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Markus Lundström

The Making of
Brazil’s Landless
and Narrative
SpringerBriefs in Sociology
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Markus Lundström

The Making of Resistance

Brazil’s Landless Movement and Narrative

Markus Lundström
Department of Economic History
Stockholm University

ISSN 2212-6368 ISSN 2212-6376 (electronic)

SpringerBriefs in Sociology
ISBN 978-3-319-55347-4 ISBN 978-3-319-55348-1 (eBook)
DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-55348-1
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The Making of Resistance: Brazil’s Landless Movement and Narrative Enactment

“How can popular movements endure and adapt to varying political opportunities
and economic constraints? Students of poor people’s movements have long vexed
over this problem. Brazil’s Landless Rural Workers Movement (MST) offers a
telling case for this inquiry. Here is a peasant group that originated in the early
1980s, became one of world’s largest and most sophisticated grassroots movements
by the 1990s, and has remained active and contentious in the 2010s, despite major
obstacles to agrarian reform. Markus Lundström probes this question through an
intriguing lens. Successful movements like the MST, he argues, are adept story
tellers. They develop a clever narrative of their place in history. Identify their foes
in an incisive manner, and nurture their sense of purpose and self-image in strong
yet flexible ways. The ethos of resistance is sustained through a dialogical process
that involves movement participants, allies and close observers, notably in the
academic community. The interaction with scholars, as Lundström aptly shows, has
helped reinforce key elements of the MST narrative. These and other valuable
insights teased throughout this book contribute much to our understanding of how
popular movements can foster resilience.”

Miguel Carter, PhD

Founding Director
DEMOS–Centro para la Democracia, la Creatividad y la Inclusión Social
Author and editor of For Land, Love & Justice: The Origins of Brazil’s Landless
Social Movement (forthcoming with Duke University Press), and Challenging
Social Inequality: The Landless Rural Workers Movement and Agrarian Reform in
Brazil (2015, Duke University Press).

“This delightful book offers an original standpoint that ventures beyond familiar
accounts of contemporary analysis of resistance, and of Brazil’s Landless Rural
Workers’ Movement. By focusing on the importance of storytelling and on the
power of narrative, Lundström opens a breathing space to explore theoretically and
empirically how movements’ narratives – in this case the MST’s – are constantly
revisited and re-enacted, and rewriting their own history.”
Dr. Ana C Dinerstein
Political sociologist, University of Bath
Author of The Politics of Autonomy in Latin America. The Art of Organising Hope
(2015, Palgrave Macmillan)

“The Making of Resistance is a carefully crafted ethnographic study of Brazil’s

Landless Movement (MST), that since its founding in the early 1980s has become
the largest social movement in Latin America. Dr. Lundström’s focus on the
group’s skillful use of their own constructed narrative, to motivate and shape their
actions and guide their movement and successful mobilizations, brings a new level
of understanding to how this important social movement operates. This is required
reading for anyone who wants to understand the MST or how narrative can
influence a social (or political) movement.”
Harry E. Vanden
Professor of Political Science and Latin American Studies
University of South Florida
Author of Politics of Latin America: The Power Game (2015, Oxford University
Press), and co-editor of Rethinking Latin American Social Movements: Radical
Action From Below (2014, Rowman & Littlefield)

“In The Making of Resistance, Markus Lundström tells the story behind the making
of Latin America’s largest and most enduring social movement, Brazil’s Landless
Movement. Skillfully weaving together social history with rich ethnography,
Lundström explains the movement’s precursors in historical struggles over land,
traces the origins of the modern movement in the land occupations of the late
1970s, and chronicles the evolution of the movement as a political subject in a
context of profound socioeconomic and political change. Through interviews and
focus groups, Lundström’s narrative allows Brazil’s landless workers to explain and
interpret their own struggles to gain access to land and construct a new political
subject. This book is a major contribution to the field, as few works in the social
sciences provide such penetrating insights into the making of social movements
from the vantage point of their protagonists.”
Kenneth Roberts
Richard J. Schwartz, Professor of Government, Cornell University
Author of Changing Course in Latin America: Party Systems in the Neoliberal Era
(2014, Cambridge University Press)

“This is a unique and theoretically provocative book on Brazil’s iconic landless

rural workers’ movement. Lundström offers a new perspective on their struggle for
land and their search for autonomy, which highlights the ways the MST has nav-
igated and narrated the ups and downs of over 30 years of struggle against the
dominant agrarian elite of the country. The Making of Resistance invites us to
revisit the role of discourse in the process of political subject formation of peasant
Leandro Vergara-Camus
Senior Lecturer
Department of Development Studies, SOAS University of London
Author of Land and Freedom. The MST, the Zapatistas and Peasant Alternatives to
Neoliberalism (2014, Zed Books)
To the living memory of Elton Brum

Many academics study experiments that counter the capitalist system. But studies generally
reach only the university world, while people that take part in these experiences—the
research objects—do not see much of those studies. We have had various persons here,
interviewing, researching, and observing. And we always say, not just to you but to all
people that come here, that it is important to study these experiments from the workers’
point of view. I don’t think it is only our community, or our movement, that have positive
experiences. I believe that academics that have this outlook, that identify with the working
class, are likewise operating against the hegemony under which we all live. It is therefore
important that you, who study our experiments, find ways to disclose the results to our
community. That would help us advance our struggle.

There is undoubtedly a critical edge to Luisa’s statement. Living in one of the most
well-organized and prosperous communities of Movimento dos Trabalhadores
Rurais Sem Terra (MST), Luisa has become accustomed to curious outsiders. She
recurrently tells her story to visiting students, researchers, journalists, and activists.
Twenty years ago, Luisa typically begins, she occupied a large land estate together
with other landless rural workers in Southern Brazil. For years, she and the other
occupants struggled for legalized land access. They wanted to be farmers, not farm
workers. Eventually, in the early 1990s, the occupied land was officially expro-
priated, transformed into a state-sanctioned rural settlement. The settlers started to
cultivate rice and soon advanced into manufacturing. Today, Luisa concludes, the
MST settlement produces high-quality food for the rural poor, their organic rice
distributed to public schools all across interior Brazil.
Luisa tells her story with pride and dignity. She finds it important to voice one
of the collective “experiments that counter the capitalist system.” Yet Luisa is tired
of being a “research object.” And she declares this to me, another question-asking
visitor, foreigner to their community, to their collective experience. Luisa therefore
requests of me to disclose a report that “would help us advance our struggle.” But
that I cannot do. What I can do, however, is to outline how such an advancement is
fostered by storytelling itself. The MST story is repeatedly narrated by interviewed
MST participants, like Luisa, as well as academic scholars, like me. The story is
told in dialogue with the past, recalling protagonists from a narrative prequel to

x Preface

situate Brazil’s Landless Movement in historical context. Yet this story is not some
narrative monolith. It is flexible, constantly modified, and revised. And it is con-
tinuously revived, put into action through narrative enactment. It is therefore, I
believe, the dynamic usage of the movement narrative that best answers Luisa’s
This book explores the story of Brazil’s Landless Movement: its historio-
graphical prequel, its narrative components, its modifications, and its enactment.
The scientific purpose with this exploration stems from a non-essentialist under-
standing of social movements and other agents of resistance. This means that
groups of people that somehow confront, defy, or escape the repressive workings of
power do not necessarily represent some preexisting identity, nor share a prescribed
social essence. From the non-essentialist theoretical perspective, resistance agents
derive not from class, ethnicity, gender, or any other form of social categorization.
Agents of resistance instead become distinguishable through their activities and
advocacies. From this non-essentialist perspective, resistance agents are understood
as diverse, or divergent, political subjects. Resistance then becomes a contingent
activity; individuals are unified, in a specific time and place, through their struggle
for sociopolitical advocacies. This notion of resistance contingency motivates,
I believe, a thorough exploration of the MST story.
Brazil’s Landless Movement is commonly narrated as one of the world’s most
long-standing and successful social movements. The story begins in the late 1970s
with rural mobilizations, materialized as land occupations. These resistance activ-
ities become increasingly interconnected, and the Landless Movement soon grows
nationwide. Through successful land occupations, numerous families, hundreds of
thousands, now gain legalized access to farm land. In this storytelling, MST con-
tinuously navigates Brazil’s uneven politico-economic topography.
Here, we encounter what social scientists typically call a research problem. If we
accept the notion of social movements as contingent political subjects, how can we
possibly understand their continuity over time? The answer to this question,
I believe, is partway found in the dynamic activity of history writing.
With empirical focus on Brazil’s Landless Movement, this book explores the
enabling power embedded in the movement narrative. The book begins with MST’s
historiography, encompassing what I refer to as a prequel to the MST story. My
empirical analysis of ethnographic and written MST sources suggests that the scene
of this prequel, just like the MST story, takes place at the social margins of the
Brazilian nation-state project. The historiographical characters, recalled in the
narrative prequel, include runaway slaves, indigenous peoples, religious groups,
and rural labor unions. Together, these insubordinate resistance agents, protagonists
of the MST prequel, portray the historical context—five centuries of resistance—in
which the story of Brazil’s Landless Movement is then situated.
Local translations of the MST story, like Luisa’s storytelling, imply the narra-
tive’s importance for political subject formation. Collective memories create a
mutual space of experience, specific understandings of past events that assign
meaning to contemporary resistance activities. The space of experience is therefore
a vital resource for political imagination, formulating a horizon of expectation. The
Preface xi

movement narrative, the MST story, becomes a stabilizer for political subject
formation. The contours of this narrative are drawn not only by MST participants,
but also, as implied by a meta-analyses of 275 MST-related scholarly texts, by
academic storytelling.
At the same time, the MST story seems to be notably flexible. A systematic
analysis of the entire compilation of Jornal Sem Terra, MST’s internal newspaper,
shows that substantial narrative changes have occurred over the past thirty years.
The antagonist of the MST story shifts from the traditional large landowner toward
export-oriented agrifood corporations. This antagonist shift parallels an increased
emphasis on the small-scale farmer, and a fading narrative importance of the
original narrative protagonist, the landless rural worker. What remains constant,
however, is the storyline, the plot. Alike the MST prequel, the constant plot of
agrarian social conflict allows insertion of various characters into the storyline. The
stability of the narrative plot enables flexibility of the story’s main characters.
Yet this flexibility is only feasible to a certain point, that is, when it jeopardizes
the narrative’s stability-producing function. Let me exemplify. The contemporary
focus on reinforcing producer cooperatives motivated key MST figures, in a rare act
of protest, to leave the movement in 2011. By not prioritizing novel land occu-
pations, the critics argued, MST had not only abandoned the landless workers, but
also outstepped the very frames of the MST story. These conflictual meanings
of the movement narrative, its balance between stability and flexibility, highlight
political subject formation as an ongoing social process. The writing of history
informs the making of resistance.
To put it differently, the making of resistance involves recurrent enactment of the
movement narrative. My ethnographical sources (18 focus groups, 14 individual
interviews, participant observations) demonstrate everyday narrative enactments: an
explorative becoming of the protagonist, a dynamic affixing of the antagonist. The
enactment of the MST story becomes most noticeable in the specific, and consti-
tutive, collective activity recognized as luta (translated into English as struggle).
This confrontative resistance activity, typically manifested in occupations of large
land estates or government buildings, actualizes the plot of social conflict, the
storyline that pushes the narrative onward. Hence, the MST story is not only
revisited by movement participants, reinforced through their personalized story-
telling, revised for more precise applicability. The story is also revived, continu-
ously put into action, enacted. And that fosters, I believe, continuity of a contingent
political subject.
It is therefore impossible for me, another academic scholar that studies Brazil’s
Landless Movement, to answer Luisa’s request. I cannot write a book that advances
the MST struggle. This can only be done by those who take part in the very story
they strive to enact. Yet it is still my ambition to return the results of my research, in
gratitude, to those who made it possible. This book would simply not have existed
without the numerous Sem Terra that, with remarkable hospitality, and tremendous
patience, openly introduced their world(s) to yet another curious outsider. For
integrity reasons, I cannot name you here to express my sincere thankfulness.
xii Preface

Any academic product is, and this cannot be emphasized enough, a collective
enterprise. This book is no exception. In Rio Grande do Sul, I am especially
indebted to all of you who enabled my field study. I wish to especially acknowledge
MST coordinators Cedenir, Patrola, Irene, and Salete; University-affiliated sociol-
ogist Sergio Schneider; historian Antonio Bezerra; historian Cliff Welch; geogra-
pher Aline Weber Sulzbacher; as well as the accommodating and helpful personnel
at the INCRA’s head office in Porto Alegre. And, most importantly, my focus group
interviews were particularly aided by the professional interview and observations
skills of sociologist Julice Salvagni, who accompanied most of my field study.
I must also thank all transcribers for their tremendously rigorous job.
Outside Brazil, many people have made substantial contributions to this book.
The space here does not allow me to mention all of you by name. The most
persistent manuscript commenter is undoubtedly Paulina de los Reyes, with pro-
found analytical insights and diligent encouragement. I am also deeply grateful for
valuable comments from Ulf Jonsson, Fredrik Uggla, Mats Morell, Jonas
Lundström, Thaïs Machado Borges, Andrés Rivarola Puntigliano, Matilda
Baraibar, Ronny Pettersson, Sandra Hellstrand, Emma Rosengren, Daniel Berg, as
well as the two anonymous scholars employed by Springer to critically review my
Finally, the making of this book would not have been realized without the
insistently clearheaded support from Sanna, my beloved travel partner, in Brazil,
and throughout the crooked paths of life itself. My dearest thanks also go to Märta,
now six years old and sister to newborn Gösta. Märta’s engaged interest in stories—
as consumer and producer, co-writer and actor—has profoundly enthused my
exploration of the power embedded therein.

Stockholm, Sweden Markus Lundström


1 Dimensions of Resistance . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1
1.1 Agents, Activities, Advocacies . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 3
1.2 Political Subject Formation . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 12
1.3 Approaching Brazil’s Landless Movement . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 15
2 In Dialogue with the Past . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 29
2.1 Struggles Against Nation Building . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 30
2.2 Struggles for Land . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 43
2.3 Struggles Continued . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 51
3 The Story . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 59
3.1 Academic Storytelling. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 61
3.2 Narrative Changes Over Time . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 70
3.3 Between Flexibility and Stability . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 74
4 Narrative Enactment . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 81
4.1 Becoming Protagonist . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 82
4.2 Affixing the Antagonist . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 98
4.3 Performing Luta . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 102
5 Making History, Making Resistance . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 109
Appendix: MST’s Organizational Structure . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 119
Glossary . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 121
Resumo . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 123
References . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 127

Picture 1 Emerging maize cultivation in Southern Rio Grande do Sul, commenced only weeks after land access was officially legalized. For
these MST participants, now small-scale farmers, the ever-retreating horizon of expectation produces, and entwines, their dimensions of
resistance. Photo by author
Chapter 1
Dimensions of Resistance

Abstract This introductory chapter elaborates the theoretical and empirical starting
points for this book. Brazil’s Landless Movement (MST) is here construed as a
political subject, formed by individuals with divergent experiences, contingently
unified in political struggle. Such contingent political subject formation is here
critically related to MST’s story of continued resistance. By focusing on how the
movement narrative is retold, revised and revived, the book aims to capture the
continuity of a contingent political subject. The theoretically derived research
problem is situated within the interdisciplinary research field of resistance and
social movement studies, here introduced through its analytical foci on agents,
activities and advocacies. The chapter then introduces the analyzed empirical
material—Jornal Sem Terra (all issues between 1981 and 2013), MST-related lit-
erature (275 academic texts), and ethnographic sources (18 focus group interviews,
14 individual interviews, participant observation)—in order to discuss how these
sources have been selected, retrieved and produced. The chapter also introduces the
analytical concepts employed for this book’s exploration into the dimensions of

Keywords MST 
Social movement Identity Subaltern   
Historiography Anarchism Autonomy Focus group interviews Participant 

No time could be wasted. Cultivation needed to start right away. After eight rough years in
roadside encampments, the eleven adults, and four children, had finally gained legalized
access to farm land. As their settlement needed to become productive, the first group
meeting addressed how to begin farming as soon as possible. What was the best hourly
price for hiring a tractor? Was it too late to plant corn? And how should land, labor and
revenues be divided? Questions were imperative, yet the spirit was energetic. An endured
political objective—acquiring land for small-scale farming—was actually happening. At
least within a reachable future. Years of political struggle, a living memory of the near past,
now required immediate activation of agricultural food production.
A few weeks later, I met these new-settled farmers again, but now in a completely different
setting. Together with five hundred women, they were occupying a government building in

© The Author(s) 2017 1

M. Lundström, The Making of Resistance, SpringerBriefs in Sociology,
DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-55348-1_1
2 1 Dimensions of Resistance

the capital of Rio Grande do Sul. They demanded piped water and electricity for impov-
erished rural communities, as a step towards, as they put it, the end of state-led violence
against women. During the conference that preceded the occupation on March 8,
International Women’s Day, I asked why the new-settled farmers chose to spend almost a
week of their precious planting time on a risky event like this. One of them then looked at
me, the slow-learning foreigner, with tried patience. Then she explained, again, that ‘we
always participate, because the struggle continues’.

The catchphrase a luta continua is widely used within Movimento dos

Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (MST), Brazil’s Landless Movement. The battle
cry pronounces the struggle for land, for agrarian reform. The invitation embedded
in the slogan implies a collective point of departure. The struggle has participants,
forming a sense of ‘we’, in which people are invited to take part. And while the
struggle is presently active, it is also forecasted to continue, into the future. The
notion of continuity suggests not only a vibrant present, but also a collective
memory of the past. The struggle for agrarian reform in Brazil becomes a process,
formulated in dialogue with the past, projected towards a promising future.
This MST catchphrase—the struggle continues—captures the very theme of this
book. The relation between collective storytelling, and resistance continuity, is
herein explored empirically through the story of Brazil’s Landless Movement.
The MST narrative portrays a successful and continuous social movement, enduring
over three decades in a shifting politico-economic landscape. To enrich the
understanding of resistance continuity, the empirical chapters of this book analyze
various aspects and functions of the MST story, and its compound usages for
movement participants.
In short, Chap. 2 sketches what I call a prequel to the MST story. The key events
of MST’s historiography are here presented chronologically, combining MST
sources and scholarly literature to flesh out the historical context in which MST
participants situate themselves. Chapter 3 moves from prequel to story, through a
meta-analysis of 275 academic studies on Brazil’s Landless Movement. While
academic storytelling depicts the contours of the MST story, narrative changes and
continuities are then analyzed through a corpus analysis of the entire compilation of
MST’s internal newspaper, Jornal Sem Terra. This analysis outlines how certain
narrative components remain stable over the investigation period, 1981–2013,
although accompanied by significant narrative changes. The usage of the movement
narrative thereby incorporates a delicate balance, I argue, between stability and
flexibility. In Chap. 4, this intangible usage of the MST story is construed as
narrative enactment. Based on an ethnographic field study, the chapter outlines how
MST participants become protagonists, and how they affix antagonists, in their
contingent enactments of the movement narrative.
However, as we will see in this introductory chapter, my narrative analysis of
resistance continuity has a complicating starting point. Brazil’s Landless movement
is in this book construed as a political subject, formed by individuals with divergent
experiences, contingently unified in political struggle. This ongoing process—the
political subject formation—is then related to MST’s story of continued resistance.
By focusing on how the movement narrative is retold, revised and revived, this
1 Dimensions of Resistance 3

book aims to deepen our understanding of continuity of a contingent political

subject. The following introductory chapter outlines the guiding theoretical per-
spective, and analytical tools, that inform my approach to Brazil’s Landless
Movement. But to pursue my theoretically derived research problem, that of con-
tinuous political subject formation, we must first visit the research field of resistance
and social movement studies. The following pages present this interdisciplinary
field through three analytical focal points.

1.1 Agents, Activities, Advocacies

Economic history typically concerns structural changes and continuities over time,
particularly focused on interrelations between economy and social life.1 The infinite
ways of organizing economic production, and distribution, are often studied
through the lens of social conflict, the contentions between various manifestations
of power and resistance. While this book follows that line of research, my analytical
focus advances on the formative aspects of resistance making, and its intricate
relation to the making of history. Increased attention to agents’ history writing
would, I believe, enrich the interdisciplinary field of resistance and social move-
ment studies.
For scholars across the humanities and social sciences, the concept of resistance
naturally has diverse meanings. In a research overview, produced by sociologists
Jocelyn Hollander and Rachel Einwohner, the concept of resistance “describes a
wide range of actions and behaviors at all levels of human social life (individual,
collective and institutional) and in a number of different settings, including political
systems, entertainment and literature, and the workplace”. Hollander and
Einwohner report that resistance scholars disagree on the level of recognition and
intention (by agents, targets and observers) that needs to be in place in order to
define an act as resistance.2 A common ground, however, for studies that somehow
utilize, investigate or emanate from the concept of resistance, is, again, the
understanding of social reality in terms of conflict.3 When something is being
resisted, it implies contention, an identifiable social phenomenon that may be
analyzed. From this starting point, as we will see, scholars typically identify
resistance agents, what they do, and what they want. These analytical foci—the

Or, as economic historian Francesco Boldizzoni more polemically puts it, “one cannot write
economic history that is not at the same time social and cultural history” (2011), p. 136. This type
of economic-historical approach traces back to Karl Polanyi’s analysis of the “self-protection of
society” (1944), pp. 136–228, which in turn draws on now classical theories of the political
Hollander and Einwohner (2004), pp. 534, 539–547.
According to sociologists Anna Johansson and Stellan Vinthagen (2014), pp. 1–12, a fundamental
dimension of resistance is the relationships of agents, which spatially and temporally incorporates
certain repertoires of defiance.
4 1 Dimensions of Resistance

identification of agents, activities and advocacies—are presented here as key

extractions from the interdisciplinary research field in which this book is situated.

1.1.1 Identifying Agents

Within the historical discipline, contemporary studies of resistance often stem from
the agents’ own experiences of, and relation to, politico-economic structures. This
analytical starting point, sometimes referred to as history from below, was partic-
ularly developed by British historians in the 1960s.4 Their agency-oriented
approach answered to the scholarly debate on structure vs agency as the social
scientist’s primary analytical focus.5 A ground-breaking contribution for the
agency-approach, launched by the history-from-below school, is THE MAKING OF THE
ENGLISH WORKING CLASS. Here, economic historian E.P. Thompson outlines how
class-based interests enabled resistance in early nineteen’s century England.6
Following this line of thought, the history-from-below school also challenges the
notion of collective action as deterministic reaction to structural transformations.7
Thompson instead suggests that agency derived from collectively shared values
within the working class, what he refers to as customs.8 As an example of custom,
Thompson argues that food riots in eighteens century England were intentional
collective actions with clearly defined targets. The uprisings were not so-called
rebellions of the belly, but targeted political activities, legitimized and encouraged
by the English working class.9 Hence, by challenging the orthodox Marxist-
oriented focus on (the conscious) class as the fundamental analytical category for
social science, the history-from-below school initiated novel understandings of
resistance agents. Their analytical scope, however, was very much limited to the
European (male) wage laborer. This scope was significantly widened by parallel
theorizing developed in the Global South.10

This concept was originally coined by E.P. Thompson (1966). For an introduction to this school,
see Sewell (2005), pp. 32–33.
For an educative introduction, and exemplified contribution, to this scholarly debate, see Giddens
(1979), pp. 49–95.
Thompson (1963).
A milestone here was THE CROWD IN HISTORY, written by George Rudé (1981 [1964]). By
addressing the motives behind collective action, and the participant composition of the so-called
crowd, Rudé opened up for an agency-oriented analysis, a notion he further developed with Eric
Hobsbawn in CAPTAIN SWING (1968).
Thompson (1991), p. 8.
This particular custom was conceptualized by E.P. Thompson (1971), pp. 76–79, as the moral
economy; a normative class-based understanding of economic transactions.
Following the conceptualization of sociologist Bonaventura de Sousa Santos (2012), p. 51,
Global South/North here refer to historical-political categories that recognize economic inequal-
ities and political power relations at the global level.
1.1 Agents, Activities, Advocacies 5

In 1961, psychiatrist Frantz Fanon wrote his famous manifesto for anti-colonial
resistance, THE WRETCHED OF THE EARTH. Fanon here argues that oppressed peoples
are not objects for liberation, but subjects, struggling for their own objectives.11
Like the history-from-below school, Fanon’s theorizing builds on analytical
agency, on the argument that resistance agents are self-initiated and not solely
defined by causal outcomes of social structures. Fanon’s analysis also indicates how
resistance may transcend the working class formation.12 Fanon’s perspective was
later advanced by the Subaltern Studies Collective in India, initiated by historian
Ranajit Guha. This research collective was, like the British historians of the 1960s,
particularly interested in exploring alternative perspectives of history writing by
extending the Marxist class category. The declared aim of subaltern studies is,
according to historian Dipesh Chakraborty, “to produce historical analyses in which
the subaltern groups were viewed as the subjects of history”.13 This subaltern
perspective motivates Guha to directly criticize the history-from-below scholar Eric
Hobsbawn, for his conceptualization of “primitive rebels” which allowed a
reductionist definition of peasant insurgency as “pre-political”. The assumption of
backwardness embedded in Hobsbawns theorizing implies, Guha argues,
Eurocentric history writing that disables agency-oriented analyses of contemporary
resistance outside the Global North.14
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, a key contributor to the Subaltern Studies
Collective, and to postcolonial feminism in general, has taken this argument one
step further.15 In her influential essay CAN THE SUBALTERN SPEAK?, Spivak criticizes
the post-structuralist scholars Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze for not posi-
tioning themselves on the colonial map. Spivak argues that an un-positioned study,
with the ambition to undertake the oppressed point of view, is a form of “epistemic
violence” that ultimately backfires, reproducing the very power relations that crit-
ical scholars aim to uncover. Hence, although the subaltern speaks, it cannot be
heard. We therefore need to listen, Spivak continues, and pay particular attention to
how subaltern groups reinforce their weakened power position, especially through
their own history writing. Because when the subaltern speaks, it produces and
projects itself, challenging dominant social ascriptions. Spivak’s analysis suggests
that subaltern knowledge production, particularly what she calls “subaltern histo-
riography”, not only requires agency, it also empowers the agent.16

Fanon (1963 [1961]). A similar demarcation is made by historian Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s
(1995), p. 23, distinguishing between historical peoples “as agents, or occupants of structural
positions, [… and] as subjects, that is, as voices aware of their vocality”.
Fanon’s notion of agency is unfortunately quite limited by his male-orientation. As argued by
linguist scholar Anne McClintock (1996), Fanon’s analysis implies that female agency depends on
the insertion of nationalism.
Chakrabarty (2000), p. 15.
Guha’s critique of Hobsbawn is recaptured in Chakrabarty (2000), pp. 15–18, 22.
For an introduction to postcolonial feminism, see de los Reyes (2011), pp. 11–44.
Spivak (1988), pp. 80–82, 89, 104.
6 1 Dimensions of Resistance

The notion of subaltern historiography has indeed informed the theoretical

approach of this book, which we return to in the subsequent discussion on political
subject formation. I believe that the postcolonial perspective adds another layer to
the ambition of writing history from below. While Thompson demonstrates the
scientific potential of analytical agency, of studying resistance from the agents’ own
point(s) of view, Spivak and Guha advance with attention to the agents’ production
of subaltern historiography. Thus, the history-from-below and subaltern scholars’
parallel search for resistance agents—among European industrial workers and
colonized peoples—suggests that these agents actually make, and write, their own
history. This notion of analytical agency provides, as we will see, additional entry
points to identify resistance activities.

1.1.2 Identifying Activities

Anthropologist and political scientist James Scott, one of the most influential
scholars of this research field, offers a critical theory for understanding activities
that constitute resistance. Scott argues that when the cost of direct and open con-
frontation with authorities exceeds the benefit, subordinated people tend to engage
in everyday resistance: disguised yet intentional acts of defiance. Scott makes his
argument based on class relations in a small Malaysian village, where relational
networks are so intricate that open rebellion becomes impossible. Scott’s focus is
therefore not organized collective action, but offstage resistance, activities that
include individual and uncoordinated acts of defiance. Scott also presents the
concept of hidden transcripts: offstage speeches and practices, silently expressed in
gossip and encrypted in songs and folk tales. The hidden transcripts, Scott argues,
require a distinct community in which these practices can be shared, and a col-
lective (class-oriented) identity to mirror the hidden transcripts.17 Here Scott is
indebted to Thompson’s idea that collective acts of resistance do not occur in a
social vacuum, but derives from a legitimizing notion founded in what Thompson
refers to as a custom.18
With Scott’s analytical lens, open confrontations parallel disguised resistance.
This agency-oriented approach subsequently focuses less-spectacular resistance
activities: hidden and individual acts of defiance, emanating from collective
experiences and shared values.19 Scott’s perspective thereby enriches the research

Scott (1985), pp. 28–37, 242–248, 295–297; Scott (1990), pp. 4, 18–19, 200–201; Scott (2012),
p. xx.
Thompson (1991), p. 8.
Sociologist Asef Bayat (2000), p. 543, points out how “Scott makes it clear that resistance is an
intentional act”. While Bayat productively departs from that perspective to identify additional
resistance agents, Scott’s intentional aspect remains quite valid when focusing on explicit social
movements, such as MST, as long as intentions are linked to the advocacies embedded in resis-
tance activities.
1.1 Agents, Activities, Advocacies 7

field that typically associates resistance activities with social movements. In an

informative overview of social movement research, sociologists Donatella Della
Porta and Mario Diani define social movements as actors that “are involved in
conflictual relations with clearly identified opponents; are linked by dense informal
networks; [and] share a distinct collective identity”.20 Scott’s non-confrontative and
unorganized resistance activities clearly exceed this general definition. The asso-
ciation of resistance activities with clearly defined social movements—such as
Brazil’s Landless Movement—is particularly undertaken by scholars interested in
evaluating (state-)political causes and outcomes. The perhaps most influential
approach here has been developed in several writings of Doug McAdam, Sidney
Tarrow and Charles Tilly.21
In the book CONTENTIONS POLITICS, Tilly and Tarrow summarize the analytical
concepts they use to study what they call sites of contention: the subjects, objects
and/or arenas of oppositional forces. A central concept of this theoretical per-
spective is the political opportunity structure, the historical moments when power
becomes more vulnerable to resistance. For Tilly and Tarrow, political opportuni-
ties incite social movements to activate what they call repertoires of contention,
resistance activities available to the studied social movements.22 By connecting
social movements’ growth, and recession, to the historically changing potentials of
the (state-)political process, political opportunity theorists challenge the notion of
material needs as key indicator for social movement mobilization.23 This approach
is well-used, as we will see in Chap. 3, by scholars interested in MST’s impact on
the Brazilian state-political process.
The repertoires of resistance have, as it were, changed throughout history.
Historian Charles Tilly argues that the repertoires of the eighteenth century had a
local focus, which allowed great variations of resistance activities between different
communities. Collective acts of resistance here concerned direct changes of iden-
tified social problems. In the nineteenth century, Tilly continues, this direct action
tactic became less relevant. The new repertoire was now cosmopolitan in character,
linking shared interests between different localities. The opponent had also changed
as power became more centralized. When the modern nation-state grew stronger,
the repertoires of contention came to focus, according to Tilly, more on creating
associations and alliances that could influence the authorities to answer the pro-
testers’ claims.24 Direct action had to give away for politics of representation.

Porta and Diani (2006), p. 20. An additional aspect of this definition is the separation of social
movements from organizations (such as political parties) which are considered as collective actors
that, together with other individuals and organizations, may aggregate into a social movement.
A heuristic distinguisher here is that social movements do not have members, but participants.
See for instance: McAdam et al. (2001).
Tilly and Tarrow (2007), pp. 4–8, 12–21, 57–61, 203.
See for instance McAdam (1999 [1982]). The referred resource mobilization theory, initiated by
Mancur Olson (2002 [1965]), is a classical sociological starting point for studying social move-
ments. For a brief introduction, see Porta and Diani (2006), pp. 100–105.
Tilly (1995), pp. 41–48.
8 1 Dimensions of Resistance

As a consequence, symbolic practices became more relevant in the new repertoire.

Certain modular practices, such as the now classic protest demonstration, were
adapted quite similarly in various localities.25
According to Tarrow and Tilly, the repertoires of resistance that emerged in the
nineteenth century are still active today. Even though additional practices have
entered the repertoires, such as sit-ins, blockades and building occupations, the
general objective with these resistance activities, as construed by Tilly and Tarrow,
is to acquire media attention and thereby influence governmental politics.26 The
postcolonial critique is helpful here, pointing out Eurocentric assumptions of linear
historicity and universal comprehension, as embedded in the repertoires of con-
tention. Nevertheless, analytical focus on the political opportunity structure has
proved useful to study resistance activities in a broader scheme of contentious
But how are we then to understand resistance activities not oriented towards the
state? Scholars that study agents such as the feminist, anti-nuclear, green and peace
movements (particularly emerging in the 1960s) typically transcend class to
incorporate gender, ethnicity and locality into the analysis of social conflict. By
shifting analytical focus, scholars have noted that numerous resistance agents are
not particularly interested in conquering the state, in contrast to the labor move-
ments’ focus on building political parties, but rather in engaging politics through
direct action. Sociologist Aberto Melucci accordingly argues that these agents do
not seek political take-over, but instead autonomy vis-à-vis the dominant political
system. Melucci suggests that autonomy has guided social mobilization in the
1960s, which then articulated novel political goals.27 The focus on non-state ori-
ented resistance activities, bypassing the practice of parliamentary representation,
thereby encourages further inquiries into the activating resistance advocacies.

1.1.3 Identifying Advocacies

The identification of advocacies—the social, economic and political visions sought

by resistance agents—particularly encompasses scholarly attention on social
movements’ experimental collective practices. Here, an analytical distinction
between participatory practices and representative democracy is especially guiding
for analysts of Latin American social movements.28 Political scientist Richard
Stahler-Sholk observes an explicit strive for autonomy vis-à-vis the state, as many

Tilly and Tarrow (2007), pp. 12–13.
Tilly and Tarrow (2007), pp. 16–21. The activity of creating international (media) attention is
critically evaluated in THE MARKETING OF REBELLION, by Clifford Bob (2005).
Melucci (1980), pp. 219–220.
See for instance Swords (2007), p. 305; Martins (2006), pp. 268–276; Starr et al. (2011),
pp. 108–112.
1.1 Agents, Activities, Advocacies 9

social movements in Latin America “unlike traditional guerrilla movements or

electoral expressions of the left, […] are not fundamentally organized to seize state
power”.29 According to Stahler-Sholk, several of these social movements distin-
guish between state and society, thus locating themselves beyond state-oriented
politics.30 Based on these scholarly observations, political scientist Leandro
Vergara-Camus identifies what he calls an autonomist turn among scholars that
study Latin American Social movements.31
A key theorist of this documented autonomy-seeking is sociologist John
Holloway. In CHANGE THE WORLD WITHOUT TAKING POWER, Holloway distinguishes
between what he calls power over and power to.32 While power over signifies social
changes through the state, power to denotes direct action resistance.33 Based on this
analytical distinction, other scholars infer that the practice of power over, via
collaboration with political parties in Latin America, involves serious risks of
displacing long-term societal change out of focus, and that movement autonomy is
underpinned by these alliances.34 The notion of economic and political autonomy
has thereby been an important advocacy for several social movements in Latin
America, including, as we will see in Chap. 4, Brazil’s Landless Movement.
A core aspect of the movements’ autonomy-seeking, as argued by political
theorist Rául Zibechi, is the spatial appropriation that creates small-scale commu-
nities, which in turn enables participatory self-government. These occupied spaces
then allow construction of alternative societal structures, such as re-negotiated
gender roles, division of labor and surplus distribution. For Zibechi, the construc-
tion of autonomous communities explicitly construes social movements as
“anti-state forces”.35 This type of socio-political organizing designates, for soci-
ologist Ana Dinerstein, a prefigurative aspect of autonomy, an “art of organizing

Stahler-Sholk et al. (2007), p. 6.
Stahler-Sholk (2014), pp. 187–191; Stahler-Sholk (2007), pp. 49–51; Stahler-Sholk et al. (2008),
p. 337. See also Kearney and Varese (2008).
Vergara-Camus (2013), p. 593. Of course, not all social movement scholars submit to this
autonomist turn, and its aligned analytical focus on advocacies. On the contrary, Judith Hellman
(1994; 2008) argues that resistance activities should focus on contesting neoliberal globalization,
implying that agents should not formulate, or struggle for, broader political advocacies. For
Hellman, this struggle is by definition occupied by political parties. Since the objective for Latin
American social movements is to transform the state, Hellman argues, activities should focus on
pragmatic collaboration with unions and political parties.
This analytical distinction resembles Foucault’s (1982), pp. 786–790, notion of power as both
capacity and asymmetry.
Holloway (2010 [2002]), pp. 27–38. For an empirical application of this theoretical approach,
see Kuecker (2007).
Alcañiz and Scheier (2007), pp. 284–285; Stahler-Sholk et al. (2008), p. 339.
Zibechi (2010), pp. 4–7, 135–141; Zibechi (2012), pp. 14–19.
Dinerstein (2015), pp. 10–13, 25–26.
10 1 Dimensions of Resistance

Scholarly explorations of autonomy-seeking have also been elaborated in the

Global North. By drawing on the theoretical heritage of anarchism, sociologist
Richard Day has retrieved analytical tools for reading autonomist tendencies of
social movements.37 Instead of framing revolutionary violence as a central char-
acteristic of the anarchist tradition, which is still surprisingly common among
economic and social historians,38 Day extracts from anarchist theory what he calls a
non-hegemonic project, an anarchist paraphrase of the Gramscian-Marxist concept
of counter-hegemony. The starting point here is the classic anarchist critique of
Marxist political theory, the reluctance to critically address the power concentrated
in the state. From this point of departure, Day argues that non-hegemonic advo-
cacies better capture the diversity of resistance activities, instead of reducing
political visions to the replacement of one hegemonic order with another.39
Through his poststructuralist re-reading of anarchist theory, what is sometimes
referred to as the post-anarchist school,40 Day also argues that the experimentation
with alternative ways of organizing social relations actually challenges the
multi-polar power relations embedded in the state.41 The notion of non-class based
advocacies, embodied in prefigurative socio-political alternatives, clearly echoes
Zibechi’s perspective of resistance via anti-state forces.42
In a similar fashion, James Scott reads the Gramscian concept of hegemony as
performativity; subordinated people act in accordance with hegemonic rules only to
OF UPLAND SOUTHEAST ASIA, Scott observes that, as response to expansive
state-making processes in the valleys, people fled to the hills in the search for what
he calls non-state spaces.44 This active avoidance of the state—the search for
autonomy—is here understood as an act of resistance in itself. Scott’s hidden
transcripts encompass mutual experiences and future visions, fostering socio-
political milieus that, in turn, cultivate confrontative resistance activities. The search
for non-state spaces should therefore not, according to Scott, be interpreted as a

It should be noted that anarchism emerged as a tandem critique of the liberal/socialist duality,
which had come to dominate the ideological critique of conservatism in Western Europe of the mid
nineteenth century. Political anarchism eventually spread to other continents, including Latin
America. However, the practice of anarchy, in the sense of state-less societies, has of course been
present in many parts of the world long before it was ‘invented’ by the critical fraction of European
For a typical example, see Conway and Gerwarth (2011), pp. 147–150, 172–173.
Day (2005), pp. 70–76, 91–128.
Besides Richard Day, key contributors to this theoretical perspective include Todd May, Saul
Newman and Lewis Call. For an introductory compilation of the key post-anarchist writings, see
Rousselle and Evren (2011).
Day (2005), pp. 70–76.
Zibechi (2010), pp. 4, 65–90.
Scott (1990), pp. 86–87.
Non-state spaces, in the definition of James Scott (2009), p. 13, refer to places where “the state
has particular difficulty in establishing and maintaining its authority”.
1.1 Agents, Activities, Advocacies 11

politically disabling act of escapism, nor as a repressive counter-action to disrupt

social organization.45 Quite the contrary, transcending the notion of the state as
arena for political activity could, arguably, enrich the understanding of the pre-
conditions in which resistance agents are cultivated.46
This cultivation of resistance agents, what I call political subject formation, is in
turn closely tied to its entailed activities. Particularly useful for scholars is the
notion of direct action, of self-managed political change, as an important key to
identify the agents’ advocacies. As suggested by anthropologist David Graeber, the
practice of direct action typically “becomes a kind of micro-utopia, a concrete
model for one’s vision of a free society”.47 On a similar note, sociologist Marianne
Maeckelbergh explores a research focus on experimental collective practices that
comprise resistance activities. Drawing on empirical studies of the 2000s alter-
globalization movement, Maeckelbergh construes resistance activities as prefigu-
rative politics. Maeckelbergh argues that the notion of prefiguration, originally
stemming from the European anarchist tradition, was explored by social movements
in the 1960s, and subsequently inherited by the alterglobalization movement.48
Prefigurative aspects of resistance activities thereby indicate, as argued by political
philosopher Mathijs van de Sande, how political visions or goals—advocacies—are
actualized in the ‘here and now’.49
In the interdisciplinary field of resistance and social movement studies, the
identification of advocacies, then, apparently guides the resistance activities that
become researchable. Scott’s identification of resistance as an ART OF NOT BEING
GOVERNED motivates him to study off-stage defiance and the construction of
non-state spaces. Political opportunity scholars focus on collective action in relation
to state-political arenas, thus construing resistance activities as demands for
state-led social change. Day and Holloway advance the scholarly interest in the
construction of socio-political alternatives and non-state spaces, understood as
searches for autonomy, and then how social activities propel such an exploration.
Diverse analyses of advocacies and activities hence induce furthered theoriza-
tions of resistance agents, something we will continue to explore throughout this
book. The scholarly starting point for such an exploration is the historian’s ambition
of writing history from below, of undertaking research from the resistance agents’
points of view, or better said, of focusing on prefigurative resistance activities and
their related advocacies. This understanding of analytical agency is guided by the
postcolonial emphasizes on the processes by which people become writers of their
own history. And from that theoretical perspective, as we will see, resistance

Scott (1990), pp. 18–19, 226–227; Scott (2009), pp. 13, 22–26. This critique is developed in
more detail by Nicholls et al. (2013), pp. 5–6.
A similar argument is raised by Davies and Featherstone (2013), pp. 239–240, 257–258.
Graeber (2009), p. 210.
Maeckelbergh (2011a), pp. 1–3; Maeckelbergh (2011b), pp. 301–315. For parallel recapturing of
prefigurative political history, see Polletta (2012), pp. 6–7; Epstein (2002), pp. 333–346; Breines
(1989), pp. 46–52.
Van de Sande (2013), pp. 230–233.
12 1 Dimensions of Resistance

activities target diverse and multi-level adversaries, albeit acknowledging the

divergent experiences that form political subjects.

1.2 Political Subject Formation

The most central analytical concept of this book—the political subject—stems from
a theoretical rejection of prefixed, and therefore representable, social groups. From
this non-essentialist perspective, resistance agents cannot be fully understood
through collective identifiers like, for instance, class, ethnicity or gender. This
non-essentialist approach is explicitly elaborated in critical gender theory. For
philosopher Judith Butler, a pioneering queer theorist, the non-essentialist under-
standing of sex and gender leads her to oppose feminist politics based on gender
representation; Butler rejects essentialist categories of women and men. All we can
perceive, and therefore study, is the gendering of bodies, the social constructions of
individuals as female or male.50 This non-essentialist theorization does not only
apply to gender, I would argue, since it attacks the very notion of political repre-
sentation. A non-essentialist perspective highlights the analytical deficiency of
approaching political activities as derived from prefixed identities or social groups
with allegedly common interests.
How it is then, from this theoretical starting point, possible to identify a
researchable resistance agent, a political subject, beyond essentialist understand-
ings? For political theorists Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, collective resis-
tance activities presume no constitutive social category per se. Laclau and Mouffe
associate subjectivity with discontinuity and fragmentation. Diversities are theo-
retically construed as conflictual social ascriptions, or subject positions. From this
notion of subject fragmentation, Laclau and Mouffe develop their analysis of ar-
ticulation, the process by which linguistic signs and social practices are fixed to
create social meanings.51 From this non-essentialist viewpoint, then, subjects are
understood as contingent formations of social practices. Laclau and Mouffe’s notion
of a fragmented and diverse subjectivity, contingently created through articulatory
processes, thereby reinforces the theorization of non-representable resistance
From this theoretical perspective, then, we may construe the political subject as a
collective of individuals, contingently unified in a specific political struggle, not
necessarily representing a mutual material need, nor a common identity. The
political subject is formed, in a specific time and place, by individuals with diverse
experiences that gravitate towards certain subject positions. This theorization
obviously resembles constructivist understandings of power as such. As famously

Butler (2006 [1990]), pp. 2–6, 22–23, 34, 194–195, 203.
Laclau and Mouffe (2001 [1985]), pp. xix, 58, 65, 85–88, 107–129. Postcolonial theorist Stuart
Hall (1980), pp. 325–329, similarly construes articulation as time-specific fixations.
1.2 Political Subject Formation 13

argued by philosopher Michel Foucault, power is constantly reshaping, “forming a

dense web that passes through apparatuses and institutions, without being exactly
localized in them”.52 The binary positions of social conflict—the political subject
and its counterpoint—are hereby construed as fluid and instable entities. This
assumption entails the question of how these agents can gain sufficient density to
enable conflict between two identifiable positions. If Brazil’s Landless Movement is
a fluid and contingent political subject, struggling against transformable adver-
saries, how are we to understand MST’s continuity over time?
The intriguing question of contingency and continuity is noticeably understudied
among resistance scholars. For political opportunity theorists, this is not a key
question since continuity of social movements is so closely linked to potential
openings in the state-political topography. And scholars that address continuity
often tend to neglect the contingency aspect by focusing on common identities to
explain social movement endurance over time. Sociologist Donatella della Porta
and Mario Diani, for instance, highlight identity construction as the key factor for
social movement continuity, an assumption that apparently disables analyses of
multiple and conflicting identities within the same movement.53 Internal diversity
threatens, as it were, the alleged essence of resistance agents, and thereby restrains
their endurance over time.
Conversely, following Butler’s critique, analytical focus on collective identities
tend to entail essentialist understandings of the social group that is believed to be
represented.54 From this non-essentialist starting point, several studies of Latin
American social movements suggest that diversity implies constant navigation
between co-existing identities.55 Sociologist Wendy Wolford, the perhaps most
well-renowned MST-scholar outside Brazil, argues that the allegedly monolithic
‘MST identity’ is actually quite flexible, construed differently among movement
participants across Brazil.56 From this constructivist perspective, social movements
are not understood as coherent groups of people, with shared experiences and
interests, but rather as distinct articulations of peoples into contingent unifications,
what I call political subjects. And it is precisely this starting point—the
non-essentialist acceptance of political subject contingency—that begs the question
of how to understand resistance continuity.
My own research problem, then, concerns this understudied tension between
contingency and continuity. From the non-essentialist starting point, Brazil’s
Landless Movement clearly becomes a topical case. If we acknowledge MST as a

Foucault (1978 [1976]), p. 96, and also (1982), pp. 780–781, 794.
Porta and Diani (2006), pp. 91–100.
Butler (2006 [1990]), p. 203.
Studies on agrarian movements in Latin America report that resistance often emanates from the
collective identity of the peasantry, a social category that articulates a wide range of disparate
participants. See for instance Slater (1994), pp. 14–15; Beverly (2001), p. 58.
Wolford (2010), pp. 9–14, 77–90, 221–226.
14 1 Dimensions of Resistance

contingent resistance agent—a political subject—how can we understand its thirty

years of continuity along Brazil’s uneven politico-economic landscape?
To address this question, I have not primarily searched material explanations in
MST’s surrounding social, political and economic context(s). I have instead sought
to expand these understandings by focusing on MST participants’ own contextu-
alization, their history writing, and how this is linked to the process of political
subject formation. This entry point follows the branch of economic and social
history that focuses on historiography.57 As argued by the research collective
Popular Memory Group in the early 1980s, an analytical focus on collective, or
popular, memories “directs our attention not to the past but to the past-present
relation”.58 The typical application of this historical approach is to study history
making as an instrument for repressive power.59 Another aspect, particularly rele-
vant for my study of political subject formation, is the scholarly focus on what
postcolonial scholars call subaltern historiography.60 The historical aspect of this
book is clearly informed by this theoretical understanding, in which insubordinate
peoples, communities and movements defy their assigned historical position,
instead writing, and making, their own history.
My study of this history-writing-from-below, empirically defined by MST’s
historiography, approaches history writing from a narrative theoretical perspective.
The guiding assumption here is that narrative not only organizes certain historical
events and individual experiences, it also ascribes meaning to these events and
thereby fuels the historical continuity of resistance agents.61 From this theoretical
staring point, sociologist Joseph Davies, editor of the anthology NARRATIVE AND
SOCIAL MOVEMENTS, construes a movement narrative as an organizer of selected
events, both personal experiences and collective memories. Through narration,
Davies argues, these events are given linearity when put into sequence. The
interrelation between sequenced events is then explained through the storyline, or
plot. In Davies’ narrative model, the relation between the story’s main characters is
key to narrative emplotment. Social movements’ narratives orbit the conflict
between the main character of the story, the protagonist, and its identified adver-
sary, the narrative antagonist. This social conflict becomes the narrative plot that
pushes the story onwards. For Davies, the act of storytelling is generally motivated

I here subscribe to the notion of historiography as an intellectual practice of history writing,
following the conceptualization outlined by Johnson et al. in the preface of MAKING HISTORIES,
(1982), pp. 8–10.
Popular Memory Group (1982), pp. 211–215.
Power-entangled history making is explorative theorized by Michel-Rolf Trouillot (1995),
pp. 22–30, while other scholars, for instance Neustadt and May (1986), and MacMillan (2010
[2008]), focus on the usages of history for state-political decision makers.
Spivak (1988), p. 82. For the discussion on time as constitutive for the colonial project, see de
los Reyes (2005), pp. 161–180.
See for instance Portelli (1991), p. 51; Rüsen (2005), pp. 10–12; Abrams (2010), p. 106; Polletta
(2009), pp. 4–8.
1.2 Political Subject Formation 15

by the point of the story, the moral or narrative theme.62 Throughout this book,
Davies’ narrative concepts are recurrently used to outline changes and continuities
in the story of Brazil’s Landless Movement.
This book also utilizes theoretical concepts to specifically capture social activ-
ities at the intersection of past and future. These particularly draw on the later works
of historian Reinhart Koselleck, in which he refines the notion of historical time as
social construction. Koselleck here conceptualizes time as an ongoing dialogue
between the past memories, and future hopes, that converge in present time. In
order to distinguish between past and future, and how these categories are under-
stood differently depending on the context, Koselleck uses two spatial metaphors.
The past is understood as a space of experience, a totality “in which many layers of
earlier experiences are simultaneously present”. The spaces of experience, when
remembered in the present, also “direct itself to the not-yet, to the unexperienced, to
that which is to be revealed”, what Koselleck calls horizon of expectation. And
these two concepts, Koselleck argues, redouble themselves since all expectation
builds on experience, while experience only becomes meaningful in the light of
expectations.63 Koselleck’s dual concepts are used, throughout this book, to unveil
the multiple layers of past memories, and future visions, converging in the present
collective activities that fuel MST’s political subject formation.
The usage of theory, then, has two functions in this book. The research problem—
continuity of contingent political subject formation—emanates particularly from a
non-essentialist theoretical perspective, from the notion of a contingent political
subject that unites individuals with divergent experiences. Besides providing a
starting point for scientific inquiry, theory also has an instrumental function: to
retrieve, create and analyze empirical sources. The analytical concepts used for this
purpose derive in particular from narrative theory (protagonist, antagonist, plot,
theme), and from social constructivist theories in general (subject positions, space of
experience, horizon of expectation). Furthermore, the scholarly focus on identifying
agents, activities and advocacies, extracted from previous research, obviously informs
my own operationalization and formulation of a pertinent research problem. The final
part of this chapter addresses my methodological approach to that research problem:
how empirical sources have been selected, retrieved and produced.

1.3 Approaching Brazil’s Landless Movement

This book draws on an empirical case study of Movimento dos Trabalhadores

Rurais Sem Terra—MST—referred to in English as Brazil’s Landless Rural
Workers’ Movement, or, simply, Brazil’s Landless Movement. To study continuity
of a contingent political subject, MST becomes, I would argue, a rather topical case.

Davis (2002), pp. 11–14.
Koselleck (2004 [1979]), pp. 256–263.
16 1 Dimensions of Resistance

Brazil’s Landless Movement has for more than three decades, as goes the story,
navigated an uneven topography of politico-economic changes. That continuity is
notably reflected, as we will see in Chap. 3, in the academic storytelling that
acknowledge MST as a textbook example of a successful social movement,64 often
referred to as largest in the world.65 This rather impermeable status is quite accepted
among both advocates and adversaries; MST is well-known in Brazil, and also
recognized by foreign media, academic scholars, and other social movements.
From a non-essentialist perspective, however, historical continuity and political
decisiveness of a social movement does not, by any means, imply a distinguishable
social group beyond its political expressions. As we shall see in Chap. 4, Brazil’s
Landless Movement consists of individual’s with divergent experiences, constantly
shifting between dissimilar subject positions. What makes MST’s political subject
formation particularly interesting, then, is that collective storytelling continues
despite historical changes in the so-called political opportunity structure. My
empirical case study thereby informs the topic of this book: political subject for-
mation through the story of Brazil’s Landless Movement.
This study requires a combination of different types of empirical sources and
analytical techniques. The empirical backbone is an ethnographic field study, car-
ried out in Southern Brazil between September 2012 and March 2013.
Ethnographic sources (interviews and observations) are particularly used to analyze
what I in Chap. 4 call narrative enactment. But my field study also provides
additional indications, in turn verified through complementary empirical sources.
Ethnographic indications of certain historical events, which in Chap. 2 are pre-
sented as the MST historiography, are verified through MST-produced material, in
particular the movement’s internal newspaper. Jornal Sem Terra is not only used to
outline the MST prequel, but also to analyze the story, the movement narrative.
Based on a computerized corpus analysis of Jornal Sem Terra between 1981 and
2013, changes and continuities of the movement narrative are discussed in Chap. 3.
Yet this chapter also approaches the MST story from another angle.
A meta-analysis of MST-related academic literature is here used to overview the
previous research on Brazil’s Landless Movement, and to outline the narrative
contours reinforced through this academic storytelling. The following pages present
how these various empirical sources have been selected, retrieved, and produced,
beginning with my ethnographic approaching of MST in Rio Grande do Sul.

To express this prosperity in numbers, Carter and Martins (2015), p. 244, calculate that, in 2006,
approximately 134,440 families had been permanently settled by MST.
See for example Carter (2015c), p. xxiii; Ondetti (2008), p. xv; Wright and Wolford (2003),
p. vii; Petras (1997), p. 18.
1.3 Approaching Brazil’s Landless Movement 17

1.3.1 MST in Rio Grande Do Sul

The Southernmost of Brazil’s 26 states, Rio Grande do Sul, constitutes a historical

cornerstone in the story of Brazil’s Landless Movement. As we will see in Chap. 2,
land occupations in Northern Rio Grande do Sul, during the late 1970s, is com-
monly narrated as the initial social mobilization that preluded the MST founding in
1984. Three decades later, at the time of my field study, MST was still active in Rio
Grande do Sul. But many things were different from the collective memories of
vibrant land occupations. Most MST people now lived on assentamentos—rural
settlements that had been created, or legalized, by the government. According to
governmental statistics, 13,605 families had been legally settled on the 334
assentamentos that now existed in Rio Grande do Sul.66 Before gaining their plot of
land, however, these families had lived several years in long term encampments—
acampamentos—located along interstate highways. While the 1980s was remem-
bered as a time of massive acampamentos, involving thousands of people strug-
gling for land, only three acampamentos, holding about one hundred households,
were active in Rio Grande do Sul in the beginning of 2013.67

Picture 2 MST acampamento in Northern Rio Grande do Sul. In stark contrast to the 1980s, only a handful acampamentos were still active
in 2012-2013. Photo by author

INCRA (2012b).
INCRA (2012a) reported 392 registered families in October 2012, on six acampamentos.
However, I soon discovered that only three camp sites were actually active, together holding about
100 households.
18 1 Dimensions of Resistance

During my field study, I visited these three acampamentos (camps) several times.
Regarding the more numerous assentamentos (settlements), however, it became
necessary for me to develop accurate selection criteria. To this end, I contacted MST
scholars and affiliated activists, I listened to personnel at governmental agencies,
and, of course, to MST participants themselves. From this overview, I then identified
a sample of twelve assentamentos, in different regions of the state, which would
provide a diversity of voices from the Landless Movement in Rio Grande do Sul.
The identification of assentamentos, and the methodological preparation to approach
them, took several months, mainly due to the process of becoming accepted by
MST’s regional coordinators in Rio Grande do Sul.68 Only after numerous meetings
with these key individuals in MST’s rotating leadership, which in turn had to be
realized through vouches from MST-friendly scholars, I finally received contact
information to my identified assentamentos. I then contacted local coordinators, via
telephone or email, to organize my initial visits at these MST sites.
My learning of MST’s organization structure in Rio Grande do Sul was, to say
the least, a difficult affair. Available mapping from previous research proved to be
both insufficient and inaccurate. The MST organization structure, based on my field
study information, instead appeared as a rather fluid enterprise.69 On the local level,
participation varied a lot. While some assentamentos barely had no meetings at all,
others were very active with almost every adult having a specific organizational
function. On some places, decisions were made in a consensus manner, with long
and recurrent discussions in base groups, while other assentamentos deliberately
had centralized decision making so that coordinators had more executive power.
The principal fora for internal discussions on, and between, the assentamentos,
were the groups organized to coordinate agricultural production. Information flows
across MST in Rio Grande do Sul, during the time of my field study, were made via
these producer cooperatives. Nevertheless, the assentamentos were the most
important spaces in which MST’s social practices, including agricultural food
production, were embodied in every-day actives. It therefore became imperative to
ethnographically approach these selected assentamentos.
The sample comprised several new-inaugurated assentamentos, where partici-
pants were still in the process of setting the social and economic frames for their
community. In order to capture both consensual and conflictual aspects of this
formative social process, new-inaugurated assentamentos were selected because of
their reputation of mal-functioning organization, or vulnerable socio-economic
situation. At the other end of my selection spectrum were the historically significant
MST sites, that is, assentamentos situated at the center stage of the movement
narrative. These spatial reference points, constantly recurring throughout my field

In methodological terms, these MST leaders would be “gatekeepers”, key individuals that a
researcher must pass to enter an ethnographic field. See for instance Hammersley and Atkinson
(1995), pp. 133–134.
A field study snapshot of MST’s organizational structure in Rio Grande do Sul is presented as
Appendix. This scheme was developed together with political geographer Aline Weber
Sulzbacher, a brilliantly able co-researcher of my field study.
1.3 Approaching Brazil’s Landless Movement 19

study, enabled me to explore how past experiences and future expectations formed
MST participants’ activities in the present. In addition to these historically rooted
MST sites, I also studied, and here more closely, one assentamento that were
commonly referred to as a successful example. Besides conducting interviews, I
here participated in daily work activities, on the fields and manufacture establish-
ments, which incited my analysis of how agricultural food production interlinks
with MST’s process of political subject formation.
To capture the more formal aspects of MST’s political subject formation, I found
it useful to approach MST’s educational centers in Rio Grande do Sul. Particularly
focused were one high school and one college, which I visited several times to
attend lessons, collective work activities, leisure time, and to conduct interviews.
Moreover, by attending a three-day youth conference, and a four-day women’s
conference, I observed how educational process exceeded the school walls. By
recurrently visiting MST schools and internal conferences, I was also able to
observe how historical references were used to contextualize, and form, MST’s
present and future activities. From observations undertaken during my field study,
which also included participation in numerous internal meetings, informal chats,
and official celebrations, I then began my inquiry into the movement narrative’s
relation to MST’s political subject formation.

1.3.2 Interviews and Observations

In order to study this formative process more precisely, I actively searched for
situations where aspects of ‘we’ were pronounced. In participant observations, I
paid particular attention to social practices undertaken collectively. Agricultural
labor, direct actions, meals and meetings were the most common of these collective
activities. On several occasions, I intervened more actively to study the MST
participants’ we-construction. The formal array of these interventions was struc-
tured in the form of focus groups, moderated collective discussions guided by
pre-prepared interview questions and conversations topics. This interview method
was chosen since the conditions set by these focus groups—a foreigner asking
questions to a pre-set group of individuals—produced plenty of opportunities to
study the subtle shifts between various we-references in the process of political
subject formation. The focus groups were often facilitated by the sharing of
chimarrão (or mate in Spanish), an herbal tea that people in Rio Grande do Sul
typically pass around in small groups. The focus group method also proved par-
ticularly applicable in the MST setting, where the small-group discussion is a
familiar routine, a central social practice for local organization, decision making,
and informal chats.70

Wilkinson (1998), pp. 114–117, argues that this type of familiarity catalyzes participation on the
interviewees’ terms.
20 1 Dimensions of Resistance

The composing of focus groups was, when possible, left to the local coordina-
tors, though in a few cases, for methodological reasons discussed in Chap. 4, I
asked for specific group settings. On some occasions, in the more well-organized
MST sites, local coordinators seemed to have deliberately composed groups of
eloquent and politically engaged interviewees. In other cases, especially in assen-
tamentos where agricultural production was rather time-consuming, focus groups
could only gather a few interviewees. The ethical choice of leaving the group
setting to local coordinators mirrored my ambition to minimize interference with
everyday activities on the MST sites. And since opting for precise representability
would have been rather incompatible with my non-essentialist staring point, any
potential ‘leadership-bias’ would not jeopardize the study’s reliability.
In some cases, focus groups were neatly organized with the preferable six
participants.71 On other occasions, and for various reasons, interviewees came to
drop in and out of the conversations. It is therefore rather difficult to recount the
exact number of interviewees, though it would be fair to say that approximately one
hundred individuals participated in my recorded (and transcribed) focus group
interviews. As a complement to the 18 focus groups, I also conducted 14 individual
interviews.72 These mainly had the character of informant interviews, with the
purpose of contextualizing certain MST localities and activities. I identified eight
MST coordinators as key informants for these specific purposes. Apart from the
MST informants, I also interviewed two key officials at INCRA (Instituto Nacional
de Colonização e Reforma Agrária), the governmental agency responsible for
agrarian reform implementation, in order to advance my search for relevant
empirical sources. Aside from the ten informant interviews, I also conducted
in-depth interviews with four individuals that were in the process of becoming
settled. This methodological choice—interviewing each individual participant of
one particular focus group—was motivated by an analytical focus on political
subject formation precisely in the settling process.
The focus group interviews were moderated by either me or my field assistant,
sociologist Julice Salvagni. Along the focus group interviews, we actively shifted
between the roles of moderating, and taking observer notes, to enable various social
dynamics.73 The individual interviews were all carried out by me, apart from one
interview, co-conducted with geographer Aline Weber Sulzbacher. The focus group
and individual interviews lasted between 40 and 120 min, and were semi-structured
around a thematic interview guide. Interviews began with opening questions, then
unfolding with introductory and transition topics, before entering the key issue
about political subject formation.74

See for instance Wibeck (2010), p. 67; Wilkinson (2007), p. 193.
Since I set out to study the vibrant process of collective subject formation, my methodology
somewhat reversed the traditional useage of focus groups, that is, to identify individual intervie-
wees. See for instance Morgan (1988), pp. 30–31.
As suggested by Morgan (1988), pp. 92–112.
Following the guidelines of Krueger and Casey (2000), pp. 42–47.
1.3 Approaching Brazil’s Landless Movement 21

Picture 3 Focus group interview on MST assentamentoin Northern Rio Grande do Sul. Photo by author

The questions were formulated rather differently in each particular setting. Every
focus group did however begin with the participants’ self-presentation, the opening
question in which they were asked to recount how they came to join the Landless
Movement. These retrospective presentations became an important source to
identify the interviewees’ space of experience, and how they related to MST as a
political subject. Another important theme was how the participants described the
aggregated obstacles to their political struggle, that is, how they construed narrative
antagonist(s). Furthermore, along with the progressing knowledge production of my
field study, additional topics were recurrently added to the interview guide.75 For
instance, when visiting MST sites and listening to participants, I soon discovered
that both past memories and future hopes were used to motivate certain social
practices, which then made me incorporate questions that specifically addressed
experiences and expectations.
A necessary precondition for producing interviews was, as mentioned above, for
me to become at least remotely accepted within the broader MST community in Rio
Grande do Sul. This required continual interaction with MST participants, as well
as active participation in various kinds of collective activities.76 In more

What Stewart et al. (2007), pp. 62–63, refer to as a “rolling interview guide”.
As pointed out by Hammersley and Atkinson (1995), p. 125, field observations often requires
direct participation.
22 1 Dimensions of Resistance

confrontative intense situations, participant observation also demanded political

allegiance. For instance, during the government building occupation, analyzed in
Chap. 4, I had to use the same face cover as other participants, in order to access the
occupied area. The masked outfit signaled an aligned political position, clearly
visible for other participants, but then also for affected government officials, and for
the police. Yet active participation was not only a requirement for interview access,
participant observation was also an important methodological device to better
understand the social realities of MST participants.77 Throughout my field study, I
came to pay increasingly closer attention to the collective activities that took place
in between the more dramatic and confrontative events. Through participant
observation, I was able to study collective activities such as lessons in
MST-schools, youth and women’s conferences, and settlement-inaugurations.
I learned that certain everyday activities were also considered politically important
by MST participants. These activities took the form of group meetings, agricultural
labor, leisure time, collective lunches, or whatever collective activity that had
become defining for the specific acampamento or assentamento.
Although I participated in as many of these activities as possible, I had no
intention of being a ‘neutral’ observer, participating unnoticed in social practices,
but rather being a foreign question-asker, an informed outsider, and curious lear-
ner.78 This approach, I believe, requires specific attention. The ambition of
ethnography is, by definition, to study a culture that is foreign to the researcher.79
But from the perspective of postcolonial theory, objectifications of the
Non-Western Other entails essentialist ideas stemming from historically rooted
stigmas. The assumption of a genuine essence of the Other reproduces the mod-
ernist idea of linear (Western) development, a notion that is explained and legiti-
mated by alleged backwardness of the Other.80 Essentialist approaches, then, tend
to produce a fixed position between the study object and the researcher, a relation
that is fueled by the colonial logic.81 Hence, my historically tarnished position
raises not only ethical questions, but also reliability problems for the production of
empirical sources.
My way to tackle these issues was to underline an equally relevant position:
myself as a learner, someone with incomplete case-specific knowledge and who
therefore had to be taught. This positioning somewhat reversed the subject-object
relation, as I often became ‘objectified’ as an alien, not only to the MST participants’
specific agrarian-insurgent reality, but to the overall Portuguese-speaking context of
Latin America. In many situations, I found it quite useful to over-emphasize our

The intricate relation between observation and interviews is, for instance, discussed in
Hammersley and Atkinson (1995), pp. 109, 141; Wibeck (2010), pp. 70, 149–150.
Agar (1996), pp. 9, 104–111, uses the term “professional stranger” to elaborate this ethnographic
See for instance Fetterman (2004).
Mignolo (2007), pp. 470–476.
Grosfoguel (2007), pp. 213–215, 220.
1.3 Approaching Brazil’s Landless Movement 23

social differences, as that particular positioning incited over-simplified answers to

my interview questions. The specific language situation, my broken but fully con-
versable Portuguese, underlined my learner-position, in turn bringing more hori-
zontality into the interview situation.82 I learned that translation between languages
could, quite contrary to common conceptions, be particularly productive in gener-
ating new knowledge.83 The production of ethnographic sources was indeed affected
by my own presence, as a multi-level foreigner, in the MST participants’ realities.
Aware of my non-neutral attendance, I tried to utilize my position as an outsider to
specifically address the we-notion among MST participants, which, I believe,
facilitated my study of the political subject formation process.

1.3.3 Jornal Sem Terra and Academic Literature

As my ethnographic field study was limited in time, elongated analyses of narrative

changes and continuities required additional empirical sources. I here drew par-
ticularly on Jornal Sem Terra, MST’s internal newspaper. Jornal Sem Terra started
out in May 1981, as a bulletin concerning the ongoing land struggles in Northern
Rio Grande do Sul. In February 1983, the bulletin changed appearance into
newspaper format that reported and commented land related issues on a nation-wide
level. The internal newspaper was published on a regular basis, with around ten
yearly issues consisting of 15–20 pages. The newspaper soon became the key
communication vehicle for the now nationwide Landless Movement. In July 1984,
a few months after the official founding of MST, the name changed accordingly into
Jornal dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra, commonly referred to as Jornal Sem
Terra. Over the following three decades, each monthly/bimonthly issue has been
printed in five to ten thousand copies, targeting not individual households, but
instead MST meeting points like assentamentos, acampamentos, MST schools and
cooperative offices.84 Jornal Sem Terra is therefore, according to historian Antonio
Bezerra, an important strategic device to connect MST communities across Brazil.85
In contrast to Revista Sem Terra, a similar publishing channel starting out in
1997,86 Jornal Sem Terra traces back to 1981, thus covering the complete
chronology of Brazil’s Landless Movement. Jornal Sem Terra also existed before
and after the official founding of the movement, in 1984, thereby exceeding the time
period of the MST cadernos (75 thematic short texts, specifically produced for

As suggested by Lutz (2011), p. 352.
For an informative discussion on these themes, see Pereira et al. (2009); Temple (2009), p. 16;
Tremlett (2009), pp. 81–82.
Individual interview 07; Individual interview 04.
Bezerra (2011), pp. 32–87, 280–286.
See Crepaldi (2012), pp. 7–12.
24 1 Dimensions of Resistance

educative purposes).87 Moreover, in sharp contrast to the cadernos’ thematically

focused content, the Jornal Sem Terra articles treat a wide range of topics: activity
documentations, international news comments, political analyses and, perhaps most
importantly, plentiful reports on historical events that are linked to contemporary
land struggles. For my study of continuous political subject formation, then, Jornal
Sem Terra has proved a valuable empirical source to detect narrative changes and
continuities over time.
For my empirical analysis, I collected and digitalized all 322 journal issues of
Journal Sem Terra, from the start in May 1981 to the final issue of 2013, which
marked the end of my field study and thus my investigation period. To systemat-
ically analyze this massive amount of text (5318 pages, 4.5 million words), I
converted the entire Jornal Sem Terra compilation into a searchable text body, a
corpus. I then approached this text body with search methods borrowed from the
field of corpus linguistics.
The initial analysis focused on randomly sampled yearly issues, in order to
identify words or terms that were connoted with the main characters of the
movement narrative—the protagonist and antagonist.88 From the manual identifi-
cation of character connotations, I was able to utilize corpus analysis software to
study the appearance of these key terms, and thereby to uncover specific patterns in
Jornal Sem Terra.89 The computerized queries allowed me to verify the most valid
connotations, to discover additional connotations to the narrative characters, and to
reject non-connoted terms. After this verified identification of relevant search terms,
I conducted word frequency calculations for each term to quantify potential nar-
rative changes. Through these corpus analysis techniques, I could then identify,
verify and analyze narrative components, and thereby outline certain changes and
continuities in the MST story between 1981 and 2013.
It should be noted, however, that Jornal Sem Terra was not used to study alleged
discrepancies between interviewees and some ‘official’ MST ideology. As stated
above, my starting point is that political subjects are by definition heterogeneous, full
of internal disagreements. Ethnographic sources and Jornal Sem Terra were instead
treated, analytically, as different expressions of the MST narrative. On a similar note,
I did not distinguish analytically between political subject formation on regional and
national levels. The geographical context of Rio Grande do Sul, with its key his-
toriographical references, instead served as a topical case to study contemporary
enactments of precisely that narrative. Although my diverse empirical sources would
have been well-suited for analyzes of internal contradictions (between positions or

See Biblioteca Digital da Questão Agrária Brasileira.
Initial identification of meaning-producing key terms has been advised by Spitzmüller and
Warnke (2011), pp. 83–84, 87; Deignan (2009), pp. 16–17.
I here followed the corpus-linguistic distinction between searches for concordance (context of
term) and collocates (words closest to term). For an informative discussion of these search
techniques, see Mautner (2009), pp. 42–44; Deignan (2009), pp. 22–30.
1.3 Approaching Brazil’s Landless Movement 25

localizations within the movement), they here served the analytical focus of studying
continuity of contingent political subject formation. Thus, while ethnographic
sources depicted narrative enactment in a given time and place, Jornal Sem Terra
informed my analysis of narrative changes and continuities over time.
While the narrative theoretical approach assumes that storytelling reproduces
movement narratives, the process of narrative reproduction was not explicitly
analyzed through neither Jornal Sem Terra nor ethnographic sources. Instead, the
aspect of narrative repetition, and thus reproduction, was overviewed through
another set of empirical sources: the MST-related academic literature. This litera-
ture review naturally served the purpose of introducing previous research on
Brazil’s Landless Movement, but also had the analytical purpose of outlining the
contours of the MST story, identified in the academic storytelling. It should be
noted that since this literature is rather extensive, to say the least, I found it
unnecessary to analyze repetitions by additional storytellers (government and media
being the most important empirical candidates). However, these voices were often
specifically analyzed in academic studies and therefore, at least to some extent,
touched upon in my literature review. Nevertheless, MST’s rather impermeable
status as a successful social movement still entangles, as do all stories, comple-
mentary and contradictive perspectives. My literature review has required severe
reduction of these diversities, in order to outline the narrative contours drawn by the
aggregated academic storytelling.
The qualitative meta-analysis of MST-related literature encompasses 275 aca-
demic studies.90 This literature was identified, through its cross-references, as the
most central academic texts about Brazil’s Landless Movement. The literature
selection was however delimitated to Portuguese and English texts, the key lan-
guages for intra-MST communication and international outreach. The analyzed
monographs and scientific articles had to be sought in a wide range of databases,
since Brazil’s Landless Movement has been studied from various disciplinary entry
points. MST-related doctoral dissertations were particularly identified and accessed
via an online database.91 However, since several dissertations, and other key
monographs, were inaccessible online, I had to consult these texts through uni-
versity libraries, and MST archives, during my field study in Rio Grande do Sul.
The retrieved MST literature was then analytically categorized by locating each
academic study on the axis of publication format, theoretical orientation, method-
ology and relation to MST. These categories were continuously modified, induc-
tively, throughout the meta-analysis. The systematization enabled me to identify
certain topics that recurred in the academic literature. By ascribing a specific research
topic to each study, deliberately reducing its complexity, I was able to overview the

For an educative discussion about the qualitative meta-analysis method, see Sandelowski (2004),
p. 893.
Biblioteca Digital Brasileira de Teses e Dissertações.
26 1 Dimensions of Resistance

academic literature thematically, and to see how these topics corresponded with the
other axis of tagged information. My systematic meta-analysis thereby revealed
certain repetitions, or confirmations, of the movement narrative. It should be noted
that the meta-analysis, outlining the literature topics, did not set out to analyze
changes over time. The infamous time lag between research and publication, and the
uneven distribution of publications over a relatively short time period, disqualified
the aggregated academic literature as a valid source for that type of historical analysis.
Instead, Jornal Sem Terra provided a much more useful source for analyzing narrative
flexibility—historical changes and continuities—of the MST story.
Besides outlining the overarching topics of MST-related academic literature, in
which these texts analytically become a primary source, literature is also used as a
secondary source in Chap. 2. The purpose here is to recount certain historical
events, those recurrently referred to by MST participants. First and foremost, the
key empirical sources for this chapter derive, again, from my field study. But the
references to historiographical events in my ethnographic sources are both rhap-
sodic and shallow. I soon found it necessary to analyze additional MST-produced
material that could verify, and complement, these ethnographic indications. One
important source here has been Mitsue Morissawa’s A HISTÓRIA DA LUTA PELA TERRA
E O MST (The History of the Struggle for Land and the MST), an illustrative
textbook commonly used in MST schools and educative settings.92
The historical events identified ethnographically, and through Morissawas’s
textbook, were then searched for in the Jornal Sem Terra corpus, to examine their
appearance frequency. Through these systematic word counts, I could evaluate the
narrative importance of the alleged key events of MST’s historiography. After
conducting these queries, I turned to academic literature on Brazilian history. As a
secondary source, this scholarly literature allowed me to overview the available
research on each historical event and its context. Historical research enabled me to
structure the MST historiography chronologically, along the epochs and eras typ-
ically framing the history of Brazil, but also to anchor that historiography in aligned
academic research. However, as these historical events and epochs naturally con-
stituted their own scholarly fields, I deliberately traded complexity for simplicity, to
remain focused on the sequenced events that emplots the prequel of the MST story.
After this literature review, I returned to my primary sources. Computerized
searches of the Jornal Sem Terra corpus were advanced with additional search terms
connoted to the historical events. I also compared these extended search terms with
the names of all assentamentos in Brazil, available through an INCRA-provided
dataset.93 This comparison allowed me to identify historiographical events and
characters that were used as assentamento names, which, in turn, underlined their

Morissawa (2001). The formative importance of this textbook is also identified by anthropologist
Rolf Straubhaar (2015b).
INCRA (2014).
1.3 Approaching Brazil’s Landless Movement 27

importance for the MST prequel. Hence, while MST-sources were used to empir-
ically identify historical events of narrative importance, my fleshed-out version of
the MST historiography was aided by scholarly literature on Brazilian history. The
following chapter is therefore more than a historical background to Brazil’s
Landless Movement; it is an empirical analysis of how the MST story is produced
in dialogue with the past.
Picture 4 This front cover of Jornal Sem Terra, MST’s internal newspaper, actively interlinks “one hundred years of land struggle”, by
revisiting the historical Canudos community, in dialogue with the past. Source Jornal Sem Terra (1993, October)
Chapter 2
In Dialogue with the Past

Abstract This empirical chapter sketches the historiography of Brazil’s Landless

Movement. By recapturing historical events used by movement participants for
contextualization, agents and activities of that context are here re-presented in
historiographic terms. The analysis draws empirically on ethnographic interviews
and participant observations, as well as MST-produced material, in particular the
internal newspaper Jornal Sem Terra. Based on this empirical analysis, historical
events are presented as a prequel to the MST story. The portrait of MST’s histo-
riography is fleshed out through aligned historical research, and chronologically
presented along the Colonial, Imperial and Republican Epochs of Brazilian history.
In sum, the MST prequel encompasses five centuries of insurgencies, construed as
historical struggles against nation building, and for land. This overarching theme of
the MST prequel then guides the movement’s navigation across Brazil’s uneven
politico-economic topography. Thus, the critical inquiry into the MST historiog-
raphy, analyzing the linkage between prequel and story, particularly explores how
political subject formation is performed in dialogue with the past.

Keywords Brazilian history Movement narrative Historiography MST  
Jornal Sem Terra Agrarian question Nationalism Autonomy Land struggle 

This chapter examines the historiography of Brazil’s Landless Movement. By

recapturing the historical events that movement participants use for contextual-
ization, agents and activities of that context are here presented as a comprehensive
extrapolation, an extended version, of the MST historiography. As discussed in the
introductory chapter, these historical events were continuously mentioned
throughout my field study. By repeated searches in complementary MST sources, I
eventually identified ten historical events that recurrently appeared as key for the
MST prequel. The empirically identified backbone of these sequenced historical
events is here, in this chapter, fleshed out through aligned historical research, and
presented along The Colonial, Imperial and Republican Epochs of Brazilian history.
As summarized in the timeline on page 45, the historiographic agents and activities,

© The Author(s) 2017 29

M. Lundström, The Making of Resistance, SpringerBriefs in Sociology,
DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-55348-1_2
30 2 In Dialogue with the Past

MST’s predecessors, comprise what I call a prequel to the story of Brazil’s Landless
The following chapter, like every empirical chapter in this book, is divided into
three parts. The first part of the MST historiography recounts four centuries of
insurgencies, construed as struggles against nation building. The second part
continues the chronological exposé, focused on the struggle for land. The final part
of the recounted MST historiography sketches the politico-economic topography
since the 1980s, the backdrop on which the story of Brazil’s Landless Movement is
typically projected. The following chapter hence analyzes the linkage established
between prequel and story, that is, how political subject formation is performed in
dialogue with the past.

2.1 Struggles Against Nation Building

In the MST prequel, social conflict is at the center stage. The history of Brazil is
depicted as a story of domination, and decisive resistance. The first part of this
chapter sketches four centuries of compound resistance activities, from The
Colonial Epoch to The First Republic (see timeline on page 45). In this histori-
ography, colonization prompted the project of Brazilian nation building, a project
that was, from the very start, severely resisted. Accordingly, the prequel of Brazil’s
Landless Movement starts with the anti-colonial defiance associated with the
quilombos, a key reference point in the MST historiography.

2.1.1 Quilombos in Colonial Brazil

Historians typically point out that the colonization project, which followed the
sudden European awareness of the Americas, incented rulers of Spain and Portugal
to avoid war by dividing their territorial claims. In 1494, the Treaty of Tordesillas
produced an imaginary vertical line that divided the Western and Eastern hemi-
sphere between the two colonizing claimants. A few years later, thirteen Portuguese
military ships reached the shore of present day Porto Seguro, Bahia. While the
expedition originally set out to improve the trade route to India, the new land
encountered by Commander Pedro Álvarez Cabral, in April 1500, soon came to be
viewed as a valuable asset by the Portuguese Crown. The first resource to be
exploited was the dyeing components extracted from Brazil wood. The colony soon
became known as Terra do pau-brasil, or simply, Brasil.1

See Fausto (1999), pp. 6–10; Burns (1993), pp. 21–25.
2.1 Struggles Against Nation Building 31

Economic historians typically point out that an increasingly important motiva-

tion for colonial expansion was the quest for precious metals, which played a
crucial role in the mercantile political economy that had come to dominate Europe
in the early modern period.2 While the Spanish Crown successfully extracted
minerals west of Tordesillas Line, King Manuel I of Portugal was not as successful.
The Portuguese Crown soon shifted economic activity into agriculture. According
to economic historian Celso Furtado, Brazil’s agrarian economy was particularly
concentrated on commodity production, to answer the demand for sugar that had
emerged in European markets. Besides economic prosperity, sugar production also
enforced the territorial claims vis-à-vis the Spanish Crown, as plantations required
permanent settling. The problem, Furtado argues, was that production of cane sugar
required massive labor power. As Portuguese settlers were unsuccessful to ascribe
indigenous peoples to this task, eyes were instead turned to colonial West-Africa,
where Portuguese merchants already were invested in slave trade.3 As documented
by historian Thomas Skidmore, a transatlantic slave trade was soon orchestrated to
provide the sugar plantations with cheap labor power. The prosperous economy of
colonial Brazil—African slaves producing sugar for European markets—continued
to bloom until gold finally was found in the late 1600s. Slavery, however, remained
a crucial institution for economic growth until late 19th century. Skidmore reports
that in 1888, when slavery was legally abolished, approximately 3,650,000 slaves
had been shipped into in Brazil.4
The MST historiography of the colonial period highlights, in particular, how
people exploited in the slave economy were engaged in various forms of resistance.
The most common reference point here, recurring in Jornal Sem Terra, in assen-
tamento naming, and in various educative situations, is the runaway slave com-
munities known as quilombos.
As argued by anthropologist James Scott, the most noticeable form of resistance
against colonial (slave) economies, at least that have entered available historical
sources, has been the act of flight.5 In Brazil, as pointed out by linguistic Robert
Anderson, forced plantation labor was commonly defied by permanent escape, or
marronage, which had grown steadily in North-Eastern Brazil throughout the 17th
century. Anderson writes that the maroon settlements that were set up in the interior
backlands soon became known as mocambos (from the Kimbundu word for
hideout, mukambo).6 Though historical documentation to enable quantification is

See for instance the classical works of Freyre (1987 [1933]), p. 17 and Holanda (1982 [1936]),
pp. 16–18.
Furtado (1963 [1959]), pp. 10–11, 43–45.
Skidmore (1999), pp. 16–22.
Scott (2009), pp. 19–20.
Anderson (1996), pp. 550, 558.
32 2 In Dialogue with the Past

meager (inhabitants relied on discretion for their survival), scholars estimate that
one thousand different mocambos were created during Brazil’s Colonial Epoch.7
Anderson writes that towards the end of the 1500s, vivid reputations about a
particular community of fugitive slaves—a maroon state known as Palmares—
begun to wander sugar cane plantations in North-Eastern Brazil. Over the following
century, Andersson continues, Palmares steadily gained inhabitants that succeeded
to exit the forced plantation labor. Palmares soon consisted of several villages,
presumably inhabiting some 20,000 former slaves.8 Historian Stuart Schwartz
argues that fugitive slaves continued to set up new communities in the Palmares
region decades after the military’s destruction of Palmares in 1694.9 Anderson’s
study suggests that the slave exodus became particularly strong in the 1630s, when
the Dutch-Portuguese colonial war provided enhanced opportunities for flight.
However, when the Portuguese military won the war, in 1654, their immediate
attention turned to restore internal order of the colony.10
Over the following 40 years, numerous incursions were set out to destroy
Palmares. The attacks were, however, incredibly unsuccessful due to Palmares
shifting defense strategies. In his classic book on Palmares, historian Edison
Carneiro writes that the Palmarinos initially repeated the resistance strategy that had
created the community in the first place. They left. Soldiers that reached Palmares,
after breaching the difficult surrounding terrain, constantly found the village
completely empty. These repeated collective desertions were, according to
Carneiro, enabled by well-placed informers that alerted inhabitants about upcoming
In the late 1670s, the military scaled up its ambitions to eliminate Palmares.
Anderson writes that the inhabitants answered these intensified incursions by
militarizing the community defenses. During this period, the defense of Palmares
came to be particularly associated with a man known as Zumbi, a key character, as
we will see, in the MST historiography. Baptized as Francisco, this mythic person
first entered Palmares as a teenager in 1670, after fleeing the sugar plantation where
he was born. He became known as Zumbi, war commander of Palmares. According
to Anderson, Zumbi soon consolidated political power in order to make the mili-
tarized defense of Palmares more effective. The military leadership under Zumbi
therefore triggered adversaries to label Palmares as a quilombo. While mocambo
was the common term for maroon states, Anderson continues, quilombo instead
stemmed from the Kimbundu word kilombo, a particular form of Central-African
social organization for people under constant military alert. When facing increas-
ingly aggressive invasions, the quilombo structure, Anderson argues, successfully

See Leite (2000), p. 334.
Anderson (1996), p. 551. See also Wright and Wolford (2003), p. 124.
Schwartz (1992), pp. 123–124.
Anderson (1996), p. 551. See also Burns (1993), pp. 50–54.
Carneiro (1966 [1947]), pp. 9–10.
2.1 Struggles Against Nation Building 33

unified peoples within, and between, the diverse maroon communities to manage
both subsistence agriculture and military defense. The word quilombo, and not
mocambo, therefore became the standard reference for this defiance against colonial
The quilombo, commonly understood in terms of Palmares imagery, is a
well-used reference point for Brazilian social movements. Anthropologist Ilka Leite
reports that the concept ascribes various social phenomena: referring to a particular
place, people, manifestation, conflict, economic system or set of social relation-
ships. Although particularly important for racialized communities, Leite argues, the
quilombo legacy typically takes part in histories of defiance invoked by various
social movements in Brazil.13
In the MST historiography, quilombos are recounted particularly to acknowledge
contemporary anti-racist struggles, but also “those in Brazil that create alternatives
to hunger, struggle for dignity, pressure for agrarian reform and for collective and
individual rights”, as stated in a Jornal Sem Terra article from December 1994.14
The MST newspaper frequently mentions quilombos, either as article themes,
exemplified above, or more briefly in historical overviews.15 In his influential
textbook on MST history, Mitsue Morissawa recounts quilombos as a form of
historical resistance, particularly potent under Zumbi.16 Moreover, numerous
assentamentos in Brazil are named after Zumbi or Palmares, or containing the term
quilombo.17 The quilombo reference is used by MST participants, as we will
continue to see, to situate their search for autonomy in historical context. People
struggling for autonomous agrarian communities are historical protagonists, while
external political power, the government, denotes an antagonist position. The
quilombo, in defiance of colonial Brazil’s political economy, is therefore an
important reference point for MST’s continued struggle. And in the MST histori-
ography, agrarian social conflicts accelerate with the intensified process of nation
building in Brazil.

2.1.2 Indigenous Peoples and National Borders

In the mid-18th century, governments of Spain and Portugal redrew the political
map of South America. Here, historians commonly call attention to the Treaty of
Madrid, signed in 1750. The inter-governmental Treaty of Madrid was guided by

Anderson (1996), pp. 558–565. See also Schmitt et al. (2002), p. 5; Leite (2000), pp. 333–334.
Leite (2015), pp. 1234–1239; Leite (2000), pp. 336–342.
Jornal Sem Terra (1994, December), p. 13.
In the JST corpus (1980–2013), the word quilombo occurred 279 times, Zumbi 110, and
Palmares 148 times.
Morissawa (2001), pp. 64–65.
INCRA (2014).
34 2 In Dialogue with the Past

the uti possedetis principle, by which occupied territories were formalized

according to the national ties of the colonizer. The treaty’s geopolitical implication
was that the Portuguese Crown could now claim territories west of the 1494
Tordesillas Line. As the interior of Southern Brazil had been invaded by Portuguese
explorers for a century, the uti possedetis principle provided juridical incitement to
claim these territories.18
In the drawing of national borders, it became imperative to tie indigenous
peoples to Portuguese civilization. According to historian Boris Fausto, the
Portuguese Crown launched a massive campaign to assimilate indigenous peoples
(which simultaneously destabilized the practice of slave hunting in these regions).
A significant internal obstacle to the assimilation project, Fausto continues, was the
Jesuits. The activities of these Catholic missionaries faced severe re-percussions,
since the Jesuits, to the Portuguese Crown, were inspiring indigenous peoples to
defy the process of nation building. This threatened the very basis of the assimi-
lation program: the creation of a territory-based political unit—a state—that could
be effectively supervised by the Portuguese Crown. According to Fausto, the
assimilation project were therefore complemented by direct political negotiation
between the monarchs of Spain and Portugal. Under the Treaty of Madrid, the
formal outcome of these interstate negotiations, territories were assigned new rulers
which, again, altered the political landscape for indigenous peoples.19 And the
resistance activities of these indigenous groups are, as we will see, momentous for
MST’s historiographic portrait over this era of Brazilian nation building.
Implications of the Treaty of Madrid were particularly felt by the Guarani people
that lived around the river known to colonizers as Rio de la Plata (at the intersection
of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay). As outlined by historian Magnus Mörner, Jesuit
priests, hoping to incite religious conversion, began in the early 17th century to set
up agrarian communities, missions, in the Guarani territories of Rio de la Plata.20
Historian Barbara Ganson argues that increased displacement of the colonization
project became the imperative push factor for many Guarani to join these missions,
though some were also attracted by the labor revenues from prosperous agricultural
production under the Jesuits. Ganson reports that when the Treaty of Madrid was
signed, in 1750, some 29,000 Guarani lived in the Jesuit missions of Rio de la Plata.
The treaty stipulated that seven missions, previously in Spanish territory, were now
to become part of Portugal’s colony.21 Moreover, as suggested by historians Darcy
Ribeiro and Ptolomeu de Assis Brasil, the Guarani people’s century long experi-
ences of fighting Portuguese slave hunters informed their understanding of the new
regime as a severe threat.22

See Skidmore (1999), pp. 9–10, 29; Ganson (2005), pp. 89–91; Fausto (1999), pp. 72–75; Burns
(1993), pp. 55–61.
Fausto (1999), pp. 56–58.
Mörner (1968 [1953]), pp. 30–45.
Ganson (2005), pp. 50–51, 89–91. See also Saeger (1995), pp. 399–404.
Ribeiro (1995), pp. 92–105; Brasil (2010), p. 8.
2.1 Struggles Against Nation Building 35

While some decided to leave the missions for other Spanish territories, most of
the Guarani people, according to Ganson, chose other resistance strategies. After
years of fruitless protest letters sent to the people in power, arguing for preservation
of the mission system under Spanish rule, the Guarani eventually took up arms to
defend their homes. Ganson writes that in 1754, the social conflict had escalated
into a full-scale war. The indigenous militia of the Guarani war was led by a key
character in the MST prequel, Sepé Tiaraju. Sepé organized numerous armed
attacks on the Portuguese military to prevent invasion of the missions. The mag-
nitude of the Guarani mobilization therefore incited, Ganson concludes, the Spanish
and Portuguese Crown to launch a joint military campaign to crush the troubling
insurrection. A few days after Spanish troops had killed Sepé Tiaraju, in February
1756, the rebellion was finally crushed in the Battle of Caiobaté.23
As pointed out by historian James Saeger, in a critical dissection of the
Hollywood movie THE MISSION, the Guarani war has mainly been told from the
viewpoint of the Jesuits, an accentuation that eclipses other resistance agents, thus
reproducing the colonial notion of indigenous incapacity.24 In the same vein, MST
historiography portrays Sepé Tiaraju as a mythical incarnation of indigenous
resistance, and therefore an “ancestor of the marginalized”, as stated in a Jornal Sem
Terra article from March 2000.25 Anthropologist Ceres Brum verify this political
nature of the Sepé myth, through an ethnographic field study carried out in present
day São Gabriel, a municipality located in the South-Eastern interior of Rio Grande
do Sul. Brum reports that two and a half centuries after the death Sepé Tiaraju, the
politicians of São Gabriel decided to pay homage to the legendary Guarani leader.
The official festivities that took place in 2006 celebrated a geopolitical outcome
ascribed to Sepé, that is, the final incorporation of Rio Grande do Sul into the
Portuguese colony. But the official sanctification also legitimized the land claim of
Sepé’s famous battle cry: esta terra tem dono (this land has owners). When landless
rural workers began to occupy land in São Gabriel, Brum continues, latifundiários
(large-scale land owners) actively used this famous catchphrase to associate land
occupants with European colonizers.26
In the summer of 2003, MST posed a counter-attack on the latifundiários, which
simultaneously defended their historiography. Some 800 families organized a
68-day March—named Sepé Tiaraju—across the big latifúndios of the region.27
The contemporary land struggle in São Gabriel thereby incented revived

Ganson (2005), pp. 93–108. See also Brasil (2010), pp. 107–113; Brum (2007), p. 11.
Saeger (1995), pp. 394, 405–406.
Jornal Sem Terra (2000, March), p. 16. The importance of Sepé Tiaraju is also reflected in
assentamento naming. INCRA (2014) report that nine settlements in Brasil, three in Rio Grande do
Sul, have been named after Sepé.
Brum (2007), pp. 5–8, 12.
Individual interview 12; Brum (2007), p. 12.
36 2 In Dialogue with the Past

contentions over the meaning of Sepé. As we will see in Chap. 4, this March has
become a particularly strong collective memory since one MST participant, Elton
Brum, was here shot to death by the police. But before advancing on this intricate
relation between past and present, between prequel and story, we must first follow
the recaptured MST historiography into The Imperial Epoch of Latin American

2.1.3 Insurgencies at the Nation-State Margins

The Enlightenment project of late 18th century’s Global North (particularly man-
ifested in the United States Declaration of Independence in 1776, and the 1789
French Revolution) allowed novel interpretations of political control over
Portugal’s most important colony. In Brazil, elite residents began to severely
question the political authority of the Portuguese Crown. Historian Thomas
Skidmore argues that Brazilian elites aspired for national independence to increase
their control over the prosperous colonial economy. Nevertheless, in the
Pan-American wave of national independence, starting with the slave insurrections
of the Haitian revolution (1791–1804), the Brazilian independence project was
supported by the Crown itself. Skidmore points out the Crown’s capitulation from
Napoleon’s invasion of Portugal, in which the entire royal family escaped to Brazil
in 1807. As it was unconventional for an Empire to govern from its colony, and
since colonialism anyhow was challenged by the wave of independence that now
swept the Americas, Portugal’s Crown Prince Dom Pedro I, closely tied to the
Brazilian elites, soon found it politically necessary to declare national
On December 1, 1822, Dom Pedro was crowned Emperor of Brazil, the nation
he himself had founded a few months earlier. While the royal sanctioning enabled a
bloodless transition into The Imperial Epoch of Brazilian history (see timeline on
page 45), the Emperor’s challenge was now, according to historian Bradford Burns,
to manage centralized politics over the newborn nation-state.29 The 1824 consti-
tution therefore divided Brazil into eighteen provinces, each one with a governor
directly appointed by the Emperor. Skidmore refers to this power consolidation,
which framed the Brazilian nation-state project in the 19th century, as an elite
project. The oligarchs in power had no incentives to challenge the exploitative and
racist institutions that were so fundamental to their economic prosperity.
Independent Brazil therefore maintained, Skidmore argues, its economic function as
primary product producer for the blooming industrialization in Western Europe.30

Skidmore (1999), pp. 31–37. See also Trouillot (1995), pp. 37–40; Burns (1993), pp. 111–112.
Burns (1993), p. 124.
Skidmore (1999), pp. 39–49.
2.1 Struggles Against Nation Building 37

A similar argument is presented by anthropologist Darcy Ribeiro, a renowned

scholar of what we might call Brazilian history from below. Since Brazil’s national
economy was dependent on racial categorizations to legitimatize political
marginalization of indigenous natives and enslaved African peoples, the ‘struggle’
for national independence, Ribeiro argues, never involved racialized peoples on the
margins of the emerging nation-state. Quite the opposite, these people often resisted
the nationalist project.31
The years following the 1831 installation of five-year-old Dom Pedro II as
Emperor (that is, during the first half of The Imperial Epoch) was marked by some
of the largest uprisings in the history of Brazil. These insurgencies, performed at the
social margins of the emerging nation-state, are important historical events in the
prequel to Brazil’s Landless Movement. My empirical analyses indicate that the
most recurrent insurgencies, presented here as MST’s key historiographic events
from The Imperial Epoch, are the Cabanagem and Balaiada rebellions.32
Historian Mathias Röhrig Assunção dates the spark of the Balaiada rebellion to
December 1838, when a cattle rancher named Raimundo Gomes invaded the jail of
Vila da Manga to free his imprisoned brother. The prison break was successful.
When the military interfered to restore order in Vila da Manga, they faced severe
attacks from Gomes and the ex-prisoners of the village jail. Röhrig Assunção writes
that the conflict escalated when three thousand fugitive slaves joined the rebels,
together with nearby mocambos under the command of the ex-slave Cosme Bento
das Chagas. The rebellion continued to grow, mobilizing numerous interior
inhabitants, up to the rebels’ defeat in 1841. According to Röhrig Assunção, the
Balaiada rebellion overbridged social stratification barriers; enslaved Africans left
cotton plantations to join the same rebellion as cattle ranchers and their employees.
Röhrig Assunção suggests that this unification, transcending the sorting mechanism
of racialization, was partly enabled by a shared conviction to resist forced army
recruitment.33 The Balaiada rebellion thereby represented, as suggested by histo-
rian Maria Janotti, a popular response against the racist stratifications that entailed
the emerging nation-state project.34

Ribeiro (1995), pp. 248–256.
Historians have documented similar rebellions in Bahia (Sabinada), Pernambuco (Praieira and
Cabanada), and Rio Grande do Sul (Farroupilha). See Röhrig Assunção (1998), pp. 68, 84; Burns
(1993), pp. 132, 136. These rebellions were all mentioned in Jornal Sem Terra, often in lists of
historical land struggles, but seldom directly analyzed upon. Morissawa’s history textbook (2001),
pp. 67–47, similarly mention these rebellions (except Cabanada). The Farroupilha uprising was
also mentioned in Individual interview 12, in order to contextualize the São Gabriel region as a
historical arena of social conflict. The relatively weak historiographic role of the Farroupilha
rebellion presumably relates to the anti-imperial feature that denotes latifundiários as narrative
protagonists, making it less useful for the MST prequel.
Röhrig Assunção (1998), pp. 67–84. See also Janotti (2005), pp. 54–56.
Janotti (2005), pp. 41, 73.
38 2 In Dialogue with the Past

A parallel defiance against nation building, also recounted in the MST histori-
ography, took place in the Amazon Basin between 1835 and 1840. Historian Magda
Ricci and anthropologist David Cleary analyze how the Cabanagem rebellion
(fought by indigenous peoples, Portuguese-descent Brazilians and fugitive African
slaves) came to result in the expulsion of the imperial government in Belém. The
studies of Ricci and Cleary indicate that close trade relations between quilombos,
indigenous groups, and other peoples of the social periphery, fueled political uni-
fication of various marginalized agents in their mutual struggle against the Brazilian
state.35 For anthropologist Mark Harris, and historian Boris Fausto, the Cabanagem
rebellion illustrates how local conflicts disrupted the Empire’s aim to consolidate
political power over Brazil’s territories.36
In the MST historiography, the Cabanagem rebellion is typically recounted as a
successful example of struggle against the state, as it led to actual political take-over
in Pará.37 Both the Cabanagem and Balaiada rebellions are incorporated, into the
MST prequel, as historical struggles that defied barriers of social stratification and
united parallel searches for political autonomy.38 As we will see later on, the MST
historiography recurrently links these battles for political autonomy to the generic
notion of a historical struggle for land. But before we recapture the MST prequel
through this particular lens, in the second part of this chapter, I will first introduce
three millenarian rebellions that MST’s historiography ascribes to the early
Republican Epoch of Brazilian history.

2.1.4 Rebellions Against the Republic

In November 15, 1889, the military overthrew the Emperor of Brazil. With the
republican constitution, written in 1891, Brazil became a federation in which the
previous imperial provinces were politically empowered. The fall of monarchy in
1889 commenced what historians typically refer to as The Republican Epoch of
Brazilian history. With the republican constitution, each Brazilian state was now
allowed an elected governor with access to military force. On the national level,
The Imperial Regime was replaced by electoral presidency. Historian Thomas
Skidmore argues that the military coup, prompting political transition, was legit-
imized by the modernist amalgam of republicanism and scientific positivism.

Ricci (2007), pp. 27–30; Cleary (1998), pp. 118, 121–124.
Harris (2010), pp. 1–3; Fausto (1999), pp. 89–91.
See for instance Jornal Sem Terra (2010, January/February), p. 13; Jornal Sem Terra (2008,
November/December), p. 6.
See Morissawa (2001), pp. 66–68 and Jornal Sem Terra (2009, May), p. 6. Apart from the
written sources, historiographic significance of the Cabanagem and Balaiada rebellions is also
verified by their naming of MST assentamentos, as listed in INCRA (2014).
2.1 Struggles Against Nation Building 39

Brazilian elites were dedicated to the positivist idea of ordem e progresso (order
and progress), which motivated them to support the military-led transition from
imperial monarchy to secular republic. The coup d’état was bloodless, Skidmore
argues, since the surrendering Emperor had already lost his political legitimacy.39
Other historians have analyzed how these modernist aspects of Brazil’s
monarchy-republic transition were contrasted against the alleged backwardness of
the rural interior. The backlands of North-Eastern Brazil, os sertões, particularly
came to embody the backward set of social relations that encumbered the nationalist
vision. The political linkage in between os sertões was an assigned representative
called coronel. Political scientist Victor Nunes Leal argues that this coronelismo
system preserved backward oligarchic tendencies, as land owners continuously
influenced the coroneis.40 At the same time, according to historian Robert Levine,
the coronelismo system allowed nation-state consolidation as the federal govern-
ment could also control the economically powerful land owners.41 By analyzing
Euclydes da Cunha’s classical novel OS SERTÕES,42 Levine further shows that the
modern/backward dichotomy inevitably translated into an understanding of os
sertões as backward, in contrast to the progressive coastal areas where the Brazilian
nation-state was politically forged.43 In the late 1800s, Levine continues, this
coast-inland dichotomy developed into a political tension that required military
intervention. Backwardness had to be fought in the name of progress. The ultimate
provocation for the nation builders was, according to Levine, the recurrent decla-
rations of autonomy by religious communities.44 The agents behind these com-
munities—the millenarian movements—are particularly important components of
the MST prequel.
Historian Ralph della Cava studies one of these millenarian movements in his
book MIRACLE AT JOASEIRO. In North-Eastern Brazil, only a few months before
Brazil was declared republic, word had begun to spread about a miracle in the
North-Eastern village of Juazeiro do Norte. During a communion, it was said, the
wine had been transformed into actual blood—the blood of Jesus Christ—when
shared by the local priest Padre Cícero. The worded miracle triggered thousands of
pilgrims to descend upon Juazeiro do Norte. In the early 1890s, according to della
Cava, a social movement began to grow around the mythical personality of Padre
Cícero. But the initial religious orientation soon began to aggregate political

Skidmore (1999), pp. 65–92.
Leal (1975), pp. 19–20.
Levine (1992), pp. 94–95.
Cunha (2010 [1902]).
Levine (1992), pp. 16–18, 65, 226–227. See also Skidmore (1999), pp. 80–81. This process
clearly mirrors what postcolonial theorist Walter Mignolo (2007), pp. 463–470, calls “the darker
side of modernity”; the notion that modernity itself requires a parallel notion of alleged
Levine (1992), pp. 38, 217–226.
40 2 In Dialogue with the Past

ambitions, culminating in the struggle for municipal autonomy in 1909–1910. The

Joaseiro movement’s search for political autonomy, della Cava concludes, thereby
threatened The First Republic’s ambition to incorporate os sertões into the Brazilian
nation-state.45 The MST historiography frequently brings up the leader of the
Joaseiro movement, Padre Cícero, in Jornal Sem Terra articles, in mística themes,
and assentamento names.46 But the Joaseiro movement is first and foremost
associated with an interlinked search for autonomy from the First Republic: the
Canudos community.
Historian Robert Levine writes that in the late 1800s, a charismatic preacher
known as Antonio Conselheiro wandered around os sertões to agitate against the
new government. The Conselheiro (counselor) soon gained followers that, in 1893,
set up a community village, called Belo Monte by its residents, known to the
exterior as Canudos. As the community developed, Levine continues, its political
implications became increasingly incompatible with the First Republic.47 The
theocracy of Belo Monte was, according to literary scholar Paulo Martins, trans-
lated into participatory decision making on the local level, while Antonio
Conselheiro represented the community to the outside world. Rumors of partici-
patory politics, and Conselheiro’s absolute representation, threatened the coro-
nelismo so fundamental to the federalism of the First Republic.48
Canudos signaled, like Padre Cicero’s community in Juazeiro do Norte, a search
for autonomy that undermined the political authority of the Brazilian nation-state.
Levine writes that the Brazilian military answered this threat through a series of
violent attacks on the Canudos community. Between 1896 and 1897, Brazil’s
federal army lost the three initial invasions to Canudos militarized defenses. But in
October 1897 the army mobilized a final attack that eventually destroyed Canudos.
All five thousand houses in the village were, according to Levine’s study, burnt to
the ground. Only a fraction of the thirty thousand people living in Belo Monte
survived the invasion from the Brazilian state.49
The Jornal Sem Terra front cover, shown on page 28,50 specifically pays homage
to the Canudos community by quoting Euclydes da Cunha’s famous finale of
OS SERTÕES, stating that “Canudos did not surrender”.51 And through the MST
historiography, the Canudos struggle has indeed continued. It is commonly por-
trayed in audio-visual presentations, and numerous assentamentos bear names like
Antonio Conselheiro or Novo Canudos.52 The front cover’s subtitle “1893–1993

Cava (1970), pp. 5–7, 31, 50–56, 107, 115–118.
INCRA (2014); Jornal Sem Terra (1991, May), p. 6; Jornal Sem Terra (1991, April), p. 12.
Levine (1992), pp. 121–125.
Martins (2007), pp. 13–15.
Levine (1992), pp. 16, 39, 170–184.
Jornal Sem Terra (1993, October), p. 1.
Cunha (2010 [1902]), p. 507.
See Jornal Sem Terra (2007, April), p. 6, and INCRA (2014).
2.1 Struggles Against Nation Building 41

one hundred years of land struggle” actively links Canudos with contemporary
resistance activities. This particular theme of the MST prequel—the historical
struggle for land—also frames the historiographic portrait of yet another analogue
religious movement, active in Southern Brazil.
According to Ralph della Cava, the Canudos massacre provided a valuable
pretext for the Catholic Church to discredit Padre Cícero, leader of the Joaseiro
movement, by linking him to the allegedly dangerous Antonio Conselheiro.53 The
Catholic Church was troubled by the socio-political implications of millenarianism,
defined by Robert Levine as “social movements seeking massive and radical social
change in accord with a predetermined divine plan.”54 Historian Todd Diacon has
pointed out that millenarianism became important for rural inhabitants, especially in
Southern Brazil, since it simultaneously addressed the material and cultural expe-
riences of the ongoing nation-state project that reshaped the Brazilian countryside in
the early 1900s. In his book MILLENARIAN VISION, CAPITALIST REALITY, Diacon
describes how the now prohibited slave labor needed acute replacement in Southern
Brazil. As ex-slaves and indigenous peoples were considered incapable laborers,
the Brazilian government instead encouraged immigration of European settlers,
especially from Italy, Portugal and Spain. This project was particularly visible in the
region known as the Contestado (due to the inter-state contest between Santa
Catarina and Paraná), where colonization was accompanied by a vast railroad
project. Diacon depicts how the tandem process of railway building and European
settling was so immediate that it resulted in displacement of 150,000 farmers that
lacked the proper land titles now required by law. Diacon argues that people
experiencing a dramatic decrease in economic and political autonomy, due to land
displacement and enhanced coronelismo, soon became particularly receptive, as it
were, to the millenarian call.55
In 1911, an army deserter named José Maria begun to speak out against the
invasive politics of the republican government. To escape the worldly evils of the
First Republic, the social movement around José Maria, alike the millenarian
movements before them, began to organize their own autonomous rural commu-
nities. These so-called holy cities, similar to Canudos and Joaseiro, challenged the
territorial claims of the modern nation-state, thus representing an alleged back-
wardness that the state could never tolerate. Diacon’s study indicates that, when the
military began to attack these communities, José Maria and his followers did not
initially respond with force. On the contrary, the millenarian movement’s
non-violent convictions remained strong, even after the killing of José Maria in
October 1912. However, Diacon continues, these convictions changed radically in

Cava (1970), p. 76.
Levine (1992), p. 7.
Diacon (1991), pp. 6–8, 44–58, 91, 145–150. See also Levine (1992), p. 223; Skidmore (1999),
pp. 67–73.
42 2 In Dialogue with the Past

February 1914, when the holy city of Taquaruçu was violently raided by the
military. More than one hundred children and defenseless adults were killed by
machinegun fire. As the millenarian notion of an evil (secular) world had become
painfully true, movement participants now found it timely to take up arms. Diacon
documents how military officers were killed, station houses of the Railway
Company were destroyed, and latifúndios and European immigration settlements
were attacked. The military responded by mobilizing half of the standing Brazilian
army, which soon narrowed down the area of the holy cities, until finally destroyed
in late 1916.56
The Contestado Rebellion, together with the millenarianist expressions of
Canudos and Joaseiro, is a vital part of MST’s historiographic recount of The
Republican Epoch. Jornal Sem Terra recurrently links the grave state-led massacres
of the holy cities to ongoing rural violence directed at MST settlements. In an article
from June 1987, linking the Contestado Rebellion to ongoing violence against an
assentamento in the Southern state of Santa Catarina, the ongoing land struggle is
construed in historical terms, as “a struggle that continues”.57 The agents associated
with this historical struggle for land, such as the millenarian movements, are
depicted as forerunners to Brazil’s Landless Movement.58 Mitsue Morissawas
history textbook, commonly used across MST’s educational settings, leaves out the
Joaseiro movement but expands on the Canudos and the Contestado Rebellion,
recounted as “two important [messianic] movements of our history”.59
Furthermore, and quite illustrative, a Jornal Sem Terra article from July 1995 list
Canudos and Contestado as peasant gatherings (congressos camponeses) preceding
MST’s upcoming third national gathering in 1995.60
MST’s historiographic linking to autonomy-seeking millenarian movements is
also noted by anthropologist Wendy Wolford. Canudos is recurrently associated
with its collective organization and effective defenses, while the Contestado
Rebellion, according to Wolford, depicts a mass movement of displaced peasants.61
Moreover, the historiographic linkage between these agents and activities is also
visible in the naming of assentamentos. Some bear names like Novo Canudos and
Herança do Contestado, others are named after Antonio Conselheiro, Padre Cícero
and José María.62 The assentamento names thereby reinforce historiographic
recounts on an every-day basis. The historical rural communities, seeking auton-
omy from The First Republic, takes an active part in the prequel to the MST story.

Diacon (1991), pp. 2–4, 115–132, 198.
Jornal Sem Terra (1987, June), p. 5. See also Jornal Sem Terra (2006, April), p. 5.
As in Jornal Sem Terra (2008, February), p. 6; Jornal Sem Terra (2004, December/January), p. 2.
Morissawa (2001), p. 86.
Jornal Sem Terra (1995, July), p. 8.
Wolford (2010), pp. 77–79.
INCRA (2014).
2.1 Struggles Against Nation Building 43

Given the narrative theme of the MST prequel—the decisiveness of the historical
struggle for land—it becomes clearer why certain historical events are highlighted
in the MST historiography, while others are not. For instance, the perhaps most
abundant armed insurgency against The First Republic, the Prestes Column, is only
sparsely mentioned in MST historiography although typically covered by academic
historians.63 The Prestes Column’s meager place in MST historiography could
relate to the intra-elitist nature of this rebellion, as the dropout police and military
officers, marching against the Capital, never bothered to mobilize the rural poor.64
To qualify for the MST prequel, it seems, historical agents and activities must
resemble advocacies of political and economic autonomy. And in the MST histo-
riography, the aggregation of these historical agents, activities and advocacies,
translates into a historical struggle for land. We will now follow this narrative
theme more closely, continuing our chronological exposé of the MST prequel,
before we, in the final part of this chapter, enter the historical era where Brazil’s
Landless Movement itself becomes the narrative protagonist.

2.2 Struggles for Land

The moral, or theme, of the MST story, as we will see in Chap. 3, is that the
struggle for agrarian reform is harsh, but eventually rewarding. This narrative theme
is, I would argue, reinforced by the MST prequel. The plot of the prequel is the
agrarian social conflict that stem from imposed separation between landless and
landowners, in turn reflecting spatial dimensions of autonomy seeking. When put
into sequence, emplotted as recurrent social conflict, historical struggles for land
comprise an overarching theme, illustratively entitling Morissawa’s textbook A
HISTÓRIA DA LUTA PELA TERRA EO MST (The History of the Struggle for Land and the
As we have seen exemplified in Jornal Sem Terra, land conflicts are traced back
to the Colonial period, to the quilombo defiance typically embodied in Zumbi and
his militarized defense of the late Palmares. Besides, the MST historiography is
informed particularly by historical research that connects the colonization project to

Morissawa does not mention the Prestes Column. The March is mentioned very briefly in Jornal
Sem Terra (2009, July), p. 13; (2009, March), p. 14. Nevertheless, INCRA (2014) lists three
assentamentos named after Luis Carlos Prestes. Historian Anita Prestes, daughter to Luis Carlos,
was also key note speaker at MST 25th anniversary conference, in January 2009.
See Skidmore (1977), pp. 229–230. The Prestes Column did, however, effectively avoid
state-military repercussion through constant mobility of their own militia, famously resulting in the
25,000 km interstate march between 1924 and 1927, which interestingly enough resembles MST’s
national marches in the late 1990s. For more on MST’s national march to Brasilia in 1997, see
Chaves (2000).
44 2 In Dialogue with the Past

the formation of Brazil’s agrarian economy. Historians typically describe that the
Portuguese Crown shifted to agrarian resource exploitation when precious metals
were not found in Brazil during the 16th century, while sugar cane production in
North-Eastern Brazil proved increasingly profitable. As cultivation of sugar cane
required large monocultures, a crucial feature of the colonial political economy was
therefore to establish latifúndios. The latifúndio structure is often pointed out as key
for Brazil’s political economy, an argument famously elaborated by journalist
Alberto Guimarães in QUATRO SéCULOS DE LATIFúNDIO.65 This institution was,
according to Wendy Wolford, later consolidated through the 1850s Land Law (Lei
das Terras), a legal campaign intended to formalize land titles across the
new-founded republic. Guided by the same uti possedetis principle that informed
the colonial project, well-established plantations gained legal ownership while all
farming outside these establishments was illegalized.66 The subsequent social
division between the latifundiário (land owner) and the Sem Terra (landless),
according to sociologist José de Souza Martins, has historically generated recurring
social conflict in the Brazilian countryside.67
It is precisely this agrarian social conflict—the historical struggle for land—that
emplots the prequel to the story of Brazil’s Landless Movement. The MST histo-
riography depicts land struggles as increasingly articulated in the 20th century. The
grand finale of the MST prequel portrays the vast rural mobilizations of the late
1970s and early 1980s, eventually leading up to the official founding of Movimento
dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (MST) in January 1984. These MST for-
mative events were, in turn, preceded by the Trombas Rebellion under The Military
Regime, which we will soon return to, as well as the peasant movements known as
MASTER and Ligas Camponêsas.
These peasant movements emerged in the post-war period, during what political
scientist Michel Duquette refers to as a democratic wave.68 I here refer to this era as
The Second Republic. As historians use rather different terms to periodize The
Republican Epoch, I have chosen to simplify this presentation—illustrated in the
timeline below—as a First, Second and Third Republic, intermitted by The Vargas
Era (1930–1945) and The Military Regime (1964–1985).69 I believe that these era
names better reflect MST’s historiographic notion of continuity across the

Guimarães (1968 [1963]), pp. 1–3. See also Burns (1993), pp. 26–27.
Wolford (2010), pp. 37–49.
Martins (1990 [1981]), pp. 21–24; Martins (1999 [1994]), p. 150.
Duquette (2005), pp. 36–54, refers to Nova República (here The Second Republic) as a first
wave of democratization, and the 1980s abertura (The Third Republic) as the second wave of
This periodization is still compatible with the República Velha (Old Republic), República Nova
(New Republic) and Abertura (opening), as informed by Fausto (1999), pp. 148–189, 237–279;
Duquette (2005), pp. 36–37; Burns (1993), pp. 150, 382; Skidmore (1999).
2.2 Struggles for Land 45
46 2 In Dialogue with the Past

governments of The Republican Epoch. We will return to this notion of

state-continuity in the final part of this chapter. To conclude the prequel to the MST
story, however, we must begin with the agents, activities and advocacies that
emerged after the first fall of Getúlio Vargas’ government.

The Vargas Era starts in 1930. Historian Thomas Skidmore writes that when
foreign demand on coffee dramatically fell due to the Wall Street Crash, the gov-
ernor of Rio Grande do Sul—Getúlio Vargas—declared a State of Emergency to
cope with the national economic crisis. Historian Thomas Skidmore describes how
Vargas continued to successfully consolidate state power over the following
15 years. After being elected constitutional president, Vargas first collaborated with
the military to dissolve congress. The coup was executed on November 10, 1937,
placing Getúlio Vargas as dictator of his so-called Estado Novo (New State).
However, when the Second World War ended in 1945, autocratic state structure had
become hopelessly unfashionable. As the Brazilian military fought The Hitler
regime during the war, military generals soon began, Skidmore writes, to favor
political parties’ demands for presidential elections. The military eventually forced
Vargas out of office and imposed public elections in December 1945.70
Historians often point out that The Second Republic’s democratic wave opened
up for novel state-political organizations. One of these parties was Partido
Comunista Brasileiro, the Communist Party, which previously had been heavily
repressed for its recurring conspiracies to overthrow The Vargas Regime. When the
Communist Party was legalized, Luis Carlos Prestes—leader of the Prestes Column
that had marched against The First Republic—returned from his exile in Boliva to
become the party’s general secretary.71 In 1947, however, the Communist Party
was again illegalized. Party strategists therefore started, according to historian Cliff
Welch, to mobilize people in the Brazilian countryside. Welch reports that rural
workers and small-scale farmers were organized under the union ULTAB (União
dos Lavradores e Trabalhadores Agrícolas do Brasil), founded by the Communist
Party in 1954.72 The union was quickly established across Brazil, but in the
North-Eastern state of Pernambuco, the Communist Party had already initiated
Ligas Camponêsas (Peasant Leagues) in 1946. According to Welch, the Ligas
Camponêsas emphasized organizational rigor in order to build a network of elected
leaders, which could then be tied to the Communist Party.73

Skidmore (1999), pp. 108–109, 124–129. See also Burns (1993), pp. 346–358.
Diacon (1998), pp. 409–411, 434–436; Burns (1993), pp. 337–338; Skidmore (1999), pp. 111–
Welch (2006), pp. 30–33.
Welch (2009), pp. 129–133.
2.2 Struggles for Land 47

Following Welch’s argument, the Ligas Camponêsas’ intimate relation to the

Communist Party inevitably implied a resistance repertoire that sought state inter-
vention. A similar argument has been made by historian Marcelo Carvalho Rosa,
regarding the Movimento dos Agricultores Sem Terra—MASTER—that was active
in Rio Grande do Sul during the early 1960s. Rosa points out that the MASTER
leaders were often members of the Communist Party, again emphasizing political
orientation towards state-led social change. At the same time, the
MASTER-organized struggles for land also stimulated direct action tactics. In
January 1962, a few hundred MASTER activists occupied Fazenda Sarandi, a huge
and unproductive farm in Northern Rio Grande do Sul. Fazenda Sarandi was even-
tually expropriated, at least partly, by the Brazilian state, and this worded success soon
incited, Rosa concludes, additional land occupations across Rio Grande do Sul.74
The MST historiography obviously pays specific attention to the peasant
mobilizations of both MASTER and Ligas Camponêsas. In Jornal Sem Terra, as
well as in Morissawa’s textbook, these movements are explicitly presented as
MST’s most close-related predecessors.75 The state-oriented feature of these
peasant movements also constitutes a space of experience that motivated, according
to the key MST figure João Pedro Stédile, participants of MST’s first national
congress to declare distinct autonomy from political parties.76 Nevertheless, in
Northern Rio Grande do Sul, geographical origin of both MASTER and MST, the
massive land occupations of the 1960s constitute an important space of experience:
[…] In this region, historically, the struggle for land has always been present. […] I grew
up on an assentamento established in 1964. Another movement that existed back then was
an acampamento called…, a movement called MASTER, well-known when Leonel Brizola
was governor. My dad was settled on Fazenda Sarandi […] in ‘62 or ‘64, but the process
actually began earlier. And afterwards came other struggles. The dictatorship hid all these
processes, […] but soon emerged a variety of movements: rural workers’ unions,
revolutionary left-wing groups, social movements, CPT [Commisão Pastoral da Terra],
and then the struggles here, in our region. During the actions of Macali, Brilhante and
Encruzilhada Natalino, my dad helped out. Not as an outspoken leader, but he gave support,
brought food and such. And we, the children, we evolved through this process. […] It was
possible because of the occupations already taken place here. We began to organize,
without really knowing about MST, the occupation of Fazenda Annoni. And from this
process emerged the first national congress, in which MST was founded.77

The above interview excerpt illustrates how the memory of MASTER is actively
maintained in Northern Rio Grande do Sul. The exact year of the Sarandi expro-
priation is apparently not important for the interviewee, but instead the social
impact of this historical event. The interviewee, a settled MST participant, depicts

Rosa (2009), pp. 202–207.
See Morissawa (2001), pp. 92–94, 123–124, and, for instance, Jornal Sem Terra (1984, July),
p. 10; Jornal Sem Terra (2009, January/February). Across the Jornal Sem Terra corpus, Ligas
Camponêsas is mentioned on 130 occasions, while MASTER occurs 21 times.
Stedile and Fernandes (1999), p. 17.
Focus group 15.
48 2 In Dialogue with the Past

how MASTER paved the way for the massive land occupations occurring in the late
1970s and early 1980s, eventually resulting in the official founding of MST as a
nationwide movement of landless rural workers. The word “acampamento” is here
initially used for entitling MASTER. This anachronistic term, although quickly
modified into “movement”, exposes the connection established between the
MASTER’s land occupations, and the interviewee’s own experience of occupying
Fazenda Annoni in the early 1980 s. This short interview excerpt thereby illustrates
how historical agents and activities of the past are actively linked—as a prequel—to
the MST story. Furthermore, the interviewee also introduces us to the grand finale
of this prequel: the occupations of Macali, Brilhante and Encruzilhada Natalino.
But before embarking on these historical events, our chronological exposé must
first cover the initial years of The Military Regime. The MST historiography par-
ticularly emphasizes one resistance activity during this historical era: the rebellion
occurring in the municipalities Trombas and Formoso.78
In the book TROMBAS: A GUERRILHA DE Zé PORFÍRIO, journalist Sebastião de Barros
Abreu connects the Trombas Rebellion to an aggressive land grabbing procedure in
the 1950s: the grilagem. In the South-Central state of Goiás, Abreu reports,
numerous small farmers of public lands—posseiros—were displaced as they lost
formal entitlement to their property by the grilagem procedure.79 Political scientist
Paulo Ribeiro da Cunha argues that the Communist Party, which had meager
support among the rural population in Goiás, responsively organized displaced
posseiros against the grilagem procedure, in order to improve its political legiti-
macy. In 1957, the posseiros had taken up arms to reclaim their lands. And through
the Communist Party, according to da Cunha, the armed struggle was given a face:
the charismatic figure Zé Porfirio.80 Historians point out that the escalating armed
conflicts in Trombas and Formoso, along with other insurgencies affiliated with the
Communist Party, became increasingly worrisome for the people in power in the
early 1960s. The nation-wide peasant rebellions made Brazil, along with other Latin
American countries, ‘hot zones’ in the Cold War. Historian Moniz Bandeira doc-
uments how the United States’ government encouraged, and actively supported, the
military coup d’état in March 1964.81 Under The Military Regime (1964–1985),
leaders of Ligas Camponêsas and MASTER were soon exiled andimprisoned.82
Trombas was invaded in 1964, then a second time in 1970. And with the impris-

Trombas and Formoso are recounted in Morissawa (2001), p. 89, are discussed in Jornal Sem
Terra (2004, March), p. 14, and have given name to several assentamentos across Brazil, as listed
by INCRA (2014).
Abreu (1985), pp. 73–82.
Cunha (2007), pp. 86–88, 91.
Bandeira (2006).
Galdino (2005), p. 132; Welch (2006), p. 39.
2.2 Struggles for Land 49

onment of Zé Porfirio, in 1972, The Military Regime eventually considered the

peasant rebellions to be defeated.83
Historians point out that the military-led government quickly launched a new
Land Statute (Estatuto da Terra), implying progressive reforms for the landless
rural population. Although the new law stated that “everyone is assured of the
opportunity to access landed property”,84 the practical implementation of this
guideline was, according to Wendy Wolford, massive relocation of people from
Southern and North-Eastern Brazil to the Center-West and Amazon Basin.85
Historians also point out that the political economy of The Military Regime mainly
subsidized large-scale monocultures, thus paving the way for an export-oriented
economy, led by large-scale agrifood companies.86
There were however—and this particularly guides the MST historiography—
cracks in The Military Regime that could be widened by resistance agents. João
Pedro Stédile, MST’s most prominent spokesperson, states that the land struggle
was, in particular, driven by the rural workers’ unions that were legalized under The
Military Regime.87 Historian Cliff Welch reports that this struggle was particularly
organized by CONTAG (Confederação Nacional dos Trabalhadores na
Agricultura), a reshaped prolongation of the Communist Party-incited union
ULTAB. The military response to CONTAG was, according to Welch, to launch a
welfare program that aimed for improved health care and retirement benefits. As
this welfare program was administrated through CONTAG, Welch concludes, the
state eventually gained increased control over the rural workers’ unions.88
For João Pedro Stédile, generally considered a key figure in MST’s historical
formation, the struggle for land was here carried on by a progressive fraction of the
Catholic Church, the Commisão Pastoral da Terra (CPT).89 Sociologist José de
Souza Martins writes that CPT, founded in 1975, initially set out to provide legal
support to field laborers. But the politically engaged priests were soon attracted by,
and involved in, the organization among these rural workers.90 As followers and
developers of liberation theology, CPT assumed self-organizing potential among
the landless peasantry.91 Scholars that write the history of Brazil’s Landless
Movement typically point out CPT-initiated bible-study groups (Comunidades
Eclesiais de Base) as an organizational axis for subsequent land occupations.

Cunha (2007, pp. 14-17, 280; Martins (1999 [1994]), p. 64.
Quoted in Panini (1990), p. 81.
Wolford (2010), pp. 44–45.
Medeiros et al. (1994), pp. 24–25; Vergara-Camus (2012), pp. 1143–1145.
Stedile and Fernandes (1999), pp. 28–29.
Welch (2009), pp. 133–134, 138–139.
Stedile and Fernandes (1999), pp. 18–22.
Martins (1999 [1994]), pp. 139–140.
An argument elaborated by theologian Leonardo Boff (1980), pp. 30–42, 57–59.
50 2 In Dialogue with the Past

The first of these mass-occupations took place in September 1978, when hun-
dreds of people occupied Fazenda Macali in Northern Rio Grande do Sul.
According to historian Angus Wright and anthropologist Wendy Wolford, women
here actively put themselves, along with children, in the front line to defend the
male occupants. When the police came, officers hesitated on attacking women and
children with direct violence. The occupation of Fazenda Macali was therefore left
undefeated. Occupants advanced their negotiations with the state governor, who
eventually legalized the land claim.92 Sociologist Marta Harnecker writes that when
the success of the Macali occupation spread throughout the area, social mobilization
ignited. Fazenda Brilhante was occupied the same year, and, a few years thereafter,
Fazenda Annoni, MST’s first claim as a nationwide movement.93
We have now reached the finale of the MST prequel. In the early 1980s, the
wave of land occupations culminated in an immense roadside encampment—
commonly known as Encruzilhada Natalino—situated at a highway intersection in
Northern Rio Grande do Sul. Journalists Sue Branford and Jan Rocha report how
this massive acampamento endured for years, accommodating over ten thousand
people.94 Wright and Wolford argue that the severe police repression, led by the
infamous Colonel Curió, created a need for improved organizational tactics. The
acampamento was therefore built upon a decentralized organization structure,
inspired by CPT’s bible-study groups, in which small groups of people systemat-
ically shifted between various labor tasks.95 In the fall of 1983, according to
Harnecker, the state governor agreed to expropriation and eventually distributed
land titles to the acampados of Encruzilhada Natalino.96 When landless rural
workers in other parts of Brazil learned about the Encruzilhada Natalino success,
they soon decided to organize a national meeting to discuss strategies for nation-
wide agrarian reform.97 The constitutional and first national congress of Movimento
dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra took place in the city of Cascavel, in the
Southern state of Santa Catarina, between the 21st and 24th of January, 1984.98
Brazil’s Landless Movement was born.

Wright and Wolford (2003), pp. 27–30.
Harnecker (2003 [2002]), pp. 31–33. See also Ondetti (2008), pp. 65–69.
Branford and Rocha (2002), p. 17.
Wright and Wolford (2003), pp. 38–47. The acampados also started a news bulletin—later
known as Jornal Sem Terra—to share experiences with other land occupiers across Brazil,
according to Individual interview 07; Morissawa (2001), p. 125.
Harnecker (2003 [2002]), pp. 35–37.
Historians have documented that this rumor actually spread chiefly via acampados settled in
remote Brazilian states, following the state’s back-fired attempt to dampen mass mobilization. See
Lerrer (2008), pp. 183–190; Schreiner (2009), pp. 101–102.
As reported by Harnecker (2003 [2002]), p. 38.
2.3 Struggles Continued 51

2.3 Struggles Continued

This chapter has, up to this point, portrayed the prequel to the MST story. My
empirical analysis of Jornal Sem Terra, Morissawa’s textbook, and ethnographic
sources, has identified and presented certain agents and activities that—in the MST
prequel—orbit an advocacy herein construed as a historical struggle for land. The
final part of this chapter aims to bridge prequel and story by following MST’s
historiographic chronology into the movement’s own history. I refer to this his-
torical era as a Third Republic, starting with the Abertura of the 1980s, via the
1990s neoliberal turn, to the Workers’ Party’s political dominance in the first
decade of the new millennium. This time period thereby concerns the part of MST
historiography where Brazil’s Landless Movement becomes narrative protagonist,
key agent of the struggles continued.
In the influential book LAND, PROTEST, AND POLITICS, political scientist Gabriel
Ondetti outlines five periods of the Landless Movement in Brazil. Theoretically
informed by the political opportunity perspective, Ondetti’s periodization chiefly
concerns the movement’s impacts on the state-political arena. The five periods—
Emergence (1974–1984), Growth (1985–1994), Takeoff (1995–1999), Decline
(2000–2002), and Resurgence (2003–2006)—clearly captures significant changes
of the political opportunity structure.99 Albeit empirically informative, and there-
fore a key scholarly reference here, I believe that Ondetti’s analytical focus on the
state-political conjunctures risks to eclipse the MST-identified continuity between
various governments. As we have seen, the MST prequel portrays historical
struggles against nation building, in tandem with historical struggles for land. In the
history written by MST participants—through collective narration, educative set-
tings, and Jornal Sem Terra articles—the Landless Movement is recurrently linked
to agents and activities from dissimilar politico-economic contexts. The historio-
graphic dialogue with the past suggests that MST continues, and advances, the
search for autonomy embodied in the struggle for land.
As we will see in subsequent chapters, MST participants do in fact depict their
surrounding politico-economic context in terms of historical continuity. In the story
of Brazil’s Landless Movement, the struggle continues, although certain narrative
components—including antagonists—change over time. But before analytically
dissecting the MST story, this chapter will first conclude the historiographic exposé
with a brief overview of MST and The Third Republic. Alike preceding parts of this
chapter, the following historiographic events have been identified through ethno-
graphic sources and MST-produced literature, verified and complemented through
systematic searches in Jornal Sem Terra. The empirical analysis is here presented as
a concise version of the MST’s ‘present time’ historiography, anchored in previous
historical studies on MST, Ondetti’s in particular, as well as scholarly literature
concerned with Brazilian contemporary history.

Ondetti (2008), pp. 13–19. It should be noted that Ondetti’s categorization involves additional
land occupying agents, besides MST.
52 2 In Dialogue with the Past

Brazil’s Landless Movement emerged in parallel with the so called political

opening of Brazil: the abertura. Historians point out that this self-initiated gov-
ernmental transition, from military regime to electoral presidency, was deliberately
slow in character. As the people in power wanted transition without social tensions
(distensão), the democratization project begun gradually, in November 1974, when
the administration of General Geisel allowed oppositional parties to access national
media. The only viable oppositional party, MDB (Movimento Democrático
Brasileiro), now had novel opportunities to challenge the dominant military party
(Aliança Renovadora Nacional).100 The MDB-party became a legitimate channel
for political discontent which, in turn, inspired labor unions to become increasingly
confrontative. Ondetti writes that in 1978, metal workers in São Paulo begun to
launch a series of strikes to protest the decreased purchase power that followed
government-led inflation. The spokesperson for São Paulo’s metal workers, Luiz
Inácio da Silva—also known as Lula—became a central figure in the
union-organized defiance, now spreading across Brazil.101 In 1979, according to
historian Boris Fausto, more than three million workers went out on strike. The
government answered the popular demands by launching the abertura project. The
two-party system, set up after the military coup in 1964, was dissolved by the newly
installed General Figueiredo in October 1979.102
Fausto describes how the breakdown of the two-party system created severe
cracks in the political legitimacy of The Military Regime, cracks that were widened
by the massive union strikes. The Workers’ Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores), in
which the union leader Lula soon became a key figure, was born in this milieu.
Together with other newly-legalized political parties, as well as social movements,
the Workers’ Party began promoting abertura advances in the form of elected
presidency. Fausto writes that the political campaign known as Diretas Já (Direct
Elections Now) gained popular support all over Brazil in the early 1980s. The
campaign did not succeed—direct presidential elections were still not allowed—but
the expressive public opinion did affect the upcoming voting within the Electoral
College. The leader of the Partido do Movimento Democrático Brasileiro (former
MDB), Tancredo Neves, gained majority in the Electoral College and replaced the
military party in January 1985. For the first time since the 1960s, the government
was not run by a military-assigned president. A national constitutional assembly,
publically elected in November 1986, set out to write a new constitution for Brazil.
The new constitution, Fausto concludes, went into effect in October 5, 1988, to
complete the abertura project. And in November 1989, The Third Republic of
Brazil saw its first direct presidential elections. Fernando Collor de Mello, candidate
for Partido da Reconstrução Nacional (today’s Christian Labor Party), won the
elections and took office in March 1990. Half-way into his first term, Fausto reports,

See Skidmore (1999), pp. 186–187; Fausto (1999), pp. 296–297.
Ondetti (2008), p. 56.
Fausto (1999), p. 303.
2.3 Struggles Continued 53

Collor de Mello stepped down due to a severe corruption scandal. His post went to
Vice-president Itamar Franco, installed in April 1993.103
Economic historians Francisco Vidal Luna and Herbert Klein demonstrate that in
parallel with these (state-)political transformations, Brazil’s economy was severely
weakened by high inflation. In order to re-foster economic growth, after years of
deep recession, Brazilian governments imposed firm economic changes. According
to Luna and Klein, the state-invoked adjustment programs were closely guided by
neoliberal principles of economic deregulation and fortified property rights, as
formulated by the so-called Washington Consensus. This neoliberal turn motivated
president Itamar Franco’s Minister of Treasury—Fernando Henrique Cardoso—to
launch a massive reform package to stabilize the Brazilian currency. Luna and
Klein write that the core of Cardoso’s substantive project, known as Plano Real,
was to impose conversion to a new national currency. The transition went via a
temporarily currency index that enabled, along with overvalued exchange rates,
stable implementation of the Real as Brazil’s new currency. Cardoso’s Plano Real
was successful; inflation dropped from nine hundred percent in 1994 to nineteen
percent the following year. And only a few months after Plano Real was imple-
mented, Fernando Henrique Cardoso won the presidential elections as candidate for
Partido da Social Democracia Brasileira. In January 1995, Cardoso became the
new President of Brazil.104
In Jornal Sem Terra, Fernando Henrique Cardoso undoubtedly is the most heavily
criticized representative of the Brazilian state.105 The front covers of Jornal Sem
Terra from this period bear headlines stating that Cardoso’s “agrarian reform is a
farce”,106 or that Cardoso “paralyzes agrarian reform all over Brazil”.107 Front cover
headlines accuses the president of being “responsible for the crisis in agriculture”,108
for “cutting down resources to agrarian reform”,109 and for neglecting “drought and
hunger in the North-East”.110 Jornal Sem Terra accordingly documents MST’s
resistance activities, with front cover headlines reporting about “occupations against
Cardoso’s tardiness”,111 and “mobilizations against Cardoso’s lies”.112 As I will
show in Chap. 3, the antagonistic position of The Cardoso Regime, in the MST story,

Fausto (1999), pp. 309–319. See also Ondetti (2008), pp. 55–56.
Luna and Klein (2006), pp. 60–65. See also Skidmore (1999), pp. 223–226; Fausto (1999),
pp. 320–321.
Interestingly enough, Cardoso is also a well-renowned sociologist, recognized for important
contributions to the dependency school through the book DEPENDENCY AND DEVELOPMENT IN LATIN
AMERICA (1979). In possession of state power, according to MST’s historiography, Cardoso instead
contributed to the very capitalist expansion that he had critically analyzed as an academic scholar.
Jornal Sem Terra (2002, January), p. 1.
Jornal Sem Terra (2001, October), p. 1.
Jornal Sem Terra (1998, July), p. 1.
Jornal Sem Terra (1998, December), p. 1.
Jornal Sem Terra (2001, July), p. 1.
Jornal Sem Terra (1995, September), p. 1.
Jornal Sem Terra (1996, January/February), p. 1.
54 2 In Dialogue with the Past

chiefly derives from its close association with the neoliberal project. According to
Luna and Klein, production sectors like oil, electric power, telecommunications and
costal shipping were all privatized by Cardoso to pave the way for foreign invest-
ments.113 As pointed out by political scientist Michel Duquette, a significant feature
of Cardoso’s economic politics was thus to accelerate the neoliberal privatization
program initiated by President Collor de Mello.114
Furthermore, as explicitly pronounced by an interviewed MST college student,
the “continuation of the neoliberal project” passed through the Collor, Franco and
Cardoso administrations, and then into Lula’s presidency.115 The interviewed MST
participant depicts the state as a key implementer of neoliberal doctrines, a safe-
guard for neoliberal continuity into the novel political landscape of the new mil-
lennium. Social scientists similarly argue that the Worker’s Party sustained
state-founded support for large domestic corporations, especially in the agrarian
sector, in order to strengthen Brazil’s position on the inter-state arena. Fiscal
incentives came to premiere export-oriented monocultures, which in turn made
small farmers heavily indebted in their adjustments to the applied political econ-
omy.116 Ondetti points out that the Landless Movement was particularly affected
since the most fundamental neoliberal doctrine—protection of private property—
was directly violated by land occupants. Along with the installation of the
neoliberal project, the state became increasingly uncomfortable with the growing
Landless Movement.117
Ondetti begins this account in the mid-1990s, a period when the Cardoso gov-
ernment actually took successive steps towards state-invoked agrarian reform. The
Landless Movement was now favored by the public media, following an intensive
media coverage of two state-led massacres of MST participants. Ondetti reports that
the first massacre, where police forces killed one child and eight land occupants,
took place in Corumbiara, Northern Brazil, in August 1995. In the massacre of
Eldorado do Carajás, on April 17, 1996, the military police opened fire into a crowd
of MST participants on a road-blockade. Nineteen people were shot to death,
sixty-nine were badly injured. Ondetti writes that the Cardoso administration,
ultimately responsible for the state’s violence, answered the popular critique by
implementing the ambitious expropriation program presented during the electoral
campaign. Between 1995 and 1998, state-led land expropriation therefore increased
substantially, settling some 288,000 families. During Cardoso’s second term in
office, however, the compliant approach suddenly turned into a massive offensive
against the Landless Movement.

Luna and Klein (2006), pp. 31–33, 72–75.
Duquette (2005), pp. 53–54.
Focus group 02.
See Kröger (2012), pp. 887, 891–892; Dauvergne and Farias (2012), pp. 906–908; Galdino
(2005); Lundström (2011).
Ondetti (2008), pp. 148–155. For comparable analyses, see Mészáros (2015), pp. 357–358;
Pereira (2004), p. 104.
2.3 Struggles Continued 55

Ondetti argues that this political makeover started with the scandal of heavy
police violence against indigenous groups, protesting at the 500th anniversary of
Portuguese ‘discovery’ of Brazil. The embarrassed Cardoso administration blamed
MST for creating an upheaval that eventually led to beating and teargassing of
indigenous protesters. The president’s discontent was fueled when thirty thousand
MST participants occupied public offices, all over Brazil, to demand acceleration of
the state-led agrarian reform. According to Ondetti’s investigation, President
Cardoso answered by attacking MST’s most central resistance activity—the land
occupation. In May 2000, Ondetti reports, the Cardoso administration declared that
‘invaded’ rural properties would be ineligible for expropriation for two years, four
years if occupied a second time. Individuals and organizations involved in land
occupation activities would no longer receive any kind of public funding, nor land
titles. The state could also ‘take back’ land already redistributed, given that family
members proved to be taking part in land occupation activities. Moreover,
administrative alterations required landless peoples to register at INCRA and
simply wait for their land titles, which, Ondetti concludes, added to disabled
mobilization for massive land occupations.118
The state’s criminalization of land occupations, and administrative alterations that
incapacitated popular mobilizations, are important components of Cardoso’s antag-
onistic position in the MST story. Nevertheless, as we shall see in Chap. 3, the state is
not a full-feathered antagonist in the MST story; this position is reserved for narrative
characters representing the capital. Yet the associative linkage between state and
capital—stemming from the state-invoked neoliberal project—seems to inform the
continued skepticism against the governments of The Third Republic. In the MST
historiography, the severe critique against the Cardoso administration has not at all
escaped the successive regime of the Workers’ Party.
Luiz Inácio ‘Lula’ da Silva, the front figure of the late 1970s massive union
strike, had been a strong candidate in the presidential elections of 1989 and 1994.
Lula had lost these campaigns, first to Collor then to Cardoso, but in October 2002
he finally won the presidential elections. The Workers’ Party has held the gov-
ernment position since they took office in January 2003, via Lula’s re-election in
2006 and replacement by Dilma Rousseff in 2011. As we have seen, the MST
historiography clearly depicts the Lula administration as a continuation of the
neoliberal project. Moreover, MST participants typically link this continuity to
certain social compensations: welfare programs, or “packages to the poor so they
won’t revolt” as one interviewed acampado puts it.119 The key reference here is
Bolsa Familia, a part of Lula’s Zero-Hunger program aimed to provide basic
material needs for economically poor households.120

Ondetti (2008), pp. 148–151, 183–188.
Focus group 17.
Bolsa Familia is critically discussed in Luna and Klein (2006), pp. 34–35; Fernandes (2015),
pp. 140–145; Ondetti (2008), pp. 202–204.
56 2 In Dialogue with the Past

Skepticism towards The Lula Regime seems to be deeply rooted in MST par-
ticipants’ collective memory. Political scientist Miguel Carter reports that MST
participants understand President Lula’s—and President Dilma’s—political econ-
omy in terms of betrayal and broken promises.121 According to Gabriel Ondetti,
drawing empirically on interviews and other MST-derived sources, this deep-rooted
skepticism started already with the build-up period of Lula’s presidential campaign.
On route to state power, Lula officially condemned MST’s occupations of gov-
ernmental buildings, and actively refrained from attending the movement’s national
congress. After the Lula administration took office, Ondetti argues, nothing really
changed in the legal and administrative framework imposed by Cardoso to repress
the Landless Movement. But towards the end of his first term in office (which
completes Ondetti’s investigation period), Lula eventually tried to meet MST’s
expectations by invoking INCRA officials to temporarily bypass the legal measures
that restrained land occupations.122
However, during the second term of the Lula administration (2006–2010),
Cardoso’s repressive measures were quietly reinforced, and then maintained by
Lula’s successor Dilma Rousseff. At the time of my field study, in 2012–2013, MST
participants were again unable to perform direct land occupations. The basic criterion
for INCRA registration was verification of landlessness, meaning that the land
applicant had to live on an acampamento (encampment). As MST participants could
no longer occupy unproductive land, albeit required to live in occupation-like
conditions, acampamentos were generally set up on roadsides of inter-state highways,
the only legal space for occupation sites.123 The acampamento, as we will see in
Chap. 4, has accordingly become an important space of experience for MST partic-
ipants, a distinct contrast to the state, and thus a spatial resource for the land struggle.
Accordingly, MST participants typically construe the state in terms of continuity, in
spite of its allegedly dissimilar administrations across The Third Republic:
The birth of the movement in ‘70…, ‘79, grew out of the Encruzilhada occupants’ need to
build a movement that struggled for land. That provided continuity. […] We became
well-known in ‘97 because of the Eldorado massacre, as a political reference. And we are a
political reference. Nevertheless, today, our struggle has changed. We had hope in Lula, but
now we all know that Lula… Actually, it’s not only Lula, but also what made Lula’s fail the
agrarian reform. It’s the continuation of the neoliberal project, initiated by Collor [de
Mello]. It was continued by Itamar [Franco] and Fernando Henrique [Cardoso]. But it did
not stop there. Willingly or not, we had to change our strategy, our practice of struggle.124

The above excerpt derives from a focus group interview with five students at
ITERRA (Instituto Técnico de Capacitação e Pesquisa da Reforma Agrária), a
MST-college located in North-Eastern Rio Grande do Sul. When asked about the
differences between the initial and contemporary MST struggle, the above

Carter (2015b), pp. 413, 419–423.
Ondetti (2008), pp. 186–188, 206–208. See also Branford (2015), pp. 336–349.
Individual interview 14; Individual interview 06.
Focus group 02.
2.3 Struggles Continued 57

interviewee, herself raised on an assentamento and now in her early twenties, makes
practically no distinction between the governments of The Third Republic. Albeit
cautious, she depicts the Lula administration as a mere “continuation of the neoliberal
project”. Her explanatory statement thereby illustrates how MST’s historiographic
contextualization portrays The Third Republic as advances in state-invoked neolib-
eral repression. The various government administrations are understood to produce
tandem unevenness and predictability of the social topography. The state is hereby, as
we return to in Chap. 4, understood as a color-changing yet constantly unreliable
power, from which MST participants, and their historiographic predecessors, seek
autonomy. At the same time, the state is not exclusively construed as an antagonist by
MST participants, but also as a persuasive and even necessary vehicle for the land
struggle. By contrast, the antagonists of the MST story are instead, as we shall see in
the following chapter, transformable narrative characters.
The historiographic exposé outlined in this chapter highlights what I call a
dialogue with the past, that is, a linkage between prequel and story, a guiding
past-present intimacy. The prequel portrays a distant space of experience, a his-
torical context, in which the contemporary Landless Movement is situated. The
prequel is entitled by the historical struggle for land, comprised by a wide range of
agents and activities during five centuries of Brazilian history. And through the
MST historiography, historical struggles against nation building, and for land, are
continued by the nationwide movement of landless rural workers, born in the early
1980s. As the MST historiography is recurrently told in various educative settings,
Jornal Sem Terra articles, and MST textbooks, the story of Brazil’s Landless
Movement is vividly produced in dialogue with the past.
Yet this history writing, in which MST continues the historical struggle for land,
also suggests an ongoing struggle. The story has an open ending. The movement
narrative so becomes, as we will see, flexible. The following chapter accordingly
outlines the contours and components of the MST story, in order to analyze its
changes and continuities over time.
Picture 5 The new-expropriated fazenda in Southern Rio Grande do Sul, gates draped with the MST flag, typically illustrates the
narrative theme propelling the story of Brazil’s Landless Movement. Photo by author
Chapter 3
The Story

Abstract This empirical chapter examines the stability and flexibility of the MST
story, critically dissecting narrative components to identify changes and continuities
over time. A qualitative meta-analysis of 275 MST-related scholarly texts
demonstrates how aggregated research topics comprise an academic storytelling
that replicates the narrative contours, in turn attaining the stability of the MST story.
To study narrative changes over time, the chapter then embarks upon a corpus
analysis of Jornal Sem Terra between 1981 and 2013. Combined with ethnographic
sources, the empirical analyses clearly verify that the movement narrative is con-
siderably constitutive for MST participants, thereby requiring a certain level of
stability. At the same time, the historical analysis of Jornal Sem Terra suggests that
key narrative characters—antagonists and protagonists—actually change over
time, while the narrative plot, that of agrarian social conflict, remains constant.
Nevertheless, as the ethnographic analysis suggests, narrative flexibility is clearly
limited by the risk of jeopardizing the story’s stability-producing function for
MST’s political subject formation.

Keywords Movement narrative MST Meta-analysis Literature review  
Corpus analysis 
Jornal Sem Terra Protagonist 
Antagonist Space of  

The fence of Fazenda Annoni was cut in October 1985. The huge farm was now occupied,
claimed by landless rural workers that took the distributive politics of agrarian reform into
their own hands. Thousands of women and men, along with their children, that now lived
on occupied Fazenda Annoni began to organize the occupation site as a permanent
encampment. They constantly had to find ways to deal with the various repressive measures
from governmental and private forces. The land occupants – known as Sem Terra – were
decisive about continuing the land occupation until its direct goal was achieved. They
called for government legalization of their claimed right to land-based self-determination.
They demanded expropriation of Fazenda Annoni, so that more people could live of the

© The Author(s) 2017 59

M. Lundström, The Making of Resistance, SpringerBriefs in Sociology,
DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-55348-1_3
60 3 The Story

For years, the Sem Terra continued to protest against, and negotiate with, the government.
And eventually, they won. Thousands of land occupants now gained legal land titles.
Fazenda Annoni, once the property of one family only, was expropriated and became the
means of production for more than four hundred households. By direct access to arable
land, the Sem Terra could now work for themselves, instead of selling their labor power to
the previous land owner. By taking action into their own hands, by occupying Fazenda
Annoni until the claim was legalized, the Sem Terra were empowered to organize their own
The occupation of Fazenda Annoni was the first direct action carried out by Brazil’s
Landless Movement. MST had grown out of the massive land struggle that previously took
place in Encruzilhada Natalino, a highway intersection in Northern Rio Grande do Sul.
After the state’s expropriation of occupied latifúndios in the late 1970s, social mobilization
had become remarkably active in Southern Brazil. The extremes of unequal land distri-
bution, characterizing rural Brazil since colonization, were now addressed directly by the
dispossessed. By long-term camping aside interstate highways, tens of thousands rural
workers were demanding redistribution of agricultural land, demanding agrarian reform.
The Encruzilhada Natalino activities soon connected with similar land struggles in other
parts of Brazil, eventually producing the nation-wide movement born in January 1984.
With MST—and its first land occupation, that of Fazenda Annoni—struggles for land
intensified throughout Brazil. In region after region, Annoni-style occupations were acti-
vated. Many land occupations were successful, others faced heavy state repression, often
lethally violent, and had to reorganize. Over the past thirty years, hundreds of thousands
Sem Terra have gained land titles, while countless others still lack direct access to arable
land. Therefore, the struggle continues.

That is, in short, the MST story. It is a condensed version, extracted from my
variety of empirical sources and reconstructed here to illustrate the contours and
components of this movement narrative. The linear sequence between Encruzilhada
Natalino, the MST foundation, the occupation of Fazenda Annoni and the con-
tinued MST progress, suggests a plot centered on agrarian social conflict. The
emplotted conflict between protagonist (the Sem Terra) and antagonist (the land-
owner, or latifundiário) pushes the narrative onwards. Furthermore, the above
vignette illustrates how the MST story is framed by an overarching theme—
agrarian reform as an imperative social enterprise, harsh but eventually rewarding—
which ties narrative components together.
In this chapter, we will focus on these narrative components in order to identify
changes and continuities over time. The presentation draws on two separate
empirical analyses, which complement the ethnographic sources that constitute the
empirical backbone of this book. The first part of this chapter portrays the contours
of the MST story. This part builds on a qualitative meta-analysis of 275
MST-related scholarly texts, what I call academic storytelling. The second part of
this chapter draws empirically on my corpus analysis of Jornal Sem Terra, here
specifically aimed at identifying narrative changes over time. Then, returning to my
ethnographic sources, the final part of this chapter discusses the tension between
stability and flexibility, embedded in the story of Brazil’s Landless Movement.
3.1 Academic Storytelling 61

3.1 Academic Storytelling

The research on Brazil’s Landless Movement is immense. MST has been studied
from numerous theoretical and methodological entry points, across the disciplines
of humanities and social sciences. The following pages overview this vast academic
field by identifying its overarching research topics. These topics are identified
through a qualitative meta-analysis, discussed methodologically in Chap. 1. On the
following pages, the analyzed literature is reduced to summative and bibliograph-
ical references, as abundant in-depth reviews would restrain the overview ambition.
The informative purpose here is of course to introduce previous research on Brazil’s
Landless Movement, but also to illustrate that academic literature repeatedly draws
on certain narrative components, thus reproducing the contours of the MST story.
Aggregated MST-studies are, accordingly, presented here as academic storytelling.
The qualitative meta-analysis comprises 275 MST-related studies. As illustrated
in Fig. 3.1, the analyzed academic texts consist of peer-reviewed scientific articles
and separate anthology chapters (55%), doctoral dissertations (38%) and
non-dissertation monographs (7%). One third of these texts are published in English
(35%), thus targeting an international audience. This international-oriented litera-
ture is mainly published as articles in scientific journals; only a fraction of the
analyzed MST studies are published as books in English (5%). Through my
meta-analysis, I discovered that literature in English draws less on empirical
studies, generally building the scientific argument on previous research. Moreover,
these texts are often quite extensive on introducing MST for international readers,
which tends to make these studies, in its aggregated form, rather repetitive.
Although much more concise, introductory sections that situate MST in its context
are also common in Portuguese, especially in the dissertations, where they appear to
be somewhat mandatory.
A striking similarity across the analyzed publications is the ascription of positive
values to the Landless Movement. While 52% of the studies are more
context-focused, 44% are explicitly MST-supportive. As empirical studies typically
adopt a structural approach, in which MST becomes one particular case, the sup-
portive positioning often shapes, more or less explicitly, the formulation of research
problems. A few studies (4%) are however explicitly critical towards MST,1 while
other texts point out organizational drawbacks in order to advance MST’s partici-
patory processes.2 Another cross-literature similarity is that empirical studies often
combine secondary sources (media coverage, statistics, MST-produced material)

For a critical overview of negative scholarly evaluations of Brazil’s Landless Movement, see
Carter (2015a), pp. 391–395.
DeVore (2015), pp. 1212–1222; Morton (2014), pp. 739–740. These references—like all refer-
ences in this chapter part—should be understood as bibliographic examples of the most influential
(that is, cross-referred) MST-related academic studies.
62 3 The Story

Fig. 3.1 Type of

publications within
MST-related academic
literature, categorized as
articles / anthology chapters,
doctoral dissertations and
published monographs

with primary interview sources. A common approach is to analyze secondary

sources and then use interviews to highlight the study’s inferences. In this com-
plementary manner, qualitative interviews are used in near all of the MST-related
dissertations. Yet many studies are more deeply engaged in ethnographic methods
of participant observation, in-depth interviews and long-term field studies, to
inductively approach the realities of MST participants. Ethnographic methods thus
constitute the most common research approach for both publications in Portuguese
(27%) and English (8%).
Besides methodological variations, the analyzed literature approaches MST from
rather diverse theoretical vantage points. Several academic texts, especially ethno-
graphic studies published in Portuguese, incorporate various kinds of text-analyses,
stemming from a social constructivist epistemology. Other studies draw on Marxist,
particularly Gramscian, perspectives. A common theoretical entry point is political
opportunity theory, prominently exemplified in LAND, PROTEST, AND POLITICS, pro-
duced by political scientist Gabriel Ondetti. As we saw in Chap. 2, Ondetti focuses
on how the political conjunctures of Brazilian governments have affected the
mobilization capabilities of the Landless Movement.3 In a similar manner, other
studies analyze how governments set the political opportunity structure,4 or, more
explicitly, how MST resistance strategies have adopted to a given political climate.5
Besides (state-)political impacts, other outcome-focused studies of MST
mobilization address social,6 socioeconomic,7 environmental,8 health,9 civil

Ondetti (2008), pp. 16–19.
Araujo Junior et al. (2008), pp. 817–820; Fernandes (2003), pp. 12–17; Mackin (2016), pp. 184–
186; Galdino (2005), pp. 130–139; Sobreiro Filho (2011).
Caldeira (2008), pp. 144–148; Coletti (2005), pp. 274–277.
Haas (2012), pp. 165–214; Bergamasco and Cabello (2015).
Bavaresco (2001), pp. 281–309; Siman (2009), pp. 160–168.
Oliveira (2008), pp. 135–139.
Carneiro (2007), pp. 95–110, 116–118.
3.1 Academic Storytelling 63

society,10 or local economy impacts of MST activities.11 These aspects often relate
to a recurrent research topic, notable in both English and Portuguese academic
literature: MST’s relation to the Brazilian state.
Some studies of this research topic emphasize the resilience to political
co-option.12 Others point out MST’s contradictory dependence on the state for
legalized land expropriation, and defiance of the state’s protection of property rights
that, at the same time, inhibits people form direct access to arable land.13 MST’s
relation to the state is also compared with the Zapatista movement in Mexico,
focused on the decision making practices that discourage the need for external
(state) governance,14 deriving from these movements’ strive to create what political
scientist Leandro Vergara-Camus calls autonomous rural communities.15
According to political scientist Anthony Pahnke, reproaching state power makes
Brazil’s Landless Movement neither reformist nor revolutionary, but a self-gov-
ernmental social movement.16 This notion of autonomy is typically addressed as an
aspect of MST’s internal organizing and collective social practices.17 Some studies
point out the symbolism of land as a catalyst for economic autonomy,18 others
explore how autonomy has been enabled by collective labor and income distribu-
tion,19 manifesting socio-political organization beyond the state.20 In a similar
fashion, the movement’s autonomy is also studied through the MST interactions
with other social movements,21 urban protests,22 labor unions,23 indigenous peo-
ples,24 the Catholic Church,25 messianic movements,26 and other civil society
actors.27 While scholars highlight similarities between MST and other social

Robles (2000), pp. 684–686.
Heredia et al. (2006), pp. 24–31.
See for instance Nobre (2008), pp. 203–211.
See Hammond (1999), pp. 473–475, 484–486.
Starr et al. (2011), pp. 111–113; Vergara-Camus (2009b), pp. 182–183.
Vergara-Camus (2014), pp. 92–157.
Pahnke et al. (2015), pp. 1189–1192.
Nóbrega (2013), pp. 238–244.
Haas (2012), pp. 111–128.
Vieira (2005), pp. 274–306; Goldfarm (2007), pp. 146–159; Scopinho (2007), pp. 87–91.
Dinerstein (2015), pp. 171–197; Vergara-Camus (2009a), pp. 372–374, 382–386.
Rosa (2015), pp. 376–387; Ilse Scherer-Warren (2009), pp. 119–120.
Vanden (2014), pp. 239–247.
Sandoval (2007), pp. 77–82, 86–88.
Nugent (2002), pp. 162–164.
Gaiger (1987), pp. 9–16, 90–96.
Dias (1997), pp. 171–176.
Andrade (2009), pp. 156–185; Bastos (2015), pp. 206–211; Karriem and Benjamin (2016),
pp. 32–33.
64 3 The Story

movements, typically based on the notion of peasantry,28 researchers also document

distinct differences between MST and other social actors,29 arguing against alleged
knowledge transfers between dissimilar contexts.30
The scholarly focus on autonomy typically construes the state as an MST
adversary, rather than ally.31 Yet some scholars maintain analytical emphasis on the
state as the principal agent for social change,32 while others point out a dynamic
interdependence between MST and the Brazilian state.33 According to historian
Marcelo Rosa, the social category known as Sem Terra—politically organized
landless rural workers—was originally coined by the government itself, in order to
describe and address the 1960s MASTER-organization (see Chap. 2). For Rosa, the
government’s invention of the Sem Terra category illustrates how the MST actually
depends on the state.34 By contrast, studies that position MST against the state
typically focus on The Cardoso Regime,35 in which the state is portrayed as dis-
tinctively neoliberal with a primary function of protecting private property.36 When
the agronegócio claims agricultural land through purchases, scholars argue, the
state becomes even more concerned with protecting these properties from land
occupiers, in turn fueling revived mobilizations against the state-capital alliance.37
While scholars construe the state as both ally and antagonist to the Landless
Movement, the academic literature is less diversified regarding the agronegócio.
MST’s ideal model of agricultural food production, agroecologia (agro-
ecology), is typically contrasted against the agronegócio model.38 Food produc-
tion is a research topic of academic storytelling that encompasses documentation of
health issues related to pesticide usage,39 typically contrasted against applied
agro-ecological practices.40 Many scholars approach MST’s agricultural producer

Petras (1997), pp. 23–25.
Rosa (2012), pp. 110–112; Alves (2012), pp. 336–338.
Baletti et al. (2008), pp. 309–311.
Comparato (2004), pp. 106–117.
Petras and Veltmeyer (2002), pp. 64–68.
Wolford (2016), pp. 77, 83–90; Siguad (2015).
Rosa (2009), pp. 200–201, 225. For a MST-produced discussion on the Sem Terra as political
category, see Caldart (2001), pp. 211–213.
Pereira (2003), pp. 48–55; Coletti (2005), pp. 198–243.
Almeida and Sanchez (2000), pp. 23–24; Martins (2000), pp. 42–43.
Fernandes (2008), pp. 75–79; Abbey et al. (2006), pp. 107–112; Meszaros (2000), pp. 540–541.
Karriem (2012), pp. 150–157; Gonçalves (2008), “Resumo”; Diniz and Gilbert (2013), pp. 24–
Nishiyama (2003), pp. 105–108; Fontoura Júnior et al. (2012), pp. 390–394.
Luzzi (2007), pp. 110–132; Lerrer and de Medeiros (2014), pp. 128–130; Borsatto (2011),
pp. 164–183.
3.1 Academic Storytelling 65

cooperatives to study the implementation of agroecology on MST assentamentos.41

Political scientist Miguel Carter, editor of the MST-focused anthology CHALLENGING
SOCIAL INEQUALITY, points out that the MST struggle for land is in fact reinforced by
a parallel MST struggle: the struggle on land.42 While this distinction induces
MST’s strategic emphasis on cooperativism,43 it also implies significant narrative
change—what I call a protagonist shift—to which we will soon return.
Another branch of academic literature concerns MST’s relation to Brazilian mass
media. Studies have documented MST’s negative connotations in the daily press,44
and the more complex pictures stemming from dramaturgic narration in popular
soap operas.45 While some scholars focus on how Brazilian mass media frame the
popular image of Brazil’s Landless Movement,46 other researchers study MST’s
internal communication practices,47 documenting an ambivalent approach to social
media and other emerging communication techniques.48 A frequently mentioned
motivation for media attention is connected to MST’s educational practices, and
subsequent relation to Brazil’s official school system. Education is, in fact, the most
frequent research topic in academic storytelling, representing 18% of the 275
analyzed texts.49
Inspired by Paulo Freire’s theoretical and practical guidelines in PEDAGOGY OF THE
OPPRESSED,50 a plentiful body of literature on the emancipatory aspects of education,
and how they can be implemented, has been produced by MST participants
themselves.51 Besides, academic studies on the education topic typically address
these pedagogical practices on assentamentos,52 and acampamentos,53 pointing out

Sulzbacher (2015), pp. 199–215; Souza (1999), pp. 106–136; Schreiner (2002), pp. 332–405;
Scopinho (2007), pp. 87–91.
Carter (2015c), p. xxiv; Carter and Carvalho (2015), pp. 230–231, 243–249.
Flynn (2015), pp. 63–67.
Antoni (2012), pp. 132–137, 157–163; Azevedo (2008), p. vii.
Hammond (2004), pp. 83–84.
Lima (2005), “Resumo”; Ferreira (2012), pp. 165–175.
Oliveira and Cogo (2013), pp. 242–246; Crepaldi (2012), pp. 22–26.
Sartoretto (2015), pp. 207–214, 247–254; Melo (2008), pp. 163–173, 198–209.
This topic is much more common in literature published in Portuguese (21% of sample) than in
English (13% of sample).
Freire (2005 [1970]), pp. 71–86.
Caldart (2000), pp. 204–236; Caldart (2001), pp. 211–222. Furthermore, MST has published a
number of journals on education during the 1990s, most importantly Caderno de Educação and
BOLETIM DE EDUCAção. For online access, see Armazém Memoria.
Cordeiro (2009), pp. 81–120; Costa (2010), pp. 212–217; Machado (2003), pp. 223–310.
Sodre (2005), pp. 185–188.
66 3 The Story

both potentials,54 and limitations,55 with this specific pedagogy. Other studies
concern the pedagogy’s psychosocial aspects,56 particularly regarding the political
meanings of MST’s educational approach.57 The role of education is also explored
as an instrument of emancipation and empowerment,58 for enabling alternative
health practices,59 propelling democratic participation,60 and in answering the
psychological needs of children that have experienced the land struggle first hand.61
Other studies examine the counter-hegemonic potentials of MST’s agro-ecological
education,62 exploring the MST schools’ confrontation against “the
capitalist-oriented educational system”.63 Confrontation is identified on
politico-ideological levels,64 as well as locally where the MST pedagogy has cla-
shed,65 or at least triggered negotiations,66 with the municipal branches of Brazil’s
official education system. Following this notion of education as struggle, academic
scholars argue that the MST pedagogy mediates political ideology to the second
generation Sem Terra,67 making the educator and student co-producers of a
socio-political collective identity.68
Apart from educational practices, academic literature also studies identity pro-
duction through the MST-specific activity known as mística,69 an audio-visual
performance emanating from Catholic mysticism and liberation theology.70 The
academic literature approaches mística as an instrument for pedagogical identity
formation,71 for collective self-reflection,72 emancipation,73 and recapturing

Silva (2008), pp. 130–133.
Kulesza (2008), pp. 307–309.
Wolff (2007), pp. 116–157.
Martins (2009a), pp. 200–255; Zanardi (2009), pp. 200–205.
Ribeiro (2010), pp. 339–419; Vieira (2015), pp. 77–84.
Cavalcante and Nogueira (2008), pp. 497–498.
McCowan (2003), pp. 7–13.
Machado (2008), pp. 251–263.
Meek (2015), pp. 1196–1198.
Camini (2009), pp. 215–220; Barbosa (2013), pp. 180–224.
Assunção (2011), pp. 193–199; Coutinho (2014), pp. 181–185.
Campos (2003), pp. 187–197.
Tarlau (2013), pp. 416–149.
Martins (2009b), pp. 200–251; Valente and Berry (2015), pp. 274–278.
Beltrame (2002), p. 129; Ribeiro (2013), pp. 161–186.
Similar practices are also identified among Zapatistas. See Netto (2007), pp. 257–279.
Neto (2007), pp. 340–341; Löwy (2001).
Comerlatto (2010), pp. 184–193; Pasquetti (2007), pp. 200–208.
Alcântara and Barbosa (2010), pp. 229–233.
Bedoya (2012), pp. 174–181.
3.1 Academic Storytelling 67

collective memories.74 Scholars also use gender theory to study identity formation
through social practices. While some scholars document how notions about women
and men are addressed by MST participants,75 others report about women’s
importance for both confrontative activities and agricultural practices.76 By
approaching agrarian reform as a question of women’s right to land, which tradi-
tionally has been inherited by male family members, reserach on gender relations
typically ascribes additional analytical agency to rural women.77
Finally, my meta-analysis indicates that the spatial dimension of MST’s identity
—the assentamentos and acampamentos that separate the Sem Terra from neigh-
boring rural inhabitants—generally is distinguished from the social constructivist
dimension of identity formation.78 The social constructivist perspective is deployed
particularly in the Portuguese-written literature. In his dissertation TERRA OCUPADA:
IDENTIDADES RECONSTRUÍDAS, historian Luis Pasquetti’s argues that collective mem-
ories generate a common ground for identity formation.79 In a similar fashion, the
social constructivist standpoint also guides studies of movement fragmentation,
either as a point of departure,80 or as an inference that diversity enables production
of collective identities.81 Studies under this research topic, which I refer to as
self-identification, suggest that MST has become increasingly diversified by the
amplified usage of the English language, activated for international internet-based
outreach.82 Other scholars approach the internal diversity in conflictual terms,83
typically visible in the tension between household-based versus collective agri-
cultural production.84 Scholars also study the unifying potentials of the peasantry
notion,85 as (re)invention of a traditional social category that projects a promising
future.86 Moreover, MST’s self-identification is studied also through the

Hammond (2014), pp. 373–375, 382–386; Issa (2007), pp. 126–128, 134–136.
Farias (2008), pp. 19–20; Gonçalvez (2005), p. 7; Silva (2004), pp. 285–286.
Salvaro (2003), pp. 324–328; Naase (2009), pp. 247–251.
Sales (2006), p. 437; Deere (2003), pp. 283–284; Brumer (2008), pp. 23–26.
As in Dorneles (2005), pp. 243–249; Lagazzi-Rodrigues (1998), pp. 115–116.
Pasquetti (2007), pp. 293–300.
Romão and Pacífico (2007), pp. 39–40; Wolford (2015), pp. 310, 326.
Leite and Dimenstein (2010), pp. 275–278; Cruz (2010), pp. 199–200; Rosa (2015), pp. 386–
Zacchi (2009), pp. 121–136, 191–196; Tejera (2012), pp. 117–198.
Calvo-González (2015), pp. 297–305.
Lagazzi-Rodrigues (1998), pp. 115–118.
Bernstein (2001), pp. 43–46.
McNee (2005), pp. 345–346.
68 3 The Story

Fig. 3.2 Research topics in MST-related academic literature: number of publications in English
and Portuguese

participants’ advocacies,87 expressed as mutual aid,88 in collective activities,89 in

recurrent meetings and social gatherings,90 and in artefacts such as the MST flag.91
To summarize this literature overview, I have extracted thirteen research topics
from my meta-analysis of 275 MST-related academic texts. Of course, this cate-
gorization deliberately reduces variations, dissimilarities and contradictions within
these texts. I nevertheless believe that these analytically construed research topics,
aggregately summarized in Fig. 3.2, resemble what I would call the narrative
contours the MST story. The narrative plot—the agrarian social conflict—is an
underlying assumption for research motivation, particularly informing topics on
MEDIA REPRESENTATIONS and OTHER MOVEMENTS. Although research topics vary
across the literature, the plot designates the conflictual relation between the nar-
rative characters. The protagonist—the Sem Terra—is obviously a key study object,
especially scrutinized in literature concerning EDUCATION, GENDER RELATIONS, FOOD
These research topics encompass landless peasants and land occupations, but also
small-scale farmers and cooperativism. While studies on FOOD PRODUCTION partic-
ularly concern the latter, studies on INTERNAL ORGANIZING typically explore
ambivalences linked to the narrative protagonist. At the opposite end of the nar-
rative spectrum, the antagonists of the MST story generally are addressed under
topics on THE MARKET and THE STATE, but also in studies on MEDIA

Leite and Dimenstein (2010), pp. 277–278.
Falkembach (2007), pp. 145–150.
Ribeiro (2007), pp. 170–180.
Leite and Dimenstein (2006), pp. 23–27.
Romão and Pacífico (2007), pp. 44–46; Cruz (2010), pp. 185–186.
3.1 Academic Storytelling 69

REPRESENTATIONS. Distinctly consensual in academic storytelling, on the other hand,

is the notion of agrarian reform. We will soon return to analyze agrarian reform as
the narrative moral—or theme—of the MST story. But to understand the motor of
academic storytelling, the meaning-production through sequencing of events, we
need to approach the research topics I call HISTORICAL CONTEXT and MOVEMENT
History-oriented studies on Brazil’s Landless Movement comprise a substantive
part of academic storytelling. Herein, I would argue, the contours of the movement
narrative are directly consolidated as these studies typically are written either by, or
in close collaboration with, MST-affiliated authors. A key reference here is geog-
rapher Bernardo Mançano Fernandes’ oft-quoted interview with João Pedro
Stédile.92 Stédile is a central figure within the Landless Movement who himself,
two years before Fernandes, edited and co-authored an influential anthology on
MST history.93 The joint knowledge production of Fernandes and Stédile notice-
ably informs Morissawas well-used historical textbook—a key historiographical
source for our analysis in Chap. 2.94 Furthermore, these history-oriented books,
published in Portuguese, are central historical references for two key monographs
that, in the early 2000s, introduced MST to the English-speaking research com-
munity.95 Following this international break-through, several interviews with
Stédile have been published in various scientific journals.96 The impact of these
history-oriented texts thereby stems from their position as standard references for
succeeding academic literature. Almost every text of my meta-analyses refers to
these books when producing introductions and historical backgrounds to Brazil’s
Landless Movement.
We are hereby closing in on the research problem explored throughout this book,
that is, the historical understanding of MST as political subject. Connected to the
topic of SELF-IDENTIFICATION, my own study concerns the unification of a contingent
social movement, theorized in Chap. 1 as political subject formation. Yet my own
study also concerns MOVEMENT HISTORY, or rather how this history is actively
written and utilized. Through academic storytelling, as we have seen, the history of
Brazil’s Landless Movement is often produced in close collaboration with MST
participants. This historiography is then verified through repetition, especially in
introductory sections, by other academic texts. My meta-analysis thereby suggests
that narrative consolidation is induced by academic storytelling. MST-related

Stedile and Fernandes (1999). The interview with Stédile is largely informed by Fernandes’
dissertation, published the same year (1999).
Stédile (1997).
Morissawa (2001).
I here refer to Branford and Rocha (2002); Wright and Wolford (2003).
See for instance Stédile et al. (2007; 2008).
70 3 The Story

scholarly literature, despite dissimilar entry points and results, apparently comprises
certain narrative repetitions that draw on, and thereby replicate, the defining con-
tours of the MST story. We will now advance this study by focusing on the fragility
of these narrative contours.

3.2 Narrative Changes Over Time

My historical investigation of narrative changes, and continuities, derives empiri-

cally from a corpus analysis of MST’s internal newspaper, Jornal Sem Terra. Given
the continuous regularity of Jornal Sem Terra, comprising a rich source for his-
torical studies, this empirical material has been surprisingly understudied. One
exception is historian Antonio Bezerra’s dissertation—O JORNAL DOS
TRABALHADORES RURAIS SEM TERRA E SEUS TEMAS—which documents article themes
to uncover strategies that unite the Landless Movement across Brazil.97 In a similar
fashion, anthropologist Rolf Straubhaar studies another key MST journal, Revista
Sem Terra, inferring that collective memories of violent repression motivate, for the
article authors, future struggles against neoliberalism.98 The results of Bezerra and
Straubhaar highlight, along with several other academic studies, the importance of
collective narration to reinforce MST activities.99 Departing from that inference—
how movement narratives produce stability—the following presentation instead
focuses on historical changes in the MST story.
As more thoroughly described in Chap. 1, the analysis of Jornal Sem Terra
utilized corpus-linguistic search techniques to identify, verify, and analyze the
narrative components of the MST story. Methodologically, Jornal Sem Terra was
approached through certain search terms, in order to calculate their frequency and
identify their concordance (context) and collocates (neighboring word). These
computerized queries identified linked connotations, which I then used to analyti-
cally construe key terms of aggregated connotations and synonyms. Through word
frequency calculations of these aggregated key terms, I was then able to quantify
their interchanging appearances throughout the Jornal Sem Terra corpus (a digi-
talized text body of 4.5 million words, comprising all 322 issues between 1981 and
2013). The following presentation outlines the main findings of this empirical
analysis: the changes and continuities in the story of Brazil’s Landless Movement.

Bezerra (2011), pp. 17–31, 70–87, 280–286. Besides Bezerra’s rigorous analysis, a brief study of
Jornal Sem Terra articles, documenting key topics and contents between 1990 and 1999, is
presented in Wolford (2010), pp. 93–103.
Straubhaar (2015a), pp. 107–112–118.
Vreeswijk (2013), pp. 65–79, 206–212; Pasquetti (2007), pp. 293–300; Alvaides and Scopinho
(2013), pp. 288–295–296.
3.2 Narrative Changes Over Time 71

Fig. 3.3 The antagonist shift: aggregated latifundiário and agronegócio references, displayed as
share of total words per yearly corpora in Jornal Sem Terra (1981–2013)

We saw in Chap. 2 how the interconnection of land struggles across Brazil

became increasingly interconnected with the founding of MST as a nationwide
movement for land redistribution. And in Jornal Sem Terra, from 1984 the key
communication vehicle for the now nation-wide Landless Movement, it is possible
to identify a growing need for an outspoken antagonist, a mutual adversary that
links various local struggles together. The main antagonist, in the early 1980s, is the
latifundiário, a rural resident owning large-scale agricultural lands (latifúndios).
When searching the Jornal Sem Terra corpus, I used the term latifundiário as an
analytically constructed category, an aggregation of direct synonyms (fazendeiro),
pejorative ascriptions like document-falsifier (grileiro), organizations such as UDR
(União Democrática Ruralista) and Bancada Ruralista, and linked actors like hired
gunmen (pistoleiro, jagunço). As indicated in Fig. 3.3, the aggregated category of
the latifundiário grows remarkably important when the Landless Movement
become nationwide in 1984. In Jornal Sem Terra, the latifundiário embodies the
systemic mal-distribution that impedes socio-economic development in rural Brazil.
The corpus analysis further suggests that the latifundiário is increasingly antago-
nized in its plural form. During the second half of the 1980s, Jornal Sem Terra
particularly attacks the latifundiários’ political lobby organization UDR. The fre-
quency of UDR references declines in the early 1990s, resulting in a parallel drop of
aggregated latifundiário references in Jornal Sem Terra. Instead, novel antagonistic
categories begin to dominate the newspaper articles. Towards the end of the mil-
lennium, it is possible to identify an antagonist shift in the movement narrative.
The term neoliberal first enters Jornal Sem Terra in April 1990, soon to become
the most frequent antagonistic attribute in Jornal Sem Terra. Neoliberalism is
especially targeted during The Cardoso era (1995–2002), typically construed in
Jornal Sem Terra as an acceleration of government-imposed neoliberal doctrines
72 3 The Story

with severe socioeconomic downsides. For instance, the word neoliberal is the most
frequent adjective collocated with Fernando Henrique Cardoso (FCH).
Neoliberalism then becomes, towards the end of the millenium, particularly
embodied as transnational agrifood companies (of both foreign and domestic ori-
gins). In the Jornal Sem Terra corpus, these companies are often collocated with
terms like monoculture (monocultívo), hazardous pesticide (agrotóxico) and genetic
modification (transgênico). Transnational corporations—a rural manifestation of
neoliberalism—thereby represent a specific agrifood model. It is now the term
agronegócio emerges to embody this perilous agrifood model. As indicated in
Fig. 3.3, the narrative antagonist in the new millennium is no longer the
latifundiário, but the agronegócio.
It should be noted that the exact word agronegócio (often translated into
agribusiness in English) does not appear in Jornal Sem Terra until July 2004. In my
corpus analysis, I have therefore used this term as an aggregated analytical cate-
gory, thus involving linked connotations (as well as metonyms and euphemisms).
These connotations were commonly used in ethnographic conversations with MST
participants and also, I soon discovered, in the Jornal Sem Terra corpus. As an
analytical category of aggregated connotations, this key term therefore allowed
‘proto-agronegócio’ connotations. Figure 3.3 illustrates that these references are
active since the early 1980s, albeit growing substantially in the early 2000s. The
increased frequency of the agronegócio connotations refers mainly to the escalated
antagonizing of Monsanto’s genetically engineered production during the first
decade of the new millennium. When this reporting fades out, in Jornal Sem Terra,
the aggregated agronegócio references become notably less frequent. Nevertheless,
the trend line indicates increased antagonizing of the agronegócio character over
the 32 years investigated in my empirical analysis. This increase parallels a general
decline in the aggregated latifundiário references, which I therefore refer to as a
historical antagonist shift in the movement narrative.
The antagonist shift—the increased emphasis of agronegócio instead of
latifundiário—is not a complete process in Jornal Sem Terra. Rather, these
co-existing narrative characters are often interconnected. For instance, the
latifundiário is still referred to in later issues of Jornal Sem Terra, but then as a
historiographical character, underlining the continuity of agrarian social conflict.
This empirical finding suggests that conflict comprises, just like in the MST pre-
quel, a narrative plot that drives the MST story onwards. But the plot of agrarian
social conflict requires not only a narrative antagonist, but also a main character—a
protagonist—that continues the struggle against the antagonist. And my corpus
analysis indicates that the narrative protagonist, just like the antagonist, changes
over time in Jornal Sem terra.
The name Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (Brazil’s Landless
Rural Workers’ Movement) clearly indicates the defining features of the narrative
protagonist. As we saw in Chap. 2, MST participants were in the 1980s typically
land tenants or farm workers, in short, rural workers (trabalhadores rurais). In
Jornal Sem Terra, the most frequent metonyms to this category are colono and
lavrador. The latter becomes more frequent when Jornal Sem Terra expands its
3.2 Narrative Changes Over Time 73

Fig. 3.4 The protagonist shift: aggregated rural worker and small-scale farmer references,
displayed as share of total words per yearly corpora in Jornal Sem Terra (1981–2013)

geographical focus in the mid-1980s. When the movement becomes nationwide, the
term colono (land settler/rural dweller) appears to be rather mal-communicative due
to its associations to the European settlement in Rio Grande do Sul during the late
19th century (see Chap. 2). Instead, lavrador (agricultural field worker) is used to
articulate various kinds of rural labor across Brazil.
At the same time, a variety of other labor positions in rural Brazil are linked to
the narrative protagonist. Protagonist categories found in Jornal Sem Terra include
day-workers (boias-frias), tenant farmers (arendatários), small-holders (pequenos
propriertários), share-croppers (meeiros/parceiros) as well as peasants working on
land legally assigned to the state or private landowners (posseiros). In my corpus
analysis, these references were aggregated into the analytical category of the rural
worker (trabalhador rural). When searching for the actual term trabalhador rural,
singular was used to avoid confusion with references to the MST name.
A methodological problem here was that some terms seemingly changed meaning
over time. For instance, pequeno produtor (small producer) refers in early Jornal
Sem Terra issues to tenant farmers, while later issues also assign this term to MST
assentados. I was therefore forced to exclude this particular term from my aggre-
gated analytical category, in order to maintain precision and validity of the con-
noted references.
The empirical findings of this corpus analysis, summarized in Fig. 3.4, suggest
that the frequency of the aggregated rural worker category declines over the years.
Concurrently, along with the establishment of MST’s first assentamentos in the late
1980s, Jornal Sem Terra begins to report about the struggles of small-scale farmers
(pequenos agricultores). In my corpus analysis, this search term aggregates con-
notations like family farmer (agricultor familiar) and settled farmer (agricultor
assentado), although excluding assentado as this term also designates a descriptive
74 3 The Story

social category that is not directly connoted with the protagonist character. In Jornal
Sem Terra, articles increasingly discuss the need for market access for MST’s now
settled farmers, in turn reinforcing the link between narrative characters and agri-
food models. While the agronegócio model signifies unhealthy food for foreign
markets, the small-scale farmer is construed as an organic food producer for local
markets. Accordingly, when MST assentados begin to organize their production
through cooperatives, Jornal Sem Terra links these agrifood activities to the notion
of peasantry (campesinato) and peasant agriculture (agricultura camponesa). In the
early 2000s, this protagonistic agrifood model begins to be mentioned in terms of
agroecology (agroecologia) and food sovereignty (soberania alimentar), often
linked to production advances like on-farm manufacturing (agroindustrialização).
These connotations emphasize the notion of localized food production, contrasted
against the export-oriented agrifood model that Jornal Sem Terra links to the
Figure 3.4 demonstrates how the small-scale farmer character, linked to the
agroecology model, is increasingly referred to in protagonistic terms. The changed
accentuation on the small-scale farmer, instead of the rural worker—what I call a
protagonist shift—seems correlated with the increased emphasis on the
agronegócio, rather than the latifundiário, as the principal narrative antagonist.
Parallel protagonist and antagonist shifts indicate, and this is a key finding, that
narrative characters change over time, while the conflict binding them together
remains stable. At the same time, while the antagonist shift is expressively dis-
cussed by MST participants, as we will see in Chap. 4, the protagonist shift is
treated with much more caution. In Jornal Sem Terra, the protagonist shift is in fact
concealed behind the typical ascription of the narrative protagonist, that is, the Sem
Terra (without land). The Sem Terra category is assigned not only to landless
peasants and rural workers, as denoted by the term, but also to settled MST farmers
(assentados). This dual aspect of the narrative protagonist—rural workers and
small-scale farmers, merged into the Sem Terra category—then relates to, as we
will see, tensions between flexibility and stability of the movement narrative. The
final part of this chapter accordingly relates the historical changes of the MST story
to my ethnographic field study in Rio Grande do Sul, in order to discuss the
intricate relation between narrative flexibility and the story’s stabilizing function for
political subject formation.

3.3 Between Flexibility and Stability

The presented empirical analyses so far suggest that the MST story, and its prequel,
is considerably constitutive for Brazil’s Landless Movement. For MST participants,
the movement narrative that ascribes meaning to collective memories
designates what historian Reinhart Koselleck would call a space of experience
3.3 Between Flexibility and Stability 75

(see Chap. 1).100 To maintain this meaning-producing function, the story’s relia-
bility as mutual reference requires a certain level of stability. Yet the historical
analysis of Jornal Sem Terra suggests that the narrative characters, the antagonist as
well as the protagonist, change over time. The movement narrative is therefore, at
least to some extent, flexible. The final part of this chapter analyzes the boundaries
of this narrative tension, focused on protagonist production in my ethnographic case
study. Rio Grande do Sul—the scene on which the MST story was initially enacted
—provides a particularly vibrant context for this type of a study. MST participants
in Rio Grande do Sul are not only geographically close to key historiographical
reference points, but also to people that willingly share personal accounts of these
events. Rio Grande do Sul holds numerous assentamentos, many of them organized
in advanced cooperatives for decades. At the same time, very few acampamentos
are still active here. It is precisely in such a vibrant context, I would argue, that the
negotiated character of the MST protagonist becomes most notable projected, thus
enabling us to detect ongoing tensions between narrative flexibility and stability.
During my field study in Rio Grande do Sul, the MST community had just gone
through momentous strategic discussions about whether supporting cooperatives on
assentamentos (settlements), or opening new acampamentos (camps). In interviews
and informal conversations, MST participants typically recall a dramatic dropout of
MST-coordinators in late 2011, when thirty-four prominent MST coordinators,
located all across Brazil, left the movement as an act of protest. The explicit
argument for the dropout, published as an open letter, was that MST had capitulated
to the neoliberal project by prioritizing producer cooperatives and market strategies
at the expense of the land struggle. By referring to a hitherto consensus of land
occupations as a defining MST feature, the dropout MST coordinators believed that
the exaggerated cooperative emphasis blurred the land struggle focus. Instead of
“idealizing the ‘autonomous peasant’ and ‘free territories’”, the critics called for
return to the form of organization that “[…] made us who we are today, taught us
how to struggle.”101
The coordinator dropout in 2011 meant, at least for interviewees discussing the
issue, that MST had been severely weakened; disagreements could not be solved in
the usual manner, that is, through internal discussions. The dropout momentous
nonetheless demonstrates the severe tensions linked to narrative flexibility.
Ascription of the assentado, rather than acampado, as the protagonist of the MST
story is apparently close to outstepping the movement narrative. It appears that this
emphasis destabilizes the very notion of MST as a political subject.
In Rio Grande do Sul, this type of destabilization is displayed in the general
feeling of abandonment that characterized the few existing acampamentos at the
time of my field study. As MST’s regional coordination group had disqualified the
political opportunity for opening new acampamentos, the strategic focus was now
to empower producer cooperatives. When I visited the few remaining

Koselleck (2004 [1979]), pp. 256–263.
Hanauer et al. (2011).
76 3 The Story

acampamentos in Rio Grande do Sul, the spirit was notable sinister and
down-beaten. Interviewees constantly referred to collective memories of a golden
past, a well-structured acampamento or an absent historical period when land
occupations were massive. After living in roadside encampments for several years,
these acampados explicitly talked about betrayal as assentamentos were empow-
ered at the expense of acampamentos.102
At the same time, assentamento cooperatives were actively reinforced, notably
manifested in the movement’s organizational structure, where information-sharing
and decision-making were now administrated by MST’s producer cooperatives.
Interviewed participants typically legitimize the novel emphasis shift by isolating
land occupations as “historical moments”.103 While land occupations are consid-
ered to be important components of the MST history, especially in Rio Grande do
Sul, interviewees accentuate that the new politico-economic context requires
strategic reorganization.104 These MST participants typically address this issue in
terms of “we have not abandoned the land occupations but…”105 Speaking of land
occupations in these non-complete terms implicates its contested meaning, possible
even stronger in a geographical context with well-rooted historiographical reference
Accordingly, the meaning of land occupations was also addressed in the
movement’s youth conferences, carried out across Rio Grande do Sul in the
beginning of 2013 (targeting MST assentados and acampados between 13 and
30 years old). In these educative settings, discussions about strategic reorganization
were initiated by MST lecturers contextualizing the contemporary political situation
by referring to massive land occupations as “historical moments”. Furthermore,
several místicas (audio-visual performances) that I attended at these conferences,
and on MST-schools, were framed with precisely this subtext: massive land
occupations as an important space of experience, yet strategically restrained in the
contemporary struggle.
I also found the dual aspect of the MST protagonist to be particularly manifest in
the acampamento-assentamento transition, the specific moment when occupiers
finally gain a legal plot of land. During my field study, I observed one of these
transitions more closely, conducting interviews before, during and after this lengthy
settling process. I also participated during the days of the actual move, when the
encampment was dismantled and the Sem Terra entered their newly acquired land.
When I first met these MST participants, they had lived eight years in various acampa-
mentos and were now squatting by a highway intersection in Southern Rio Grande do Sul.
The acampamento was remarkably small, accommodating only eight households, holding
eleven adults and four small children. Living in this vulnerable situation, depending eco-
nomically on day-labor at peri-urban industries or nearby plantations, they typically fell

Focus group 16; Individual interview 09.
Focus group 15.
Individual interview 04.
Individual interview 05; Focus group 03.
3.3 Between Flexibility and Stability 77

into the rural worker category. Eventually, after prolonged negotiations with the state,
INCRA finally bought an unproductive farm and distributed the arable land to the Sem
Terra. During the first month of the settlement, the assentados shared accommodation in
the barn abandoned by the previous owner. While waiting for the INCRA credits that would
allow them to construct their own houses, they began, only days after the settlement
inauguration, to plant the surrounding fields with corn and beans. They had become
small-scale farmers.

The studied acampamento-assentamento transition illustrates how a protagonist

shift is activated when the participants’ reality change. By shifting from one
spatially-assigned subject position to another—from acampado to assentado—
MST participants embrace both aspects of the Sem Terra protagonist. As we have
seen, the agronegócio becomes the key antagonist of the movement narrative in the
late 1990s while the MST activities, at the same time, gradually focus more on
empowering producer cooperatives. The landless rural workers’ struggle for land
becomes increasingly challenged, in the MST story, by the settled farmers’ struggle
to live from their agricultural production. The historical antagonist shift thereby
parallels reinterpretation of the narrative protagonist, what I refer to as narrative
flexibility. Yet the manifestations of the protagonist shift suggest that narrative
flexibility cannot transcend the point where it jeopardizes the narrative’s
stability-producing function. When the movement narrative is stretched too much it
becomes instable, and thus less potent for political subject formation. The dropout
of MST-coordinators in 2011, and the acampados’ feelings of betrayal, suggests
that protagonist flexibility also threatens the narrative’s constitutive potential of
forming the political subject.
In the acampamento-assentamento transition, MST participants’ reality change
when their spatially-assigned subject position shifts from acampado to assentado,
from landless rural worker to settled small-scale farmer. The lack of influence over
the spatially-assigned subject position, the inaccessibility to arable land, sets the
outer boundary for protagonist flexibility. Apparently, two parallel positions are
possible for the Sem Terra: the acampado (landless worker) and the assentado
(settled farmer). While the protagonist in Jornal Sem Terra indeed shifts over time,
with increased emphasis on the small-scale farmer, the landless worker remains a
highly relevant subject position for the Sem Terra. Moreover, these diverse subject
positions, the acampado and the assentado, become interlinked when contrasted
against a fixed narrative antagonist.
I believe it is precisely here—at the point of social conflict—that the stabilizing
function of the movement narrative is created. Narrative stability does not derive
from the characters of the MST story, but from the plot:
MST has gone through a historic period of political reorganization. The assentamentos now
have an important role, meaning that the land struggle must suffer some adjustments. There
are no more unproductive latifúndios [in Rio Grande do Sul.] There have been political and
economic changes, and therefore MST must undergo a reorganization processes. […] From
our perspective, the organic rice production, organized through producer cooperatives, is a
struggle against the hegemonic model of companies that use poison in their agricultural
production. When you create a counter-hegemonic model, you’re certainly struggling
78 3 The Story

beyond words. We cannot just complain and complain, we have to do something


The quoted regional coordinator depicts MST as a constant, continuous coun-

terforce that transcends politico-economic conjunctures. For the interviewee,
agrarian social conflict must now be translated into empowering producer coop-
eratives, instead of prompting novel land occupations. The “counter-hegemonic
model” of MST’s producer cooperatives is clearly positioned against the agrifood
model of the agronegócio. On a similar note, other interviewees frame this novel
focus on production practices—cooperativism, on-farm manufacturing and alter-
native marketing—as a strategic shift in the MST struggle, deliberately activated to
“reinforce the territories: the assentamentos, the spaces already conquered”.107
Hence, in the geographical context of Rio Grande do Sul, with its key historio-
graphical reference points and advanced cooperativism, the tensions between nar-
rative flexibility and stability are particularly notable. It then becomes vital for
movement participants to again revisit the MST historiography to motivate, pro-
nounce and legitimize contemporary resistance strategies:
Today, our struggle is against the capital. The necessity between ‘74 and ‘84 was to
struggle for land. Only this. Since ‘84 the movement realized that the struggle wasn’t only
about land. It became a struggle for agrarian reform, which includes education, health,
sanitation, infrastructure, qualitative production and consumption, a good life and a pro-
ductive assentamento, as well as land distributed to everyone. But the struggle today is also
different than in ‘84. Our struggle is not against the latifundiário. Today, we struggle
against transnational corporations. […] If our enemy has changed, so have we. We have

The MST college student, quoted above, portrays what I call the protagonist shift
in terms of political necessity, as a strategic answer to an antagonist shift. Using key
historiographical references to MST’s emergence, the interviewee concludes that
the initial advocacy of land distribution has evolved into the politically broader
struggle for agrarian reform. It is similarly quite telling that Reforma Agrária
(agrarian reform) is the most frequent term in Jornal Sem Terra (mentioned 7600
times across the corpus). Hence, by affixing agrarian reform as theme of the MST
story, various characters may be inserted into the unfolding of its conflictual plot.
Antagonists and protagonists are allowed flexibility since the narrative plot of
agrarian social conflict remains constant. The movement narrative, it then seems, is
neither about land occupations nor producer cooperatives. The story of Brazil’s
Landless Movement is a story about the decisive struggle for agrarian reform, an
activity that continues the historical struggle for land.
And the fidelity of the narrative plot, that of agrarian social conflict, is reinforced
by the MST historiography. Through a vibrant dialogue with the past, diverse
resistance agents from the Brazilian history are inserted into the prequel to the MST

Individual interview 05.
Individual interview 04. Also in Focus group 01; Focus group 03.
Focus group 02.
3.3 Between Flexibility and Stability 79

story. Agrarian social conflict arises, since the time of Portuguese colonization,
from the social margins of the Brazilian nation-state project. The historical struggle
for land has been fought by MST’s close-related protagonists: runaway slaves,
indigenous peoples, millenarian movements, labor unions, radical priests. With
MST—the nationwide movement for agrarian reform—the land struggle does not
start. It continues. The emplotted conflict endures the antagonist shift from
latifundiário to agronegócio, a struggle fought initially by rural workers, then
increasingly by small-scale farmers. In the MST story, then, Brazil’s Landless
Movement continues the struggle for redistribution of agricultural land, for political
and economic autonomy, for agrarian reform. And this narrative theme is contin-
uously revived, as we will see in the following chapter, when MST participants
enact the movement narrative.
Picture 6 In Eastern Rio Grande do Sul, acampados, engaged in decisive struggle for legalized land, continuously revisit collective
memories to formulate future visions, through their narrative enactment. Photo by author
Chapter 4
Narrative Enactment

Abstract This empirical chapter focuses on narrative enactment—how the MST

story is actively revived—to explore how the animate movement narrative is related
to political subject formation. Drawing empirically on ethnographic interviews and
participant observations, the chapter analyses the complex art of becoming the MST
protagonist. The mutual search for autonomy, and the collective activity of agri-
cultural food production, are here identified as both horizon of expectation and
space of experience. Yet these are also differentiated due to MST participants’
divergent experiences, particularly notable when analytically focusing on the
female subject position. Nonetheless, protagonists certainly become articulate when
affixing narrative antagonists of state and capital. The ethnographic case study
documents how confrontative resistance activities, like the MST luta (struggle),
enact the narrative plot of agrarian social conflict. Such narrative enactment
embodies the protagonist, and affixes the antagonist, thus reviving the story of
Brazil’s Landless Movement.

Keywords Movement narrative MST Rio Grande do Sul Space of experi- 
ence Horizon of expectation Subject position Gender Performativity Focus 

group interviews Participant observation

This chapter focuses on what I call narrative enactment—situations in which the

MST story is particularly revived—in order to explore how the usage of history, or,
more precisely, the movement narrative, informs the intricate process of political
subject formation. To study this process, my ethnographic field study focused
especially on situations in which MST participants referred to themselves in first
person plural, in we-terms, as a political subject. In Chap. 1, political subject
formation is theorized as a processual unification of individuals with divergent
experiences. The MST historiography, outlined in Chap. 2, clearly is an important
component in this political subject formation. Yet the story of Brazil’s Landless
Movement, as we saw in Chap. 3, is not static, but constantly modified, although
flexible only to the point where it destabilizes the process of political subject
formation. This last empirical chapter, drawing exclusively on ethnographic

© The Author(s) 2017 81

M. Lundström, The Making of Resistance, SpringerBriefs in Sociology,
DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-55348-1_4
82 4 Narrative Enactment

sources, retraces in MST’s social practices this narrative tension between stability
and flexibility.
The following chapter is structured around three identified aspects of narrative
enactment. The first part concerns the complex art of becoming the MST protag-
onist, focused on the mutual search for autonomy, and the collective activity of
agricultural food production. We will see how divergent experiences, deriving from
specific subject positions, are embedded in the political subject. The second part of
this chapter then addresses narrative protagonists’ relations to antagonists. Through
a presentation of MST participants’ dissimilar understandings of these issues, I
discuss how narrative antagonists are affixed to enable confrontative resistance. The
chapter’s final part focuses explicitly on such a confrontation, on the activity MST
participants refer to as luta (struggle). This collective activity clearly manifests, as
we will see, the narrative plot of agrarian social conflict. The luta performance,
along with becoming protagonist and affixing antagonists, arguably designates a
narrative enactment that continuously revives the story of Brazil’s Landless

4.1 Becoming Protagonist

The following pages outline how MST’s political subject formation draws on
specific notions of past and future, to induce resistance activities in the present. We
will see how MST participants recurrently use historiographical reference points—
key events from the MST story and its prequel—to frame contemporary political
activities. Guided by Koselleck’s analytical concepts, I extract from my ethno-
graphic interviews how political and economic autonomy comprises a mutual
horizon of expectation, and agricultural food production a common space of
experience. At the same time, divergent experiences and conflictual subject posi-
tions demonstrate that political subject formation is never complete. This contin-
gency mirrors the non-essentialist starting point for my research project: the
theoretical rejection of resistance agents as representations of pre-existing social
categories. We will begin with the participants’ mutual search for political and
economic for autonomy, here understood as a unifying advocacy for Brazil’s
Landless Movement.

4.1.1 The Search for Autonomy

In my focus group interviews, when participants were asked to recount their initial
contact with the Landless Movement, they typically describe how MST “searched”
for them, how they were skeptical at first, but after spending time in acampamentos,
4.1 Becoming Protagonist 83

they eventually came to “identify” themselves as Sem Terra.1 Identification with the
MST cause is also pointed out as a defining criterion for participation. As one of the
interviewed MST coordinators explained to me: “MST is an identity that we
accept”.2 In this identification, the connection to land constitutes an important
demarcation. MST participants describe themselves as farmer’s children, rural
inhabitants or agricultural workers. These identifiers clearly designate a restrained
capability to produce food. Juliana, settled three years before the interview quoted
below, is here asked to present herself and why she joined MST:
I am Juliana. I was born in the interior, and raised in the interior. Why I moved to an
acampamento? Because we were suffering from drought. We didn’t receive help from the
government. So we decided to camp. We had had two years of profound depression. Only
my daughter was working, my son couldn’t find employment. So we decided to camp. We
found tremendous support in the acampamento. We listened to the families’ stories, each
worse than the other. Some people had been starving. We’ve always had stuff to eat. And
we also welcomed many families into our tent when we were living in the acampamento. It
was a bit harsh, but if I had to do it again, I would. Because in my life, this makes a
beautiful story. All that we witnessed in the movement, all that we learned… There were
disagreements among us, and other things were good. But I value the time in the acam-
pamento a lot, because I can now stay on my plot of land for the rest of my life.3

Juliana’s recounted linkage to MST starts with material needs. But while gov-
ernmental inability to address environmental hazards motivated her decision to join
MST, she simultaneously recalls parallel experiences of affinity and mutual aid. The
notion of land, for Juliana, cannot be reduced its material dimension. The political
objective of land access is described as inseparable from the social process of
acquiring land. And this process is then located in a particular space of experience,
in the acampamento. Quite tellingly, when asked how she joined MST, Juliana
translates this question into why she moved to an acampamento.
Accordingly, MST participants typically understand the acampamento-time as
an overarching criterion for movement participation. The decision to become an
acampado is recurrently referred to as the point in life when the individual joins the
Landless Movement. The acampamento is understood as a necessity for learning
about social organizing and how to solve internal conflicts.4 This understanding is
particularly notable among the second generation Sem Terra, the youth raised on
assentamentos. In focus group interviews conducted on a MST college, where most
pupils have MST-affiliated parents, interviewees specifically tie their movement
entrance to when they moved into an acampamento, when they became acampa-
dos.5 These interviews suggest that MST participation is not viewed as automati-
cally inherited. Instead, participation follow from the decision to continuously
attend certain social practices, tied to a specific acampamento. This notion—the

For instance in Focus group 09.
Individual interview 04. Also in Focus group 02.
Focus group 10.
Focus group 12.
Focus group 01; Focus group 02; Focus group 03.
84 4 Narrative Enactment

activation of one’s participation—was particularly noticeable in the ethnographi-

cally studied acampamento-assentamento transition:
The eight MST households were to be sharing assentamento with one individual, Gustavo,
who had not gone through the acampamento process. Gustavo was already living on the
former fazenda (ranch), as an employed care taker, where he also had cultivated the farm
lands. According to agrarian reform legislation, Gustavo’s position as an active farmer
without proper documentation (posseiro) gave him the right to economic compensation, or
an own plot of land, in case of INCRA-incited purchase of the fazenda. As INCRA chose
the latter of these alternatives, Gustavo became settled on the same assentamento as the
people from the MST acampamento.

Two weeks after the INCRA recognition of the settlement, I conducted a focus group inter-
view with all inhabitants of the new assentamento. Throughout this discussion, the
MST-affiliated assentados encouraged the previous care taker to attend the upcoming luta
(struggle) on International Women’s Day. The pretext was that, by joining the social practice
of the luta, Gustavo would become a politicized settler, a Sem Terra.6 The conversion of
Gustavo into a MST participant required activation through a key social practice. Since the
ordinary acampamento activation was no longer possible, Gustavo was recommended to join
a luta. The other assentados explained that identification was not enough for MST partici-
pation. Gustavo needed to act as a Sem Terra, he had to participate in the upcoming luta.

The case of Gustavo illustrates how identification is verified through collective

resistance activities, like the acampamento experience and the luta performance.
This activity aspect is also visible in the protest dropout of thirty-four MST coor-
dinators in 2011. As assentados, these ex-coordinators still live together with other
MST participants. Interviewees asked about this exit were therefore rather puzzled
about the conditions for the dropouts’ non-participation. How could they have left
the movement, interviewees argued, when they still live on the same assenta-
mentos, working in the same cooperatives, their kids attending MST schools?7 The
dropout clearly targeted the aspect of identification, and was accordingly interpreted
as a dramatic form of internal protest. At the same time, since assentamento par-
ticipation could not be as easily abandoned, neither could the engagement in joint
social practices, the dropout was considered to be somewhat incomplete.
Hence, while the Sem Terra identification apparently is crucial for entering and
leaving the movement, activating participation is also intimately linked to certain
social practices. Gustavo is encouraged to engage in upcoming lutas to confirm his
movement participation. Inversely, the dropout coordinators, officially distin-
guishing themselves from MST, are considered semi-participants as they still take
part in key MST activities. Movement participation cannot, it seems, be distin-
guished from its constitutive socio-political expressions.
One of these expressions is the search for autonomy. Interviewees typically
portray MST as autonomous, separated from other social movements, from political
parties, rural unions, and from the Catholic Church. But besides independence from
allied political actors, the notion of autonomy also entails economic aspects.

Focus group 07.
Individual interview 01; Individual interview 03; Individual interview 04.
4.1 Becoming Protagonist 85

Interviewees typically express an expectation of economic self-determination, of

reaping the fruits of their own labor, of becoming their own bosses. A meat
cooperative coordinator explains that their products are exclusively sold locally to
bypass the large meat processors that dominate the metropolitan and international
markets. This strategy, the interviewee argues, guarantees not only the product
quality, but also the economic autonomy of the cooperative.8

Picture 7 Assentamentos with economically sustainable households, as this agrovila house in central Rio Grande do Sul, is typically
projected on MST participants’ horizon of expectation. Photo by author

Economic autonomy is hereby particularly centered on MST participants’

horizon of expectation. And this advocacy is, in turn, fueled by the assentados’
experiences of gained autonomy. The typical reference here is Fazenda Annoni,
remembered for its massive mobilization ability, constitutive activities, and even-
tual victory. When I visited the Annoni assentamento, in 2013, its inhabitants had
been legally settled on the expropriated farm for more than two decades.9 Here,
interviewed assentados explicitly link the Annoni occupation, in dialogue with the
past, to local peasant mobilizations in 1960s, and Brazil’s historical struggle for
land in general. Moreover, interviewees also speak about Annoni as a forerunner,

Individual interview 01. Although it should be noted that this prosperity obviously depends on
intense exploitation of non-human labor.
According to documentation from INCRA (2012b).
86 4 Narrative Enactment

setting the principles for succeeding acampamentos.10 In this sense, Annoni is for
MST participants a space of experience, a collective memory used to focus ongoing
struggles on the horizon of expectation:
We’ve gone through a similar struggle to that of the first fazenda occupation, many years
ago, called Annoni. […] With us it’s the same thing. [The Annoni settlement] is no longer
an assentamento, to me they are rich. I find it so beautiful over there. […] We’re still in the
beginning, but in a few years, we’ll get there.11

The quoted interviewee, now in her fourth year as settled farmer, exemplifies
with Annoni that the struggle is indeed harsh, yet eventually rewarding. For the
interviewee, Fazenda Annoni functions a space of experience, here revisited to fuel
the ongoing struggle in present-day São Gabriel. In this region, interviewees
explain, INCRA has failed to deliver legally established start-up credits, for house
building and production initiation, as well as basic infrastructure like roads and
piped water. Interviewed assentados describe, with explicit frustration, how their
“dependence on the state” impedes the search for political autonomy.12 This lack of
autonomy from the state in São Gabriel also parallels, as we will soon return to, the
lack of autonomy from agrifood corporations.
The interviewed MST participants thereby view, I would argue, the struggle for
land as an initial step towards autonomy. The acampamento (encampment) des-
ignates a particularly important locality, an elaborate space for political autonomy,
uniting individuals in the struggle for land. After achieving this distinct political
objective, when the assentamento (settlement) is realized, land becomes an even
more important vehicle in the struggle for economic autonomy from agrifood
But just as the horizon tends to retreat when approached, the realization of
autonomy cannot be completed. Nevertheless the search for autonomy—absent in
experience, therefore present in expectation—seems rather constitutive for MST’s
political subject formation. MST activities involve acampados’ struggle for land, as
well as assentados’ struggle to survive on the land. This parallel struggle is, I
believe, fueled by the mutual search for autonomy: economic autonomy in terms of
freedom from exploitative wage labor, but also political autonomy in terms of
self-governance and independence from the state (as well as allied movements and
organizations). The search for autonomy is, arguably, an advocacy that guides the
process of becoming protagonist—political subject—in the MST story. Following
this line of thought, we will now outline the constitutive function of one specific
MST-associated activity.

Focus group 04; Focus group 15; Individual interview 02.
Focus group 09.
Focus group 08. Also in Individual interview 13; Individual interview 12; Individual interview
14; Focus group 08; Focus group 08.
4.1 Becoming Protagonist 87

4.1.2 Agricultural Food Production

According to geographer Rosa Medeiros, agricultural production in Rio Grande do

Sul is generally dominated by pig and poultry farming, as well as, on the flatlands
surrounding the capital Porto Alegre, cultivation and manufacture of rice. In
Northern Rio Grande do Sul, where topography is less level, agriculture is espe-
cially diversified and traditionally carried out by small-scale farmers, in parallel
with large-scale cattle ranching. Medeiros reports that these immense, and largely
unproductive, cattle ranches where the first fazendas to be occupied in the late
1970s, guided by the argument that small-scale agriculture would increase both
food quality and productive output.13 And when interviewed MST participants refer
to agricultural food production, it is precisely this agrifood model that is contrasted
against the agronegócio:
If we buy a bag of corn, a small bag of corn for planting, we will certainly have difficulties
because we don’t have the proper knowledge. Then the agronegócio buys millions and
millions of corn bags for planting. And the agronegócio uses poison while we don’t. I think
that within this structure, we will stay way behind, at least it is how people will understand
it. The agronegócio plants millions of hectares, but nothing stays. As I said, nothing stays.
It all goes away. But we don’t do that. We plant and we have to sell here in this region,
because we’re a tiny minority. But now we’re organizing with an idea of expansion. We’ll
be expanding and placing our product here in the municipality. […] We’ll unite in order to
show the agronegócio that we’re small, but we can still make a difference.14

The quoted interviewee, settled four years ago in the São Gabriel region,
highlights that small-scale agriculture produces food for local communities, while
agronegócio production targets foreign markets. The interviewee underlines the
importance of setting a positive agrifood example, a contrast to the capital intensive
and environmentally hazardous agronegócio, despite the impossible market com-
petition. The interviewee’s usage of first person plural also designates another
difference between these positions: the idea that alternative agrifood production
entails a need for collective practices.
Interviewed MST participants, even on assentamentos where cultivation delib-
erately is carried out on household basis, typically speak about agricultural pro-
duction in we-terms. They often mention distinct mutual practices like planting and
harvest, which are traditionally carried out collectively in rural Rio Grande do Sul.
MST participants also refer to the notion of cooperativism (organized cooperation
between small-scale producers) as an anti-capitalist practice, restraining the com-
modification of labor power. Interviewees argue that the autonomous small-scale
farmer—in control of production, manufacturing and marketing—targets the central
social relation of capitalism: the exploitative wage labor. By organizing production,
through various forms of cooperation in the production level, MST participants

Medeiros (2012), pp. 4–5.
Focus group 12.
88 4 Narrative Enactment

instead experience themselves as being more autonomous than field workers and
tenant farmers.15
The notion of economic autonomy underlines the experienced contrast between
agrifood models. As one MST coordinator puts it, “we are very combative. In
everything that we construct, we are ideologically combative, combative against the
agronegócio.”16 This understanding implies that the main social basis for mobi-
lization, in Rio Grande do Sul, is no longer landless rural workers, as in the 1980s,
but instead settled small-scale farmers. From this argument follows that MST must
reinforce the assentamentos, and particularly the producer cooperatives, to induce
the contemporary struggle for agrarian reform. One of the key MST coordinators in
Rio Grande do Sul explicitly told me that “there is no other political option”.17 The
notion of an inevitable protagonist shift obviously limits MST’s repertoire of
resistance activities. By disqualifying novel land occupations in favor of coopera-
tive empowerment, agricultural food production becomes centered on the horizon
of expectation.
In order to facilitate and propel mutual aid between small-scale farmers, MST
participants have set up a number of collective producer cooperatives in which
labor and revenues are equally divided among cooperative members.18 These
collective cooperatives are typically understood, by its members, as micro-scale
examples of an alternative agrifood model, where agricultural production has a
unifying effect and thereby fuels the notion of a political ‘we’. One of these col-
lective producer cooperatives, to which we will now turn, is situated in the
rice-producing plain lands of North-Eastern Rio Grande do Sul.
About a third of the assentamento’s houses are organized as an agrovila, a small rural
village. This particular setting allows the thirty households to merge their lands, facilitating
rice production on a larger scale. The agrovila model has enabled further investments in
manufacture and packing facilities, resulting in a final product made directly at the MST
site. Since the lands are owned collectively, labor and surplus are divided between the
members. The cooperative has plenty of work activities to attend, and members normally
rotate between the labor sectors: the childcare, kitchen activities, rice fields, livestock
production, manufacturing, and administration. Surplus is distributed among members on a
monthly basis, according to labored hours in any of these sectors. Maintenance of the
cooperative requires rigorous organizing. The members therefore attend recurrent meetings,
often grouped in the labor sectors to make discussions more relevant for the attending
participants. Each sector choses a coordinator that, on a two year basis, constitutes the
cooperative’s rotating leadership.

Individual interview 03; Individual interview 10; Focus group 13. A similar documentation of
peasants’ economic autonomy in northern Rio Grande do Sul, outside the MST-community, is
presented by Schneider and Niederle (2010).
Focus group 04.
Individual interview 02.
MST-scholars generally refer to this enhanced collective form of cooperation as Cooperação de
Producão Agropecuária. See Lazzaretti (2007), pp. 58–59; Thomaz (2015), pp. 20–22; Fabrini
(2003), pp. 77–133; Brenneisen (2002), p. 94.
4.1 Becoming Protagonist 89

During my ethnographic field study, I recurrently visited this MST site, partic-
ipating in labor activities and conducting interviews to investigate how cooperative
members contrasted themselves against the agronegócio. As exemplified in the
below excerpt, interviewees portray the cooperative as an explorative alternative to
“the capitalist system”. To follow up on this notion, I critically asked whether the
producer cooperative in fact counters this capitalist system, or if their collective
activities somehow induce this capitalist logic. The question was followed by long,
reflective silence. The interviewees then began to discuss the contradictions of this
situation, embarking on the idea of the cooperative as an example:
Marcela: Some things we’re doing within capitalism. But our work is different. It’s col-
lective, it’s not me alone. You see, capitalism has always reinforced the ego, it’s about me,
what I want. But we have been pushing the question of organic production, instead of
monocultures. We have always emphasized ‘never stop at just one area of production’.
Because today, if our cooperative agrees, we’ll never stop at the primary material, we’ll
proceed with manufacturing. We would never leave production, because the primary
material means resistance, it means autonomy. This is one aspect of our organization here.
Another is the social, which is important. We have our own childcare, where we all work,
where we all have the opportunity to work. The youth remain here on the land with us. It’s
not that we, the parents, capitalize while the youth is left with nothing. We are distributing
the surplus among us. We have everything for our existence right here with us. But when it
comes to production, we cannot escape the question of capitalism. […]

Natália: Because the cooperative has the character of a company. It’s different in its logic,
but the production, the logic of selling, is the same as within capitalism. You cannot escape
this is if you want to survive. For people to survive, there is no way to escape. But our
cooperative, for sure, has a distinct role in the society.

Fernanda: It has this whole structure, a different organization, a mode of production that is
already differentiated.

Bruno: Any piece of machinery, everything that you buy, it’s all capitalism. Most of it, of
everything that is beautiful, it all goes to the big companies.
Fernanda: And at the same time there is nothing you can do. You live in a system that is
capitalistic. But you can have a different logic, another opinion. We have another way of
life, but we cannot escape totally. You sell, you buy, what else can you do?
Marcela: Because once, in the beginning, the cooperatives wanted socialism, it was during
that strong epoch of ours. But we couldn’t survive, we didn’t get around. It didn’t work out
to be socialist within capitalism. […]

Markus [to Natália]: I find it interesting how you also spoke about the cooperative as an

Natália: Yeah, it’s really an example to the people outside. They reflect and admire, many
pay visits, come here to learn, because it’s different. And it isn’t just us, there are also other
assentamentos, other cooperatives. We almost have a social function. Thirty families, living
collectively, working collectively, distributing surplus, the income equal for all, without
inequality. This is it.19

Focus group 05.
90 4 Narrative Enactment

In this focus group discussion, participants collectively construe the producer

cooperative as an alternative to capitalist social relations, albeit operating within its
market logic. Based on experiences of both senior and younger interviewees, the
prospect of combating “the capitalist system” navigates between hope and despair.
Natália describes how the cooperative has autonomy enough to survive on their
production, to create a space where they maintain empowered, but they can only do
so inside the dominant political economy. They have succeeded to produce organic
rice. They work collectively, and distribute the surplus equally across all work
sectors, according to individual labor hours. But they have to operate within the
capitalist system, which they defy, in order to survive. The excerpt also illustrates
how MST participants understand agricultural food production as both advocacy
and activity. The search for autonomy strategically fosters the producer coopera-
tives, but it also resonates with the MST vision of agrarian reform.

Picture 8 One of MST’s rice manufactories in North-Eastern Rio Grande do Sul, described by its workers as an achievement of collective
agricultural production, albeit frustratingly linked to the “capitalist system”. Photo by author

At the same time, agricultural food production does not automatically translate
into a defining social practice for MST participation. In another focus group
interview, carried out on the same assentamento but deliberately addressing indi-
viduals living in the agrovila as non-members of the producer cooperative, inter-
viewees also use we-references beyond the producer cooperative. When specifically
asked about “the collective”, references alternate between the producer cooperative,
4.1 Becoming Protagonist 91

the agrovila, the assentamento, or MST in general, albeit carefully emphasizing the
collective practices associated with each of these reference points.20
The agrovila case nevertheless exemplifies how settled farmers, especially in
more collective MST settings, are unified through agricultural food production. And
while settled small-scale farmers are unified though the activity, MST acampados
especially understand agricultural food production as an advocacy, an immediate
political goal of their ongoing struggle. For assentados, agricultural production is a
collective space of experience, while acampados perceive this practice mainly on
their mutual horizon of expectation.
In Rio Grande do Sul’s few existing acampamentos, the struggle for land—the
means of production that enable food production—is associated with severe frus-
tration due to the prolonged settling process. Interviewees notoriously complain on
the lacking acampamento organization, on acampados that fail their duties, and,
above all, on INCRA’s constant delay in the settling process. But interviewees do
not only contrast the malfunctioning acampamentos against a local-specific past,
but also against the collective memory of the Annoni occupation of the mid-1980s.
These memories of a golden past seem to fuel the idea that MST has abandoned the
struggle for land, a notion soon translated into disbelief in MST’s political capa-
bility. As the land objective constantly retreats on the acampados horizon of
expectation, political organizing becomes less meaningful, reduced to an absent
memory of a lost golden past.21
By contrast, the advocacy and activity of agricultural food production seems
notably catalyzing for MST’s political subject formation. This particular social
practice signifies, to quote an interviewed MST-college student, “a question of
subject formation, of this collective subject that we are”.22 Focus group interviews
indicate that acampados see, on the most immediate horizon of expectation,
themselves as producers of all kinds of foods. In these interviews, questions about
future cultivation energize conversations as they touch upon a mutual advocacy: the
land access that enables food production. And on assentamentos, agricultural food
production is an activity typically referred to in first person plural, also when
referring to the aggregated production of each household. For the assentados, then,
agricultural food production is a space of experience, while projected on the horizon
of expectation for the acampados. And this particular social practice, I would argue,
entails certain notions of political and economic autonomy that unite MST partic-
ipants in political struggle. But parallel to these unifying aspects, political subject
formation also involves tensions of becoming the MST protagonist, tensions that
stem from participants’ divergent experiences.

Focus group 06.
Focus group 16; Focus group 18; Individual interview 08; Individual interview 09; Individual
interview 11.
Focus group 03.
92 4 Narrative Enactment

4.1.3 Divergent Experiences

Beatriz: I believe that, in general, women in society still don’t have the same rights as men,
it’s still unequal. It has already advanced a bit, but it’s still not hundred percent as it should
be. I believe so. If you’d look, for example at a place administrating things, men always
think that women aren’t able. That still exists.
Julice: Is it like that here?
Beatriz: No, it already changed, it has changed a lot here. Of course, still not everything.
You see, the men don’t’ speak, they may think, but they don’t speak out loud. So it has
advanced a lot.

Julice [to Matheus]: Do you agree?

Matheus [giggling]: Hugh? That has changed.
Beatriz: Because there is no difference, learning that both have the same chance.
Matheus: As I was saying before: the women all go to the bakery, to the dairy, to the
factory, they go… only not to the fields.
Beatriz: But once we went to the fields. We helped out…
Matheus: Yes…
Beatriz: In the beginning…
Matheus: But until now, the majority work with cooperative administration.
Beatriz: And always in the coordination…
Matheus: Here we have… when they go out… every two years, a female comrade always
has to be accompanying.
Beatriz: There is always a woman.23

Beatriz and Matheus are both part of a rice producing assentamento in Southern Rio
Grande do Sul. The quoted interview orbits the participants’ experiences of living in an
agrovila and being part of a producer cooperative that collectively divides labor and
revenues. Beatriz and Matheus, the only persons participating in this specific inter-
view, are herein gendered as female and male. By presenting themselves as woman
and man, they embody two different subject positions, assigned by the gender logic. In
the MST setting, as in most late modern societies, gender is a key organizing principle
that distinguishes individual bodies according to female-male categorizations.
This binary scheme was never challenged, at least not openly, during my field
study. Conversely, the woman-man distinction was actively maintained, for
example through the gender-based selection of coordinators, mentioned in the
quotation above. It is clear that, in all MST communities that I visited, gender
remains an active organizing principle, categorizing individuals as either women or
men. But something that is challenged, or at least recoded, are the attributes
ascribed to the female-male categories. The typical sorting attribute—female as

Focus group 14.
4.1 Becoming Protagonist 93

passive, male as active—is partly decoded by female leadership. At some MST

sites, male-associated individuals are also deliberately undertaking
female-associated tasks, such as kitchen activities, in order to deconstruct affixed
gender norms. At the same time, when my focus group interviews entered the topic
of gendered division of labor, discussions became notably vivid, as participants
clearly recount divergent experiences. Departing from these gender inscriptions,
these subject positions, MST participants identify and address inequalities within
the MST communities.
In the excerpted discussion between Beatriz and Matheus, divergent experiences
notably arise. Matheus, speaking from the male subject position, underlines that
gender inequality had been specifically addressed in their local community. He
exemplifies this progress with female participation on all production levels. But here
Matheus demarks one exception: labor on the rice fields, construed as a
male-associated activity. Beatriz then breaks in with her experience from the female
subject position. By recalling how women have actually worked the rice fields,
Beatriz points out that the notion of gendered division of labor still persists, though
actively addressed. Her experience is passively confirmed by Matheus, but also
countered with the argument that women generally work at the cooperative’s
administration office. Beatriz agrees but reminds Matheus that women also take part
in the cooperative coordination group. While Matheus confirms this practice, his
phrase that “a female comrade always has to be accompanying” implies an unspoken
norm of the male coordinator. Beatriz’ ambiguous end comment, “there is always a
woman”, partially endorses equal gender representation in the coordination group,
but also underlines her earlier critique about the gendered division of labor. From
Beatriz’ female point of view, the struggle—against the gender logic—continues.
This short excerpt illustrates how gendered subject positions are both recognized
and decoded at the MST sites. But divergent experiences among MST participants,
and especially those linked to gendered subject positions, are also actively used to
reinterpret the protagonist character in the MST story. The female subject position,
as I return to in the final part of this chapter, constitutes the basis for performing
luta on International Women’s Day. Yet the divergent experiences, connected to the
female subject position, cannot be reduced to a strategic resource in MST’s political
struggle. As the above quote indicates, static female gender roles are not only
problematic for “women in society”, as Beatriz puts it, but also for
female-associated participants in the MST communities.
During my ethnographic field study, I paid particular attention to divergent
experiences stemming from female and male subject positions. This analytical focus
derived from my theoretical starting point, construing political subjects as
non-essential, and therefore internally conflictual, social agents. The notion of
gendered subject positions, in which sexing practices are key, was an underlying
theoretical assumption during my field study.24 However, production and

The understanding that sexed bodies are also gendered bodies obviously draws on Butler’s (2006
[1990]), pp. 8–10, critique of the sex/gender distinction.
94 4 Narrative Enactment

reproduction of gendering practices was never my analytical focus. My concern was

how gendering, and other social constructions, become productive for narrative
enactment. I therefore receded from analyzing gendered power relations, instead
focusing on how colliding subject positions are incorporated into the process of
political subject formation.
One of my focus groups particularly illustrates the divergent experiences at play
in the process of political subject formation. The focus group interview took place
in January 2013, at one of the few remaining acampamentos in Rio Grande do Sul.
After conducting our first interview here, the acampamento coordinator explained
to me that there were no other persons left to interview. Julice, my field assistant,
then strategically asked for an interview with only women. The following morning,
seven women (together with eight infants and toddlers) showed up for an additional
focus group interview. Apparently, the coordinator did not come to think of
female-associated participants as relevant interviewees. During the unfolding
interview, explicitly defined by the female subject position, some male-associated
acampados stood at the margins of the focus group circle, listening carefully. After
some thirty minutes, one of them invited himself to join the group. When Filipe
entered the conversation, the women did not protest. At this point, the discussion
had just surpassed reflections on how the acampamento’s children were affected by
their life situation.
During the unfolding discussion of family-related topics, the female subject
position was notably activated, reinforced by the gendered demarcation of the
female-framed focus group. But as the interviewees began to discuss their mutual
political objective, their struggle for land, the male-associated acampado Filipe
apparently felt free to enter the discussion. And he was accepted, despite the
specific setting of a female focus group. The discussion themes had shifted from the
female-associated reproductive sphere, towards the political sphere (typically
male-associated). But although Filipe’s self-inclusion was accepted, as shown in the
excerpt below, his male precedence was not. Filipe’s contribution to the discussion
was met by communicative silence, while the political analysis of his preceding
speaker, female-associated Luana, produced notably affirmative gestures.
Another, less visual, subject position is also at play in this particular focus
group. One of the participants, Raquel, actively distinguishes herself from the rest
of the group. She recurrently positions herself as evangélica (evangelical Christian),
as opposed to católica (Catholic Christian). When asked if she joined MST to gain
land, Raquel explains that she joined the acampamento to pray for the other
acampados, in order to do “the work of God”.25 But Raquel also describes her
childhood as a small-scale farmer, and how she had to leave the land when her
mother got sick. Raquel thought of joining MST, to re-gain land for her mother, and

Focus group 17.
4.1 Becoming Protagonist 95

when she eventually died from her illness, Raquel decided to fulfill this dream. For
Raquel, MST participation is primarily a service for God, but with a parallel
objective to gain land, an objective that Raquel shares with the other interviewees.
And through this common objective, which translates into everyday life in the
acampamento, Raquel understands herself as part of the Landless Movement. But
as the focus group interview come to touch upon the theme of antagonists, Raquel’s
subject position as evangélica becomes less significant, apparently submitted to the
collective political subject. In the following excerpt, Julice has just asked how the
acampados define capitalism, a question followed by a long pause, before Luana
explains her view on capitalism with an allegory:
Luana: See, I define capitalism as the big fish. They take over and then what happens? The
big fish swallow the small fish. Everything stays in their hands. […] Capitalism is
everything that you see of general poverty. And beyond this, always the sell-out governors.
And then the big fish… This is my definition of capitalism, this form. Controlling

Filipe: They control Brazil.

Luana: Yes, that’s my definition.

Julice: If they are the capitalists, then who are you?

Filipe: Today, we’re in the middle of poverty.

Luana [laughing]: The small fish, right?

Julice: That the big fish eat.

Filipe: Why are we saying that we’re in the middle of poverty? Because the government,
what’s it done? It monopolized every strata. And for the poor to climb up, the government
stabilized the currency. And then, what did it do? Created various… how can I explain this?
Various packages, like Bolsa Família, that the poor receives. Those earning below the
minimum wage get Bolsa Família. So this has been the way the government control
poverty. It has poverty in its hand. […] The government gives millions and millions to the
rich, and packages to the poor so they won’t revolt. This is how the government monop-
olized poverty in general, right? Because the small, the medium… The packages are created
to avoid attack, right? The government is neither attacked by the small, nor by the big. It
satisfies the small and gives plenty to the big. This is how the capital was installed in Brazil.
[Long silence].

Markus [to Raquel]: And you … Do you agree with this analysis of the enemies:
agronegócio, capitalism and the government? Do you concur?

Raquel: Whether we agree or not, we cannot do anything. So we keep our mouth closed,
only to open when necessary.

Julice [to Raquel]: So for you, what are the threats?

96 4 Narrative Enactment

Raquel: A threat to me is… How can I say? The government that never gives this land to
us, so that we can leave this place to care for our own lives. Because the gospel isn’t
different for the católico. The difference is that the católico pray before sleep. And we get
up in the early morning, bend our knee and ask for God to come to all. And this is, I think,
the only difference between us, but there is no other difference with the católico.

Julice: Do you agree with this, that the agronegócio damage your lives and that capitalism
is what…

Raquel [interrupting]: I agree with everything they are saying, I agree with them. Because
we’re in the same boat. It’s not important if I do one thing, and they another. We’re here
with the same objective: to gain the land on which we’ll one day live.26

Here, Raquel clearly transcends the evangélica subject position, locating herself
“in the same boat” as the other acampadas, as part of the political subject. She does
not disagree with the analysis about the state and capital enemies, instead she
embraces the political struggle for land. Filipe scolds the government, whose
anti-poverty programs are depicted as just another state strategy to disable social
organization, while keeping power hierarchies intact.27 Luana reproaches the
agronegócio for impeding small-scale farmers’ livelihoods. As the antagonist topic
enters the discussion, Raquel explicitly presents herself as part of the political
subject, concordantly defying the agronegócio and the government that supports it.
Raquel acknowledges her evangélica, and female, subject position. At the same
time, she takes active part in MST’s struggle against the forces that impede the Sem
Terra’s collective search for political and economic autonomy.
A few months after this focus group interview took place, I met Raquel again, on
International Women’s Day. Together with 500 other MST women, she had
masked her face with a purple scarf, prepared for direct confrontation with INCRA.
During this resistance activity, Raquel did not emphasize her being evangélica, but
certainly reinforced her female subject position. Hence, Raquel’s contingent
accentuations of diverse subject positions, her shifting emphasis on being
evangélica and/or woman, was an active part of the ongoing political subject for-
mation of Brazil’s Landless Movement. In fact, accentuation on the female subject
position actually empowered MST participants, on March 8, to effectively affix and
confront an antagonist (INCRA), which we will return to in the final part of this
Another example of subject positions inducing confrontative resistance activi-
ties, is the emphasis on the social category recognized as ‘youth’. In one focus
group from central Rio Grande do Sul, two of the interviewees are typical
youth-associated MST participants in their early twenties. They are members of the
producer cooperative active on this specific assentamento, where they also were
raised. Both interviewees emphasize how they chose to join MST, here referring to

Focus group 17.
This analysis surfaced several of my interviews. Focus group 04, for instance, particularly
encompassed this theme, participants arguing that the government “supports the large corpora-
tions, while compensating the poor”.
4.1 Becoming Protagonist 97

the cooperative, instead of choosing the only viable option on their horizon of
expectation: to move to the city.28 This is a recurrent theme throughout my inter-
views. The city, in its generic sense, is described as a menace, threatening to steal
the youth from the land. The first generation of Sem Terra, those that had to
struggle for their land, fears that the second generation, born and raised on the
assentamento, will invert this migration by moving out to the city.
The youth are therefore considered utterly important for land struggle continuity.
One teenage parent explains that “our children are the continuation, […] they have
to know our history to be able to take their own path”.29 This particular notion of
resistance continuity is induced by autonomy, by the idea that the adolescence must
find their own path of resistance, just as the first generation of Sem Terra:
The persons that built MST weren’t 50 or 60 years old, right. They were all youth. […] The
subject of the MST history… The young have always been subjects of this history. […] We
don’t pretend that the youth is the future of humanity. We don’t have this pretension. We
realize that the future of humanity…, the new is born within the old. When something new
is born, it’s a remnant of the old. It’s a process of transformation. And within this, we’re
making an effort to unite the generations, placing the youth as leaders of the movement.30

In the quote above, one of the youth coordinators in Rio Grande do Sul describes
how the youth, historically, always has been at the forefront in the struggle for
agrarian reform. Past and future are interwoven by the interviewee’s aphorism “the
new is born within the old”. The youth of today here mirror the intensity of past
struggles. But they also represent possibilities, a future hope, on the horizon of
expectation. Instead of dissuading this subject position, it is actively emphasized in
order to “unite the generations”. For the interviewee, the space of experience starts
with the youth, a subject position with embedded potential, projecting ascribed
possibilities onto the horizon of expectation. The MST coordinator therefore sees
great potential in empowering this particular subject position, in “placing the youth
as leaders of the movement”. Yet the notion of an energetic MST youth, with
reviving potential, parallels an understanding of this energy as rather undirected.
The MST colleges and youth conferences speak their clear language—the youth
needs guidance. College education in agrarian sciences does not only empower
producer cooperatives, but also have the function of countering the city’s seductive
attraction. The youth, when educated and empowered, hence denotes a subject
position that projects hope, on the horizon of expectation.
Divergent experiences, condensed into subject positions like gender and age, are
thus intact yet repeatedly activated in MST’s process of political subject formation.

Focus group 05.
Focus group 06.
Individual interview 04.
98 4 Narrative Enactment

‘Women’ and ‘youth’ acknowledge these subject positions, which are also delib-
erately accentuated, as we will see in the final part of this chapter, to organize
confrontative resistance activities. But this particular enactment of the movement
narrative, the luta performance, parallels not only the process of becoming MST
protagonist, but also the process of affixing the antagonist of the movement

4.2 Affixing the Antagonist

Throughout my field study, I soon noted that interviewees used first person plural
particularly when speaking about obstacles in their search for autonomy. I therefore
incorporated specific questions in my interview guide to identify the agents behind
these obstacles, in order to explore how MST participants construe narrative
antagonists. As we saw in Chap. 3, the main antagonists of the MST story have
been the traditional latifundiário (large landowner) and, to an increased extent, the
agronegócio (agrifood corporations). The narrative protagonist gravitates towards
an agrifood model of local, environmental, and small-scaled farming. The antag-
onist, on the other hand, is associated with large-scale monocultures and heavy
pesticide usage, historically driven by the latifundiário, but now by export-oriented
agrifood companies. Yet these antagonist linkages, as we will see, are rather
instable, albeit contingently affixed through the process of narrative enactment.
One example of antagonist instability is found in MST participants’ ambivalent
relation to soybean production in Rio Grande do Sul. Since cultivation of soybeans
here is depicted as mainly export-oriented, incited by agrifood companies and
produced on large monocultures with heavy pesticide usage, it is clearly contrasted
against the MST-promoted agrifood model. On one acampamento, located close to
a huge soy manufactory, participants explain that they, when settled, will produce
food, and not soy. Soybeans are associated with pesticides, with poison, and not
construed as an edible food product.31 Soybeans are similarly dissociated from food
on MST assentamentos. Both soy and eucalyptus are typically referred to as
non-food products, connected to the agronegócio as exported commodities, and
therefore inaccessible on local markets.32 Nevertheless, MST participants are often
quite engaged in soybean production, despite these distinct antagonistic

Focus group 16.
Focus group 02; Focus group 02; Focus group 05; Individual interview 10.
4.2 Affixing the Antagonist 99

Picture 9 Interviewed MST participants—especially these acampados, located in direct presence of a soybean manufactory—typically affix
the agronegócio as narrative antagonist. Photo by author

In the soy-producing region of central Rio Grande do Sul, nine MST households have
agreed to work collectively. After four years of planning, in the acampamento, the
assentados decided to merge, each household contributing with 80 percent of their land.
When I interviewed these farmers as a focus group, they described how collective work had
increased their economic sustainability. But the assentados also expressed severe anger
against INCRA for failing to deliver the basic infrastructure necessary for agricultural
production. The severe situation had forced the interviewed assentados to sign a deal with a
large-scale producer of genetically modified soybeans, in order to establish stable market
channels to secure their livelihoods. They let their collective fields for soy cultivation, and
became vertically integrated with the soybean producer, with the agronegócio. The com-
pany soon installed piped water, which INCRA had failed to deliver for years. In the focus
group interview, I asked about the assentados’ view on the agronegócio, a question that
was received as rather troubling. The interviewees’ answered, with notable ideological
frustration, that vertical integration with the soybean company was an economic necessity;
dependence on the agronegócio meant sustainable market access. They described a
no-escape situation, where they had to submit to the agronegócio in order to survive.33

This documented experience of submission to the agronegócio obviously nar-

rows the MST participants’ horizon of expectation. The ambivalent compliance
with the enemy creates severe dissonance between belief and practice. At the same

Focus group 10.
100 4 Narrative Enactment

time, the mere reflection on this dissonance also exposes—thus affixes—the nar-
rative antagonist. The agronegócio cannot be escaped, nor effectively confronted,
and is therefore referred to as an enemy. Strategic capitulation does not change the
space of experience. Albeit troubled by their integration with the soybean company,
assentados in São Gabriel still construe the agronegócio as a severe obstacle in the
search for economic autonomy. And as agricultural production requires basic rural
infrastructure (such as roads, piped water and electricity), assentados are heavily
dependent on INCRA deliveries in order achieve the economic autonomy associ-
ated with self-managed agricultural production.34 The state, subsequently, becomes
a parallel antagonist.
In sharp contrast to the São Gabriel case, a few acampados in Northern Rio
Grande do Sul were notably careful not to speak about enemies, to not affix the
narrative antagonist. This particular acampamento was set up as a rotativo, a
strategical innovation aimed to attract more people to join the struggle. The rotativo
was constructed so that families could qualify for the INCRA registration as
landless peasants. After registration, most families moved back to their original
houses, to engage in rural wage labor, while only a few households stayed on the
acampamento. At the time of my field study, only three of the 68 registered families
were living permanently on this acampamento rotativo. There was no explicit
social organizing on the site, no recurrent interaction between participants, and
therefore no cultivation of mutual experiences or shared expectations.
The focus group conducted on this acampamento differed radically from my
other interviews. Here, acampados did not seem conflicted by working for out-
spoken MST antagonists. Interviewees had never even heard the term agronegócio.
And what was even more unusual, these MST participants spoke positively about
the government. When asked against whom they were struggling, now a key
question in my interview guide, the acampados appeared rather taken aback:
Against? But look, for real, we cannot struggle against. We cannot have a luta that is
against. We have to… we have to… look… Because we depend, in this case we depend on
the state and federal government. We have to help out. There is no other way. Because if we
don’t help, we’re not going to be helped. We have to help out. There is no point in fighting

The quoted interviewee actively removes antagonists from the analysis, since
“there is no point in fighting against”. The counterpoint of the luta is eradicated, the
only feasible option is to collaborate with the state. This explicit lack of antagonists,
and the propagated state cooperation, recurred only in this particular focus
group. As very few people actually lived on this rotativo, there were no deliberately
established social practices or recurrent discussions that could tie individuals
together. And since the local ‘we’ was merely nonexistent, the collective political
struggle became increasingly diffuse. Neither latifundiário, agronegócio, nor the

This association has also been documented among non-MST peasants, in northern Rio Grande
do Sul, by Schneider and Niederle (2010).
Focus group 18.
4.2 Affixing the Antagonist 101

state, was described as an enemy. It had become politically redundant to affix a

narrative antagonist.
In Jornal Sem Terra, conversely, the state is recurrently described in antagonistic
terms, as a counterforce to the MST struggle.36 The explicit distrust in the state
connects to experiences of state-led attacks against MST initiatives to implement
agrarian reform. These repressive measures have been experienced under various
state forms: liberal, left-wing and conservative, authoritarian and democratic. The
skepticism towards the state, in 2013 under president Dilma of the Worker’s Party,
is generally outspoken among interviewed MST participants. Interviewees
emphasize that they have nothing against the state’s welfare initiatives; in fact they
applaud the anti-poverty programs of the Workers’ Party. Yet interviewees clearly
defy the government’s policy of providing the agronegócio with economic subsi-
dies. MST participants here connect state-protection of the historical latifundiário,
defended by police on the legislative basis of property rights, to the contemporary
subsidies that fortify the agronegócio’s economic dominance.37 For the soybean
producing assentados in Sao Gabriel, the inability of INCRA (the state’s principal
vehicle for agrarian reform measures) generates a frustrated situation that forces the
Sem Terra to work for the agronegócio. The state is therefore reproached for
impeding the search for economic autonomy, leading MST participants to the
conclusion that, as one assentado puts it, “the government is the agronegócio”.38
The understanding of the state as antagonist is even more explicit in the
acampamentos in Rio Grande do Sul. In one of these encampments, agronegócio is
not mentioned in any of my interviews. In response to questions on the antagonist
theme, interviewees instead speak exclusively about the state in antagonistic terms.
Throughout my interview material, the state is rarely construed as a potent driver
for social change. While some interviewees express that the state can be useful
when pressured to comply with the MST demands, interviewed Sem Terra typically
argue that only the “the people”—and not the state—is capable to incite, and
implement, concrete social changes.39 As we have seen, the state is generally
considered to be treacherous, failing to deliver what it promises, and is also held
responsible for fortifying the agronegócio, leaving the Sem Terra no other alter-
native than to work for their archenemy. It is these antagonist understandings of the
state that motivates MST participants to confront it, to engage in narrative enact-
ment by performing luta..

In the light of the antagonist shift, from latifundiário to agronegócio, the state remained rela-
tively stable throughout Jornal Sem Terra. Words aggregated into this category—governo (gov-
ernment), estado (state) and INCRA—appeared with similar frequencies, and stable concordance,
across the Jornal Sem Terra corpus.
Individual interview 02; Focus group 03; Focus group 04; Focus group 09.
Focus group 10.
Focus group 03. Also in Individual interview 08; Individual interview 11; Individual interview
10; Focus group 14.
102 4 Narrative Enactment

Picture 10 During early 2013, the paramount call for luta on International Women’s Day was vividly discussed within the MST community,
before collectively performed on March 8, occupying a central state-space in the capital of Rio Grande do Sul. Photo by author

4.3 Performing Luta

On International Women’s Day, Brazil’s Landless Movement occupies INCRA’s head
office. The occupation concludes a three-day conference, gathering some five hundred
female-associated Sem Terra from all over Rio Grande do Sul. During this conference,
vibrant group discussions had eventually agreed upon the political objective for this year’s
luta: to target the lack of basic infrastructure that creates severe vulnerability for female
(and male) assentados in the region of São Gabriel. The prolonged delay of start-up credits,
of piped water, electricity and roads, was therefore to be framed as state-led violence
against women.
4.3 Performing Luta 103

In the early morning of March 8, hundreds of female-associated MST participants depart

from the conference site outside Porto Alegre, destined for the INCRA office in the state
capital. They are decisive to counter-attack the state’s violence against women. In the
capital, the Sem Terra occupy INCRA’s entire building block. They demand that the
government’s agrarian reform agency take full responsibility for its inactivity in São
Gabriel. The occupants insist on standing their ground until the INCRA president signs a
time plan for delivering the infrastructure, a formalized assurance addressed to the strug-
gling assentados in São Gabriel.
The INCRA building block is now controlled by the Sem Terra. Some hold the gate to deny
access to the office, others engage in the temporary kitchens that have been set up on
INCRA’s parking lot. Cooking activities accompany verbal arguments with employed
officials as well as visitors that are prohibited to enter the building. Meanwhile, heavily
armed police forces surround the building block, watching. Yet the police never seem to
receive the order to interfere. As the hours passed, intensity thickens.
The threat of physical state violence is never put into action. After nine hours of occupation,
the INCRA president descends from his office. With a signed paper in his left hand, he
declares compliance to the MST demands; infrastructure and start-up credits will be
delivered in accordance with the agreed time plan. When the MST negotiators proclaim
their victory, women, children, and a few men, cheer together in celebration. The police
quietly disappear. Kitchens are dismantled, the gate is reopened. The INCRA office space
reverts into its ordinary function, as the MST participants return to their acampamentos and

This luta performance is recounted here (based on my ethnographic observations)

to illustrate how the narrative plot of agrarian social conflict becomes revived
through narrative enactment. The mobilizations on March 8, what MST participants
typically refer to as women’s luta, confronts antagonists that are strategically
identified each year. In 2013, female-associated MST participants decided to target
INCRA, the state’s agrarian reform agency, in order to assist the struggling
assentados in São Gabriel. An antagonist was hereby affixed through a con-
frontative resistance activity: the occupation of INCRA’s office space. The fol-
lowing pages, concluding this chapter on narrative enactment, focus on the
constitutive performance of the defining MST activity known as luta.
The most frequently used verb, in the corpus of my 30 transcribed interviews, is
lutar.40 The formal Portuguese-English translation is to struggle, while the noun
luta denotes the activity (the struggle).41 But for MST participants, the word also
entails specific formative meanings. Luta*, as both noun and verb, is constantly
referred to in we-terms. It is generally collocated with verbs conjugated by first
person plural, and often with verbs that indicate affinity such as ajudar (assist) and
participar (participate). The word’s concordance indicates that interviewees, when
speaking about luta, generally shift from first person singular to first person plural.
Furthermore, as we will see, interviewed MST participants typically depict the luta
performance as necessary for advancing the struggle for land. The luta is portrayed

Among the 292,639 words in the interview corpus, luta* appears 641 times. It ranks as the most
frequently used verb, when discounting auxiliary verbs ter, ir, and fazer, which naturally have
higher frequency.
See for instance Collins Potuguese dictionary (2005), p. 211.
104 4 Narrative Enactment

as a flash of dense confrontation, a momentous activity—a space of experience—

that brings the Sem Terra together.42
In São Gabriel, this space of experience is particularly vivid, designating a
collective memory that shapes MST participant’s activities in the present. An
interviewed participant, now employed at MST’s technical assistance cooperative,
recalls how their mobilization began in 2003 when MST pushed for expropriation
of a large fazenda (ranch) in São Gabriel. The interviewee recounts that a
demonstration march was entitled Sepé Tiaraju, and that two of the subsequent
assentamentos were named Conquista do Caiobaté. When asked about these his-
toriographical references, the interviewee explains that Sepé Tiaraju led the
indigenous liberation movement in the 18th century, and that the assentamento
name Conquista do Caiobaté was chosen to honor the Guarani fighters killed by the
destructive military invasion. The interviewee then continues with another histo-
riographical reference, the Farroupilha rebellion, in order to contextualize São
Gabriel as an historical scene for agrarian social conflict.43
These historiographical references stem from what I in Chap. 2 presented as a
prequel to the MST story. Yet MST participants also link the ongoing struggle in
São Gabriel to collective memories directly associated with the MST story. For
instance, one MST coordinator connects this struggle to the occupation of Fazenda
Annoni, highlighting that “the conquest of Sao Gabriel is a mark in the political
history of MST in Rio Grande do Sul”.44 And for interviewed assentados in São
Gabriel, linkages to the near past become particularly dense when recalling local
MST activities. Interviewees especially mention one luta in 2006, where a
middle-aged Sem Terra—Elton Brum—was lethally shot in the back during a
demonstration march. The memory of Elton Brum, and how he was killed by the
police, directly informs the notion of participating in future lutas. In one focus
group interview, assentados describe how they still are struggling, after four years
as settled farmers, for piped water to enable agricultural food production. In the
following interview excerpt, I have just asked whether they believe that the struggle
(luta) would continue:
Pedro: No, not here, not with us, no. We’re only working now.

Débora: We’re going, I will participate in luta. If there is one, I will go.

Larissa: I’d say so, there is the women’s luta.

Pedro: I don’t know….

Débora: It was through luta that we gained this piece of land.

Pedro [laughing]: Now I’ll have to think real hard.

Focus group 12; Focus group 08; Focus group 09; Individual interview 11.
Individual interview 12.
Individual interview 05.
4.3 Performing Luta 105

Larissa: I will go. I just don’t bring the children, right?

Pedro: Only me then, but she will not go! [Indicating Larissa, Pedro’s wife]

Débora: I will also go. If there is one, I’ll go. I don’t have small children, I’ll just leave
them with their cousins, then and I go.

Julice [to Pedro]: Why is it that you don’t want them to go? Because of fear?

Pedro: I got traumatized and everything…

Débora: Man, you cannot be scared, because they almost killed us back then, but we are
still here.

Larissa [laughing]: We’re going.

Débora: That day, to be honest, I thought they would kill us.

Pedro: That’s the impression we got…

Débora: There were only women, women, women….

Larissa: And children…

Débora: When I realized the loss of that day—I was with my children and grandchildren—
I cried desperately. I almost died that day, and I said, never again I’ll go. But I will go. […]

Larissa: For sure I will go, if I’ll have the possibility to participate in luta, I will.

Julice: And that day, what were you demanding?

Igor: It was transportation, schooling, and water.

Débora: They gathered a lot of people. I didn’t participate myself, but my daughter and my
son- and sister-in-law were.

Pedro: People still talk about that day.

Débora: You’ll be okay, no matter what has happened. There are moments when we’re
afraid to live, right? Like that day, we were here and heard on the radio and then we knew
that a comrade had lost his life. I felt sick all day, because he was a comrade. He was
making demands too, together with us, because we had the same needs, we were living
together in the acampamento, helping each other. I was terrified because of this.

Pedro: I think there will be no more luta…

Débora: There will always be luta on March 8, it will not stop now. And I will go.

Larissa [laughing]: I want to go this time.45

In this focus group excerpt, the 2006 luta is reflected upon with caution. Débora
describes this dramatic event, even though she did not participate herself, as an
attack directed at her. She lived a life similar to Elton’s: struggling for identical

Focus group 11.
106 4 Narrative Enactment

advocacies, engaged in similar activities, partaking in the same political subject.

The living memory of Elton Brum symbolizes MST’s decisive political
struggle. Although this memory startles Débora, it also ignites an eagerness to
engage in future confrontations, to participate in upcoming lutas. Pedro, on the
other hand, hopes there will be no more lutas. For Pedro, the political struggle now
concerns working the land they have already won. He, and thus also his family,
according to Pedro, should engage in farming and not risky confrontations. Débora
therefore adds an instrumental aspect to the luta. By referring to their own
land-gaining luta, as a mutual space of experience, Débora portrays the luta
harshness as a necessity for achieving political goals.
This is why Débora feels obliged to participate in the “women’s luta” on March 8.
The discussion is apparently informed by the participants’ divergent experiences from
gendered subject positions. Débora and Larissa, both female-associated, express a
stronger urge for luta participation, while male-associated Pedro emphasizes an
obligation to agricultural activities. Larissa, married to Pedro, fuels this positioning by
repeatedly taking sides with Débora, stating that she will participate in the upcoming
luta. Despite reference to a mutual space of experience, the memory of their
land-gaining luta, Débora and Pedro, here speaking from conflicted subject positions,
clearly have diverse interpretations about the nature of future political activities.
Nevertheless, I would argue, these divergent experiences do not impede with the
process of political subject formation. Condensed into subject positions, divergent
experiences are instead accentuated to enable confrontative resistance. During the
women’s luta on March 8, the female subject position became a particularly
important point of departure for confrontative resistance. This accentuation was
advanced when male-associated participants were allocated tasks that disallowed
leader positions, while they still were expected to support the preparation and
performance of the women’s luta. Deliberate accentuation of the female subject
position also seems to enable luta performance with a distinct confrontative appeal.
For instance, one interviewee argues that when MST women one year attacked a
eucalyptus plantation, this activity produced a contradictory image: a symbol of life
(women) that destroys life (plants) underlines how the eucalyptus company itself
destroys life through its negative effects on women.46 This enabling aspect of
subject position accentuation is also mirrored in MST’s ongoing youth
mobilization. Quite tellingly, the only lutas performed during my field study, in
2012–2013, explicitly articulated the movement’s axis of ‘women’ and ‘youth’.
A MST coordinator portrayed this phenomenon as “another movement within the
movement—the youth and the women—that can produce more confrontative
Considered accentuation of subject positions seemingly induces re-enactment of
the MST story. Here, the narrative theme—agrarian reform as a harsh but even-
tually rewarding collective activity—fuels the plot of agrarian social conflict.

Focus group 06.
Individual interview 05.
4.3 Performing Luta 107

When MST participants enact this narrative plot, through the luta performance, they
actively become the narrative protagonist, while simultaneously affixing an
antagonist to be confronted. Hence, narrative enactment revives the MST story and
therefore, arguably, fosters continuity of the political subject. In the following
chapter, concluding the empirical analyses of this book, I will elaborate this sug-
gested interconnectedness between the making of history, and the making of
Picture 11 The famous João Zinclar picture decorates the entrance hall of MST’s regional college in Rio Grande do Sul, illustrative
portraying a movement narrative continuously revived. Photo by author
Chapter 5
Making History, Making Resistance

Abstract This concluding chapter refines the scientific argument unfolding

throughout this book, that is, the intimate relation between the writing of history,
and the making of resistance. By returning to the book’s original research problem
—how to understand continuity of a contingent political subject—the chapter
discusses theoretical implications of the presented empirical analyses. In line with
previous research, the MST case verifies the movement narrative as a stabilizer that
enables political subject continuity. But the empirical analyses of this book also
problematize narratives as mere formative stabilizers. The MST story is obviously a
flexible enterprise, with ongoing modifications that indicate a most active, and
contextually adaptive, usage of the movement narrative. These findings suggest an
analytical focus, not only on historiography as political resource, but also on its
flexible features. Moreover, the MST story appears to be continuously recharged.
Narrative enactment, performed through confrontative and constructive resistance
activities, is key for MST’s political subject formation. Hence, the MST story is not
only revisited by movement participants, reinforced through their personalized
storytelling, revised for more precise applicability, but also revived when recur-
rently enacted. The making of resistance, through animate storytelling and narrative
enactment, thereby nurtures continuity of a contingent political subject.

Keywords Historiography Subject formation Constructive resistance Political
Movement narrative 
Collective memory 
Non-state spaces 
Autonomy MST Brazil’s Landless Movement

The theoretical starting point for this research project has been a non-essentialist
understanding of resistance and social movements. The resistance agent is here
construed as a political subject: a contingent unification of individuals, with
divergent experiences, striving to govern their own lives. The notion of contingency
is important here, as it entails a research problem. If political subject formation is
contingent—a time-place specific collaboration of diverse individuals, united in
political struggle—how can we understand its continuity over time? To address this
research problem, I have studied political subject formation among participants that

© The Author(s) 2017 109

M. Lundström, The Making of Resistance, SpringerBriefs in Sociology,
DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-55348-1_5
110 5 Making History, Making Resistance

enact a vibrant story of a continuous social movement: Movimento dos

Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (MST). Through the story of Brazil’s Landless
Movement, I found a political subject maintained by retelling, revising and reviving
the movement narrative. Departing from these empirical analyses, this final chapter
refines the scientific argument unfolding throughout this book, that is, the intimate
relation between the writing of history, and the making of resistance.
A common premise within resistance and social movement studies is to
understand social mobilization as an organized response to aggravations of eco-
nomic inequalities and/or political oppression. With this basic assumption, context
becomes key. Historians, generically interested in changes and continuities over
time, have often studied social movements in relation to fluctuating
politico-economic contexts. Studies on what Tilly and Tarrow call political
opportunity structure have therefore proven useful for scholars that search for
politico-economic explanations to resistance continuity.1 Nevertheless, such an
analytical focus leaves little room for emic explanations, for the resistance agents’
own understandings of their collective activities. In the empirical case of Brazil’s
Landless Movement, I have studied resistance continuity through the participants’
own writing of history, instead of focusing on historical changes in the political
opportunity structure.
An important premise for MST’s history writing is to create a geographical space
in which the movement narrative can be cultivated. This initial finding obviously
resembles the scholarly focus on networks: long-term connections between
movement participants, cultivated in specific geographical sites that foster political
and economic autonomy.2 Anthropologist James Scott illustratively uses the term
non-state spaces for these type of geographical sites.3 The case of MST in Rio
Grande do Sul clearly verifies the importance of carving out such non-state spaces,
or what political scientist Leandro Vergara-Camus refers to as autonomous rural
communities.4 MST participants are spatially united through the rural settlements
and encampments—assentamentos and acampamentos—that obviously fuel
inter-relational continuity. MST’s chief advocacy, and its entailed activities, is
clearly manifested in the spatial appropriation known as the land occupation. To
highlight the political meaning and legitimacy of these collective land occupations,
MST participants actively situate themselves in a historical context. The 1970s land
occupations in Northern Rio Grande do Sul is typically referred to as the initial
social mobilization that preludes the MST founding in 1984.
But while the 1980s is remembered as a time of massive acampamentos,
involving thousands of people struggling for land, the number of acampados in Rio

Tilly and Tarrow (2007), pp. 57–61.
For instance, the importance of social movement networks is presented in Porta and Diani (2006),
pp. 116–117, 134, and the spatial dimension of resistance articulation is discussed in Johansson
and Vinthagen (2014), pp. 8–11; Lilja and Vinthagen (2014), pp. 118–123.
Scott (2009), pp. 13, 22–26.
Vergara-Camus (2014), pp. 92–157.
5 Making History, Making Resistance 111

Grande do Sul is now remarkably small. In 2013, more than 13,000 households
were registered by INCRA as settled farmers, while people living Rio Grande do
Sul’s acampamentos only counted one hundred households.5 Acampamentos are no
longer occupied latifúndios, since federal law disqualifies occupied land from
agrarian reform measures. Nevertheless, the acampamentos still have an important
political function. MST participants’ engagement in acampamentos, now set up
along interstate highways, constitutes a necessary step in the land settlement pro-
cess. As explained to me by the INCRA President in Rio Grande do Sul, INCRA
only provides land to people “living in precarious housing conditions, actively
manifesting their involvement in the agrarian reform program”.6 In practice, the
registration for this program, necessary to gain an own plot of land, requires
long-term encampment along interstate highways. This required procedure,
spending several years in rustic acampamentos to gain arable land, is never chal-
lenged by the interviewed MST participants. The acampamento is instead con-
sidered important for establishing interpersonal relationships—networks—that
cultivate narrative enactments. Accordingly, the non-existent community of the
MST rotativo (acampamento where people are registered but not living) disallows
cultivation of the movement narrative, thus discouraging these acampados to affix
state and capital as antagonistic forces.
Networks between individuals, and communities, are seemingly important for
MST’s continuity as political subject. The self-governed acampamento, just like the
assentamento, is understood as an organizational resource, a material foundation
that enables interpersonal and intercommunal networks. However, to fully under-
stand the political meanings of these MST sites, we need to understand the his-
torical linkages between MST’s non-state spaces, and the participants’ space of
Quite illustrative, Fazenda Annoni clearly denotes a geographical space for the
acampados in the 1980s, while the farmers now living on the legalized settlement
typically revisit this collective memory as a space of experience. At the same time,
Fazenda Annoni embodies the narrative theme of the MST story; the struggle for
agrarian reform is harsh, but eventually rewarding. For MST participants living in
rough acampamento conditions, still struggling for legalized land access, Fazenda
Annoni symbolizes hope, projected on their horizon of expectation.
Brazil’s Landless Movement, as a political subject, is indeed formed through the
occupation of land, but also, I would argue, through collective narration.
Appropriation of land seems to entangle appropriation of history. And just like
MST participants perceive geographical space as modifiable, open for reconfigu-
rations, the space of experience is approached in a similar fashion.
We saw in Chap. 2 how MST, as a political subject, is carefully formed in
dialogue with the past. The MST story is deliberately situated in a history of
resistance, encompassing five hundred years of insurgencies. The prequel to the

INCRA (2012b); INCRA (2012b).
Individual interview 14.
112 5 Making History, Making Resistance

MST story takes place at the same scene—the social margins of the Brazilian
nation-state project—but with protagonists that encompass runaway slaves,
indigenous peoples, millenarian movements, Catholic priests and rural labor unions.
Yet, in the MST prequel, the narrative plot is constant; agrarian social conflict is
resurging throughout Brazilian history. The plot is then translated into a narrative
theme, construed in the MST prequel as a historical struggle for land, in the MST
story as a continued struggle for agrarian reform.
For historian Reinhart Koselleck, the space of experience and horizon of
expectation demark vibrant temporal layers that shape the present. Collective
memories of the past, when retold from the protagonist perspective, immediately
formulate projections on the horizon of expectation.7 This becomes quite illustrative
among the interviewed MST participants, where the movement narrative, and its
historiographical prequel, is a recurrent point of reference in the formulation of
political advocacies. The theme of the MST story motivates resistance continuity,
its repeated narration propels political subject formation. Without qualifying the
political or even social outcomes of this process, we may certainly verify the
political importance of collective storytelling, of history-making-from-below, what
postcolonial scholars call subaltern historiography.8 This inference thereby con-
tributes to the exploration of temporality within the field of resistance studies,
which documents multiple temporalities that envision alternative futures, and
revived legacies from past resistance activities.9 The MST case quite similarly
indicates that writing of history, through collective narration, certainly is a vital
resource for political subject formation.
Yet my empirical analysis further suggests, as a key finding, that the MST
historiography is not a fixed point of reference. While Koselleck states that “cul-
tivated expectations can be revised; experiences one has had are collected”,10 my
case study indicates that MST participants’ space of experience is, in fact, recon-
figured. On the one hand, the story of Brazil’s Landless Movement is actively
maintained through collective storytelling, certainly by movement participants
themselves, but also by academic literature. My meta-analysis of 275 MST-related
academic texts sketches certain research themes that, together with these studies’
introductory sections, reinforce the narrative contours of the MST story. And, by
contrast, the corpus analysis of Jornal Sem Terra indicates that the MST story has
gone through substantial narrative modifications over the past thirty years.
Alteration of the narrative’s main characters—what I call protagonist and
antagonist shifts—facilitates strategic navigation through the historically changing
topography of Brazil’s political economy. With the movement narrative, MST is

Koselleck (2004 [1979]), pp. 256–263.
Spivak (1988), p. 82; Chakrabarty (2000), pp. 21–24.
See for instance Lilja et al. (2015), p. 421; Stevens and Lavin (2007), pp. 43–47; Halberstam
(2005), pp. 1–5; Maeckelbergh (2011b), pp. 330–332; Van de Sande (2013), pp. 230–233.
Koselleck (2004 [1979]), pp. 256–263.
5 Making History, Making Resistance 113

able to reinvent its political subjectivity, in spite of, and therefore also challenging,
the political opportunity structure.
Nevertheless, as discussed in Chap. 3, the movement narrative only appears to
be flexible up to a certain point. The MST participants’ conflictual disagreements
over organizing new land occupations, or strengthening producer cooperatives,
have clearly destabilized the movement narrative. The dramatic 2011 coordinator
dropout illustrates how the severe internal conflicts over strategic emphasis on
landless workers, or small-scale farmers, set the limit for the protagonist shift. The
narrative characters are only modifiable up to the point where this flexibility
jeopardizes the narrative’s stability-producing function.
The solution to the destabilizing effect of narrative flexibility, generated by the
character shifts, is then to affix another vital component of the MST story. What
remains constant in the story of Brazil’s Landless Movement, over the past thirty
years, is the storyline, or plot, in which resurging social conflicts ascribe meaning to
narrative characters. While protagonists and antagonists shift in the MST story, and
in its prequel, they are closely inter-connected through the plot of agrarian social
Furthermore, the MST story is not only collectively narrated, but also enacted,
recharging the plot that pushes narration onwards. The MST story is constantly
revived through collective practices, making the narrative theme contemporary,
relevant, acute. The process of MST’s political subject formation involves social
practices that enable this narrative enactment. Agricultural activities, as showed in
Chap. 4, are key for becoming protagonist. The ability to produce food is an
important part in the search for political and economic autonomy, a search that
unites diverse individuals in the MST struggle. Food production seems to induce
protagonist production.
The process of political subject formation, as we saw in Chap. 4, also encom-
passes divergent experiences, typically condensed into certain subject positions.
Female- and male-associated participants recount divergent experiences of, and
opinions about, the status of gender equality at the MST sites. ‘The youth’ is
distinguished as a separate subject position, capable and politically promising if
empowered, and guided. Divergent experiences undoubtedly produce sites of
contention, within the MST communities. At the same time, certain subject posi-
tions are also actively used, strategically accentuated to enable confrontative
During my six months’ field study, only two confrontative activities, what MST
participants refer to as lutas, were organized by the Landless Movement: one
demonstration march and one building occupation. These political actions stemmed
from two distinguishable subject positions. The demonstration march marked the
finale of a three-day youth conference, in which the luta would summarize and
embody the discussions about the future role of the MST youth. The INCRA
occupation, on International Women’s Day, enabled MST women to formulate their
general political objective—agrarian reform—as a rejection of state violence
against women. Through the confrontative activities of these lutas, youth/women
subject positions were not only acknowledged, but also reinforced. Furthermore, the
114 5 Making History, Making Resistance

luta performance also transcended the protagonist division between landless

workers and small-scale farmers, uniting acampados and assentados in a shared
political activity. Divergent experiences were recognized to foster the process of
political subject formation.
The MST protagonist is, in other words, a contingent enterprise. In the move-
ment narrative, the Sem Terra protagonist includes landless rural workers, as well
as settled small-scale farmers. In the luta performance, the constitutive activity
though which the narrative is enacted, the political subject takes the form of specific
subject positions. The demonstration march completing the youth conference, the
INCRA occupation on International Women’s Day, they both constitute subject
positioned confrontative activities of Brazil’s Landless Movement. Yet the premise
for this contingent narrative enactment, for the luta performance, requires an
equally contingent affixing of the antagonist, the target for the political con-
frontation. The antagonist of these two lutas was, as so often in the MST histori-
ography, the state. The government was held responsible for not fulfilling the
agrarian reform, and for actively hindering MST participants from its more direct
implementation: the occupation of unproductive land. Affixing the state as an
antagonist, instead of an ally, is typically motivated by the collective experience
that the state so often has protected the generic MST antagonist, the capital,
embodied in the latifundiário (large landowner) or the agronegócio (agrifood
corporation). The luta, then, contingently affixes antagonists and embodies pro-
tagonists, in the emplotment of the agrarian social conflict that drives the MST
narrative onwards.
The case of Brazil’s Landless Movement hence suggests a linkage between
political subject formation and the writing of history. For MST participants, history
is written through collective narration, which enables cultivation of the political
subject. This empirical inference enriches, I would argue, the typical
economic-historical approach to social conflict, the study of changes and continu-
ities in politico-economic structures. With the postcolonial understanding of sub-
altern historiography, as knowledge production that enables cultivation of political
subjects, we are encouraged to study how the past continuously forms the present.11
This notion reconnects to E.P Thompson’s ambition of writing history from
below,12 yet advances that agency-oriented approach by focusing on the resistance
agents’ own history writing. The focus on individual storytelling and collective
narration obviously resembles the methodological explorations of the oral history
tradition, which ascribe unification and political resourcefulness to movement
narratives.13 In line with this branch of historical literature, my analysis construes
the MST narrative as a stabilizer that enables continuity of MST as political subject.

de los Reyes (2005), pp. 172, 180; Chakrabarty (2000), pp. 21–24; Spivak (1988), p. 82.
Thompson (1966).
Portelli (1991), p. 51; Abrams (2010), p. 106; Rüsen (2005), pp. 10–12; Davis (2002), pp. 11–
14, 25; Benford (2002), pp. 54–55, 72–77; Polletta (2009), pp. 4–8.
5 Making History, Making Resistance 115

But my case study also furthers this theoretical approach. The empirical analyses
indicate that the MST story is not only a formative stabilizer, it is also a flexible
enterprise. These findings suggest an analytical focus, not only on historiography as
political resource, but on its flexibility, its changes over time. My analysis confirms
a formative importance of history writing, of establishing a prequel that reinforces
the story of Brazil’s Landless Movement. At the same time, my corpus analysis of
Jornal Sem Terra indicates that the MST story, to which the dialogue with the past
becomes a reinforcing prequel, encompasses substantial changes over time. The
ongoing modifications of the movement narrative, notable in the protagonist and
antagonist shifts, indicate a most active, and contextually adaptive, usage of the
movement narrative. Stable in the MST story, making it constantly revisited, is the
narrative emplotment of agrarian social conflict, highlighting the narrative theme of
required resistance continuity. Flexible are the storyline characters, which then
enable certain narrative modifications, in turn restrained by the narrative’s
stability-producing function.
My ethnographic field study also suggests that the MST story is not only
revisited and revised, but also revived. Narrative enactment comprises protagonist
becoming through a mutual space of experience (such as agricultural food pro-
duction) and a collective horizon of expectation (notable in the search for political
and economic autonomy). While becoming the narrative protagonist differs due to
participants’ divergent experiences, the affixing of the narrative antagonist has a
notable unifying feature. This becomes clear when an identified antagonist is
directly confronted, that is, in the luta performance. When the MST story is
enacted, put into action through lutas and other collective activities, it becomes
once again acute, and therefore revived. I believe that these empirical findings
suggest that MST’s endurance follows the narrative theme of required resistance
continuity, which in turn is fostered by narrative flexibility, and recurrent enact-
ments. To put it differently, the making of history induces the making of resistance.
The empirical chapters of this book thereby illustrate how a political subject’s
space of experience is recurrently revisited (Chap. 2), actively reconfigured
(Chap. 3) and continuously revived (Chap. 4). This agency-oriented analytical
approach, specifically focused on the making of history, implies further exploration
into the various dimensions of resistance. Such an exploration might be facilitated
by an analytical distinction between parallel aspects of confrontation and con-
struction that comprise resistance activities. This distinction is not necessarily
recognized by resistance agents themselves, but may be analytically suitable to
capture additional dimensions of resistance.
Confrontative aspects here refer to activities that directly target identified
antagonists, or that demand third party intervention (typically the state). On the one
hand, confrontative acts of resistance resemble a repertoire of contention that
demands, more or less explicitly, the state to enforce political change.14 On the
other hand, the confrontative resistance also includes the notion of direct action, of

As discussed, for instance, by Tilly and Tarrow (2007), pp. 16–17.
116 5 Making History, Making Resistance

imposing political changes in the ‘here and now’, without third party intermedi-
aries.15 It is, I believe, important to distinguish between these confrontative
objectives, between what we might call direct and in-direct action. While indirect
action targets state-led social change, what Day and Holloway critically call
“politics-of-demand”,16 direct action bypasses the state to self-implement these
politics directly.
In the case of Brazil’s Landless Movement, confrontative resistance seems to
entail constant navigation between the strategies of direct and indirect action. For
instance, the most notorious MST activity—the land occupation—directly imple-
ments land redistribution by cutting the wire and occupying the land. At the same
time, the survival of the settlement requires legalization from the state. The land
occupation therefore demands third party intervention, that is, state-sanctioned land
distribution. Moreover, the land occupation has also been drained on its direct
appeals, following the 2002 legislation that disqualifies occupied lands from the
state’s agrarian reform program. For interviewed MST participants, land occupa-
tions are merely considered strategic actions to push the government towards
accelerated agrarian reform. The land occupation does not imply political take-over,
as would electoral politics. Yet it requests state-led social change. While land
occupations challenge dominant practices of representative democracy, the land
distribution’s sustainability still rely on the state’s rewriting of particular private
property rights.
For the interviewed MST participants, the state is generally perceived as an
antagonist: a hopelessly slow implementer of agrarian reform, or an obstacle to
direct land distribution through its police force. While the state is, at best, viewed as
a potential driver for agrarian reform, MST participants nevertheless express severe
distrust in electoral politics. Confrontative resistance activities are therefore viewed
as necessary to push the government towards agrarian reform. However, the aspect
of direct action becomes more visible through the constructive dimension of
resistance, that is, the appropriation and defense of spaces that cultivate alternative
social practices.
In line with Rául Zibechi’s general observation of Latin American social
movements,17 MST participants’ guiding principle for this constructive dimension
is the search for autonomy, that is, the struggle for political self-governance and
economic independence. Producer cooperatives are understood, by cooperative
members as well as other MST participants, to facilitate independence vis-à-vis the
agronegócio. In a similar fashion, the socio-political organization of the MST
localities is also construed in terms of political autonomy, decentralized
self-governance beyond the state, clearly resembling Scott’s notion of non-state

As discussed, for instance, by Graeber (2009), pp. 201–211.
Day (2005), pp. 68–70, 80; Holloway (2010).
Zibechi (2012), pp. 14–19; (2010), pp. 4–7, 135–141.
5 Making History, Making Resistance 117

spaces.18 In parallel with the scholarly notion of prefigurative politics,19 the con-
structive dimension of resistance activities is, arguably, intimately connected with
its motivating advocacies. The struggle against state and capital is a struggle for
political and economic autonomy. And these parallel aspects are underlined by the
prequel to the MST story. In the MST historiography, struggles against nation
building (along The Colonial, Imperial and Republican Epochs) are generically
construed as historical struggles for land.
This interconnectedness between confrontation and construction resembles
Holloway’s note on rejection and affirmation. For Holloway, the collective ‘no’
manifests a rejection of any social, political or economic inadequacy. At the same
time, Holloway argues, the collective ‘no’ simultaneously entails a ‘yes’, or mul-
tiple ‘yeses’, as an “immediate affirmation of negated subjectivity”.20 A similar
notion of distinguishable yet inseparable dimensions of resistance could also be
traced in Fanon’s finale of his anti-colonial manifesto, stating that we “must turn
over a new leaf, we must work out new concepts, and try to set afoot a new man”.21
From this perspective, resistance agents become analytically inseparable from their
activities and advocacies, since confrontation comprises construction, and every no
implies a yes.
These dimensions of resistance were all active at the INCRA occupation on
International Women’s Day. The framing was clearly confrontative. A government
building was shut down, directly defying the threat of immediate state violence. As
the INCRA occupation physically claimed, and reconfigured, the assigned space of
state-political power, it was indeed a direct action. Yet, at the same time, the pretext
for occupying the state-space was the demands put on the governmental agency—to
deliver rural infrastructure—that obviously called for third party intervention,
framing the activity in terms of indirect action. Besides these dual aspects of
confrontation, the INCRA occupation simultaneously entailed a constructive
dimension. During the preceding conference, gender ascriptions within the move-
ment, and in the society, were critically discussed. In an attempt to recode tradi-
tional gender roles, albeit temporarily, the few male-associated participants that
attended the occupation explicitly had the role of assistants, while female-associated
Sem Terra planned, organized and carried out the luta. This flexible and active
[re]construction of a political ‘we’—the process of political subject formation—
entailed distinct constructive aspects. The constructive aspect of the luta was then
also materialized; the state-space was transformed from parking lot into kitchen.
Hence, the occupation of INCRA headquarters made political advocacies explicit,
as resistance agents performed activities, entailing both constructive and con-
frontative aspects.

Scott (2009), pp. 13, 22–26.
Maeckelbergh (2011a), pp. 1–3; Maeckelbergh (2011b), pp. 301–315; Van de Sande (2013),
pp. 230–233.
Holloway (2010), pp. 17–20, 38, 253–261.
Fanon (1963 [1961]), pp. 315–316.
118 5 Making History, Making Resistance

In this book I have suggested, in order to deepen our understanding of resistance

continuity, that we need to study the making of resistance. This activity is closely
intertwined with the writing of history, with continuous narrative revisions, with
enactment of the movement narrative. Resistance making entangles history making.
For MST participants, the movement narrative is constantly revisited, and
enacted, to induce resistance continuity. The political subject formation is an
ongoing process, activated in dialogue with the past, directed towards a mutual
horizon of expectation. The making of Brazil’s Landless Movement stems from a
particular space of experience and is revived through collective social practices.
Divergent experiences are acknowledged and accentuated, amassed and directed, in
the narrative enactment that frames MST participants’ making of resistance.
A luta continua! is a well-used catchphrase within Brazil’s Landless Movement.
It links past and future struggles, highlighting that resistance continuity is never
self-sustaining, but requires active maintenance. It signals that resistance is culti-
vated at the intersection of past and future. It suggests that a historical perspective
on political subject formation could deepen our understanding of how—as MST
participants like to put it—the struggle continues.
MST’s Organizational Structure

© The Author(s) 2017 119

M. Lundström, The Making of Resistance, SpringerBriefs in Sociology,
DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-55348-1

Acampamento MST camp site, typically located along interstate highways

Agronegócio Export-oriented agrifood corporation, antagonist in the MST story
Assentamento MST settlement, created or legalized by the government
INCRA Governmental agency responsible for agrarian reform implementation
Jornal Sem Terra MST’s internal newspaper
Latifundiário Largescale land owner, antagonist in the MST story
Luta The defining MST struggle, materialized as confrontative direct actions
Mística Audio-visual performance, choreographing MST’s collective memories
Rio Grande do Sul Brazil’s Southernmost state, hosting the field study
Sem Terra Settled or non-settled MST participant, protagonist in the MST story

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M. Lundström, The Making of Resistance, SpringerBriefs in Sociology,
DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-55348-1

A história do Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra—MST—é bem

conhecida, tendo sido repetidamente narrada por participantes do movimento, bem
como por acadêmicos e militantes favoráveis à reforma agrária. Reconhecido como
um dos movimentos sociais mais antigos e bem sucedidos do mundo, a história
do MST se inicia no final de 1970 com massivas mobilizações rurais que se
materializavam em ocupações de terra. Estas atividades pontuais de resistência
foram tornando-se cada vez mais interligadas nacionalmente, fazendo com que
Movimento dos Sem Terra logo crescesse em todo o país. Por meio do sucesso das
ocupações de terra, várias famílias, e centenas de milhares de pessoas, agora tem
acesso legalizado para terras agrícolas. Nesta narrativa, o MST é protagonista numa
luta histórica contra as desigualdades político-econômicas do Brasil.
A presente análise traz vários aspectos da história MST: seu predecessor
histórico, seus componentes narrativos, suas tranformações, suas atuações.
A finalidade científica com tal exploração decorre de uma certa perspectiva teórica:
de uma compreensão não-essencialista dos movimentos sociais e de outros agentes
de resistência. Isso significa que grupos de pessoas que de alguma forma con-
frontam, desafiam ou escapam dos mecanismos repressivos de poder, não neces-
sariamente representam uma identidade pré-existente, nem compartilham uma
essência social prescritiva. Do ponto de vista não-essencialista, agentes de
resistência não derivam de uma classe, etnia, sexo ou qualquer outra forma de
categorização social. Ao contrário, agentes de resistência tornam-se distinguíveis
através de suas atividades, de suas lutas e de seus ideais. A partir desta perspectiva
não-essencialista, agentes de resistência são vistos como diferentes, ou divergentes,
sujeitos políticos. Resistência torna-se, assim, uma atividade contingente;
indivíduos são unificados, em um tempo e lugar específico, através de sua luta
Aqui nós encontramos o que cientistas sociais geralmente chamam de um
problema de pesquisa. Se aceitarmos a noção do MST como um sujeito político
contingente, como podemos compreender a continuidade do movimento ao longo
do tempo? Este livro examina esta questão através da atividade dinâmica de escrita
da história e da narrativa coletiva. O livro começa com a historiografia do MST,

© The Author(s) 2017 123

M. Lundström, The Making of Resistance, SpringerBriefs in Sociology,
DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-55348-1
124 Resumo

englobando o que é referido como uma espécie de epígrafe para a história do MST.
A análise empírica de fontes etnográficas e jornal interno do MST, o Jornal Sem
Terra, sugere que a cena destes narrativas, assim como a história do MST, acon-
tecem às margens do projeito brasileiro de estado-nação. Os personagens históricos,
relembrados na narrativa, envolvem escravos fugitivos, povos indígenas, grupos
religiosos e sindicatos de trabalhadores rurais. Juntos, esses agentes de resistência
insubordinados, protagonizam o MST, e retratam o contexto histórico—cinco
séculos de resistência—no qual é situado a história dos Sem Terra.
Com a terminologia do historiador Reinhart Koselleck, a historiografia do MST
produz um espaço de experiências: entendimentos específicos do passado que
atribuem significado às atividades contemporâneas, alimentando lutas
sócio-políticas, então projetadas em um horizonte de expectativas. As várias
tradições locais implicam na importância da narrativa para a formação do sujeito
político. Além disso, como implica em uma meta-análise de 275 textos acadêmicos
relacionados com o MST, os contornos da história MST não são apenas desenhados
pelos participantes do MST, mas também pela narrativa acadêmica.
Embora essa combinação de investigações empíricas verifique claramente a
função estabilizadora da narrativa na formação do sujeito político do MST, a
narração coletiva também demonstra ser muito flexível. A análise sistemática de
toda a compilação do Jornal Sem Terra, 1981-2013, revela mudanças narrativas
substanciais. O antagonista da história do MST muda do latifundiário para o
agronegócio. Esta mudança de antagonistas é paralela ao aumento na ênfase ao
pequeno produtor (ou seja, o assentado), e ao desaparecimento do protagonista da
narrativa original: o trabalhador rural sem terra. O que permanece constante, no
entanto, é a trama narrativa. Tal como a narrativa do MST, o enredo constante—o
do conflito social agrário—permite a inserção de vários personagens no enredo.
A estabilidade na trama narrativa dá flexibilidade aos personagens principais da
No entanto, esta flexibilidade só é possível até um certo ponto, isto é, quando se
põe em risco a função produtora de estabilidade da narrativa. Por exemplo, o foco
atualmente dado ao estímulo às cooperativas de produtores motivou figuras-chave
do MST, em um ato raro de protesto, a deixarem o movimento em 2011. Ao não
priorizar novas ocupações de terra, os críticos ao movimento argumentaram que o
MST abandonou não só os trabalhadores rurais ainda sem terra, mas também
transgrediu os próprios quadros da história do MST. Esses significados conflitantes
da narrativa do movimento, o equilíbrio entre estabilidade e flexibilidade, destacam
o processo social de formação do sujeito político. Assim, a escrita da história
informa a formação da resistência.
Em outras palavras, resistência envolve atuação da narrativa movimento. Uma
análise empírica de 18 grupos focais, 14 entrevistas individuais e meses de observas
participante, explora a implementação cotiana da narrativa. A atuação da história
MST torna-se mais concreta em atividades específicas, coletivamente reconhecidas
pelos participantes do movimento como luta. Esta atividade confrontante de
resistência, tipicamente manifestada em ocupações latifúndiárias ou de edifícios
governamentais, atualiza a trama do conflito social agrário, o enredo que leva a
Resumo 125

narrativa a diante. Daí o nosso argumento de que a história do MST não só é

revisitada pelos participantes do movimento, mas também reforçada através atuação
de sua narrativa. A história também é revivida, continuamente posta em ação, assim
promovendo continuidade de um sujeito político contingente.
Em relação à produção deste livro, devo acrescentar que ele simplesmente não
teria sido possível sem os numerosos Sem Terra que, com notável hospitalidade e
enorme paciência, abriram o(s) seu(s) mundo(s) para um estrangeiro curioso. Por
razões de sigilo, não posso citá-los por nome aqui, a fim de expressar o meu
agradecimento sincero. Entre aqueles que posso mencionar estão os coordenadores
Cedenir, Patrola, Irene e Salete, por terem permitido a realização da pesquisa de
campo. A este propósito, também sou muito grato a acadêmicos como Sergio
Schneider, Antonio Bezerra, Cliff Welch e Aline Weber Sulzbacher. Além disso,
também devo reconhecer o pessoal de apoio, a sede regional do INCRA em Porto
Alegre, por incansavelmente me fornecer conjuntos de dados vitais para a pesquisa.
Mais importante ainda, sou particularmente grato a Julice Salvagni, que ajudou no
estudo etnográfico com seu conhecimento professional de entrevista e habilidades
de observação. Tambem reconheço o trabalho dos transcritores de minhas entre-
vistas por seu trabalho tremendamente rigoroso.
Finalmente, a elaboração deste livro não teria sido realizada sem o apoio lúcido e
insistente de Sanna, minha amada parceira de viagem no Brasil, e ao longo dos
caminhos tortuosos da própria vida. Meus queridos agradecimentos vão também
para Märta, agora com seis anos de idade e irmã de recém-nascido Gösta.
O engajamento e interesse de Märta em histórias—como consumidora e produtora,
co-roteirista e atriz—foi uma valiosa fonte de estímulo para minha exploração do
poder das narrativas.


Focus group 01. Conducted 2013-02-13, together with Julice Salvagni. Transcribed by Matheus
Focus group 02. Conducted 2013-02-13, together with Julice Salvagni. Transcribed by Matheus
Focus group 03. Conducted 2013-02-14. Transcribed by Matheus Mazzilli.
Focus group 04. Conducted 2013-01-09, together with Julice Salvagni. Transcribed by Evalise
Focus group 05. Conducted 2013-01-14, together with Julice Salvagni. Transcribed by Evalise
Focus group 06. Conducted 2013-01-14, together with Julice Salvagni. Transcribed by Evalise
Focus group 07. Conducted 2013-02-27. Transcribed by Evalise Lazzari.
Focus group 08. Conducted 2013-01-28, together with Julice Salvagni. Transcribed by Mauni
Focus group 09. Conducted 2013-01-28, together with Julice Salvagni. Transcribed by Matheus
Focus group 10. Conducted 2013-01-29, together with Julice Salvagni. Transcribed by Matheus
Focus group 11. Conducted 2013-01-29, together with Julice Salvagni. Transcribed by Valesca
Focus group 12. Conducted 2013-01-29, together with Julice Salvagni. Transcribed by Fabricio
Focus group 13. Conducted 2012-11-23, together with Julice Salvagni & Aline Sultzbacher.
Transcribed by Evalise Lazzari.
Focus group 14. Conducted 2012-11-23, together with Julice Salvagni & Aline Sultzbacher.
Transcribed by Julice Salvagni.
Focus group 15. Conducted 2013-01-09, together with Julice Salvagni. Transcribed by Julice
Focus group 16. Conducted 2012-12-19, together with Julice Salvagni. Transcribed by Valesca
Focus group 17. Conducted 2012-12-20, together with Julice Salvagni. Transcribed by Matheus
Focus group 18. Conducted 2013-01-10, together with Julice Salvagni. Transcribed by Matheus
Individual interview 01. Conducted 2013-01-07. Transcribed by Valesca Ames.

© The Author(s) 2017 127

M. Lundström, The Making of Resistance, SpringerBriefs in Sociology,
DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-55348-1
128 Interviews

Individual interview 02. Conducted 2012-12-08, together with Aline Sulzbacher. Transcribed by
Aline Sultzbacher.
Individual interview 03. Conducted 2013-02-25. Transcribed by Mauni Oliveira.
Individual interview 04. Conducted 2013-02-17. Transcribed by Matheus Mazzilli.
Individual interview 05. Conducted 2013-01-21. Transcribed by Evalise Lazzari.
Individual interview 06. Conducted 2012-10-21. Non-recorded.
Individual interview 07. Conducted in March 2013 via email.
Individual interview 08. Conducted 2012-11-30. Transcribed by Julice Salvagni.
Individual interview 09. Conducted 2012-11-30. Transcribed by Julice Salvagni.
Individual interview 10. Conducted 2012-12-13. Transcribed by Julice Salvagni.
Individual interview 11. Conducted 2012-11-30. Transcribed by Julice Salvagni.
Individual interview 12. Conducted 2013-01-28, together with Julice Salvagni. Transcribed by
Julice Salvagni.
Individual interview 13. Conducted 2012-11-26. Non-recorded.
Individual interview 14. Conducted 2012-10-23. Transcribed by Julice Salvagni.

Jornal Sem Terra

Jornal Sem Terra (1984, July), issue no. 36. Reforma Agrária e nosso objectivo.
Jornal Sem Terra (1987, June), issue no. 63. A festa de uma luta que continua.
Jornal Sem Terra (1991, April), issue no. 102. Duas ocupações no Ceará.
Jornal Sem Terra (1991, May), issue no. 103. Reacender o sonho.
Jornal Sem Terra (1993, October), issue no. 130. Canudos não se rendeu.
Jornal Sem Terra (1994, December), issue no. 143. 300 anos depois da morte de Zumbi dos
Jornal Sem Terra (1995, September), issue no. 151. Occupações contra morosidade de FHC.
Jornal Sem Terra (1995, July), issue no. 149. Vem aí o 3º Congresso Nacional do MST.
Jornal Sem Terra (1996, January/February), issue no. 155. Mobilizacões contra as mentiras de
Jornal Sem Terra (1998, December), issue no. 185. FHC corta recursos da Reforma Agrária.
Jornal Sem Terra (1998, July), issue no. 180. FHC é responável pela crise na agricultura.
Jornal Sem Terra (2000, March), issue no. 298. Sepé Tiaraju: esta terra tem dono.
Jornal Sem Terra (2001, October), issue no. 215. Descaso: FHC paralisa a reforma agrária em todo
o país.
Jornal Sem Terra (2001, July), issue no. 212. Seca e fome no Nordeste: descaso do governo FHC.
Jornal Sem Terra (2002, January), issue no. 217. A Reforma Agrária de FHC é uma farsa.
Jornal Sem Terra (2004, December/January), issue no. 236. MST: 20 anos de lutase de conquistas.
Jornal Sem Terra (2004, March), issue no. 238. O exemplo de luta de Zé Porfírio e docamponeses
de Trombas e Formoso.
Jornal Sem Terra (2006, April), issue no. 261. O estado no banco dos réus.
Jornal Sem Terra (2007, April), issue no. 271. Teatro para além dos palcos.
Jornal Sem Terra (2008, February), issue no. 248. Feira mostra produção de pequenos agricultores
e assentados.
Jornal Sem Terra (2008, November/December), issue no. 288. Política e arte, arte e política.
Jornal Sem Terra (2009, January/February), issue no. 289. 25 anos depois.
Jornal Sem Terra (2009, July), issue no. 293. A Coluna Prestes: uma epopéia brasileira.
Jornal Sem Terra (2009, May), issue no. 292. A luta dos movimentos sociais pela democracia no
Jornal Sem Terra (2009, March), issue no. 293. Prêmio Luta pela Terra.
Jornal Sem Terra (2010, January/February), issue no. 300. Cabanagem: 175 anos depois.
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