For nearly 40 years, Brazil’s Landless Workers’ Movement (MST) has been fighting the concentration of landownership among the country’s elite through the direct occupation and settlement of fallow lands. Founded at the end of Brazil’s military dictatorship, the MST now has settlements and occupations throughout the nation. TRNN contributor Michael Fox reports from MST land in the state of Paraná, where landless workers have built their own homes, schools, farms, and cooperatives.
Michael Fox [Narrator]: Brazil’s Landless Workers Movement, or MST; the largest social movement in the Americas, one and a half million members. Their goal: upend the huge concentration of land in the Brazilian countryside by pushing the government to carry out agrarian reform, putting land in the hands of the poor and working class, and growing healthy food for Brazilians, not for export. And it has been a huge success.
But… it has not been easy. Across Brazil, roughly 450,000 small farming and working-class families have won land through the MST over the last 40 years. Here in the countryside of Parana state, MST land stretches for miles.
Wellington Leno, MST: If you go 14 miles in any direction, you’ll still be on an MST agrarian reform settlement. Areas that were occupied in 1996, from a big company named Araupel. So you have settlements on both sides. And it’s one of the largest complexes of settlements in Latin America. As far as you can see are settlements.
Michael Fox [Narrator]: Just two MST settlements here produce 80,000 gallons of milk a day for the surrounding communities. Local MST farmers have created associations and cooperatives.
Elena de Amorim, Coperjunho bakery coop: Here’s the bread that’s going to the market. Traditional bread. Whole grain bread. Cornbread. And french bread, which we sell by order. The coop has been around for 16 years. I’ve worked here for 10 years. One of our dreams from when we were camped was to form a cooperative to have a little extra income. For the women. Yes, for the women.
Michael Fox [Narrator]: Theirs is one of roughly 2000 producers’ associations and coops that the MST has founded up and down the country. A cooperative of MST farmers in Southern Brazil is the largest producer of organic rice in all of Latin America. But it has been a long road.
The movement was founded in 1984, in the final days of Brazil’s 21-year military dictatorship. The goal was to turn the tide on the country’s immense concentration of land in the hands of the powerful and the elite. By 1996, three percent of the population still owned two-thirds of all arable land. The MST’s strategy has remained similar from the beginning. Occupy fallow land to pressure the Brazilian government into carrying out agrarian reform. The land the government hands over turns into what the MST calls, “settlements,” with each MST family receiving roughly 50 acres of land. The lands lived on by families before receiving their parcels are called land occupations or encampments. Like this one… one of the largest in Southern Brazil. The Dom Tomás Balduíno encampment.
Wellington Leno, MST: This was public land. But it had been stolen by the company Araupel, which produces pine and eucalyptus trees for export. And all of this wealth is sent out of the country. It doesn’t even stay in Brazil. So this occupation is important because families have come here to produce healthy food without the use of pesticides. But also, because people have come here to have the opportunity and the right to have a dignified life.
Michael Fox [Narrator]: I visited Thomas Balduino in 2019, five years after they broke ground. Usually, encampments like this aren’t as developed. In the beginning stages, every encampment starts out the same way: tent cities of black plastic tarp, where residents brave the elements. Roseangela Antonis has been here since the beginning.
Rosangela Antonis, encampment resident: We suffered with the heat and the rains. It’s hard, but there isn’t anything you can’t overcome and improve. Now, we have our little homes and things are good.
Michael Fox [Narrator]: Roseangela has been with the MST since 1999. She grew up on another land occupation. Her parents won land, but she wasn’t old enough to receive a parcel herself. Today, she lives here with her three girls.
Rosangela Antonis, encampment resident: In the beginning, it was really hard. But the most important thing in a struggle is the organization. That’s how we were able to create housing. Our homes and our land to plant. Everything that we built is through our organization. Because we are organized. Out there they call us riff raff. But we are really organized. And we are able to achieve much more than people out there believe.
Michael Fox [Narrator]: Decisions about the occupation are made collectively by those residing in the encampment. They organize in local groups of 20 people. Everyone has a job. And they are already farming.
Rosangela Antonis, encampment resident: We plant and grow our food. We have lettuce, parsley, tomato, kale, cucumber.. We have a little bit of everything. Garlic. We have a lot of vegetables. We plant a little bit of everything. Salad.
Michael Fox [Narrator]: Food is often cooked and served communally.
Encampment resident [singing]: We had no direction. Carrying what we had on our backs.
Michael Fox [Narrator]: The camp has frequent meetings, concerts and what MST members call místicas, or mystical performances, because they are deeply symbolic, and connected to the movement’s history and struggle. Above all else, there is a huge focus on education. Roseangela’s daughter Kethlyn walks to school hand-in-hand with her best friend. At class, they are learning to read and write.
Kethelyn Vitória, Student: When I was in 1st grade, I didn’t know how to read or write. But now, in 2nd grade, I’ve started to read and write.
Michael Fox [Narrator]: The classrooms are barebones. Their teacher says they make up for it with experiential learning.
Adriana Monteiro, Teacher: We spend a lot of time outside of this little square box. We have the fields with the crops right here, when we want to show them a crop, or how to plant and harvest. We have the organic crops here, too. There are families that plant both conventional and organic crops. And we are constantly going to the fields to learn.
Michael Fox [Narrator]: 400 kids study at this school that the camp members built with their own hands.
Rosangela Antonis, encampment resident: The school is important in our encampment, because it’s different from schools elsewhere. Our kids have a better education, that doesn’t just talk about the world out there, but the reality that we are living here. Of our reality. Being more in solidarity. More understanding. Our kids learn and they also learn about our struggle.
Michael Fox [Narrator]: This is not the only school on MST land. Every land occupation has its daycare and preschools, staffed by members of the camp.
Teacher: I’m going to tell you a really cool story. It’s about the drum. Have you heard of the drum?
Students: No. Yes!
Michael Fox [Narrator]: The movement says that over the last four decades, they’ve built more than 2000 public schools on encampments and settlements up and down the country. Here in rural Parana, high schools and even a college campus have been created on MST land settlements that were handed over to landless farmers roughly twenty years ago. Jackson Correio Madeiros dos Santos is a 17-year-old student studying to teach.
Jackson Correio Madeiros dos Santos, Student: It’s a very welcoming school. And this Teacher Training course is showing us many new sides of education. We’re taking three extra classes about education. As well as the internships in schools and daycare centers. Where you observe in the classroom how the teacher works. How he treats the students. How the students act. That’s what this Teacher Training course is showing us.
Michael Fox [Narrator]: Down the road, a campus of Brazil’s Federal University of the Southern Border is located on an MST settlement.
Lilian Aline Candida da Silva, Agroecology Masters Student: I decided to study here, because of this. Because it’s a university with a focus on agroecology. And because it’s located on an MST settlement. And also because the MST is a great defender of agroecology.
Michael Fox [Narrator]: Agroecology is the science of sustainable farming, developing agricultural practices that co-exist with nature and the local ecosystem.
Wellington Leno, MST: What we have here are family members, children, elderly, women, men. They are here to produce food. Good food. Here to produce education and culture. Here to live a dignified life. And to fight for their rights.
Michael Fox [Narrator]: The movement’s accomplishments are inspiring. But there has been pushback. Constant threats of raids and evictions.
Encampment resident: It’s like scenes from a war. Scenes from a war. Scenes from a war here at Campo do Meio. The governor is trying to violently evict the families.
Michael Fox [Narrator]: Former president Jair Bolsonaro was backed by large landowners and the country’s Big Ag caucus. He called them terrorists and threatened to close their schools.
Jair Bolsonaro, Former President: People of the MST. Your time is coming to an end. Your activity is criminal and it terrorizes, too.
Michael Fox [Narrator]: There have been attacks by police, private security forces and local landowners who accuse them of stealing land and attacking the private property of the elite and powerful.
Encampment resident: The police have just attacked us. They threw a bunch of tear gas grenades. Fire. And we need urgent help.
Michael Fox [Narrator]: And there have been killings. Even here at the Tomas Balduíno camp
Encampment Resident: The police started firing. Those who could run, did. But some people were hit. And, unfortunately, two of our companions died. It was terrible. Everyone in panic. Women and children in panic, because they were afraid the police would come in here and start shooting children and families. It was horrible. And we still feel sorry for them. Because they left behind families. They died in the struggle. They died fighting here with us.
Michael Fox [Narrator]: Attacks against the MST are not uncommon. Back in 2018, even Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s presidential campaign came under fire just down the road from Dom Thomas Balduino.
News reporter: Two buses participating in the caravan of former president Lula were hit by gunshots yesterday afternoon in Paraná. Supreme Court Justice Edson Fachin says they received threats.
Michael Fox [Narrator]: The gunshots were traced to a farm belonging to an elite landowner who is accused of previously threatening MST members. But these raids, threats, attacks and killings have not silenced the movement or its members. The MST has continued to be one of the most active voices of protest across Brazil. Members have held marches up and down the country. They’ve protested large agribusiness firms like Monsanto.
Protestor: Bayer-Monsanto continues to sell its product to many countries, including Brazil, which today is the largest consumer of pesticides in the world.
Michael Fox [Narrator]: When Lula was jailed in 2018, blocking him from running in that year’s presidential election, the MST helped to hold down the on-going vigil that demanded his release from prison throughout the 580 days he was jailed. The MST was also instrumental in organizing for Lula’s successful presidential campaign in 2022. The same year, seven members of the MST won local and national seats in office. It was the first time the movement had ever fielded candidates.
Rosa Amorim, MST member, Pernambuco: For us, it was not only an electoral victory, but a giant political victory, because the MST is the biggest resistance movement in Brazil. Today, I’m the youngest representative elected to the Pernambuco state legislature. And this also represents a renewal of politics and the left. And we have a lot of challenges.
Michael Fox [Narrator]: The goal of the MST is nothing less than to transform Brazilian society. By growing healthy food for Brazilians, not for export. By providing land to families in need. By educating their children about solidarity, about how to share. How to work together. How to build a more just world. And that is what the MST is doing. One encampment. One settlement. One community at a time.