Ariana Chomitz is a junior anthropology major from Bethesda, Maryland. She writes from Fortaleza, Brazil, where she is researching development studies.
“Frustration finally boiled over in the form of the Occupy Various Random Spaces movement, wherein people who were sick and tired of a lot of stuff finally got off their butts and started working for meaningful change via direct action in the form of sitting around and forming multiple committees and drumming and not directly issuing any specific demands but definitely having a lot of strongly held views for and against a wide variety of things.” –Dave Barry’s Year in Review: 2011
The rise and subsequent stall of the Occupy Movement in less than a year shows that it will not change American policy in a fundamental way. As thunderous as the original roar was, I would be surprised if Occupy lasts two more years, let alone twenty.
But in Brazil, a truer Occupy movement has been quietly sustained by occasional victories in a long struggle since the 1980s. The Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (MST), or the Landless Worker’s Movement, combats social injustices like income inequality, unemployment, exploitation of workers and gender and racial discrimination. At the top of their list, though, is forcing Brazil’s rich landowners to redistribute their land.
The Brazilian constitution states that property must fulfill a social function, which MST has interpreted to mean that land can and should benefit everyone, so agrarian reform is top of the agenda for poverty amelioration. However, land in Brazil also means political power, social status, culture and dignity, so the biggest landowners are resisting efforts by the government and the protesters to appropriate their property.
Land in Brazil has been locked up in latifundias since its colonization. This antiquated system refers to the enormous tracts of land with a single holder. Latifundias mean that the landowner is king; laborers are tied to the land they cultivate in a modern form of debt-slavery. It’s a huge problem, since about 90 percent of the productive land in Brazil belongs to 20 percent of the population, and wealthy elites have historically used violence and corruption to maintain power. MST (think, “the 80 percent”) organizes long-term occupations of portions of latifundias to protest this unequal distribution and claim the farm land that would restore laborers’ rights and income.
MST’s occupation strategy is straightforward enough: occupy a piece of land and withstand attacks long enough for the government to intervene. The MST camps don’t look like the Occupy ones in Zucotti Park and McPherson Square. MST occupation looks like sheets of ripped plastic, cracked earth, water rations and lethargic infants literally raised on campsites; protests planned to last weeks often last years. An MST occupation is comprised of forcibly expelled farming families with no income or education. In the long-term, the victories add up: since the 1980s, MST has successfully resettled 350,000 families and brought the issue of agrarian reform to light in South America and around the world. Still, the structural conflicts continue.
MST’s organization, solidarity and success contrasts with the Occupy movement’s inefficiency and frivolity. Occupy has, or had, enormous public support, educated participants, swift communication and great marketing. Yet there was still no cohesion or direction. Less than a year later, the magic is gone.
MST has little public support and many real enemies, but they are using the only weapons still available to them: their own bodies and the desire and knowledge to work the land. Occupy remains a good idea, one that would find new success with a sharper focus. But MST has the tenacity and direction that transforms a social movement into more than just a trendy fad.