Hunger skyrocketed in Brazil during the tenure of former president Jair Bolsonaro. 33 million Brazilians, some 15% of the entire country, are now food insecure according to official statistics. As Brazil’s poorest were abandoned to deal with the overlapping crises of COVID-19 and inflation, the MST, or Brazil’s Landless Workers’ Movement, stepped in. With 20 million hectares of reclaimed land under their control across 1,200 municipalities, the MST possessed the necessary base of land and labor to effectively make a difference for millions of Brazilians. TRNN reports from the ground in Brazil to investigate how the largest social movement in the Americas is simultaneously eliminating hunger, seizing land for the tillers, and fighting for agrarian reform.
This story, with the support of the Bertha Foundation, is part of The Real News Network’s Workers of the World series, telling the stories of workers around the globe building collective power and redefining the future of work on their own terms.
Producer: Martin Varese
Videography: Maria Silva
Video editor: Leo Erhardt
Reporter: Meet the movement that feeds Brazil. With over 2 million members, the Landless Workers’ Movement known as the MST, is the largest social movement in the world. It has been occupying land and producing food for the country while building a police-free and hunger-free socialist system.
Rosa – Member of the Carlos Lamarca Settlement: The importance of the movement (MST), for me, from my point of view, it is the most just social movement that exists. Because the MST allows bringing back the people who were expelled from the countryside, it enables restoring their roots. By conquering the land, we have a space to work, a space to live, and a space to raise our children with a different kind of freedom. We have a space to plant, produce, and produce in a different way, respecting the environment and Mother Earth.
Joao Paulo Rodrigues – Member of the MST leadership: We are present in approximately 1200 municipalities. We have a conquered territory of approximately 20 million hectares. Our popular base, between people in encampments that still don’t have lands and people in permanent settlements that already own their land, is of approximately 500,000 families or about 2 million people. Our movement is organized based on a collective logic, a decentralized logic from the point of view of its organization and its political command, and at the same time, a movement that has unity based on its ideology. The movement’s ideology today is that it’s an organization of rural workers that fight for agrarian reform, that fights for socialism. But above everything, it’s an organization that wants to produce healthy food products in an agroecological perspective to resolve the hunger and misery problems in Brazil and worldwide.
Reporter: The MST has built a collective system of mutual aid, in which it can produce healthy food for the Brazilian people. The grassroots movement organizes cooperatives, associations and agro-industries in their camps and permanent settlements.
Léo – Member of the Carlos Lamarca Settlement: We work in a system of joint effort, a collective system. There are some people in one piece of land, others in another. But everything is collective. So the work we do between our families that we have been doing for a while has been proven effective. So the best work that exists is collective work. Working as a unit.
Reporter: As a result of this collective way of production, the MST has been providing healthy food and products, especially to poor people in big cities, such as São Paulo. The work of the MST was crucial for many Brazilian workers and poor people during the COVID-19 pandemic. The government of far-right president Jair Bolsonaro, who called Covid “a little flu”, didn’t provide the necessary means for the Brazilian people to overcome the pandemic. One of the main issues in Brazil was hunger. As the Bolsonaro government was focused on favoring the export of soy and beef, the industry that actually fed the people was destroyed. Under Bolsonaro, Brazil got back on the map of hunger, as the UN found that 61.3 million Brazilians faced food insecurity.
Joao Paulo Rodrigues – Member of the MST leadership: Our commitment to Brazilian society is clear and was built, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. When the MST donated 10,000 tons of food. Only in the big cities have we donated 7 thousand tons of food. And in the movement, in encampments and permanent settlements and other actions, other 3 thousand tons of food. We are talking about 10 thousand tons of food that arrived in Brazilian society thanks to the production of our movement.
Reporter: But how has the MST been organized to be able to provide thousands of tons of food to the people and at the same time fight to change the world in other areas?
Joao Paulo Rodrigues – Member of the MST leadership: In 2024, the MST will complete 40 years of existence. It is a movement that basically has three political natures, which marks a difference from more classical movements. The MST has a very peculiar feature that is unique here in Brazil. Because it has a combination of factors. It’s a movement that has a very popular nature. As a movement, it groups a lot of people. The people. The common people. Workers. It’s a movement that has a trade union characteristic as it fights for a set of rights, fights for the improvement of workers’ living conditions. But above everything, the MST is a political organization. Within its nature, the MST has a position in different matters of Brazilian politics. This is why it’s a popular, a trade unionist, and a political movement. However, our main objective is to fight for land, agrarian reform, and the living condition’s improvement of the Brazilian people.
Reporter: The MST has become a hope for many people around the world. In their encampments and permanent settlements, they have tried to create a new model of society based on the concept that the land belongs to those who work it.
Léo – Member of the Carlos Lamarca Settlement: The MST, for me, summarizes everything! It’s where we fight for land, to have the right to a home and to work the land, having means of living for our families and us. We work here in the settlements to produce organic food with no poison. The importance of my being part of the movement is that we learned a lot from the MST. What we learn here, we try to pass it on to other people. And the question of production. We bring healthy quality products without poison to the people in the cities.
Joao Paulo Rodrigues – Member of the MST leadership: As a popular movement, the MST is a reference, a hope of a way of production in agriculture that has been completely destroyed by agribusiness. So, the MST represents a hope in agricultural cooperation. The MST represents hope in the production of organic and healthy foods. But at the same time, as we have control of the territories, the landless movement represents a way of organizing society. Can you imagine that in our settlements, we don’t have police? In our settlements, there isn’t one child out of school. In our settlements, we have an extreme precaution not to use agrotoxics. This model of society is what the MST represents.
The MST is very small when you speak in terms of force. Brazil has 220 million people. The MST has 2 million people. It’s tiny in terms of the number of people. However, from the perspective of symbology and reference, I have no doubts that our movement is one of the main left-wing organizations in Latin America. Today 100 million Brazilians have no guarantee of having food on their tables; we have a movement that can produce food for all these people.
Reporter: The MST’s primary fight and the idea that brings together their millions of members is the popular agrarian reform. With about 8.5 million square kilometers, Brazil is the 5th largest country in the world, and almost half of Brazil is in private hands, many of it owned by large landowners and corporations. The Brazilian constitution allows the expropriation and redistribution of rural land that is not being used “productively” for agriculture, ranching, or conservation. Therefore, appropriating and producing unproductive lands such as the MST does, is constitutionally legal.
Joao Paulo Rodrigues – Member of the MST leadership: There is something that I think is very important for those foreigners who are listening to this and don’t know Brazil and our situation. Brazil is one of the only big or rich countries in the world to have never had an agrarian reform. In Brazil we didn’t have any of these situations. Not a socialist agrarian reform. Not a capitalist agrarian reform. On the contrary, there was a concentration of land. For those not knowing Brazil, people say that it was the biggest rural exodus in mankind’s history was here in Brazil. We talk about 50 million people that left the countryside and went to cities between the decades of 1930 to 1960. Today, we have a 1% of the population that owns 46 – 47 percent of the national territory. Therefore, Brazil is also one of the only countries worldwide that has the possibility of doing an agrarian reform.
Reporter: What would an agrarian reform look like in Brazil?
Joao Paulo Rodrigues – Member of the MST leadership: We would have the conditions to do an agrarian reform for about 10 million Brazilian people. Creating permanent settlements with 10 million Brazilians would mean to rise tenfold what we have. We have 1 million people living in permanent settlements. This is the challenge that we want. In the coming years, we want the government to move towards that strategy of democratizing lands. This would guarantee suitable employment, food production, but is mainly the guarantee of environmental preservation.
Reporter: The Brazilian people have lived the last six years under right-wing governments. During the far-right Bolsonaro government, the country has become polarized. Opposite sides call it a fight between communists and fascists. The former trade unionist and popular left-wing leader Lula da Silva, with the enormous help of the MST, won the elections and was sworn in as president on January 1st 2023.
Joao Paulo Rodrigues – Member of the MST leadership: Lula won the elections. A very difficult victory. This makes us very happy and gives us more air to breathe, at least for the next four years. For us to at least be able to rebuild the popular organization, to strengthen the institutions of democracy and to create public policies that would remain independent of governments.
Reporter: The supporters of Bolsonaro have been on the streets for a long time. First, they fought against the possible candidacy of Lula, then against the results of the elections and finally, they attacked the Three Power Square in Brasilia. During these attacks, far-right supporters of Bolsonaro invaded the Brazilian Congress, the Brazilian judicial power and the Palacio do Planalto, the seat of the government.
Joao Paulo Rodrigues – Member of the MST leadership: What makes us worry is Bolsonarism. The extreme far-right worldwide, in Latin America and Brazil, has grown in the last five years. I’m talking about a worldwide phenomenon. We have to open our eyes and get ready to fight against a fascist right wing that came out of the sewage or closets and went to the streets with a lot of craziness. And with terrorist actions such as the ones we see here in Brazil. This is not a motive to run and hide, frightened by them.
But we need to get ready to defend the Lula government. To get ready to dispute the Lula government, defend workers, and dispute the streets. We need to know that they exist. To know that they have always existed, since the end of WWII. Now they have reappeared with a bit more strength because there was a government in Brazil and others around the world helping finance those sectors.
I’m convinced that we will have a new generation trained with a lot of information from social media and experience fighting on the streets that will vigorously combat fascism and build a new society with values, policies and, at the same time, a new possible world.
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