Citizen Action in the
Americas, No. 6


Brazil’s Landless Workers Movement

Americas Program,
Interhemispheric Resource Center (IRC)

by Matthew Flynn

MST members hold marches to pressure for their demands.
(Courtesy MST)

MST Background
Taking Action
Speaking to Policy
Global Linkages, New Local Opportunities

No other sector of Brazil’s society has suffered as much as the rural poor from the country’s insertion into the global economy. Policies responding to international financial institutions and designed to soften trade protections have spelled high interest rates, increased competition from subsidized food imports, the end of government agricultural extension services, and sluggish land reform programs. All of this has institutionalized penury, hunger, and joblessness in the Brazilian countryside. Thousands of families have been forced to abandon bankrupt farms and flee rural violence to join the ranks of the urban poor.
The hardships in the era of globalization come on top of this South American nation’s longstanding problem with its record for one of the worst land distribution patterns in the world. The wealthiest 20% of the Brazilian population owns 90% of the land. Much of that property is not in production, used for ranching that benefits a minority, held for tax write-offs, or occupied in producing export crops; while at the same time millions of families without employment or land for subsistence agriculture go hungry.
The distress in Brazil’s countryside has given rise to one of Latin America’s largest social movements, the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Terra (Landless Workers’ Movement, or MST). For the past 18 years, MST activists have been educating, organizing, and taking direct actions to achieve land reform and procure economic policies that support family-based agriculture. In recent years the MST has also tackled global integration and trade issues, such as imports of genetically modified (GM) seeds and international trade pacts like the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). The movement’s use of people power and the often violent response it evokes from detractors have won the MST sympathy and support from civil society in Brazil’s cities, as well as from nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and human rights activists abroad. At the same time, other farmers’ movements in the Americas have begun to look to the MST’s work as a model for their own efforts to strengthen local and regional markets through the construction of farmer-run cooperatives, sales, and distribution networks.

Key Challenges

Land ownership in Brazil is highly concentrated, with less than 3% of the population owning two-thirds of the country’s arable land.
The neoliberal reforms of recent years have cut access to rural credit and jacked up interest rates beyond the reach of small producers.
Brazilian agricultural subsidies have been eliminated while northern countries continue to funnel large subsidies to their agricultural sectors.
Cheap agricultural imports flood the market, depressing domestic prices for similar goods, while the costs of farm inputs and capital have increased.
Technical assistance programs for the agricultural sector have been gutted.
The difficult economic situation has led to increased bankruptcy and default on debt, resulting in the disappearance of small farms and reduction of the area of land under cultivation.
Large export-oriented agribusinesses tied to multinational commodity traders have benefited from recent government policies, crowding out small farmers.
Falling per-capita grain production, decreasing incomes, and rising rural unemployment have forced millions to move from the countryside to the country’s poor, crowded urban peripheries .

MST Background
Historically, land ownership in Brazil has been concentrated in the hands of economic elites, and peasant occupations of idle properties have been common. One of the factors underlying the military takeover of 1964 was mounting conflict in the countryside, with the Ligas Campesinas (Peasant Leagues) invading and occupying landed estates. The military dictatorship cracked down on the peasant movement, but as the generals gradually lost power in the early 1980s, land invasions picked up again. In January 1984, various peasant groups from across the country, coordinated by the Pastoral Land Commission, met to discuss their similar experiences and decided to form a nationwide movement for land reform. Joao Pedro Stedile, one of the MST’s leaders and founders, says that the farmers gathered at the meeting realized the need to organize themselves not just to obtain land, but also to sharpen their awareness of related problems they faced.
Brazil’s governments, both military and civilian, have generally advocated land reform, but most of their efforts have involved poorly managed colonization programs in inaccessible and rugged areas of the Amazon. Little action has been taken to distribute arable land. After democracy returned to Brazil in the middle of the 1980s, the country’s landless peasants scored a paper victory in the 1988 Constitution, which mandated the federal government to distribute fallow land to the rural poor.
As a result of that mandate, the Instituto Nacional de Colonizacao e Reforma Agraria (National Colonization and Agrarian Reform Institute, or INCRA) can certify lands as being unused and available for redistribution. Formal appropriation is carried out when the government pays the titleholder and hands over the title to the landless recipient.
Today, however, the tenure situation in the countryside remains largely unchanged. Forty-three percent of Brazil’s titled landed is owned by just 1% of the population, with 27,556 large landowners holding 178 million hectares. Meanwhile, there are 4.8 million families lacking land who the government statistics bureau says could benefit from agrarian reform. Another million-plus small farmers in Brazil own plots of 10 hectares or less—amounting to 1.3% of titled lands in Brazil.
The administration of Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1994-2002) claimed to have settled 546,683 families between 1995 and 2001 via the INCRA program, but the MST maintains that the figure stands at only 266,998. Moreover, it argues, even the limited agrarian reform in recent years would not have happened without continual pressure by the movement. And despite the country’s turn toward democracy, some 1,600 people have been killed in land conflicts since 1984. Justice in these cases has often been hard to procure. For example, only three convictions resulted from charges that 19 MST activists were slain in 1996 by a military platoon and civilian police at Carajas in northern Brazil.

The MST Agenda*

Timely implementation of agrarian reform that would redistribute unproductive estates to landless families.
Orientation of agricultural production towards the internal market in order to assure Brazilian food security and boost employment.
Application of policies aimed at strengthening small-scale and family-based farms, including policies regarding prices, subsidies, rural credits, and food security.
Promotion of agro-industrial cooperatives in order to improve access to the market and boost farmers’ income.
Creation of programs to stimulate rural employment, both in the agricultural and non-agricultural sectors, and establishment of mechanisms that secure the rights of workers.
Guaranteed access to primary education for all residents of rural areas, as well as improved curriculums and conditions in schools.
Development of policies to protect the environment and natural resources in a manner that is compatible with farm production and that promotes rational use of both solar and hydroelectric power.
Implementation of a special development plan for the semi-arid northeast.
Restoration and reorganization of the various agencies that make up the agricultural public sector in order to focus their work on supporting small-scale producers.
Research into and development of agricultural technology that is appropriate for Brazilian soil conditions, climate and resources and that promotes an equilibrium between increased productivity and the environmental preservation.
Promotion of labor-intensive industry, particularly agro-industries in municipalities around the country.
Suspension of payments on Brazil’s foreign debt and the reorientation of the country’s involvement in multilateral organizations and regional trade agreements to favor the interests of small family-run farms, not just large agribusinesses.

* Summary drawn from the MST English-language site. While not a complete rendering of the MST agenda, it represents major thrusts of the movement.

Taking Action
The MST’s main demands can be roughly summarized as: 1) redistribution of idle and unused lands to needy farmers, 2) renewed government intervention to provide services and support to small-scale growers, and 3) gearing production toward internal, rather than external, markets in order to guarantee food security and promote employment. Another important thrust of MST work is the organization of small growers in self-sufficient settlements bound together nationally via farmer-managed supply, distribution, and sale networks. The longer term vision of the MST involves a dramatic reorientation of agricultural production in Brazil, with large latifundia being broken up into small family farms woven together in a cooperative network aimed at meeting domestic needs. For the most part, however, MST actions and political campaigns focus on the more immediate goal of redistributing unused lands.
The key to the MST’s success lies in the dedication of its activists, their ability to mobilize people to take action, and its organizational structure. Political decision-making and allocation of tasks are made by elected committees, which govern all levels of the organization from encampments to state and regional bodies. Every two years, a national meeting is held with representatives from each state, in which a national commission is elected, and every five years the MST sponsors a congress to engage in political debate. Leaders surface through direct actions taken on behalf of the movement and receive courses and further training.
One of the MST’s most critical activities, and the primary way it brings new members into the fold, is occupation of idle lands. When a parcel of non-producing land is identified, MST activists spread the word to landless farmers and raise awareness about the INCRA program. When a large enough group is assembled, logistical tasks are divvied out. The date of the land invasion initially is kept secret from all except for a few members, but when it is announced whole families participate in setting up an encampment on or near the properties in question before the break of dawn. As of December 2002, an estimated 100,000 families were camped on roadsides and along unused properties in MST-organized operations. Ultimately, the success of an occupation depends on whether INCRA makes an inspection of the property and decides to expropriate it. MST leader Stedile says the key to getting INCRA’s action is making sure a large number of families are involved in an occupation. An invasion by a small number of squatters, on the other hand, often results in a violent response from the landowner.
Beyond occupations, the MST also aims to improve the lives of farmers it has helped win lands. The MST has organized over 60 cooperatives throughout the country, which are earning an estimated $50 million annually. MST-run outlets like the Agrarian Reform Store in Sao Paulo cut out intermediaries who otherwise pocket up to 30% of the price of agricultural goods. In addition, every settled MST member contributes 2% of production to the movement, which goes to assist local encampments and land occupations. Because of migration to urban centers, attempts at organizing inhabitants of Brazil’s shantytowns, known as favelas, are being carried out. The aim is to establish small, so-called “rurban” settlements near cities, where labor-intensive fruit and vegetable gardens can be combined with small agro-industries.
Since 1984, the MST has helped approximately 250,000 families acquire land, establishing some 1,600 settlements in the process. MST still faces the challenge of keeping them on their land. Isidor Revers, a coordinator at the Pastoral Land Commission, says that 80% of the country’s farmers are unable to obtain adequate income from the land they work. Government support for what it calls “modernizing” the agro-export sector by slashing financial aid to producers in the domestic market has left small, family-based farmers to fend for themselves when trying to obtain loans and compete with heavily subsidized imports. Related activities such as seed sales and foreign trade fall increasingly under the control of multinational corporations, while government agricultural extension programs and social investment funds have been gutted to meet budget goals outlined by the International Monetary Fund. Although rural-urban migration has grown, relocation to the cities is not necessarily a viable option for landless farmers, since unemployment rates there are as high as 20%.
To counterbalance these trends, the MST has devised a Settlers Cooperative System (SCA) that trains technicians and coordinates the movement members’ demands for credit, agricultural production support, vertical integration, and commercialization. This system has helped 49 cooperatives produce meat, dairy products, and other farm goods that create jobs for an estimated 20,000 families. It supports 96 small and mid-sized agro-industries that process fruits, vegetables, milk products, grains, coffee, meat, and sweets. The SCA gives management consulting and market analysis to 400 associations in the settlements, which include two credit cooperatives, two regional trading cooperatives, and 32 cooperatives that provide services to producers. Pressure from the MST has convinced INCRA to install 450 agronomists, social workers, and other technicians in the movements’ settlements.
Other MST initiatives include programs for literacy and education, gender equity, public relations, music and culture, human rights, international outreach, youth, environment, and health care.

MST Tactics and Strategy

Through mass group actions, organizers and militants press the government to redistribute unused productive land to landless workers and farmers.
Grassroots activists raise the awareness of landless farmers and workers, explaining their rights under the Constitution, and they coordinate land occupations.
National leaders lobby government to improve credit and agriculture support services for family-based farms, as well as to accelerate land reform.
Banks and government buildings are occupied to raise awareness of agrarian reform and pressure the government to fulfill its promises of support for poor farmers.
National campaigns are conducted to educate the country’s population about the possible effects of free trade accords and downside of genetically modified organisms.
International partnerships are established through structures such as the Via Campesina and World Social Forum to share experiences and build a common front against domination by multinational companies .

Speaking to Policy

Once settled on land, MST farmers still face a number of challenges, chief among them dealing with Brazil’s insertion into the global economy. Accordingly, the movement has increasingly begun to engage in the political arena. On the one hand, MST organizers have led occupations of government-owned banks and federal offices to pressure for more agricultural credits and support. But the movement has also spearheaded efforts to promote public debate and discussion. The MST gathered votes for a recent national referendum condemning the FTAA and is one of the principal organizers of the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Rio Grande do Sul. The movement has also broadened its struggle by joining forces with other farming groups that address such issues as market dominance of milk production by multinationals, imports of genetically modified seeds, and Brazil’s foreign debt.
Lastly, an increasing number of MST members have been competing in local, state, and national elections. In the most recent federal elections in October, the number of deputies with ties to the MST increased from 11 to 16. Sociologist James Petras says four factors contributed to the MST’s turn toward electoral activity. The first is continued impunity in the judicial system and arbitrary arrests of leaders of the movement. The second is the reduction of funding for INCRA, which the MST depends upon for legal recognition and formal expropriation of unused land. The third is the growing dissatisfaction with neoliberal policies among other sectors of society. Fourth is the agricultural policy implemented during the Cardoso administration, which is blamed for the migration of an estimated 5.5 million people from the country to the city from 1986 to 1996. These recent urban migrants represent a large potential constituency for the MST.
Global Linkages, New Local Opportunities
Although the MST is geared to establishing strong local food economies with small, family-based farms and agro-industrial cooperatives at its base, the movement has reached out to other groups suffering from similar conditions throughout the world.
Besides helping organize events such as the World Social Forum to engage with groups from other countries on global issues, the MST is an active member of the international farmers’ movement Via Campesina. This network of farmers’ groups from 87 countries is developing a political platform focused on subjects related to agrarian reform, food sovereignty, and genetic and agricultural intellectual property rights.
With the recent shift in political power in Brazil, the MST is likely to have better success in moving its agenda forward. The Workers Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores, or PT) has already promised to accelerate land reform. It admits that the process will be slow at first due to budget constraints. But even so, its removal of bureaucratic obstacles set up during the Cardoso administration will do much to jump-start the process. The incoming administration’s promise of stricter tax enforcement could also speed up the expropriation of land held by those who have evaded their real estate taxes. In the same vein, the MST’s push for more labor-intensive farming and agro-industries fits hand-in-glove with the PT’s call for increased employment. Also, the PT will likely continue to bar the introduction of GM seeds, an MST demand.
However, the PT will likely not want to alienate large agribusiness. Brazil’s voluminous agricultural exports bring in needed foreign currency and help keep the country’s finances under control. Some economists assert that rising productivity on large farms has helped keep inflation at bay. Nor is the PT apt to close the door on foreign investors, or distance itself from relationships with international financial institutions like the IMF, much as the MST would like it to.
Still, the entrance of the PT into the halls of executive power bodes well for the MST. While activists in the movement argue that agrarian reform will only come from grassroots struggle, they do believe that the new PT-led presidency will provide more institutional space for the struggle to succeed.
—Matthew Flynn

We want your feedback . Tell us what you think of this article. Your comments may be published in our CrossBorder UPDATER or UPDATER Transfronterizo .

Links open in new browser window.
Brazilian Organizations
International Organizations and Experts
Online Reading
Brazilian Organizations
Brazilian Association for Agrarian Reform (Associação Brasileira de Reforma Agraria, ABRA)

Caixa Postal 2531
70849-970 Brasília, DF, Brasil
Contact: Gerson L. Mendes Teixeira, president
Email: ;
A non-profit organization promoting land reform.
R.Visconde de Ouro Preto nº5 / 7ºandar
22250-180 Rio de Janeiro, RJ, Brasil
Tel: +(55 021) 553-0676
Fax: +(55 021) 551-3443
Public-interest information on agrarian reform, peasant agriculture, and rural development.
Global Justice Centre

Rio de Janeiro Office
Av. N. S. de Copacabana, 540/402
22020-000 Rio de Janeiro, RJ, Brasil
Tel: +(55 21) 2547-7391
Fax: +(55 21) 2549-3599
São Paulo Office
Rua Itapeva, 79 conjunto nº 41
Bela Vista
01332-000 São Paulo, SP, Brasil
Tel: +(55-11) 3266-9072
Tel/Fax: +(55 11) 3266-6375
Emails: ;
Dedicated to the promotion of social justice and human rights in Brazil through documentation and distribution of reports on rights abuse, as well as through the use of international mechanisms for the protection of human rights.
Landless Workers Movement (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Terra, MST)

Alameda Barão de Limeira, 1232
Campos Elíseos
01202-002 São Paulo, SP, Brasil
Contact: Gilmar Mauro, national coordinator
Tel: +(55 11) 3361-3866
One of the largest social movements in Latin America and among the most successful grassroots movements in the world, in which hundreds of thousands of landless peasants are working for long-overdue land reform and re-distribution.
National Colonization and Agrarian Reform Institute (Instituto Nacional de Colonizacao e Reforma Agraria, INCRA)
Edifício Palácio do Desenvolvimento
70057-900 Brasília, DF, Brasil
Government agency that certifies lands as being unused and available for redistribution in agrarian reform process.
Pastoral Land Commission (Commissão Pastoral da Terra, CPT)

National Secretariat
Rua 19, No. 35, 1º andar, Edifício Dom Abel
74030-090 Goiânia, Goiás, Brasil
Contact: Isidor Revers, coordinator
Tel: +(55 062) 212-6466
Fax: +(55 062) 212-0421
National Secretariat Email:
Communications Assistant Email:
A faith-based consultant and service provider for small producers, unions, and social movements.
Workers Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores, PT)
Rua Silveira Martins, 132
01019-000 São Paulo, SP, Brasil
Tel: +(55 11) 3243-1313
Agrarian Secretariat Email:
National party that brought current President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva to office in Brazil’s most recent federal elections.
International Organizations and Experts
FoodFirst Information and Action Network (FIAN)
FIAN International Secretariat
PO Box 102 243
69012 Heidelberg, Germany
Tel: + (49 6221) 830620
Fax: +(49 6221) 830545
Supports landless and land poor peoples around the globe in on-the-ground struggles to achieve the right to land.
Friends of the MST
Organization providing support for the efforts of the Brazilian Landless Workers Movement to achieve social and economic justice while securing respect for human rights.
Global Exchange Brazil Campaign
2017 Mission Street #303
San Francisco, CA 94110
Brazil Program Director’s Email:
Supports Brazil’s Landless Workers Movement and prevention of human rights abuses in the Brazilian countryside.
Grassroots International
179 Boylston St.
Boston, MA 02130
Tel: (617) 524-1400

Email: ,
Supports development and human rights in Brazil and other countries through grantmaking, advocacy, and education.

Oxfam GB
Oxfam Land Rights Links
A development, relief, and campaigning organization dedicated to finding solutions to poverty and suffering around the world.
Peoples´ Global Action
C/O Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW)
377 Bank Street
Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
A network for communication and coordination promoting local alternatives to the dominant globalization model.
Rio Maria Committee
21 Minuteman Road
Acton, MA 01720-3839
An international solidarity network begun in 1991 for the purpose of putting an end to the murders of peasant farmers by gunmen hired by cattle ranchers in the eastern Amazon region of Brazil.
State University of New York, Binghamton
Sociology Department
PO Box 6000
Binghamton, NY 13902-6000
Contact: James Petras, Professor of Sociology
Tel: (607) 777-2216
Via Campesina
Operative Secretariat
Apdo. Postal 3628
Tegucigalpa, MDC, Honduras, C. A.
Tel: +(504) 239 4679
Fax: + (504) 235 9915
An international movement that coordinates peasant organizations of small and middle-scale producers, agricultural workers, rural women, and indigenous communities from Asia, Africa, America, and Europe.
World Social Forum
Web: ; ;
A venue for development of an alternative to the World Economic Forum’s global trade and exchange model.
Online Reading
"Brazil-Land Reform and Poverty Alleviation Project" | World Bank
"Public Policies to Reduce Rural Poverty in Brazil: A Selective Assessment" | Joachim von Amsberg
"Agrarian Reform Concepts, Controversies and Issues" | Leonilde Servolo de Medeiros*
"Agrarian Reform, Development and Participation: A Discussion of Necessary and Possible Transformations" | Nucleus for Agrarian Studies and Development (NEAD)
"The ‘Cédula da Terra’ Guiding Project: Comments on the Social and Political-Institutional Conditions of It’s Recent Development" | Zander Navarro**
"Towards a New Paradigm for Development: Strategies, Policies, and Processes" | Joseph E. Stiglitz
"Land Rights a Fraud in Brazil: Landless Brazilians Challenge World Bank," by Abid Aslam | The Progress Report
"Lanzan Campaña Mundial en Defensa de la Semilla," by José Coronado | CCP-Minga Informativa, January 26, 2003
"Trade: 10 Million Brazilian Votes against Hemisphere’s FTAA," by Mario Osava | IPS, September 17, 2002
"Military Police Commander is Condemned to 228 Years in Prison for the Massacre at Eldorado dos Carajás" | Noticias Brasil e Folha de São Paulo, May 16, 2002
"Giving Away the Farm: The 2002 Farm Bill," by Anuradha Mittal | Food First Backgrounder Volume 8, Number 3, Summer 2002
"Perdiendo Nuestra Tierra: La Ley Agrícola del 2002," by Anuradha Mittal and Peter Rosset, translated by Paulina Novo | FoodFirst Institute for Food and Development Policy, USA
"Brazil’s Landless Find Strength in Art" | Malcolm McNee
"’People End Up Dying Here’: Torture and Ill-Treatment in Brazil" | Amnesty International, October 2001
"Assassinatos no campo aumentaram 40% em 2001, afirma CPT" | Commissão Pastoral da Terra do Paraná, July 24, 2002
"Brazil’s MST: Taking Back the Land," by Jason Mark | Multinational Monitor, January-February 2001
"Tides Shift on Agrarian Reform: New Movements Show the Way" | by Peter Rosset


Join our network to receive email announcements that tell you when new items like this article are posted to the Americas Program website. Information on our privacy policy is available on our sign-up page.


Published by the Americas
Program at the Interhemispheric Resource Center (IRC). ©2003. All
rights reserved.
Web location: