Challenging Social Inequality: The Landless Rural Workers Movement and Agrarian Reform in Brazil

Challenging Social Inequality: The Landless Rural Workers Movement and Agrarian Reform in Brazil

by Miguel Carter (Editor)


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In Challenging Social Inequality, an international and interdisciplinary group of scholars and development workers explores the causes, consequences, and contemporary reactions to Brazil's sharply unequal agrarian structure. They focus on the Landless Rural Workers Movement (MST)-Latin America's largest and most prominent social movement-and its ongoing efforts to confront historic patterns of inequality in the Brazilian countryside. Several essays provide essential historical background for understanding the MST. They examine Brazil's agrarian structure, state policies, and the formation of rural civil-society organizations. Other essays build on a frequently made distinction between the struggle for land and the struggle on the land. The first refers to the mobilization undertaken by landless peasants to demand government land redistribution. The struggle on the land takes place after the establishment of an official agricultural settlement. The main efforts during this phase are geared toward developing productive and meaningful rural communities. The last essays in the collection are wide-ranging analyses of the MST, which delve into the movement's relations with recent governments and its impact on other Brazilian social movements. In the conclusion, Miguel Carter appraises the future of agrarian reform in Brazil.

Contributors. José Batista Gonçalves Afonso, Sonia Maria P..P. Bergamasco, Sue Branford, Elena Calvo-González, Miguel Carter, Horacio Martins de Carvalho, Guilherme Costa Delgado, Bernardo Mançano Fernandes, Leonilde Sérvolo de Medeiros, George Mészáros, Luiz Antonio Norder, Gabriel Ondetti, Ivo Poletto, Marcelo Carvalho Rosa, Lygia Maria Sigaud, Emmanuel Wambergue, Wendy Wolford

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822351863
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 05/15/2015
Pages: 546
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Miguel Carter is Founding Director of DEMOS - Centro para la Democracia, la Creatividad y la Inclusión Social, a new think tank based in Paraguay.

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Challenging Social Inequality

The Landless Rural Workers Movement and Agrarian Reform in Brazil

By Miguel Carter

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2015 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-5186-3


Social Inequality, Agrarian Reform, and Democracy in Brazil

Miguel Carter

This chapter sets the Landless Rural Workers Movement (MST) and Brazil's mobilization for agrarian reform in context. It opens by juxtaposing two images of early twenty-first-century Brazil that illustrate in a vivid way the glaring social disparities and contentious visions enveloping the MST's quest for land redistribution. The text then offers a brief appraisal of the MST and its influence on Brazil's reform agenda. Thereafter, it probes some of the principal effects that deep and durable social inequality can have on development and democracy. This is followed by discussion of land reform experiences worldwide that situate the Brazilian case in comparative perspective. The ensuing two sections evaluate Brazil's prospects for agrarian reform and outline the main positions in the country's contemporary debate over land redistribution.

Early Twenty-first-Century Brazil: Two Distinct Images

May 2, 2005. And they marched. Carrying bright red flags in an orderly three-mile queue, 12,000 MST peasants embarked on an unprecedented sixteen-day procession across the hilly savannah leading up to Brasília. "Agrarian reform now!" chanted the men, women, and children assembled from far-flung corners of Brazil. The marchers had gathered the day before to celebrate a massive May Day labor rally. Their send-off from the sprawling modern city of Goiânia was blessed by the local archbishop and cheered on by other town leaders.

The logistical set up for the 125-mile mobilization was impressive. Each night the marchers slept in large circus tents assembled on private ranches along the highway. The federal policemen accompanying the walk looked on rather anxiously each morning as the MST occupied the edge of a new estate to set up its camp. No violence was used, and all encampment areas were tidied up after the crowd's departure.

All participants were served three daily meals prepared by a cooking staff of 415 volunteers. Food donations from land reform settlements linked to the MST and contributions from church organizations, local and state governments, and other national and international sympathizers, assured the necessary resources for the mobilization. Throughout the march, the MST's mobile radio station broadcast special programs available to participants through 10,000 small radio receivers on loan from the World Social Forum. More than sixty-five vehicles were employed to transport the circus tents, portable toilets, and personal belongings from one campsite to the next.

Each stretch of the march began before sunrise. Protest songs, chants, and playful conversations with newfound comrades boosted morale along the daily eight-mile walk. Afternoons and evenings were reserved for consciousness-raising activities and amusement. Through the study of primers prepared by the movement's pedagogical team and lectures offered by various guests, the participants were invited to debate an assorted range of topics, including the MST's proposal for agrarian reform, Brazil's political juncture, present-day forms of imperialism, and the dangers of genetically modified seeds, among other environmental concerns.

After dinner, the camp offered "cultural nights," with performances by peasant musicians, dancers, and poets from all regions of the country. A massive screen was set up to exhibit movies and documentaries. One of the crowd's favorites was Walter Salles's Motorcycle Diaries, a gripping film about the South American travel adventures of young Ernesto "Che" Guevara. No alcohol was allowed on the camp premises.

As the march worked its way to the nation's capital, MST representatives were busy meeting with government ministers, congressional leaders, and judicial authorities. Aside from petitioning for land reform, they lobbied in support of several rural development projects and human rights protection. Over the course of two weeks, MST emissaries participated in fifty gatherings with twenty different federal ministries.

The government's fiscal austerity concerns, nonetheless, put a damper on the MST's negotiations. Prior to the march, the finance minister had slashed the budget for many social programs, including land reform. The restrictions on domestic spending undermined President Luis Inácio Lula da Silva's longstanding commitments to redistribute land. The same austere policies, coupled with soaring interest rates, enabled the financial industry to post record-high profits. In early 2005, government payments to service Brazil's public debt doubled the amount spent on all programs related to health, education, social welfare, agriculture, transportation, and public security.

"We refuse to accept the fact," declared Fátima Ribeiro, a member of the MST's national board, after meeting with the minister of agrarian development, "that the 850 million dollar cutback for agrarian reform will be used to pay interest on the national debt, handing out yet greater profits to the bankers. Hope," she added, "is the last thing to die and that's why we are mobilizing." The MST's arrival to the nation's capital was greeted by São Paulo's senior senator, Eduardo Suplicy, and four deputies of the Workers Party (PT). Upon their arrival in Brasília, the marchers held a ceremony to thank their federal police escort and gave each officer an MST T-shirt and cap. After spending the night next to the football stadium, they set up on their final protest through Brasília. The procession of 20,000 citizens was led by indigenous people and afro-descendants from the state of Bahia. First, they demonstrated in front of the US Embassy where they left a pile of "American trash" (mostly litter from McDonalds and Coca Cola products) and burned toy weapons to repudiate American consumerism and imperialism. At the Finance Ministry, the MST held another protest rally where calls were made for an "authentic Brazilian model of development." A large sign described the Finance Ministry as a Fazenda do FMI (an IMF estate).

Meanwhile, MST delegates were busy in Congress presenting petitions to the presidents of the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies, and attending an honorary ceremony for Dom Luciano Mendes, the former head of Brazil's National Bishops Conference and a lifelong advocate for agrarian reform. Outside the National Congress, Brasília's civil police provoked the only confrontation of the entire seventeen-day mobilization. The brawl began after a police car drove into a throng of marchers, crushing many of its participants. In response, some began to bang on the vehicle. The mounted police rushed in to beat back the protesters. Adding drama to the episode, a police helicopter hovered menacingly low over the crowd. Two senators scurried to the scene to appease the local police. Close to fifty people were reportedly wounded in the melee.

News depictions of the final day of the march focused largely on this brief incident. Prior to this, television coverage of the march had been largely negative. For days, the media fixated its attention on the donation of food and water by the governor of Goiás and the mayor of Goiânia. The evening news treated this story, and the provision of six ambulances to care for the marchers, as a major political corruption scandal. A public prosecutor's decision to investigate the contribution to the march was given prominent headlines, and encouraged a reporter for TV Globo's "Jornal Nacional," Brazil's leading news program, to describe this "unprecedented situation" as one where "the state was actually financing a movement against itself." At other points during the march, press interest was generally sparse. The day the MST arrived to Brasília, only one of the country's five leading newspapers carried a front-page story of their mobilization.

At the Palacio da Alvorada, President Lula warmly welcomed a delegation of fifty MST members and supporters from the church, labor, student, and human rights organizations, as well as national celebrities. Lula delighted his visitors by putting on an MST cap. After intense negotiations, his government agreed to restore the budget cuts for land reform, hire 1,300 new personnel to refurbish the federal agency responsible for land distribution, and offer additional support for agrarian reform communities. Few other petitions made by the MST were actually met.

The marchers' last evening culminated with an ecumenical worship service, followed by a political rally and a music concert with well-known Brazilian artists.

The MST march to Brasília was an imposing event, comparable in scope to other great marches of the twentieth century: Mahatma Gandhi's twenty-three-day walk to the coastal town of Dandi, India, in 1930, where he defied British colonial rule by making salt; the twenty-seven-day Jarrow Crusade of unemployed workers from northeast England to London, in 1936, in the midst of the depression era; Martin Luther King Jr.'s five-day walk from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965, at the height of the civil rights movement in the United States; and, the thirty-four-day indigenous march from the Bolivian Amazon to La Paz, in 1990, to demand land rights and protection of the rainforest. But, never in world history had there ever been a peaceful protest march as large, lasting, and sophisticated as this one.

June 4, 2005. Scarcely eighteen days after the culmination of the MST march a very different scene unfolded in São Paulo, Brazil's mega-city, industrial heartland, and financial capital.

A helicopter landed on the top of a four-story, neoclassical Italian palazzo with an impressive view of the city's skyline. Next to the heavily guarded, fifty-million-dollar building stood a shantytown; below flowed the melancholic, stench-filled Tieté River.

Stepping out on the helipad was one of Brazil's most important politicians. Inside, the crowd stirred with excitement. Geraldo Alckmin and his wife Lu had arrived. Soon, São Paulo's governor would be inaugurating the largest luxury goods department store in the world: a "temple of opulence," a "Disneyland for the rich," a "shopping bunker," according to local news accounts.

Inside the palazzo, Alckmin and Lu embraced their daughter Sophia. Alckmin was given the word: "Daslu represents the union of good taste and many work opportunities." He would certainly know. Sophia and his sister-in-law, like other young women of the upper class, were prominent Daslu employees. The ribbons untied, fifty musicians of the Daslu violin orchestra began to play. Impeccable, white-gloved waiters served champagne. Throughout the two-day festivity, Daslu treated its elite guests with 2,280 bottles of exquisite Veuve Clicquout champagne.

Strolling over Daslu's 20,000 square meters of marble floors, covering the size of three football fields put together, Alckmin, Lu, and Sophia stopped to appreciate the refined luxury items on display: a Dior crocodile leather hand bag for $16,660; a Prada mink coat for $19,600; Dolce & Gabbana jeans for $1,750; Manolo Blahnik sandals for $1,250; and a Ralph Lauren T-shirt for $1,030. "This is all very colorful," observed Alckmin.

On the second floor, Sophia pointed out to her parents a helicopter hanging from the ceiling. "Look at this is beautiful motorcycle," said Lu, shortly after, as she gestured toward a Harley-Davidson valued at $81,300. Luxury cars, including a convertible Maserati tagged at $306,000, were on exhibit nearby. A few steps ahead, a handful of model yachts were on display, among them a Ferreti boat priced at $5.4 million. Daslu's real estate office even offered an island near the posh beaches of Angra dos Reis. The cost: $3.3 million.

Skiing equipment for those planning a trip to Chamonix, $8,000 bottles of wine, the latest home entertainment technology, and much more; Daslu has it all. A champagne bar, comfortable sofas, flowers, and espresso cafes are scattered throughout the store. Beautiful women, fluent in various languages — the store's Dasluzettes — pamper their customers with endearing Brazilian charm.

"This is our elite club," explained a dazzling socialite. "It's an apotheosis," chimed in her companion. "Chanel, Prada, Gucci, they are all here at Daslu." Champagne flute in hand, she recalled her largest shopping "extravaganza," a $100,000 Mercedes Benz purchased on a whim. "And at Daslu, it was during a sale. I started getting more and more excited and didn't stop until I had bought 20 clothing items, all of them top fashion names. Why, just today I reserved two Chanel shoes. I could spend the entire day lost in Daslu. This is the most marvelous place in the world to get lost."

Daslu's grandiose opening was artfully designed to corner Brazil's booming luxury goods market. At $2.3 billion a year, it is the largest such market in Latin America, growing rapidly at 35% a year. São Paulo alone accounts for 75% of the business, reputedly one of the world's most profitable. Indeed, the richest Brazilians appeared to be doing better than ever before. Merrill Lynch estimated that the country's millionaires had jumped from 92,000 to 98,000 between 2003 and 2004. And according to Forbes magazine, the number of Brazilian billionaires doubled to sixteen in 2005.

Alckmin was not the only renowned politician in attendance at Daslu's opening ceremony. Along with scores of high-flying businessmen, bankers, industrialists, soy bean kings, and sports and fashion personalities, were José Serra, the mayor of São Paulo, and Antônio Carlos Magalhães, the powerful senior senator and kingpin of Bahia, best known by his acronym, ACM. During the festivities, Alckmin and Serra kept fending off questions about their presidential candidacies. Daslu was blessed to have such influential patrons.

July 13, 2005. Five weeks after its glittering inauguration, Daslu's world was shaken by a rude awakening. That morning, over 100 federal police officers and tax agents raided the Daslu palazzo and detained its owner, Eliana Tranchesi, along with two business associates, on suspicion of tax fraud. The investigators alleged that Daslu had evaded more than $10 million in taxes over the past ten months by using fake companies to underreport the value of its imported goods. At customs, Louis Vuitton dresses worth over $2,000 at wholesale prices were being declared for $10 and fine Ermenegildo Zegna ties for only $5.

The police actions triggered alarm bells in Brasília and in São Paulo. Terribly upset with the news, ACM moved quickly to intervene on behalf of Eliana, a family friend who had hired the senator's granddaughter to work at Daslu. ACM voiced his outrage to the minister of justice, who spent much of the day handling angry phone calls from other VIPs. The senior senator then called Eliana, who was still in custody at the federal police office, and cried with her over the phone. Later, he made a scathing speech at the Senate podium criticizing the Lula government. His comments were echoed by his colleague Senator Jorge Bornhausen, president of the second largest party in Congress, the conservative Party of the Liberal Front (PFL), who described the Daslu raid as an "attack against the market." Eliana's arrest, he warned, could "generate an economic crisis by frightening foreign investments from Brazil."

The country's leading business association, the Federation of Industries of São Paulo (FIESP) issued a forceful communiqué condemning the police arrest at Daslu. National news coverage of the affair gave prominent voice to its critics. The editorials of the country's most important newspapers supported Daslu and her owner. The media's depiction of the story prompted the ombudsman of Brazil's leading daily, Folha de São Paulo, to lament: "our newspaper could have published at least one little article defending or explaining the Federal Police's actions." Two contrasting scenes, the MST's national march to Brasília and Daslu's inauguration in São Paulo, only a few days apart, provide pointed images of early twenty-first-century Brazil. Both events share a typically Brazilian air of grandiosity. One presents the largest long-distance protest march in world history. The other portrays the opening of the biggest luxury department store on earth. Their many differences, however, are compelling and emblematic.


Excerpted from Challenging Social Inequality by Miguel Carter. Copyright © 2015 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments  ix

List of Figures, Maps, and Tables xiii

List of Abbreviations xvii

An Overview / Miguel Carter xxiii

1. Social Inequality, Agrarian Reform, and Democracy in Brazil / Miguel Carter 1

Part I. The Agrarian Question and Rural Social Movements in Brazil

2. The Agrarian Question and Agribusiness in Brazil / Ghilherme Costa Delgado 43

3. Rural Social Movements, Struggles for Rights, and Land Reform in Contemporary Brazilian History / Leonilde Sérvolo de Medeiros 68

4. Churches, the Pastoral Land Commission, and the Mobilization for Agrarian Reform / Ivo Poletto 90

Part II. MST History and Struggle for Land

5. The Formation and Territorialization of the MST in Brazil / Bernardo Mançano Fernandes 115

6. Origins and Consolidation of the MST in Rio Grande do Sul / Miguel Carter 149

7. Under the Black Tarp: The Legitimacy and Dynamics of Land Occupations in Pernambuco / Lygia Maria Sigaud 182

8. From Posseiro to Sem Terra: The Impact of MST Land Struggles in the State of Pará / Gabriel Ondetti, Emmanuel Wambergue, and José Batista Conçalves Afonso 202

Part III. MST's Agricultural Settlements

9. The Struggle on Land: Source of Growth, Innovation, and Constant Challenge for the MST / Miguel Carter and Horacio Martins de Carvalho 229

10. Rural Settlements and the MST in São Paulo: From Social Conflict to the Diversity of Local Impacts / Sonia Maria P. P. Bergamasco and Luiz Antonio Cabello Noder 274

11. Community Building in an MST Settlement in Northeast Brazil / Elena Calvo-González 293

12. MST Settlements in Pernambuco: Identity and the Politics of Resistance / Wendy Wolford 310

Part IV. The MST, Politics, and Society in Brazil

13. Working with Governments: The MST's Experience with the Cardoso and Lula Administrations / Sue Branford 331

14. The MST and the Rule of Law in Brazil / George Mészáros 351

15. Beyond the MST: The Impact on Brazilian Social Movements / Marcelo Carvalho Rosa 375

16. Challenging Social Inequality: Contention, Context, and Consequences / Miguel Carter 390

Epilogue. Broken Promise: The Land Reform Debacle Under the PT Governments / Miguel Carter 413

References 429

Contributors 469

Index 473

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