Landless Workers Movement: The Difficult Construction
of a New World
Raúl Zibechi | September 26, 2006
Translated from: Movimiento de los trabajadores sin
tierra: la difícil construcción de un mundo nuevo
Translated by: Nick Henry
Americas Program, International Relations Center (IRC)
"Breaking down the fences of the large estates was not
as difficult as fighting the technological packages of
the transnationals," Huli recounts as he sits in his
kitchen and pours hot water into the mate we share
while his son romps around the house. He says the
campesinos of Brazil's Landless Rural Workers' Movement
(MST, for the Portuguese initials) dreamed for years of
reclaiming their land, believing that it would solve
all their problems: food for their children, a
dignified life of hard work on the farm, education,
health, and housing. However, the reality would prove
much more difficult, for surprises they had never
imagined lay ahead.
Huli Zang is part of one of the 376 families that make
up the Filhos de Sepé (Sons of Sepé) settlement, a
6,000-hectare (23-square mile) municipality in Viamao,
40 kilometers (25 miles) from Porto Alegre, the capital
of the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul. The
settlement, established in February of 1999, is divided
into four sectors where the land is organized into what
the landless call an agrovila (agricultural village):
the houses are grouped together in one area rather than
on each campesino's parcel of land.
This arrangement ensures the houses, built solidly out
of wood or brick, have access to electricity and
potable water, with the byproduct that daily life for
the campesinos is much like that of the average city-
dweller. Huli's house has a gas stove as well as a wood
stove, a refrigerator, television, and computer. There
is a route connecting the housing area to the nearest
town, Viamao, as well as the individual parcels, each
one an average of 17 hectares.
The settlement sits next to a 2,500-hectare (10-square
mile) wildlife refuge called Bañado dos Pachecos, home
to thousands of species of birds, fish, and mammals.
The area is irrigated by the surrounding marshland,
which makes it suitable only for cultivating rice,
although next to each house settlers have enough space
to grow vegetables and fruit trees, and nearly everyone
raises chickens and a milk cow or two. This allows some
degree of self-sufficiency as far as food is concerned.
Within the settlement MST operates one of its Training
Centers, which can house 120 people with its array of
bedrooms, communal bathrooms, meeting rooms, Internet
computer labs, and dining hall. During the month of
August, some 80 activists from half a dozen countries
participated in a seminar delivered each year by the
Latin American Coordinating Agency of Campesino
Organizations (CLOC). The 1,800-person village also has
a school where 230 children attend.
Land and Rice
Before resettling to their current location, the
landless campesinos lived for nearly four years
alongside Brazil's highways in hovels made of black
canvas, enduring extreme cold during the winter and
suffocating temperatures in the summer. Negotiations
with authorities gave them access to the land they live
on now, which is the biggest settlement in the state. A
testament to the settlers' will to create a new world
for themselves, and not just have a strip of land to
cultivate, is the fact that they decided to create an
agrovila . Several settlements have built housing on
each individual parcel of land, a choice that creates
almost insurmountable political and social problems.
Not only is it almost impossible to deliver water and
electricity to all the inhabitants (due to large
distances between houses), but community living is
almost out of the question, thus heightening the
campesinos' individualism and blocking any attempt to
create a different type of society.
Any visitor that manages to arrive at an agrovila, with
its simple, picturesque homes, sown plots of land,
colorful flower arrangements, and domestic animals
grazing and cackling in the sun, sees a bucolic
setting, where everything runs smoothly. Nothing could
be further from the truth. The Filhos de Sepé
settlement faces its share of problems, mostly derived
from the global crisis of the small farmer competing
with the powerful expansion of agribusiness pushed by
large multinational corporations.
One of the initial problems precipitates from the very
choice to create an agrovila. Frequently, individual
parcels end up far away from the housing areas,
sometimes as much as 10-13 kilometers (6-8 miles).
"This causes some families to quit farming altogether
and instead lease their land to other settlements,"
says Huli, who doesn't shy away from questions. In
order to address this problem facing the agrovila, over
the last few years MST has implemented a new design for
the settlements. Units consisting of 15 to 20 families
are grouped together and the land is lined up in
triangles with the vertex of each coming together in a
central area. This way the homes are all near each
other and the parcels of land are relatively close to
the residential area. This of course reduces the
density of the settlements from an average of 100
families to what has been termed a "housing nucleus,"
which does not exceed a total of 20 families.
But perhaps the gravest problem is their dependence on
multinationals that impose a style of farming based on
the heavy use of agricultural toxins. "Monsanto brings
us technology packages, herbicides and pesticides, in
other words poison, and then they supply the rice. Over
the course of time, we went from depending on the
landholding elite to depending on the multinationals
that own the technology. We can only conclude that in
spite of our efforts, we have not moved forward, that
we struggled for years to be in a new state of
dependence, and all the while we are poisoning our own
families and the people who consume the rice we
produce," say Huli.
A Struggle Without End
In order to escape these constraints, the settlers have
opted for agroecology. In the settlement, 1,600
hectares (6 square miles) are farmed "conventionally"
(that is to say, with pesticides), but after an intense
internal debate, the community decided to have a small
nucleus of families cultivate organic rice. Last year,
29 families cultivated 120 hectares (almost half a
square mile) without chemicals and formed the
Association of Rice and Fish Producers. Because they
operate where there is an abundance of water, they have
been able to produce fish, diversifying their
production. That year, they produced 6,000 bags of
organic rice and the production was sold for school
lunches in the city of Viamao, governed by the Workers'
Party. This year, 35 families are participating, and
they are hoping to grow 150 hectares and produce 10,000
On February 7, 1756 the Guaraní Indian Sepé Tiraju was
killed in combat by Spanish and Portuguese troops in
the city of Sao Gabriel (in the southern part of Rio
Grande do Sul). The 1750 Treaty of Madrid, signed by
the two countries, decreed that all Indians belonging
to the Guaraní Reductions (seven towns laid out by
Jesuits and built by the indigenous people) must
abandon their homes and move to the banks of the
Uruguay River, territory that today belongs to
A Portuguese-Spanish army of 3,500 soldiers armed with
cannons, the best equipped for their day, confronted
the Indians armed with spears and arrows. Three days
after the death of Sepé, on February 10, nearly 1,500
Indians were dead. In spite of the abolishment of the
treaty in 1761, it had accomplished its goal: the
Guaraní Reductions -- described by Voltaire as "a
triumph of humanity" for their successful cooperative
living, artistic endeavors such as music, publication
of books, and development of astronomy and meteorology
-- were destroyed. This year, the landless and other
social movements commemorated the 250-year anniversary
of the fall of Sepé in combat as part of a retrieval of
the most notable experiences of different worlds
existing on the same continent.
They have discovered that growing organic rice is not
only profitable, but its productivity per acre is
exactly double that of rice farmed with chemicals. They
have recovered and implemented an old campesino
tradition of preparing the land with ducks. "Ducks eat
up all the herbs, clean the land much better than an
agrochemical toxin could, and in addition they leave it
fertilized with their waste. We leave the ducks there
over a period of months and they do all the prep work.
Later, when it is time to sow the rice, we remove them
and either sell them or eat them," Huli relates with a
huge smile. Farming organically gives them their own
seeds and supplies, so to produce they don't depend on
markets, and in addition they are improving the health
of both the producers and the consumers.
Now, however, they face the problem of certification.
In Brazil there are only three businesses that can
certify organic origin, and they are all linked to
multinationals. "Once more we are bumping into the same
enemy," Huli continues. But what angers them the most
is that the "certifier" will only visit the settlement
once a year, charges them thousands of dollars, and
does not inspect the cultivation process, a fact that
allows any "organic" producer to use chemicals while
still receiving the organic label. To address this
unexpected problem, the movement is addressing the
possibility of creating a "community certification"
team, which would allow them to bypass dealing with the
In addition, the settlers complain that the state and
federal governments do not provide credits for
agroecological production. In short, they face a whole
chain of problems, and each time they overcome one,
they run into a new problem that is ultimately the
same: the control of large multinationals over
agricultural technologies that allows them to exploit
the campesinos. The development and control of new
technologies by multinationals has made possible a new
type of oppression. While the campesinos no longer lack
the means of production, control over work schedules,
and labor methods, the multinationals' dominance is of
an "immaterial" sort, seated in the control over
knowledge and the market in order to maximize profit
accumulation. Huli explains how the price of rice
continues to fall, so that 1,600 hectares of rice is
not even enough for the settled campesinos to survive
off the land.
Before leaving the settlement, we ask him what sources
of income the Filhos de Sepé campesinos have. There are
three: family vegetable gardens, rice, and work in
neighboring municipalities, where the women are
employed as cleaners and the men as construction
workers. "What percentage of your income comes from
these types of work?" we ask. Huli cannot avoid a look
of sadness: "Unfortunately, the bulk of it comes from
cleaning and construction. That's the way it is."
The struggle for land turns out to be much more
complicated than anyone could have imagined. Perhaps
the biggest triumph of the landless is that the
campesinos have remained on their settlement rather
than adding themselves to the burgeoning belt of
poverty seen in Brazil's big cities. The rest is a
struggle that is permanent, interminable. It is more
complicated than the struggle for land, since capital
has shown its capacity to transform itself to control
the mechanisms of domination, in this case less
palpable, almost invisible. This will take persistent
training and learning, which have become indispensable
tools in the struggle.
Translated for the IRC Americas Program by Nick Henry.
Raúl Zibechi, a member of the editorial board of the
weekly Brecha de Montevideo, is a professor and
researcher on social movements at the Multiversidad
Franciscana de America Latina and adviser to several
grassroots organizations. He is a monthly contributor
to the IRC Americas Program (www.americaspolicy.org).
For More Information
Luix Costa, "Conmemoración de las Reducciones
guaraníticas", 19 de febrero de 2006,
The Century of Drought
October 4, 2006
One third of the planet will be desert by the year
2100, say climate experts in the most dire warning yet
of the effects of global warming
By Michael McCarthy, Environmental Editor
Drought threatening the lives of millions will spread
across half the land surface of the Earth in the coming
century because of global warming, according to new
predictions from Britain's leading climate scientists.
Extreme drought, in which agriculture is in effect
impossible, will affect about a third of the planet,
according to the study from the Met Office's Hadley
Centre for Climate Prediction and Research.
It is one of the most dire forecasts so far of the
potential effects of rising temperatures around the
world - yet it may be an underestimation, the
scientists involved said yesterday.
The findings, released at the Climate Clinic at the
Conservative Party conference in Bournemouth, drew
astonished and dismayed reactions from aid agencies and
development specialists, who fear that the poor of
developing countries will be worst hit.
"This is genuinely terrifying," said Andrew Pendleton
of Christian Aid. "It is a death sentence for many
millions of people. It will mean migration off the land
at levels we have not seen before, and at levels poor
countries cannot cope with."
One of Britain's leading experts on the effects of
climate change on the developing countries, Andrew
Simms from the New Economics Foundation, said: "There's
almost no aspect of life in the developing countries
that these predictions don't undermine - the ability to
grow food, the ability to have a safe sanitation
system, the availability of water. For hundreds of
millions of people for whom getting through the day is
already a struggle, this is going to push them over the
The findings represent the first time that the threat
of increased drought from climate change has been
quantified with a supercomputer climate model such as
the one operated by the Hadley Centre.
Their impact is likely to even greater because the
findings may be an underestimate. The study did not
include potential effects on drought from global-
warming-induced changes to the Earth's carbon cycle.
In one unpublished Met Office study, when the carbon
cycle effects are included, future drought is even
The results are regarded as most valid at the global
level, but the clear implication is that the parts of
the world already stricken by drought, such as Africa,
will be the places where the projected increase will
have the most severe effects.
The study, by Eleanor Burke and two Hadley Centre
colleagues, models how a measure of drought known as
the Palmer Drought Severity Index (PDSI) is likely to
increase globally during the coming century with
predicted changes in rainfall and heat around the world
because of climate change. It shows the PDSI figure for
moderate drought, currently at 25 per cent of the
Earth's surface, rising to 50 per cent by 2100, the
figure for severe drought, currently at about 8 per
cent, rising to 40 cent, and the figure for extreme
drought, currently 3 per cent, rising to 30 per cent.
Senior Met Office scientists are sensitive about the
study, funded by the Department for Environment, Food
and Rural Affairs, stressing it contains uncertainties:
there is only one climate model involved, one future
scenario for emissions of greenhouse gases (a moderate-
to-high one) and one drought index. Nevertheless, the
result is "significant", according to Vicky Pope, the
head of the Hadley Centre's climate programme. Further
work would now be taking place to try to assess the
potential risk of different levels of drought in
different places, she said.
The full study - Modelling the Recent Evolution of
Global Drought and Projections for the 21st Century
with the Hadley Centre Climate Model - will be
published later this month in The Journal of
It will be widely publicised by the British Government
at the negotiations in Nairobi in November on a
successor to the Kyoto climate treaty. But a preview of
it was given by Dr Burke in a presentation to the
Climate Clinic, which was formed by environmental
groups, with The Independent as media partner, to press
politicians for tougher action on climate change. The
Climate Clinic has been in operation at all the party
While the study will be seen as a cause for great
concern, it is the figure for the increase in extreme
drought that some observers find most frightening.
"We're talking about 30 per cent of the world's land
surface becoming essentially uninhabitable in terms of
agricultural production in the space of a few decades,"
Mark Lynas, the author of High Tide, the first major
account of the visible effects of global warming around
the world, said. "These are parts of the world where
hundreds of millions of people will no longer be able
to feed themselves."
Mr Pendleton said: "This means you're talking about any
form of development going straight out of the window.
The vast majority of poor people in the developing
world are small-scale farmers who... rely on rain."
A glimpse of what lies ahead
The sun beats down across northern Kenya's Rift Valley,
turning brown what was once green. Farmers and nomadic
herders are waiting with bated breath for the arrival
of the "short" rains - a few weeks of intense rainfall
that will ensure their crops grow and their cattle can
The short rains are due in the next month. Last year
they never came; large swaths of the Horn of Africa
stayed brown. From Ethiopia and Eritrea, through
Somalia and down into Tanzania, 11 million people were
at risk of hunger.
This devastating image of a drought-ravaged region
offers a glimpse of what lies ahead for large parts of
the planet as global warming takes hold.
In Kenya, the animals died first. The nomadic herders'
one source of sustenance and income - their cattle -
perished with nothing to eat and nothing to drink.
Bleached skeletons of cows and goats littered the
The number of food emergencies in Africa each year has
almost tripled since the 1980s. Across sub-Saharan
Africa, one in three people is under-nourished. Poor
governance has played a part.
Pastoralist communities suffer most, rather than
farmers and urban dwellers. Nomadic herders will walk
for weeks to find a water hole or riverbed. As
resources dwindle, fighting between tribes over scarce
resources becomes common.
One of the most critical issues is under-investment in
pastoralist areas. Here, roads are rare, schools and
hospitals almost non-existent.
Nomadic herders in Turkana, northern Kenya, who saw
their cattle die last year, are making adjustments to
their way of life. When charities offered new cattle,
they said no. Instead, they asked for donkeys and
camels - animals more likely to survive hard times.
Pastoralists have little other than their animals to
rely on. But projects which provide them with money to
buy food elsewhere have proved effective, in the short
term at least.