MST – 40 years

National March for Agrarian Reform. Image: Disclosure


The history of the movement shares with the working class as a whole an experience and accumulation that can serve as a reflection for other movements and popular organizations

Legend has it that after the national march carried out by the Landless Rural Workers Movement (MST) in 2005 – when 15 thousand peasants walked 230 kilometers over 15 days, leaving Goiânia (GO) and arriving in Brasília –, Colonel Jarbas Passarinho commented that only two organizations in Brazil were capable of organizing something of that magnitude: the MST and the Army.

Whether this behind-the-scenes story is true or not doesn't matter much, but it helps symbolize the meaning of that episode. How is it possible for a popular Sem Terra organization to build a small traveling city with kitchens, bathrooms, spaces for childcare, communication, a health sector and all the infrastructure involved to handle an event of this size over the course of two weeks? It's no small feat. We are not talking about a mega events company with “Know how” on the subject and a gigantic capital contribution, but from the people themselves, leading and building this process.

The answer to this question is not so simple and there is not just one element that explains it, but some clues can be found in the newest dossier released by the Tricontinental Institute for Social Research, The political organization of the MST. The document takes an x-ray of the Landless Movement by analyzing its forms of organization and struggle, focusing on understanding what led a peasant organization to survive for four decades in the midst of such an unfavorable situation.

In fact, life for the MST has never been easy. It is enough to remember that throughout Brazilian history, no peasant social movement has managed to survive for even a decade in the face of the political, economic and military power of large landowners, in a country where one of the most striking characteristics is its high concentration of land. More than 40% of agricultural properties are under the control of less than 1% of owners, while there are 4,5 million landless peasants.

This reality allows Brazil to maintain, without much effort, the position of second largest concentration of land on the planet. All this without mentioning the distortion of representation in the National Congress, whose Ruralist Caucus brings together 61% of federal deputies in the Chamber and 35% of senators.

It is also worth remembering that the issue of agrarian reform has no longer been at the center of the national political debate for years, if not decades, including within the left itself. I always remember a magazine cover story This is of 2011, which decreed “The end of the MST”, as announced in the title of the report, illustrated by a very old and worn-out cap of the movement, under lands lined with boulders.

The article itself was horrible, with false data, wrong premises and conclusions, with no basis in reality. But it symbolized a new moment for the MST and a change in attitude in the press' treatment of the organization; a moment in which there was a pact veiled by the traditional media to silence the struggle of the Landless. No matter how much land they occupied, no matter how many mobilizations and struggles they carried out, it was as if the MST no longer existed for them. The objective of this new tactic? Those who are not mentioned are not remembered. If to this day we have not been able to end or criminalize the struggle of these peasants, it is better that we leave them in the limbo of oblivion.

And so it has been throughout these last few years, a reality that only began to change when the movement sought a new form of direct dialogue with society: the Agrarian Reform fairs, with emphasis on the 1st National Fair held in 2016 in São Paulo, in Água Branca Park, central region of the city. Since then, little by little, the MST has regained more visibility in the press and, along with that, in society as a whole, now with the “news” of the settlements’ productions.

But although the status of the MST was not so on the rise during this period with the naked eye, anyone who knows and follows the political struggle within it knows the importance and protagonism that the Sem Terra have always had in the processes of articulation, construction of unity, analysis of the situation and in the mobilizations of the working class as a whole. Most of the times when the class mobilized in some way in recent decades, it contained the little finger of this political organization that does not always worry about leaving its fingerprint registered, considering that there are more important things in the class struggle than vanity .

Given this brief scenario, the question arises: How was it possible, not only to survive, but to be one of the main protagonists of the Brazilian social struggle, never ceasing to reflect and reinvent oneself in the face of the new challenges posed in each historical period? There is a word that does not exist in Portuguese language dictionaries, but that was generated by the organized struggle of the working class: organicity, the engineering of combining popular participation with the performance of necessary tasks. These are the elements of the Movement's organizational structure, bringing its principles, objectives and forms of struggle, which largely answers the question.

Starting with his three basic objectives that have accompanied him since his birth: fight for land, for agrarian reform and social transformation. The fight for land is important, but it is not enough. So that everyone can have a piece of land, it is necessary to change the historical and centuries-old Brazilian land structure. But it is only possible to stir this hornet's nest through a profound process of transformation of society as a whole.

Nor is it enough to simply organize landless peasant families throughout Brazil. Under an ingrained neoliberal thinking about the working class, the chance of it conquering its lot and moving on with its life after this achievement is enormous. It is necessary to educate, create awareness, identity, give concrete tasks to everyone, raise the level of consciousness of the masses so that it can overcome common sense.

How to do all this? Through principles and values. Whether in the issue of solidarity, in strengthening collective thinking, in valuing art and culture, in the fight for schools in rural areas, in thinking about childhood and youth, in the protagonism of women, in respect for diversity, in the debate on production and food, in the organization and participation in a mobilization, a march or an occupation. In short, a series of elements in which it is no longer possible to remain stagnant in your previous being, but which elevates you as a political subject in search of transformation, justice and equality.

In the midst of all this, you don't just plant another potato on your piece of land. You are the protagonist and subject of the transformation towards another society and transform into a new human being.

It is this “engineering” and the ability to collectively construct analyzes of reality and understand the transformations that have occurred in the countryside in recent decades – in the face of the hegemony of agribusiness – that allowed the MST to formulate a Popular Agrarian Reform Program, which highlights the contradictions of this monoculture model exporter based on the intensive use of poisons and non-food production, and propose overcoming it through the democratization of land for food production and the preservation of nature's common goods through technologies, such as agroecology.

The Popular Agrarian Reform Program is also a response to the invisibility of agrarian reform in the national political debate. The agrarian problem was not solved, but made invisible by false consensus in the media, academia and even progressive forces. The same invisibility that this consensus imposes on the contradictions of agribusiness such as deforestation, expulsion of indigenous and quilombola communities and the poisoning of soil and water.

As I said before, it's no small feat. All this experience summarized in the Tricontinental dossier does not intend to offer some magic formula, of course, but it shares with the working class as a whole an experience and an accumulation that can serve as a reflection for other popular movements and organizations. Even if the MST ended tomorrow, it is impossible to deny that it was a highly successful experience.

*Ronaldo Tamberlini Pagotto, labor and union lawyer, is an activist of the Popular Brazil Movement and member of the executive board of the Brazil office of the Tricontinental Institute for Social Research.

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