SÃO GABRIEL, BRAZIL – The three-day, 30-mile march stopped before the main gate. Hundreds of exhausted farmers from Brazil’s Landless Workers Movement (MST) fanned out along the fence. On the other side of the gate was the Southall Plantation, which for the last six years had been at the heart of a relentless struggle for land in southern Brazil.
Two people slammed metal farm tools into the lock, forcing it open. Marchers poured into the plantation, chanting “MST, MST!” as fireworks rocketed off in the distance. “Agrarian reform! MST! We will succeed!”
On Dec. 18, 700 families from 13 MST land occupations were awarded land from the Brazilian government in the São Gabriel region of Brazil’s southernmost state, Rio Grande do Sul.
“This is perhaps the most important victory in the region in the last 40 years, and maybe even the 40 years to come,” says Cristiano Schumacher, a regional coordinator of Brazil’s Movement for the Struggle for Housing, who came to support the landless movement.
The victory was unprecedented, mostly for its location. Two and a half centuries ago, the Treaty of Madrid turned present-day Rio Grande do Sul over to the Portuguese. The region of São Gabriel became the heart of the native Guaran’ resistance. In 1756, joint Spanish and Portuguese forces killed Guaran’ leader Sepé Tiaraju and 1,500 of his followers when they refused to leave their native lands. The Portuguese distributed the territory among the rich. Even today, “the large landowners have complete economic, territorial and political control over the whole Western region of Rio Grande do Sul,” says Ana Hanauer, a state MST leader.
Over the last six years, the MST has led marches, occupations and encampments in São Gabriel, but resistance from local landowners and the police has been fierce.
“This is a region that is completely dominated by the latifundios [large landowners],” says Hanauer, “We always struggled for land here, but we never achieved a settlement.”
But with the economic downturn, many of the region’s landowners face financial crisis, and eucalyptus pulp companies are moving in. Early last year, Alfredo Southall, owner of the Southall Plantation, agreed to sell half of his 32,000-acre ranch to Brazil’s Agrarian Reform Institute (INCRA), which is charged with purchasing and distributing unproductive state land to landless farmers. The property would be turned over to 350 MST families, and another 350 would be granted similar plots of land nearby.
“We marched last year, which was really hard, and lasted 60-plus days,” says Raquel, who like most MST members declined to giver her last name. She settled with her husband and 4‑month-old baby in Itaguaçu, São Gabriel, in December.”Now we’re going to stay here in São Gabriel,” she says.
But the road was not easy. Since Raquel moved into her first MST encampment four and a half years ago, she and her family have lived in temporary homes of thick black plastic tarp. They were violently removed by the Rio Grande do Sul police many times, she says. In June, the Rio Grande do Sul Justice Department called for the disbanding of the MST, labeling it “a threat to national security.”
The MST believes that this victory is only the first of many in the region. With unproductive plantations losing out to the eucalyptus pulp companies – such as the Brazilian multinational Aracruz – MST’s adversaries are no longer the same.
“These transnational corporations came to the state, destroying the land and promising thousands of jobs,” says Raquel’s husband, Santana, “where only one worker is responsible for more than 800 acres. But 20 families could be settled on that land.”
“The dispute now is agrarian reform or eucalyptus pulp monocropping,” Hanauer admits. “It’s the MST or the multinational companies.”
As the movement celebrates its 25th anniversary, the story is the same across Brazil. While the eucalyptus industry dominates the southern regions, the sugar cane and soy industries proliferate in the northeast, the central east and the Amazon. At its 2007 national conference, the MST highlighted the struggle of agrarian reform against the multinational agro-giants.
Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva made such reform a central theme in his 2002 campaign, but he quickly ratified his support for the agro-industry. In 2007, he shook hands with President Bush, promising to join forces to lead the world in ethanol production. Brazil’s agribusiness boom – accompanied by the arrival of U.S. corporations Cargill, ADM, Bunge and Monsanto – has knocked small farmers off their land and consolidated agricultural production into fewer hands.
Hanauer says the fight is “a small movement against giant, transnational corporations with foreign capital. It’s a dispute of very unequal forces.”
“But I’ll tell you, it’s worth it,” says Çigana, a mother of 11, who participated in the march to Southall and who also received a couple dozen acres of land in Itaguaçu in December. “Here in the movement we have peace, we have harmony, we have union. Life outside is only drug trafficking, theft, crime, and I don’t want that for my kids or my grandchildren.”