On The Frontier


Hunger is spreading in a world of plenty: in Brazil, one of the world’s major food producers, a third of the population goes hungry. The governments and corporations that run the world insist that only free markets, the removal of trade barriers, the spread of GM crops will solve the problem. So far, this sort of globalisation has only brought more, not less hunger.

Yet a movement which grew out of violence and despair claims to have found the answer. Its solutions are radically different from those on offer from the rich countries. They involve empowering the poor through land reform, education and mobilization. The Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (MST) – the Landless Rural Workers Movement – has become one of Brazil’s biggest and most vocal popular movements and their red T-shirts, caps and flags are now a familiar sight at every demonstration, rally and strike. Through direct action – occupations, marches, confrontations with the authorities – they have won land and undeniably eliminated hunger from the lives of hundreds of thousands of Brazilian families.

Twenty years ago an unacknowledged war raged throughout Brazil’s vast interior. It was an unequal conflict – on one side illiterate peasant farmers and smallholders, sharecroppers and rubbertappers, on the other the powerful forces unleashed by the military regime’s economic policy – ruthless cattle ranchers and landowners, road and dam builders. In the 1970s this policy led directly to the displacement of almost five million people in the three southern states alone. They became “sem terra” – or landless.

Their choices were stark: move to the cities and swell the shantytowns or migrate thousands of miles north to the malaria-ridden shallow soils of government colonies in the Amazon, far from roads, schools and hospitals. Those who tried to stop the advance of big capital were eliminated. Between 1981 and 1984 alone 277 peasant leaders, union officials and rural workers were killed. It was in this climate of violence and desperation that the MST was born. With nothing left to lose, families began occupying the estates of absentee landlords.

We visited one of the many MST settlements that now exist on former big estates in Rio Grande do Sul. In a high-roofed community hall, families sat at long trestle tables, tucking into beef steaks, chicken legs and spicy sausages with the unrestrained relish of people who have known hunger. “We’ve come a long way in 20 years,” said Vilmar Martins da Silva, president of the farm cooperative. “By occupying huge unproductive estates, we forced the Brazilian government to carry out land reform. Today we’ve got about one million members and we’ve become one of the most successful peasant movements in the world.”

The learning curve has been steep. At first the families tried to beat the big farmers at their own game, planting cash crops instead of food. Claudemir Mocellin, who as an eight-year-old child accompanied his father on one of the early occupations, today works as an agronomist on a settlement. “We used the most fertilisers. We bought the modern hybrid seeds and the biggest machines. We wanted the largest harvests.” But it did not work. “Families found that, as their soils got exhausted, they were spending more and more money on pesticides and fertilisers, and they were getting ill from the side effects of the chemicals. It didn’t make sense, either economically or environmentally.”

Gradually, the families were won over to more environmentally friendly ways of farming and went back to growing their own food. “I don’t like calling it subsistence farming, because that suggests we’re sub-existing, or under-existing, whereas really, with our concern for biodiversity, we are the truly modern farmers,” said Mocellin emphatically.

“Chemical farming is doomed, as it exhausts the soils so rapidly. Families began to remember the way their parents and grandparents had farmed. Today people are seeking out old varieties of crops,” said Joao Rockett, a self-educated agronomist who is helping the MST produce organic seeds. “For instance, we’re cultivating three varieties of wheat – one that’s good for noodles, another for bread and another for biscuits. The other day a settler came back with an old variety of wheat that produces excellent straw for hats. Imagine a multinational company letting you grow wheat for that! But people love it. It fosters their sense of community.”

The changeover to “agroecologia”, or ecologically-friendly farming, is far from complete. In some settlements families are still using chemicals and in others they rear chickens for Sadia, a major Brazilian food company, which exports frozen poultry to Europe, including Britain. “We don’t really think this chicken is fit for human consumption, but we need the money. We keep chickens in our backyards to eat ourselves,” said one of the farmers. In another cooperative, COPAVI, the families have made the break. Their free-range chickens, fed on organic maize, weigh less but taste better, and are winning a space in the local markets.

Through these changes the MST is reinventing itself, a process that historian Eric Hobsbawm believes necessary if a popular movement is to survive as circumstances change, as they have during the MST’s short history. The integration of Brazil’s economy into the world market has transformed the country’s agriculture, with cheap imports flooding in as trade barriers have been dismantled.

While the government’s agrarian reform programme gave land to 260,000 families, in the same period (1995-1999) over one million small family farmers lost their land under market pressures. Only the big exporters of soyabeans, coffee, orange juice and poultry and the transnational companies, such as Cargill, ADM and Bunge, who control the export network, have benefited.

If, as seems likely, the battle by NGOs and enlightened public prosecutors to stop the government authorising genetically-modified crops is finally lost, the big bio-technology companies, led by Monsanto, will dominate farming through their control over the seed companies, just as they already do in neighbouring Argentina. Sebastiao Pinheiro, a leading environmental campaigner, has warned: “What we have seen so far is nothing. The avalanche that lies ahead, as the global food and agricultural complex strengthens its control, will be terrible. There is little room for small family farms in this world, unless they are willing to provide what amounts to bonded labour, growing seeds for Monsanto or rearing chickens for Sadia.

The MST believes that, because of its extraordinary capacity to mobilise the excluded, it can take on these forces and win. Yet the outcome is still uncertain. Future historians may look back at the MST, as Christopher Hill did at England’s 17th-century Diggers and Levellers, and see landless peasants who attempted “a revolution that never happened”. Or it may just be that the sem terra are torch-bearing front runners in the global movement towards greater sustainability, greater equality and less hunger.

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