Socialist Farmers Are Aiding Brazil Where Its President Has Not - OZY | A Modern Media Company
A member of the Landless Workers Movement (MST) wearing a face mask reading "Bolsonaro Out" calls for gender equality while demonstrating against Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro during a protest in Brasilia on International Women's Day.
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A social justice movement steps in where an absentee president did not … sound familiar?

By Nick Fouriezos

  • Brazilian farmers who used squatting to gain land rights in the 1980s are now emerging as a pandemic savior.
  • They are helping millions of struggling Brazilians with food, medicines and books at a time their president has underplayed the crisis.

In 1984, a Marxist-inspired farmers movement settled on an unconventional political tactic: squatting. All across Brazil, landless farmers occupied fallow rural estates — making a political statement against rampant inequality in a nation where 1 percent of the population owns half of the arable land. Brazilian law requires all land to be used for some “social function,” so the government was forced to buy the unused land and allow its new socialist tenants to farm it for the public good. 

Now 36 years later, that innovative movement has emerged as a surprising but critical lifeline to millions of Brazilians amid an exploding pandemic that the country’s president has all but ignored

In the last few months, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro — who announced Tuesday that he himself had been diagnosed with COVID-19 — has withheld virus data, downplayed concerns, fired one health minister and seen another resign. Meanwhile, Brazil became in June the second nation (behind only the U.S.) to surpass 50,000 deaths from COVID-19. Some state governments have enforced social distancing measures to restrict the spread of the virus, and the Brazilian Congress approved a monthly payment of $114 to help unemployed workers. But that federal aid falls short of the national minimum wage of $190.

The Landless Workers Movement, known as the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Terra (MST) in Portuguese, has stepped in.

I was just amazed by how the [squatters movement] has been able to pivot its infrastructure toward the COVID crisis.

Rebecca Tarlau, Penn State University

“In places like Brazil, or even the United States, when you get these presidents with quasi-fascist tendencies, the state no longer holds up its side of the bargain,” says Rebecca Tarlau, a Penn State professor and author of the book Occupying Schools, Occupying Land, which tracks the MST. “I was just amazed by how the MST has been able to pivot its infrastructure toward the COVID crisis.” 

Now boasting some 1.5 million members across nearly every state in Brazil, the activist group has given out more than 1,500 tons of food and 60,000 lunch boxes to homeless families. It has also distributed medical equipment and health education materials to those in need, says Cassia Bechara, a communications official for the movement. The group has also organized protests against what Bechara calls the “irresponsible and genocidal action of the Bolsonaro government.” The group’s demands, she says, are simple: “Quarantine not to get sick; minimal wage from government to survive; public and free health care for all not to die.”

It’s part of a delicate balance between pressuring the Bolsonaro government to act and protesting bad policy on the one hand, while partnering with local leaders in 23 of Brazil’s 26 state governments to provide services on the other.

Before the pandemic hit, the movement was already running more than 170 community health clinics, 100 agricultural cooperatives, 66 food processing factories and 1,900 farmer associations, apart from several educational institutions with state governments. Those schools, farms and distribution networks have been critical in giving out aid, sometimes in creative ways. Their distilleries, for example, have shifted their production from Cachaça, a sugarcane-based Brazilian cousin of rum, to producing rubbing alcohol for hospitals. Urban cafes have been turned to grocery stores and soup kitchens.

That co-governance approach is key to their success, Tarlau believes. “Some people think that if you engage the state, you give up your values, lose your radicalness,” she says, pointing out that American activist groups often believe they must form systems outside of the state. But it’s actually what’s made the MST “effective,” she says. “That’s pretty much the opposite of our social movements in the United States, that are oftentimes moments of protest allergic to power, and to engaging the state and its infrastructure,” Tarlau adds. It might be time to learn from Brazil.

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