Brazil’s Landless Workers Persist Through Agroecology

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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.

“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.

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.

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.

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.