Why land reform makes sense for Dilma Rousseff

Why land reform makes sense for Dilma Rousseff

By Ben Dangl

Originally published on  Thursday 27 January 2011 in The Guardian Unlimited

If Brazil’s president would follow the lead of agrarian reformers, both her social goals and the environment would benefit

Just days after Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff was inaugurated on new year’s day, thousands of activists from the Landless Farmers Movement (MST) took over three expanses of land and various government buildings, demanding the new president speed up the rate of land redistribution to the country’s landless farmers.

“At the beginning of this new political era in our country, our occupations are meant to publicly demand the carrying out of land reform,” Joana Tavares, a spokeswoman for the MST, explained in a statement. “The old agrarian structures are still alive in our country, and with them the inequality, injustice and violence they perpetrate.”

The MST began over 25 years ago, using direct action to occupy unused land and work it cooperatively for survival. Operating under the slogan “Occupy, Resist, Produce”, the MST has taken over some 35m acres, settling approximately 370,000 families. In spite of these advances, roughly half of the usable land in the country remains in the hands of just 1% of the population. According to Brazilian law, the government can expropriate unused land and give it to the landless farmers. This law has empowered landless farmers to occupy land, and then fight for legal recognition for their right to it.

Rousseff should heed the call of the MST, both in the area of land reform and in the development of sustainable agricultural policies. Like her popular predecessor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who ran the country from 2003-2010, Rousseff is planning on moving ahead with policies that embrace destructive, massive-scale agro-industry, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), deadly pesticides, and harmful logging and cattle ranching. Such a direction will further concentrate land in the hands of a few wealthy people, and destroy the already fragile environment.

What the MST proposes, on the other hand, is a series of policies that would benefit the poorest sectors of the country and the land. The MST’s demands and actions should serve as a guide to Rousseff as she develops her agrarian policies.

When the MST activists take over land, in most cases they develop cooperative farms and build houses, schools, and health clinics. They manage the land collectively in a sustainable way, as well as educate the children and advance gender equality. The MST actively fights against the use of GMOs and industrial farming, while also working within their own camps to grow healthy food on a small scale that generates employment for MST members. The MST has succeeded in developing hundreds of farming cooperatives, one natural medicine factory, numerous health clinics and thousands of primary and secondary schools.

In an interview with the leftist Brazilian weekly Brasil de Fato, MST leader João Pedro Stédile explained the benefits of his movement’s vision of land reform. This vision includes respecting the environment, developing diversified, small-scale farming, getting rid of large estates, and breaking the stranglehold foreign corporations have over the countryside.

Putting the land into the hands of small farmers will have far reaching effects on the economy, Stédile explained, in part because it will stem the exodus from the countryside into urban slums. Keeping people in the countryside, he said, is “fundamental to the reduction of unemployment in the cities … Agrarian reform helps to resolve the problems of housing and overpopulation in the cities. It will also rebalance the environment, and with that, we will have fewer of the climate changes that are now affecting the cities with more vigour.” Recent floods and landslides in Rio de Janeiro, for example, have killed hundreds and displaced thousands.

The land reform proposed by the MST will also cut down the pesticides being used so widely throughout the country by major agribusiness. “The grand domain of agribusiness can only produce with poisons [harmful pesticides], because it doesn’t require manpower, and this poison reaches each of our stomachs,” Stédile said. Deadly pesticides are used across the nation by agribusinesses, poisoning the air and drinking water, killing crops, and harming livestock.

The MST provides a viable model for Rousseff. But in a radio interview before her election, she defended the continuation of Lula’s policies, “What we are doing is doing away with the real basis for the instabilities of the landless. They are losing reasons to fight.” Yet, with the MST’s recent occupations, and their pledge to continue with militant action, it appears the fight over Brazil’s land is far from over.

The MST will continue to build a better world on their own, one land occupation at a time, but Rousseff has an opportunity to break with the past by following the MST’s lead in developing agrarian policies. If she ignores their example, the results will prove ruinous for the environment and the economy.