History of the MST

*translated from www.mst.org.br on February 12, 2003

Brazil’s Landless Worker's Movement was born from the concrete, isolated struggles for land that rural workers were developing in southern Brazil at the end of the 1970's. Brazil was going through a politically opening process towards the end of the military regime. Brazilian capitalism was not able to alleviate the existing contradictions that blocked progress in the countryside. Land concentration, the expulsion of the poor from rural areas and the modernization of agriculture persisted, while a mass exodus to the cities and the policies of colonization entered a crisis period. In this context, various concrete struggles slowly began to surface. From these developments, the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra, or the Movement of Rural Landless Workers was born and structured with the Encruzilhada Natalino encampment in Ronda Alta, Rio Grande do Sul and the Landless Farmer Movement of Western Paraná (Mastro) as its origins.

The MST was officially founded in 1984, during the 1st Meeting of the Landless Rural Workers in Cascavel, Paraná. The following year, the MST officially organized itself at the national level at the 1st National Congress of the Landless.

This version of the story makes the MST's beginnings seem simple, but the vision for an MST goes back before 1984 and involves much more than just one person’s ideas. This history begins during the end of the 1970s, when a military dictatorship ruled Brazil. The country lived under the manner of the “Brazilian Miracle", but for the rural poor, it was more like the “Brazilian Plague": unemployment and migration of workers from rural to urban areas. The intense mechanization of agriculture, which was introduced under the military governments, left no place for salaried farmworkers, renters or sharecroppers. There were rural workers, however, who believed that they could organize themselves and defend their rights to work the land. As a result, on October 7, 1979, landless farmers from the state of Rio Grande do Sul occupied the Macali land in Ronda Alta. At the same time, similar struggles were taking place in other Southern states such as Mato Grosso and São Paulo. In each state, rural workers were carrying out occupations and news of these occupations spread across the country.Brazilian society supported these actions and the landless occupations became part of the push for democracy throughout the country.

The MST, however, is not the first movement in the struggle for land in Brazil, nor is it the first in Latin America. Much earlier, farming families had organized themselves in search of land and better living and working conditions. We can cite the following examples: from 1950 to 1964, the Peasant Leagues (Ligas Camponesas) and MASTER (Movimento dos Agricultores Sem Terra or the Landless Farmers’ Movement); and at the end of the 19th century, Canudos and Contestado. The Mexican Revolution during the beginning of the 20th century and the Cuban Revolution of 1959, both of which carried forth the idea of “land for those who work it.These and other struggles inspire the MST to continue fighting for a Brazil with more equitable land ownership - "A Brazil Without Latifúndios" (large land tracts with a single owner).

Little by little, the MST began to understand that winning land was important, but not enough. They also need access to credit, housing, technical assistance, schools, healthcare and other needs that a landless family must have met. Somehow landless families needed to survive without very much to start with. In addition, the MST discovered that the struggle was not just against the Brazilian latifúndio, but also against the neoliberal economic model. From this initial work, the MST went on to organize more encampments and occupations of large farms (or fazendas) and headquarters of public and multinational entities, as well as to eliminate fields of genetically modified crops, to carry out marches, hunger strikes and other political actions. One such event was the National March for Employment, Justice and Agrarian Reform, where marchers simultaneously left various states and arrived in the capital city of Brasília on April 17, 1997 (exactly one year after the massacre of 19 workers in Eldorado dos Carajás, Pará). Another example is the 4th National Congress also held in Brasília, where 11,000 landless Brazilians participated in August 2000. These events are still in the minds of the Brazilian people, in a time when agrarian reform is associated with the false promises of the federal government.


By the MST - July 7, 2009

26 Years of the Landless Workers’ Movement (MST)

MST 25 Years

Twenty-six years ago, in Cascavel (PR), hundreds of rural workers decided to found a peasant social movement, autonomous, which fought for land, agrarian reform and the social changes necessary for Brazil. They were squatters affected by dams, migrants, sharecroppers, small farmers ... Landless rural workers, who were deprived of their right to produce food. Driven by an authoritarian project for the Brazilian countryside, led by the military dictatorship which then fenced rights and freedoms of the whole society. A design that heralded the "modernization" of the countryside when, in fact,  it encouraged the massive use of pesticides and mechanization, based on abundant (and unique to the landowners) rural credit; while it increases the control of agriculture in the hands of large agribusiness conglomerates.

But it would be unfair to say that we started there. The seed for the emergence of the MST may have already been launched when the first indigenous people rose up against the commodification and appropriation by the Portuguese invaders of that which was common and collective: the land and nature. Imagine the MST today without the examples of Sepe Tiarajú [Indigenous leader] and Guarani community [Indigenous tribe]in defense of their land without Evils. Or collective resistance of the quilombos [runaway slave communities] or the Canudos [free community of landless that flourished in the late 19th century]? The wrath of organized Contestado [war between settlers and landowners, 1912-1916, in the south of Brazil]? Imagine our movement without the learning and experience of the Peasant Leagues and the Movement of Landless Farmers. For all these reasons, we feel heirs and successors of their struggles.

And we are also part of the struggles that forged us at our birth. Militant trade unionism, political freedom and the Rights-Now in 1984, when, in our first conference we said that "Without land reform there is no democracy." And with this momentum, we strive also to build the new constituency, adopted in 1988 when we won, among other victories, Articles 184 and 186 [see Need and Basis for Agrarian Reform], which guarantee the expropriation of lands that do not fulfill their social function.

The slogans of the National Congress of the MST - held every five years - reflect a collective, the struggles and projects of the Movement. They also reflect the time at which our country is passing, and the situation of peasant working class and its challenges.

Early on, we know the delay, the anger and violence of the landowners. An anger that has claimed the lives of over a thousand workers and supporters of agrarian reform in the last ten years. And so, worthy comrades led us... Father Josimo, Dorcelina Folador, Roseli Nunes, Volkswagen Beetle, Doctor, Oziel, Antonio Tavares ...

A plantation that was not ashamed to appear publicly and officially as the Democratic Rural Union (UDR) advocating armed violence against the agrarian reform and any and all who fought for it. At the same time, sticking to their interests in Congress with the rural landowner caucus.

Soon we also learned that the interests of landowners in the state apparatuses were their best tools of repression or omission. It was thus with the first National Plan for Agrarian Reform, in the Sarney government, where only 6% of the settlements target was met - about 90 000 households - still, thanks to pressure from land occupations. And when they did not resort to bureaucracy and lack of political will to derail the land reform, the state either refrained  from or encouraged violence. Thus were the years of Fernando Collor as president, with violent evictions, killings and arbitrary arrests. 

Our answer was in the organization, the expansion of the Movement nationally, the advance in the production area. As said in the motto of our Second Congress in 1990, "Occupy, Resist and Produce".

In these worst moments of repression, since our first encampments, we knew the value of solidarity.  Solidarity expressed in an organized manner through the actions of trade unions, political parties, the Pastoral Land Commission [the Catholic Church’s land reform commission] or often anonymous deeds of thousands of supporters and sympathizers of our struggle. As the hundred thousand people who received us in Brasilia, on arrival of the National March for Agrarian Reform in 1997. At the time, we remembered one year anniversary of the murder of nineteen companions in Eldorado de Carajás, Pará.  This  crime remains unpunished to this day.

We were forged, therefore, inside this principle of solidarity. Realizing that Agrarian Reform is not just a fight for benefits for the peasants, but a way to improve the lives of those living in cities, mainly by reducing the swelling urban population and with the production of healthy food affordable to workers. We expressed this idea in our Third Congress (1995), with the slogan "Land Reform. A Fight for All." And with these fighters for the people, we understood that land reform could not be isolated from other policy changes that the Brazilian people needed. That was necessary to build a Popular Project for Brazil. And that our contribution to this more just and sovereign country was in the following declarations of our Congress, "Agrarian Reform. For a Brazil Without Large Estates "(2000).

That slogan was embodied in another Brazil that we wanted to build every day. It's in more than 400 associations and cooperatives that work collectively to produce food without pesticides and without GMOs. It is in 96  agribusinesses that improve income and conditions of work in the countryside, but also offer quality food and low prices in the cities. Another country we have built with 2 000 public schools in encampments and settlements that guarantee access to education for over 160,000 landless children and adolescents or literacy for50,000 adults and youth in recent years. Or, in more than 100 undergraduate courses in partnership with universities throughout Brazil.

The country we want to build for everyone is already present today when we can be proud in saying that no child goes hungry in the settlements of Agrarian Reform. A reality for 350,000 families who conquered the land and rescued her dignity throughout these 25 years.

It is true that we have done much. But other challenges that we didn’t even dream of were put in front of us. Agriculture changed dramatically over the eight years of neo-liberalism of Fernando Henrique Cardoso. And little of this logic was changed in the Lula government. The mechanisms of state for agriculture were being dismantled one by one: the control of prices, supply, research, technical assistance. If before they were accessible to a few, today don’t even exist. Neo-liberalism in agriculture was paving the way for a few foreign companies - all owned by foreign banks - would take to control of our agriculture. From then on,  the seeds were commercialized. They incorporated lands, agribusinesses, supermarkets ... defined food prices in the stock market and again turned  our country into a large colony.

Instead of food, the lands are being occupied by sugar cane - for fuel in the U.S. for soybeans - to feed animals in Europe and cellulose - paper worldwide. Monoculture took and redivided our land, inflated land prices, reduced food production and generated a massive world food crisis.

A scenario that repeats itself - without changing companies, only monocultures - on five continents. Evicting peasants and affecting food supplies for workers in cities.

Thus, the struggle for agrarian reform was becoming more international, because the obstacles to the democratization of access to land were not only in Brazil - the state or the actions of the landlords - but they were also part of the movement of international finance capital. And the answer to the globalization of misery, came in the form of globalization of the struggle, through the Via Campesina peasant movement that brings together all around the world in land reform and food sovereignty, i.e. the right of people - not markets – to decide what to produce and the ability to guarantee food for all.

So, this unproductive landowner joined with the international financial capital. But they did not lose their violent and oppressive nature. This nature is expressed, for example, when militias of the Swiss company Syngenta Seeds murdered Valmir Motta (Keno) in Paraná. Keno and many other families denounced the transgenic contamination of the Iguaçu National Park and wanted to build an area of ecological production there. And when women of Via Campesina were suppressed when they denounced the monoculture of cellulose in the south. Violence that indigenous, quilombolas and landless witnessed daily at the hands of Vale do Rio Doce  [second largest mining company in the world, privatized in 1997] in their communities, destroying the environment in an expedited manner to send more profits to the pockets in the northern hemisphere.

To finally realize a true agrarian reform in our country, we must now face agribusiness and the interests of international capital.  In order to realize land reform we advocate the liberation of these lands to produce food,  to create decent living conditions in both the countryside and the city, to build a society in which our people take their destiny in their hands and decide their path. And that is why our Fifth Congress slogan affirms the fight for "Agrarian Reform for Social Justice and Popular Sovereignty"

Completing 26 years and becoming the oldest existing peasant movement in Brazil's history has meaning. It reaffirms the values of solidarity, reaffirms the commitment to a more just and egalitarian society, keeps alive the legacy of thousands of those fighting for the people, practices daily the ability to be outraged and take action to transform, doesn’t lose the value of  study and continuing to learn. And, fundamentally, reaffirms our commitment to organizing the rural poor.

It's time to look ahead. Realize that much has been done and that there is much to do until a real and effective land reform is carried out in our country and that all human beings can have a decent life