The MST & the Political Economy of Agrarian Reform in Brazil: 25 Years of Resistance to Neoliberal Rule

ALI MUSTAFA | June 11th 2009

The following essay has been updated with a new section on the ‘Lula’ government and is now published, with full references, in the latest issue of Relay

This essay is dedicated to all my friends and comrades of the Landless Rural Workers Movement (MST) in Brazil. A special dedication with love and solidarity to: Osvaldo, Andreia, Aline, Ammine, Michel, Romolo, and Tim Balada of the Assentamento, Professor Luiz D. Macedo. Until we meet again soon. A luta continua!


Brazil is a country of glaring polarization, at once among the wealthiest (in terms of GDP) and most unequal (by any equivalent measure) in the world. Formally the last country to abolish slavery in 1888, Brazil officially became a republic one year later in 1889 following a long and brutal history of Portuguese colonial rule dating back to the early 1500s whose deep rooted legacy of corruption, clientelism, and impunity still endures to this day. The intense concentration of wealth and land distribution by the ancien regime amidst the extreme poverty and social exclusion of the urban and rural poor in Brazil today cannot be understood in isolation, but instead reflect a historical continuum that has seen colonial rule finally overcome only to inherit all of its essential qualities.

Whereas several Latin American countries (including Mexico, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Nicaragua, etc.) have undergone sweeping land reform as a necessary precursor to reducing structural inequality and alleviating widespread social unrest, Brazil by contrast has yet to address in any substantive sense land ownership laws that have ruled the country uninterrupted since the colonial era. Second only to post-Apartheid South Africa, Brazil currently has the highest concentration of land ownership anywhere in the world with over ¾ of all arable land in the country under the control of just 3% of the population –1.2 billion acres of which (40-60% in total) is lying permanently idle and unused. It is within this particular historical context that the emergence of the Landless Rural Workers Movement (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra– MST) and its ongoing struggle for agrarian reform in Brazil must be understood.

Land ownership patterns in Brazil have shown extremely little variation over time, suggesting deep rooted collusion between the state and the traditional land owning elite to preserve the prevailing status quo. From the colonial era wherein land (under the latifundio system) was treated as a symbol of status and a measure of proximity to power; to the military dictatorship of the 1960s – 80s under which rural production underwent a process of intense neoliberal restructuring; and finally under a return to civilian rule in the mid 1980s whose decided focus continues to be political stability and economic growth, no government (past or present) has gone so far as to fundamentally challenge existing land ownership laws in Brazil, much less seriously address the wider question of agrarian reform.

Yet the contemporary state has taken more measures in the interests of agrarian reform than any efforts before it, mediating with the MST the resettlement of millions of urban and rural landless, overseeing disputed land title claims with the movement, and guaranteeing a variety of essential services within its numerous won settlements. If we are to accept that agrarian reform in Brazil of the kind that the MST actively seeks is contrary to the interests of the traditional land owning elite and global dominant capital, with which the state has historically been aligned, the resulting question necessarily follows: how can the state both endorse a limited agrarian reform, yet under the current neoliberal regime remain ideologically opposed to it?

Advancement of a limited agrarian reform in Brazil is not only entirely consistent with the overall logic of capital but is in fact a central tenet of the wider neoliberal project occurring in the country today, allowing the vast, unexploited expanse of the countryside to do as much to resolve the existing challenge of mass urban and rural unemployment as to fundamentally undercut the revolutionary potential of the MST as a movement. The dynamic relationship between the state and the MST is thus not one of genuine horizontal cooperation, nor of co-optation from above, but instead the product of historical pressure and mobilization from below in which the state has favored a limited agrarian reform under its auspices over a genuine agrarian reform wherein the threat of broader social change beyond of its control would be the likely, if not inevitable, result.

Organization & vision 

The formation of the MST can be understood as the cumulative expression of at least three fundamental processes: first, a conservative capitalist modernization program launched in the 1960s specifically targeted towards the agricultural sector that only intensified the conflict over land; secondly, an ideological convergence between Latin American liberation theology under the Catholic Church, ideas inspired from the Marxist left, and the MST’s own unique synthesis of radical pedagogy and praxis, commonly referred to in the movement as ‘mistica‘; and lastly, the vital experience of collective organization gained throughout the 1960s-70s under the military dictatorship, when land occupations (albeit small scale and largely spontaneous at the time) were first explored as an effective means of resistance.

At the very core of the MST as a movement lies a general emancipatory project that is integrally linked but not limited in scope to the question of agrarian reform. In thought in as much as action, the pursuit of agrarian reform and wider social change in Brazil are not mutually exclusive aims but, in fact, together constitute the twin pillars that guide the MST – one cannot be accomplished without the mutual fulfillment of the other; that is to say, in order to achieve agrarian reform, a prior transformation of existing social relations is required, which in turn cannot hope to succeed under the same mode of production from which the inherent exploitation therein originates. As the mandate of the MST, taken here from its own website, suggests:

…this proposal for agrarian reform is part of a desire of the Brazilian working class for a new society: egalitarian and socialist. In this sense, the measures proposed as necessary form part of broad process of changes in society, and fundamentally, of a change from the present-day capitalist structure of the organization of production.

Consisting of coordinating bodies at the regional, state, and national levels within an overall cooperative framework, the MST represents a highly complex model of grassroots democracy. Autonomous from the state or any given political party affiliations, MST settlements assume a dual political and economic character that must coexist in order to produce a community of people who are, according to one MST leader, “…responsible, politically aware, culturally developed, and in solidarity and brotherhood with each other.” Each MST settlement (within given limits that reflect the guiding principles of the movement at large) enjoys a degree of relative autonomy that can result in a diverse range of rules, customs, and even patterns of land use between them. Although in principle land use between individual MST settlements may vary from cooperative to private or some combination both, in practice virtually every aspect of daily life – be it in the form of practical knowledge or manual labour – is already by default communal.

Practical knowledge and manual labour are in themselves not only indivisible but together constitute a mutually reinforcing cycle of pedagogy and praxis that perpetually reproduces itself within the movement. Even within MST settlements that are arranged under private plots for example, all major projects that require manual labour beyond the given capacity of an individual or their family, such as the construction of a house, are coordinated between units of 5-15 families (called a nucleo de base); each individual within a unit brings with them to the group their own unique knowledge and set of skills to the task ahead, the cumulative effect of which is practical knowledge that was once specific to its owner is now socialized, and manual labour that was once exploitative is now a common collective enterprise imbued with new transformative possibility.

The current system of organization within the MST, as well as the corresponding objective to construct a ‘new society’ therein, could hardly be possible without the unique combination of pedagogy and praxis that have come to form the ideological basis underpinning the movement. Since the inception of the MST, education has always been understood as a critical tool of empowerment – not only to educate the youth, or politicize its membership in general, but also to ensure that together they will have the collective means to become active agents towards their own self-determination. A sense of collective identity and common cause cultivated through the representation of words, art, music, poetry, symbolism, and the general social realities under which the movement must operate, encompasses what is known as the ‘mistica’. Mistica forms part of the movement, but is not institutionalized; it is spiritual, but not religious or denominational in that there are no formal rules that are to be followed; rather it refers to a general sentiment, shared and experienced principally through a historical connection to the land that is at once profound and irreducible to any single explanation. A member of the MST summarizes the significance of mistica as follows:

Mistica is also used to refer to the more abstract, emotional element, strengthened in collectivity, which can be described as the feeling of empowerment, love, and solidarity that serves as a mobilizing force by inspiring self sacrifice, humility, and courage.

Structural origins 

The MST has in the span of 25 years of organized struggle come to represent not only the single largest social movement in Latin America but also one of the leading sites of resistance to neoliberal rule globally, expressing the popular will of millions of disenfranchised urban and rural poor alike. Founded during the final year of the military dictatorship in 1984 following a gathering of rural peasants, sharecroppers, and small-scale family farmers from across 16 Brazilian states, the MST today comprises an estimated membership of 2 million people and is currently organized in 23 of the country’s 26 states. Under the popular banner of ‘occupy, resist, produce!’, the MST assumes non-violent direct action through occupations of idle or otherwise unproductive land in order to apply pressure on the state to redistribute the land in favor of those who work it.

The process of staging land occupations typically consists of two critical stages: under the first and by far most precarious stage (called anencampamento/encampment), members of the MST usually assess the potential site as to its level of productive use several months in advance, whereupon if the land is deemed either idle or extremely underexploited they then commence to occupy it and establish temporary black plastic tents therein; during the following stage (called an assentamento/settlement), the National Institute for Colonization and Agrarian Reform (Instituto Nacional de Colonização e Reforma Agrária – INCRA) undertakes a formal evaluation of the the occupied land while the MST ensues to petition the government to award the land title to the movement, which even when successful is a process that can take anywhere between 2-10 years of bureaucratic wrangling with the state.

Beyond the historical and material impetus underpinning the strategy of large scale land occupations as a means to redress a deep-rooted tradition of unequal land distribution, no such course of action would be in any way sustainable today were it not for the constitutional basis under which, meeting certain conditions, it is deemed legitimate under Brazilian law. The latest version of the Brazilian constitution (1988) states that all arable land in the country is required to serve its ‘wider social function’, authorizing the government (as per Article 184) to expropriate for the purposes of agrarian reform any such property that does not fulfill this central criteria. Article 86 of the Brazilian constitution for example, stipulates that the ‘wider social function’ of rural land encompasses, among various provisions: rational and adequate use, environmental preservation, and compliance with governing labor relations standards.

Although basic criteria regulating land expropriation is guaranteed under the current Brazilian constitution, whether or not rural land is meeting its ‘wider social function’ is a matter entirely subject to government interpretation, whereby a long and protracted legal process – if not outright bureaucratic obstruction in the interests of the traditional land owning elite – usually follows. Illegal land acquisitions through fraudulent or forged titles (called grilagem) carried out by large landowners is another common practice that continues to forestall a process of meaningful land redistribution in Brazil. Failing all other means of recourse available to them – including negotiation, petition, and appeals to constitutional law – the MST sees itself with little choice but to advance the cause of agrarian reform where the state itself has failed to do so. MST land occupations have, in this way, now resettled approximately 350,000 families on over 48,000,000 hectares of land.

Land as power: from dictatorship to democratic rule

Land in Brazil has traditionally been much more than a mere factor of production, serving as a manifestation of both wealth and political power in the country. Whereas under the US Homestead Act (1862) land was granted to anyone who settled on it, Brazil’s Land Law (Lei da Terra – 1850), in contrast, prohibited the acquisition of land by any means outside of purchase; inasmuch in law as in practice, little has changed since. Under a widely decentralized and regionally-based federal state apparatus, the traditional land owning elite still assumes a degree of influence over land ownership policy in Brazil that is altogether unrivaled. Rather than attempt to reverse the historical pattern of land concentration in Brazil, the state has instead committed itself to ensure the successful incorporation of the countryside into an overall modernization program whereby agricultural, industrial, and financial sources of capital accumulation can effectively coexist while leaving the wider question of agrarian reform off the political agenda.

During the era of the military dictatorship in Brazil – and only deepened with renewed conviction under each successive government thereafter – rural production underwent a process of intense neoliberal restructuring that, still today, continues to inform state policy towards the question of agrarian reform. Fulfilling only a minimal degree of land redistribution such that complete social unrest would not erupt in the countryside, the military dictatorship was much more attentive to matters relating to order and security than to the historical grievances of the rural and urban poor. While the struggle for land was being portrayed by the military dictatorship as archaic and increasingly irrelevant under modern capitalism, land owners saw improved tax breaks, subsidized credit, and price supports that both intensified land concentration and destroyed traditional family farming in the process. Adopting economic modernization as a substitute for wider land redistribution, the military dictatorship would prove a vital ally to the interests of the traditional land owning elite in Brazil and global dominant capital alike.

President Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1995-98; 1999-02), following the transition to civilian rule, would inherit a neoliberal development model that was producing an extreme gap between wealth and poverty in the countryside such that even the Brazilian right-wing at this point conceded the need for at least a limited agrarian reform. The Cardoso administration thus oversaw a scale of land redistribution in Brazil that still remains unsurpassed today, securing for the purposes of agrarian reform over 28 million acres of land and authorizing more settlements than all previous governments between the years of 1970-94 combined. Nevertheless, far from representing a gesture of goodwill, or suggesting a major departure with prior state policy, the Cardoso administration understood above all else that idle and unproductive land to the extent that it exists in Brazil is useless to the interests of economic growth; the agricultural sector was one of the most competitive in the country and could at once “…generate exports, anchor the Real Plan [aimed at financial stabilization], provide cheap food to the cities, and survive any deepening regional trade integration that the government decided to undertake.”

Under an exploding rate of rural unemployment that saw an estimated 25 million people at the time (a figure now probably even higher) go without access to any land, the Cardoso administration not only successfully avoided the creation of a huge reserve army of labor in the countryside through piecemeal land redistribution but, within an overall neoliberal framework, was able to ensure the continued exploitation of resettled families by keeping them externally dependent on crop seeds, agrochemicals, machinery, and various other inputs. Even when land was expropriated and settlements were awarded, the process often consisted of collusion between INCRA officials and land owners to purchase the land at a higher price than its actual market value; a September 1999 study contains evidence of no less than 70 such cases in which the Cardoso administration overpaid for land in excess of $7 billion, enough money to resettle on the same land an additional 300,000 families. Because the cost of the land is typically part of the debt contracted by resettled families, it could in many cases take a lifetime to pay off. Unable to service the debt, ¼ of these families ended up leaving the settlements within 2 years in order to migrate to the city seeking work, only to find themselves inhabitants of massive urban slums (called favelas) shortly thereafter.

Despite its often celebrated accomplishments in the area of land redistribution, in the final analysis the Cardoso administration suggested far more continuity than change. The record scale of land redistribution accomplished during Cardoso’s two terms in office can be attributed as much to historical pressure and mobilization from below as to the knowledge that cooperation with the MST towards a limited agrarian reform would be strategically superior to a potentially revolutionary conflict in the countryside. But with resistance has come success, which in turn has brought repression. As the scale of MST land occupations since the 1970’s has soared, so too has state repression in response. Repression against the MST is driven overwhelmingly by the concern that the intensification of the conflict over land in Brazil might serve as a template to be repoduced elsewhere, posing a legitimate threat to the prevailing logic of neoliberal rule overall.

Repression and resistance

Repression in the form of state-sanctioned massacres of MST members (not to mention those by gun-thugs in the pay of large landowners) has unfortunately been an all too common occurrence throughout the now 25 year history of the movement, stirring outrage within the families of targeted victims, their friends, and Brazilian society at large. But what we have seen in the case of the MST is that repression not only does more to encourage protest than to deter it, but can also win the movement valuable public support and media attention that may sometimes compel the state to be more receptive to its demands. One such example of when repression and opportunity fatefully converged to the advantage of the MST was during the fallout of the now infamous massacre in Eldorado dos Carajás, located in the northern Brazilian state of Pará (April 17, 1996).

Generating both national and international outrage, the massacre was even covered in the traditionally conservative mainstream Brazilian media in terms that were favorable to the MST. Emerging stronger and more defiant than ever, the MST organized a historic march to Brasilia, the country’s federal capital, exactly one year after the massacre occurred. Framed as a ‘symbolic invasion’, the march took in all 2 months to complete – an average of 20 km per day – and received widespread daily media coverage in Brazil; however, the overall objective to open a channel of communication with society and advance the aims of the movement more generally was summarized by one MST member as follows:

With the authorities, it is like the summary of a soccer game; it does not decide the result, just records the number of goals scored. The game was the march; the arrival in Brasilia and society’s reaction was the score. The Landless, the working class, and those fighting against neoliberalism have scored a goal against the FHC [Cardoso] government.

The ‘Lula’ years: same struggle, new phase

Fully accustomed by now to a hostile neoliberal development model in the countryside, the MST could not help but be somewhat optimistic when former trade union leader Luiz Inácio ‘Lula’ da Silva of the Worker’s Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores – PT) was elected President in 2002. Following three consecutive failed attempts at office since 1989, Lula’s election victory split the MST into two separate camps: those who supported putting a temporary halt to all major land occupations in order to give the new government space to operate, confident that genuine change would come in due time; and those who insisted that the struggle for agrarian reform must continue uninterrupted regardless of who is officially in power. But early signs of compromise on several key campaign promises caused Lula’s image as a reliable ally to come under serious doubt and essentially settled the internal debate. It was not long before any MST support for Lula and the PT completely fell silent, replaced first by quiet skepticism, then eventually outright disillusionment with a neoliberal agenda that could scarcely be distinguished from that of the previous Cardoso administration.

Due in large part to a multi-party parliamentary system in Brazil in which no single party, small or large, can effectively govern without first securing a power-sharing alliance with its rivals, Lula came to power on already contradictory terms – accountable to the poor and working class that voted him into office, yet intimately linked to a variety of conservative forces whose interests remain imbedded with the country’s business and financial sectors. When Lula took office vowing to faithfully continue the previous government’s dual policy of political stability and economic growth, the message of assurance to foreign investors that Brazil was, in effect, ‘open for business’ rang loud and clear. Since capitulating to elite interests so early in his presidency, Lula has not only lost the support of former allies such as the MST but even managed to alienate key members of his own party in the process. Several PT officials have since resigned in order to join or form new parties, including most recently Senator and former Environmental Minister Marina Silva who left her post in order to join the Green Party only a few weeks ago. The PT has over time gone from a popular Left platform in the 1980’s, to a brand of democratic-socialism in the 1990’s, and finally to the neoliberal orthodoxy of today under Lula.

Despite several key advances made by the Lula administration in recent years that have directly benefited the MST such as higher credit to small family farmers, slightly increasing the minimum wage, and alleviating targeted repression against the movement, the sum of its failures continue to far outweigh the achievements. Under the National Agrarian Reform Plan (Plano Nacional de Reforma Agrária – PNRA), Lula promised to resettle 550,000 families by 2007; however, according to the MST, only 163,000 of them have actually been moved to date – 30% of the total target goal; 500, 000 of those families in all were to be awarded legal land titles as well, out of which only 113,000 – 22% in total – have seen such results. Although the Lula administration refutes such statistics and claims to have in fact reach its stated target goal, the official government records include only those families that have been resettled on existing settlements rather than new or recently occupied camps.

Land concentration in Brazil has, in fact, increased under the Lula administration due in large part to the intensive monoculture of cash-crops such as sugarcane, soybean, maize, and eucalyptus. Brazil is for example the world’s top exporter of sugarcane-based ethanol fuel, providing over 70% of the total market supply; however, while national revenues from ethanol fuel have grown exponentially, so too have already existing problems in the Brazilian countryside as a direct result: conflict over land, hunger, unemployment, loss of biodiversity, and a renewed concentration of both land and wealth. Far from the ‘green’ alternative to harmful fossil fuels that it has been unfittingly branded, the ethanol fuel industry is in reality a total social and ecological disaster that continues to reproduce the same export-oriented logic of rural production that has been in place since the colonial era.

Following the Lula administration’s highly controversial decision to lift a ban on the production of genetically modified (GM) crops in 2005, the MST was forced to shift focus somewhat from the traditional land owning elite in Brazil to even more powerful multinational corporations such as Syngenta, Cargill, and Monstanto who together control the lucrative global market of GM seeds. The growing pressure faced by small family farmers to produce higher crop yields on less land than ever before, just in order to stay competitive in the marketplace, has forced many of them to turn increasingly towards GM seeds and agrochemicals that not only encourage debt but pollute the land in the process. In addition, the general trend towards vertical integration by way of mergers and acquisitions has only served to consolidate corporate power over the agricultural sector in Brazil.

Under the fashionable rhetoric of the popular Left, Lula has attempted to win over the support of the urban and rural poor even as he advances a neoliberal agenda whose aim is to ensure that they will continue to suffer. Unfortunately, the upcoming elections in 2010 seem to forecast little change as the two lead candidates so far are Lula’s handpicked successor and Conservative São Paulo State Governor Jose Serra. But the MST has always assumed a safe distance from the formal political arena, fully aware that social change does not come from the routine election of leaders, but instead grassroots mass mobilization and direct action to which those in power are merely the backdrop. As one young MST activist affirms, “The difficulties under Lula are great, but our mission is greater.”


The struggle for land in Brazil is the inevitable product of a history of rural production that, under the current configuration of neoliberal capitalism, is increasingly outmoded. Between the respective governments of the military dictatorship, President Cardoso, and current President Luiz Inácio ‘Lula’ da Silva, each of them has pursued a modernization program of the country’s agricultural sector that has put productivity and poverty in the countryside in direct conflict with each other – a necessary contradiction in the interests of ‘ national development’; the possibility that access to land could actually improve productivity has never been seriously explored, instead favoring market-based solutions to historically-rooted social problems. Agrarian reform as state policy has thus been advanced only insofar as it could preempt the threat of a wider social upheaval. The MST itself represents an alternative model of development – one that is at once rooted in the spirit of struggle of the past, the hope and aspirations of millions of urban and rural poor of today, and the ‘new society’ of tomorrow.