Land and Freedom

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Review of 'Cutting the Wire', Sue Branford and Jan Rocha, Latin America Bureau £14.99

The opening demonstration of this year's World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, was dominated by the red flags and banners of the Landless Workers' Movement--the MST. Not all of its one million members were there; not even the 100,000-plus who attend their schools and further education classes. But what they brought to the meetings and the debates was the experience of an extraordinary and in many ways successful movement that in just over 15 years has mobilised and led thousands of land occupations, protests and marches.

The most impressive thing about the MST is that it has mobilised the very poorest sectors of Brazilian society. It grew out of the resistance among rural workers and small farmers to the economic plans imposed by the military governments of the 1970s and early 1980s. In some senses, those plans were a forerunner--almost a rehearsal--for the neoliberal strategies that global capital is trying to impose across the whole region today. As land was taken over for modern export agriculture, hundreds of thousands of people were sent to the hostile Amazon forests or simply abandoned. As they moved from place to place they were met with the organised violence of a landowning class defending its interests with hired guns.

The MST responded with occupations of empty or underused lands, and took on the gunmen and the landowners, though they had no weapons. What they did have--and in huge quantities--was a stubborn persistence. The personal testimonies that the authors use to illustrate this moving history of the MST are incredible stories, like the 1,000-day camp at Encruzilhada Natalino that finally won land rights for thousands of families. The Landless Workers' Movement was born out of Natalino. At its first congress in 1985, people came from all over the vast country (nearly three times the size of western Europe) and they brought a myriad of experiences. But they all had a common thread--the dogged resistance of the poor, the violence of the landowners, and the indifference of the government.

There were arguments and debates, of course, at these founding meetings. What should be its relationship to the trade unions, for example? Should it change into a political party? How would it best fight for a 'fraternal society and an end to capitalism' as well as a just distribution of the land? The decision was to create an independent organisation focused on the land question. Its internal life would be open and democratic and based very heavily on a 'vision' (la mística), an idea of a future society based heavily on a mix of radical Christianity and Marxism. Its core was an idea of personal transformation through education, through the building of a community and through the involvement of every section of it--men, women, children, the old. It was a philosophy that was echoed to some extent in the founding documents of the Workers Party (the PT) but it also laid emphasis on its independence from political parties and from the trade union movement, though it would act jointly with both.

The actions and struggles of the MST have spread throughout Brazil--the battles are often still brutal, the landowners still violent and repressive. As of now they have won the legal right to 12.5 million acres of land. Their reputation and the respect it has earned are wholly deserved, as 'Cutting the Wire' demonstrates beyond any doubt.

With the conclusion of the third WSF in Porto Alegre, however, the movement is at a crossroads. The new government, under the presidency of Lula, has promised land reform. The Workers Party and the MST are natural allies. Yet the MST must also now revisit the issue of its relationships with the workers' organisations and with the project for the transformation of the whole of society. And this might also demand a transformation of the MST itself--in its own structures, but also in combining the issue of land with the wider battle for workers' rights, against privatisation, and against the new phase of capitalist globalisation. But it will bring to those discussions a remarkable and inspiring story of struggle documented so carefully in this excellent piece of work--and they can offer the living proof that even the most exploited can find incredible strength when they organise together.