then U.S. ambassador to Brazil John J. Danilovich the MST is described as “belligerent invaders” (05BRASILIA2692, The MST describes itself somewhat differently, “Since 1985, the MST has peacefully occupied unused land where they have established cooperative farms, constructed houses, schools for children and adults and clinics, promoted indigenous cultures and a healthy and sustainable environment and gender equality. Land occupations are rooted in the Brazilian Constitution, which says land that remains unproductive should be used for a “larger social function.” ( Brazil, like other places in the world, is noted for its unequal distribution of land reminiscent of feudalism. According to the MST, 3% of the Brazilian population owns two-thirds of all arable lands. One of the cables even quotes Ariovaldo Umbelino de Oliveira, a professor of geography at the University of Sao Paulo and a part of former president Lula’s Land Reform team of 2003. He states that only half of Brazil’s 850 million hectares of land is registered by INCRA (National Institute for Land Reform and Colonization), the federal agency that deals with land issues. “Of the land that is registered, there are some 200 million hectares with insufficient documentation to prove ownership. By law this land belongs to the state and could be available for redistribution.” (08SAOPAULO248, The cables reveal both the contradictions of Lula’s role among the landless agricultural laborers in Brazil and the U.S. view of the MST.

In 2005 the MST sent a minor shock wave through the U.S. state department when 300-500 of their members occupied AgroReservas do Brazil, an American-owned farm management company based out of Utah. This land occupation was part of a larger MST operation named Red September in which they occupied many private and government agricultural installations. The goal was to put pressure on Lula to respect his campaign promise of land re-distribution and government support for small family farms. A private company attached to the Mormon Church, also based in Utah, owns this farm. The cable doesn’t state what the farm actually produced and neither does the farm’s website, This occupation was the first time the MST had directly occupied a U.S. owned farm. While it is unknown if the farm was directly targeted because of its U.S. ties or because of its size it is certain that such an occupation did much to strengthen the view that the MST is a well organized movement, unafraid of taking on the interests of the United States. Because the right to land reform for arable lands is written into the Brazilian constitution, the Brazilian police could not force the MST to leave AgroReservas.

Strategically this is an interesting point because of how the MST organizes. They obviously have the capability to mobilize thousands of people on the ground, though the U.S. claims their membership is shrinking, they have a thorough knowledge of their legal standing and they know how to maneuver with the press. For example, in February 2008 the MST occupied the large farm of Daniel Dantas, a Brazilian banker under investigation on charges of corruption. Dantas was known as the “bandit banker” and drawing attention to his land holdings illustrated the tie between corruption and the land owning class as well as ensuring more publicity for the MST. In recent years the MST has formed a natural connection between their work in Brazil and the international environmental movements for agrarian reform, combating climate change and against GMOs. This is grudgingly referred to as a “creative” strategy in one of the U.S. cables (09SAOPAULO200, Wikileaks have already documented the intrinsically pro-GMO stance of the U.S. Government. So they would be concerned at the linkage between the MST’s message and “the fact that GMOs remain controversial in the public mind in Brazil” (08SAOPAULO248). Perhaps this is also why the U.S. is threatened by such a movement. It seems that advocacy groups in the U.S. could learn much from the MST, how to work both inside and outside of the political system.

In the cables written after 2005 the U.S. claims with much enthusiasm that the membership of the MST is shrinking. It is difficult to know if this is actually the case or if the focus of the Landless Worker’s Movement is changing. Certainly Lula’s presidency was a kind of double edged sword for the MST. Lula was elected with their support and many of his programs have helped landless laborers. Bolsa Familia or “Family Grant” is one of the most popular because it gives mothers a small sum of money if their children attend school on a regular basis and become vaccinated. (The issue of vaccination is a separate conversation, one currently raging domestically in the States). Bolsa Familia is part of the program Zero Hunger instituted by Lula. Of course there is a difference between giving people money to purchase food and redistributing land so people can grow their own food. Bolsa Familia may perhaps increase dependency but it is far more progressive than any program currently institutionalized in the U.S., as a point of comparison. The program reaches 12.4 million households and is the model for a similar initiative in New York City, Opportunity NYC ( Bolsa Familia is supposedly one of the reasons that membership in the MST is decreasing but it could also be viewed as a helpful program for MST members to gain stability for increased advocacy.

They may need it to battle to Lula’s political embrace of GMOs, especially of agribuisness setting up shop in Brazil. The MST has a long history of grappling with the Swiss owned biotech company Syngenta has experimented with genetically modified soybeans, corn and pesticides on 127 hectares within 6 km of an environmental preserve. Together with the advocacy organization Via Campasina the MST occupied the Syngenta site in order to bring attention to their actions. A private militia attacked the laborers and one member of the MST was killed along with a Syngenta guard. This was 2007; the second MST occupation of this site, and the case is still tied up in the Brazilian and Swiss court systems. The U.S. position articulated in the cables justifies Syngenta’s use of a private militia because the governor of the state where the GMO testing is located does not support GMO activities. Syngenta “and other multinationals cultivating GMOs cannot count on state police for protection” (08SAOPAULO248). Why a farm should need state police is another question. I don’t recall any organic farm anywhere in the world needing state police protection and hiring a private militia when such police were not made available. Monsanto has also been a target of similar MST and Via Campesina actions; Monsanto operates various GMO corn sites around Brazil. Lula’s political platform has embraced agribusiness through GMOs and biofuels in order as a way to increase Brazil’s GDP.

So what is the future of the MST? Lula’s successor Dima Rousseff is promising to increase his same pro-GMO policies. As political scientist Miguel Carter notes, "From 2003 to 2007, state support for the rural elite was seven times larger than that offered to the nation's family farmers, even though the latter represent 87 percent of Brazil's rural labor force and produce the bulk of food consumed by its inhabitants" ( If this is the case it seems unlikely that a small program Bolsa Familia will slow the momentum of the MST. In fact the landscape is becoming more vulnerable with increased GMO experimentation and more people moving to the favelleas in Brazil’s megacities. Making the need for a well-organized, strategic and creative MST more critical.

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