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miguel carter,


social inequality

The Landless
Rural Workers Movement
and Agrarian Reform
in Brazil
Challenging Social Inequality

Selected chapters translated from the Portuguese by Miguel Carter

The Landless Rural Workers Movement and Agrarian Reform in Brazil

Edited by Miguel Carter

Duke University Press Durham and London 2015

© 2015 Duke University Press
All rights reserved
Printed in the United States of America on acid-free paper ∞
Designed by Barbara E. Williams
Typeset in Charis and Charparral Pro by BW&A Books, Inc.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Challenging social inequality : the landless rural worker’s movement and agrarian
reform in Brazil / Miguel Carter, ed. ; selected chapters translated from the
Portuguese by Miguel Carter.
p. cm.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
isbn 978-0-8223-5172-6 (cloth : alk. paper)
isbn 978-0-8223-5186-3 (pbk. : alk. paper)
1. Movimento dos Trabalhadores sem Terra (Brazil) 2. Land reform—Brazil.
3. Social movements—Brazil. I. Carter, Miguel, 1964–
hd1333.b6c47 2012
333.3'181—dc23 2012011604

Duke University Press gratefully acknowledges the support of the

unesco Chair in Territorial Development and Education for Countryside
and Fundação Editora da unesp, São Paulo, Brazil, which provided
funds toward the production of this book.

Book cover photograph: Occupation of the Giacometi estate in Paraná (1996).

© Sebastião Salgado / Amazonas Images.
Frontispiece: More than 12,000 people participate in a sixteen-day National March
for Agrarian Reform to Brasília, 2005. Photo courtesy of Francisco Rojas.
Property does not only have rights, but also has duties . . .
If I am elected, I will not separate the two issues:
the emancipation of slaves and the democratization of the land.
One complements the other.
It is not enough to end slavery alone.
It is necessary to end the consequences of slavery.
—J oaquim Nabuco, 1884,
Brazilian Abolitionist Leader

The São Paulo Landlord is no different from the Salisbury Landlord.

It is the same contempt for their fellow man:
the same adoration for their large landholding
and the same repulsion towards any altruistic and generous idea.
It is necessary at each moment to set limits with this Empire;
to compare the conservatives in Brazil with those in England:
the false liberals here and there ( . . . )
The Abolition is marching triumphantly.
It is necessary, though, to give the Negro land.
We must demonstrate that Landlordism is a greater crime than Slavery.
We declared in Lua Conferences: “Slavery is a crime.”
Now we will hold forth: “Large estates are an atrocity.”
—A ndré Rebouças, 1887,
Brazilian Abolitionist Leader

If there is no struggle there is no progress.

Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation,
are people who want crops without plowing up the ground.
They want rain without thunder and lightning.
They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.
This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one;
or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle.
Power concedes nothing without demand.
It never did and it never will.
—F rederick Douglass, 1849,
North American Abolitionist Leader
For Kristina,
Mi compañera de vida

For those who seek

social and environmental
justice in Brazil

Acknowledgments ix
List of Figures, Maps, and Tables xiii
List of Abbreviations xvii
An Overview, Miguel Carter xxiii

1. Social Inequality, Agrarian Reform, and Democracy in Brazil,

Miguel Carter 1

Part I. The Agrarian Question and Rural Social Movements in Brazil

2. The Agrarian Question and Agribusiness in Brazil,
Guilherme Costa Delgado 43

3. Rural Social Movements, Struggles for Rights, and Land Reform

in Contemporary Brazilian History, Leonilde Sérvolo de Medeiros 68

4. Churches, the Pastoral Land Commission, and the Mobilization

for Agrarian Reform, Ivo Poletto 90

Part II. MST History and Struggle for Land

5. The Formation and Territorialization of the MST in Brazil,
Bernardo Mançano Fernandes 115

6. Origins and Consolidation of the MST in Rio Grande do Sul,

Miguel Carter 149

7. Under the Black Tarp: The Dynamics and Legitimacy of Land

Occupations in Pernambuco, Lygia Maria Sigaud 182

8. From Posseiro to Sem Terra: The Impact of MST Land Struggles

in the State of Pará, Gabriel Ondetti, Emmanuel Wambergue,
and José Batista Gonçalves Afonso 202

Part III. MST’s Agricultural Settlements

9. The Struggle on the Land: Source of Growth, Innovation,
and Constant Challenge for the MST, Miguel Carter and
Horacio Martins de Carvalho 229
10. Rural Settlements and the MST in São Paulo: From Social
Conflict to the Diversity of Local Impacts, Sonia Maria P. P.
Bergamasco and Luiz Antonio Norder 274

11. Community Building in an MST Settlement in Northeast Brazil,

Elena Calvo-González 293

12. MST Settlements in Pernambuco: Identity and the Politics

of Resistance, Wendy Wolford 310

Part IV. The MST, Politics, and Society in Brazil

13. Working with Governments: The MST’s Experience with the
Cardoso and Lula Administrations, Sue Branford 331

14. The MST and the Rule of Law in Brazil, George Mészáros 351

15. Beyond the MST: The Impact on Brazilian Social Movements,

Marcelo Carvalho Rosa 375

Conclusion. Challenging Social Inequality: Contention, Context,

and Consequences, Miguel Carter 391

Epilogue. Broken Promise: The Land Reform Debacle under

the PT Governments, Miguel Carter 413

References 429
Contributors 469
Index 473

Photo galleries appear after pages 148 and 292.

viii Contents

All books are the result of a collective undertaking. Anthologies such as this
volume, which engaged seventeen contributors from Europe, North America,
and South America, amplify this collective process in a substantial way.
We owe our findings to hundreds, if not thousands, of people who have shared
ideas and generated the information that helped shape the texts included in this
volume. Our informants, research assistants, and many people who produced
the data and studies employed in our assessments played an essential role in this
enterprise. Moreover, during this time, we were all sustained—in different
ways—by our families, friends, colleagues, and various host institutions. The
book’s final production, in turn, owes much to a team effort carried out by Duke
University Press.
In all this, a special word of gratitude should be made to two academic cen-
ters that secured funding for this edition: the unesco Chair in Territorial De-
velopment and Education for the Countryside of the Universidade Estadual de
São Paulo (unesp) and the Brazil Study Program at the University of Oxford.
Here, we are particularly obliged to Bernardo Mançano Fernandes and Timo-
thy J. Powell.
Were it not for this broad and variegated support network, this anthology
would have never been possible. It is with a warm heart, therefore, that we ex-
tend our appreciation to all the people involved in this vast undertaking. As
the convener, editor and translator of this volume, it is my responsibility to ac-
knowledge some of the individuals and institutions that helped make this proj-
ect possible.
Tracing the genealogy of most books can be a rather difficult task, given
the assorted web of ideas and experiences that can shape these literary works.
Though centered on Brazil, this volume is in many ways a globalized text. Its
contributors come from six different countries: Brazil, the United Kingdom, the
United States, Mexico, Argentina, and Paraguay. In addition, editing this an-
thology involved tasks that crisscrossed many longitudes and latitudes around
the globe. The book was conceived in Oxford, England, prepared in Washing-
ton, D.C., and Caacupé, Paraguay, and published in Durham, North Carolina.
The city of Oxford offered a lovely setting for two crucial moments in the
volume’s conception. The first took place in October 2003, when the Centre
for Brazilian Studies at the University of Oxford sponsored an international
conference on the Landless Rural Workers Movement (mst) and agrarian re-
form in Brazil that brought together several of the volume’s contributors. I am
thankful to those who sponsored this academic event and took part of its lively
exchange, especially, Leslie Bethell, the Centre’s director. Various people at
the Centre provided assistance in setting up this meeting: Ailsa Thom, Sarah
Rankin, Alessandra Nolasco, Margaret Hancox, and Julie Smith. I also want to
express gratitude to the conference presenters and commentators: Anne-Laure
Cadji, Bernardo Mançano Fernandes, Carlos Amaral Guedes, Elena Calvo-­
González, George Meszaros, Guilherme Delgado, Hamilton Pereira, Horacio
Martins de Carvalho, Sue Branford, Wendy Wolford, David Lehmann, James
Dunkerley, Joe Foweraker, Kathryn Hochstetler, Kurt Von Metteheim, and Lau-
rence Whitehead.
A second coup d’inspiration took place at the White Hart, a quaint pub nes-
tled in the village of Wytham, near Oxford. It was there, over a savory pint of
local beer and an animated conversation that Leslie Bethell and I crafted the
basic outline of this book. That evening I agreed to organize two editions of
this volume, one in Portuguese and the other in English. Yet never did I imag-
ine this would require as many years of arduous labor as it actually did. In hind-
sight, I realize I accepted this engagement with great innocence, impressed as
I was with Leslie Bethell’s contagious vitality and genuine enthusiasm for this
initiative. Riding back on my bicycle to Oxford, on that dark and chilly autumn
night, I vowed to lead the project to a worthy end.
My memorable séjour at Oxford was made possible thanks to the recommen-
dations tendered by my mentors at Columbia University in New York: Alfred C.
Stepan, Douglas A. Chalmers, Ralph Della Cava, and Albert Fishlow.
The Centre for Brazilian Studies offered an amiable and stimulating place for
research and intellectual debate. During my year at Oxford I shared the good
company, friendship and lingering conversations with Fiona Macauly, Marukh
Doctor, Ronaldo Fiani, Marcos Rolim, Jurandir Malerba, Kathryn Hochstetler,
Alexandre Parola, Lilia Moritz Schwarcz, Antonio Sérgio Guimarães, Nadya
Araújo Guimarães, Matias Spektor, and Vanessa de Castro.
In Washington, D.C., I received the encouragement of various colleagues, stu-
dents, and friends at American University: Louis Goodman, David Hirschmann,
Deborah Bräutigam, Fantu Cheru, Daniel Esser, Robin Broad, Todd Eisenstadt,
Philip Brenner, and Joe Eldridge. In turn, Joe Clapper, Ali Ghobadi, and the ad-
ministrators of the International Development Program—Crystal Wright, Eliza­
beth Minor, and Amanda Rives—were graceful and efficient in their logistical
I am especially indebted to the generous and intelligent contributions made

x Acknowledgments
by my research assistants at American University: Enrique Gómez Carrillo,
Lyndsay Hughes, Kristy Feldman, Kang Yue, and Erin Connor.
Significant revisions were made to the bulk of the contributions prepared
for this volume. This was particularly the case with the eight chapters I trans-
lated from Portuguese. Throughout this seemingly endless task I received help
from various colleagues, notably Patrick Quirk, Débora Lerrer, Eric Joseph, and
Charlotte Cassey. Ralph Della Cava’s steadfast support during this long and dif-
ficult process was exceptionally heartwarming.
A number of mst leaders and activists provided ample access to contacts and
information on their movement, which greatly facilitated the preparation of
this volume. Several of these individuals are acknowledged in different chap-
ters that comprise this anthology. Others deserving a word of recognition are:
João Pedro Stédile, João Paulo Rodrigues, Dulcinéia Pavan, Neuri Rossetto,
Joaquim Piñero, Geraldo Fontes, Miguel Stédile, and Marina Tavares.
I am also extremely grateful to the photographers that helped illustrate this
volume with stunning images, captured with deep human sensitivity. Among
them are some of the best-known photographers of the Brazilian land struggle:
Sebastião Salgado, João Ripper, Douglas Mansur, João Zinclair, Leonardo Mel-
garejo, Francisco Rojas, Verena Glass, and Max da Rocha.
Cristiane Passos located various pictures in the archives of the Pastoral Land
Commission (cpt) and Prelacy of São Felix do Araguaia. Celeste Prieto helped
with the final selection of photographs, while Anderson Antonio da Silva pro-
vided excellent assistance in preparing all the maps and several figures used to
illustrate this volume. In addition, Ricardo Salles shared the André Rebouças
quote used in the opening section of the book.
At Duke University Press, this book project was endorsed early on by Vale­
rie Millholland. I am thankful to Jessica Ryan for her good patience and aid in
preparing the manuscript for print. Three anonymous reviewers of the original
manuscript offered insightful suggestions for revision.
My research work on Brazil’s agrarian issues and rural social movements
began in 1991. The innumerous visits and extensive travel throughout this
country were financed by a number of institutions: The Tinker Foundation, the
Inter-American Foundation, the Fulbright-Hays Dissertation Research Abroad
Program, the Dorothy Danforth Compton Fellowship, the Nonprofit Sector Re-
search Fund of The Aspen Institute, the University of Oxford’s Centre for Brazil-
ian Studies, and American University. A special recognition is extended here to
all the organizations and individuals that subsidized my research and involve-
ment in this project.
This anthology would not have been possible without the loyal support of
my family, including the members of the Galland clan—Lilette Galland de Mira,
Emilio Mira y López, Andrés Galland, Griselda Barrera Galland, and Leticia,

Acknowledgments xi
Eliana, and Fabiana Galland—who welcomed me with joy and kindness in Rio
de Janeiro and Porto Alegre. My parents, John and Renée Carter, were a con-
stant source of inspiration and encouragement, while my siblings, Nicolás and
Yvette, were always there to lend a hand.
Raising a family and preparing books can be a tough act to balance. Over the
years, Alma, Rafael, and David did their very best to keep things in perspec-
tive. By inviting my distraction, time and again, they lightened my load and
nurtured a playful zest for life.
Kristina Svensson was the main anchor throughout the project. She accom-
panied the whole journey—from the conference in Oxford to the final edits—
with cariño, patience, acumen, and generosity. The book is dedicated to her
with all my love.

xii Acknowledgments
Map 0.1. Brazil: States and places cited in the book
Miguel Carter

Brazil is one the most inequitable nations in the world. Its great disparities of
wealth have deep historical roots. This volume addresses a critical legacy and
enduring aspect of Brazil’s social injustice: its sharply unequal agrarian struc-
ture. The following chapters probe the causes, consequences, and contempo-
rary reactions to this situation. In particular, they shed light on the Landless
Rural Workers Movement (mst), Latin America’s largest and most prominent
social movement, and its ongoing efforts to confront historic patterns of in-
equality in the Brazilian countryside.
This volume offers a wide-ranging picture of the mst and its engagement
in the Brazilian struggle for land reform. The sixteen chapters included here
were produced and revised between 2004 and 2008, following a conference
sponsored by the University of Oxford’s Centre for Brazilian Studies. All the
contributors to this volume, an assembly of Brazilian, European, and North
American–based scholars and development practitioners, have ample fieldwork
experience on the subject. In concert, they offer a unique international and mul-
tidisciplinary perspective of this phenomenon. Its seventeen authors include
five sociologists, two political scientists, two geographers, two anthropologists,
an economist, as well as a lawyer, a journalist, and three development practi-
tioners. Among the writers are eleven Brazilians, three Europeans, and three
North American–based scholars. Together, they offer a sober and empirically
grounded assessment of what is undoubtedly a complex and sensitive subject.
The following comments present a brief overview of the anthology.
Chapter 1, “Social Inequality, Agrarian Reform, and Democracy in Brazil,”
by Miguel Carter sets the mst’s mobilization for agrarian reform in a historical
and comparative context. It underscores the sharp social disparities and conten-
tious visions surrounding the mst’s quest for land redistribution and appraises
the movement’s influence on Brazil’s reform agenda. The prospects for enhanc-
ing development and democracy in Brazil, it asserts, are hampered by the na-
tion’s extreme and durable social inequities. Over the last three decades the
country has experienced a conservative agrarian reform process—largely reac-
tive and restrained in its response to peasant demands; sluggish, minimal, and
ad hoc in its distributive measures; and conciliatory toward the nation’s land-
lord class. Enduring oligarchic privileges, the underdevelopment of citizenship
rights among the poor, and various other shortcomings of Brazil’s democratic
regime account for the nation’s highly lopsided political representation in favor
of the rural elite and explain the state’s tepid land reform policies. The chapter
concludes with a summary of the main positions in Brazil’s contemporary de-
bate over agrarian reform.
The ensuing fifteen chapters are divided into four parts. Part I, “The Agrar-
ian Question and Rural Social Movements in Brazil,” provides an essential
background to the mst story. It examines Brazil’s agrarian structure, state pol-
icies, and the formation of civil society organizations in the countryside. Part
II, “mst History and Struggle for Land” and part III, “mst’s Agricultural Set-
tlements,” build on a frequently made distinction between the struggle for land
(a luta pela terra) and the struggle on the land (a luta na terra). The first refers
to the mobilization undertaken by landless peasants to demand government
land redistribution.1 The struggle on the land takes place after the establish-
ment of an official agricultural settlement. The main efforts during this phase
are geared toward developing productive and meaningful rural communities.
Each of these parts includes an introductory chapter followed by three case
studies. All together, the six case studies cover four of Brazil’s principal regions:
the south, southeast, northeast, and Amazonian north.
Part IV provides a wide-ranging analysis of the mst, politics, and society
in Brazil. It probes the movement’s multifarious relations with recent govern-
ments and the rule of law. Moreover, it examines the mst’s impact on other
Brazilian social movements. The concluding chapter appraises current discus-
sions over the mst and the future of agrarian reform in Brazil. In doing so, it
presents some of the main findings of this volume. This is complemented by an
epilogue and update on land reform trends in the late 2000s and early 2010s.

The Agrarian Question and Rural Social Movements in Brazil

Chapter 2, “The Agrarian Question and Agribusiness in Brazil,” by Guilherme

Costa Delgado offers a cautionary tale. His review of rural development poli-
cies since the 1950s shows how these policies have systematically favored the
landlord class, notably during the military regime established in 1964. This
government thwarted reforms in land tenure, while subsidizing the territo-
rial expansion and technological modernization of the agrarian elite. This
state-led capitalist transformation of agriculture fuelled the emergence of a
powerful agribusiness class. Large-scale farmers and ranchers gained added
economic relevance and power in the aftermath of the 1982 debt crisis. Under
Brazil’s “constrained adjustment” to the new global economy, agro-exports be-
came a leading source of revenue to repay the nation’s foreign creditors. Cur-
rent prospects for implementing a substantial land reform, Delgado argues, are

xxiv  Miguel Carter

undermined by the neoliberal economic model adopted in the 1990s. This is
compounded by the state’s weak enforcement of agrarian reform laws and neg-
ligible efforts to put into effect tax provisions affecting large rural properties.
Chapter 3, “Rural Social Movements, Struggles for Rights, and Land Reform
in Contemporary Brazilian History,” by Leonilde Sérvolo de Medeiros also un-
derscores the strength of Brazil’s large rural proprietors, but, additionally, high-
lights the emergence of a variety of new peasant movements. These movements
were started first in the 1950s and were reignited in the 1980s, during Brazil’s
political redemocratization. This second cycle of peasant mobilizations ushered
in new social categories and public demands and fostered innovative forms of
collective action. These peasant groups have sought to assert their public visi-
bility, while demanding governments to fulfill various social rights. The mst’s
evolution, Medeiros insists, needs to be viewed in the context of previous and
present-day struggles for citizenship rights in the countryside.
Chapter 4, “Churches, the Pastoral Land Commission, and the Mobilization
for Agrarian Reform,” by Ivo Poletto highlights the religious contribution to the
organization and mobilization of the Brazilian peasantry. Stirred by the Second
Vatican Council’s aggiornamento, a theology of liberation, and human rights
violations in the countryside, particularly in the Amazonian frontier, church
agents established in 1975 a Pastoral Land Commission (cpt). The cpt was
embraced early on by the National Conference of Brazilian Bishops (cnbb). In-
deed, nowhere in the chronicle of world religion has a leading religious institu-
tion played as significant a role in support of land reform as has the Brazilian
Catholic Church. Poletto shows how various church initiatives at the grassroots
level helped nurture a vast network of rural social movements, the mst being
its most prominent offspring.

MST History and Struggle for Land

Chapter 5, “The Formation and Territorialization of the mst in Brazil,” by Ber-

nardo Mançano Fernandes presents a broad view of the mst’s history and ter-
ritorial expansion to twenty-four of the country’s twenty-seven states. This
account presents a unique series of maps and discusses the mst’s organiza-
tional resources and main mobilization strategies. Land struggles, Fernandes
asserts, have been crucial to the development of the mst and the implementa-
tion of agrarian reform policies in Brazil. However, the surge in land distribu-
tion after the mid-1990s simply reduced the rate of land concentration in the
hands of the agribusiness farmers. As a result, existing land reform policies
have not altered the nation’s agrarian structure in any substantial way.
Chapter 6, “Origins and Consolidation of the mst in Rio Grande do Sul,” by
Miguel Carter covers the history of the landless movement in one of Brazil’s
most developed regions. Land struggles in Rio Grande do Sul played a central

An Overview  xxv
role in the mst’s formation, while generating many of its innovative practices.
The movement’s genesis, survival, and ongoing growth, Carter argues, are in-
timately entwined with its capacity for public activism—that is, an ability to
engage in a type of social conflict that is organized, politicized, visible, au-
tonomous, periodic, and basically nonviolent. The mst’s orientation toward
public activism is shaped by its enveloping conditions, notably its political op-
portunities and mobilizing resources. Carter builds on this framework and a
comprehensive database on land mobilizations to examine the mst’s historical
trajectory in Rio Grande do Sul, from 1979 to 2006.
Chapter 7, “Under the Black Tarp: The Dynamics and Legitimacy of Land
Occupations in Pernambuco,” by Lygia Maria Sigaud offers an ethnographic ac-
count of land struggles in the northeast sugarcane region. Since the late 1990s,
northeast Brazil has become the most active region in the fight for land. The
mst’s presence in Pernambuco ushered in a new mobilization technique char-
acterized by Sigaud as the “encampment form.” These precarious camps set up
by unemployed rural workers are not an ad hoc gathering but a ritualized and
symbolic instrument through which the rural poor have learned to establish en-
titlement claims. Sigaud demystifies prevailing views that depict these landless
movements as intrinsically hostile to the state. The bellicose rhetoric between
the state and peasant groups, she contends, masks a relationship that also in-
cludes elements of close cooperation and mutual dependency.
Gabriel Ondetti, Emmanuel Wambergue, and José Batista Gonçalves Afonso
in chapter 8, “From Posseiro to Sem Terra: The Impact of mst Land Struggles
in the State of Pará,” appraise the mst’s expansion into the Amazon region.
Pará is noted for the fraudulent appropriation of much of its territory, high lev-
els of rural violence, and a strong tradition of squatter (posseiro) land struggles
supported by local rural trade unions and the cpt. The mst’s early years in
southeastern Pará proved to be difficult ones. The April 1996 police massacre
of nineteen mst peasants near the town of Eldorado dos Carajás was a turn-
ing point in the movement’s struggle. The massacre triggered national public
outrage and prompted federal authorities to accelerate the pace of land dis-
tribution. Though relatively small in number, mst’s actions in Pará caused a
significant impact in the region. According to the authors, the mst helped revi-
talize Pará’s land struggle and modernize existing “repertoires of contention.”
Moreover, it fostered the presence of the federal government in areas of the
Amazon frontier where the state had been largely absent.

MST Agricultural Settlements

Land reform settlements differ greatly in their geographic setting, size, family
composition, levels of economic development, political awareness, and cultural
resources. Chapter 9, “The Struggle on the Land: Source of Growth, Innovation,

xxvi  Miguel Carter

and Constant Challenge to the mst,” by Miguel Carter and Horacio Martins
de Carvalho provides a synoptic view of the mst’s efforts to enhance its agri-
cultural settlements. These activities, they argue, are shaped by Brazil’s con-
servative agrarian reform process, which has led to the dispersed and ad hoc
distribution of land settlements. Prior to the election of President Luiz I­nácio
Lula da Silva, public policies were noted for their negligible assistance to these
new communities. This situation led the mst to mobilize its settlers to insist
that the government provide the houses, agricultural credits, schools, and other
benefits established in the agrarian reform laws. In addition, the mst has or-
ganized thirteen specialized sectors to address the movement’s various needs.
These units—ranging from education, finances, communications, culture, and
human rights to health, gender, production, cooperation, and the ­environment—
operate at national, state, and local levels, adding great complexity and dyna-
mism to the movement’s decision-making process. These multiple and creative
efforts, Carter and Carvalho conclude, have clearly bolstered the mst’s orga-
nizational capacity.
Chapter 10, “Rural Settlements and the mst in São Paulo: From Social Con-
flict to the Diversity of Local Impacts,” by Sonia Maria P. P. Bergamasco and
Luiz Antonio Norder offers a comparative analysis of land reform settlements
in Brazil’s most industrialized and urbanized state. While emphasizing the
assorted nature and impact of the agrarian reform process in São Paulo, the
authors’ findings concur with national surveys that suggest an overall improve-
ment in the quality of life among the vast majority of settlers. The creation
of land settlements, they argue, have favored the development of new social
and political relations at the local level, while fostering alternative commercial
arrangements, innovative technologies, and a gradual consolidation of public
policies in support of peasant farmers. In contrast to São Paulo’s highly indus-
trialized agriculture, many of these communities have embraced a more sus-
tainable and ecological model of rural development.
Chapter 11, “Community Building in an mst Settlement in Northeast Brazil,”
by Elena Calvo González presents an ethnographic account of the day-to-day
dilemmas and frustrations that can take place in a new land reform settlement.
Decisions over where to build new houses (together in an agrovila or in separate
farm plots) and questions concerning the partial collectivization of land and
labor stir power disputes within the settlement. Disappointments over the set-
tlement’s inadequate infrastructure contribute to shared feelings of failure and
trigger extensive discussions and gossip over who is to blame. In this case study,
regional mst leaders are reproached for exercising too much control and faulted
for not doing enough. State officials are blamed by all parties, albeit in different
ways. All this, Calvo-González observes, takes place amid feelings of nostalgia
for the tight-knit community life experienced during the landless encampment.
Chapter 12, “mst Settlements in Pernambuco: Identity and the Politics of Re-

An Overview  xxvii
sistance,” by Wendy Wolford analyzes the impact of economic conditions, orga-
nizational strategies, and cultural views of the land on an mst community in
Pernambuco’s coastal region. The decline of the sugarcane industry in the mid-
1990s facilitated the rapid growth of land reform settlements in this area. With
the recovery of the sugar industry, after the 2002 surge in world sugar prices,
the settlers chose to plant sugarcane instead of the alternative crops promoted
by the mst and land reform officials. The mst lost sway over its members as
a result of these disagreements. Unlike family farmers in other parts of Brazil,
sugarcane workers have been traditionally connected to the land as wage earn-
ers, Wolford explains. For them, owning land is mainly about having a space to
rest at ease, free from any controls. This individualist ethos hinders the mst’s
collective action efforts.

The MST, Politics, and Society in Brazil

Chapter 13, “Working with Governments: The mst’s Experience with the Car-
doso and Lula Administrations,” by Sue Branford evaluates the mst’s capacity
to adapt to different political scenarios. The Cardoso government, she notes,
brought mixed results to the mst: greater land distribution yet scant support
for the new settlements. During Cardoso’s second term a discernible effort was
made to restrict mst protest and curb financial support for its activities. The
2002 election of President Lula, a longstanding mst ally, gave the movement
a welcomed respite. Branford describes the unraveling of Lula’s promise to im-
plement a progressive agrarian reform program. The Lula government, she ob-
serves, feared upsetting agribusiness interests, alienating its conservative allies
in Congress, and undermining its fiscal austerity program. Still, the Lula ad-
ministration sharply increased funds for family agriculture and various proj-
ects aimed at improving the reform settlements. Faced with a difficult choice,
the mst took the pragmatic decision to side with the Worker’s Party’s (pt) Left
and attack the government’s neoliberal policies, while sparing President Lula
Chapter 14, “The mst and the Rule of Law in Brazil,” by George Mészáros
challenges orthodox ideas that assume a fundamental opposition between the
mst’s land mobilizations and the rule of law. Such views, he argues, oversim-
plify a complex situation and omit a fact relevant to many social movements
around the world and throughout history, namely, their role as architects of an
alternative legal order. The Brazilian justice system is manifestly unjust, crip-
plingly bureaucratic, extremely slow, and saturated with class bias, hence many
of the mst’s difficulties with the law. The 1988 Constitution espouses agrarian
reform and qualifies property rights by their social function. Yet most judges
insist on applying the Civil Code’s absolutist approach to property rights. This
closed legal methodology criminalizes mst activists. In a major victory for mst

xxviii  Miguel Carter

lawyers, though, a 1996 decision by Brazil’s high court ruled that land occu-
pations designed to hasten reform were “substantially distinct” from criminal
acts against property. Far from simply disdaining legality, Mészáros concludes,
the mst has actively contributed to shaping debates over the nature and func-
tion of law.
Chapter 15, “Beyond the mst: The Impact on Brazilian Social Movements,”
by Marcelo Carvalho Rosa argues that the mst has fueled the development of a
new pattern of interaction between the Brazilian state and social movements. It
assesses the mst’s contribution to the formation of popular groups representing
peasant women, people displaced by the construction of hydroelectric dams,
small farmers, and homeless workers. Furthermore, Rosa examines the mst’s
impact on the National Confederation of Agricultural Workers (contag) rural
trade unions in the state of Pernambuco. Over the last quarter of a century, the
mst’s “movement form” and way of making collective demands on the state has
become widely diffused throughout Brazil and legitimized by public officials.
The concluding chapter, “Challenging Social Inequality: Contention, Con-
text, and Consequences,” by Miguel Carter pulls together key themes and ideas
in this volume and analyzes their main implications for social change in Bra-
zil. It examines the principal arguments leveled against the mst’s struggle for
agrarian reform and delineates the broader contours of the debate at hand.
Carter draws on the book’s findings to suggest ways in which a sharper under-
standing of the landless movement can be reached. The chapter concludes with
an assessment of the formidable obstacles to land reform in Brazil; the role of
public activism in triggering and sustaining reforms aimed at reducing poverty
and inequality; and the radical democratic implications of the mst’s fight for
social justice.
The Epilogue, “Broken Promise: The Land Reform Debacle under the pt
Governments,” by Miguel Carter provides a succinct assessment of Lula and
Dilma Rousseff’s conservative rural policies. These developments are set in con-
text and reviewed in terms of their impact on the mst. The text closes by draw-
ing out two paradoxes that emerge from this appraisal and weigh on the future
of Brazil’s democracy, its peasantry, and the ecological fragility of our planet.

1. The term peasant is used in a broad sense throughout this volume. It refers basically
to rural cultivators or “people of the land.” These agricultural workers may or may not
have control over the land they till. When they do, peasants usually engage in family
labor practices on a modest parcel of land. For useful reviews of the definition of the
peasantry, see Shanin (1987) and Kurtz (2000). The notion of a “landless peasant” deals
with a variety of social categories of workers, mostly of rural origin, who aspire to cul-
tivate a small plot of farmland. This concept is treated at length in various chapters in
this volume, especially in chapters 3, 4, and 5.

An Overview  xxix