Brazil: landless workers vs. agribusiness

Special interview with Liberation News

The MST has heroically fought back against transnational agriculture corporations. Photo credit: Sebastião Salgado
This article was published in the 'Class Struggle Rages in Latin America' Edition of Liberation.
View the complete issue.

The Landless Workers’ Movement of Brazil (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra, or MST) is the largest social movement in all of Latin America, known primarily for its struggle for agrarian reform.

The agrarian model that still prevails in Brazil and much of Latin America is defined by vast concentrations of privately-owned land, knows as latifundia, which has resulted in extreme inequalities in land ownership. A core component of the MST’s strategy has been to organize the occupation of large estates by landless families to demand land redistribution. The Brazilian Constitution of 1988 established a legal basis for agrarian reform, but to the extent that land redistribution has taken place, it has been a result of mass struggle.

Liberation News interviewed Alexandre Conceição, a member of the national coordinating body of the MST, to discuss the struggle of landless workers in Brazil and beyond. To learn more about the Brazilian Landless Workers’ Movement, visit

Liberation News: How was it possible for the MST to organize thousands of families in the relatively isolated conditions of the countryside?

Alexandre Conceiçao: Our country has one of the highest concentrations of land ownership in the world. Presently, 1.6 percent of landowners own 46 percent of the [arable] land. We are at the same level of land ownership concentration of 1920. Latifundia impose poverty upon workers, who have always fought for the land. The struggle of our movement is rooted in the resistance of indigenous peoples, who were expelled from their lands and massacred, the resistance of slaves who lived in quilombos [encampments founded by fugitive slaves], the resistance of poor peasants.

The MST began in the context of the struggle of landless workers at the end of the 70s and beginning of the 80s, who were occupying large estates to demand the redistribution of the land. The movement was founded in 1984, with the aim of making the struggle for the land, the struggle for agrarian reform and for a new agrarian model, and for transformations in Brazilian society. In Brazilian history, all local land struggles were repressed and destroyed. For that reason, it was understood when the movement was founded that it would only survive if it was a mass organization at the national level. From this understanding, militants left with the task of organizing a mass struggle for land occupations and nationalizing the movement. Through this course, we managed to have 500,000 families receive a plot of land. Today, 200,000 families live in encampments on the edge of highways as part of the struggle for land.

LN: What are the obstacles that prevent agrarian reform to be implemented in large scale?

AC: Agrarian reform was never implemented in Brazil. In developed countries, such as the United States, the industrial bourgeoisie divided the land during its consolidation period to guarantee food production and raw materials, and to create a market for consumption of industrial production.

In Brazil, the bourgeoisie associated itself to the oligarchy of large landowners and did not divide the land during the country’s industrialization process, which intensified during the 30s. In 1964, when Brazil had a progressive government committed to agrarian reform, the large landowners and the bourgeoisie, with the support of the U.S. State Department, carried out a military coup to prevent the democratization of the land. Under neoliberalism, transnational agricultural corporations (such as Monsanto, Cargill and Bunge) and financial capital began exploiting Brazilian agriculture to produce in large scale the so-called commodities (such as soy, sugarcane for ethanol, eucalyptus and corn) for the international market. This model, called agribusiness, sustains itself through the concentration of land ownership, the use of machines that expel families from the countryside, and the violent use of agro-toxics.

LN: The serious economic crisis brought about a resurgence of anti-capitalist sentiment (the Occupy movement in the United States, Los Indignados in Spain, etc.). What is the position of the MST toward the anti-capitalist movement?

AC: The manifestations of struggle against capitalism throughout the world, especially in the United States, has filled us with excitement and have our support. These experiences of struggle show the wearing down of this capitalist model controlled by banks and by the financial system, and show that there is a force of resistance against capitalism. However, to defeat capitalism it will be necessary to organize and develop the consciousness of the working masses who are further exploited by the capitalists and further impoverished each day that goes by. We hope that these experiences of struggle advance to become a permanent movement against capitalism.

LN: What is the analysis of the MST of the present situation in South America? For instance, the recent coup in Paraguay, particularly in relation to the landless workers’ movement of that country?

AC: Paraguay has the largest concentration of land ownership in the world. There, the large landowners are Brazilian. President [Fernando] Lugo was elected with a commitment to carry out agrarian reform and with the support of the social movements of landless workers. However, large landowners and transnational agribusiness such as Monsanto exerted strong pressure to preempt agrarian reform and progressive advances. This pressure culminated in the coup against President Lugo, which demonstrates that the conservative sectors, the bourgeoisie and the large landowners, with the backing of the U.S. State Department and the CIA, do not accept democracy when progressive governments are elected.

That has been the case throughout South America in the 60s and 70s, as it was the case in Honduras in 2009, and now in Paraguay. In South America, with the wearing down of neoliberalism at the end of the 90s, progressive presidents were elected in Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, Ecuador and Bolivia. These governments, to different degrees, created contradictions with U.S. imperialism and with factions of their respective bourgeoisies, who seek to prevent progressive measures. In this context, these governments and workers’ organizations lacked strength to carry out deep structural reforms that would led to overcoming capitalism. However, they have achieved policies for the improvement of living conditions for their people, and a more autonomous position relative to the U.S. government.

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