Terra dos Sonhos: Brazil’s Landless Workers Movement

by Matthew Herbert

This photo-essay documents a group from Brazil’s Landless Workers Movement (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra). Through images and interviews taken during and after the group invaded a farm in the coastal state of Espirito Santo, the essay explores the motivations, dreams, and fears of the group’s members.

1. Out in the countryside of western Espirito Santo State, the land dominates the activists’ camp. Rising hills and pastures of lush grass start at the roadside and go to the horizon. They are empty save for scattered clusters of cattle. The camp is packed tight, tent next to tent, chicken pens stacked out back on the steeply rising hill that forces the camp onto the road. Children play in the street; trucks and busses scream through this playground, flinging storms of dust at those unlucky enough to be on the roadside. The camp is a world defined by borders and constraints, while in front of it sits a land seemingly empty and un-bordered. It appears to be the paradise these people have sought throughout their lives.

2. In Brazil, the conflict over land smolders. Its roots stretch back to the colonial era, when powerful supporters of the Portuguese Crown were rewarded with sprawling land grants. Small farmers eked out an existence when they could, growing manioc and rice. When their land no longer supported them, they moved on to other areas or hired themselves out to the large landowners as wage laborers and sharecroppers. The mechanization of agriculture in the middle of the Twentieth Century upended the rural wage-labor system. As tractors and harvesters poured into the countryside, families flooded out. In a generation, Brazil was transformed from a rural nation into one that was overwhelmingly urban. It is from this migration induced societal dislocation that the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (MST)—The Landless Workers Movement—emerged. The MST has sought to bring the poor back to the countryside, providing them with land and a supportive community. However, the organization’s methods have made it amongst the most divisive in Brazil.

3. The MST relies on a mix of direct and legal action to wrest land it identifies as unused or unproductive from its current landowners. The group first identifies and then physically seizes the land, sending groups of activists – including men, women, and children—to occupy and inhabit the contested property. The movement then asserts a legal claim to the land, relying on clauses in the Brazilian constitution that empower the state to expropriate agricultural land not performing its social function for agrarian reform. While the constitution identifies a host of different criteria for identifying whether a property is fulfilling its social function, the pertinent question is often whether it is rationally and adequately used. Rarely is the answer to this question clear-cut, and the legal cases tend to be bitterly fought, with landowners battling against what they view as the unfair theft of their property. In some cases the acrimony is not confined to the courtroom—physical attacks on MST leaders and members occur with alarming frequency.

4. The polarizing debate over the MST has tended to obfuscate the individual motivations and dreams of the organization’s members. Leaders speak for them, opponents rail against them, but there are precious few opportunities to hear from them. This photo essay seeks to bring their voices to the fore. The images and interviews that follow were recorded in the fall of 2004, in an encampment built on recently occupied farmland. While the fate of those interviewed is unclear, the MST as an organization continues its fight for agrarian reform.

5. “At first, I didn’t want to come out here, out to the countryside. But when I became pregnant I started to think more about what I wanted for my life, and for my child. Violence surrounded my old home. It was hazardous for everybody. When I was three months pregnant my husband and I decided to move out here, to fight for land. It has been difficult to raise a child in this heat, beneath these tarps, but I dream of giving my daughter a chance.

6. “I raised my children in the cities, but I never had the chance to give them a good life. The best I could do for them was to teach them to walk on their own two feet. I don’t see a future there. For my family, I see it here. I hope that my grandchildren will never decide to leave what we have started.”

7. “In the countryside I aim to do something for myself. I want to work on something that’s mine instead of for others. My dream is to have a piece of land, where I can harvest black beans and rice. Where I can have a pig and some chickens. Even if my plot is small I will plant. It is a passion to see something growing and to know it’s yours. Here you can earn your living without being called a bum, without having to work at a humiliating job.”

8. “My dream is to aid my country and to better the condition of all Brazilians. Here in this area we see children who are starving. From others in the movement we hear reports of families surviving on cattle feed. This is a rich country. How can this be! Our politicians see this and have no heart. Why don’t they give those who starve a way to live? Those politicians should be improving our country, not ignoring its people!”

9. “We can’t only have a vision to improve the encampment and the movement. Our aim is to improve the country, to help the country grow. To take the humble people out of the big cities, to bring them back to the country. Many people left the country because they had no way of making money. And today, unfortunately, their children and grandchildren have gotten lost in life. They don’t know nowadays what it is like to have a little piece of land, to grow things. The movement wants to bring those people who lost their way back from the favelas back to their roots, back to their culture. That is really the aim of the MST.”

10. “The media says the landless movement is a bunch of vagabonds. We are not. We are workers! You don’t see people that are vagabonds wanting to work on land, our pieces of land.”

11. “I’m not somebody who lives at the edge of society, I may look like it but I’m not, I’m a rural worker. I’m a fighter. It’s useless for the landowners and police to beat us up or to kill us, because it’s not going to end. You can beat as much as you want but it will just get better for us. If you hit me, you’re not going to take away the passion, the love, for my country. You can be sure that I love my country, I love my compatriots, the more you beat us up the harder we’ll struggle, you can be sure of that. You can kill me, or another companion, but if you kill one, then ten will come back to fight for our needs and our rights.”

12. “I think that having education here in the movement is vital. For example, what happens if I get my piece of land and I don’t know how to read or write? How am I going to live? How am I going to sign papers, or keep track of the things that I sell in the market? I have to be able to read! Not just here, but in the whole world education is a very important thing for those people who are poor, who are suffering. It is like putting money in the bank.

13. “My greatest curiosity is to look at all this land, and wonder where my plot will be. Where will I be able to plant my black beans and my corn? This curiosity is killing me; it hurts me to think, will it take a month, two months, a year? But my hope renews itself daily.”

14. “When I get my land, I will kneel down on the ground and thank God. Without a piece of land and without God’s blessing I am nothing. If God doesn’t bless me I will not be able to plant. So when I get my piece of land I will thank God for everything; I suffer, I am criticized, but God will give me victory, and he will help me to prosper.”

15. “Here we have no TV. It’s completely different from the cities, from where I was born and raised. I grew up used to TV, to electricity, to the radio; here we have none of that. You come here to the land and you meet this darkness.”

16. “Everything here is hard. There are times when there is no water. When we do have water it is warm and unclean. We have a gas stove, but there is no way of buying gas. We have to go into the woods to get wood for cooking. Everything is difficult. But it is good to be living in an encampment with others. We have all become a big family; we’re all together, united in our fight. But it isn’t easy, and I hope it will get better. I think if we wait it must get better.”

17. “Understand, we’re very happy certainly to be able to fulfill a great part of our dream, to get our land. But we’re also a little bit anxious, a little bit fearful. The farmer came, and he said it was very dangerous for us to continue camping here. The police are neither in favor nor against us, but this farmer has contracted gunmen. We are very worried about our children and ourselves. We already knew what would happen in these situations, the fear is still there, we don’t know what could happen tomorrow.”

18. “I want to leave a message for my niece—fight for what you want in life the same as your mother and grandmother have. The same as I have. Give value to your mother’s struggle; recognize and respect the future that she is trying to build for you. As well recognize the value of the Landless Movement; it is a movement that builds people. Be a militant for the movement. Recognize the good from the bad, and always fight for those in need.”

19. “When this dream happens it will be something very good for us.  It is something we went after, something we fought for. Always all I have wanted was to have a quiet place to live. Even if the house in which I will live is small, even if it’s simple, it will be a dream that has come true. I pray that when my daughter is grown she will fight for what she wants. I pray that she will fight for the children, and those who need her help. That she will be happy on the land that her father and I fought for.”

About the Author

Matthew Herbert is a PhD candidate in International Security Studies at The Fletcher School and a Pre-Doctoral Fellow at the World Peace Foundation. His research focuses on the impact of illicit commodity chains on political and collective violence. Concurrent with his Doctoral studies, he works with STATT Consulting on transnational organized crime issues. He has done field research on a diverse set of issues including Haiti’s lottery system, the security of new payments systems in East Africa, and narcotics trafficking in West Africa and the Sahara.

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