Exactly 40 years ago, in the city of Cascavel (Paraná state), just under 100 people took part in the meeting that gave birth to the longest-running peasant movement in Brazil's history and one of the largest in Latin America. Four decades later, the Landless Workers' Movement (MST, in Portuguese) is in 24 Brazilian states, with 185 cooperatives, 1,900 associations, 120 agro-industries, around 400,000 settled families and another 70,000 living in encampments.
In a simple estimate, according to the national average of 2.79 people per household found by the 2022 Census, at least 1.3 million people are members of and live in territories organized by the MST.
As part of its 40th anniversary, the MST will be holding its 7th National Congress in July, with around 15,000 people expected to attend the event in Brasilia.
The last edition of the event was in 2014, when the movement defined that, in addition to democratizing access to land, it is necessary to fight for a different agricultural production model. It was then that it incorporated the word "popular" into the agrarian reform it defends, making a more forceful claim, for instance, in environmental debates and the defense of agroecology.
At this year's event, the MST will probably bring new topics to its agrarian program and outline the priorities for the next period, as well as review its 40-year-long history.
“It was born with scars”
For geographer Bernardo Mançano, author of the book A formação do MST no Brasil (“The formation of MST in Brazil”, Editora Vozes) and a researcher of the organization since its beginning, the state and different governments are the institutions that mark the most difficult periods for the movement. In his view, MST's most critical moment was its birth.
"The MST was born in the midst of a dictatorship [from 1964 until 1985]. It was born with political scars from a process that imprisoned people and took lives. However, it still managed to conquer territories and begin the process of spatializing the struggle for land," says Mançano.
Peasants participate in the 1st National Congress, in Paraná state, one year after the founding of the MST / MST
The foundation for the MST was laid by the struggles for re-democratization at the turn of the 1970s to the 1980s, with farmers occupying large estates in Rio Grande do Sul state. One of the most iconic was Occupation Encruzilhada Natalino, in December 1980, which received great support from the Catholic Church and the local population.
"Those settlers were in a very concrete attempt to survive. They certainly didn't think about what it would become. But looking back at history, it was an innovation in the way of struggling for land in Brazil: the occupation with a black tarpaulin," says Ceres Hadich, from the national coordination of the MST. "Encruzilhada Natalino inaugurated a way of thinking about the struggle for agrarian reform and doing politics that would become one of the great hallmarks of the MST," she summarizes.
Gilmar Mauro, also a member of the national coordination, wasn’t at the founding meeting of the MST in 1984 but joined the movement the following year when he turned 18. Born in the town of Capanema (Paraná state), a region of small farmers, Gilmar took part in the occupation of Marmelheiro, which became a regularized settlement in 1986.
That was one of the many land occupations the movement carried out in the country’s southern region soon after it emerged. Inspired by previous experiences such as the Peasant Leagues and the Landless Farmers' Movement (Master), the founders of the MST decided that it would have a national scope and three goals: land struggle, agrarian reform and social transformation.
In its 1st National Congress in 1985, the MST took a stand for the end of the military dictatorship / MST
"Later on, people came to understand what the movement meant: it wasn't simply a struggle for land reparations," Gilmar Mauro points out. "This is essential because I think that part of the trade union and popular movement in the world made a mistake by separating what it considers an economic struggle from a political struggle. The trade union and grassroots movement should be engaged in economic struggle and the party should be engaged in political struggle. A movement that turns to this bias becomes purely economic talk. And a party that has no links to the socio-economic reality of a country becomes a bureaucracy," he says. "These are inseparable struggles," he summarizes.
At their 1st National Congress in January 1985, the landless workers decided to act under the motto "Land for those who work on it" and "Occupation is the only solution". Five months later, 2,500 families took part in 12 occupations of unproductive estates in Santa Catarina state.
Billboard calling for the 1st National Congress of the MST in 1985 / Arquivo e Memória MST
"Right from the start, the movement experimented with cooperative production," says Ceres. "Education also plays a fundamental role. We realized we needed to create our own way of educating, to formulate a landless pedagogy, so to speak" she says, highlighting the experience of the itinerant schools. These are educational spaces with no fixed location that are established within the encampments, being taken down and rebuilt whenever the community is forced to move.
In 1989, there was an internal debate about the possibility of the movement splitting in two. For Gilmar Mauro, it was a moment when "the essence of the MST was revealed". "Some people argued that there should be a movement of settlers and another of those who didn't have land. The former would go on to demand production, credit, etc. And the MST would continue to fight for land," he says.
"We decided that we wouldn't split. [We decided] that the MST was one and that, as long as there is a landless family in this country, we are all landless. That was a fundamental hallmark of our history," says Gilmar.
Violence, reactions and the “MST boom”
The historic MST march with 100,000 people in Brasília, 1997, one year after the Eldorado do Carajás massacre/ Douglas Mansur / MST
Shortly afterwards, the movement faced its bloodiest decade, but also the one in which it became known throughout Brazil. If violence in the countryside has been present since the beginning of the MST's history, for Hadich, the period between 1995 and 2010 is the one in which the combination of "state, militia and large real estate is especially evident."
The Eldorado dos Carajás massacre, which made April 17 the International Day of Struggle for Land, is the most emblematic of these episodes.
On the evening of that day in 1996, around 1,500 landless people arrived at the place known as Curva do S, in the southwest region of Pará state. They had been walking for a week and intended to go to the city of Belém to demand that Brazil’s National Institute of Colonization and Agrarian Reform (INCRA, in Portuguese) expropriate a farm. They never arrived there. Surrounded and attacked by 155 military police officers, 21 peasants were murdered and 79 injured.
To remember those killed in the Eldorado dos Carajás massacre, the MST holds annual days of struggle / Amnesty International
The commotion over the attack, which was televised, was huge. The debate on agrarian reform took the center of the country's political agenda. In 1997, three simultaneous marches called by the MST left from different locations in Brazil and walked for around two months until they arrived in Brasilia, exactly one year after the massacre occurred, in a gathering of around 100,000 people.
"It was historic. But it wasn't the MST that gathered 100,000. It was society that joined in the movement, taking it to a new level," says Gilmar Mauro.
On April 17, 1997, Sebastião Salgado's photo book Terra (Land, in English), about the struggle for land, was launched with an introductory text by Portuguese writer José Saramago and accompanied by a CD by Brazilian singer Chico Buarque. The three artists donated the copyright to the MST which, with the money raised, built the Florestan Fernandes National School in Guararema, São Paulo state.
The construction of the Florestan Fernandes National School, an international reference for political training / MST
Fernando Henrique Cardoso (Brazilian Social Democracy Party), then President of the Republic, was pressured to create the Ministry of Agrarian Development (abolished in 2016 by the Temer government and recreated in 2023 by the Lula government). In 1998, as a result of a demand from the MST, the National Program for Education in Agrarian Reform (PRONERA) was created. Since then, 191,000 young peasants have got into 531 courses in all Brazilian states.
It was during this period after the Eldorado do Carajás massacre that Brazilian TV channel Globo broadcast the soap opera O Rei do Gado (The King of the Cattle, in English). With a plot about the romance between a landless woman and a big land owner, in Gilmar Mauro's assessment, the soap opera “intended to tame the MST, appease the conflict. However, it had the opposite effect. It ended up spreading the theme of agrarian reform and the MST nationwide."
For Gilmar, 1997 was a turning point in the movement. "We won the cities, especially the universities. Many people joined the movement. There was even a slogan at the time: 'Agrarian reform is done in the countryside, but it's won in the city,'" he recalls.
Growth, however, has not stopped violence. For Ceres, one of the milestones of the new repression – following the changes in agribusiness since the 2000s, with the boom in commodity exports, transgenics and financialization – was the death of farmer Valmir Mota de Oliveira, dubbed Keno.
In October 2007, at the age of 34, Keno was murdered by security guards hired by the Swiss transnational company Syngenta. Along with 150 other people from Via Campesina – an international coalition of popular rural movements that the MST is part of –, he was taking part in an occupation in the city of Santa Tereza do Oeste, Paraná state. The protest denounced the illegality of the experiments being carried out in the area by the company, a giant in the transgenic and pesticide sector.
The activists were attacked by 40 armed men from the company NF Segurança. In addition to Keno, farmer Isabel Nascimento de Souza was brought to her knees to be executed. When she was shot, she raised her head and was hit in the right eye. She became blind, but survived. Three other activists were injured. In 2018, Syngenta was condemned by the Paraná Court of Justice.
Food distribution and fight against hunger during the covid-19 pandemic in the city of Florianópolis, Santa Catarina state/ Monte Serrat /MST
"The difference with Keno's murder by Syngenta is that we were no longer talking about the violence of the landowner, of the so-called “jagunço”. We were talking about a transnational company that is imposing GMOs on the world, which has its headquarters in Switzerland," says Hadich. Today, the site where Keno was killed is home to the Valmir Mota de Oliveira Agroecology Research Center.
Ceres says that the 1990s and 2000s "revealed the violence of capital and agribusiness and, amid this pain, allowed us to be welcomed by Brazilian society. It made it clear: these are poor rural workers who have nothing, who are in a dignified struggle and are being beaten up, dying because of it. It was a period that, contradictorily – facing violence and mourning – revealed to society an MST that nobody knew about."
Transition to dispute a new agricultural model
Another turning point for the MST happened in 2014. Agroecology - a model of agriculture based on ecological principles and socially just relations, without the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides or transgenic seeds - had already been incorporated into the movement since the early 2000s. It was at the last congress, however, that the MST consolidated its understanding that the confrontation with agribusiness is not only a dispute over a piece of land but also a dispute over the model of how to work that land.
"We understand that it doesn't make sense to defend a purely distributist and productivist agrarian reform, in the classical style. But in Brazil, due to the specific conditions, we need to move towards another type of land distribution, but thinking in a different way about ecological issues, production, healthy food and so on," explains Gilmar Mauro. "It's a huge leap in quality," he sums up.
In 2024, the 7th National Congress should systematize the next leap. "This is a great expectation," says Ceres Hadich: "to get the synthesis right, which will indicate where we're going to go in the coming years."
Edited by: Nicolau Soares