Landless Workers Movement (MST) of Brazil Under Attack

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Noted Dominican friar and activist Frei Betto denounces the criminalization of the social movements that once swept Lula into the Brazilian presidency.

by Frei Betto

One of the great attributes of Lula’s government is the non-criminalizing of social movements which were repressed during Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s government even by calling in army troops. If Lula were to treat them as a police matter and not as a political one, he would be condemning his own past.

Many will remember the strikes and workers’ demonstrations led by our President in São Paulo’s ABC (an area containing the districts of Santo André, São Bernardo do Campo and São Caetano do Sul) with army helicopters flying over the Vila Euclides stadium and pointing guns at metal workers’ assemblies, the troops of the Military Police surrounding the cathedral in São Bernardo do Campo which sheltered the leaders of the workers and police cars from the DEOPS (Department of Political and Social Order) carrying union leaders off to prison.

This happened during the dictatorship. Today we have recovered the State of Law where strikes, demonstrations and workers’ assemblies are rights which are assured by the Federal Constitution. Except in Rio Grande do Sul (Brazil’s southernmost state), where arbitrariness still reigns.

In September 2007 the Brigada Militar, as the Military Police is known in Rio Grande do Sul, tried to stop a three column march of landless peasants on their way to the municipality of Coqueiros do Sul. In a report handed to the general commander of the Brigada Militar, to the Public Ministry of Rio Grande do Sul and to the Federal Public Ministry, the sub commander Colonel Paulo Roberto Mendes Rodrigues described the MST (Landless Peasants Movement) and the Via Campesina as “criminal movements”.

In December 2007 the Superior Council of Rio Grande do Sul’s Public Ministry named a team of district attorneys to “promote public civil action towards the dissolution of the MST and to declare it illegal”. When will the Judiciary demand abolishing the latifundium?

It also decided on the “intervention in MST schools in order to comply with all necessary measures towards readjusting with a view to legalization both in the pedagogical aspect as well as regards the MST’s outside influences”. This decision goes against the International Pact on Civil and Political Rights recognized by the Brazilian government (Decree 592 6/7/92). It also disrespects the Federal Constitution.

On March 11 2008 the Federal Public Ministry denounced eight members of the MST for “participating in groups which aim at changing the State of Law” and accused the movement’s encampments of becoming a “Parallel State” supported by the FARC (Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces)… This affront goes against the conclusions of the Federal Police penal inquiry which investigated the MST in 2007 and concluded that there were no ties between the movement and the FARC or any practice of crimes against national security.

THE MST is a legitimate movement which keeps 150,000 persons encamped on the sides of roads thus avoiding the growth of the favelas (shanty towns) which surround the cities. It defends the right of access to land for four million families who, during past decades, were thrown off the land by the expansion of the latifundium and agro business and by the construction of dams as well as by the banks’ increased interest rates.

As a principle for its actions the MST adopts non-violent methods such as those used by Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. (both of whom actually suffered similar accusations and were assassinated). The occupied areas are non productive or have been invaded by squatters who falsely took over lands which belonged to the government, as is the case of many ranches in the Pontal do Paranapanema in the state of São Paulo.

Brazil and Argentina are the only countries within the three Americas which never instituted land reform. Our country has the largest amount of arable lands on the Continent, approximately 600 million hectares, of which 710.2 thousand square kilometres (59% of the country) are being used illegally by squatters, small farmers and large land owners.

The MST today struggles for the democratization of land in order to prioritise the producton of foodstuffs for the internal market (120 million potential consumers) through medium and small properties free from the control of transnational companies, guaranteeing dominion over our country’s food. A sustainable change in land structure requires a new technological pattern capable of preserving the environment, implementing agro industries throughout the country in the form of cooperatives and access to quality education for all.

We cannot permit Brazilian land to fall into the hands of foreigners simply because they have more money. Lands should be within reach of families who are receiving the Bolsa Família (allowance for very low income families). Thus the government would no longer need to worry about increasing the allowance. More than food, cooker and fridge, these families require access to land in order to become independent of government help and produce their own income.

All citizens’ rights – women’s vote, labour laws, health services, pensions etc. – were achieved by social movements. This is the story of all of them, in every country and in every era, no different to what challenges the MST today – misunderstanding, persecution, massacres and assassinations (Eldorado dos Carajás, Dorothy Stang, Chico Mendes) etc. If the price of freedom is eternal vigilance, the price of democracy is the socialising of power, not allowing it to be the privilege of a cast or class.

Translation by Food First.

About the author

Frei Betto is a Brazilian Dominican with an international reputation as a liberation theologian. Within Brazil he is equally famous as a writer, with over 52 books to his name. In 1985 he won Brazil’s most important literary prize, the Jabuti, and was elected Intellectual of the Year by the members of the Brazilian Writers’ Union.

He has always been active in Brazilian social movements, and has been an adviser to the Church’s ministry to workers in São Paulo’s industrial belt, to the Church base communities, and to the Landless Rural Workers’ Movement (MST).

In 2003-2004, Betto was Special Adviser to President Lula and Coordinator of Social Mobilisation for the Brazilian Government’s Zero Hunger program.