The End of the MST?

29 Sep

That’s the theory, anyhow, of an article published just over a week ago in the magazine Isto E. It suggests that, with no more than 1204 families living in camps and pressuring the Brazilian government to give them land, that the landless movement – one of several in Brazil – is in crisis. Others have suggested that refusing to play nice with the Workers Party government has cut them off from the massive amount of public spending that government is carrying out right now on items like transportation or sports stadiums for the Olympics and World Cup.
But the facts are somewhat different, and visible during an hour-long drive I took recently into the interior of Pernambuco. There, I noticed the new brick and plaster homes of hundreds of MST families who did get land, and are now producing and selling tons of food. In the settlement of Jardim Jatoba, for example, the tarp shacks I visited five years ago at the end of a long walk in from the highway are gone, the farms spread out now throughout the large parcel of land, which includes an ecological reserve.

What’s more, the Isto E figures are based on only the number of new encampments set up by members of the MST since the beginning of 2011. In fact, it’s more like 156,000 families – about a third in the MST – who are currently encamped, part of the massive drive for agrarian reform spurred by the election of Luiz Inacio da Silva, better known as Lula, in 2002. According to the MST itself, Lula’s unwillingness to enact meaningful land reform during the 8 years of his double mandate has only lowered the number of new occupations to what they were during the mandates of previous presidents.
That is not to say that Institute for Colonization and Agrarian Reform (INCRA) hasn’t moved extraordinarily slowly in signing off on expropriations and redistribution of land. In fact, its Recife office, which covers about half of the state, hasn’t formalized actual possession of lots in three years. The Institute claims it has no money – but with daily expenses for employees travelling to rural areas of 275 reales – more than $100 – in a place where a substantial meal costs no more than ten, this may not be all that surprising. INCRA’s budget for 2011 – some $530 million reales – was spent by the middle of the year. (It’s also worthwhile keeping in mind that the amount of public money siphoned off in corruption was recently estimated to be at least 51 billion reales annually.)
Last August, the MST, together with other social movements, held a day of protest, occupying public spaces in Brasilía and in cities throughout the country. One result of that was a new package of money, 400 million reales, for the INCRA – and the hope, at least, that land already scheduled for redistribution will finally be handed over to long-suffering families.
Should social movements give up their demands for structural change, their autonomy and the right to criticize a government that refuses to honour its promises in return for some yet-to-be-specified form of goodwill? Does it make sense for a government to spend money on infrastructure for global entertainment rather than productive initiatives like farming? Those are two important questions, even as the rural poor of Brazil are finding out that the only way to get access land and a new way of life still rests with struggle – however long and frustrating.
The biggest question however is where do the poor of Brazil turn to now that the promise of economic prosperity for them from one party has sadly proven to have been nothing more than a mirage.


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