Last week the Brazilian Movement of Landless Rural Workers (MST) held its fifth National Congress in Brasília, the country’s capital. The power the MST has garnered throughout its 23 years was palpable, as more than 17,500 delegates from 24 states and almost 200 international guests marched to the Square of the Three Powers, situated between the buildings of the executive, judicial and legislative branches of government. Marchers hung a huge banner in the square that read, “We accuse the three powers of impeding agrarian reform.”
In the minds of most MST members, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and the Workers’ Party (PT) have failed to implement the radical economic and social reforms that were promised, especially agrarian reform. According to José Maria Tardin, who was elected as the first PT mayor in the state of Paraná in 1989, and now works in the MST, “For the left, Lula is the biggest political tragedy in the history of Brazil.”
In a discussion with reporters, founder and national organizer of the MST João Pedro Stedile recalled that when Lula was elected in 2003, the MST hoped that Brazil would overturn many of the neoliberal policies imposed on the country by Washington and institutions like the International Monetary Fund. However, “nobody can say that Lula is implementing an alternative project,” said Stedile. “We cannot be so simplistic as to say that everything is Lula’s fault, but the Lula government does not represent the working class, and is not on the left.” He pointed out that during Lula’s first four-year term, the financial sector accumulated more capital than it did during the previous eight years under President Fernando Henrique Cardoso.
This public acknowledgement of the fracture in the MST’s historic alliance with Lula and the PT represents a major shift toward a more confrontational stance. One MST member reported that Lula requested to speak at the Congress, but was refused. Lula had previously turned down requests to meet with the MST since he was elected for a second term last October. Last Thursday's march was important for the MST’s relationship with the rest of Brazilian society, as many urban Brazilians, also disillusioned, still believe the MST supports Lula.
The MST’s grievance with Lula is reflective of his failure to make a decisive move to the political left, unlike other leaders in Latin America, such as Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, Evo Morales in Bolivia and Rafael Correa in Ecuador. Not only has Lula not slowed the advance of foreign capital in Brazil, in many ways he is speeding it up. The clearest example is his recent promotion of Brazil’s ethanol production for export to the United States. In terms of geographic size, population and economic power, Brazil is the largest country in Latin America. As long as Brazil does not take on Washington’s neoliberal policies, the region’s ability to consolidate a leftward swing will be impeded.
Increasing anger and hostility directed at the United States was also a major subject during the Congress. On route to Three Powers’ Square, the marchers passed the U.S. Embassy, where they deposited coffins with the names of countries including Iraq, Palestine, Haiti and Afghanistan, and threw garbage onto the lawn of the Embassy. François Houtart, Director of the TriContinental Center in Belgium declared, “Neoliberalism is in crisis, and the imperialism of the United States is in decline. Imperialism is losing, but it is still strong.” Houtart said that global capital is searching for “new frontiers of domination,” citing agricultural biotechnology, agribusiness and the privatization of public resources.
Juan Reardon, National Coordinator for the Friends of the MST, based in Santa Cruz, California, agreed with Houtart’s assessment. “Iraq is showing that the U.S. military isn’t invincible,” he said. “The war in Iraq is calling into question the entire U.S. military power structure.”
The Congress closed with a videotaped message from Subcomandante Marcos of the Mexican Zapatista movement. He said the MST has “our affection and our respect, and also has our admiration … We feel fraternity for all of the organizations and people that struggle for land, because not one nation can be truly called sovereign if the land is not in the hands of those who work it. There can be no social justice as long as production is for the foreign thieves and not the workers.”
Marcos’ message highlighted the importance the MST has assumed in the growing global struggle against neoliberalism, especially in Latin America. Since its founding in 1984 it started organizing landless, poor rural families to non-violently occupy the unproductive lands of large landowners. The MST has also played a significant role in the international farmers’ organization Via Campesina, a social movement active on four continents with over 150 affiliated organizations.
Indeed, despite the various challenges the MST faces in building an alternative project in Brazil, there were also many reasons for the Congress delegates to celebrate. The MST has pressured the government to settle over 370,000 families on land, and has also advanced significantly in the area of education, especially literacy for adults. With the slogan, “Each and every Landless studying,” the MST has formed relationships with federal and state universities, and foreign governments such as Venezuela and Cuba, to increase popular education in literacy and medicine.
The MST is also in the vanguard in the adoption of agroecology and food sovereignty policies, both of which have been gaining increasing popularity in more progressive development circles since the early 2000s. As the movement has evolved, it has become increasingly aware of the need to reject industrialized agriculture, especially monoculture with the use of agrotoxins, and production of commodity crops for export. Agroecology is viewed as a way for people, especially the rural poor, to secure independence from multinational agribusiness corporations.
The Congress was also used as a forum for the MST to raise support for the Via Campesina’s occupation of the Syngenta corporation’s experimental site in the state of Paraná, which was taken over by the movement March 14, 2006 after the Brazilian government confirmed that Syngenta had illegally planted transgenic soy. The site is located within the protective boundaries of the Iguaçu National Park, which is on the United Nation’s list of World Heritage sites. Social movements have joined forces with Governor Roberto Requião to expropriate these holdings of the agribusiness multinational.
In its final letter to Brazilian society, the MST declared it will continue to “struggle so that all of the large landholdings are expropriated, with the properties of foreign capital and the banks prioritized.” It will “combat multinational corporations, like Monsanto, Syngenta, Cargill, Bunge, ADM, Nestlé, Basf, Bayer, Aracruz and Stora Enso, that seek to control seeds and Brazilian agricultural production and commerce.”
Isabella Kenfield is an associate at the Center for the Study of the Americas (CENSA) and journalist based in Curitiba, Brazil, writing about social movements, agribusiness, agrarian conflicts and rural development.