Brazil’s Largest Social Movement Occupies Govt for Land Rights

The MST is spearheading a national mobilization demanding rights for landless people and resisting the neoliberal rollback under the Temer government.

More than 1,000 activists from Brazil’s largest social movement occupied the Ministry of Planning in Brasilia Monday morning to demand authorities address the needs of rural and farming communities. The protest kicked off a three-day national action bringing together thousands of demonstrators fighting for the rights of hundreds of thousands of landless families in the South American country.

Brazil’s iconic Landless Worker Movement, better known by its Portuguese acronym, the MST, announced in a statement Monday that the occupation was staged to demand the government immediately grant legal settlement and access to farmland for 120,000 landless families living in the movement’s mass encampments across the country.

“We have mobilized to defend democracy, territorial and food sovereignty and to prevent any setback in the rights won by the working class,” said the coalition of movements behind the national mobilization, including the MST.

The 1.5 million member-strong MST pioneered the tactic of mass land takeovers more than two decades ago and has settled some 370,000 landless families through more than 2,500 mass farmland squats over the years. The movement also increasingly organizes around issues of education, health, gender equality, environmental justice, and food sovereignty, while also building connections with urban movements to expand its struggle for rights beyond the countryside.

Monday’s occupation also called on authorities to implement policies aimed at shifting the country’s agricultural paradigm away from industrial farming toward supporting small-scale and agroecological production. Namely, it urged the government to scrap planned legislation that will allow unrestricted land purchases by foreign individuals and corporations.

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“The indiscriminate sale of land to foreigners threatens our national sovereignty,” the MST said.

The occupation, which protesters plan to maintain until Wednesday, is at the center of other protesters in various cities organized by social movements and unions as part of a national three-day struggle dubbed the “Cries of the Excluded.”

Thousands of other protesters took to the streets in several other locations Monday, including occupying offices of the federal institute responsible for land reform issues, known as Incra, in Porto Alegre and Parana. According to the MST, some 12,000 activists participated in protests across the country Monday in various local actions.

Through land occupations and political organizing, the MST has long fought to push back against Brazil’s extremely concentrated land ownership, dominated agriculturally by massive soy monocultures. Just 1 percent of Brazil’s elite owns 45 percent of the country’s land, while 5 million families remain landless. Critics worry the situation is only set to worsen under the newly-installed neoliberal government, that has already moved swiftly toward privatizing resources and opening up the country to foreign corporations.

Within weeks of being installed in office in May following the suspension of now-ousted President Dilma Rousseff, the then-interim government of Michel Temer announced plans to eliminate limits on foreign land ownership on Brazil. The policy had been introduced in 2010 under Rousseff’s predecessor Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, whose Workers Party has enjoyed considerable—though not uncritical—support from the MST.

The MST has vowed to ramp up protests against the Temer government after the definitive removal of Rousseff from office last week in a move that the MST, like many other social movements, has dubbed a coup. The movement has also vowed to stage new mass land occupations it the unelected government follows through on plans to open up the land market to foreign owners, which critics say will pave the way for a new wave of land grabs that will hurt the country’s most vulnerable while benefiting multinational agricultural corporations.

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But despite the challenge posed by a hostile politician in the country’s top office, the MST has also seen the recent political crisis as an opportunity for a new era of change through renewed social movement organizing.

“Now it is up to the grassroots forces … to analyze our mistakes, correct them and stand united to face the coming battles, which will be as important as the fight against the coup,” wrote MST leader Joao Pedro Stedile in a recent blogpost titled. “Many struggles await us ahead.”