Land for the People: Brazil’s Landless Workers’ Movement

"Being a mass social movement with our demands and our struggle is the way that we can always keep our autonomy. So, at the same time that we negotiate some things with the government, we don’t just do negotiation."

An interview with Ana Manuela de Jesus Cha

By Marcy Rein and Clifton Ross

My name is Ana Manuela de Jesus Cha. I’m part of the national coordination of the Landless Workers’ Movement of Brazil (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Terra, or MST). MST is a mass movement that struggles for land, agrarian reform, and social transformation in Brazil. We have 30 years in the struggle. We organize and mobilize landless people in Brazil, and through land occupation we [build power to] negotiate with the government. We make settlements where people can grow healthy food and live with their families.

MST has organized around 550,000 families, more like 1.5 million people; we’re in 24 of the 27 states [in Brazil].

In Brazil, the land has always been in the hands of the powerful families since the Portuguese colonization. In the beginning of MST 30 years ago, our main struggle was with these big landowners. We occupied lands that were not producing anything and pressed the government to appropriate these lands, because in Brazil, there’s a law which says the land has to have a social function. Based on this, we occupied the land that was not used, and claimed that land for agrarian reform.

But in the last 10 years, and more strongly in the last five years, the multinational corporations started coming to the country to buy land, to grab some land and to cultivate a few crops with monoculture and with a lot of pesticides and a lot of machines. That has really changed the countryside of Brazil because they’re producing, but not food. And even when they produce food, it’s not healthy food because they use a lot of pesticides.

[People] are now building the idea that Brazil has this role in the international context of producing goods to export, and so they try to make the population believe that it is the best thing for the country and that the corporations are bringing money and development. The struggle is now more difficult, because it’s hard to explain to people, especially in the city, that that’s not exactly what they’re doing. They’re taking our natural resources and at the end very little money stays in the country, because most of it goes to the corporations.

We still continue to occupy land that isn’t productive. We do it to try and get the government to appropriate those lands [so we can] make settlements, but we also realized that we have to take some other actions to denounce what the corporations were doing in Brazil. Also, we need to stop the process, not just announce to society what they have done, but also stop processes like planting eucalyptus or big extensions of soy. So we also started some direct actions against these companies, and occupied their land sometimes, but not always with the objective of getting that land and making settlements.

‘All the landless have a right to education’

Brazil is a country that still has a lot of illiterate people, people who went to school who cannot read or write their name, especially in the countryside. Almost 20 percent of the people in the countryside cannot read or write. So that is one of our focuses.

We believe that all the landless have a right to education, so we do formal adult education so people can start to read and write and get knowledge through books, the newspaper, and all of that. We’re also getting from the government the right to have a school in every settlement, not just at a primary level, but also at a high school level, and even at the university level. We made some partnerships with the universities, and now we have a lot of sons and daughters of landless people, as well as adults, who take courses in the university. So that’s one of our struggles—for education.

We also really believe in the importance of political training and political formation, so we do different kinds of trainings, [many] coordinated by a school that we built in Guadalama in Sao Paulo State. We call it the National School of the MST. Throughout the year we have different kinds of educational processes there, including ones with people from other countries, especially from Latin America.

As a landless and peasant movement, our main alliances are with peasant movements within Brazil and around the world. We are part of La Via Campesina, which is an international network of peasant movements and small farmers, an organization that is in 80 countries and [includes] about 170 organizations and peasant movements.

In Brazil, MST is also part of the movements of the small farmers, of the peasant women, and of those affected by the dams, as well as some groups in the struggle for land that are connected with the progressive Catholic Church. They are our main allies, but we are also part of La Alba de Los Movimientos Sociales, which is a network of social movements from all Latin America. It was born in opposition to the ALCA (Spanish initials for the Free Trade Area of the Americas, FTAA), the agreement that the United States was proposing for all the Americas.

It’s a kind of alternative, and it’s trying to build alternative ways of integration and of cooperation through education programs, through medical services, and exchange of agricultural techniques—organic ones. That’s our main alliance but, of course, we have other contact with other organizations around the world.

The government now has a perspective that we call neo-developmentalist. They really believe they should promote the development of the country. To do that, they made some partnerships with a private initiative.

They are inside the market, although the state still controls a big part of those processes, and for the population, they have some assistentialist policies. Of course, it’s different from the neoliberalism that we had before. That was all controlled by the market and people hardly had access to any policy. So we can say we are doing better in some things now, but we really believe things are not as they should be.

Taking What People Can Use, Pressing for What They Need

It’s a difficult situation for us because, historically, the Workers’ Party was built in the same period as the MST, and it had a very progressive program in the beginning. But now it has this strategy of neo-developmentalism, and it really hasn’t done much for agrarian reform because, of course, if people believe the big corporations bring development to the country, it’s better to keep the land with these corporations than to give it to the landless people, when they don’t know what we will do with the land.

So the policy of agrarian reform really didn’t work these last years. But considering the [government] assistance, there are some policies that could improve some aspects of life in the settlements that already exist, like education or even policies that improve the commercialization of the products that people produce. So it’s kind of complicated—our relation. But MST also has always tried to preserve its autonomy in relation to the government, so we don’t have to support the government and we can demand these changes that we believe in.

I think our main strategy to maintain our autonomy is the struggle. We really believe that being a mass social movement with our demands and our struggle is the way that we can always keep our autonomy. So, at the same time that we negotiate some things with the government, we don’t just do negotiation. We also engage in a struggle, and that really empowers those who are negotiating with the government, people in the street saying what their needs are and what they really want to do.

Maybe we don’t know exactly how the perfect society would be that we all are fighting for, but we have some points of what it should be: a society without exploitation, where people and nature could live together without one being sacrificed for the other. Those principles, they are always there. So that also helps us know where we’re going, although we know we have to build a way of getting there. That helps when we try to negotiate with the government.

Democracy Takes Time

We have a way of organizing ourselves. Of course, it changes a little bit from one region to another, but our first level of decision-making is a group of families.

Ten families make up what we call a “nucleo de familias,” a group of families. We discuss many of the issues, the decisions, in there, and then five groups of families constitute the next level of coordination. From this group, we have the coordination of the settlement, and from the coordination of the settlement or the camp, people choose someone who will represent them at the regional level, and then at a state level, and then at a national level.

At a national level, we have two kinds of coordinating groups. It’s what we call the national direction. There are two people from each state, and every two months they come together to make the decisions and to take lines of action. In the biggest group there are about 10 people from each state, and people that coordinate some specific areas—for instance, the educational area—the health area, a national coordination of these sectors. So we have about 350 people on this national coordination, and we get together at least two times a year so we have the big action lines.

Also, we have some spaces, like national offices, at least three big national offices where some daily decisions are made, but almost all decisions are made in these groups of coordination. So that’s the way we fight.

Sometimes it’s not easy. It takes too long to reach a decision about something. Now, for instance, we are discussing how we will participate in the presidential election. It’s a discussion that we started in February, and it still doesn’t have an end. So, sometimes it takes long, but that’s the way we get it to be very democratic, and once we make a decision at this level, then we try to let everybody know about the decision and the ideas. After that, everybody just maintains the decision and takes action according to the decisions.

MST Is a Social Movement, and Will Remain One

MST is a social movement, and that’s what we decided we will be, at least for the next years. For us, we won’t become a party, and our expectation is that other forces from Brazilian society will build a party where we can put our strengths together. As MST, we decided that we are a social movement.

Of course, we have to negotiate. Perhaps the Zapatistas are much more radical. They decided not to negotiate with the government. We negotiate with the government, but we believe that our role is to also be in the streets and out of the state so we can make pressure and create some small transformations. Although we believe that if we want to end the capitalist system, we need to, in fact, destroy the state and build another way of power, we don’t have the strength to do that, so we will stay as a social movement.

There’s a lot of problems in Brazil and people are starting to move a little bit, but still in a very individual way. Last year there were a lot of mobilizations in the street in Brazil, but they weren’t organized by the working class or the organized groups in the society. They were more like individuals that feel things are not okay, but they don’t have a proposal or a way to change the situation. They want to do more than just go to the streets that day to change it.

We expect the working class in Brazil to get together and have the strength to really promote some social transformations. We believe that if we can have a very strong popular movement we can pressure the government to do many more changes. They’ve made a lot of concessions to the right wing parties so they can still keep themselves in power, so it’s a conciliation government.

So, if people go to the streets but organize with specific words and proposals to the government, perhaps they can make more changes than they can make now.

I think it’s very important to be here and to learn more about what people are doing here in the United States. Usually, we know the capitalism of the United States, but we really don’t know what people do, the resistance that is very big here, and it’s very inspiring to be here and to hear about all the struggles. n


Clifton Ross is a writer, videographer, and translator. His latest book is Until the Rulers Obey: Voices from Latin American Social Movements (PM Press, 2014), which he co-edited with Marcy Rein. A video of this interview is available at Interview transcribed by Daniel Salazar.

People in the street empower the people

negotiating with the government’



Brazil’s Landless Workers’ Movement

(Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Terra)

Pushed to the edge of desperation, with nowhere to live and nowhere to farm, in 1979, rural families in Brazil’s southernmost state of Rio Grande do Sul began occupying lands left fallow by absentee owners. The occupation born of necessity took root, put out shoots around the country, and grew into the Landless Workers’ Movement (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra, or MST). Over the last three decades, the movement has taken over 35 million acres of land, home to thousands of families. As it has built the settlements, with their independent school systems and agricultural cooperatives, the movement has also campaigned to change government policy on land distribution, and engaged with international organizing around climate justice and food sovereignty.

In this interview, Ana Manuela de Jesus Cha of the MST’s National Coordination explains some of the key features that have fed the movement’s success: member education and bottom-up decision-making; a multi-pronged strategy that combines autonomy, direct action, negotiation and political action; and clarity on its role as an independent social movement.

The dramatic inequity in land distribution in Brazil that sparked the formation of the MST—less than one percent of the population owns 46 percent of the land—dates back to colonization. Unlike other European countries that needed land to relieve population pressure, Portugal had little interest in the land as such. It saw Brazil as a mere factory for producing raw materials for export, so it simplified administration by giving complete authority over vast tracts of land to a handful of people. “In this way inequality was introduced into the very core of Brazilian society, economy and politics,” Angus Wright observed in the classic study of the MST, To Inherit the Earth (p. 113). Landowners exercised brutal and dictatorial powers over rural communities.

The “modernization” program launched by the military dictatorship that gripped Brazil in 1964 (brought to power by a United States backed coup) included the industrialization of agriculture. Many family farmers lost their lands, bought out by big companies that took advantage of government incentives to launch highly mechanized production of soy and wheat for export.

Though the dictatorship repressed most forms of dissent, Catholic groups influenced by liberation theology—the Ecclesiastical Base Communities and the Pastoral Land Commissions—were able to carry on organizing among Brazil’s urban and rural poor. The MST grew directly out of their work, although it can trace its ancestry back to an organization called MASTER (Movimento dos Agricultores Sem-Terra, the Landless Farmers’ Movement) that mobilized in Rio Grande do Sul in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and to acts of rural resistance throughout the country’s history.

After a four-year struggle, the families that launched the first occupation in 1979 won the right to stay on the land; of the 650 families camped by the side of the road at the start, 310 were left to form the settlements. Meanwhile, people in other states initiated occupations of their own. By 1985, when the MST had its first national congress, it had chapters in 22 of Brazil’s 27 states.

The MST took root during a time of great social ferment in Brazil, as popular pressure forced the dictatorship to offer a “democratic opening.” Student strikes erupted in 1977, and the 1978 autoworkers’ strike, led by Luís Inácio “Lula” da Silva rocked the foundation of the dictatorship’s industrialization program and drew broad popular support. The Workers’ Party (Partido dos Trabhaldores, PT) formed in 1980. After working for many years at the local level, the PT won national leadership in 2002, with Lula as its candidate for president.

Despite their common origins and political alignment, the MST has maintained a careful independence from the PT. The movement does endorse candidates (it backed Lula in 2002 and 2006, but stayed neutral during Dilma Rousseff’s run in 2010), but members who run for office can’t participate in leadership bodies. In its practice, the MST melds several strategies often seen as mutually exclusive.

“In the hundreds of MST settlements and camps across the country families are ‘prefiguring’ the world they hope to see, organizing collective housing, agricultural cooperatives, and student-administered public school systems,” Rebecca Tarlau wrote in the Berkeley Journal of Sociology (October 2104). “However, the MST is neither leaderless nor dismissive of state power...Through contestation, street protest, and yes, political negotiation, the MST has been able to win concrete concessions for hundreds of thousands of landless families across the country.”

The relationship between the movement and the government has grown more complicated as the PT has expanded support for export-oriented agribusiness, with the toxics and transgenics that come with it.

At its Sixth National Congress in February 2014, the MST broadened its focus to include food sovereignty in a program it calls “People’s Agricultural Reform.” The new program calls for a shift in focus to diversified production to feed the Brazilian people, carried out with agro-ecological methods. (See “People’s Agrarian Reform: An Alternative to the Capitalist Model,” by MST leader João Pedro Stedile and Osvaldo Léon, editor of Latin America in Movement, at

Going forward, the MST faces the challenge of trying to advocate for this program in new urban constituencies—and of doing so in a country that is now one of the world’s economic superpowers. Brazil consistently ranks seventh among the world’s largest economies, and its multinationals stand among the five largest in the world in many categories, including mining, oil, and agribusiness. This new power also holds half of the world’s biodiversity in its Amazon rainforest—the area sometimes called “the lungs of the planet,” that produces an estimated 20 percent of the world’s oxygen. n

Ana Manuela de Jesus Cha

©2014 Clifton Ross




MST Farm owners Nisse and Armando

(cc) 2012 Matthew Masin/


Like what you are reading and seeing here? Want to keep up to date with frontline analysis of the social movments of our time?  Keep this movement making resource alive for you! Donate $2, $3, $5, $10, $25. . . Donations over $50 receive a full-color printed printed edition delivered to you at a postal address and more.