Occupying Schools, Occupying Land
by Fernanda Alcântara
Over the past 35 years, the Landless Rural Workers Movement (MST) has been known worldwide for organizing thousands of landless workers to occupy large estates in order to earn the right to land, health, education and to develop production practices for healthy and agroecological food.
Professor and researcher Rebecca Tarlau has spent the last ten years researching MST actions aimed at connecting the struggle for agrarian reform with an emancipatory educational program. According to the author, the Movement developed pedagogical practices in public schools, encouraging activism, self-management and collective forms of work. Tarlau is a professor of Education and Labor and Employment Relations at Pennsylvania State University in the USA.
In her book “Occupying Schools, Occupying Land”, Rebecca explores how MST activists implemented the educational program in public schools and universities, reaching hundreds of thousands of students.
In the publication, Rebecca explains the concept of co-management, which highlights the relationship of the MST with the Brazilian state - here understood as a set of organizations, institutions linked to the federal, state and municipal governments, often with contradictory objectives. The intention was to understand this relationship that is established between the MST, as the proponent of a public policy and the Brazilian State, as promoter and maintainer of it, as families occupy land to pressure different governments to redistribute the land to their landless families.
According to Tarlau, the relationship between the social movement and the state is contradictory, since the MST pressures the capitalist state to guarantee the right to public education but also requires it to be an anti-capitalist education, which aims at building another form of society through inclusive, participatory and collective education. MST activists demand not only schools in their communities, but also the right that communities themselves can participate in the management of these schools, with the purpose of promoting organizational, curricular and pedagogical practices that guarantee access to scientific knowledge, but also integral development of the human being. That is, more collective forms of social and economic relations that anticipate the future project of building a socialist society.
Check out the interview with Rebecca Tarlau about her research and the challenges of education in the countryside.
What inspired you to research and write a book about the educational policies of the MST?
The first time I came to Brazil was in 2004. I was doing an exchange with a feminist group in Recife and they used Paulo Freire's pedagogy to conduct popular education courses in their communities and raise political awareness. After this first approach, I decided that I was going to be a popular educator, following Paulo Freire's teachings, and wanted to see how social movements were using this method. The MST is well known for incorporating education as a fundamental part of its social struggle and I decided to do a doctorate to have this opportunity to research the MST. In short, the topic was chosen from Paulo Freire and my passion for popular education, and for understanding that the MST, one of the largest social movements in Latin America, has a very important educational project.
What does your research consist of?
The main focus of the research was how social movements can implement a pedagogical program with socialist initiatives within schools of a capitalist state. I was wondering how the MST was making this relationship of the social movement and the state, and how this proposal was being put into practice in the schools. So I decided to make a comparison between various state and municipal networks and educational programs in different states of Brazil, with different results in each place.
The book is the result of more than ten years of scientific research. What educational places and experiences have you come into contact with in your research?
I started with Rio Grande do Sul, as it was the state where the Movement's educational proposal and Education Sector was born, and for example the Itinerant Schools of the encampments carrying out the struggle for land and the Technical Institute for Training and Research of Agrarian Reform - ITERRA, so, many initiatives with different nuances.
I also wanted to study the differences that occurred in the municipalities, so I took two different municipalities of Pernambuco, one that is in the backwoods of Pernambuco, in Santa Maria da Boa Vista, and another in Zona da Mata, a municipality called Água Preta. These are places where the MST has occupied many properties and has many settlements to this day. In Santa Maria da Boa Vista the MST has made great progress in its educational project, and in Água Preta the Movement has encountered more challenges. So I made this comparison to understand why in the same state, with the MST advocating a similar educational proposition, the challenges are so different.
Then I went to Ceará, because that is a state where high schools are an example of how the MST built up its pedagogical project and how the Movement has been improving over the last decades.
The last case was in the state of São Paulo, at Pontal do Paranapanema, where the MST has won many public schools in the settlements but has never managed to have a co-management system, but it is an example of a very difficult place to transform public schools. Finally, the research compared the public schools of these five public networks, and also at the national level in the Ministry of Education - MEC and the National Institute of Colonization and Agrarian Reform – INCRA.
And what life experiences would you highlight?
When I lived for 7 months in Santa Maria de Boa Vista, Pernambuco, I lived with Edilene, who is an activist in the MST Education Sector, and with Edilene's mother, Dejanira Menezes Mota (Dona Deja). She was like a mother to me, I lived a lot with Dona Deja, we talked a lot, she cooked, and I learned a lot from her. And in 2017 she died suddenly, no one expected and it was very sad. So I wanted to pay tribute to her on behalf of all the people who are part of the movement and who welcomed me in this journey of over 10 years of research. She was not a leader, had no organic task in the MST, but always identified with the causes and represents the basis of the Movement. We are very sad that she passed away and we are always remembering her.
In the book you present how the MST transformed Brazilian education and you make an analysis of the educational experiences within the movement. What findings and conclusions do you share?
The book has several contributions, but I think the main message is against the idea that there can be no relationship between social movements and the state, co-management, because in both social movements and academia there is the idea that you have to contain co-management not to be contaminated with the vices of the state. It's a very strong thesis in academia, but I think it's also hotly debated within social movements. I wanted to show with this book that the MST was able to transform public schools in their settlements and encampments by what I call the “long march within institutions” a Gramsciano concept.
The MST was able to increase its internal, technical and political capacity through co-management, and succeeded in integrating more people into the Movement, especially women, because as the school environment is a feminized sphere, many women entered the movement through education. Thus, the MST has made room for different groups to fight for socialism, so that students may be practicing elements of a socialist project, which I call "prefiguring." I think they are prefiguring a future now, in the present moment. For example, the Florestan Fernandes National School (ENFF) is an example of this socialism being practiced, but it will never be able to reach the majority of MST youth. As these young people from MST go to public schools, then the Movement can put some elements of ENFF into public schools and everyone will have the opportunity to practice elements of the movement's pedagogical program. This increases the internal capacity of the movement. This is the main argument of the book.
Have you launched the book in various universities? What has been the reaction to the work and what are the lessons for educators and researchers?
This semester I launched the book at 14 universities such as the University of New Mexico, Columbia University in New York, University of Texas at Austin, five Canadian universities, the University of Wisconsin at Madison, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Pennsylvania State University, where I teach, and Harvard University, the most famous in the US. Also next semester 10 more book talks have already been scheduled in other universities. In these events, I present an overview of the book, focusing mainly on Chapter 2, which covers the Education Program in Agrarian Reform - PRONERA, the conflicts with the state and the need to carry out political negotiations and struggles for public policies without forgetting that we cannot only depend on negotiating with the state, but that we also carry out transformations with struggles, marches and protests. I talk about PRONERA's experience and Americans are impressed by the transformations caused by the program. In the lectures I highlight the program, give an overview of the MST and end up talking about the current situation in Brazil, which is always something that people are curious about.
And how do you view the current situation?
In the book's epilogue I write a little about this present moment, such as the coup against Dilma (2016) and the situation of the country with Bolsonaro (2018). My point in the epilogue is that Bolsonaro is in power, but he has no power to end the MST, or to end the educational programs of the rural social movements. PRONERA itself has faced many difficulties, but Universities wishing to go ahead and support similar programs will continue to do so because they have autonomy. The programs linked to the rural education degree cannot be destroyed by Bolsonaro because they are now institutionalized within more than 40 universities. This is a very difficult time for the country, but the MST will not end, it will continue fighting and gathering forces. And Bolsonaro does not have the power to eliminate all the achievements the MST has had in the last 35 years of its history. I end with a little bit of optimism about the future of the Brazilian left and the MST.
And what are the next steps for research here in Brazil? Any prediction?
I am now in the process of translating the book into Portuguese. When I'm done, I'm going to talk to publishers, but I intend to release a Portuguese version published by Expressão Popular, which is the only one that really makes books arrive in MST spaces, and I want to invite the MST Education Sector to do the preface. I always like to remember that I am a researcher and teacher, but I am also a popular cause activist. In the United States I am part of social movements, and I am part of the national coordination of the US Friends of the MST. I have a very close relationship with the MST Education Sector, so I feel part of MST as well.