Fighting for land – the Brazilian way

Interview with Cedenir Oliviera, Organizer, Movement of Landless Farmers (MST), Brazil

THE MOVEMENT of Landless Farmers (MST), Brazil started in the late seventies with the mission of changing the land ownership structure of the country. Brazil is three times the size of India, and has a population of 150 million people but over 50 percent of all agricultural land is concentrated in the hands of just one percent of the population. At the same time there are over 5 million landless farming families who work as sharecroppers for big landlords. Made up of activists coming from the ‘Maoist’ movement, sections of the liberation theology school in the Catholic and other churches and with a large following among landless farmers, the MST has had many victories in their struggle, first against the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil till the mid-eighties, and then, against various bourgeois governments that followed.

Until now the MST has won land for 250,000 landless families who are settled on 1600 large cooperative farms and runs its own small and medium agro-industries apart from marketing organisations. The MST also runs technical schools for students of agriculture, hospitals for rural people and promotes organic farming as a way of maximising income, while at the same time, producing safe, pesticide-free food. Following is an interview with Cedenir Oliviera, a grassroots activist with the MST in the southern Brazilian province of Rio Grande do Sul.

Liberation: Why is land reform so important in Brazil?

Oliviera: We understand that Brazil is essentially an agricultural country, and it is impossible to accept that in a country where agriculture has a very strong presence, more than 30 million Brazilian people are starving or suffering from hunger; in a country where less than 1 percent of the population has 46 percent of the land while 4.5 million farmers don’t have land to work on.

Liberation: What has been the influence of the Catholic Church on the MST?

Oliviera: Actually, parts of the progressive church had a fundamental role in the construction of the movement. Our country is quite religious and the church has a role of great influence in families and people’s lives. The progressive part of the church was fundamental in the emergence of the movement because there were many fathers and priests who talked about the laws of man concerning land reform but it was also in the Bible that land was for everybody and not for the minority. This helped build the movement. We know we cannot believe in this miraculous God but we can believe in faith and a God who can make you stronger to keep you fighting. This alliance with the church we will certainly keep because it will help not only the landless people but will also be a process, collectively built with the Church, the parties, the population from the city and the trade unions.

Liberation: What are the problems you face in the running of the cooperatives?

Oliviera: The farmers have always had this culture of having their own place, raise their own chicken, their own pork. This is culture and it is also a capitalist culture, consumerist and this is all over the population. So the most important factor is to break this individualistic barrier from the past to collective work. Liberation: Why is the MST promoting organic farming?

Oliviera: At the beginning we had the idea that the division and democratisation of land would be the way to solve the problem, but in the period we got credit and land, we found out that land reform is much more than just dividing land. There are other factors like conditions, price, healthy agriculture; that is why we have been learning through this process, which has taught us many things.

And today we have reached the conclusion that the model implanted by the IMF and also neo-liberal economic policies – it is agriculture for exports and larger scales and high technology. And this excludes the small properties. And, as small farmers, we want to resist because we are the ones who produce food for the nation. And to produce food we have to produce healthy food. All of us, as human beings, have the right to eat healthy products and not products which are full of poisons and toxic material and are genetically modified. Another agriculture is possible and we can show in practice that this is true. In the settlements we are trying to do that.

Liberation: Why is Che Guevara so popular with the movement.

Oliviera: Actually we don’t promote myths in our movement. Che and Carlos Marighella, Paulo Friere and Jose Marti and many others bring to us an example of life and many teachings we have to follow. So for us Che as many others are examples of struggle and dedication. We never create myths or treat them like Gods.

Not the person of Che but his thinking and his practices, what he has done for the people. And there are many other people who have given their lives to defend the people’s cause. That is why we always remember these companions.