From February 10 to 14, some 15,000 campesinos met in Brasilia to celebrate thirty years of struggle. The watchword was: A popular Agrarian Reform.
1. The Context
In fact, the situation is intolerable. In 2010, 175 million hectares of land remained out of production due to speculation, while nearly four million campesino families were without land; the Constitution is not applied and the agrarian law has no impact. 2013 was the worst year: just one hundred allotments distributed and five thousand families resettled on land, while nearly 100,000 families wait for an assignation of land in camps of the Landless Movement (MST – acronym in Portuguese).
This is not only a struggle against traditional large landowners, but also against transnational corporations involved in agribusiness (30 million hectares bought in the past 20 years) and financial capital. From the 1990s, the model has been transformed into agro-exportation based on monoculture. In the past twenty years, food production has fallen by 20 to 35%, while sugar cane production grew by 122% (for ethanol) and food prices increased. The Mato Grosso, a major producer of transgenic soya, imports 90% of its food from other states. Six million people were displaced (700,000 in the State of São Paulo). The greatest amount of toxic chemicals in the world is employed (5 kg per inhabitant). In 2013, 16 million tonnes of fertilizer were imported, while in the same year 18 million tonnes of maize were exported to the US (for ethanol). Between 2003 and 2010, large land holdings went from 95 to 127,000 and their area increased from 182 million to 265 million hectares.
Brazil never had a “classical” agrarian reform promoted by the industrial bourgeoisie (such as, for example, in South Korea) because of the foreign origins of capital. The country moved directly from the latifundio to exporting agribusiness with a super-exploitation of campesinos. The effects (externalities) have included environmental destruction (especially in Amazonia), the suppression of jobs and rural exodus. This “conservative modernization” has taken place under the leadership of a group of 450,000 businesses that possess 300 million hectares and control the production of commodities, in the face of 4.2 million rural workers, 4.8 million small-scale campesinos who produce 70 per cent of the food, and 3.8 million landless campesinos. When 15,000 campesinos sing the International in the gymnasium of Brasilia, it is a sign that the class struggle is not an obsolete concept.
Lula’s reforms allowed millions of poor people to escape from extreme poverty. They are able to eat thanks to State subsidies. The PT Government of Dilma, in coalition with conservative parties, suffers from pressures from the “ruralist” class, which has considerable political power and the support of the media. Agribusiness prevails in agrarian policy. In these circumstances, how can a strategy be defined? This is the challenge for the Landless Movement (MST).
The strategy of the Landless Movement has been adapted in consideration of the socio-economic context and the political situation. From its founding in 1984, the movement established as its objective a new distribution of land. The strategy consisted in preparing groups of landless campesinos to occupy vacant lands of large landowners. They formed settlements, living under plastic tents, organized in groups of twelve families, administering common services collectively, along with primary schools and health centres. National and international solidarity emerged in support of the movement. This situation could last for several months. At the appropriate time, they took possession of the lands, in order to organize agricultural production in cooperatives and to build their houses.
The Christian origin of a number of leaders influenced the orientation of the movement, as a French nun, close to MST from its beginnings, recalled during the Congress. The Pastoral Commission on Land of the Episcopal Conference accompanied their struggle. But it is clear that MST always affirmed their own autonomy. With the introduction of agrarian capitalism their class analysis deepened and the contribution of Marxist thought became important in the political formation of leaders.
During the presidency of Fernando Henrique Cardoso, the neoliberal model took deep roots. When MST received the King Baldwin (2) Prize in 2001, the [Brazilian] Government accused Belgium of financing a terrorist movement. Prince Phillip (the present King), who was called upon to preside over an economic mission to Brazil, was declared a persona non grata. The MST supported the establishment of the PT that in 2002 came to power with the election of Lula. The struggle against hunger resulted in social policies of support (less than 5% of national income), but not in a transformation of the social structures in rural areas. On the contrary, the agro-exporting model grew with the increase in foreign capital, the development of Brazilian multinationals and the expansion of financial capital (in eight years, interest payments on the internal debt to banks was on the order of 320 billion US dollars). Lula managed to obtain the “Brazilian consensus” thanks to this policy.
With Dilma (2010) the agro-export model was reinforced. Labour and environmental legislation more favourable to “modern agriculture” were passed and the agrarian reform almost blocked. External debt payments followed. For over three years the President would not agree to meet with the MST, which on the eve of its Congress, sent a letter with ten proposals. The President agreed to a meeting, where two of the proposals were accepted: an acceleration of existing programmes for settling families on recovered lands (for 36,000 of the some 100,000 still waiting) and technical training. The disappointment was evident. At a time when various economic indicators revealed the fragility of the Brazilian model and hence, of social consensus, this could result in a political problem for the Government.
3. The future of struggles
For the MST, it is clear that this is not simply a question of transforming the agrarian reality. Faced with 24 million young people unemployed, and 14 million illiterate workers, and the rapid degradation of nature, this is a struggle against a model that has reached its limits. It is not enough to change the rules. This is a class struggle that cannot be resolved with eliminating poverty, it must also take on inequality; and in rural areas, this cannot be limited to a classical agrarian reform, but must contemplate an end to the monopolies on seeds, the re-establishment of biodiversity, the regulation of water and reforestation. From outside the country, international capital dominates the agro-exporting model and mineral exploitation; inside the country, the bourgeoisie control the central bank and the judicial apparatus. It is because of all this that there is a need for an alliance among all forces to act against the hegemony of capital.
In the beginning, the MST had considerable hope in political action with the PT. But here the disillusionment grew by the day, and not only because the party had to enter into alliances with other parties in order to govern. Critical support ceded to frontal attacks. The movement was in an ambiguous situation: on the one hand, there were no immediate political alternatives, and on the other, the majority of the militants supported Lula and Dilma, due to the programmes of struggle against poverty. The MST decided to take advantage of all the available space for action, within and out of government, and affirmed their autonomy in the political scene.
A detailed programme was prepared. At the centre, ecological and family agriculture, with the democratization of land, new technological models, seed sovereignty and relations with industry. Then a rationalization of the use of natural resources, water, energy, and infrastructure. After this, the creation of dignified conditions of work and of living and educational and cultural development at different levels. Finally, changes in the structure of the State and in particular of entities related to agriculture. Such a programme is not socialist (for example, it includes financial compensation for expropriated land) because, according to MST, the conditions are not yet ripe for this and this must be prepared over time.
From a practical point of view, this involves a return to the occupation of land, as they have done since June of 2013, in spite of the preparation of a law that defines the closing of highways and streets as terrorism(3). Another element is pressure on Government, to obtain concrete measures and institutional changes. This is in line with the letter to President Dilma and the ten point programme. The alliance with resistance forces is the third aspect of this strategy, not only with other campesino movements and workers’ unions, but also with the new urban protest movements. Finally, the education and training of members and of leaders is the last pillar of the future strategy.
(Translation: Jordan Bishop for ALAI)
– François Houtart is a professor at the Instituto de Altos Estudios Nacionales, Quito (Ecuador).
 The figures in this article are taken from The MST Program, September 2013.
 Two-yearly prize for development initiatives in the South.
 In view of the upcoming World Cup.