Thirty Years of Landless Workers Demanding State Power

Rebecca Tarlau

How do relationships between left-leaning political parties and social movements change over time? Rebecca Tarlau looks at the case of the Brazilian Landless Worker’s Movement (MST) and the Workers’ Party (PT), examining the complexity of state-society relations — asking whether social movements can be “prefigurative” while still contesting state power.

MST organizers march to the presidential palace to demand agrarian reform. Feb. 2014. Credit: Rebecca Tarlau

In February of 2014, fifteen thousand peasant-activists from across Brazil came together for the Sixth National Congress of the Landless Workers Movement (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra, or MST). The MST is one of the largest agrarian reform movements in Latin America. Over the past 30 years, through occupations of privately and publicly owned landed estates, the MST has succeeded in forcing the government to redistribute land rights to approximately 150,000 previously landless families.[1] Currently, tens of thousands of families are still occupying land across the country, waiting for their claim to this land to be officially sanctioned.

Beyond visioning and strategizing, one of the main objectives of the MST’s Sixth National Congress was to show the movement’s force and strength to the Brazilian government. This objective became clearest on the third day of the congress, when 15,000 conference attendees marched several miles to the presidential palace. At the palace, a group of MST activists tried to push past a police barricade and enter the building, and were only stopped from doing so by tear gas and clubs. Another group of activists tried to set up a memorial of crosses for all of the landless peasants who have died in the struggle for agrarian reform. The police also prevented these actions, angering several activists who reacted by throwing the crosses at the police. This led to an escalation in police force, with more tear gas shot into the crowd and people breaking out running and screaming. A group of MST leaders tried to de-escalate the situation by leading everyone away from the police line and the presidential palace. Immediately following this confrontation, President Dilma Rousseff of the left-leaning Workers’ Party (PT) agreed to meet with several MST leaders about their demands.

Moving beyond the “Autonomy versus Cooptation” Debate

What is the significance of these confrontations between MST activists and the PT government, given the MST’s close relationship to this political party over the past thirty years? Are these protests and confrontations solely public performances? What are the implications of the MST’s relationship to the government, given the government’s current support for large agribusiness?

These questions about power and politics are of utmost importance. A common narrative about social movements is that once activists engage the state and attempt to take state power, they become co-opted and move into a period of demobilization and decline. This idea can be traced back to Michels’[2] iron rule of oligarchy, and his argument that political parties become more bureaucratic and hierarchical over time, thus suppressing grassroots mobilization. Piven and Cloward[3] took up this idea five decades later, arguing that once movements become formalized, adopt hierarchies, and begin working within the state, contentious action is difficult to organize.

In a more recent expression of this position, Foweraker[4] argues that the MST’s relationship to the state has effectively turned it into an NGO: “It [the MST] seeks to influence state agencies from the inside, while building an international network of NGO and agency support. In effect the MST has begun to conform to the image of a developmental NGO.” This argument directly supports the position that once social movements become entangled and embedded within the state, they lose their nature as grassroots, mass-based, and contentious organizations.

The goal of this article is not to dismiss this position, as aspects of the argument resonate with the everyday reality of MST-state relations in Brazil.[5] The MST’s relationship to the state is extremely complicated, and at times it can clearly serve to demobilize the movement. However, despite these risks, the MST is not afraid of taking power; rather, activists have been attempting to do so for more than thirty years. In direct contrast to the Zapatistas in Mexico, MST activists are making demands on the state as citizens of the Brazilian polity. Nonetheless, this goal—to take power and demand concessions wherever and whenever possible—has led to a huge predicament: while MST activists strive for structural transformations, such as the end to large-scale industrial agricultural production, the movement’s current relationship to the PT directly contradicts this goal by stabilizing a hegemonic bloc that includes large agribusiness.

From a Gramscian perspective these contradictions are, of course, an inherent part of state-society dynamics: resistance movements are part and parcel of the hegemonic terrain, simultaneously protecting the state from a frontal attack while also representing the “trenches” in which contestation must be organized.[6] Therefore, social movements—regardless of their relationship to the government—are never fully autonomous from the state. In this article, rather than framing the state-society debate as “power is bad” versus “autonomy is good,” I clarify how the MST developed its complicated relationship to the Brazilian state. I also discuss the nature of the MST as a movement with a large social base, and I argue that—despite the contradictions—the MST has consciously chosen to entangle itself with power as a response to the needs of these families. This has had real repercussions for the movement, including several internal divides. Does this confirm the perils of dealing with power? I argue that a more interesting question is not whether power is good or bad, but how movements engage the state, and the real tensions that challenger movements must navigate through this process.

Historicizing MST-State Relations

The MST was born in a moment of military dictatorship, in the early 1980s, when social movements of all types and ideologies were united in calling for a return to democracy. At this time, land occupations were almost entirely funded by solidarity groups and the Catholic Church. During these early years the line between the movement and the state was thick and unquestioned. The early 1980s was also the period when both the PT and the oppositional labor movement, Central Union of Workers, (Central Única dos Trabalhadores, or CUT), were founded. In other words, the PT, CUT, and the MST were all born at this same historical moment, and there was a lot of overlap between participants in these different social struggles. Almost all of the founders of these three groups were connected to grassroots Catholic organizers, and especially in the MST’s case, to rural Catholic groups such as the Pastoral Land Commission (Comissão Pastoral da Terra, or CPT). Contemporary relationships between the PT and the MST cannot be understood without analyzing this historical context, and these movements’ similar ideological formations.

In the 1990s, even before the PT won power at the federal level, the MST’s relationship to the state became more complex as the movement’s leadership began demanding resources for its social base. Again, a key point to remember is that the MST is not the Zapatistas. MST activists are not fighting for autonomy from the Brazilian state; rather, they are fighting for the government to fulfill its responsibility to the citizens of Brazil. For the MST, these responsibilities include providing education, health care, housing, infrastructure, agricultural assistance, and other public goods to all citizens. In addition, the MST insists on participating in the provision of these goods. In other words, MST activists do not just want public schools built in their communities, they also want to train the teachers who are going to work in those schools.

Given these goals, how should we conceptualize the nature of the MST?

A national MST leader tried to answer this question for a group of international solidarity groups attending the Sixth MST Congress. He said,

The first question to be clear on is the political nature of the MST. Some think of us as a big NGO or a labor union, and some think of us as a political party. Our political nature has a lot of these elements, but we are a social movement. And our political nature is to negotiate with the government and to demand what our social base needs; we have a responsibility to our social base…[7]

In other words, although the MST does engage in some “NGO-type” activities, such as literacy campaigns and agricultural development projects, the MST is not an NGO. Similarly, although the MST fights for the rights of landless workers and sometimes campaigns for certain political candidates, the MST is also not a labor union or a political party. The MST activist continued,

When we interact with the state and government, we are still a social movement. Why do we not break with the state or government? . . . The NGOs can say that they do not receive money from the state, the NGO can do this, but our movement cannot do this because we have a social base that has rights, and those rights are the responsibility of the government.[8]

The MST believes it is necessary to negotiate with the government, in order to win concrete material benefits for the families participating in the movement. This process necessarily involves having a relationship with state power.

These developments have created many interesting and complex situations for the movement. For example, in the area of public education, MST activists have been able to convince the Brazilian government to sanction a whole series of pedagogies that support the struggle for agrarian reform in the countryside.[9] On April 17, 1998, the two-year anniversary of a massacre of nineteen MST activists, President Fernando Henrique Cardoso created the National Program for Education in Areas of Agrarian Reform (Programa Nacional de Educação na Reforma Agraria, or PRONERA). This program has funded hundreds of literacy classes across the country, in addition to providing access to higher education to over fourteen thousand people living in areas of agrarian reform. In August of 2012, forty-seven students graduated from a PRONERA law degree program at the Federal University of Goiás; many of these graduates are now lawyers for the MST, directly contribution to the movement’s internal capacity.

Sometimes, the relationship between the MST and the state becomes so complex that it is unclear whether the situation is more accurately described as the state co-opting the MST or the MST co-opting the state. For example, for over a decade in Rio Grande do Sul, the MST obtained permission from the state government to administer “Itinerant Schools” in their occupied camps. These were legally recognized public schools allowed to “move” with the “movement” of the MST camps. When the MST leadership in Rio Grande do Sul organized a march to the state capital in 2001, occupying a federal building, the Itinerant Schools in each of the MST’s camps travelled with the families, setting up their classrooms within this building occupation. In this case, the boundaries between state and movement became completely blurred, as the state actually became part of the mobilization of the social movement itself.

At every level of government in Brazil, MST activists develop relationships with state officials and demand concessions for their settlements and camps. I witnessed this when I helped to lead a delegation of U.S. community organizers to an MST settlement in the state of Goías. During this visit, the vice mayor of the town asked to come to the home where we were staying, and in preparation our MST host listed all of the issues she wanted us to demand for her settlement. When the vice mayor arrived, we each introduced ourselves, duly noting the lack of schooling, agricultural assistance, and medical facilities in the community. At every level, MST activists see these types of interactions with political officials as opportunities to obtain concessions for the movement. However, as our host emphasized, these concessions only ever materialize when the movement also takes to the street. This is similar to the “dual strategy”[10] that Latin American feminist groups have engaged in for the past three decades, simultaneously working with policy actors and engaging in contentious political actions.

Although the MST’s connections to the Brazilian state have always been full of contradictions, these relationships became even more complex when the PT took power at the federal level in 2003. Although the MST has an official position of autonomy from political parties, many activists have deep connections to the PT and some have even chosen to run for office through the party.[11] Furthermore, while the MST is not affiliated with one party, before every election MST leadership bodies do “analyses of the political conjuncture,” taking positions on which candidates to support. At the national level, the MST came out in support of PT candidate Luis Inácio da Silva (Lula) in 2002 and 2006. While the movement did not take an official stance in the 2010 presidential election, one of the most prominent leaders of the MST, João Pedro Stédile, actively encouraged MST activists to vote for PT candidate Dilma Rousseff.

Although there was a general assumption when President Lula first took office in 2003 that he would implement a program of agrarian reform based on expropriation, the Lula administration did not take any immediate actions concerning this issue. Furthermore, instead of breaking with the policies of the previous government, President Lula continued many of the market-based agrarian reform initiatives over his two terms in office.[12] During Lula’s administration there was also a huge expansion of industrial soybean, corn, and sugarcane production, driven by both government programs (including the promotion of sugarcane ethanol) and an increased investment by international capital in Brazilian agriculture.

These developments have not been entirely negative for poor populations in Brazil. While agricultural exports are used as the principal source of income for the federal government to pay off external debt, the PT government has also invested this money into poverty relief programs such as Bolsa Familia, Bolsa Escola, and Luz Para Todos. In addition, the PT has invested an unprecedented amount of money into agrarian reform settlements, through rural development programs. In other words, the GDP growth driven by the agribusiness export industry has been used to build the houses that MST families live in, the agricultural cooperatives that fund the movement, and the public schools that MST activists use to teach children about the struggle for agrarian reform.

MST encampment in Rio Grande do Sul, next to a large agribusiness. Credit: Rebecca Tarlau
MST encampment in Rio Grande do Sul, next to a large agribusiness. Credit: Rebecca Tarlau

Herein lies the contradiction: when the MST was entirely funded by outside solidarity groups, the amount of resources available to the movement was quite limited. Thus, in the 1990s, MST activists began forming closer relationships to the Brazilian government, demanding public services and goods as members of the Brazilian polity. The movement also demanded to participate in the provision and governance of these services. Access to these resources and spaces for participatory governance increased when President Lula took office in 2003. Yet, these developments came with less expropriation of land and more investment for industrial agricultural production. Therefore, the concessions that the MST has successfully won for its social base during the PT rule have been primarily funded by an economic system that threatens the future existence of the movement.

Conclusions: Power, Politics, and Contestation

What should we make of these contradictions? Should we understand the MST’s failure to achieve large-scale agrarian reform as a consequence of its relationship to the state? Or should we understand these state concessions as significant victories, despite the fact that agrarian reform might never have occurred? Even Piven and Cloward[13] admit that, “What was won must be judged by what was possible.”

These questions are difficult, if not impossible, to answer. However, as a movement with a social base of families who have concrete needs, the leaders of the MST argue that they do not have the privilege of disengaging from public power. Not everyone within the movement has agreed with this position. In October of 2011, over a dozen activists chose to leave the MST, publishing a public letter that critiqued the movement’s relationship to the government and the lack of autonomy this has produced. Interestingly, the responses from MST activists who have stayed in the movement have not been outright denials of the legitimacy of these critiques. Rather, they acknowledge that the MST’s relationship to the state is complicated and may, at times, suck energy away from more contentious actions.

These activists argue that the MST has to acknowledge these contradictions while continuing to take advantage of the gaps in state power that push forward their struggle. These gaps include funding for university degree programs for MST activists, government markets for agricultural products, and loans for constructing collectively owned small-scale agribusinesses. As political scientist Deborah Yashar[14] writes, “We cannot assume that states are competent, purposive, coherent, and capable . . . To the contrary, we must analyze states and state projects in light of the reach of the state.” In other words, the “state” is not an all-powerful entity; there are always gaps in state power that the movement can use to push forward its struggle. However, the MST always combines this political maneuvering with contentious forms of protest, illustrating to the Brazilian government that the movement’s demands are backed by “soldiers”[15] on the ground.

The case of the MST illustrates a need to reframe the debate about power and political mobilization. Rather than asking whether or not engaging the state is the correct strategy, a more interesting task is historicizing these state-society relations, and assessing the real tensions that come with directly confronting power, and partially taking it. In the hundreds of MST settlements and camps across the country families are “prefiguring” the world they hope to see, organizing collective housing, agricultural cooperatives, and student-administered public school systems. However, the MST is neither leaderless nor dismissive of state power. With limited resources available, the state is an important actor the MST can hold accountable for providing these public goods. Through contestation, street protest, and yes, political negotiation, the MST has been able to win concrete concessions for hundreds of thousands of landless families across the country. While “leaderless” movements that lack a social base might be able to reject state power, mass-based organizations such as the MST do not have this privilege.


Rebecca Tarlau is a Visiting Professor of Educational Leadership and Societal Change at Soka University of America and a Visiting Scholar at the UC Berkeley Center for Latin American Studies.


References and Footnotes

  1. Miguel Carter and Horacio Martins de Carvalho, “A Luta Na Terra: Fonte de Crescimento, Inovaçao E Desafio Constante Ao MST,” in Combatendo a Desigualdade Social: O MST E a Reforma Agrária No Brasil, ed. Miguel Carter (São Paulo: Editora UNESP, 2009), 329.
  2. Robert Michels, Political Parties: A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracy (New York: Dover Publications, 1915).
  3. Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward, “Normalizing Collective Protest,” in The Breaking of the American Social Compact (New York: The New Press, 1997), 345–74.
  4. Joe Foweraker, “Grassroots Movements and Political Activism in Latin America: A Critical Comparison of Chile and Brazil,” Journal of Latin American Studies 33 (2001): 856.
  5. This article is based on seventeen months of ethnographic research with the MST between June of 2009 and December of 2012, in four Brazilian states, as well as participation in the Sixth MST National Congress in February of 2014.
  6. Antonio Gramsci, The Antonio Gramsci Reader: Selected Writings 1916 – 1935, ed. David Forgacs (New York: New York University Press, 2000), 233.
  7. Notes from a MST leader’s presentation at a “Friends of the MST” meeting, held in Guaranema, São Paulo, February 16-18, 2014.
  8. Ibid.
  9. For more information on the MST’s attempt to implement these alternative pedagogies in public schools, see: (Tarlau, 2013).
  10. Sonia Alvarez, Engendering Democracy in Brazil: Women’s Movements in Transition Politics (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990).
  11. If an MST activist chooses to run for a political office, even with the encouragement of the MST leadership, she or he is asked to leave the decision-making processes of the movement.
  12. Joao Márcio Mendes Pereira and Sérgio Sauer, “História E Legado Da Reforma Agrária de Mercado No Brasil,” in Capturando a Terra: Banco Mundial, Políticas Fundiárias Neoliberais E Reforma Agrária de Mercado, ed. Sérgio Sauer and Joao Márcio Mendes Pereira (São Paulo: Expressão Popular, 2006), 198.
  13. Piven and Cloward, “Normalizing Collective Protest,” xiii.
  14. Deborah Yashar, Contesting Citizenship in Latin America: The Rise of Indigenous Movements and the Postliberal Challenge (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 6.
  15. A commonly used Portuguese phrase to refer to a social base of people willing to take to the streets.