On World Day of Food Sovereignty: Struggling for Land in Brazil

October 16 is World Food Day. To ensure that there is food for the world, and that it is not controlled by corporations, small farmers and allies across the globe have also named October 16 the Day of Action for Food Sovereignty and against Transnational Organizations. A posting by La Via Campesina, the coalition of more than 160 peasants and small-farmer movements across continents, says that it “organizes this day of solidarity, resistance, and mobilisation in order to make citizens aware of the current threats to peoples’ food sovereignty.” (To find out about U.S. actions for this day, click here.)

Food sovereignty is the concept that every people has the right to make decisions about, produce, and consume its own local, healthy, culturally appropriate food. Food sovereignty is based in an expansive set of ecological and agricultural practices, international trade laws, and domestic governmental policies.

A prerequisite of food sovereignty is comprehensive land reform, through which small farmers can control their own land and production, and have access to credit, marketing assistance, and other government support on which their livelihood often depends. For the 2014 international mobilization, La Via Campesina says, “We will raise our voices in order to express our resistance to landgrabbing… and to call for comprehensive agrarian reform and food sovereignty, which together imply a radical transformation towards a fair and decent food system for the world’s peoples.”


No group has done more promote this “radical transformation” than Brazil’s Landless Workers’ Movement, or MST by its Portuguese acronym. The MST is addressing an urgent need in a country with one of the highest levels of unequal land distribution anywhere. Fifty-six percent of agricultural land is owned by just 3.5% of landowners. FOOTNOTE: Fabíola Ortiz, “Brazil at Risk of Agrarian Counter-Reform,” Inter Press Service website, April 27, 2011, http://ipsnews.net/ news.asp?idnews=55414. In 2000, multinational companies controlled roughly 50% to 90% of most premier export crops. FOOTNOTE: Sue Branford and Jan Rocha, Cutting the Wire: The Story of the Landless Movement in Brazil (London: Latin American Bureau, 2002), 175. Four and a half million Brazilians have no land or tenure rights. Unable to compete, an estimated 90,000 small and family farms disappear each year. FOOTNOTE: Miriam Nobre, “Quand la libération des femmes rencontre la libération des semences” [“When the liberation of women meets the liberation of seeds”], La Découverte, September-October, 2005, http://www.cairn.info/revue-mouvements-2005-4-page-70.htm.

The MST’s solution to ending the loss of land and livelihood for rural people, and for ending the country’s poverty and hunger, is to put agriculturally rich land back into the hands of small farmers. In Brazil, people can challenge ownership of large properties in two ways: by going after the title’s authenticity or by claiming that the land is not fulfilling its “social function.” Codified in the country’s l988 constitution, social function means that 80% of the land is used effectively, environmental and labor standards are respected, and both owners and workers benefit.

Rita Zanotto, a 25-year member of the MST, tells about the strong social organization that is required to successfully challenge the unlawful landholdings of the elite, and how the redistribution process works. Zanotto is a member of the MST’s education and training sector and its international relations sector.

“We’ve had to establish strategies for our struggle as if this were a war. Of course, not in the most literal sense, but this is a clear struggle for land in which we have to establish strategies for resistance. While feeling a lot of solidarity towards each other, we also think about how to not be overtaken by the enemy.

“We organize collectively. There is no director or head of the MST. If you hear someone say there is, they probably don’t understand the movement. We all work in teams, coordinating together. And we’ve been sharing our experiences and building this movement together, constructing the roads that we can walk forward on.

“I got involved in the MST in 1989 in the same way as most other people: as a person who went to live in an encampment to struggle for land. I started with the MST on March 3. By March 7, we were already occupying a plantation to pressure the government and show them that there is plenty of land that is lying fallow, that is not being used and that needs to be given over to other people. This was a moment of great struggle, with of a lot of repression. In that particular encampment, 22 people were arrested as a result.

“Right now, we have 100,000 families living in these encampments [where usually about 100 families live under tarps or huts on the land they are struggling politically to gain, backed up by MST lawyers who try to win it legally], and 350,000 families involved with the MST. It’s a very complex political moment for Brazil. In the past few years, we haven’t obtained much land. The government hasn’t made much progress in the agrarian reform that we need.

“When your encampment occupies the land and works it and plants crops, is when the most suffering takes place. People don’t have land and are living with food supplies by the government – barely enough to survive. People are just coming into the movement wanting to get involved, they’re excited, but then they realize how hard it is to obtain land. So this is when organizing as a collective becomes very important. Getting involved in these collectives is when the community organizes itself into what we call ‘constructed fellowship.’ People organize what is called a ‘base nucleus,’ with each nucleus made up of 10 to 15 families. Each nucleus has its own coordination team, and we all get organized to delegate tasks. We have a health nucleus, an education nucleus, a hygiene nucleus. This is a temporary moment in the life of the community, but it’s also one of the most special moments in the training and mobilization of the people involved. A lot of solidarity is developed here.

“The ultimate goal is concrete: to obtain land. But struggling for land is just the first step. Once you win it, then it’s about working the land, living in the land reform settlement, being productive, having broader political objectives, and staying organized. Organizing the means of production means organizing production on the land, and also organizing people into groups and collectives. That second part involves a wholly different kind of organization: reorganizing the grassroots base, establishing permanent political spaces, and establishing schools on the land we’ve won. Our schools belong to the Landless People movement, they’re ours. We’re very passionate about education, which is what makes the difference for our movement.

“I’d like to say that I am so proud to be part of an organization that sees its members as holistic, entire human beings. That doesn’t just think about production; rather, we think about every element of the person and the collective.

“We are also an internationalist movement. We don’t just see the MST as a movement for Brazil, but rather as part of global movement.”

Translation by David Schmidt.

Beverly Bell has worked for more than three decades as an advocate, organizer, and writer in collaboration with social movements in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, and the U.S. Her focus areas are just economies, democratic participation, and gender justice. Beverly currently serves as associate fellow at theInstitute for Policy Studiesand coordinator ofOther Worlds. She is author of Walking on Fire: Haitian Women Stories of Survival and Resistance, Fault Lines: Views Across Haiti’s Divide, and Harvesting Justice: Transforming Food, Land, and Agricultural Systems in the Americas.