Brazil’s Landless Workers Persist through Agroecology

The rural movement, up against great odds, has become a global model for greater land access and agrarian reform.



Just off one of the main highways that crosses the Brazilian state of Paraná, there’s a narrow dirt road that’s easy to miss if you’re not looking for it. The road is bordered on both sides by corn, soy, and wheat. The landscape goes largely unchanged for eight miles until a worn-down sign informs visitors they have arrived in the Contestado Settlement—one of many large farming settlements belonging to the Brazilian Landless Workers’ Movement—or the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (MST).

The settlement is structured like a village; further down the road lies a town square, a farmers’ cooperative, a health clinic, schools, markets, and even a cultural center. About a mile from the town square lives Antonio Capitani, an agroecological farmer and one of the first residents of Contestado, which now occupies about 7,500 acres.

His quaint, green-colored home is surrounded by colorful crops; his son recently built a house on the property as well. The farmer retired last year, passing his farm down to his children—along with all his knowledge of agroecology, the farming method that produces organic food, cultivates healthy soil, and preserves biodiversity.

Transitioning the land to an agroecological settlement was a long, hard journey. Twenty years ago, a local ceramics company owned the land and left the soil neglected and degraded. “This was an area with over 30 years of exploitation and no land conservation,” Capitani says. “The soil was only used to urea, chemical fertilizers, and poison.” The insects, he adds, were very resistant.

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“For the first five years, we produced next to nothing. We harvested just enough for us to eat. The soil was dead; we had to bring it back to life,” says Capitani, whose gardens are now bursting with lettuce, cabbage, arugula, corn, cassava, potatoes, peaches, and bananas. It’s a living testaments to the revitalizing power of agroecology.

Antonio Capitani describes the workings of an MST ecological farm. (Photo by Rafael Forsetto)

Antonio Capitani describes the workings of an MST ecological farm. (Photo by Rafael Forsetto)

Carlos Neudi Finchler, another founding member whose lush, green farm borders Capitani’s, also recalls the difficult transition.

“When we planted our first orange trees, we had to dig huge holes and fill them with manure, hay, and plenty of fertilizer,” Finchler says as he points out the trees in the distance. “Today, I can plant orange trees wherever I want without having to use any sort of fertilizer.”

Over 160 small-crop farming families live in Contestado, and about one-third of them work exclusively with agroecology. They sell their produce through the cooperative they founded in 2010, Cooperativa Terra Livre. Each week, the families of MST deliver about eight tons of food to Terra Livre.

The state government buys up much of the production for use in public initiatives. One such example is the Merenda Escolar Organica campaign, which serves organic food produced by family farming to local public schools.

Capitani, Finchler, and MST’s other members identify as peasants and care deeply about the environment. Rather than focusing on profits and consumerism, they prioritize community well-being and environmental protection. “When it comes to conventional agribusiness, soil is just a support [system] for the crops. For us, it’s a living element,” Finchler says.

However, the Contestado settlement isn’t an isolated success story. It’s only one of the thousands of settlements in Brazil. And it exemplifies how nationwide progressive policies adopted by the Landless Workers’ Movement—one of the largest rural workers’ movements in the world, made up of over 450,000 families  and an estimated 1 million members—has brought about positive results for the rural population.

Even though the movement is mainly active in Brazil, it has gained a global reach over the years. Organizations in the United States and Canada have collaborated with the MST on popular education, agroecology, and political trainings. U.S. supporters of the movement have founded Friends of the MST, a network developed to build solidarity and educate the American public on the Landless Workers’ Movement.

History of the Movement

Concentration of land is so severe in Brazil that, according to a 2016 Oxfam study, 1 percent of farms control over 44 percent of arable land. The current agricultural business model demands large plots of land with intensive pesticide use and focuses on exhaustive extraction of high-yield monocrops.

The country has around 180.5 million acres of cropland, of which about 84 percent are planted with soy, corn, or sugarcane. This process can result in damage to soil and biodiversity, with agricultural expansion leading to deforestation in the Amazon and Cerrado regions.

As this approach to agriculture began to dominate in the 1960s, an increasing number of Landless Workers began meeting in the Brazilian south. Land concentration and the mechanization of the countryside led to a mass exodus of the rural poor, and the necessity to organize a nationwide peasant movement became clear. As the nation moved toward democracy, rural workers saw their opportunity to organize and demand the democratization of land access through agrarian reform.

A sign reading "Contested settlement / Lapa Latin American School of Agroecology, 33 years of struggle and resistance" (Photo by Rafael Forsetto)

A sign reading “Contestado settlement / Lapa Latin American School of Agroecology, 33 years of struggle and resistance.” (Photo by Rafael Forsetto)

The MST was officially founded during the first Meeting of the Landless Rural Workers in 1984. Since then, its members have been known for occupying unproductive land across the country and demanding its repurposing and redistribution to peasant farmers. The group finds legal basis for their actions in Brazil’s 1988 Constitution, which states that the Union may expropriate rural properties that do not perform their social functions for the purposes of agrarian reform.

Not surprisingly, the group has been met with hostile reactions from large plantation owners, state authorities, and mainstream media ever since then. In the ’80s and ’90s, violence became one of the movement’s main challenges. Widespread hostility against the peasants resulted in attacks by hired guns in the name of large plantation owners.

Members of the Landless Rural Workers' Movements protest in front of the Ministry of Mines and Energy (Photo credit: José Cruz / Agência Brasil)

Members of the Landless Rural Workers’ Movements protest in front of the Ministry of Mines and Energy (Photo credit: José Cruz / Agência Brasil)

The violence escalated, and in 1996, 19 MST members were murdered by military police in the city of Eldorado dos Carajás, in the state of Pará, garnering global attention.

Although land reform is the main pillar of the movement, MST also embraces food sovereignty, environmental protection, and social justice.

But despite its turbulent beginning, the Landless Workers persevered with the support of institutions such as the Catholic Church and the Pastoral Land Commission. Today, the group is financially self-sufficient through food production, and they recently became Latin America’s largest producer of organic rice.

Although land reform is the main pillar of the movement, MST also embraces food sovereignty, environmental protection, and social justice. Incredibly diverse, the movement consists of men and women from many different backgrounds, including Black, Indigenous, quilombolas (Afro-Brazilians), and LGBTQ+ farmers, as well as those in both rural and urban areas.

Introducing Sustainable Farming Methods

Farmers in Brazil use over 370,000 tons of pesticides every year, making it one of the world’s top pesticide-consuming countries. According to a dossier from the Brazilian Association of Public Health and the Brazilian Association of Agroecology, about 80 percent of pesticides sold in Brazil are used on soybeans, corn, cotton, and sugarcane.

The MST, by contrast, opposes most pesticide use. Drawing from the multicultural nature of the group, they incorporate traditional farming practices, including the preservation of what they refer to as creole seeds (native seeds). MST farmers see these seeds not only as a way of preserving biodiversity and traditional knowledge, but also as a means of resisting biotechnology.

Many within the MST have exclusively dedicated themselves to agroecology, and it has since become one of the movement’s flagship policies. “The MST defines agroecology as its main productive method,” says Debora Nunes, one of the Landless Workers’ Movement’s national leaders and a small-crop farmer in the northeastern state of Alagoas.

Organic produce for sale at the Agrarian Reform Fair, organized by the MST to sell produce from family farmers and spread the word about agroecology and land reform. (Photo credit: )

Organic produce for sale at the Agrarian Reform Fair, organized by the MST to sell produce from family farmers and spread the word about agroecology and land reform. (Photo credit: Tânia Rêgo/Agência Brasil)

Nunes’s farm produces a wide range of foods, from cassava, sweet potatoes, and peanuts to pineapples, papaya, and guavas. “We also produce cheese . . . raise poultry hens . . . and have a seedling nursery,” she says.

As one of the movement’s national leaders, she is a prominent voice in support of agroecology and an outspoken critic of Brazilian agribusiness. “We believe in the possibility of resisting—confronting agribusiness and all of the harmful consequences [it] brings us,” says Nunes.

“They continue to cut down forests, destroy the environment, and damage riverbanks,” she adds. “Agroecological production is [intended to be] an affront to . . . the concentration of capital in agriculture.”

Although not all of MST’s members work exclusively with sustainable methods, the numbers increase every year. Some settlements are 100 percent sustainable, such as the Jose Lutzenberger encampment in Antonina, Paraná. In 2017, the community received a national award for their work with agroecology and reforestation.

Brazil’s Landless Workers embrace agroecology not only as food production, but also as a way of life. Environmental preservation plays an important role, but it goes beyond avoiding pesticides and renewing soil to include social aspects of sustainability.

Organized across the movement, committees focus on empowering all of its members. Women have equal participation in important decision and occupy prominent leadership roles within the movement, from the local to the national level.

A woman wears a t-shirt that reads "Fighting women, planting resistance." (Photo by MST Paraná Archives)

A woman wears an MST t-shirt that reads “Fighting women, planting resistance.” (Photo by MST Paraná Archives)

Settlements usually consist of nuclei, which are small groups of neighboring families responsible for a specific part of the land. In democratic fashion, each nucleus elects a representative, who serves a two-year term. These representatives are usually women and are responsible for attending meetings with other local leaders, passing on information to the settlers in their respective groups, and resolving any local conflicts that may arise.

Globalizing Farmers’ Struggles

Over the years, the movement has attracted a large number of supporters abroad and serves as an academic focus for many scholars.

In 1993, the MST was one of the founding organizations of La Via Campesina, an international farmers organization focused on promoting food sovereignty, peasant rights, and the struggle for agrarian reform. La Via Campesina has over 180 affiliated organizations across the world and assists in globalizing the struggles of these movements.

Through La Via Campesina, the MST has been able to better connect with farming organizations in North America to share knowledge and mobilize globally. Some of the organizations in the U.S. include the Border Agricultural Workers Project, the Farmworkers Association of Florida, the National Family Farm Coalition, and the Rural Coalition.

Rural Coalition, which is an alliance of farmers, farmworkers, and rural communities, has been a formal member of La Via Campesina since 2008 and provides support to the MST, particularly in response to genetically engineered crops.

“We’re always fascinated by the connections between the history of Brazil and the history the United States,” says Lorette Picciano, the executive director of Rural Coalition. “A number of our members and leaders have been doing exchanges with MST.”

“The work of the MST and agrarian reform is something that has been picked up on by our young farmers [in the U.S.], and they’re actually applying things they’ve learned in some of [MST’s] agroecology meetings.”

Both groups are involved in a campaign to stop genetically engineered trees; it focuses specifically on genetically modified, disease-resistant chestnut trees in the U.S. and eucalyptus trees used for biofuels and lumber in Brazil.

The National Farmers Union (NFU) of Canada, another La Via Campesina member, has also been influenced by the MST’s best practices.

“The work of the MST and . . . agrarian reform is something that has been picked up on by our young farmers, and they’re actually applying things like the popular education models that they’ve learned in some of [MST’s] agroecology meetings,” says Coral Sproule, a farmer and the NFU Women’s President.

Recognition and Influence Abroad

The MST has received a number of awards, including the Right Livelihood award in 1991 and the Harry Chapin Humanitarian Award from the U.S. nonprofit WhyHunger in 2016.

According to Saulo Araujo, the director of the Global Movements Program at WhyHunger, MST was the first international organization to receive the Chapin prize. “It’s a recognition . . . of MST’s importance in the struggle for food sovereignty, agroecology, and their spirit of organization,” he says.

Araujo adds that the Landless Workers’ influence is far-reaching, especially when it comes to sustainable farming. “The MST is one of the main influencers of the agroecology process in the United States,” he says.

He cites the MST’s experience as a main inspiration for the People’s Agroecology Process, a grassroots-led initiative to scale out agroecology in the U.S. Across the U.S., people are discovering agroecology as a way to organize people not only to produce healthy food, but also to unite different sectors of society.

Solidarity in Troubled Times

Now, faced with a global pandemic, the Landless Workers have dedicated themselves to solidarity with those most in need. Coronavirus has slowed down the world’s economies, and Brazil is no exception. The country has the second-highest COVID-19 death toll in the world, second only to the U.S.

President Jair Bolsonaro has faced much criticism for his pandemic response. His government has offered a monthly emergency stipend of R$600 (about $110) to its citizens, but vetoed the distribution of these funds for family farmers, which includes MST’s members.

Yet, compared to urban populations, the MST has been relatively unscathed by the pandemic. They credit their rural lifestyle for keeping them safe, but admit that new challenges have arisen over the last six months. One such challenge was technological. “We had to find a new way to organize,” says Antonio Capitani. “We’re used to meeting in large groups to discuss health, education, culture, production, and so on.” Now, most meetings happen through videoconferencing.

“There’s also the question of the economy and how to maintain income for families that can’t go to the cities to sell their products [like they used to],” says farmer Capitani. The cooperative has helped these farmers sell their products, [but] they’re not making as much as they did selling them in local markets.”

Even so, the movement has focused on solidarity. Every day, hundreds of people line up in town squares across Brazil to receive warm meals provided by MST members. Although the menu varies, these meals usually consist of rice, beans, pork, potatoes, cabbage, broccoli, and beets.

Food donations from the MST in Brazil. The banner reads: "Land for those who work, bread for those who are hungry." (Photo by Thea Tavares)

Food donations from the MST in Brazil. The banner reads: “Land for those who work, bread for those who are hungry.” (Photo by Thea Tavares)

Take Joab Mendes de Oliveira, a member of MST Paraná, who hands out packed lunches to men and women in need in Tiradentes Square in Curitiba on a recent weekday. “Many families are ending up in the street,” Oliveira says. “In these times of crisis, we want to show that agriculture can be one way to solve these problems.”

The Landless Workers are also showing solidarity to vulnerable people outside urban areas. Since March, the MST has produced and donated over 2,800 tons of food to communities struggling with the pandemic. “Solidarity isn’t giving what’s left over. Solidarity is sharing what we have, even when it might not be enough,” says Nunes of the MST’s national committee.

Even in the face of adversity, the Movement also has ambitious plans for the future. In late 2019, it launched a plan to plant 100 million trees over the next 10 years.

“Our plan is to strengthen agroecology, strengthen small farmers, and preserve the environment. However, none of that is possible without a process of resistance and engagement with society,” Nunes says. “This is not just the farmworker’s fight. It’s our society’s joint struggle.”

Top photo: A woman plants seedlings as part of a reforestation partnership with the MST. (Photo credit: Tânia Rêgo/Agência Brasil)

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  1. Leonardo Mercher
    Wednesday, September 30th, 2020
    Congrats to the author cause agroecology and social movements are so important nowadays.