Act: Inspiration

A radical land occupation in Brazil shows how to reimagine our societies for the better

February 4, 2022

This article was originally published on Waging Nonviolence.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, along with systemic inequalities that have come to the fore, there has been increased attention to the role of mutual aid, community solidarity and alternative social structures. Many of these practices already exist around the world — from intentional communities to activist encampments.

One such example can be found in the territories occupied by Brazil’s landless worker movement, Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra, or MST, which recently had one of its 20-year-old camps set on fire by Brazilian police. As a result, hundreds of people were evicted from their homes and school in Minas Gerais state.

The first time I visited Brazil was at the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre in 2002. I was deeply impressed by the strong, radical and sophisticated resistance of activists in South America, MST in particular. Since then I have been returning regularly, learning about the ways these activists are engaging in “constructive resistance” to reimagine a better society.

During my last visit in June 2019 — along with my colleague and friend Professor Kurt Schock from Rutgers University and research assistant Carolina Munis — we encountered both a new and an old MST community in southern Brazil.

The land occupation Marielle

Our first visit was to the 14-month old ongoing land occupation of Accampamento Marielle, two hours outside of Sao Paulo. Comprising about 1,000 families organized in 33 base groups, the camp has a secretariat, an unarmed security team guarding the camp, a Saturday school for kids, a soccer field and a communal kitchen, where food comes in through donations. A second-hand clothing store sells clothes and shoes for a small price; other shops, like that of a car mechanic, coexist with communal gardens.

The activists work in different committees, including education, health, sport and culture, infrastructure and LGBT support. They have gender quotas for groups, make all decisions together and in equal fashion, and they have a zero-waste plan. All community members also have a duty to participate in these different thematic committees and a right to have representatives from the base groups take part in joint decisions.

Perhaps the most precarious aspect of the Marielle occupation was its little “health center,” which exists in one small room of an old, half-collapsed house. At this health center, two women in white clothes, who were newly trained health workers, did their best to help people with different medical problems. Having learned some basics from a conventionally-trained nurse, they created a medical handbook with advice for common health problems.

The health center had only simple equipment for checking fever and blood pressure, but also many local herbs for remedies — including one mixture that was made from an old family formula. The two health workers try to use natural medicine and traditional knowledge whenever possible, while still being clear that conventional medicine is needed on occasion. In those instances, they refer to their collection of common medications, collected from inhabitants of the occupation. However, when anyone gets seriously ill, they call the ambulance or organize transportation to the nearest hospital.

When arriving at the hospital, they often have to give a false address, since staying in the camp makes them technically “homeless” — and therefore liable to be denied treatment. These two health workers were acutely aware of how little resources they had and were embarrassed about their meager health service. Nevertheless, they took great pride in what they had built together with their comrades, despite all of the difficulties.

The settlement Contestado

After two days at this land occupation, we traveled to the established MST settlement Assentamento Contestado in the southern state of Parana. There we found the main educational center for “Agroecology” on the continent — Escola Latino Americana de Agroecologia, or ELAA — with thriving farm lands, nice and comfortable family houses, a small processing factory for vegetables and a newly-built health clinic. Consisting of a large one-floor building, this health center had space for visiting medical doctors and dentists, as well as an educational facility where community members could take a year-long class learning to treat people with natural medicine and traditional methods.

Resembling the little health clinic in Marielle perhaps only in spirit, this new shining center run by trained professionals gives free health services — both in natural and conventional medicine — to everyone in the local area, including those who are not part of MST. It’s a profound realization what MST is capable of achieving.

Constructive resistance

MST is engaging in resistance by building a new society through resistance. It is fully integrated; contemporary resistance and the creation of the future. You cannot understand their resistance if you do not see how they are recreating community, agriculture, education, health, their relations to nature and each other, politics or gender relations. And, you cannot understand their creation of this new society if you do not see how the resistance is what makes it possible.

Their resistance creates the possibility of breaking the chains of the exploitative capitalist modernity that entraps them in poverty, injustice, repression and isolation from each other. Resistance is what makes the re-creation of communities possible, and the building of community is what makes resistance possible. It is an integrated form of “constructive resistance.”

In this occupying community of Marielle, I met with an experienced land activist. He told me about a previous occupation that he was involved with. His story is a hopeful one about a similar situation where they lived in shacks, resisted and created community together. Now the settlement has been formalized with legal titles to their land. He said,

“Over seven years we were evicted 13 times. We would have to leave, occupy a different land and come back, leave and come back … but in the end, we got the land.”

Although I had heard such stories before, I still found it astonishing. The difference this time was that I was hearing his story after seeing what this kind of resistance and community-building looked like first hand — so I could appreciate his story on a deeper level.

Every time the bulldozers and the police came, the state destroyed their decorated shack homes, the small gardens with vegetables and flowers growing, their assembled furniture, the meeting spaces with wooden benches and roofs, the soccer field where their kids played, their humble but proud health center and communal food area, their water collection system and their simple cafés and shops. Every time, after the bulldozers and police left, they had to rebuild — either in the same place or on a new nearby piece of land.

They had to do it 13 times, again and again. That kind of endurance, persistence and resilience is what resistance is about. They rebuild and rebuild, re-creating their community again and again. It is also how nature works. It adapts; it comes back with new life every spring, even after a fire, and with time, if left alone, the vegetation will flourish.

When the forces of state repression come, this land reclaiming group of the poorest move away and take hold somewhere else. When the brutal blow of the state’s armed fist hits them, they move like water, absorbing the violence by flowing away. Like a swarm of bees or birds, they disperse when attacked, then quickly reintegrate again. Over time, the state does not have the energy to repress them anymore: land occupations start to pop up everywhere, counter-forces to the state mobilize, and urban support groups of journalists, lawyers, social workers and some politicians put pressure on the state.

When the poor eventually win their rights in courts and receive support from the general population, the state tends to give up. Therefore, at the end of the day, they often get the legal titles to their piece of land. And then, finally, they can build their permanent structures, solid meeting houses with real facilities, proper and large gardens, effective water systems, cultural centers, schools and proper health clinics.

Fulfilling Gandhi’s dream

The landless workers movement has achieved something Mohandas K. Gandhi never was able to do: integrate both the “yes” and the “no” of the struggle. In other words, MST has been able to combine the building up of new constructive alternatives — which constitute a new society — with the mobilization of a broad-based resistance to the dominant system that oppresses ordinary and poor people.

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Clearly, Gandhi thought it was important to have a “constructive program,” and he emphasized and mobilized for that vision. He could rightly be seen as the foremost proponent of a kind of resistance that focuses on building a new autonomous society. On the other hand, he had serious trouble getting other anti-colonial activists to understand its importance for the liberation of India from British colonial rule. So the constructive element never gained significant attention as the peaceful mass resistance for which he became so famous.

More importantly, mass resistance campaigns against British colonialism did not integrate the constructive program. Instead they were separated, they took place in different places, and were sometimes not even organized by resistance-oriented activists, but people specialized in this more constructive work, like teachers and journalists.

In contrast, resistance and constructive work by MST are integrated. It is nearly impossible to understand the land occupations by MST without seeing how them are experiments in creating a new community and a new way of living. It is also impossible to make sense of and understand how they are able to create a New Brazil on their settlements if you do not see this in relation to their resistance through land occupations. The resistance and the construction are part of the same work.

I am not claiming that MST is perfect. There are many problems and weaknesses, as well as failures, which still exist. For example, MST was slow in showing support to LGBTQ persons within the movement — though they now do that — and they are struggling to make their peasant way of life in rural Brazil relevant for youth that often long for an urban life. Still, they are onto something, and they show us a promising path of social change that we all could follow.

By combining resistance with constructive work, they avoid the fundamental weaknesses of each approach. For resistance, that weakness is to just be against, to protest, critique and obstruct what is “unjust” and “wrong,” and to demand that others — often the state — correct it. For constructive work, the fundamental weakness is to only build up what is already tolerated, legal and fits into the existing system, like adding new alternatives for us to choose from in a market.

Resistance will always face repression if it is strong and poses a real challenge to the elites and the privileged. It will need resources and a community to survive and endure. Meanwhile, constructive work will always be co-opted if it becomes popular enough that corporations exploit and steal it to make a profit. Resolve and struggle are needed to maintain the foundational values and principles of constructive work, in order to push the limits and break the rules that otherwise force it to conform to existing systems.

A way forward for social change

This particular combination shows a way forward for social change that is truly transformative. That is what is so hopeful about the landless workers in Brazil, and what we can learn from them. Without copying what they do, we can and should apply the same combination of “constructive resistance” in our own struggles.

One key explanation behind the innovative thinking and success of MST is its emphasis on popular education. They organize their own basic and critical education from kindergarten to high school, as well as adult literacy training, forming it along the liberation pedagogics of the Brazilian educator Paolo Freire, author of “Pedagogy of the Oppressed.” And MST even has its own autonomous activist university, Escola Nacional Florestan Fernandes, outside of Sao Paulo, educating both MST “militantes” and other movements for free. At the same time, others learn from MST. During my visit I met with a network of educators who assist movements in Brazil to deal with issues of direct action, civil disobedience and security/safety issues.

I am already longing for the next visit to Brazil, knowing very well that they need all our solidarity and support. The new fascist Bolsonaro regime has declared MST a main enemy of the state, and they are determined to crush the movement. We cannot let that happen. Now is a time when international solidarity will be vital.


Teaser photo credit:Blockade of BR-367 by the Landless Workers’ Movement (Movimento Sem Terra, MST) against the arrest of former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in Eunápolis, Bahia, Brazil. Author HVL. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.,_Eun%C3%A1polis_BA.JPG

Stellan Vinthagen

Stellan Vinthagen is a professor of sociology, a scholar-activist, and the Inaugural Endowed Chair in the Study of Nonviolent Direct Action and Civil Resistance at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where he directs the Resistance Studies Initiative.

Tags: Brazil, building resilient communities, landless workers' movement, peasant farmers, social change