1984 – Landless workers win land rights and become a political force

Brazil’s Movement of Landless Rural Workers (MST) was created in 1985 to support landless people in securing land on which to live and grow food. It combines tactics of direct action – occupying land – as well as in-depth political education to build a powerful political force. With 1.5 million members it is now one of the largest social movements in Latin America, and has secured land for hundreds of thousands of people.

In 1980, 6,000 landless families in southern Brazil formed an encampment on occupied land in Rio Grande do Sul. The Catholic Church supported the families’ quest for land, and in 1982 settled 600 of them on land purchased at Nova Ronda Alta. The families came together to create what would become the Movement of Landless Rural Workers (MST).

Since 1985, MST has peacefully occupied unused land where it has established cooperative farms, constructed houses, schools and clinics, and promoted indigenous cultures, a healthy and sustainable environment, and gender equality. Land occupations are rooted in the Brazilian Constitution, which says land that remains unproductive should be used for a larger social function. To date MST has won land titles for more than 350,000 families in 2,000 settlements.

Along with occupying land, the MST has emphasized political education, setting up education collectives that actively engages with and helps run local schools. Their aim is to create farmer-intellectuals that can both farm their own land but also mobilise to transform and build a just society.

This has turned MST into a potent political force. MST held large marches and demonstrations for agrarian reform throughout the 1990s and 2000s and succeeded in increasing their role in education districts as well as winning key policies to benefit small farmers such as Programa de Aquisição de Alimentos (Food Acquisition Program/PAA) which requires all public schools and hospitals in rural areas to purchase all food for their meal programs at subsidized prices from local family farmers.

However their more fundamental demands of radical agrarian reform and an end to large-scale industrial agro-production have not been met.

The MST now has about 1.5 million landless members across 23 states. Many members come together for sporadic assemblies at regional, state and national level that mirror a political congress, reminding politicians that the movement is strong and that the struggle for land sovereignty is far from over.