In Brazil: Creating a New Reality

Thousands of displaced Brazilian families are taking back the land, setting up schools, homes, cooperatives, and organic farms—and re-envisioning the future of Brazil.
“You would never see that in a U.S. classroom,” one of the delegates whispered as we left the classroom.

    “You would never see that in another Brazilian classroom,” our translator, Denise, answered with goose-bumped arms.

    Our delegation fell silent as we continued down the hallway. The classroom in the convent–turned–school in southern Brazil had been filled with young members of the Landless Workers Movement (MST)—one of the most successful land reform movements in the world. I had never seen a group of teenagers so intent on learning and so clear about the value that their education will bring to their lives and communities.

    The MST arose 20 years ago out of a desperate need for land redistribution in a country where ownership of arable land is disastrously skewed (see YES! Fall 2002). At the root of much of this inequality are policies that favor large-scale, export-oriented agriculture and wealthy landowners who fraudulently take land with impunity.

    This consolidation of land ownership, sometimes accompanied by violent evictions of working families from the land, led to a major migration. Between 1965 and 1985, half of the Brazilian population streamed into the cities in search of work, and the influx continues today. Giant slums rose around cities, and many families fell into poverty, drugs, and hunger. Today, less than 3 percent of the Brazilian population owns two-thirds of the arable land in Brazil.

    For many landless workers, the MST offers a rare path out of poverty and hunger. The MST mobilizes landless people to squat on or near idle land, in MST “camps.” Those in the encampments, along with supporters, pressure the government to enforce the Brazilian constitution, which declares that land must be used for its “social function.” This means that it must be cultivated for production if it is not being preserved for ecological reasons.

    As a result of this massive nonviolent movement, more than 300,000 families have won land, and many are now living in permanent settlements, farming, studying at MST-organized schools, and supporting others who are likewise working to move back to the land.

    But there have also been many casualties; since 1985, more than 1,000 rural workers have been killed in land disputes.

Classrooms for a New Life
The ITERRA Institute I visited with a delegation led by San Francisco-based Global Exchange, is located near Porto Alegre, Brazil. The ITERRA Institute is part of an educational network of more than 1,000 schools that the MST created to teach literacy, sustainable farming, and leadership, and prepare people for professions in such areas as teaching and health care.

    The students are MST members who come from impoverished rural and urban     backgrounds. At the school, they divide their time between study, work, physical education, reflection, discussion of current events, music, and volunteer work. Non-violence education is integrated into all courses.

    Students stay at the school for two months, then travel back to their homes in MST encampments and settlements for several months to use their newly acquired skills. They continue this rotation until graduation.

    ITERRA is a boarding school, but most MST schools are located on MST camps and settlements, and many classrooms are simple, open-air shelters.

    The students we visited had studied together for three years to become teachers. They listened intently as their teacher explained to our delegation that each ITERRA class creates its own banners, chants, and songs that affirm their purpose as students and citizens. The students stood to sing us their class song about Salete Stronzake, an MST teacher who played a leading role in developing MST's educational system before she died in a car accident. Then they broke into a chant:

    We are following the movement!
    We are planting education!
    We are practicing Salete's dream!

    Their voices carried powerfully as they punched their fists into the air. Their confidence and solidarity impressed me.

    As I scanned the students' faces, I could see that they were learning to be much more than teachers; they were learning to be builders of a new society even as they struggle literally to claim the ground that makes their survival possible.

    As our group continued to tour the institute's grounds, I was struck by the school's focus on gender equality and its holistic approach to education. The school has a large garden, a crafts room, library, kitchen, daycare, nursery, and natural pharmacy with massage. The students make preserves and juice in a small factory and baked goods for their own consumption and to sell at markets. The school runs as a cooperative; resources are shared between everyone, and everyone has a task that contributes to the whole, such as baking or gardening. Ideally, the students rotate through all the positions before graduation.

    One of my favorite moments on the tour was watching several teenage boys and a girl gently rock babies to sleep in the nursery. I couldn't help but think back on my high school parenting class, where I was assigned to tend an egg for a week to learn what it means to care for a baby. And I realized how rarely I see teenage boys caring for babies.
Creating gender equality is integral to the MST movement, according to João Carlos, a resident of an MST camp. “Men and women have to work
together. If a man fights, it's half a fight,” he says. “It's only complete if men and women fight together.”

Living in an MST camp
The day after our tour of the school, we visited Camp Monte Pill—also near Porto Alegre. As we arrived at the camp, an Afro-Brazilian man strummed his guitar and sang just outside the camp. A small group of teenage boys stood around him joining in the song and keeping time with clapping hands.

    Behind them, a beautifully green 1,600–hectare farm sat idle. To their side stood a maze of black plastic tents—the homes of 200 landless families. They had pitched the tents on a narrow strip of land squeezed between a buzzing highway and the carefully guarded farm. The owner of the farm owes the government more money than the land is worth, and he does not live in Brazil, we were told; this makes the farm a good candidate for agrarian reform.

    MST camps, such as this one, are where the MST's holistic and egalitarian approach to education and life begins.

    “Time at the camps is incredibly important to start restoring people's dignity and awakening their social consciousness,” João Carlos says. Many MST members are accustomed to being excluded from society—living in slums where drugs, violence, and poverty are rife and easily lead to an oppressive cycle. Integrating these people back into a functioning community is central to the success of MST settlements. The teachings of Paulo Freire (author of Pedagogy of the Oppressed) on self-dignity, social responsibility, and breaking the cycle of oppression help residents create positive change and the life they want to live.

    According to Jacqueline—a Monte Pill resident who gave only her first name—the days go by quickly at camp and people stay motivated because of the many planning meetings, classes, music, and daily chores. The health of many of the Camp Monte Pill residents is poor due to lack of water and poor hygiene. The camp is plagued by pollution from a leak at a nearby gas station, acid leaking from a neighboring metal factory, and indoor smoke from residents' wood fires. The camp turns into a muddy mess when it rains, and when it doesn't rain the black tents trap the hot sun. The children play along the highway where large trucks go barreling by and people yell insults at camp residents from car windows. A security guard hired by the landowner keeps a watchful eye on the camp, and a police car passes by every half hour to check on them. Planning their future settlement helps camp residents keep their spirits up during their arduous stay at the camp.

    The Monte Pill residents have lived on this strip of land for about a year. The police once attempted to evict the families. In response, residents marched on the state capital and camped outside the government building in Porto Alegre for six months. They won the right to return to Camp Monte Pill to wait for the idle land next door.

    Camp residents expect to receive the farmland soon; however, there will not be enough land to sustain everyone. This creates tensions in camp, says Jacqueline, because they will have to allocate the land only to those who have been at the camp the longest.

    Camp Monte Pill is one of approximately 12,000 similar MST camps in Brazil. The MST strives to create a leader out of each individual at the camps; these leadership capacities help achieve successful cooperative-style settlements when land is turned over to the campers. It also helps further the broader-reaching goals of the MST—to create a just Brazil.

Re-Inhabiting the land
Assent Lagao do Junco, a permanent MST settlement, is made up of small, tidy houses lining a dirt road that leads to a large communal space surrounded by farmland. This settlement was another stop on our tour.

    Fifteen of 35 families on the settlement chose to live in a cooperative-style community. Their communal space includes a kitchen with running water, large wood-fired ovens, a bathroom with flush toilets, murals depicting MST farmers and teachers, and picnic tables beneath shady trees. The settlement, where people know they have a permanent home, is a huge leap up in human dignity and in meeting basic human needs compared to the MST camps.

There is another way
In the settlements, MST works to demonstrate that people can provide their own food instead of importing and exporting cash crops—a system that has led to a large increase in poverty and starvation in Brazil.

    “It's a slow walk,” Tarcisio Stein, one of the settlement residents, says. “But we're showing society that there is another way of doing things.”

    At Assent Lagao do Junco, residents are proud to say that they have practiced 100 percent organic farming for four years.

    “When we arrived, we had the idea that we had to use lots of pesticides,” Tarcisio says.

    With time, the community realized that they were spending more and more money on fertilizers and pesticides because the chemicals were exhausting the soil. The chemicals' side effects also caused illnesses within the settlement. The community decided to switch to organic farming.

    Today, the settlement continues to experiment with ways to make organic farming more cost-competitive with conventionally grown food. Recently, they increased rice yields by adopting a Chinese practice of using carp to help till and weed their fields. The settlement also raises cattle for meat and dairy, and fruits and vegetables for their own consumption.

    Not all MST settlements have switched to organic farming, but they are working in that direction.

    One of the MST's biggest challenges now is the recent decision by Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva to lift a ban on the sale of genetically modified crops. MST leaders believe this will increase corporate control over crops by making seeds “intellectual property.”
    This is not the only disappointment that the MST has faced since 2002 when Lula won the presidency. The MST and many other Brazilians had invested high hopes in Lula, Brazil's first left-leaning president, a former labor leader, and a long-time ally of the MST who had vowed to work to end hunger and close Brazil's monstrous economic gap.

    “During Lula's government, nothing has changed,” Carlos says. Lula's government is under tremendous pressure from the International Monetary Fund, other world organizations, and the owners of large estates, he says.

    Nonetheless, Lula's divergence from his campaign pledges is not halting the MST's momentum to fight for a just Brazil.

    “It is quite clear that Lula himself, as a single person, will never make agrarian reform. We must make agrarian reform happen,” Carlos says. “No matter what government we have, change has to come from the base.”

    To strengthen their base, the MST is working to build an organization that unites all movements in Brazil. “Once we are united with all the movements, we can start the construction of a new social reality,” Carlos says. “We will not wait.”

Michelle Burkhart is a free-lance writer and a former intern at YES! magazine. You can learn more about the Landless Workers Movement at and about Global Exchange's international tours at
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