Mapping the Sem Terra of Brazil

By Federico M. Rossi

The Movimiento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (MST)–the Rural Landless Workers Movement–is the main social movement organization (SMO) of the land reform/tenure movement in Brazil. The origin and characteristics of the MST are traceable to three processes: the social consequences of the Brazilian modernization of agriculture in the 1980-1990s, the emergence of Liberation Theology in the 1970s, and the legacy of pre-1964 coup land struggles.

Origin and goal. The MST was founded in 1984 as a result of the coordination of peasants’ local struggles for land. In 1975, during the last authoritarian regime, the Brazilian Catholic Church created the ecumenical Commissão Pastoral da Terra (CPT), the commission for the organization of rural Comunidades Eclesais de Base (CEB). Inspired by Liberation Theology, the purpose of the CPT was to organize peasants for land reform (Poletto and Canuto 2002). This goal was related to the lack of space for landless claims within the main rural union, the Confederação Nacional dos Trabalhadores na Agricultura (CONTAG). The first successful land occupation under CPT guidance was coordinated in December 1980 in Rio Grande do Sul. This event is considered the root of the creation of the MST because it produced a diffusion of land occupations in the Southeast of Brazil (Ondetti 2008: 67-71; Wright and Wolford 2003: 30-38).

The main goal of the MST is the claim to land tenure solely by those persons that cultivate and live on the land (Harnecker 2002: 255). This communitarian perspective is also related to a series of specific goals that together imply a radical non-capitalist land reform with the hope of building a new political and socioeconomic order (see MST site).

Organization. The MST is a very structured SMO that combines Leninist and CEB organizational models (Hammond and Rossi 2013). It has a hymn and flag (Fernandes 2000: 192), and it adopts the principles of democratic centralism (Harnecker 2002: 271) combined with grassroots assemblies. Although efforts to avoid the personalization of power are usual, the relevance of a few founding members is evident. Some have claimed that the MST organization is very democratic (Veltmeyer and Petras 2002), whereas others argue that it is highly authoritarian (Navarro 2002). According to Branford and Rocha (2002: 121) the MST organization can be defined as a SMO with strong personal leaders in which the bases have a say and relative autonomy.

Repertoire of strategies. The MST adopts a wide repertoire of strategies. While occupying unproductive and illegally appropriated lands, the MST sustains an alliance with the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT) and the Central Única dos Trabalhadores (CUT) for specific or electoral campaigns (cf. Navarro 1994; Ondetti 2006).

The MST’s contentious repertoire is related to pushing the Brazilian state to apply Constitutional Article 184 on the “social utility of land.” This strategy generally follows a sequence. First, the MST occupies land considered suitable for expropriation. Then, the MST is quickly expelled from the occupied land by police, and negotiations with land reform officials begin. Because the process takes approximately two years, a camp is built on the edge of the claimed land. Finally, if land is expropriated, a family-based communitarian colony (assentamento) is formed. Land is distributed, and a cooperative, school, and church are usually built (Harnecker 2002: chapter 2).

The MST’s institutional politics repertoire is based on the presentation of candidates for legislative and local positions with the PT banner, the coordination of a legislative pro-land reform group (Vergara-Camus 2009), and, when PT is in government, participation in land reform areas. This last strategy began in Rio Grande do Sul with Olívio Dutra’s (PT) governorship (1998-2002) and was expanded with Luiz Lula da Silva’s (PT) presidencies (2003-2010). The relationship with PT does not mean that the MST is part of it; rather, it is a liaison with tensions that is based on a common origin and some shared goals. Lastly, the MST has recently increased its transnational strategy by creating the Vía Campesina coalition in Brazil.

Growth, diffusion, and resilience. Although it is one of the 71 SMOs in the land reform/tenure struggle in Brazil (Telles Melo 2006: 133-136), the MST is the only one that achieved wide national and international recognition during Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s first presidency (1995-1999). Fernandes (2000) argues that the main reason for this recognition is the structural changes suffered by the rural economy in the 1980-1990s. According to Ondetti (2006), structural changes are not as relevant as the enormous media coverage of the Eldorado dos Carajás massacre (1996), which required Cardoso to redefine its policies on land reform. In my opinion, the significance of the MST in the 1990s should be considered in a long-term historical perspective. Some studies suggest that the MST’s struggle is the continuation of the first incorporation of rural workers in 1963-1964 (cf. Pereira 1997; Welch 1999, 2009; Fernandes 2000).

However, the MST’s resilience to the unfavorable context of Cardoso’s second presidency (1999-2003) and to the disappointing results of land reform during Lula’s and Dilma Russeff’s (2011-) presidencies cannot be explained only by structural changes or conjunctural events. The MST’s growth and national diffusion seem to be the products of the modernization of agriculture in the Southeast (1980s) and the collapse of the sugarcane industry in the Northeast (1990s). Nevertheless, the growth of the MST would not have been possible without the brokerage of CPT militants and the participation of the MST in the PT-CUT family. Finally, the MST’s resilience may also be a result of the CPT, PT, and CUT alliance, which offers institutional access and support for political organizations.


Branford, Sue and Rocha, Jan (2002), Cutting the Wire: The Story of the Landless Movement in Brazil (London: Latin American Bureau).

Fernandes, Bernardo Mançano (2000), A formação do MST no Brasil (Petrópolis: Vozes).

Hammond, John L. and Rossi, Federico M. (2013), ‘Landless Workers Movement (MST) Brazil’, in David Snow, et al. (eds.), The Wiley-Blackwell Encyclopedia of Social and Political Movements (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell), 680-83.

Harnecker, Marta (2002), Sin Tierra: Construyendo movimiento social (Madrid: Siglo XXI).

Navarro, Zander (1994), ‘Democracy, Citizenship and Representation: Rural Social Movements in Southern Brazil, 1978-1990’, Bulletin of Latin American Research, 13/2:129-54.

Navarro, Zander (2002), ‘“Mobilização sem emancipação” — as lutas sociais dos sem-terra no Brasil’, in Boaventura de Sousa Santos, ed., Produzir para viver (Rio de Janeiro: Civilização Brasileira), 189-232.

Ondetti, Gabriel (2008), Land, Protest, and Politics: The Landless Movement and the Struggle for Agrarian Reform in Brazil (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press).

Pereira, Anthony (1997), The End of the Peasantry: The Rural Labor Movement in Northeast Brazil, 1961-1988 (Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh University Press).

Poletto, Ivo and Canuto, Antônio (eds.) (2002), Nas pegadas do povo da Terra: 25 anos da Comissão Pastoral da Terra (São Paulo: Loyola).

Stédile, João Pedro and Fernandes, Bernardo Mançano (1999), Brava gente: a trajetória do MST e a luta pela terra no Brasil (São Paulo: Fundação Perseu Abramo).

Telles Melo, João Pedro (ed.) (2006), Reforma agrária quando? CPI mostra as causas da luta pela terra no Brasil (Brasília: Senado Federal).

Veltmeyer, Henry and Petras, James (2002), ‘The Social Dynamics of Brazil’s Rural Landless Workers’ Movement: Ten Hypotheses on Successful Leaderships’, Canadian Review of Sociology, 39/1:79-96.

Vergara-Camus, Leandro (2009), ‘The Politics of the MST: Autonomous Rural Communities, the State, and Electoral Politics’, Latin American Perspectives, 36/4:178-91.

Welch, Cliff (1999), The Seed was Planted: The São Paulo Roots of Brazil’s Rural Labor Movement, 1924-1964 (Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press).

Welch, Cliff (2009), ‘Camponeses: Brazil’s Peasant Movement in Historical Perspective (1946-2004)’, Latin American Perspectives, 36/4:126-55.

Wright, Angus and Wolford, Wendy (2003), To Inherit the Earth: The Landless Movement and the Struggle for a New Brazil (Oakland: Food First Books).



Filed under Essay Dialogues, Latin American Movements

2 responses to “Mapping the Sem Terra of Brazil

  1. Joseph S. Weiss

    Excellent summary; would be interested in longer documents. Two comments: Regarding history, the dictatorship managed to change latifundia into agribusiness, which weakened family farming; regarding strategies and resilience, the emphases on education and coops should be mentioned. –


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