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The Sights and Voices of Dispossession: The Fight for the Land and the Emerging Culture of the MST (The Movement of the Landless Rural Workers of Brazil)


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Roseli Salete Caldart
(Translated by Thomas L. Burns.)


Movement of the Landless Rural Workers (MST): Pedagogical Lessons

The Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra, or Movement of the Landless Rural Workers (the MST), was formally created at the Primeiro Encontro de Trabalhadores Sem Terra [First Meeting of Landless Workers], which took place from January 21-24, 1984, in Cascavel, in the State of Paraná, in the south of Brazil. Today, the MST is organized in 22 states and pursues the same objectives defined at this 1984 Meeting and ratified at the First National Conference at Curitiba, Paraná, in 1985: to fight for land, for agrarian reform, and for the building of a just society, without exploiters and exploited. Since its creation, the MST has included in its political agenda the fight for schools and the discussion on what kind of school should be a part of the life of the Sem Terra family.

This article discusses the pedagogical lessons that we can learn from the historical experience of the MST. Before introducing some of these, however, it is important to situate the context that allows us to think of a social movement of farm workers as a place that may have lessons to offer on the processes of human development.

The MST came into its seventeenth year of existence reflecting deeply on two of the great tasks that were defined throughout its history: first, to help put an end to the "mortal sin" of the latifundium, decentralizing the lands of this immense country, Brazil, and making them socially productive; and second, to help humanize people, to develop human beings with dignity, identity, and a project for the future. This second task, perhaps the one that the MST has accomplished best since its undertaking, is what causes us to think more directly of the educational dimension of the Movement.

The educational work of the MST has three main dimensions: first, the recovery of the dignity of thousands of families who once again have roots and purpose. The poor in everything have become citizens: people with rights, people who work, study, produce, are a part of their communities, and who, in their daily challenges, set a new agenda of discussion for this country. The second dimension is the building of a collective identity, one which goes beyond each person, family, and settlement. The identity of the Sem Terra [Landless], and the capital letters without a hyphen, like a proper name that identifies those who are no longer individuals who lack something have no land (land-less) but are individuals with a choice that of fighting for more social justice and dignity for all. This places each member of Sem Terra, through his/her participation in the MST, in a movement that is related to the re-encounter of humanity with itself. The third dimension is building the educational project of different generations of the Sem Terra family, one that combines schooling with broader concerns of human development and the training of militants.

Viewing the history of the MST in this perspective, we encounter some pedagogical lessons, or how the proponents of a social struggle and a collectivity in movement deal with, and are concerned with, education. These lessons can help us reflect on each of our own educational practices, including those that we undertake in the schools. Reflecting on these lessons, we may begin to understand something even more profound: the MST has a pedagogy, that is, it has a praxis (combined theory and practice) of how people are educated, of how human beings develop. The Pedagogy of the Sem Terra Movement is the way through which the Movement has historically developed the social individual of the name Sem Terra, and has daily educated the people who are part of it. And the main educational principle of this pedagogy is the movement itself, a movement that unites diverse pedagogies, and in a special way unites the pedagogy of social struggle with the pedagogy of the land and the pedagogy of history, each one helping to make an imprint on our identity, mística, project. Sem Terra is the name of one who fights for the people who have roots in the land the land that is won, tilled, cared for and in the movement of history.

This is the main discussion we have today in the MST with our educators: how to make of the Pedagogy of the Movement a reference for our practice and our thought. To be an educator in the MST is to succeed in understanding the educational dimension of the Movement’s actions, making them a mirror for its educational practices. It is a reference viewpoint to aid in discerning the limits and challenges of these practices. A mirror also educates our viewpoint to see beyond the MST, beyond the Sem Terra. The Pedagogy of the Movement takes shape in a dialogue with other educators, other students, and other pedagogical movements. It was precisely in the interaction with people and works concerned with human development that we managed to think about the MST as a pedagogical subject. From this new synthesis, we continue our dialogue with theories and practices of human development, along with specific thinking on the educational environment of our schools.

From this dialogue with the Movement’s practices and the thinking on human development throughout the history of humanity, an initial result regards the very concept of education. When we discuss practices of humanizing the field-workers as a product of education, we are in fact recovering an essential link to the work in education: to educate is to humanize, to cultivate learning to be a human being.

The MST works all the time at the limit between humanization and dehumanization; its struggle is that of life or death for thousands of people, who make their participation in the Movement a tool for re-learning to be human. This is the day-to-day task of the education of the Sem Terra in each march, each camp, each settlement And it is this same day-to-day practice that shows that the task is necessary and possible; that the adults’ and the aged’s nearly lost humanity can be recovered through learning, and that it is even more necessary and possible to help in this learning from childhood.

From this conception of education, there are pedagogical lessons we have managed to derive in this reflective counterpoint among the daily life of the MST, the diverse theories and practices on human development, and the concerns with how to educate the Sem Terra. These are lessons that also help us think and rethink the curriculum and the educational environment of our schools.

1. People are the greatest value produced and cultivated by the MST

The Movement is the way that people collectively produce the Sem Terra identity and carry out the struggle for agrarian reform that is the root and strength of this identity. At times of the most acute social conflict, such as those we live through today, this is even more visible: it is on the people, on each one of them, that resistance depends, as well as the determination of the proposals, the conduct that persists as an image for society, the continuity in the face of the fiercest conflicts, the identity. The MST has succeeded in arriving at its seventeenth year because it has learned to value every person who is a part of its organization, and because it has defined human development as one of its main priorities.

As educators, we need to be clear about what is in question every time we meet with those we are educating: we are facing human beings, who deserve our respect and dedication as human beings, and as members of an organization that fights for dignity. Our work in a school where the Sem Terra study, for example, needs to be thought of in the perspective of a great educational effort, which makes us responsible, interested, and committed.

We need to reflect always on some basic questions: what human being are we helping to develop through our practice? Is there coherence with the humanity that the MST struggle has been producing and planning for throughout its history? And those we educate: what human being do they see when they look at themselves and their settlement companions? Have our educational practices helped them to value themselves as persons and take on the collective identity they help to produce?

2. People are educated by learning to be

One of the things that often calls attention to the MST’s actions is the self-respect of the people who take part in it. This self-respect, or feeling of dignity, is produced to the extent that these people learn to be Sem Terra and to be proud of that name. And on taking on this social, collective identity we are Sem Terra, we are of the MST these people gradually discover dimensions of their personal and collective identity, as well: I’m a woman, I’m black, I’m a rural worker, I’m young, I’m an educator They are new individuals who are formed and begin to demand their place in the world, in history; they know they can and ought to fight for the right to be human wherever they are, with or against whomever they are.

This returns us to the notion that this is an essential human task of learning: to look in the mirror of what we are and want to be, to take on personal and collective identities, to be proud of them, at the same time we are challenged with the movement of our permanent self-construction. To educate is to help build and strengthen identities, to draw faces, to form subjects. And this has everything to do with values, way of life, memory, culture.

3. People are educated in the actions they perform and the works they produce

The MST forms the Sem Terra by putting them in a movement, which means in permanent action, action with the dynamic of a social struggle: occupations, encampments, marches, demonstrations of solidarity, the building of a new kind of life in the settlements, schools, activities of development. It is through such action that they learn that nothing is impossible to change, not even people, their propensities, their positions, their ways of life, their values.

People are educated in action because it is the movement of action that molds the way to becoming human. Actions produce and are produced through social relations: that is, they set in motion another fundamental pedagogical element, which is the interaction between people, how they behave among each other, which is measured by the tools inherited from those who have produced other tools before (culture). In these relations, people show who they are, and at the same time they construct and revise their identities, their way of being.

We are speaking of any action, or of acting for acting’s sake, without any intentionality. We are speaking of action that produces works (material or not) that become the mirror in which people can see what they are or even want to be; and we are speaking mainly of work and the material production of our existence. There is no true education without action, without work, and without collective works. And, as the children remind us, there is also no education without games and play, which can also be thought of as collective action producing works.

4. People are educated by producing and reproducing culture

The actions of the Sem Terra are loaded with cultural meanings that they learn to produce and express. In an occupation, on a march, or in the organization of a settlement, there appears not only what these families of workers are today, or at this particular moment. Every action brings together with it the way of being human that these people bear, the developing weight of the objective circumstances of their whole previous existence and the type of education they have received or lived. At the same time, their collective action is also usually the negation of certain traditions that have marked their lives up to now, and the projection of values they learn or re-learn in the pedagogical process of the Movement. The MST’s expressions, symbols, art, way of struggle, embody a cultural moment that neither begins nor ends at the moment of action. Each landless person who enters the MST also enters a world already productive of symbols, expressions, human examples, values, which, with each action, s/he learns to signify and resignify.

One of the great pedagogical challenges of the MST with its social base has been precisely to help people make a new cultural synthesis, one that joins their past, present, and future in a new, rooted collective and personal identity. To live as if one struggles, to struggle as if one lives This is a coherent position that has been seen as necessary to the Movement’s aims of social transformation, as well as in its permanent conflicts and challenges. Memory, mística, discussion of values, criticism and self-criticism, the study of history, these are some cultural tools that the Movement has been using in this construction.

We can reflect then that to educate is to also to share meanings and tools of culture (Jerome Bruner’s expression, in Arroyo 2000). It is to help people in the learning of signfying and resignifying their actions, in such a way that they may transform them into values, behavior, convictions, customs, expressions, symbols, art, that is, into a way of life chosen and reflected by the collectivity of which they form a part. This means, among other things, that to educate people is help to cultivate their memory; it is to become acquainted and reacquainted with their symbols, expressions, words; it is to situate them in a wider cultural and historical universe; it is to work with different languages, organize different moments and modes so that people may think about their practices, their roots, their plans, their lives

5. People are educated by living values

Values are a fundamental dimension of culture; they are the principles of life, that for which we consider it worth living. Values are what move our practices, our life, our being human. Values are what produce in people the need to live for the sake of freedom and justice. Values are what move the striving of the Sem Terra to make their settlements utopian communities, consistent with the struggle that won them over.

The MST has been very concerned with the cultivation of values, because it knows that it is the values, translated into culture, that it will leave as a heritage to its descendants and the new generations of those who fight for the people. And values only exist through people, their experiences, positions, convictions. And they are not born with each one: they are learned, cultivated through the collective processes of development, of education.

For the MST, this has not been an easy battle: to recover and cultivate human values like solidarity, loyalty, the spirit of sacrifice for the collective well-being, companionship, seriousness, discipline, indignation in the face of injustices, the valuing of the Sem Terra identity, humility - in a society that day by day degenerates with the counter-values of individualism, consumerism, social apathy, lack of commitment to life, the exclusion of those who take part in social struggles But it is only by taking on the job of educating and re-educating people in its values that the MST can realize the project of its history.

6. People are educated by learning how to solve problems

In the actions of a social struggle knowledge is acquired and produced, and it is a very important dimension of the strategy for the humanization of the people. But one of the pedagogical lessons we have gleaned from the day-to-day life of the Movement is that the process of producing knowledge that effectively aids in the development of the person is that which is connected to the large and small questions of life. When a Sem Terra needs to know how to calculate an area in order to measure the land where his agro-villa will be settled, or when he needs to study geography to best choose the place for an occupation, this knowledge will certainly have more human and social density for him. When a Sem Terra child learns how to measure the materials that she needs to begin building her playground, or learns to write letters to people she likes, the same thing occurs. The expression "to know is to solve," from the Cuban educator José Martí, brings us to an even more radical question: it suggests to us that there is no true knowledge outside of concrete situations, or the solution to problems of "real" life. And it really seems to be so, especially when this question is put into the context of pedagogical processes.

To educate is to socialize knowledge and is also the tool for producing knowledge that affects people’s lives in their various dimensions of identity and universality. To learn in order to solve problems means to understand knowledge as a comprehension of reality in order to transform it, comprehension of the human condition in order to make it fuller, which is a very old lesson that the Pedagogy of the Movement is merely recovering.

7. People are educated by learning from the past to plan for the future

It was in this way that the Movement made itself as it is: learning from those who had struggled before, cultivating the memory of their own path. History is made in this way: planning for the future beginning with the lessons of the past cultivated in the present. ‘The land holds the roots’, says one of the MST’s songs. Education also must hold the roots, helping to cultivate the memory of the people and in the development of historical consciousness.

Educators have a very specific task for this: their meetings with their learners can be a privileged time for learning to cultivate the collective memory, and for the study of a broader history. To know that this can make a difference: the memory of the debts to the people that were not paid, the wounds that were not healed, is not erased.

It is necessary to educate every Sem Terra family so that their rural roots, their culture, and how these roots take part in the formation of the Brazilian people, are not forgotten, so that all the Sem Terra may learn how they came to the condition of being rural landless workers, and how they have many other brothers all over the world in a similar condition, who are also carrying on a struggle for the land and for agrarian reform as we are. And as educators we also need to learn from this memory and its cultivation, not to remain imprisoned in the past, but, on the contrary, to set it in motion and plan for the future what is best for everyone.

8. People are educated in collectivities

The MST is a collectivity. And in it the Sem Terra learn that the collective is the great subject of the struggle for land as well as its great educator. Nobody gets his/her land by him/herself; the occupations, the encampments, the settlements are collective works. The force of each person is in his roots, which is his part in a collectivity with a memory and project for the future. It is through taking part in the collective and its works that people are educated not alone, but in relation to others which potentializes their own singular, unique person.

People do not learn to be human by themselves. Without the bonds of their participation in collectives they cannot go forward to a fully human condition. Uprooted people are dehumanized people, who do not recognize themselves in any past and have no project for the future. To educate is to help root people in strong collectives; it is to potentialize social, human harmony in the construction of identities, values, knowledge, feelings. An educational environment is fundamentally an educational collective, moved and planned by teachers, but shared by all of its members. In a true collective, all are at the same time educators and educated, because all are a part of the process of learning and re-learning to be human.

9. The educator educates by conduct

The educator educates by conduct much more than by words. The strength of the MST is not in its speeches, but in its actions and in the positions of the Sem Terra who make them happen. It is the practices and the conduct of the collective that educates the people who take part in the Movement or live with it.

It is for this reason that in the MST we have as educational references people like Paulo Freire and Che Guevara. They were not educators only for what they said or wrote, but through the testimony of the consistency between what they thought, said, and effectively did and were, as persons and as militants in the causes of the people.

To be an educator is, therefore, a way of being, a way of being with the people that is a living message of values, convictions, feelings, of a conscience that moves us and that we claim to defend in our organization. It is to have a complete committment, which is not easy. Only a collective can help us in the process of criticism and self-criticism, in the calls and in the affections that show us when we are vacillating and also show us the right path so that we may return to it.

Individuals are not only formed in school. There are other experiences that produce even stronger learning. The Pedagogy of the Movement is not contained by the school, because neither the Movement nor human development is contained by it. But the school is a part of the Movement and its pedagogy, so much so that historically the MST has tenaciously fought so that all the Sem Terra may have access to schools. The school that is a part of the Pedagogy of the Movement is the one that returns to its original task: taking part in human development.

To think of the school as a workshop of human development means to think of it as a place where the educational process or the process of human development occurs in an intentionally planned way, conducted and thought about for this purpose, a process that is guided by a project for society and the human being, and is sustained by the presence of people with specific knowledge for the work of education, by the sincere co-operation of everyone who is there to learn and to teach, and by the permanent link with other social practices that have begun and continue this work.

The expression also helps us to rethink the pedagogical logic, or the pedagogical method of the school. We claim that the school is not only a place for teaching, and that a method of education is not the same as a method of teaching. It is necessary to plan various pedagogical strategies in view of the different kinds of learning that make up the complex process of human development.

In a school conceived as a workshop of human development, educators are architects, organizers, and stimulators of the educational environment. This demands great sensitivity and mastery of the arts of pedagogy to form the schools from a clear perception of how the educational process is developing in each student and in the collectivity as a whole; to perceive the contradictions and not be overwhelmed by them, but to work with them pedagogically; to be aware of what dimensions need to be emphasized at one moment or another, what type of actions need to be performed and with what contents, what relations need to be worked on and at what time.

It is a very important kind of learning: one needs to be humble enough to place oneself always in the situation of an apprentice of the process, as apprentices that we all are, of this complex art of building humanity, of which the MST also has a part, albeit but a small one.



Works Cited

Arroyo, M. G. Ofício de mestre. Petrópolis: Vozes, 2000.

Caldart, R. S. Pedagogia do Movimento Sem Terra. Petrópolis: Vozes, 2000.

Caldart, R. S. A pedagogia da luta pela terra: o movimento social como princípio

educativo, trabalho solicitado pela 23a Reunião Anual da ANPED, Grupo de

Trabalho Movimentos Sociais e Educação, 2000.

Freire, P. Pedagogia da indignação. São Paulo: Editora da UNESP, 2000.

Martí, J. Ideário pedagógico. Havana: Imprensa Nacional de Cuba, 1961.

Stedile, J. P. e Fernandes, B. M. Brava gente: a trajetória do MST e a luta pela terra no

Brasil. São Paulo: Fundação Perseu Abramo, 1999.


November 2002

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