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The Rural Landless Workers Movement
The movement gains momentum
Over the past 30 years, Brazilian governmentsboth military and civilianhave proclaimed the need for agrarian reform but have resisted implementing an effective policy. INCRA (National Institute of Colonization and Agrarian Reform) the federal government agency in charge of land distribution has pursued a policy of settling landless families in distant frontier lands, usually distant from markets, in infertile, malaria-infested land. During its 30 years of existence, INCRA has settled less than 7 percent of the landless rural families, 331,276 out of 4 million and the majority of the settlements were initiated by MST (the rural landless workers movement) organized occupations, which were later legalized by INCRA.
Most Federal and State agricultural resources have been allocated to subsidize and promote agro-business and large export-oriented farmers. The promotion and financing of large agro-export farmers has been dubbed agricultural modernization by both the military and the current Cardoso regime. Agricultural modernization has been a key component of the Cardoso regimes neoliberal strategy and has led to massive displacement of small farmers and rural workers from the countryside as well as the growing militancy of rural workers and increasing influence of the MST. As a result, the countryside has been the hardest hit sector of the economy and the center of opposition.
Cardosos restructuring of the economy has met with only sporadic and ineffective opposition among urban trade unions (like the CUT) and the parliamentary opposition (Workers Party, Communist Party of Brazil, etc.). On the other hand, in the countryside, major confrontations have taken place. Large-scale struggles have been an ongoing reality. Cardosos political offensive, featuring the massive privatization of lucrative mines, telecommunications, energy (and other key industries), his deregulation of financial markets, the liberalization of trade and capital flows has severely eroded the economic base of nationalist populist constituencies composed of local producers and industrial workers. Cardosos urban offensive is based on a coalition of overseas bankers and industrialists, local big agro-business, landlord, financial, and manufacturing interests. The large-scale, long-term transformations envisioned by Cardoso and their negative socio-economic consequences for rural and urban workers, small farmers, and local producers were perceived early on by the leadership of the MST.
The MST response to Cardosos offensive was to launch its own offensive in the countryside in early 1995. The MST organized an escalating campaign of land occupations, involving an increasing number of families, throughout Cardosos tenure of office.
The response of the Cardoso regime to the MST offensive shifted over time. In the beginning, his administration tried to ignore the Movement, minimize its significance, labeling it a historical anachronism. Subsequent to a historical 100,000-person demonstration in Brasilia convoked by the MST in 1996, Cardoso shifted tactics, opening negotiations and attempting to co-opt the Movement by offering to set a quota on land recipients in exchange for demobilizing the Movement. By demobilizing the Movement, Cardoso hoped to get the upper hand in carrying out his strategic policy of creating a high tech export agricultural sector based on large-scale, agro-industrial complexes linking local big landowners with overseas, mostly U.S. agro-industrial exporters.
The MST entered negotiations but insisted that under no conditions would they agree to stop occupations of unproductive lands, as the number of farm workers without landalmost four million familiescould not have their basic needs met via the limited quotas fixed by the Cardoso regime. The MST offensive went into high gear in 1996, with a record number of land occupations and families. The Movements land occupation strategy combined legal-constitutional tactics, extra parliamentary action with an inclusive style of coalition politics that brought together church organizations, human rights groups, urban trade unions, parliamentary parties, local civic groups, and municipal officials. The MST relied on Constitutional clauses calling for the State to expropriate uncultivated land and redistribute land to the landless rural labor force and to finance the new rural settlements. Within this legal constitutional framework, the MST was able to build broad coalitions that supported their peaceful, well-organized land occupations. With majoritarian support of public opinion in Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, and other major cities, the MST was able to neutralize repression by the central government. However, at the State and local level, Cardosos allies among state governors, local officials, and landlords organized violent repression and judicial processes to destroy the growing appeal of the MST. The landlords organized in the UDR (Uniao Democratico Ruralista: Rural Democratic Union) and through their influence among state governors and local officials launched a violent right-wing counter-offensive, with the political and propagandistic support of the Cardoso regime. This culminated in April 1996 with the infamous Massacre of Eldorado de Carajas (in the State of Para) where 19 landless workers were massacred by the Military Police ordered by the state governor to repress a peaceful protest march of landless workers. Altogether, over 163 rural workers have been assassinated in the first 4 years of the Cardoso regime.
The massacre at El Dorado intended to intimidate the movement had the opposite effect; public opinion turned overwhelmingly in favor of the Landless Workers Movement and the MST responded by launching a new wave of land occupations throughout the country. The Cardoso regime forced on the defensive and politically isolated, attempted to take advantage of the new land settlements by claiming credit for them. This government ploy failed however, and families occupying land doubled. While the government was successful in selling off strategic sectors of the economy, deregulating the financial markets and lowering trade barriers, the countryside became increasingly restive. The lowering of tariff barriers meant cheap food imports; the dismantling of state subsidies and support for credit and technical assistance undermined local small producers. During the first four years of the Cardoso regime, over 400,000 small farmers went bankrupt and were driven off the land or converted into landless laborers or employees of the big agro-industrial export enterprises which were the centerpiece of Cardosos so-called agricultural modernization export strategy.
In 1996, small farmers following the example of the MST began to mobilize and organize, particularly in the South of Brazil. By 1997, a new mass organization emerged, the Movement of Small Farmers (MPA). The MPA began to borrow the direct action tactics of the MST, blocking roads, occupying government offices, and engaging in large-scale demonstrations in state capitols. In August 1999 over 15,000 heavily indebted large, medium, and small farmers demonstrated in Brasilia demanding forgiveness of 40 percent to 60 percent of their debts. Cardoso offered to forgive 10 percent to 20 percent of the farm debtsparticularly of the large farm owners. Under pressure, the Cardoso regime combined concessions to the MPAeasing credit and offering partial debt forgivenesswhile at the same time reducing the Federal budget allocations for family farmers to meet IMF-WB fiscal targets. As a result, two weeks later, farmers and farm workers joined trade unions and leftist political parties in a huge 100,000-person protest in Brasilia denouncing Cardosos austerity budget.
Faced with State intransigence the MST turned toward building politico-social coalitions with urban movements and intellectuals, through a national political campaign, the Consulta Popular, a program of alternative development that combines nationalist, protectionist, and state-directed industrial programs with agrarian reform and mass participation in the political process. The new turn of the MSTits attempt to break out of a strictly rural frameworkled to new urban initiatives, organizing favela residents in some of the major cities, including Sao Paulo, Rio, and elsewhere. The urban organizing led, in some cases, to the occupation of landed estates near some of the major cities, like the Nuevo Canudos settlement, less than one hour from Sao Paulo, which included unemployed construction and metal workers. The Cardoso regime and the State Governor dispatched military police to dislodge the urban squatters, arguing that the land in Nuevo Canudos was cultivated. In reality being within one hour of Sao Paulo it was valuable land for urban speculative purposes. The desperate situation of the urban land settlers led some to hijack two trucks carrying pasta and beef, which in turn led to a police raid on the settlement and arrest of several activists.
By the beginning of 1999, the Federal Government and its political allies in the state governments decided to abolish the existing constitutionally mandated state financing of land expropriations. The Cardoso regime introduced a World Bank scheme to create what it dubbed as a market agrarian reform. The Federal Government shifted funds from the Agrarian Reform Institute (INCRA) to a Land Bank. INCRAs overall budget was reduced by 53 percent, from 1.9 billion reales to 1 billion; INCRAs funding for land expropriation was reduced from 600 million reales to 200 million reales; INCRAs special line of low interest credit to newly formed co-ops was ended. The drastic cut in INCRAs budget meant that peasant land squatters would not have any funding to farm the uncultivated land that they occupied. Instead the government proposed to buy land from the landlords and sell it to individual farmers who then would be obligated to secure credits to finance production. The result would be a heavily indebted small farmer class facing unequal competition with cheap food imports. The result would be almost certain bankruptcy and the buy back of the family farmers land by commercial farmers or land speculators.
The economic non-viability of the market agrarian reform is fairly obvious. The Federal Governments purpose however, is politicalto eliminate the possibility that the MSTs land occupations would lead to successful productive cooperatives (as they have been in most instances around the country). The second purpose of Cardosos strategy is to entice landless workers with the offer of land settlement and access to credit, thus dividing the movement and creating strata of pro-regime supporters among small farmers. The early experiences of market agrarian reform however are not promising. Heavily indebted farm owners of all sizes and lines of production have launched a series of major demonstrations demanding debt forgiveness, in the face of the massive devaluation and the decline in income and demand.
Cardosos cutbacks in funding are evidenced in the growing number of landless families who have occupied uncultivated land and whose claim for expropriation has not been attended. During the first four months of 1999 22,000 families organized by the MST and the Confederacion Nacional de Trabalhadores na Agricultura (CONTAG) occupied over 155 large estates. By mid-1999, there were over 72,000 familiesover 350,000 farm peopleencamped on land waiting for Federal action. Some of the families were living in camps up to four years. By withholding Federal funds, the Cardoso regime hopes to discourage the land occupiers and to undermine the support of the MST. The governments usual answer for the unemployed and destitute farm workersthat they should migrate to the citiesrings hollow with 20 percent unemployment rates in most large urban centers. Cardosos defense of the rural elite and negative policy toward potential productive landless workers has heightened tensions in the cities, which concentrate the new wave of displaced rural producers. Another reason why the MST is increasingly involved in urban organizing.
In response to the governments attack on the Constitution and the effective dismantling of agrarian reform budgets and institutions, the MST has increasingly turned to the political sphere. The thinking here is that what the landless workers are winning in terms of popular support and land occupations, they are losing in terms of state financing of newly established land settlements. The national leadership of the MST is broadening its efforts in two directions: it has signaled an increasing tendency to become directly involved in electoral politics; it has increased its efforts to form national political coalitions to directly challenge the government.
While these strategic shifts occur at the national level, and the Federal government intensifies its effort to seize the political initiative from the MST on the local and state level, Cardosos right-wing allies have intensified their attacks on the MST. In the states of Parana, Para, Sao Paulo, scores of MST activists and landless workers have been tortured, beaten, and jailed on spurious charges. In contrast, notorious military officials publicly videotaped murdering peaceful peasant protesters have been exonerated, as was the case with the military officials who ordered the massacre of Eldorado de Carajas.
The powerful links between landlords and the judiciary is demonstrated by the fact that between 1985-99 of the 1,158 rural activists assassinated, only 56 people were brought to trial and only 10 were convicted. As the economic crises deepened throughout 1999 and unemployment soared, Cardosos popularity plummeted and he was left largely dependent on the support of the IMF-WB and overseas investors.
The IMF-WB pressure to slash public spending and to reduce the deficit has heightened social polarization, and few productive sectors of the national economy seem willing to sustain the regime. Faced with the regimes dismantling of the Agrarian Reform Institute (INCRA) the MST moved to broaden its alliance in the countryside, working with small and medium-size farmers and their organizations in common struggles against the Governments credit and price policies. The MSTs increased turn toward political action and social alliances runs parallel to its continuing policy of direct action.
Several factors weigh heavily in shaping the new turn in MST policies. First, the highly politicized nature of the judicial system evidenced in the gross violation of normal judicial process by the judge in the trial of the military officials accused of assassinating the 19 landless workers in Para. Irrespective of the powerful evidence presented and of the jurys initial guilty finding, the judges intervention calling into question the sufficiency of the evidence presented, and rejection of key eyewitnesses demonstrated that without direct political influence it was impossible to secure justice in the courts against the organized and politically influential landlords.
The second factor shaping the political turn of the MST was the dismantling of the Agrarian Reform Institute and the practical elimination of funding for new land settlements by squatters. The MSTs land occupation strategy depended heavily on securing INCRA legal recognition, formal expropriation, and funding to successfully launch production in the settlements of the land squatters. Without INCRA funding, the land occupations organized by the MST would be in severe financial straits, particularly in securing seeds, fertilizers, farm tools and basic living arrangements. The Cardoso regime, by cutting resources to INCRA and shifting resources to the Land Bank, in clear violation of his constitutional mandate, established a new political agenda that could not be combated by direct actionor at least social action at the local or state level. Only political action aimed directly at shaping national political power is capable of restoring funding for the land settlements established through land occupations. Only national political organizations are capable of countering the privatized land reform and Land Bank promoted by the World Bank and implemented by the Cardoso regime.
The third factor influencing the new turn in the MSTs policy of broad social alliances, was the deepening economic crises and the extension and radicalization of demands of social sectors which were previously quiescent or immobilized. Such is the case with small and middle-sized farm owners, nationalist sectors of domestic industry, increasingly restive public employees, and the growing mass of unemployed former private sector industrial workers. The MST-launched Popular Consultation is directed at opening the door to a national convergence among geographically and socially distinct social classes, within and outside of the agrarian sector.
The fourth factor influencing the shift to national coalition politics is precisely the devastating effects of Federal agricultural policy. The free market politics, cheap imports, and relative decline in prices relative to credit and input costs has led to a massive exodus from the countryside of close to 5.5 million people between 1986-96. The rural census of 1986 estimated the rural population as 23.4 million people. By 1996 the rural population had declined to 18 million.
Land concentration and landlessness in the Brazilian countryside has continued to accelerate. In 1970, farming estates of over 1,000 hectares representing .7 of the total farms owned 40 percent of the land; in 1996, 1 percent of the landowners owning farms of over 1,000 hectares owned 45 percent of the land. Over four million farm workers are without land. The decline in rural population, and their flight to the periphery of towns and cities is a major potential constituency for MST organizers, particularly those who retain rural ties. The MST has attempted to organize unemployed rural migrants for land occupations in the adjoining countryside with mixed results. One of the most difficult problems is that most of the land closest to the cities is at least partially cultivated, a pretext the government uses to violently dislodge families occupying land. Within the narrowing political limits of what is defined as non-cultivatable land, the MST has perceived the need to engage in politics in order to broaden the basis for land expropriation.
While the MST has turned toward greater involvement in national politics and coalition building at the national level, it has continued to organize and occupy uncultivated estates in the countryside. In the first 6 months of 1999, the MST organized 147 occupations involving over 23,000 families thus keeping the pressure on the Government, in defiance of its market agrarian reform. The MST is following a two-pronged strategy of continuing grassroots organizing in the countryside and political alliances at the national level. The key to the success of the rural-urban alliance is the extension and consolidation of a powerful rural movement that serves both as a point of support for the MST in its national negotiations as well as a catalyst for the urban movements and parties to deepen their own involvement in grassroots organizing.
The MSTs successful mobilizations and effective transformations of landless workers demonstrate that a well-organized, politically conscious, and democratically structured movement can successfully challenge the World Bank-IMF-neoliberal agenda. The success of combining legal and direct action tactics in the context of building public support and social allies with civil institutions has allowed the MST to become the central focus of opposition to the Cardoso regime. The retreat of the traditional Left parties and trade unions is less a product of structural changes in the economy and more the result of their internal political and organizational deficiencies.
The objective conditions in Brazil have been ripe for mass political action. Nowhere is this more evident than in the countryside, where declining incomes, liberalized trade policies, and increasing interest rates have devastated producers, small farmers, and forced landless workers from the countryside. The growth of landless workers, the decline of small farmer agriculture, and the expansion of large landed estates have provided a propitious terrain for the MST to expand its influence and heighten its appeal. Its well-organized and successful land occupations and subsequent organization of viable and productive agricultural cooperatives has attracted favorable public attention, evidenced in opinion polls in the major cities.
The failure of the Cardoso regime to come to terms with the MST has led it down the road of closer links with right-wing parties and landlord organizations. Its commitment to the neoliberal agenda has led it to dismantle the previous legal, political framework, which provided a modicum of reform in the countryside. The escalation of the counter-reform efforts of the Cardoso regime have in turn provoked a radical turn in the MSTs strategyfrom a social to a socio-political movement; from a primarily rural sector organization toward a coalition partner of major urban movements and parties.
As J. Yves Martin argues, Cardosos strategy of marketization is accompanied by the militarization of the countryside in a mutually complementary and highly conflictual escalation of political confrontation. This was graphically represented in the pages of the Financial Times: side by side were these two articles, one entitled Brazil Eases Captial Curbs to Lure Foreign Investment, the other entitled Three (Police Officials) Cleared of Brazilian Killing. Cardosos policies of appealing to foreign capital is closely linked to his policy of state cutbacks and controlling labor, which in turn entails greater repression, which inevitably entails greater impunity for the repressive officials. Cardoso the modernizer has become deeply enmeshed in the web of traditional oligarchic politics: foreign giveaways, landlord alliances, regressive social policies, and military repression.
The weakening and decline of the Cardoso regime offers great opportunities for the MST to politically capitalize on the new situation. The fundamental problem is the weak and fragmented nature of the urban movements and parties with which it seeks to unify forces. What is clear is that the MST has recognized the limits of movement politics at the local level, even as it has up to now scored impressive successes. The question is whether it can be as successful in organizing a national political force in the murky waters of urban parliamentary and trade union clientelistic politics. Z
James Petras teaches sociology at SUNY, Binghamton is a specialist on Latin America.