Brazil’s landless workers movement is not only modeling sustainable, community-powered farming, it’s also growing into a political force to contend with.
Words by Nicole Froio and Images by Leonardo Carrato
On a low green hill in the south of the state of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Amanda Aparecida Matheus and her husband, Marcelo, cultivate a variety of vegetables, grains, and fruits, both for self-sustenance and for income. Their 22-acre lot sits an hour-and-a-half away from the tropical urban center of Rio, in a part of the country they call “the sea of hills.” On a breezy morning under the burning sun of Barra do Piraí municipality, whose first inhabitants were the Indigenous Xumetos, Pitas, and Araris, Matheus shows me the produce she is growing: bananas, manioc, okra, tangerines, oranges, limes, beans and a patch of just-sprouted coffee plants. The crops may be ordinary, but the way they came to be here is not.
“We’re only just starting here, our family agricultural set-up,” says Matheus, 43, somewhat shyly. A petite woman with bronzed skin and short, wavy hair in a ponytail, Matheus is a landless worker who won the right to farm here through the organized struggle of the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra, or Landless Workers’ Movement, better known as MST. Her crops and house, a five-minute walk from the farm, are part of the Roseli Nunes settlement, which totals 39 families.
In 2006, MST activists occupied this land, much of which was owned first by a coffee producer and then by the ex-president of the Brazilian Football Confederation. The occupying activists then notified Brazilian authorities to say the land was not serving a social purpose and was therefore eligible for re-appropriation under Brazilian law, which stipulates that large swaths of unproductive land must be repurposed for agrarian reform or the creation of ecological reservations. Roseli Nunes — more than 2,500 acres of hills, agricultural lots and houses that belong to landless workers — came to be through MST’s insistence on the law.
Matheus splits her time between farming, teaching political organization to new activists, and caring for her nine-year-old son, Ernesto. Matheus herself has been a part of the movement since childhood. In 1984, when she was four years old, her parents migrated from the southern state of Paraná, where MST was founded that same year, to the neighboring state of São Paulo, to join the movement and occupy land. “My family squatted in the first place because we needed to,” Matheus says. “My family needed to produce food for our own sustenance because up until that point, my parents worked for other people, and it wasn’t enough.”
Her parents were eventually granted a parcel of land, and Matheus spent her formative years in the São Paulo settlement, helping farm and learning about the movement. In adulthood, she worked as a teacher to the children in the settlement and got involved with MST’s activism. In 2017, Matheus moved farther north from São Paulo to aid the movement in Rio de Janeiro, where she received the right to the parcel she currently works. “I grew up seeing the importance of having your own land and the significance of agrarian reform in Brazil,” she says. “In Brazil, where most of the land is concentrated in the hands of few people, I learned the importance of land distribution, especially for the people who need it, small agriculturists, unemployed people, and poor families.”
MST may now be on the verge of something bigger. It is already one of the largest movements of rural workers in the world, with some 450,000 members and activists. Its occupation methods have not always been popular with powerful landowners or the state, and MST workers have clashed with soldiers and police, leading to violence and killings. But Brazil is now facing increased political pressure for reform, and a warming climate that will reduce arable land, as more and more people are seeking ethical ways to both produce and consume food. That has made MST more than just a land movement; it is now a climate justice movement. And it is gaining ground — socially and politically. For the first time last year, MST put forth political candidates in local elections — and won. MST candidates hold four state seats and two congressional seats, as activists work to destigmatize the movement. All of which raises the question: How much further can it go?
According to the last agricultural census, from 2017, roughly 1 percent of Brazil’s landowners control nearly half of the country’s land. These land monopolies are commonly known as latifundios, or estates, in Portuguese. This land inequality is an inheritance from Brazil’s colonization, in the sixteenth century, and industrialization, in the nineteenth. Unlike European nations, though, Brazil did not undertake a major reorganization of land distribution. Instead, latifundios emerged, along with heavy mechanization and agrochemicals, in a model of agribusiness similar to that of the United States.
“Brazil is the biggest country on the planet in terms of arable land,” says Ademar Paulo Ludwig Suptitz, a historian and MST organizer in São Paulo. “We have sunlight year-round, our water table is low so irrigation is easily done, but the land concentration lies in the hands of a few, despite Brazil being known as the world’s pantry. This is why the Landless Workers’ Movement was born.”
The modernization of Brazilian agribusiness coincided with the rule of military dictators, following a US-backed coup, from the 1960s to the 1980s. Around 20 million farmworkers from rural Brazil were expelled from their land, despite a law passed in 1964 that touted agrarian reform. Monopolization increased, and agriculture expanded, though not for rural workers. In the early 1980s, the dictatorship collapsed, giving rise to social movements that sprouted after decades of repression. Under the red and green flag of the MST, farmers began to occupy land, pushing authorities to enforce the 1964 law. The movement developed three demands, which continue to this day: the immediate distribution of the land being occupied by the movement; countrywide agrarian reform; and social transformation for a more equitable system (many of the workers hew to Marxist ideals of communism).
Amid ongoing political upheavals, the Brazilian government ratified a new constitution in 1998. In addition to the obligations of the state towards distribution of land ownership to rural workers, the 1964 agrarian reform law was updated to stipulate that all arable land in Brazil would have to fulfill a social purpose. Where soil was fertile, with favorable conditions for crops or livestock, it would have to be used for production and to provide jobs with fair working conditions. If a landowner failed to implement the law, the government could buy that land and redistribute it to the landless. The law created a wider opening for grassroots activism.
“Let’s say a rural worker is being removed from their land, but they know they can’t beat the large corporation that owns that land,” Suptitz explains. “They talk to their neighbor, and say, ‘I don’t want to leave.’ The neighbor says, ‘I also don’t want to leave.’ They decide to occupy nearby land that isn’t fulfilling its social function, so they can stay in that area. They start to organize themselves, and they occupy the land that is unproductive to get the attention of the authorities and start a re-appropriation process.” The federal government, via the National Institute of Colonization and Agrarian Reform (INCRA), then notifies the landowner that the occupied land is unproductive and offers to buy the land wholesale, with the money paid upfront. The land then belongs to the federal government to redistribute as it sees fit — ideally granting a hereditary concession of land use to landless farmworkers. This is how Matheus and all the families in the Roseli Nunes settlement were granted their land — which is technically still owned by the government but is practically theirs.
Being granted land is one thing, but MST’s model allows for one further step. Not only does the food here nourish the workers’ families and provide an income, but it also helps propagate the movement’s political aims in urban areas and improve its reputation. MST workers are often maligned in cities as lazy, as land invaders, or even as terrorists. “They say we are a violent movement,” Suptitz says. “But if you look at the history of the movement, it’s always the landless who die at the hands of authorities.”
In 2019, the people of Roseli Nunes began working with two nearby settlements, Terra da Paz and Irmã Dorothy, to sell their products as the Alaide Reis Collective. They needed a costly delivery truck to transport their goods, but lines of credit are rarely given to MST families. So the communities organized a fundraising campaign and were able to purchase a small delivery truck.
Since then, twice a month, Antenor Gil de Souza, 60, has been driving produce from the settlements to the city of Rio de Janeiro. De Souza delivers to an Armazém do Campo shop, which is part of a chain of 25 urban establishments across Brazil that sell goods directly from agrarian reform efforts. This effectively brings the fruits of MST’s work in rural areas to people who may have little knowledge about the movement. In Rio de Janeiro, sales for the Alaide Reis Collective take place every two weeks, and consumers can also order from the Armazém do Campo website, which offers them full knowledge of where the food comes from.
“Armazém do Campo is like a television that is directly connected to our settlements,” de Souza explains. “Because nowadays, people don’t really know where the food they eat is from, right? So when they come here, I think it’s easier to connect the food to those who harvest it.”
The families in the collective divide the orders from the shop and online customers equally. They then organize the produce, stacking it into the delivery truck. De Souza says he is proud to wake up at 3 am every other week to deliver food that is free of pesticides and chemicals. (It is also free of unpaid, unfair labor practices, which, along with poor working conditions, have been an issue in latifúndios across the country.)
De Souza makes the drive from Barra do Piraí, through the sea of hills, and down one of the largest federal highways in Brazil, the Rodovia Presidente Dutra, which connects Rio de Janeiro to São Paulo. It takes him about two hours to reach the Rio shop, a pink two-story house with white trimmings, in the heart of the city. Armazém do Campo is a community space, bookstore, and grocery shop. It holds five tables, a counter, a small kitchen, shelves of beans, rice, coffee, fruit compotes, jam, yerba mate, shelves of books on MST and agrarian reform, and a clothes rack with MST T-shirts and hats.
“I see Armazém do Campo as a part of my farm,” de Souza says. “Sometimes, after doing the delivery, I stay here and talk to the customers, or we put a table outside with the produce and I insist on being there, talking about the food we are selling. I’ve met people here who became my friends and that have visited me at my house at the settlement.”
Suptitz, who also manages an Armazém do Campo shop in São Paulo, says the movement intends to open many stores across the country to reach the working class. The connection between the city and the rural workers is essential for coalition building and the de-stigmatization of the movement. “The movement always wanted the support of society, and now the way to do that is through the Armazém stores,” Suptitz says. “This is the first time we’ve been able to connect to people in the city so strongly.”
On the second floor of the Armazém do Campo house, on a recent Saturday, around 10 wooden tables with flowered-pattern tablecloths are set up in an open, empty room with ceiling to floor windows. This space is usually reserved for events: community meetings, film showings, musical performances, and lectures. The aroma of the pork cooking downstairs sneaks in through the windows, as the staff prepares lunch and a local samba band gets ready to play — tapping drums, shaking tambourines, tuning guitars, and asking for cans of cold beer.
Every Saturday, a three-course lunch, cooked with ingredients from the Coletivo Alaide Reis, is served to the public for R$42 (about US$10). The “Culinária da Terra” event, which loosely translates to “Food from the Earth,” is a partnership with the gastronomy department of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ). Every week, culinary students from the university receive a list of available ingredients from the settlements and develop a menu for the event to showcase agrarian reform.
“This is a very important strategy for the MST to break the stigma associated with the movement,” says Ivan Bursztyn, project coordinator and a professor at UFRJ’s gastronomy department. “I think when the population has access to quality, healthy food that is free from pesticides, which is one of MST’s missions, it becomes easier to challenge the criminalization of this social movement.”
Over the past 40 years MST has gone through many transformations and faced ongoing repression from the Brazilian government. The movement was vilified for its methods and mission, and its members — often from humble origins — were stigmatized. The police, meanwhile, have a history of violence in handling MST occupations, marches, and protests. This includes what is now called the Massacre of Eldorado do Carajás, which took place in the state of Pará in 1996, when MST activists were attacked by 155 policemen. Nearly 80 people were injured in the clashes, and 21 people were killed, including some with execution-style shots to the head. More recently, the Pastoral Land Commission determined that in 2021 alone, 35 activists were killed in rural conflicts over land ownership and agrarian reform. The MST estimates that more than 300 campesinos have been killed due to the conflict in the countryside since 1996. Impunity often follows violence “against those who fight to defend their territories, biodiversity or the implementation of an agrarian reform policy,” says Ayala Ferreira, director of the human rights arm of MST.
“The world sees us as thieves… as invaders,” de Souza says. “But the land is not there to stay empty, it is there to be worked on, to be used. It wants to be used. What you put in the earth, it gives it back to you. I cannot allow the earth to remain empty, unused. And if I had the chance, I would go all over the world with this idea: If the land is abandoned, if it’s empty, let’s work on it, let’s produce.”
In the decades to come, Brazil will need to produce more food, sustainably. Central Brazil is a major food producer, but a recent study on climate change in the region revealed that 28 percent of agricultural lands in the region are no longer in an optimal climatic range. By 2060, that percentage will increase to 74 percent, which will result in reduced agricultural productivity. While Brazil’s extensive arable territory has been historically great for the country’s development, most of its crop production is rainfed — not irrigated — presenting economic climate risks from heat waves and drought.
Brazilians have increasingly shown concern for climate change and deforestation. A 2022 study by the Institute for Technology & Society of Rio and the Brazilian survey research firm IPEC found 96 percent of Brazilians believe climate change is happening — a much higher percentage than in the United States. According to the same study, one in nine Brazilians says they are “very worried” about global warming — again, a much higher rate in comparison to the US.
These environmental and social changes are coinciding with a change in public perception of MST. During the 2022 presidential election, for example, the candidate-turned-president Luis Inácio Lula da Silva, commonly known as Lula, defended the movement in an interview with Jornal Nacional, a daily national news broadcast. Asked about his party’s relationship with the MST, Lula explained that activists don’t squat on functioning land and are invested in ending hunger. “MST is doing something extraordinary,” Lula said. “They are producing food.”
Even before Lula’s vocal support of the movement, the bright red MST hat became a symbol for voters who wanted to oust the conservative president, Jair Bolsonaro. For Suptitz, the shift in MST’s image happened largely because of how the movement has aligned itself with other social and environmental issues, like climate change, LGBTQ rights, Indigenous rights, workers’ rights and racial inequality. “After the first few years, after we started gaining the land, we had to show our work to society,” he says. “Because if we are alone, we will be isolated and would be arrested. The MST is what it is today because of our alliances, our alliances with political parties, urban social movements, and unions. Social movements always have to be in alliance with larger society, we have to seek causes that society is concerned about.”
During the 2022 elections, the MST put forward 15 political candidates for federal and state Congress. Six candidates were elected, two federal representatives and four state legislators, marking a new era of the movement where they have official representatives pushing for agrarian reform within institutional politics. In Rio de Janeiro, the activist Lucia Marina dos Santos, known by her constituents as Marina of MST, was elected state representative, running primarily on the movement’s goal of ending hunger in Brazil via agrarian reform and workers’ rights improvements.
While the movement’s mission sprawls across social justice issues, the MST has also joined in broader environmental conversations, drawing attention to the unsustainable practices of land monopolies, which generally support practices like monoculture and deforestation. MST settlements are regularly inspected by INCRA officials to ensure the land use practices adhere to nature preservation laws (scrutiny rarely given to private latifúndios).
“MST settlements provide great examples of how agrarian reform can solve environmental problems, in ways agribusiness and latifúndios could never do,” writes MST activist Camilo Augusto in an article about agrarian reform and climate change, citing the example of a settlement in Viamão in the state of Rio Grande do Sul, where large quantities of organic rice are produced through community administration. Augusto argues that this approach saved local communities from droughts linked to climate change. “This kind of land management meant that the people of this settlement did not suffer as much from last year’s drought as other rice producers in the region, as water management aims at preserving living conditions in their territory rather than creating profit.” (At the Roseli Nunes settlement too, native vegetation is growing back over decades of coffee plantation, improving local biodiversity.)
Yet, even as MST grows beyond the stigmatization of its early years, its activists work to remain grounded. “We will continue to squat on unproductive land because the redistribution of land from the 1 percent hasn’t happened,” Suptitz says. “We have to continue our struggle for land distribution. We expect the [new] government to buy off unproductive latifúndios, where slave labor takes place, as well as to distribute land that already belongs to the state. We have 60,000 families camping in territories waiting to get their lots.”
This past April, more than 500 MST families in Bahia squatted on three parcels of land, calling for its redistribution. In tandem, MST’s newly-elected representatives began pushing federal and state legislatures address agrarian reform and food insecurity in several states. In Rio, Marina of MST hopes to directly challenge the agribusiness model through political debate within the city’s legislative branch. In late April, she held the first public hearing for the Food Security Committee of the city, of which she is a president, to discuss strategies to feed 3 million food-insecure people. “More than ever, we are concerned with the importance of the alliance between the countryside and the favela, uniting the working class to challenge the capitalist accumulation that generates profits for a few people and excludes millions of Brazilian families.”
For Matheus, whose family was once among the millions that go hungry in Brazil every day, hunger is MST’s most pressing issue. So even as the movement grows, she believes this ought to stay its priority. Sitting at a table in the back of her house, Matheus brushes aside ideology and theory. “We have a focus on the redistribution of land,” she says, “but our main goal within that is to produce pesticide-free food to end hunger in Brazil.”
It shouldn’t be that hard, in this tropical paradise, in what ought to be a land of plenty. Yet out here in the sea of hills, and in occupied parcels across the country, the activists still have their work cut out for them.