The series of four reports presents three experiences of countryside schools in MST settlements that are exemplary in teaching: Piauí, Pará and Paraná. These schools are among the two thousand that resist the difficulties faced in rural areas, such as long distances, training, lack of infrastructure and prejudice, and break with the imagery that the rural schools are backward. Brasil de Fato talked to educators, students, settled families and the MST about education, and brings perspectives on the challenges of these schools in the Bolsonaro government.

Chapter 1: How the rural schools that are grabbing Bolsonaro’s attention function

Imagine that you live many kilometers from the city, and you, along with other boys and girls, want to study but no school exists. You and the families in your community get together collectively and build one; you get authorization and support from the government, and educators in the community itself become part of the everyday education process. This is how the schools that serve landless children and teens in the Brazilian countryside are born. By occupying unproductive land, one of the principal concerns of the Landless Rural Worker’s Movement (MST) is assuring the right to education of peasant families.

For example, this was the case of the Bernardo Sabino School, on the Palmares settlement in Luzilândia, North Piauí state. The settlement members themselves started teaching the children to read and write in a straw shed, and 20 years later it has become a regional example for quality education.

 “In 1997 when the encampment was established, we looked for those with the highest level of education. I had only a high school education. We started to teach the children and after three years, the school gained legal status. However, the teachers in the municipal network refused to teach in the settlement. We had to organize an upper-level course in another state. We returned to the little school with the proposal to teach in a manner more focused on rural education,” recalls Ildener Pereira de Carvalho, a settlement member and teacher in the school, which is 240 kilometers from the state capital Teresina.

Today there is an intention of a more direct attack on the offer of education in the countryside, especially that offer that is organized by groups that keep alive the education in the countryside like a modality.



One of the first challenges of the families was to obtain support from the government for the construction of the school spaces, as currently the classes are held in a brick building. However, the infrastructure in rural areas needs to be understood in context. In the south of the country, in the settlement Ele Vive I in the state of Paraná, the Municipal Rural School of Work and Knowledge has classrooms that are made of wood, but the involvement of teachers is the largest and most important factor; the learning process happens independent of the infrastructure conditions that are different from those in the cities. 

 “The school is entirely built of wood and built by our own settlement members. When the families arrive at a place they get organized and build classrooms. The structure is still precarious; the children deserve better structures, but this doesn’t impede the work getting done within the pedagogic guidelines that the municipality requires for rural education,” notes José Carlos de Jesus Lisboa, director of the school.

The concept of rural education was formulated from an initiative of popular rural movements, which started pressuring the State for specific public policies for non-urban populations. Until then, the rural schools had been scrapped and were not assisted by the public sector. Besides the MST, other groups such as the National Confederation of Agricultural Workers (CONTAG), the Small Agriculturalists Association (MPA) and movements of forest peoples such as indigenous groups, quilombolas (Afro-Brazilian communities of slave descendants), and riverside-dwelling peoples fought for the right to education.

 It is necessary to demystify that the rural schools are of the movement, because they are not. The schools are public and maintained by the state or municipality.



“The families who had been arriving at the settlements since the 1980s started to understand that it wasn’t sufficient to just fight for land, to be able to plant, to survive, but rather it was necessary to fight for other fundamental public policies for the development of these territories,” explained Erivan Hilario, who is from the national coordination of the MST within the education sector. This was how groups from the countryside contributed to the effectiveness of policies, and also condemned the closing of rural schools in the 1990s. Today education in rural areas is guaranteed by law.

 “Rural education was achieved in Brazil through social and peasant movements as a specific formal education modality in our legislation. The LDB, the Law of Guidelines and Bases of National Education, the national education council resolutions and the National Education Plan all recognize the rights of peasant populations, riverside dwelling peoples, forest peoples, to have education offered that is adequate for their living conditions, their territories, and above all else to be a law guaranteed in our legislation,” explained the professor of public policies of the UFABC (Federal University of ABC), Salomão Ximenes.

In 2010, ex-president Lula da Silva signed a regulation by decree for public policies directed towards rural areas. The schools installed in settlements and encampments don’t belong to the movement, but rather are public facilities tied to the states and municipalities, just like other rural schools. More than 200,000 students access primary school in the over 2,000 public schools constructed in encampments and settlements that serve children, adolescents, and adults. These schools follow the rules of the departments of education, but they have the peculiarities of each region, depending on the territory where they are located.

According to the Coordinator of the Group of Rural Education Studies and Research at the Federal University of São Carlos, Luiz Bezerra, it is important to understand that these schools were born out of the fight for the right to quality public education, and they don’t belong to the movement, but rather are representative of the demand for education in rural areas.  

 “It is important to debunk the idea that rural schools belong to the movement, because they don’t. The schools are public and maintained by the state or municipality. The state or municipality chooses the teachers, and the movement doesn’t interfere with the school. Even when the school is in the settlement, it’s not the movement that assigns the teachers.

The number of schools in the countryside has significantly decreased in the last ten years. According to the Education Census, carried out by the National Institute for Education Studies and Research (Anísio Teixeira, INEP/MEC), in 2008 there were more than 85,000 rural public schools in Brazil. In ten years this number fell to just over 56,000 schools. According to a study by the Federal University of Santa Catarina, the decrease is even larger, with a registration of 38,000 schools closing between 2002 and 2017.

 “This number could be larger. These statistics are currently misleading. Because there is a law that makes it hard to close a school and requires an agreement within the community, they simply suspend the activities at the school but don’t close it. And when activities are just suspended, the school doesn’t appear in the closure statistics. There is the argument that at any point the classes could be resumed, but there aren’t sufficient students,” reaffirms the researcher in regard to the statistics from the INEP.

The researcher explains how there was a rural exodus that justified the closures in recent years but attributed the reduction in student costs to be larger in the countryside than in the city. The law that makes it difficult to close rural indigenous and quilombola schools was approved in 2014, by then president Dilma Rousseff.

The first achievement is education as a right of the people of the countryside. The countryside has always been seen as a place of backwardness, where social inequality is quite pronounced, delayed as opposed to modernity, as a place where people have no schooling knowledge



Settlement member Gilda Maria Fernandes Pascoal, who is 50 years old, has two children who study in the Municipal Rural School of Work and Knowledge located on the Eli Vive I settlement, in the Londrina municipality of the state of Paraná. She records the satisfaction she has when her children, José and Daniel, arrive home, bringing what they learned. “My child José, with everything he works on in class, arrives at home and talks about it with us, for example healthy nutrition. He wasn’t keen on eating vegetables, but after the classes he started eating them. He quickly picked up on his literature, mathematics, history, and Portuguese lessons.”

The school has 185 students from 4-11 years old. In the same area, other than the state primary school, another state middle school serves youth from the 6th year until high school. Gilda says she is satisfied with the schooling her children receive because it helps develop a sense of critical thinking, valuing their rural origins.

According to the professor of the UFABC, rural education has been suffering a variety of significant attacks in recent years. He comments that before the coup of 2016, there were “more subtle attacks,” given the lack of effective support on the part of state and municipal governments, and afterwards there began to appear a “stronger incentive to close down classrooms.”

 “Now there is an effort to directly attack the availability of rural education, above all else the availability that is organized by the rural worker movement and quilombolas as spaces of resistance and defense of their livelihood and production strategies. There is a need to strengthen public policies through this way of teaching and resistance of these peoples, who in practice ensure that rural education stays alive.” One report from Record News accused the MST of socialist indoctrination of children. Since the electoral campaign last year, President Jair Bolsonaro, who has already labeled the MST movement as one of his enemies, has already emphasized that he will end the rural schools that are in areas where landless farmers live and plant food for their own subsistence and sell agro-ecological products.

 “There’s this false idea that the MST acts as a parallel state. All the schools that exist in settlements and encampments are public and we fight to have them stay this way. The MST became a model for fighting for public schools in their territories, for formulating an educational project connected to the reality in the countryside in a manner that won it the UNICEF prize for the best educational project,” commented an MST organizer.

Schools in settlements have been exemplary in the quality of schooling especially in Portuguese Language and History, and currently have excelled in education research. Through the Cuban method of ‘Yes I Can,’ which the MST promotes in partnership with the state of Maranhão, more than 50,000 adults have already learned to read and write.

Chapter 2: The leading role of schools in settlements breaks down biases about teaching in the countryside

Knowledge of the land, connected to the territory where the students live, is as important as mathematics, Portuguese, history and other subjects in the curriculum. This is the understanding of education in rural schools: knowledge must also serve peasant life.

In the more than 2,000 public schools built in settlements and encampments, teaching is also oriented by the National Curricular Common Base (BNCC) - a document that defines the essential contents in schools throughout Brazil. However, for rural education, content connected to the student’s own reality is also valued, such as agroecology, healthy and poison-free food and values such as cooperation, solidarity and cultural appreciation.

A school in the countryside considered to be "rebellious" because of the hard work of not shutting up and fight for what it believes in education, this school in the countryside that came first in Ideb [Indice of Development of Basic Education], with grades greater than schools in the municipality itself are considered good and large in quotation marks



This pedagogy, which proposes a vision that is emancipatory, critical and connected to the student’s reality, was praised by the educator Paulo Freire. Knowledge that Gilda wants to help pass on to other young people. Currently a cleaning assistant at the school, she is about to accomplish her dream of becoming an educator. She is in the fourth year of her undergraduate course in rural education at the Federal University of the Southern Border, on the campus of Laranjeiras do Sul, in the “8 de junho” settlement. At midyear, she will present the Course Completion Work (TCC), with the theme of racial quotas.

"It's always been a dream since I was young. And my life has always been connected with school. I have worked serving meals, as a teacher, as a secretary, but my dream has always been to study and now I am accomplishing this dream", she said.

Historically, it was considered that those who have peasant origins are incapable of learning, of developing our space, especially with the school in the settlement. They use the term landless, which for us is a source of pride, pejoratively



Two schools in settlements in Piauí stood out for the quality of their teaching. In 2017, they achieved the highest levels of basic education in the municipality, according to the Development Index in Basic Education (IDEB): Sabino Bernardo School, in the Palmares settlement, municipality of Luzilândia; and the Amadeus Carvalho School in the Marrecas settlement, in São João do Piauí.

For the farmer Nemoel Klessler Costa Silva, settler and the director of the Bernardo Sabino School Unit, one of the differences of the unit is the autonomy of teachers in the teaching process, which he sees as essential for student learning. However, he points out that there is a lot of bias around settlement schools.

"A rural school is considered by many to be combative, because of our philosophy and our work. This happens because we do not just keep quiet and go along; we fight for what we believe. So, oftentimes, we are considered rebellious, this "small rural school", in the interior of the country, which came in first in the IDEB, with higher grades than other schools in the municipality that are considered good but came in lower", the director comments.

According to the school teacher Ildener Pereira de Carvalho, it is difficult to admit that a "small settlement school" has achieved good grades. She adds that this happens because the education practiced in the countryside does not only follow the average curriculum but is connected with the territory where these boys and girls live.

"Historically, people consider that those who come from the countryside and have peasant origins are unable to learn, to develop our space, especially with the school in the settlement. They use the term landless – which is a source of pride to us - as if it were something pejorative. We teach what will serve us for day-to-day life and our school is the one that best prepares us. People are very resistant to this, because of this culture that understands education as a conservative thing, which they believe is right," says Ildener.

Despite not being publicized or valued by city hall, the performance at IDEB by the school in Piauí caused the community to change its bias against teaching in settlement schools and enrollment in that year increased. According to the director this shows that the work is on the right track. "The surrounding communities realized this evolution and this actually changed the distorted view that people had. Parents would come in saying: “We thought that here was one thing and we have seen that the school has grown, has advanced and I want my son to study here," he says.

The Bernardo Sabino School serves 205 students, from preschool to young people and adults, who are not only settlers, but also from surrounding rural communities. In the settlement where it is located, the school produces and sells, for family consumption, products such as beans, corn, vegetables, watermelon, fish, chicken and cattle for meat and milk. Also, fruit and crafts.

The educator Ildener has three children and all of them studied at the settlement school. One of them is Gabriel Luís Carvalho Silva, 20, who is going to attend medical school in Venezuela. Gabriel believes that one of the differences between the rural and urban schools is that, in the latter, there is a lack of cooperation, something that is present in the peasants’ daily lives. "I did not like to study in the city. It's very different, it seems that the teachers and students are each in their own world, there is not so much working in groups,” he recalls.

When we see the students with the prospect of continuing their studies, of going to college, we demonstrate that the work is of a quality and that it rewards all efforts and all the difficulties that we encounter on a daily basis



Besides this, the former student noted that in the settlement school, learning goes beyond the classroom and explores the areas related to culture and the land itself. For him, it is necessary to deconstruct the idea that the teaching in a rural school is not good. "I think that the rural school is not backwards, because if it were, I would not have passed two university admission exams, even when the major part of my training was in the countryside."

The teacher’s son plans to work as a doctor in the rural area since these professionals are lacking in the region to serve the population. "After I graduate, I intend to return to the countryside, because I will never forget where I came from. I think the countryside is a better place to work, where you have humbler people", he explains.

Gabriel will attend medical school through the Project Latin American School of Medicine (ELAM). Since 2005, more than 100 landless doctors have been trained in Cuba and Venezuela. They work in 16 Brazilian states in the Unified Health System (SUS) and serve mainly the poorest population in rural and outlying areas. In addition, two thousand settlers are attending or have completed technical and higher courses.

Professor Márcio José Barbosa, from the Municipal Rural School of Work and Knowledge, in the Ele Vive I settlement, began to teach in traveling schools in Paraná, which are  aimed at ensuring the schooling of children in settlements – in the initial phase of the occupation, until the land is regularized by the government. He says that, despite the difficulties, it is gratifying to see a future for the children and youth in the settlements.

"In my whole experience as a teacher in elementary and middle school, we see the desire of students to continue their studies, to enroll in college and we show society that we are doing a task with quality, guaranteeing the right of education for children. This is the reward for all the effort and difficulty we have to deal with on a daily basis", says the educator, who is also the father of two boys studying at the settlement school.

Despite the progress made, one of the biggest challenges in the settlements is still to promote higher education, since universities are mostly in cities. 501 families live in the Ele Vive I and Ele Vive II areas, in the settlement where the Municipal Rural School of Work and Knowledge has been operating for ten years. At the site, they produce various agroecological crops such as sweet potatoes, corn, rice, beans, coffee, vegetables and they also have milk and soy productions.

Chapter 3: Long distances and training of educators pose challenges for rural schools

Dawn with sun or rain defines the routine of children and adolescents who study in rural schools. Many of them still face many kilometers of precarious roads and many hours to reach the schools.

The Maria Salete Moreno Municipal School, in Paraupebas (PA), serves 289 children in early childhood education from three to five years of age. The school is located in the Palmares 2 settlement and receives children from 11 other communities. The furthest live about 42 kilometers from the school, and travel time can reach two hours.

Deusamar Sales Matos, the director, figures that the children arrive tired and, if the day is very rainy, the students have a hard time getting to the classes. "On days of heavy rains they miss class. It's not every day that the bus gets there. We do not yet have a school calendar that can avoid the period of heavy rains from January through March. For the children it’s very tiring.”

Difficulties like these occur in all regions of the country. The educator Márcio José Barbosa, from the Municipal School of Countryside Labor and Knowledge that is in the Eli Vive I settlement in Paraná, agrees that the condition of the roads is also one of the great problems there. "There are days that the teachers themselves have a hard time because of the impassable conditions of the roads, especially on rainy days. This is what the authorities should take care of,” he says.

To get to school, students go by different means: boat, bicycle, broken-down buses and even by foot, as explained by Professor Luiz Bezerra Neto, Department of Education, Federal University of São Carlos (UFSCar) and member of the Group of Studies and Research on Education in the Field (Gepec).

"The question is not only whether it’s good-quality transport or not. Roads are not necessarily well cared for, so the students suffer from drought, dust, and in the rainy season because of the potholes on the roads. In addition, these students often spend more time getting to school than in the classroom, which causes several problems. The student can spend up to seven hours on the school bus to get to four hours of class, then he arrives exhausted. This is a small picture of our rural schools," he says.

The researcher believes that the Light for All program implemented in 2003, was an advance for the rural schools but in recent years the government did not make these policies a priority. "Many rural schools have received electric light and computer equipment. However, as these units are maintained by the municipality, there is not necessarily a convergence with what was done and with the availability of funds from the Federal Government. Many schools closed because there was the understanding that there could only be one nucleus or they could study in the city."

Some children travel  42 km in order to arrive at the school, in days with rain they  miss class by the poor conditions of the roads



In addition, the reduced number of students and the work with multi-room classrooms, in which different age groups and one teacher are grouped, also make it difficult to advance the right to education. For Neto, the challenge in these cases is teacher training. "The problem is not content, but methodology. The teacher does not have the proper training to work with these multi-session rooms, if they could make better use of their time."

Director Deusamar Sales Matos from the Pará school, points out that continuing education is needed mainly for teachers who come from the city and are not familiar with the reality of education in the countryside. "Many teachers need to have training so they can get involved in the lives of the rural people. Because if they choose to work with us, they cannot have a relationship of just teaching and then leaving."

Partnerships between universities and rural communities can strengthen rural education. This is what has been happening in a municipality of Piauí, in the city of José de Freitas. The Federal Institute of Piauí, the city hall and unions of rural workers and family agriculture have come together to enable farmers to implement low-cost technologies so that workers and their children can remain in the countryside.

José de Santos Moura, the son of a farmer and now the general director of the Federal Institute of Piauí, José de Freitas campus, which is 48 kilometers from Teresina, capital of Piauí, speaks about the importance of having such a partnership between university and community, which happened two years ago.

"The partnerships are fundamental to reaching the communities, because sometimes they do not have transportation, they do not have the resources to make the activities and extension courses possible." This is the only way to transform education, and the goal is to bring low-cost knowledge, technology and innovation so that these communities can develop and stay in their localities. In the cities, there’s not enough work for everyone.”

Located in the countryside, the Institute is focused on agricultural research, with technical courses in agroecology and agriculture. It benefits about 600 families from rural communities.

Chapter 4: Bolsonaro’s Proposal for rural education is aligned with agribusiness

Letícia Maria Fortes de Campo always wanted to read the world.  Her eyes scanned the labels on children’s products and children’s books. Because of this she was able to learn to read and write quickly in her first year of school.  Leticia, now 10 years old, is the daughter of agrarian reform settlers who studies in the Municipal Rural School of Work and Knowledge, 60 kilometers from Londrina in Paraná.

Her favorite subject is Portuguese.  She tells us that she loves her writing classes and that as inspiration she uses real life stories.  The text that she most enjoyed doing, for example, was a story of a teacher, Cidinha, who taught at her school before Leticia was even born.  Leticia told about how Cidinha died defending the right to education, and how her struggle serves as a source of inspiration because of the strength that she showed as a woman.  “I like to write about people who have made a mark on history.  I wrote about a teacher who struggled for the rights of educators, but who died in a car accident when she was returning from the city.  She was a woman who fought hard and her story is very beautiful.” 

Now, however, the education and the stories of Leticia, Cidinha, and thousands of children who live in the settlements and rural camps are threatened.   But this time the attacks are not coming from the hired guns of agribusiness bosses, but rather from the federal government itself.  Since his electoral campaign president Jair Bolsonaro (PSL) already attacked the rural schools affirming that he would close those schools.

In an interview with Veja magazine, the Special Secretary for Land Issues, Luiz Antônio Nabhan Garcia, affirmed that the government is planning to close the rural schools of the Landless Workers Movement (MST), and called the rural public schools “factories that turn out little dictators.”

In addition, the Bolsonaro government has identified the MST as a criminal organization and defends the right of large landowners to use firearms if their unproductive properties are occupied.

Even before Bolsonaro’s election, education in rural areas had already suffered significant attacks, especially after the coup of 2016 that removed Dilma Rousseff from the presidency. The primary losses have been in the quality of education, the reduction of funds destined for rural schools, and disinvestment in teacher training.  Now the teachers are facing the criminalization of their educational project.

Erivan Hilário, from the MST’s education sector, explains that there is an intentional policy to close schools in rural areas that have not been in alignment with the positions advocated by agribusiness interests. 

"The project or model of development that this government defends, and that was even introduced previously by the Temer government, is a predatory model that destroys nature and that model has a name:  it is agribusiness.  It is the most perverse and the most backward model in terms of human development.  This government does not respect nature, as they are increasingly allowing the use of more and more toxic agrochemicals and pesticides that create a countryside without people and without life. And in this development model there is no room for rural schools,” Erivan protests.

The leader adds that one of the first victories of the peasants was to be able to change the vision of rural workers who began to recognize that they too had a right to an education. 

For Salomão Ximenes, professor of public policy at the Federal University of the ABC in Sao Paulo, the current government threatens to censure and close off peasant, quilombola, indigenous, river-dwellers and canyon dweller communities to keep them from accessing  educational opportunities through which they might become able to affirm their rights and their way of life. 

“There is an attempt to impose, even by force, a vision of education that they call neutral, or apolitical, but that looks to silence any political-pedagogical perspectives and that encourages  questioning, as is done in many of the rural schools. Above all, those that are organized by the social movements who criticize the dominant model of production, agrochemical use, and large monocultures - in other words the agribusiness model,” Ximenes analyzes.

In accordance with the MST’s data they have already held 320 courses through the National Program of Education in Agrarian Reform (PRONERA) in 40 institutions and 165,000 educators have been trained in primary and middle school education, technical courses, and higher education level courses in  agronomy, agroecology, veterinary medicine, history, law, social services, and cooperatives. Currently, there are more than 100 courses with graduate certification that are delivered in cooperation with public universities across the nation.

The PRONERA was a high watermark for education in rural areas, because it made it possible to elevate the level of educational attainment among peasant families and it helped to train educators who would be able to work in the territories/areas in which they lived.  The program, which supports educational projects related to development in agrarian reform areas, is one of those that is at risk of extinction according to the coordinator of the educational sector of the movement [MST].

 “Concretely there is no position that the PRONERA is over, but one of the ways to end a policy that combats social injustice and inequality is to simply not fund it, not allocate resources to those initiatives,” he explains.

Other attacks have also come from the mass media outlets who are aligned with Bolsonaro, as was the case with the reporting on TV Record (a station owned by a rightwing evangelical politician supportive of Bolsonaro’s policies) that attacked the MST schools and the Landless children’s programs, because it is known that the children are an active part of the movement, and the report accused the rural schools of ideological indoctrination.   

At the same time, the series of reports entitled “Knowledge in the Countryside” documented that in these public schools, even those on agrarian reform settlements, offer lessons based upon the curricula of the city schools, but also some lessons that are related to the rural areas.

 The educator, Márcio José Barbosa, defends the notion that schools fulfill an essential role in guaranteeing access to education in rural areas.  “We do not indoctrinate anyone. We want the children to learn at the highest level possible.  I saw the report on Record TV and I did not agree at all with that report. It is a prejudiced report that supports the desire of the government to criminalize the movement and we must do a counterpoint to it.  What we do is to work on the content and guarantee the schooling of the children on the settlements and in the encampments,” says the professor of the Municipal Rural School of Work and Knowledge, in Parana.

Bolsonaro has already stated that he could transform the schooling in the rural areas to a modality based on distance learning.   For a researcher in education in rural areas, of the Federal University of Sao Carlos, Sao Paulo (UFSCar), Luiz Bezerra Neto, distance learning is only a viable alternative for students who have difficulty with transportation in areas without easy transport, such as the river-dwelling children in the interior of the Amazon region. Although it is exactly in those areas where the conditions do not exist to be able to establish distance learning due to lack of electricity and lack of internet. He thinks that the Bolsonaro government’s project is to destroy the public schools as a pathway to prevent more setbacks and to prevent popular social mobilization.  “Much struggle is needed to impede the criminalization of the social movements who are those who struggle for better public policies, and above all for education in the rural areas. I do not see many possibilities for improvement with those folks in the Ministry of Education. Because it seems that their objective is to destroy education, not only education in rural areas, but any type of education that encourages people to think, and to have at the very least a quality school,” the specialist assets.   

For this report we contacted the Ministry of Education seeking information about their proposed programs with regard to  rural education, as well as the challenges they are  facing, and what is being planned for the area of rural education by the Boslonaro  government, but  we did not receive any answer from the Ministry prior to the publishing deadline. 


Reporting: Anelize Moreira, Editing: Pedro Nogueira, Aline Carrijo, Katarine Flor, Tayguara Ribeiro and Daniel Giovanaz, Photography: Escolas do Campo Graphic Arts: Gabriela Lucena Audio: André Paroche



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Translation: Maria Aguiar, Bruno Costa, Jonah Kone, Charlotte Casey