Brazil’s Social Movements

Joao Pedro Stedile is one of the leaders of Brazil’s Landless Peasant’s Movement, the Movimento Sem Terra or MST.  Writers Naomi Klein and Justin Podur interviewed him while on a speaking tour in Toronto.

What do you think will happen in Miami?  It seems that the FTAA is an agreement that no one wants except for the United States, especially after what happened in Cancun. 

The US will keep pressuring for governments to accept the FTAA proposal.  The strategy will be to try to co-opt governments individually, bilaterally, and in that way create a coalition in its favor.  Having done that, it will try to make the claim that the majority of countries are for the FTAA and that it has to be accepted in the name of ‘democracy’.

Can you give a sense of the level of opposition to FTAA in Brazil?

Until recently, there’s been little knowledge as to the nature of the FTAA.  But very recently there has been a coordinated effort on the part of the United States and the right-wing press in Brazil.  Two papers in particular, Veija, and Estado do Sao Paolo, have gone beserk with their pro-FTAA stance. 

This campaign has actually helped to politicize the issue and involve people.  So the Minister of External Relations, Selso Amori, has been able to publicly explain the different interests at work and why he opposes FTAA. The government has supported him and made it clear that his position is the government’s official position. 

So the Brazilian government is against the FTAA?

The government’s position is – they want FTAA to affect only commerce, and it is conditional on the US opening its own market to agricultural products.  There are sectors of the Brazilian bourgeoisie who want an open US market.  From the point of view of the social movements, this ‘FTAA-lite’ is a trap.  In exchange for being able to increase sales of a couple of products – sugar and oranges – in the US market by some 10%, we are going to lose sovereignty over services, investment, biodiversity. 

Has the campaign against FTAA helped revitalize the social movements?

The movements have mounted a powerful campaign against FTAA.  There was a good campaign last year, culminating in the plebescite against FTAA where 10 million people voted.  After the elections, with Lula coming to power, it has moved off centre stage.  But it has picked up again.  I believe it is a very important campaign for movements, to help steer movements away from parochialism.  It is important because it encourages a debate on the entire social project of neoliberalism.  Our job is to explain how the FTAA is a tool of neoliberalism, intended to bring our economy completely under the control of North America.

Would you say that acceptance of FTAA by the government could cause a rupture with the social movements?  Is it a make-or-break issue in terms of the relationship between the government and the movements?

It is very serious.  The government says it is against FTAA, and for this ‘FTAA-lite’.  If it accepts FTAA, it will cause many problems for the government, signalling a clear acceptance of neoliberalism.

What do you think of Lula’s decision on accepting genetically modified organisms (GMOs)?  Opposition to GMOs is one of the MST’s pillars, and it seems an irreversible decision. 

The decision of the government was to accept genetically modified soya, and it will be revisited in December 2004.  The government made that decision under the pressure of the governor of the state of Rio Grande do Sul and his conservative party, the Partido de Movimento Democratico de Brazil (PMDB).  The PMDB joined the government’s electoral coalition, and one of the conditions was to accept genetically modified soya.  In order to win votes for its other legislative projects, the government gave in. 

This doesn’t mean that we agree with the decision!  The debate was an interesting one because even the Vice President of Brazil didn’t want to sign.  Half of the ministers, the majority of the PT, were against, and the government suffered a great deal in public opinion.  We are treating it not as a fait accompli but as the beginning of a long struggle.  We are fighting on many fronts.

First, we are trying to overturn the law itself.  The law hasn’t been passed in Congress.  Unfortunately we lack the congressional support to stop it despite the fact that the Worker’s Party (PT) is divided, because of the PMDB’s support for it.

Second, the government has promised to regulate all transgenics in a ‘Law on Biosecurity’ that is to come before Congress.  We hope to use that law to put the brakes on the diffusion of GMOs, restricting their use to research applications and other very specific purposes.

Third, a technical commission under the Ministry of Health has ruled that glyphosate (an herbicide made by Monsanto, the company that sells the transgenic glyphosate-resistant soy) cannot be sprayed on soy plants after they have grown to a certain height, because after that level of growth the toxins in glyphosate are absorbed into the soybeans making them unfit for consumption.  This purely technical decision could help make the transgenic soy economically unviable.  Remember that the genetic modification to this soy was to make it resistant to glyphosate spraying.  Remember also that the whole point of selling the soy, for Monsanto, is that they can also sell the glyphosate.  If the government implements this decision, it could make the marketing of transgenic soy unprofitable for Monsanto.

Fourth, we are looking to have laws passed at the state level to outlaw GMOs.  We have had 3 states do so: Santa Catarina, Parana, and Piawi.

Finally, there is the battle on the consumer front.  Since there is no unity in the government, the Environment Minister was able to insert an article obliging companies to label, to declare if products contain more than 1% transgenic products.  So we go to the supermarkets and demand the labeling.  The polls show that the public is against GMOs, so the sales of these products will plummet, causing the companies to suffer and change their tune.  Greenpeace has been involved in this campaign.  Two businesses have already signed that they will not market transgenics: Carfour, a grocery chain, and Nestle.  The pressure and example of Europe has been helpful here.  Companies don’t want to lose markets by using transgenics.

Recently, the movement weekly newspaper Brazil de Fato reported about a mainstream media campaign against the MST that featured “irate editorials, big headlines, provocative photos, and stories exaggerated to create a climate of war in the countryside.”  What has happened since, in terms of both the media campaign against the MST and the “climate of war in the countryside”?

The election of Lula did not change everything, but it did change the balance of forces with respect to agrarian reform.  Past Brazilian governments have been against the MST.  They criminalized us, they repressed us, they formed alliances with the latifundistas and the World Bank.  But the federal government in power now wants reform. It may not want the agrarian reform of our dreams, because that depends on a change in the whole economic model, but it does give us the possibility of advance.

The worst media campaign happened in July.  We had a meeting with Lula, and when the press arrived he put on an MST hat.  The media took this as a sign of a marriage, and the ruling class got completely scared.  They were scared that agrarian reform would speed up, and they acted in such a way as to warn the government.  The statement they were making was: we allowed you to take power, now don’t you go too far and overstep your bounds.  They delivered this statement in a few different ways.

First, they used the mainstream media where they have a monopoly.  About 7 conglomerates control the television, radio, and print media in Brazil.  Over a month, they had a vicious campaign against the MST and the government.  The idea was to try to intimidate the government and criminalize the MST, to put us on the defensive.  The worst of that campaign is over now, mostly because people were getting bored of reading about it.  

The second reaction was from the latifundistas themselves.  As a class, they used the media to intimidate the government and try to prevent it from moving left.  Same as they are doing now with their campaign for the FTAA.  As individual landowners, they have moved in various other ways.  They have made alliances with conservative governors.  It’s important to remember that while the left won the federal elections, we lost in 25 out of 27 state elections, and the 2 states we did win are among the smallest and least politically important.  So 25 of Brazil’s 27 states have right wing governments.  The landowners have also got judges in their pockets and are using the judicial system.  So since August, we have 19 MST activists in jail and 26 in custody awaiting trial or sentencing.  These are all thanks to the local efforts of judges in the pockets of the landowners, who manipulate the law and classify the MST as criminal and its local members as members of a gang.  We consider them political prisoners, imprisoned for nothing but their struggle for the land.  If taking land is criminal, anyone on any land anywhere is a criminal. 

Finally, the landowners have used militias to attack us, organized at the local level, usually in border areas or areas where there is more disorder and chaos.  They aren’t collaborating with the police or army and here the landowners made a tactical mistake.  When they created these militias they tried to use propaganda to intimidate us, which meant they put their militias in the public eye.  The public rejected them, and that public rejection helped us pressure the federal government to prosecute them.  Some militias have since been disbanded by the federal police.

What do you think about the role Brazil has played internationally, specifically with the the G22 at the Cancun meeting of the WTO? 

Brazil’s leadership in the G22 was important in stopping the WTO.  But it’s important not to see the G22 as a solution.  There were 22 countries in the G22 and 140 left outside.  The main point is that the WTO has no right to negotiate any of these things: not subsidies, not services, not biodiversity, not water, not investment.  As a tactical matter, we supported Brazil’s moves in the G22. 

But outside, we were working through Via Campesina, whose idea is to articulate the peasant movements from all over the world.  Peasant movements have tended to be very local.  But with the internationalization of capital, agro-industry has been concentrated in 8-9 companies that control the seeds, the inputs.  They have forced campesinos to organize on an international basis as well.  So Via Campesina coordinates mass actions against the WTO, the World Bank, the IMF, and tries to debate and create another model.  We work by consensus and one of our consensus principles is that food is not a commodity that belongs in the market.  Food sovereignty means every country has the right to produce its own food for its people, not to serve capital.  On subsidies, we have a different position from the G22.  We are not against subsidies, because countries might use subsidies to develop internal markets and local production for food security.  We are against subsidies when multinational corporations use them for competitive advantage in export, but not in general.

You have said that agrarian reform is no longer just about land, but that a whole new model of agriculture is necessary.  How has the MST changed its methods of struggle to reflect this?

For many years, Brazil’s model of development could be called ‘dependent industrialization’, which brought the country great wealth and developed industries but did nothing for the people.  In such a system, redistribution, getting a campesino a bit of land so that he could join the market, would enable him to get out of poverty.  Under neoliberalism, redistribution is insufficient.  The campesino can’t just have land.  A campesino needs materials, markets, inputs, to be economically viable.  So you need education.  The MST focuses on literacy because no matter how much land a campesino has, there is no chance of participation in society without literacy.  The redistribution of knowledge is just as important as the redistribution of land.  You have to think of agro-technology that is appropriate.  A campesino cannot imitate the technologies of the big latifundias on a small scale, use massive quantities of fertilizers or pesticides.  The whole model has to be different.

There is a lot of debate about how far to the left Lula can go.  Would you say that this depends on the strength of the social movements?

Yes, and Lula knows it.  He’s not like Chavez, asking the masses to mobilize on his behalf.  In closer circles, he will make this analogy to a soccer stadium:  So long as Brazilians stay in the stands and don’t come out on to the field, there can be no change. 

This has led to a debate in the Brazilian left.  Some say that the government has already opted for neoliberalism.  We have to return to the opposition, leave the party, and start over.  But I think there are two traps here.  The first is to analyze the government with a lens of idealism.  To hope that the government is going to do everything for you, and when it does not, to point the finger and say: “I told you so!”  The second trap is sectarianism, the idea that if the government doesn’t do exactly what you want, you have to oppose everything it does. 

Instead, we try to understand the complexity of struggle.  The government reflects society.  When movements pressure, the government goes left.  Without pressure, the government does nothing.

Was there a certain complacency after Lula’s election, an idea that now Brazil was ‘saved’ and the people could relax?

I think that existed mostly among the depoliticized.  This is the danger with depoliticization.  When one is depoliticized and loses faith with the government, one moves to the right.  But among the organized, there was less complacency and a greater sense of the complexities I was talking about.

[Mr. Stedile's actvities in Toronto were organized by the Centre for Research on Latin America at York University (CERLAC), the Transformative Learning Centre of OISE / U of Toronto, and the Sam Gindin Chair for Social Justice and Democracy at Ryerson University]

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