Guest Post: Brazil Knows How to Occupy


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.

3 comments on “Guest Post: Brazil Knows How to Occupy”

  1. Very good article. Not only in rural Brazil, but in urban Brazil’s favelas (and indeed in many rural and urban areas throughout Latin America and beyond), occupying unused property is not merely a form of protest, but rather a means of demanding and obtaining shelter (in societies where neither law nor markets have adequately responded to poor people’s need for affordable, dignified housing) . In addition to occupations for the purpose of forcibly redistributing property-ownership, “occupying” a plaza in order to raise public awareness of grievances (by pensioners, veterans, etc.) has been a tactic for a long, long time in parts of Latin America. There is a great deal that political activists in the north could learn from the organizational experience of grassroots movements in Latin America. Thanks for an insightful comparison.

  2. Sorry, but there’s nothing synonymous between Brazil and The US. It’s sort of like saying Thomas Payne was writing about America when he justified redistribution of land and inheritance taxes in gentrified England in the “Rights of Man.” You simply cannot compare places where land has been effectively monopolized by law via a landed gentry class and a spoils system, to a place where land is plentiful, cheap and real opportunity abounds. How can you compare what is taking in Brazil with even our own local area where land can be fairly purchased at less than $10,000 per acre (let alone out west where land is cheap and plentiful). The Gini coefficient of Brazil is also one of the worst in the world. It is worse than many other nations. There is simply no comparison in outcomes or in societal mechanics to use Brazil as an excuse for our own situation.

    Comparisons do not end there either. The quality of education available in favelas is nowhere close to what is available here in America’s worst schools. Brazil has very poor performing schools which helps further reinforce the hegemony that exists there. America also has a support structure for those who are economically marginalized that outperforms Brazil’s by leaps and bounds.

    America’s income distribution problems are societally based, not enforced by law through the monopolization of land and gross neglect of our education system. We are not born into indentured servitude. It is not a sperm lottery in America. In Washington DC, some of, if not our very worst schools, we spend anywhere from $20,000 to $30,000 PER STUDENT. Most OECD nations spend a small fraction of this, yet achieve superior results. Utah spends roughly $5,000 per student, but produces satisfactory results. Our failures are social, sporadic, and in pockets of American society. If education was openly embraced in this nation, and if our citizenry pursued careers in economic demand as opposed to what they want, income distribution would be far more equitable as labor scarcity in low skill, hard labor type of jobs would drive wages up, and it would be much more difficult for the rich to garner their wages.

    A comfortable middle class life, with a house, and land, is not difficult to achieve in America. It takes a little bit of work, perhaps some sacrifice, but it’s easily within reach for anyone. It takes a responsible lifestyle, doing some homework in high school, studying, going to college or trade school, and filling in an in-demand niche in a professional role in society. It may also require positive reinforcement from your family and your community. America’s problem is that it has refused to address the reality of a dynamic globalized economy that emerged in the late 1970s. Instead of identifying this reality and adapting (which is what many wealthy Americans have done) we have largely decided, at a broad societal level, to remain put (almost demanding so), expecting menial factory jobs to sustain our economy when more fruitful endeavors in technology, engineering, energy, medicine, pharmaceuticals, software, and computers abound – with enormous export potential. The opportunities for an information age have stared us in the face for the better part of three decades now, and we’re still bailing out failed manufacturing businesses to the loss of billions of dollars – just to maintain that antiquated way of conducting business in America, and to avoid economic shocks from readjustment due to creative destruction.

    Not enough people in America have embraced what the globalized world demands in economic terms. Our education attainment has stagnated, we have a shortage of STEM majors and entrepreneurs, and a glut of low skill workers (and people pursuing college careers that are not economically viable). And this has crippled our economy as our expectations and entitlements have grown. This is what has brought about economic inequality, and what has brought up about pragmatic instability that will eventually bring us down if we do not alter course. This is what drives people to protest down at Zuccoti Park and Occupy Places instead of heading out to Williston North Dakota, or Odessa Texas to occupy a six figure job laboring in the heat and cold on an oil rig. This is what leads people to actually thinking they have a valid when comparing Brazil to America in any form or fashion. If you can go work an oil rig and make great money, you have no right to protest for more wealth redistribution.

    Pretending that there is anything salient about occupying public space, or unused property in America, by comparing it to any nation where land has been privately monopolized in a total sense, is just utterly absurd at its very core. There are viable, attainable, mutually exclusive alternatives for the citizens of this nation to pursue aside from protesting and calling for the expropriation of property. When we refuse to pursue these courses in favor of protest, it does nothing but continue to drive a wedge between the society we compose and share. And like Greece and Spain, it will be our end as well. We cannot sustain trillion dollar debts to meet our lofty entitlement expectations. We cannot sustain 20% drop out rates. We cannot sustain only 40% attaining higher education (some of it crappy higher education). We cannot sustain a low skill work force. We must look to nations like Switzerland and the Scandinavian nations and adapt or die like Southern and Eastern Europe. If you think the wealth gap is bad now, see what happens to this country when you make “being rich” too unattractive to earn what it takes to become rich. We’ll look far more like Brazil than we do now.

  3. This is a very late comment I admit but I’ve only learned of this website today.

    So to keep my comment short due to its lateness…

    First of all, the word latifundia does not exist. Promise. The correct term is latifúndio and its definition varies according to what portion of the population you ask.

    Second, with “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” you make it sound like it is some sort of peaceful movement that only suffers the aggression from the state and landowners when in fact MST is known for its violent approaches to land occupation. Many landowners have been murdered inside their own homes by members of the MST.

    Thirdly, the MST don’t simply target large corporations who own large swaths of land. They also go after middle class farmers who lawfully purchased their land and work them fully. Also, you should be a little more careful about throwing out terms like “debt-slavery” as if it were something practiced only by Brazilians. Many of the larger, corporate-owned lands in Brazil are owned by multi-national companies. And yes, the US is included in that.

    Lastly, the reason the MST are strongly disliked by most of the population of Brazil, which happens to be extremely hardworking, is because even when they “win” and receive land parcels, they complain that the land is “unsuitable” for them to work in because it isn’t currently producing anything. That is, they want to receive parcels of land that are not only fertile (which in itself is a legitimate claim) but also *currently* producing crops and turning over a profit. They then rebel against the decision usually resorting to violence that results in deaths of innocent people and legitimate landowners.

    Claiming the all the MST have is “their bodies and desire and knowledge to work the land” is a completely ignorant statement that disregards in a very severe way the actual actions undertaken by the movement. It’s very trendy to talk about the MST as if they were completely in the right against the greedy corporate capitalists but clearly you’re not getting the complete picture of the situation by seeing them as sad, quiet, and less fortunate.

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