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Of Land And Hope

Getting land for a quarter million of Brazil's poorest people was the first task of the Landless Workers Movement. Now comes the question of building a new life

Brazil had always held tremendous power for me as I (Frances) struggled to grasp why some eat and others do not. In the early 1970s, the experts were telling us that hunger—at home and abroad—was caused by food scarcity. And yet countries like Brazil, a leading agricultural exporter, had a GNP ranking in the world's top ten, while tens of thousands of its citizens starved. If ever there was a place where hunger could not be blamed on scarcity, it was Brazil.

Selga and Luis Barch waiting for official title to
their land.  Photo by Anna Lappe
Selga and Luis Barch waiting for official title to their land.  Photo by Anna Lappe
Hunger in Brazil persists not because of a lack of food, but because of a lack of democracy. Inequality in Brazil is so extreme only Sierra Leone ranks worse.

Today, one percent of Brazil's landowners control almost half of the arable land—leaving thousands of acres idle—while millions of rural people have no land at all.

Land reform has been an obvious focus of efforts for democracy in Brazil, but I knew all attempts at land reform had been snuffed out with peasant blood. Landowners had too much power—political, economic, and military; the landless too little. (In fact, it was partly the president's threat of land reform that triggered a US-condoned military coup in 1964).

But in 1986, with the end of military rule, the landless got a key to power. The constitution, adopted that year, includes a clause calling for land reform. If land is not serving a “social function,” the government has a constitutional right to redistribute it.

At first there was little political will to make land reform more than an article on paper, but a movement emerged to ensure the government made good on its promise. This movement is the Landless Workers Movement, or the MST, for its name in Portuguese. It has been wresting idle land from landowners, challenging Brazil's large-scale agribusiness model, and pressing Brazil's relatively new government for democracy.

Almost 20 years old, the MST's efforts seem to be working. Today, the MST has settled a quarter of a million families on more than 15 million acres in thousands of settlements across almost every Brazilian state.

On our first day in Brazil, we head to the MST's national headquarters. Sitting in a small, stone-walled room, we are greeted by a man with the build of a farmer and the language of a philosopher.

João Pedro Stédile is one of the founders of the MST. Like millions of Brazilians, João Pedro comes from a farming family, so his personal story is the perfect place to begin.

“My grandparents and parents worked the land for more than a century but ended up with nothing,” he said. “I was one of the few in my family who had a chance to study. At school, the church taught us that it was wrong to conform to inequity. When I graduated, I went back to work with the poor. Remember,” he underscored, “this was during military rule. No gathering of any size was tolerated. But we gathered ten thousand and managed to raise the price of grapes.”

João Pedro took many of the lessons of these early years to his work as a founding member of the MST. One of the central lessons is that you can't succeed alone. From the very beginning, the MST worked with a shared leadership model. Today, João Pedro tells us, if Brazil's president asks for a meeting with the head of the MST, all 21 of their leadership committee show up.

Another lesson: Actions speak louder than words. The MST analyzes which idle lands offer the most
agricultural promise, brings landless together, and—under the cover of night—they occupy the land. MST members build temporary shelters and start working the land while the leadership presses the government to transfer the title. Today, thousands of families continue living in encampments waiting for official titles.

The process hasn't been easy. The Movement has faced serious obstacles—from bad press to government hostility to violent attacks. We learn that more MST members have been killed struggling for land reform than were “disappeared” during the two decades of the Brazilian military dictatorship. During our time with the MST, we met dozens who have experienced firsthand the real-life threats of pushing for land reform in a country still largely controlled by landholders.

Facing fear
A few days after meeting João Pedro, we get to see the fruits of the MST's labors. On our way to one of the encampments, we notice a guardhouse that was set up to warn families of attacks by landowners and gunmen.

Minutes later, we sit outside an MST standard-issue, a shack made of black plastic sheets wrapped around poles. We try to imagine these past four years of waiting for official approval, protected from the elements by nothing more than thin plastic.

Baby chicks peep at our feet as we talk with a family that has been here since the early attacks—Luis and Selga Barch, their five children, and a baby grandson. I notice their affection with each other—passing a bubbly baby among family, hands on shoulders.

Luis and Selga learned about the MST on the local radio. We find out later that the MST operates over 30 community radio stations in its attempt to counteract the mega-media monopoly here.

“Yes, that was a hard time,” Selga says, referring to gunmen the landowner hired to remove them.

“We were afraid,” Luis adds. “But we had no choice; our land was too rocky, too small.” Now, though they are still technically landless, they have the support of a community of dozens of other families, and like hundreds of thousands of other families may soon have official title to land.

Whose choices?
We've been reading press coverage that makes the MST sound like neo-Communists. This gets us thinking. The MST says it's helping free people from the shackles of poverty, but is it just a different drumbeat with which one must align one's step? We look for real signs of choice.

According to MST official Geraldo Fontes, in encampments, families decide together how to organize their community. Less than a third, we learn, choose cooperatives. Forty percent choose private plots. The rest opt for a common area as well as private plots.

Two days after visiting the Barches, we're standing in an MST settlement, Perpetual Seguro, near the town of Pitanga in the middle of the Southern state of Paraná. The settlement sits on a high bluff overlooking rolling green hills. We meet Nivaldo Fernando, a four-year resident. Now, hammer in hand, he builds his first home.

Among the 40 families, few were part of the original encampment. We're curious about the newcomers. “They have come because of our cooperative,” Nivaldo says. “You can make more money. Each individual can specialize. My specialty is building and also selling quilts.”

“Who decides on your specialty?” I ask.

“The group decided based on what people are good at and what's needed. [If there is a conflict] we discuss it. But it was my choice to be in the cooperative. It feels good making a contribution. Plus, say I'm building houses and you're harvesting the corn and the weather is bad, we all share that loss. It's not fair to blame the farmer if it doesn't rain, is it?”

The cooperative seems to work well, so we're curious why other families aren't choosing it.

“Most are still afraid,” Nivaldo's wife, Doraci, says. “Small farmers don't like to rely on others. But we make the rules for ourselves, for practical reasons. A lot of the original people didn't want to be a part of the cooperative, so they went to other encampments. Now many want to come back because the cooperative is working.”

A lot of shifting and sorting out—that's what we're sensing everywhere in the MST. People are trying on new roles and seeing what works for them.

Pizza and the neo-liberal model
We return from the countryside to the capital of Paraná, Curitiba. We've just met brothers Dirceu and Vilmar Boufleuer at the MST's headquarters and headed to an all-you-can-eat pizza parlor. Biting into our first slice of pizza, we ask why they joined the movement.

“I was a seminarian,” says Dirceu, “but my faith called me to do something more practical.”
“Christianity and MST are similar,” Vilmar adds. “They both value people. Capitalism only cares about production; it doesn't care about the individual.”

At this, some Christians might cringe. In the US , opposing capitalism is tantamount to endorsing
communism. But since arriving in Brazil, we've been hearing about the MST creating businesses to function within the market. It's not the market itself that violates the brothers' faith; it's the elevation of the market above all other values, including dignity and health.

And it's here—in the realm of values—that the MST differs from the neo-liberal model. Vilmar and Dirceu tell us it's the neo-liberal model that has turned Brazil into the world's third-ranked agricultural exporter and the number-one exporter of coffee, sugar, and orange juice. It explains why two-thirds of Brazil's grain feeds livestock, not people. What Vilmar and Dirceu dream of in its place is what the MST is creating—communities coming together to decide how to organize themselves, educate their children, and grow their food.

The birth of citizens
Most people are suspicious of movements that claim great moral purpose. Such movements start using power for their own ends. That's the assumption, that's the fear.

And yet many of our conversations with the MST revolved around community and values. So when we get a chance, we ask José Paulo dos Santos Pires, a long-time member, how the MST develops these values.

“Society cultivates individualism and competition,” he answered. “We in the MST have been brought up under this system. This creates problems in some of the older settlements where we didn't talk much about values. A lot of people thought that land would be enough. But soon they find out that they are still illiterate and have no resources to make the land productive.

“They realize with time, through debates and seminars, that they have to get together to decide what to plant and how to buy seeds. They may have to join a demonstration, even occupy City Hall to get a school for their children. They acquire the consciousness that they wouldn't be able to do any of this individually.”

Paulo's words bring to mind what João Pedro said about getting the landless involved in the Movement.
“The first step is losing naïve consciousness,” he said, “no longer accepting what you see as something that cannot be changed.” (We were amused by the irony that in the US, a person gets labeled naïve who believes that things can change.) “The second step is realizing you won't get anywhere unless you work together.”

Once you start believing a better life is possible, you also must come to believe you have the power to make change. So, João Pedro told us, the Movement also builds this confidence. In the process, he explained, “you forget how to say ‘yes sir' and learn to say ‘I think that…' This is when the citizen is born.”

We went to Brazil thinking we'd learn about land reform. But we left realizing that the MST's biggest achievement may not be in land reform, nor in helping people build dignified places to live, nor even in
reducing infant mortality. It may be in the creation of citizens, people who believe they can create what does not yet exist.

Adapted from Hope's Edge: The Next Diet for a Small Planet by Frances Moore Lappé, author of Diet for a Small Planetand more than a dozen other books and Anna Lappé, cofounder, with Frances, of the Small Planet Fund. See www.dietforasmallplanet.comand Friends of the MST at www.mstbrazil.org.

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