Dossier | The Landless Workers’ Movement in Brazil During the COVID-19 Pandemic: How a Social Movement Feeds a Nation

*By Luz Sena

The Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (MST), literally the Landless Workers’ Movement, came into being during a turbulent time in Brazil. As the country left its long period of dictatorship in the 1980s and entered a phase of democracy and high expectations, numerous social movements started to take shape. One of those was the MST, calling for a self-sustaining way of life for the rural poor through land reform.

Historically speaking, the inequality of access to land in Brazil has been a direct consequence of patriarchal and racist social structures, which have prevailed from the country’s colonial past up to today’s agribusiness system. According to the Constitution of 1988, the state has the responsibility to ensure that land fulfills its social function, for example by supplying food to the market, providing employment, or protecting the environment. Every large property that does not achieve these goals must therefore be distributed among those who demand to work on the land—a process that can take decades, if the state even bothers to look into it at all. Using this constitutional prerogative as its legal basis for action, the MST compels the state to take action by occupying land that does not fit into this category: usually unproductive or illegally acquired land, and land owned by farmers who either owe the government large sums in taxes or maintain labour practices similar to slavery in their fields.

Today, the MST is active in 24 out of the 26 states in Brazil’s five regions and is the largest producer of organic food in the country. In what follows, I will discuss its organization and strategies as well as the important role the movement played during the pandemic through solidarity networks in a country ruled by agribusiness, necropolitics, and patriarchy.

Organization and Strategies of the MST
The MST is organized entirely into collective units that make decisions through discussion, reflection, and consensus. The basic organizational unit is made up of 10 to 15 families living in an MST settlement. Each unit addresses the issues and needs of their area. The members elect two representatives as coordinators (always one man and one woman, guaranteeing female participation) to represent the unit in regional meetings. The same structure is repeated at regional, state, and national levels, and everyone has the right to vote, including young people. As every MST family participates in this system, the whole movement is made up of roughly 475,000 families, or 1.5 million people. It has no formal leadership other than a dispersed group of some 15 leaders, whose public appearances are very rare. This structure preserves a decentralized organizational model, empowers people to take political action in their own best interests, and minimizes the risk of arrest or violence by vindictive landowners. The movement facilitates communication between families and their representatives, as well as with the general public, through different forms of media, such as radio stations, books, magazines, websites, and weekly newspapers.

The main goal of the movement has not changed, however many other causes have been included in the movement, such as the democratization of communication, public health, education, ethnic diversity, improvement of international relations between rural workers, and the fight against gender-based violence.

The MST is not a political party, nor does it use violent methods. Its main tactics are marches and land occupations. In recent years, the group has been undergoing changes and incorporating new concepts. Some examples are hunger strikes, occupations in big cities, and investments in education and literature. The MST has built more than 2,000 public schools in its camps and settlements. These follow the national curriculum and have won many awards for their high levels of education.

Agribusiness Versus Agroecology
At the turn of the century, the fight for land reform pushed towards a new peasant consciousness never before associated with “New World” societies. This new identity can largely be defined by the principles of agroecology, the antithesis of agribusiness.

Agribusiness is the industry of agricultural production and services under the exploitative rules of capitalism. It is implemented through the use of monocultures, pesticides, biotechnology, industrial farming, and mechanization and it relies on hierarchical social structures. Although it is very lucrative for the owners, with its large exports of commodities (such as coffee, sugar, corn, or soy), it is an outdated and inefficient system for the planet and the population. In Brazil alone, agribusiness is responsible for 20% of the planet’s pesticide production, which contaminates the soil and the water and jeopardizes the health of employees and consumers alike. Many of the pesticides used in Brazil are produced by European companies, even though they are very dangerous and banned in their own countries.

While it claims to be a “thriving industry”, agribusiness does not solve the country’s hunger problem. Furthermore, it is a threat to the human right of access to healthy and nutritious food. It uses aggressive marketing strategies and takes advantage of a lack of regulation and information to sell its high-calorie and ultra-processed products. Although it is highly celebrated in the Brazilian mainstream media, agribusiness is not the source of nourishment and riches that it pretends to be.

Agroecology, on the other hand, studies the relations between agricultural crops and their environment. It is a field of scientific knowledge, a political movement, and a social practice all in one. The system is focused on collaboration and preservation through biodiversity and the application of ancestral knowledge. It means that food comes from small producers instead of multimillion dollar companies; decisions are made from the bottom up, and the process of planting and harvesting is made in accordance with the indigenous knowledge of rural populations. In fact, according to data from the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE), more than 70 percent of the organic food actually consumed in Brazil is not produced by the large agribusiness ruralists, but by small family farming plantations, such as the ones of the MST—often at lower cost than the harmful versions in the supermarket. The MST is also the largest rice producer in Latin America.

Agroecology strives to build a restorative, resilient, and environmentally sustainable agriculture that is better integrated with the local ecosystem, creating bridges between territories marked by poverty and violence in order to build a new eco-social paradigm.

Not everyone is in favour of this sustainable transition. The group of ruralist deputies at the base of the Brazilian government—the bancada ruralista—opposes most decisions on land reform issues and press the Congress for export-oriented policies, authorization of more pesticides, relaxation of laws on slave labour, and more deforestation. Brazil is also one of the deadliest countries in the world for environmental activists. Between 1985 and 2018, more than 1,900 rural workers were killed due to conflicts in the countryside, resulting in only 117 trials and 33 convictions. The solution to the agribusiness problem will never come from the top, but rather from a paradigm shift guided by anti-capitalism and social and environmental justice, the fruit of active solidarity between the countryside and the city.

Solidarity Practices During the Pandemic
The significance of the MST in Brazil has been most noticeable during the pandemic. In a country that lost more than 684.000 people to a disease brought by plane through the wealthy elite, in a society where racialized and sexualized bodies are always the most vulnerable, it was (and still is) extremely important to find solidarity between the country and the city.

The measures taken against the pandemic that brought social isolation led to high levels of unemployment, and as Brazil does not have a national food supply policy, the population most at risk under normal circumstances was now struggling to survive. More than half of all Brazilians live with some degree of food insecurity and 9 percent of them are actually at risk of of death by starvation. Through active solidarity and partnerships between rural producers and urban workers, the movement has been able to bring producers and distributors together, eliminating the need for intermediaries. The mix of traditional forms of food production with innovative forms of organization was essential for keeping the health crisis from becoming an (even bigger) food crisis.

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, through these solidarity campaigns, the MST has donated more than 6,000 tons of food and 1,150,000 lunch boxes to indigenous communities and institutions (such as hospitals, homeless shelters, and asylums) in every major region of the country. All of this happened while the food providers themselves were suffering from the effects of the pandemic: physical stores had to close and dozens of food markets were suspended, forcing people to find creative ways to sustain themselves. One main solution included selling organic food baskets via social media, sometimes even in partnership with taxi companies that have also been deeply affected by the pandemic. Another project was a partnership with NGOs that selected “guardians of seeds”—women responsible for distributing thousands of seed packages and seedlings of medicinal plants, flowers, and trees from the Atlantic Forest to be shared among 2,000 families in different communities. Not to mention the organization of urban gardens and community kitchens in cooperation with other social movements.

It is also necessary to acknowledge the MST’s efforts to address patriarchal violence within its own movement. It is no secret that Brazil has an alarmingly high incidence of violence against women, with black and indigenous women suffering at the highest rates. In 2018 alone, there were more than 3,000 registered cases of femicide, 30 percent of which happened inside the victims’ own homes. These numbers have been intensified by social isolation during the pandemic. Especially in poor rural areas, where such cases are overlooked or rationalized, the hidden figures of crime are particularly concerning. The state lacks sufficient safety policies and the few that still exist end up being restricted to urban reality, excluding the many groups that exist at the margins of society.

Hungry and in the midst of daily violence from the state and landowners, many landless people reproduce gender-based violence in their homes. In order to address domestic violence within its territories, the MST has developed “combat networks”, which tackle different problem zones, such as the need for food sovereignty, equal land distribution, and coping strategies for the survivors of domestic violence.

During the pandemic, the movement was able to count on the constant support of an all-female team of health care professionals and lawyers who carried out hundreds of services, ranging from individual therapy sessions and mental health workshops (available for groups of men and women respectively) to publications and podcasts covering a diversity of topics: education on different types of violence (including violence against children and the LGBT community), federal laws against domestic violence, reporting channels, the struggles of motherhood during the pandemic, rural youth education, hunger, pesticides, and suicide.

In order to develop effective policies to support the most vulnerable populations, the state has to engage in dialogue with social movements, which are already doing their best to carry this burden. The pandemic served as a warning sign of the unsustainability of cities and the vulnerability of the countryside; it revealed how they relate to each other. Despite the hardships caused by the crisis, it intensified production and distribution processes in keeping with agroecological and social values that were already in the making. If there is a lesson to be learned from this particular period, it is that solidarity means giving what we have, not just the leftovers. There is no doubt that, in a scenario in which the state assumes part of the responsibility for supporting and promoting such solidarity and combat networks, a transition to a new social paradigm of sustainability and social justice could be achieved.

Lessons for the Hopeless
In Dialogues, Gilles Deleuze, in conversation with Claire Parnet, examines the mechanisms of the so-called attachments of sadness. What is in question is a type of emotional distress triggered by living in a “generally disagreeable world”, wherein the establishment coerces us into believing that life is hard by default. This sadness, paired with the typically human fear of change, takes away our power and willingness to act, thus keeping us in the same conditions as before. In this state, there can be no politics of progress, of construction, or of justice.

It is easy to grow hopeless about the state of politics and the environment, especially when we seem to be facing crisis upon crisis. Our lives have been turned upside down by the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine, and now inflation has become a clear and present danger for many countries in the world. Meanwhile, the lack of action to prevent climate change is resulting in fires and floods of biblical proportions, putting millions of lives and habitats in danger. On top of it all, far-right movements are growing in power and authoritarian politics are on the rise again.

The antidote to hopelessness can be found in social movements powered by unshakable convictions of solidarity and justice; but conversely, many movements fail to achieve their goals and fade out as unrealistic or utopian aspirations. Some factors that contribute to the decline of a movement, besides government repression, can be problems with the organization of the movement itself: questionable leadership, inefficient communication, or lack of community and social support can easily undermine a once promising project, as can demonstrations that turn violent, which shift public opinion of the cause.

So what makes a movement successful? It is not enough to bring people together: they also have to move together towards a common goal, and it is the structure of their networks that best determines their behaviour. Although many successful social movements appear to emerge spontaneously, it does not happen by chance, but rather through resilient local grassroots organizing over long periods of time. Social change can only happen when a large number of participants with a diverse array of skills, abilities, and perspectives are linked together for a shared purpose .

Although the MST’s fight for land reform is still ongoing, the fact that the movement has lasted for decades and grown in numbers and public presence over the years can be attributed to some of the strategies presented in this essay:

Transparent and empowering organizational units: Structures within the movement are clear, allowing for democratic and decentralized decision-making within the individual units.
Communication: The movement has developed several forms of media (websites, publications, social media, etc.) to connect members with one another as well as with the general public.
Adaptability: Land reform remains its main goal, but the movement has been learning and adjusting its strategies over the years, increasing its focus on sustainability, gender equality, and education.
Networking: Many of the MST’s solidarity campaigns would not have been possible without collaboration and partnerships with other organizations and NGOs.
Self-awareness: The movement addresses patriarchal issues and improves education internally through equal participation, “combat networks”, building schools in rural areas, etc.
Legitimacy: Although the idea of occupying unproductive private land to work on may seem suspicious at first, it is a constitutional right, which gives the movement a legal basis to act on.
Self-sufficiency: The movement still relies on donations and voluntary work to maintain itself, but it is largely self-sufficient, as group members produce goods and organize food markets, becoming essential for local economies.

By understanding the strength of these strategies, we can observe and compare similar movements worldwide, thus improving our own methods of organized social action. The Landless Workers’ Movement in Brazil may be particular in its local laws and struggles, but its values, which encourage alternative means of production and acts of compassion for one another, are universal.

*This text is part of the Dossier IRGAC LECTURE SERIES – New Faces of Authoritarianism: Interdisciplinary Perspectives from the Global South

**All footnotes and references can be found in the PDF version