Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Countering Inequality: Brazil's Movimento Sem-Terra

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Countering Inequality: Brazil's Movimento Sem-Terra

Article excerpt

As Brazil entered the final quarter of the twentieth century, a massive landless rural population, poor and uneducated, confronted it. To be sure, urbanward migration was running apace as the most enterprising headed to the cities, increasing the number and size of urban squatter settlements (favelas), but much of the peasantry remained locked to a countryside where half of the usable land was in the hands of less than 1 percent of the population. However, building on the successes of those establishing favelas in the cities, and amidst rising social consciousness stimulated by aggressive community organization, a number of settlement movements emerged that were committed to securing land for the peasantry, improving living conditions and housing, and ensuring at least a basic education for all. By late 2004, the National Research on Education in Agrarian Reform (Pesquisa Nacional de Educacao na Reforma Agraria--PNERA), which was conducted by the Ministry of Education in a joint effort with the Ministry of Agrarian Development through the National Institute of Colonization and Agrarian Reform (Instituto Nacional de Colonizacao e Reforma Agraria--INCRA) and the National Institute of Educational Studies and Research (Instituto Nacional de Estudos e Pesquisas Educacionais--INEP), identified 5,595 rural settlements planted by these movements and legalized since 1985, with over 2.5 million residents--close to 525,000 households--spread among 1,651 municipalities. Sixty-four percent of the settlements, housing 75 percent of the families and 75 percent of the settled population, were located in the northern and northeastern regions of the country (Table 1 and Figure 1). By the end of 2005 there were a total of 7,381 federal land-reform settlements in Brazil, covering an area of 60,689,841 hectares, with a total of 667,230 families living in them (IPEA 2006). In addition to these settlements, which had gained land rights, there were many "encampments" where groups had successfully occupied land, but had not yet gained legal status.

In this paper we use data provided by PNERA (2007), the only available settlement survey, (1)--which was conducted in 2004 but not published until 2007--to explore the settlements' success in improving living standards of the rural poor and providing access to education. More specifically, we compare the membership and accomplishments of the largest and best known of the movements, the Landless Rural Workers Movement (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem-Terra--MST), with those of other smaller and more fragmented movements. (2) We conclude that MST, which had its origin in the south of Brazil, differs in several ways from other landless movements, many of which are northern or northeastern, including a higher level of bottom-to-top organization, members' self-perception of being of higher social status than members of other movements, and especially the overarching commitment to education to ensure the next generation's leaders. The MST is now active in twenty-three out of twenty-seven Brazilian states (3) and has about 1.5 million members living in more than 1,649 of the settlements (4) (MST 2006). To provide setting, we begin with a brief excursus into Brazilian history to provide background and understanding of why the problem of a landless peasantry emerged and why it has the scale it does. We then discuss the emergence of the MST and other movements, proceed to the PNERA comparisons, and then draw together the important lessons.

INEQUALITY AND THE LANDLESS

Brazil never had agrarian reform of any kind, inheriting from the Portuguese colonial period an unequal structure of rural landholding in which a small number of wealthy landowners controlled much of the farmland (Guimaraes 1981; Ondetti 2008). In the sixteenth century, vast sugarcane plantations dominated much of the developed landscape and belonged to a few members of the colonial society. When Brazil gained independence from Portugal, the agricultural oligarchy retained and increased its influence in politics. …

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