More than six thousand women from Vía Campesina and the Landless Workers’ Movement (MST) participated in protests across Brazil on March 9. The direct actions were in celebration of International Women’s Day, and against the government’s continued support of multinational agribusiness in the country.
The protests took place in more than eight Brazilian states. In Brasília, 800 women marched on the Ministry of Agriculture. In the state of Rio Grande do Sul, another 700 occupied a plantation owned by the Votorantim paper pulp corporation. In Espírito Santo, nearly 1,300 women gathered at an export port of the paper pulp company, Aracruz. And in São Paulo, close to 600 women occupied the Cosan plantation, which holds the largest agro-ethanol factory in the world.
The sweep of actions across the country comes less than two months after the MST’s 25th anniversary. "When the MST began, our pinciple enemy was the large landowners," says Ana Hanauer, spokesperson for the MST in Brazil’s southernmost state, Rio Grande do Sul. "Now our principle enemies are the multinational [agribusiness] corporations, which are taking over land that should be used for agrarian reform."
The international financial crisis has hit Brazil’s industrial agricultural sector hard, causing over 100,000 lost jobs last December alone. The Brazilian government has earmarked $20 billion dollars in investments for the sector over the next three years. But representatives of Vía Campesina complain that the funds and land should be used to promote agrarian reform and small-scale farming, not to bailout big business.
Members of the MST in southern Brazil are particularly upset over government loans that enabled the Votorantim paper pulp company to buy up a significant stake of its failing rival, Aracruz Celulose. The addition of Aracruz gives Votorantim a total of more than one million hectares of land, with what the company says is a productive capacity of 5.8 million tons of pulp a year.
The MST says that mono-cropping eucalyptus for pulp has led to the destruction of natural habitat, resulting in a loss of topsoil, and desertification. The environmental destruction is one reason 700 women occupied Votorantim’s "Ana Paula" plantation in Rio Grande do Sul.
The MST grew out of a struggle for land in this southern state in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Over the last three decades the movement has grown and developed in 24 of Brazil’s 26 states, acquiring 35 million acres of land on which nearly 400,000 MST families are currently settled.
Rio Grande do Sul has remained a frequent site of MST protests, largely due to the group’s long history in the region and the fact that the state still has many large plantations in the hands of an elite few. The movement scored a big victory in the state last December, when it managed to settle 700 families on land that landowners had defended violently for centuries.
One day into the Votorantim plantation occupation, the National Guard arrived to break up the protest. Authorities arrested hundreds of woman from Vía Campesina and the MST. The activists were held without food, while troops destroyed their impromptu encampment.
Authorities registered the women’s personal information, leading to fears the government could use the information in the future to persecute the activists or their families. A spokesperson for the MST in Rio Grande do Sul says the arrests are part of an intensifying campaign of repression directed by state governor Yeda Crusius of the centrist PSDB party. In fact, the criminalization of the movement reached new heights last June when Rio Grande do Sul’s Justice Department called for the movement’s “disbanding” throughout the state, labeling it a “threat to national security.” The repression continues.
The Crusius government is now pushing to close the world-famous itinerant schools on MST encampments throughout the state. The state National Guard has been quick to use intimidation, arrest, and repression against the MST and other local social movements. A state police helicopter kept watch over the MST’s 25-year anniversary celebration in January, and the Rio Grande do Sul military brigade erected a checkpoint where they searched and registered the names of individuals entering and leaving the MST settlement where the event was taking place.
The women arrested at the "Ana Paula" plantation occupation were released later the same evening. The following day, they carried out a defiant march in the nearby city of Bagé, where they distributed fliers about the negative effects of monocultured eucalyptus, the paper pulp companies, and Brazil’s agroindustry.
Michael Fox is a South America-based freelance journalist, radio reporter, and documentary filmmaker. He co-directed the recently released documentary, Beyond Elections: Redefining Democracy in the Americas . For more articles, reports or videos you can visit his blog, Blending the Lines.