Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais sem Terra (MST)

(1991, Brazil)
Joint Award with CPT

...for winning land for landless families and helping them to farm it sustainably.

About

The Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais sem Terra (MST) works in defense of Brazilian landless families. Brazil has the most inequitable distribution of land ownership in the world, with a high infant mortality rate, millions of street children and situations akin to slavery in the countryside. MST members work under the slogan 'Occupy, Resist, Produce' and they organise the landless to challenge this situation, putting themselves at great personal risk, since torture, death, threats and intimidation are commonplace.

Contact Details

MST
Alameda Barão de Limeira, 1232
01.202.002 São Paulo, SP
BRAZIL

Website

Biography

Brazil has the most inequitable distribution of land ownership in the world. Two per cent of its landowners hold 60 per cent of its arable land. Some 90 million people, two-thirds of the population, are landless peasants or slum dwellers excluded from land by this concentration of ownership. Their conditions of life are among the worst in the world: high infant mortality, millions of destitute street children in the cities and, in the countryside, situations sometimes akin to slavery, where workers may be watched over by the landlord's hired gunmen.

Those who seek to organise to challenge this situation risk everything, including torture and death. Beatings, death threats and intimidation are commonplace. Yet despite scores of farmers, priests, social workers and Indians killed every year, only a handful of murder cases have ever come to trial.

From 1979 local groups began to be formed through the struggles in the countryside and in 1985 they founded the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra, the Landless Workers' Movement (MST). It was formed as a mass movement inside the trade union movement with the aim of struggling for land for its members. The formation of MST was encouraged and assisted by the Commissâo Pastoral da Terra, CPT (also a 1991 Right Livelihood Award recipient).

MST's slogan is 'Occupy, Resist, Produce'. It organises occupations by landless peasants of unproductive land, on the basis of which it negotiates with the state or federal authorities to transfer that land to the peasants. MST then supports the farmers in forming agricultural cooperatives to produce effectively in competition with the big estates.

MST is organised in 23 Brazilian states, but not in Amazonia because it opposes colonisation of the forest. Its political demands include: legalisation of past land occupations and demarcation of Indian lands; maximum farm size of 500 hectares; expropriation of land belonging to multinational companies and of land obtained illegally; an end to colonisation policy; appropriate agricultural policies for small farmers; environmental conservation and regeneration, and punishment of the murderers of rural workers involved in land conflicts.

Speeches

Acceptance Speech by Fatima Ribeiro

December 9th, 1991

"LAND REFORM IS A QUESTION OF SURVIVAL FOR MILLIONS OF PEOPLE IN THE THIRD WORLD"

To the members of the Swedish Parliament,

To the authorities here present,

To the members of the alternative Nobel Prize Foundation (The Right Livelihood Award Foundation)

To the friends of the Brazilian rural workers:

Our thanks

I would like to bring a fraternal greeting to this plenary in the name of the four million landless rural worker's families who live in Brazil and who are now receiving a tribute for our struggle for land reform and for social justice in the rural zone of Brazil.

We are proud and happy to receive this sign of international recognition.

It means more to us than a mere sign of honorific distinction: it will help to save lives. It will help land reform to progress. It will help more peasants to have access to the land, and with land, to the right to work. And to live.

In my country, millions of people have to fight very hard for the right to live and to work.

We have no words with which to thank you. But our retribution will be to increase our will, our courage, our strength to go ahead with our struggle. It will be to increase our efforts so that more peasants may have land, and life.

The Brazilian reality

I come from a relatively rich country. It has natural wealth and also produces goods. But what reigns in our country is poverty and social discrimination.

I do not want to bore you but I would like to present some social and economic data that can give you an idea of the immense social injustices which we face.

51 per cent of our national income goes to the 10 per cent most wealthy people in the country, while the 50 per cent poorest only get 12 per cent of everything that is produced. Brazil has one of the greatest concentrations of wealth in the world. Only 35 per cent of everything produced in the country goes towards salaries, while 65 per cent goes towards profits.

The working class lives in a situation of absolute poverty. The minimum wage determined by the government is of approximately 70 US dollars per month. Approximately 43 per cent of the 11 million workers are unemployed.

Due to this unequal distribution of wealth, we face enormous social problems. There are parts of the country in which the average life expectancy is 47 years. Only 23 per cent of the population is of normal height and a generation of "dwarfs" is appearing, adults under 1,50 meters high. Only 32 per cent of the population is adequately fed. 42 per cent of the rural population is illiterate. The infant mortality rate is 100 per 1000 children born. According to official statistics there are 6 million children of school age, between 6 and 14 years old, who are not in school. One million two hundred thousand of these children are abandoned, living in the streets, without father or mother or any kind of support from the State, completely cast aside by society. The press has denounced the veritable genocide which is being committed against the abandoned children in Brazil: over a thousand children are murdered every year by the Military Police and paramilitary groups, in the big cities.

There is a deficit of 10 million housing units in Brazil and because of this slum dwellings and cheap, overcrowded tenements are increasing all over the country.

The situation in the rural zone

While the situation of the country as a whole is disastrous - and Brazil is an urbanized country, in which over 85 per cent of the population lives in the towns - in the rural zone it is catastrophic.

Abject poverty is part of the day-to-day life in the Brazilian rural milieu. Living conditions are very, very bad. 66 per cent of the houses have no electricity, 15 per cent have no stove for cooking, 78 per cent have no refrigerator, 23 per cent have no drinkable water and only 7,5 per cent have toilets.

And in spite of the immense expanses of land suitable for farming, hunger is rife in the countryside.

The root and basis of all this is the unjust structure of ownership of the land, for a few privileged people control most of the available land. While 53 per cent of the landowners - the small landowners - own only 3 per cent of all the land, 1 per cent of the largest landowners, who own areas of over one thousand hectares each, control 42 per cent of all the land in Brazil. The twenty largest landowners in Brazil own over 15 million hectares. It is a surface equivalent to some European countries. The 46 economic and financial groups which own land own 22 million hectares, but only use 3,7 million hectares. According to official studies, nothing less than 43 per cent of the land in Brazil is considered idle, that is, is not put to any kind of use. Suffice to say that in spite of the fact that over 600 million hectares of land are already under title deeds, being considered private property, the area that is planted with crops is only of 65 million hectares.

There are 23 million rural workers in Brazil. 8 million of there are smallholding peasants; 6 more million are temporary salaried workers, who do not find work the whole year through and 8 million (or 4 million families) are landless rural workers, whom our government tries to organize.

The Indian question

There are 180 Indian nations in Brazil today, in a total of approximately 200 thousand Indians who have survived the 500 years of massacres and oppression. These native peoples keep up a continuous resistance against all types of violence, sponsored by the State and by the interests of large economic groups such as big landowners, mining companies and timber extracting operations.

The government policies for the Indians do not assure them their most elementary rights, and are being defined more and more in accordance with the conservative interests of the economic groups. Less than half of their lands have had their boundaries marked and they suffer all kinds of exploitation of their natural resources. In this way the survival of these peoples, of their lives and cultures, is at risk. For this reason we consider that the only guarantee for the existence and survival of these native people in Brazil is the effective recognition of their territories. These territories must be protected against invasions and these peoples' autonomy must be respected.

Land Reform

We defend land reform as the main solution for these serious social problems in the Brazilian rural zone. A land reform which distributes the ownership of land, assuring all rural workers the right to work and live on the land.

From the economic viewpoint, land reform in Brazil would bring about an increase in the production of food for the population, and not only for export as is being done now. It would certainly reduce the present level of starvation, specially in the rural zone. It would fight the under-employment of the land and the land would be used to produce food, not only for speculation or for producing profits.

From the social point of view, the distribution of land would lead to the reinstatement of social justice, guaranteeing the rights of all Brazilians equally. We would avoid the rural exodus which in the last few years has led 30 million peasants to flee to the big cities. We are the country with the greatest internal migrations in the world.

And we would also be contributing to decrease the gap between different social strata.

In our view, land reform is the solution for the economic, social, environmental and political problems of our country.

However, we have a ruling elite which is blind, arrogant and stupid and which thinks merely of its own profit and well-being.

Our struggle

Confronted with such a cruel social situation and with a government which defends precisely the big landowners' and real estates speculators' interests, the fight for land reform in Brazil is a long one, replete with difficulties, challenges and hardships. We compare it to the long fight against slavery during the last century.

Our movement began to get organized during the late seventies, with the weakening of the military dictatorship and the appearance of many local struggles, peasants who organized to gain land to work on. Bringing these isolated struggles together, we began to get organized and managed to build up a national movement of landless peasants. It became consolidated at national level after the first congress, in 1985. Today we are organized in 19 states in the country, specially in the Northeast and South regions, which have the largest number of landless peasants.

Our movement was organized to pursue three basic aims: the fight for land, the struggle for land reform and the struggle for a more just and fraternal society.

During all these years we have used many means to demand our rights. We mobilize to put pressure on the government to apply the land reform law. We hold marches, demonstrations, many hearings with the authorities, hunger strikes, concentrations in the state capitals, and above all we try to occupy the large estates, so that the peasants can farm the land, work and produce food.

In 1987 we drew up a popular project for land reform and presented it to the National Congress in charge of drawing up the new Brazilian constitution. Our project had more than one million six hundred thousand signatures of voters. Nonetheless, the rulers of the country and the Brazilian elite closed their ears and the project was not taken into consideration.

The government's response is violence

The answer the workers have received from the government is violence. Land reform is being considered, more and more often, as a matter worthy of the attention of the police, specially by the present government. During all these years, dozens of rural workers have been murdered. During the last ten years, almost a thousand workers have been assassinated by big landowners, by their hired gunmen or by the police. Only three of these cases have come to the courts. All the others have gone unpunished. There have been dozens of cases of workers being tortured by the police. In spite of the fact that our constitution forbids torture and should be jailed without the option of paying bail, nobody has been punished so far.

During the last three years, over 200 militants of our movement have been imprisoned. All of them in an unjust and arbitrary fashion, because they were fighting for land reform. Right now six of our comrades are in prison, four of them in Porto Alegre, Rio Grande do Sul, one in Maranhao and one in Santa Catarina. They are all illegally imprisoned, since they have been in jail for months and the law does not allow anyone to remain in prison for over 81 days without any judgement. The Military Police and paramilitary groups harass our camps with violence. But we resist. We do not give up or lose faith in our aims.

Our movement is watched and persecuted by the Federal Police. Instead of searching for social solutions for the problems, the federal government is only concerned with repressing the workers. The present government, which has already been in place for two years, has not misappropriated any land, a government of corrupt people, of demagogues and liars. It has suffered a total loss of credit from Brazilian society and is involved in almost daily scandals.

In spite of so much repression and so much hardship, we have also had many victories. During these years the Movement has been at work we have conquered over 600 areas which have been turned into resettlements in which over one hundred thousand families of rural workers are living. 

In these areas that have been conquered we are trying to develop farming production, stimulating agricultural cooperation and work on a collective basis. Several of the resettlements are already models of production and productivity. Even so, the government refuses any help to the resettlements, in an attempt to demoralize land reform and avoid that the areas under the workers' control achieve success.

We are also trying to develop new methods of educational work in the schools and we are developing a widespread effort towards teaching adults to read and write, based on the method of Paulo Freire. In short, we are trying to build up a new and more just society within our resettlements.

Our proposal

The fact of having received this international Award gives us more strength to go ahead with our struggle. It encourages us to defend our ideas and ideals for a more just society with more energy. We shall go on struggling and resisting so as to achieve:

1 - the recognition of the right of every rural worker to work on the land, and the legalization of all the areas occupied by workers;

2 - the establishment of a maximum size for rural estates;

3 - the misappropriation of all large estates, beginning with the biggest ones and avoiding the misappropriation of properties with an area of under 500 hectares;

4 - the misappropriation of all land belonging to multinational groups and companies;

5 - the delimitation of the boundaries of all Indian lands and the resettlement of poor peasants who have no title deeds in areas within the same regions where they live;

6 - investigation and punishment of all crimes committed against rural workers and the confiscation of lands belonging to large landowners who have committed these crimes, who cultivate plants used for drugs on their land or who employ slave labour;

7 - the establishment of an agricultural policy aiming to encourage smallholders and give priority to small holdings, encouraging the production of food for all the Brazilian population;

8 - the end of the colonization projects and of all the farming and cattle breeding projects and incentives towards the occupation of the Amazon region by economic groups.

International solidarity

Land reform in Brazil is such a serious issue, of such great concern, that it needs support from all sides to be able to come about. It is not the task of only the landless peasants. We fight in the ways we can. Neither will it be brought about only by Brazilian workers and Brazilian society. The ruling economic groups are so powerful, with their international alliances, that we are convinced that land reform in Brazil also depends on international solidarity.

International public opinion, NGOs, prominent personalities, people of good will, can all contribute and help us to fight social injustices in Brazil and move towards land reform.

That is why we voice this appeal, requesting the international community to permanently denounce the injustices that take place in Brazil. Please protest against our government. Help us save lives. Help us fight against poverty. Help us to fight against injustice.

Part of our problems are also an international responsibility. It was not us who invented multinationals. It was not us who invented foreign debt. It was not us who invented the pollution of our lands, our rivers, our air. It was not us who invented raw materials exports at low prices. It was not us who invented low salaries. It was not us who invented the arms race.

So much is said nowadays about modernism, about neo-liberalism, about a peaceful world, about a global community. About ecology. For us, the most important issues are starvation, poverty, social inequality, the exploitation of labour. Living conditions. Social ecology, in which man must survive together with Nature.

Once again, let me thank you for your support and recognition. Now that we are close to the five hundredth anniversary of the domination of Latin America, we would like to offer this Award that has been given us to all the peasants and native peoples of Latin America, who also fight for land reform and for social justice.

Thank you very much.

  Pictures
 Videos

Introduction into the Landless Workers Movement

Interviews

FAQ about MST

Questions asked in 2005

1. How far have you come and which goals have you reached since you received the RLA?

The Right Livelihood Award has strengthened the MST's position in the Brazilian society. It was important in order to receive support from the society and show that our struggle is legitimate. It showed that the MST is important for the organisation of the farmers, the development of the production, education, health and creating new relations among people and nature, promoting a more humane and dignified life.

2. Have there been improvements for the landless under the Lula government? What do you criticise the government for?

The Lula government hasn't changed things for the better; it hasn't changed the situation for the landless. The government hasn't changed the neo-liberal economic policies. These policies favour the finance capital and in agriculture, the agro-business. This weakens the position of the small farmers and the Agrarian Reform. The government has to change the economic policies if the Agrarian Reform is to succeed.

3. What is your position on settlements in the Amazon rainforest and indigenous land rights in the Amazon? 

We are against the idea of moving the landless to other parts of the Amazon rainforest. There's enough land on the estates that isn't being cultivated and the Agrarian Reform could be done without occupying the Amazon. Instead, we should try to preserve it. The indigenous people have the right to remain and cultivate their land, protecting the natural resources, the rainforest and the water. They should be able to maintain their culture. 

4. What effect has the Right Livelihood Award had on your work?

Well, internally for the MST, it motivated the landless to continue the struggle, now that the effort and the sacrifice have gained international recognition. It helped the landless of the MST to gain more self-esteem, inspiration and will to participate. Other sectors of society (universities, intellectuals, churches, etc.) showed more willingness to more firmly support us. The award has also been a means to put pressure on the government to respect and recognize the demands of the MST.

Publications

Contact

Right Livelihood Award Foundation

Head office:
Stockholmsvägen 23
122 62 Enskede
Sweden

Phone: +46 (0)8 70 20 340
Fax: +46 (0)8 70 20 338

Geneva office:
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Chemin Eugène-Rigot 2, Building 5
1202 Geneva
Switzerland

Phone: +41 (0)22 555 09 55

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