"They Can Walk With Their Heads Up"

An Interview with Joao Pedro Stedile, National Board Member, Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra


This article is from the May/June 2002 issue of Dollars and Sense: The Magazine of Economic Justice available at http://www.dollarsandsense.org

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This article is from the May/June 2002 issue of Dollars & Sense magazine.

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"In Brazil, where there is fertile land, wealth and a tropical climate," said Jean Ziegler, UN special rapporteur on the right to food, after a recent visit there, "hunger is not a destiny." Rather, it is "the product of a totally unjust order. Those who die of hunger in Brazil are assassinated."

Brazilian government officials were outraged by Ziegler's strong words, and pointed to their recent successes in improving health care and education, and in lifting millions out of extreme poverty. Still, the government does not dispute the fact that 40,000 Brazilians die every year of hunger and malnutrition-related diseases, and that more than 23 million of Brazil's 170 million people are malnourished.

How has Latin America's most resource-rich country ended up with such a large part of its population struggling to survive? Brazil's recent decades of dictatorship and still powerful military, its high concentration of wealth and landownership, and its struggle to develop under the weight of immense debt and IMF-enforced neoliberal economic policies have contributed to a fractured and impoverished society.

In the early 1960s, populist president Joao Goulart antagonized the U.S.-allied Brazilian military by instituting rent controls, seizing unused lands, nationalizing the petroleum industry, and restricting the repatriation of profits by foreign investors. Brazilian generals staged a coup in 1964, ushering in a 21-year military dictatorship that violently suppressed opposition political parties, independent labor unions, student movements, and landless workers' organizations. It also presided over the so-called Brazilian economic miracle—a dozen or so years of rapid growth financed by loans from foreign banks. This debt, incurred by the generals, helped enrich a few, but left to the general population a legacy of huge interest payments and punitive economic policies.

After a sustained economic crisis in the 1970s and early 1980s, brought on by skyrocketing oil prices and the generals' heavy borrowing, the military dictatorship signed an austerity agreement with the IMF in 1983. Being the world's largest debtor nation affected Brazil's poor in predictable ways. In order to generate cash to make interest payments on the debt, more and more land was put towards cash crops like coffee and soy, displacing hundreds of thousands of subsistence farmers. Many fled to the cities, where they settled in burgeoning shantytowns. Others were relocated to places such as the Amazonian Rondonia, where they cleared forests in an effort to farm the land. World Bank-sponsored programs, such as hydroelectric dams that flood vast tracts of rainforest and displace thousands of indigenous people, have contributed to the social and ecological disaster. Brazil suffers not just from its immense foreign debt, but also from the hidden costs of environmental destruction, many internally displaced people, and an impoverished rural population—what many Brazilians call the "social debt."

Even during the dictatorship, workers in Brazil's growing industrial sector organized powerful and combative unions. The unions and the fragments of the Brazilian left that had survived 15 years of dictatorship founded the left-wing Workers' Party (PT) in 1979. These developments helped spur the policy of abertura—or "opening"—which the Brazilian dictatorship implemented as a way to control the transition to civilian rule. The easing of repression, in turn, led to the growth of grassroots social change movements, such as the Landless Workers' Movement (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra, or MST), and of opposition political parties such as the PT. Since the return to elections in 1988, the PT has won key state and local elections, and instituted important reforms. Perhaps its most groundbreaking reform is the participatory budget—a decision-making system that allows citizens a direct say over portions of their municipal budgets. The PT's best-known leader, the popular former auto worker Luis Inacio "Lula" da Silva, almost won the presidency in 1989 and is running again this year.

The MST, with support from the Catholic Church, began its struggle in 1985, taking over an unused plantation in the south of the country. The occupiers gained title to the land two years later. Since then, the MST has helped 300,000 families settle on previously idle land, while close to 100,000 other families are living on land they have occupied, waiting for government recognition. In May 2000, 30,000 MST members took over federal buildings across the country in a successful bid to persuade President Fernando Henrique Cardoso to address the country's extreme economic inequality. In response to pressure from the MST, Cardoso promised $1 billion in reforms. In addition to its successful resettlement program and considerable grassroots power, the MST boasts a sophisticated literacy program for adults and adolescents, as well as 1,000 primary schools, in which 2,000 teachers work with about 50,000 kids. According to Bill Hinchberger, writing for The Nation (March 2, 1998), "the MST represents Latin America's most dynamic popular movement south of Chiapas."

As such, it is not popular among certain segments of Brazilian society. The police and military, as well as landlords' private gunmen, still target activists. According to the Roman Catholic-run Pastoral Land Commission, over 1,100 people were killed in land disputes between 1985 and 1999. And only 47 cases have gone to trial, leading to just 18 convictions. In 2001, 16 MST activists were murdered, and few of the cases were properly investigated or brought to trial. "At least ten landowners are threatening me, saying that I will be next," José Brito, president of the Agricultural Workers Union of Rondon in the state of Para, has told the press. "Even thought I have registered complaints to the police station, I have never been called to give a deposition. Whoever fights for life here will have his own life threatened."

In addition to violent repression, the MST faces other challenges. According to Global Exchange, "landowners and some elected officials are trying to repeal the clause of the Brazilian constitution that says land should be used for social purposes—and can be redistributed if it is not. That provision has formed the legal foundation of the MST's occupations of unused lands." Furthermore, the World Bank's $2 billion "land bank" program, which offers loans to small farmers to purchase land, is transparently designed to undermine the grassroots-based MST. The MST must also contend with "free trade" agreements that knock down trade barriers, allowing cheap food to be imported from abroad, and undercutting domestic markets. The struggle ahead remains enormous. Today, 3% of Brazil's population still owns two-thirds of the country's arable land, much of which lies idle. Meanwhile, millions of peasants struggle to survive by working in temporary agricultural jobs.

At an MST cooperative in Herval, in the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul, which I visited in February 2002, I saw productive farms, well-built homes with electricity and running water, schools, and cultural activities. If the 40,000 who die from hunger each year in Brazil are the victims of "class warfare," as the UN's Ziegler argues, the MST is on the front line—fighting back, not with bullets, but with mass organizing and grassroots pressure to meet basic human needs.

While in Herval, Canadian activist and writer Justin Podur and I had the opportunity to talk with Joao Pedro Stedile, a member of the MST's national board.

—Cynthia Peters

D&S: What are the MST's main achievements?

JPS: Our most important success of all has been to build an organization and a social movement. We've won back the worth and dignity of the peasant. That has immeasurable value. It doesn't show up in statistics. But when a person stops being humiliated, stops being a slave, and they can walk with their head up, master of their own future, that's the most important thing we're building.

Beyond that, over the last 18 years, we've gotten land for 300,000 families, and though many of them remain poor, nobody in our settlements goes hungry. Everybody has work all year around. There are schools in all the settlements. All the children go to school. Everyone can build their own home. The houses may be humble, but nobody has to pay rent to anyone. At the very least, the people enjoy the basic rights of all people. That's what retaking the land means.

We're not satisfied with these modest achievements. Because in Brazil there are four million landless families. Our struggle is to broaden the movement, open up more battles, mobilize more people, because it's not just a matter of allowing a few people to solve their problems. This is important, of course. It offers an example. It's a form of mass education. But the fundamental thing is to change society, and solve the problems of all Brazilians, of all the poor.

D&S: You spoke of changing society. What are the next steps for the MST?

JPS: The challenges are huge. It's not going to be an easy struggle, nor a quick one. The road ahead will be rocky, not smooth. But there are both long-range struggles and more immediate ones.

In the long term, we're doing battle over what may decide the future of our country. I'm talking about the U.S. offensive to impose the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) on the Americas as a whole. The FTAA is more than a trade agreement. It is the U.S. government's plan to control our land, our wealth, our development, our technology, our currency, and our language. It would mean our submission to the interests of U.S. capital—to the less than 500 corporations at the top. And if that happens, we're back to being a colony, this time under the rule of the United States. So we have to fight to keep the FTAA from being imposed on Brazil. And not just on Brazil, but on the whole of Latin America. What we're going to do over the course of the coming months and years is help inform the people, organize them, raise their consciousness. In addition to fighting for land, health, and shelter, we have to stop the FTAA. That's going to mean demonstrations, mass meetings, lots and lots of different initiatives to inform and politicize people. Beyond that, every social movement has to continue its own specific work—we in the landless movement have to keep on occupying more and more landed estates. Our compatriots who have been displaced by dam construction will keep on fighting against the dams. The unemployed movements in the city will broaden their struggles for employment. The workers who are threatened will keep organizing, like for the general strike this March.

We're going to try and promote all these struggles in hopes of reawakening the people and reviving the mass movement here in Brazil. Because right now it's receding. With a revival of the mass movement, we can hope to change the government, and the reigning economic model.

D&S: What do you think of the Workers' Party's participatory budget process?

JPS: Well, there are some positive things about it, but also some criticisms to make.

D&S: What are the criticisms?

JPS: That, in the end, the people really only have a say over 5%—or, at the most, 10%—of the budget. Because the rest—including salaries, foreign debt payments, etc.—is fixed by law. All public budgets in Brazil have 13% of the total tied up by the IMF. They're required to deposit this in the bank to pay the debt. So, for example, in this state, which is governed by a people's government, by the left, education gets 11% of the budget, while the IMF gets 13%. That means the power of the people to change things through the participatory budget process is very limited.

D&S: So, what's the positive side?

JPS: It's that the participatory budget creates an opportunity for the people to voice their opinions. For the people to have a say about the overall problems of their society. It's like an exercise that points toward creating a general assembly of the society as a whole. Here in Rio Grande do Sul, we have a population of 12 million. You can't fit 12 million people into a single room. But the idea of the participatory budget process is that everyone can take part and have a say. So the main value of the process is not how much of the budget people have a say over, but as a democratic exercise that teaches people that they have a right to a say.

D&S: What would you say to activists and social movements in North America?

JPS: We're very interested in U.S. social movements. The landless movement enjoys the support of solidarity committees in many U.S. cities, which help us and help publicize our efforts. But what gratifies us the most is hearing about the people in the United States, even if they're not a majority yet, who are mobilizing as well, and fighting against their government. We understand that the people of the United States don't know the real impact of the actions of their government. We hope that, slowly, they will begin to realize that, as peoples, we're the same. It's like an old U.S. journalist put it. He was a "cousin" or an "ancestor" of you who have come here from the United States. And he really said it in your honor. Because he was a social activist, and he went to cover the Spanish Civil War, like you have come here to Porto Alegre. When he came back, he wrote a book, which was called No Man is a Foreigner—meaning "man" in the general sense. What does that mean? That all peoples are alike. It's governments and capital, which enriches itself from the labor of others, that are bad. So we have to build a great, international alliance, which is what this forum is for. And we hope and expect that U.S. activists, fighting in the dragon's own gut, will help us kill this monster.

Translated from Spanish by Alejandro Reuss.