Land Reform Under Lula

One Step Forward, One Step Back

By Chris Tilly, Marie Kennedy, and Tarso Luís Ramos

This article is from the September/October 2009 issue of Dollars & Sense: Real World Economics available at

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The Landless Workers’ Movement (MST) of Brazil, which has mobilized more than a million Brazilians to occupy and farm large landholdings, was cautiously optimistic when Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva of the Workers Party won the presidency in 2002. “We campaign for Lula,” remarked MST organizer Jonas da Silva (no relation) during the campaign, “even though we are critical of him for shaping his discourse for the middle class.” In the country with perhaps the most unequal land distribution in the world, electing a pro-worker, pro-poor president marked a potential turning point.

But as Lula finishes up his second term (new presidential elections take place in October 2010), the MST’s assessment is grim. Land redistribution has stagnated, the government continues to bet on agribusiness as a development strategy and, most threateningly, powerful regional politicians are moving to criminalize the land seizure movement as “terrorist.” The MST is doing its best to fight back, but controversial recent MST strategies and antagonistic mass media have diminished the popularity of a movement that once enjoyed widespread national support.

Land Reform, “Não!” Agribusiness, “Sim!”

Lula followed on the two presidential terms of Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who had implemented an unapologetic neoliberal program of free trade, privatization, and containing the demands of workers and the urban and rural poor. There was good reason for hope, since the Workers Party had formed close alliances with the MST and a variety of other social movements. The post-dictatorship constitution of 1988 affirms that land is for socially productive uses, a requirement past governments have at times invoked under pressure to confiscate and redistribute property. But to the dismay of landless families hoping for a plot to cultivate, land redistribution actually moved slightly more slowly in Lula’s first term than under Cardoso. As the end of his second term approaches, it seems unlikely that Lula will manage to settle more families through agrarian reform than his neoliberal predecessor. What’s more, three-quarters of the land redistributed by Lula has been in the remote (and in many cases ecologically fragile) Amazonia region, far from the concentrations of people petitioning for land, such as in the impoverished Northeast. Nearly half of Cardoso’s land grants were in Amazonia.

Despite the slow pace of land reform, there are some signs of progress. João Paulo Rodrigues, a MST National Directorate member based in São Paulo, noted, “Lula has provided better supports for small farmers in the form of credit, technical assistance, education, electrification, and roads”—though still not enough. He added that the Lula administration has dropped the Cardoso government’s campaign to criminalize the MST (though, as we will explain further below, various state governments have revived that effort). While the number of killings of landless activists surged the first year Lula was in power as the movement shifted land occupations into high gear, violence has now abated to a lower level than under Cardoso. “There is a change in the form of persecution,” explained Maria Luisa Mendonça of Social Network for Justice and Human Rights (Rede Social), a human rights group that works closely with the MST. “Instead of killing activists, now they [state governments, which are chiefly responsible for law enforcement] arrest them. It’s better than killing them, but it doesn’t mean that the persecution has ended.”

Lula’s government has also undertaken other progressive reforms, most notably the “Bolsa Familia” (literally, family pocketbook) program that provides a basic income to the very poorest families. Though the aid does not confront the structural causes of poverty, it provides a crucial margin of survival and offers incentives for families to keep their children in school. Responding to criticism that Bolsa Familia is a form of clientelism, the MST’s Rodrigues reasoned, “Yes, it’s clientelism. But given the extreme poverty in Brazil and the large numbers of people going hungry, these clientelist policies are necessary.” He quickly added, “Necessary, but insufficient.” The MST’s support (if grudging) is notable, because arguably the stipend reduces the incentive for families to take the risk of occupying land, potentially weakening the landless movement’s social base.

The MST’s biggest disappointment with Lula has been the former militant union leader’s enthusiastic embrace of agribusiness. The Brazilian economy rode high on the commodities boom of the 2000s, with huge expansions in soy, sugar cane, and eucalyptus plantations (the last primarily for paper production). Factory farming is expanding at a ferocious clip: according to MST leader Rodrigues, in three years in the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul alone, 300,000 new hectares of eucalyptus have been planted (a hectare is about 2.5 acres), dwarfing the 100,000 hectares the MST has put into cultivation in its entire 25 years of activity. The environmental consequences have been predictably negative: monocropping, heavy use of chemical inputs and genetically modified strains, voracious water consumption (eucalyptus plantations have been dubbed “green deserts”), toxic by-products, and expansion into wetlands in the Amazon and other areas—especially in the case of sugar cane. Ironically, much of the sugar cane goes into Brazil’s massive “eco-friendly” ethanol fuel industry. Unlike the U.S.’s corn-based ethanol industry, Brazil’s cane-based system makes money without subsidies—but this accounting overlooks the unmeasured costs of environmental devastation and labor exploitation (or the fossil fuel used in its production and, in the case of export, transportation). The Brazilian government was to announce regional zoning barring sugar cane from Amazonia in February 2009, but that declaration has not yet materialized and human rights advocate Mendonça states flatly, “I don’t think it’s going to happen.”

But if the environmental consequences of agribusiness have been dire, the social consequences are at least as ominous. Far from displacing Brazil’s traditional landed oligarchy, the agribusiness boom has forged a new alliance between giant landowners, chemical-agricultural transnationals such as Monsanto and Syngenta, and the national government. The plantations generate exports, but few jobs: the MST estimates that eucalyptus monocropping creates one job per 185 hectares, as compared to one job per hectare for small-scale farming. Those jobs created are often poor, sometimes to the point of being subhuman. Social Network found that in 2007-8, half the reported cases of slave labor in Brazil (3,000 of 6,000 cases) were found in the sugar cane industry. Despite such concerns, the scale of government support has been nothing short of astounding. According to American University political scientist Miguel Carter, “from 2003 to 2007, state support for the rural elite was seven times larger than that offered to the nation’s family farmers, even though the latter represent 87 percent of Brazil’s rural labor force and produce the bulk of food consumed by its inhabitants.” The reason for this asymmetry is not just economic pragmatism, but also political arithmetic: despite a nominally democratic system, the tiny minority of large landowners controls the majority of seats in Congress. As the MST’s Rodrigues wryly observed, “Lula has a majority in the House of Representatives and only falls a little short in the Senate. But he gets that majority by proposing policies that serve agribusiness.”

From Escalation to Criminalization

Sizing up the agribusiness menace and the opportunity posed by Lula’s victory, the MST made two fateful decisions in 2003. One was to accelerate land occupations to force the land question with Lula’s government. The second move was to depart from its historic policy of only taking lands that were fallow or where major violations of labor rights were taking place, and adding to its targets productive agribusiness plantations, which the movement sees as the principal threat to the survival and expansion of small farms in Brazil. In some cases, activists have adopted disruption, as when close to 2,000 women affiliated with the Peasant Women’s Movement (MMC)—which, like the MST, is a member of the global peasant coalition La Vía Campesina—entered a facility of the Aracruz Cellulose corporation and speedily destroyed greenhouses and nearly eight million eucalyptus saplings on International Women’s Day in April 2006. The protest was particularly embarrassing to Lula’s government, taking place as it did just outside the city of Porto Alegre where the president was busy hosting the United Nations’ International Conference on Agrarian Reform and Development (ICARRD) and positioning his government and Brazil as a world leader on land reform. The major Brazilian media, as tightly tied to the big landowners as is Brazil’s Congress and always quick to find fault with the MST, cried foul. They were joined by a number of prominent intellectuals, such as José de Souza Martins, the country’s best-known rural sociologist, who, even before the action, had branded the MST as Luddites.

Tactical escalation combined with media condemnation turned Brazilian public opinion, quite favorable in the late 1990s, against the MST. This even extends to likely supporters: in a mid-2009 interview, a youth organizer in a São Paulo favela (slum), whose philosophy and organizing approach mesh closely with the MST’s, decried the organization’s alleged violence and confrontational attitude; he conceded that his source for the information was the same media he didn’t trust as a source on urban issues. A Social Network review of 300 articles about the MST in Brazil’s four largest-circulation dailies found only eight that were neutral or partly positive.

Complicating matters, being the largest and best-known agrarian reform movement in Brazil, the MST is saddled with the negative press coverage given to other radical groups working for land redistribution. Even as public opinion turned against the Landless Workers’ Movement, former close MST allies such as the left-leaning Unified Federation of Workers (CUT) union closed ranks with the Lula administration against threats from the right, distancing themselves from the MST.

The worst was yet to come. In 2006, conservative Yeda Crusius won the governorship in Rio Grande do Sul, a state with strong MST organization and a high pitch of militant land struggles (including the Aracruz action). Crusius set out to target the MST. She attempted to eliminate the so-called “itinerant schools” that provide funding for teachers to travel to rural areas—a keystone of the infrastructure of the temporary encampments where MST families live while fighting to obtain land. The MST has developed its own curriculum and teacher training (based on Freirean pedagogy), oriented to the realities of rural life and a participatory vision of citizenship, and closing the itinerant schools would have wiped out this curriculum and compelled children to travel to the cities for their education. Crusius’ administration spoke of “saving children from aggressive indoctrination.” The governor finally backed off in mid-2009 as international criticism mounted, and the mayors of the state made it clear that they did not want farm children flooding their schools.

But even more significantly, once she was elected, Crusius swiftly mobilized the Office of the Federal Prosecutor to criminalize the MST, dusting off the dictatorship-era National Security Law to charge eight movement leaders with belonging to an organization that uses violent means to undermine democracy (charges were later dropped against two of the eight). The case includes far-fetched allegations, for example that the MST is allied with Colombia’s rebel Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC), but the prosecutions are bolstered by what lawyer/advocate Aton Fon Filho of Social Network calls “the most conservative judiciary in the country.” Fon, who is defending the MST activists, said, “We think we’ll win the case. But meanwhile, it has a huge propaganda impact—all those headlines saying ‘MST leaders charged with terrorism!’”

The MST is not the only land rights organization suffering from a government crackdown. “There is more organized persecution of social movements in general,” said Fon, though other prosecutions involve individual charges rather than an attempt to criminalize an entire organization. For example, in the state of Tocantins in the north, the government has arrested 16 activists of the Movement of Dam Affected Peoples (MAB). And the killings of land reform leaders have not ended. Two activists from the Pastoral Land Commissions (the Catholic Church-based organizations that spawned the MST) in Mato Grosso do Sul were killed in June 2009. And in the Amazon state of Pará, trials are continuing of the accused in the 2005 murder of American nun Sister Dorothy Stang, who challenged deforestation and supported redistribution of lands the military dictatorship had awarded to local elites. According to Fon, “The person convicted of ordering the murder is free pending a fourth trial in the case while the rancher suspected of actually orchestrating the plot has yet to be tried.”

A Cloudy Future

One could criticize the MST for ramping up its tactics at a delicate moment, but that would be missing the point: through its entire history, the MST has only been able to chip away at the disproportionate power of the landholding minority via high-profile tactics of civil disobedience and disruption. Others might argue that the MST is holding Lula’s feet to the fire in terms of accountability and promises made on agrarian reform. But that said, what are the prospects for near-term success? “Agrarian reform depends on two things,” the MST’s Rodrigues explained. “The organization of the people, and a progressive government willing to work with us. In 25 years of work, we have made much progress in organizing, but we have not encountered a people’s government truly committed to agrarian reform.”

The 2010 presidential elections do not hold out much hope in this regard. The two likely leading candidates are Lula’s chief of staff, Dilma Rousseff of the Workers’ Party, and José Serra of the Brazilian Social Democratic Party (the party of Cardoso and Crusius). “Both are to the right of Lula,” commented Rodrigues. Given the political context, the MST is doing its best to fend off legal challenges, build new alliances, and continue organizing. International support can be tremendously important, as in the case of the itinerant schools in Rio Grande do Sul. And the underlying social issues are not going away. At bottom, as long as the distribution of land in Brazil remains so lopsided, there will be a mission and a social base for organizing the landless.

Marie Kennedy is professor emerita of Community Planning at the University of Massachusetts-Boston and visiting professor in Urban Planning at UCLA. She is a member of the board of directors of Grassroots International.

Tarso Luís Ramos is director of Political Research Associates in Somerville, Mass., and a member of the board of directors of Grassroots International.

Chris Tilly is a Dollars & Sense Associate and director of the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment and professor of urban planning at UCLA.

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