Brazil lags far behind her left-leaning neighbors in government initiatives that bring privatized national resources back into the public domain. In recent months, however, Brazil’s Landless Workers’ Movement (MST) and other groups have launched mass actions that demand similar moves toward national resource sovereignty. The MST’s recent triple occupation of Brazil’s Companhia Vale do Rio Doce (CVRD), the largest iron ore exporter in the world, is seen by some as the opening salvo in these new efforts.
“Unlike some of its Latin American neighbors,” Reuters reports, “Brazil has shown no formal signs of moving to reclaim previously sold state assets.” Indeed, it was only with the recent discovery of between 5 and 8 billion barrels of oil off Brazil’s southern coast, a find considered “monstrous” by industry experts, that the Brazilian government removed 41 of the 311 exploration blocks it had planned to sell off to private firms.
An MST encampment along the CVRD tracks. (Credit: CVRD)
The MST, which has spent the last 20 years developing a massive direct-action approach to demand agrarian reform, has now committed itself to helping Brazil rethink the control of national resources. With over 350,000 MST families living in direct-action secured agrarian reform settlements, and an additional 120,000 families currently living on occupied estates, the MST has called on its members to lead the fight for a new wave of state-led expropriations.
In June of 2007, with over 17,500 MST delegates congregated for the movement’s fifth and largest National Congress, the MST announced it planned to “network with all social sectors to build a popular project to confront neoliberalism…[and to] struggle for the re-statization of public companies that have been privatized.” Considered one of the largest and most combative social movements in the world, the MST takes its commitments seriously.
Three months after the National Congress, the MST joined a coalition of more than 60 organizations in holding a popular plebiscite to publicize public disaproval of privatization policies. Not legally binding, but supported by numerous social movement actors as well as members of the governing Workers’ Party (PT) the result of the popular plebiscite was sweeping: over 90% of voters opposed further privatizations and favored re-nationalization.
Over 100,000 volunteers for “The Vale is Ours!” coalition fanned out acorss the country to ask voters if Brazil’s Companhia Vale do Rio Doce (CVRD) should remain private. Almost 95% of the 3.7 million participants voted “No.”
Established in 1942, CVRD was a successful and profitable state-owned company, but it was auctioned off in 1997 during a wave of privatizations encouraged by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF). Sold for $3.3 billion in 1997, the CVRD’s own estimates were that its market value was closer to $40 billion. To put these figures in perspective, CVRD’s market value as of June 30, 2007, was $103 billion, with second- and third-quarter profits this year at $4.1 and $2.6 billion, respectively.
MST members and allied activists on CVRD's train tracks tracks. (Credit: CVRD)
Not satisfied wth the simple voicing of popular support for the expropriation of privatized firms, the MST led others in what it does best: mass direct action. On October 16, over 2,600 MST militants occupied CVRD’s principal railway out of the Amazon, demanding that a greater share of the company’s profits be distributed to the Brazilian people.
In less than a month, the MST had conducted three separate occupations of the CVRD’s railway to the Carajas mining complex—a railway on which 275,600 tons of iron ore (worth $11.2 million), used to make steel, are transported daily for export to foreign markets. An estimated 6,000 participants participated in the third occupation on November 7.
Before ending each of occupation of the CVRD transport artery, the social movements forced important concessions from state and federal officials, as well as CVRD representatives, including the funding of local agrarian reform projects, credits for small-farmers, and other social programs.
The MST’s demands for re-nationalizations are not beyond the scope of its central grievance of land reform. Movement leader João Pedro Stédile in an interview explained, “The new model for agricultural that we are calling for entails a development project based on the defense of popular sovereignty and on a new economic model, which has at its core a strong internal market, the distribution of income, and a national industry that sustains the creation of jobs and income for the people."
Juan Reardon is a former Coordinator of the Friends of the MST (FMST) and can be reached at jr.agroecologia(AT)gmail.com.