Skip to content
View Featured Image

The Landless Workers’ Movement At 40

This month marks the 40th anniversary of the largest social movement in the Americas: Brazil’s Landless Workers’ Movement, or MST (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra in Portuguese).

What began as a group of displaced farmers has evolved over decades into a mass movement — with as many as two million members and a presence in 24 of Brazil’s 26 states. Today, the movement is the largest producer of organic food in Brazil and the largest producer of organic rice in all Latin America.

While Brazil remains one of the world’s most unequal nations, the MST has made incredible progress during their 40 years of existence — achievements that can inspire efforts to reduce rural inequality in the United States and elsewhere.

Forty Years of Grassroots Land Reform

The MST uses Brazil’s legal system to redistribute unused, unproductive land. The key: Article 184 of the country’s 1988 constitution, giving the government the power to expropriate and redistribute land that is “not fulfilling its social function.”

The MST has used this power to help 350,000 families receive land titles. These families live in “relatively autonomous rural communities” throughout Brazil — communities organized around principles of direct democracy and sustainable agriculture.

Their primary goals: feed the hungry and educate the people.

To do so, the MST has championed critical pedagogy and sustainable agriculture. Since 2000, agroecology — an academic discipline and sustainable farming approach aimed at balancing the needs of environment and society — has formed a central part of the movement’s platform. Regarding agroecology as the key to resilient food systems, the movement has pioneered its research — often partnering with public universities to offer courses in the discipline.

Indeed, the MST views sustainable agriculture as an extension of democracy itself.

“Today, to fight for land reform means to deepen the ongoing process of democratization,” wrote three MST agroecology education leaders. “Agroecology is at the center of the persistent land reform debate, pointing a way to food sovereignty for those who live in the countryside and for those who live in the city.”

Beyond its work with public universities, the MST organizes many other education programs. Over the past four decades, these programs helped 100,000 Brazilians become literate. Taking inspiration from Brazilian educator and philosopher Paulo Freire, their education initiatives center creativity and critical thinking.

“We teach children to look around them and not to accept what they see as given […] We encourage them to ask questions,” explains one MST leader.

Finally, during the Covid-19 pandemic, the movement saved lives. Brazil does not have a national food supply policy and more than half of all Brazilians live with some degree of food insecurity — with 9 percent of the population at risk of death by starvation. During the pandemic, the situation got even worse as food insecurity rates reached record levels.

Filling gaps left by the government and private sector, the MST donated more than 7,000 tons of food, distributed more than 50,000 face masks, and trained more than 2,000 first responders. This prompted international praise, including from Pope Francis— who has since remained an active ally of the movement.

Over the years, the MST has expanded its scope, confronting a broad array of issues from public health inequities to LGBTQ rights, anti-racism, and improved international relations. Even so, the MST’s central issue has remained constant: agrarian reform.

The MST has made some enemies along the way — opponents who ignore the movement’s firm legal basis, calling their occupations “invasions” and the landless “criminals” — but mostly the landless workers have made progress. And with that progress, they’ve made allies.

Last May, Brazil’s own Minister of Agrarian Development highlighted the movement as “very important for reducing our country’s social inequality.”

Rural Exploitation Is Deeply Entrenched in Brazil

Of course, much work remains to be done to solve a deeply entrenched problem. As economist Lee J. Aliston writes, “throughout much of its history, Brazil has had a highly concentrated ownership structure characterized by large, often unproductive properties known as latifundia.”

Brazil was the last country in the Americas to abolish slavery, and both before and after abolition, rural workers were systematically robbed of their small plots of land. This phenomenon was so widespread that Brazilians invented a word for it: grilagem.

Though often associated with forgery, bribes, and violent intimidation, grilagem has even taken the form of government policy. As part of a “modernization” push, the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985 displaced many small, family-owned farms in favor of large industrial operations, further concentrating land ownership in the hands of an elite few.

Rural America Has Experienced Similar Trends

In the United States, the history of rural inequality — and efforts to combat it — run just as deep. In 1856, Black abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass warned that “the welfare of the world demands the abrogation of land monopolies.” Douglass also believed that concentrated land ownership converts “the entire civilized world into an abode of millionaires and beggars.”

Captured by the power of large agribusiness interests, American politicians have largely ignored the warnings of Douglass and others, adopting policies that squeezed small farmers and destroyed rural communities in the name of profit. Over the past half-century, the United States has lost more than a million farms. In the past three decades, 40 U.S. family cattle operations have gone out of business every day.

Now, in the 21st century, 3 percent of Brazil’s population owns more than two-thirds of arable land, while 1 percent of the U.S. population owns two-thirds of all private land.

The Broader Impacts of Rural Inequality

These extreme levels of rural inequality aren’t isolated from urban inequality. Less competition in the agricultural sector means higher food prices — increasing hardship for all working and middle class Americans.

In 2019, the largest four beef packing firms controlled 85 percent of the U.S. market. During the pandemic, these four firms jacked up their prices and raked in record profits — raising concerns in Congress over possible antitrust violations. Today, food prices remain above historical-average rates, deepening inequality. The 20 percent of Americans with the lowest wages now spend nearly a third of their income on food, about four times as much as the richest 20 percent.

Rural inequality also contributes to environmental degradation. The industrial farms replacing small and mid-sized farms pollute more, expose us to more toxic pesticides, and even facilitate the spread of viruses from humans to animals. According to the United Nations Environment Programme, industrial farming worldwide costs the environment $3 trillion every year.

“A food system controlled by us, farmers and consumers, would not be putting multinational corporate profits over people, the environment and our national security,” explains fourth-generation Missouri cattle and grain farmer Darvin Bentlage in an op-ed. “We’d be able to respond and help when things get hard, instead of seeing pandemics and war as opportunities for corporations to get rich.”

In these difficult times, Americans can look to the MST as a source of hope that rural policy can be driven by social objectives rather than profit margins.

We must demand laws that, in the words of Missourian farmer David Bentlage, “decentralize control of our food [and] curb the undue economic and political power of multinational agribusiness corporations that aim to replace independent family farms with industrial factory farms.”

Rural inequality is deeply entrenched in our countries. But it doesn’t have to be this way. After 40 years of grassroots land reform in Brazil, that’s the living legacy of the Landless Workers’ Movement.

Sign Up To Our Daily Digest

Independent media outlets are being suppressed and dropped by corporations like Google, Facebook and Twitter. Sign up for our daily email digest before it’s too late so you don’t miss the latest movement news.