Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais sem Terra (MST)

Awarded 1991


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

The Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais sem Terra (MST) is a mass social movement working in defence of Brazilian landless families in the worlds’ most inequitable distribution of land ownership country. It seeks to win the right for landless people to live and farm on unproductive land held by big landowners, banks or the state. Challenging this situation implies great risks, including torture and death. Beatings, death threats and intimidation are commonplace for MST members. 

Under the slogan ‘Occupy, Resist, Produce’, MST has involved more than 350,000 Brazilian families settled in more than 80,000 camps over South America’s giant. It is one of the largest and most articulated movements in Latin America and, as part of La Via Campesina, one of 182 organizations worldwide fighting for agrarian reform and the rights of 200 million rural people.

MST’s Popular Agrarian Reform programme is a nationwide project to put rural communities in control of the land, allowing them to reap the benefits of forest restoration and food production where they live. In the camps, they plant for their own living and trade what is left. By introducing a new agroecology system, one essential aspect is ensuring that food production doesn’t damage the environment.

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

Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais sem Terra, 1991 Laureate

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 the landlord's hired gunmen may watch over workers.

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 indigenous 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 to struggle for land for its members. The formation of MST was encouraged and assisted by the Comissão Pastoral da Terra, CPT (also a 1991 Right Livelihood Award recipient).

MST is organised in 24 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 indigenous 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.

It organises occupations by landless peasants of unproductive land, based on which it negotiates with the state or federal authorities to transfer that land to the peasants. Settlements usually have few improvements and infrastructure, such as sanitation, electricity, access to culture and leisure. Therefore, the settled families remain organized and carry out new struggles to conquer these basic rights. MST then supports the farmers in creating agricultural cooperatives to produce effectively in competition with the big estates.

MST is the largest producer of organic rice in Latin America, thanks to the settlements of families in southern Brazil. This rice is destined for public schools in São Paulo, Minas Gerais and Paraná to guarantee meals free of pesticides to students. Forest conservation and restoration are central to the organization’s aims, and last year, it launched an initiative to plant 100 million trees across Brazil over the coming decade. The MST’s local Ho Chi Minh seedling nursery, for example, provides seeds for planting across the state and also serves a dual purpose as a centre for environmental education.

In 2018, a week before the second round of the Presidential elections in Brazil, current president Jair Bolsonaro publicly declared that, if elected, he would classify all MST activities as terrorist acts and incarcerate its members.

Nowadays, MST has 1.5 million people affiliated and more than 2,000 public schools in its camps, with about 350 thousand families who conquered the land through the struggle and organization of rural workers.

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