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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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Emerging culture by media type -> Essays 3 resources (Edited by Else R P Vieira. Translation © Thomas Burns.)

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History: Marches, defining moments, congresses


João Pedro Stedile
(Translated by Thomas L. Burns.)


There are lives in agrarian reform

This text was first published as a preface to the book Vozes da marcha pela terra [Voices from the March for Land(1)], which gathers the life-stories of 16 people who took part in the Grand National March for Agrarian Reform, Employment, and Justice, whose columns, coming from every corner of Brazil, arrived in Brasília on April 17, 1997. The author, one of the founders of the MST and current member of the National Directorship, draws attention to the importance of listening to the individual anonymous voices of those who, albeit not leaders, are also involved in the struggle for land.Editor’s note

Much has been said and written, for and against, about the struggle for agrarian reform; about its economic viability; about the historical trajectory of the peasant movements and their leadership; about the need to overcome the overwhelming concentration of land in our country; about the economic, social, and political power of the rural landowners; about the promising results obtained by the settled families. There has been no lack of reports on the various governments that always promise to make agrarian reform, as demagogues, but never achieve it.

Running the risk of appearing contradictory, it is exactly because it has never been achieved that agrarian reform writes one of the richest pages of the history of our country. The struggle of the rural workers to liberate themselves from the oppression of the latifundia and to make access to the land more democratic has been the source of notable events in our history, from the arrival of the Portuguese to the present day: the struggle of the indigenous peoples to avoid being enslaved or physically and culturally exterminated; nearly four-hundred years of the struggle of black people against the bonds of slave labour; the sustaining pillar of the great farms; the heroic courage of the backland people led by Antônio Conselheiro in the Northeast, and of the peasants of Contestado in the south of the country; the achievement of the Peasant Leagues, which so frightened the elites of this country simply by organizing and fighting for the right to work on the land, free from the humiliations of the mill-owners. These are only a few examples of the historical struggle of our people against the latifundia.

Now, after being forgotten for a long period, the struggle for agrarian reform has returned to take up space in the media and in the discussion of the central problems of our country. Contrary to the statements of many scholars and specialists, who considered the agrarian question already resolved, and breaking through the blockade of information imposed by the elites, the debate on agrarian reform is once again present on the national scene.

There are those who think that the attention obtained today by agrarian reform is only a passing wave, the result of the popularisation of the theme thanks to a television serial(2). For the government, it is simply a matter of the clamour made by some small groups opposing it. Many try to underestimate it by saying that it has no political motivation, as if agrarian reform were not an essentially political problem. They forget that, behind the struggles, the protests in the square, the long marches, beneath the black plastic of the encampments, there are lives. Lives that have suffered from hunger and cold. Lives threatened by the murderous weapons of the latifundia and the arbitrariness of the police. Lives marked by the pain of hearing the cry of a hungry child. Lives that were deprived of access to health, education, and the benefits provided by scientific and technological advances. Lives silenced by the social exclusion to which they were submitted for five-hundred years of our history.

But behind the struggle for agrarian reform there are also lives joyful at seeing their children write their first letters of the alphabet. There are hopeful lives that dream of the first planting, the first harvest, the first table laden with food. There are lives that feel the solidarity of receiving visits, incentives, gifts from those who share the same dream of seeing agrarian reform work. There are courageous lives that have no fear of cutting the barbed wire of the latifundium, the only alternative for a glimpse of better days for their families.

With so many lives, how can one imagine that the struggle for land is a passing fad or political manipulation? It may be that the space on the media is a passing thing, since, like the land, the means of communication are almost all concentrated in the hand of the conservative elite, greedy for wealth and power, completely identifying with the interests of the landowners.

The stubbornness of our people, the need to satisfy the basic conditions of a dignified life and the certainty that it is possible to build a democratic, socially just and egalitarian Brazil, guarantees us that the struggle for agrarian reform will only cease when the ownership of land is made truly democratic.

There are lives in the struggle for land. There are voices. Voices that often seem to come only from the leaders who get space in the media, in debates, in public demonstrations. They are the amplifiers of the voices of the encampments, of the marches, of struggles and victories.

These Vozes da marcha pela terra [Voices of the March for Land] are the historical record of those who really make history: the anonymous workers, our militants of agrarian reform.

The life-stories of the people interviewed are the best defense that can be made for agrarian reform. In them, we find the dramas, the victories, the joys and sorrows, the courage and the fear of those who struggle, the challenges that were overcome, the pride of taking part in the struggle for companionship, solidarity, and the identity forged in the life of a camp, the daring to defeat the latifundium.

How can one not be moved by the story of these fighting men and women? How can one remain unmoved before the song composed by Cristiane, 14 years old: "I am a child and I know how to think. I have rights and I will demand a dignified life"? How can one not admire the courage of Maria José, who does not hesitate to say: "if I have to die in the struggle, I will die. But I am not leaving here with a bowed head"? How can one not be moved on learning that Lúcia, 23 years old, "is filled with happiness on feeling that she is the cause of a better life for her family, and daily lives in common with people who believe and love"? This is the struggle for agrarian reform. These are the people who are carrying out the struggle.

The interviews are fundamental for those who want to understand what the struggle is, what the fuel is that moves these people, what their dreams are. They are indispensable material for those who want to quench their thirst at the fount. These stories exhale the smell of the earth, of the people, of life.

But the testimonies of these interviews are not only intended for those who want to know and understand the struggle for land. The interviews are also fundamental for those who are already a part of the struggle. They are testimonies that serve as incentive and encouragement. They are witnesses of a life that make us certain that we are on the right path and that victories are rewarding. They are the certainty that each militant in the struggle for agrarian reform will find in these pages the necessary incentive to continue the struggle. They are the life history of our struggling people.

The wealth of these stories would be compromised, however, if they fell on insensitive ears. The interview was not limited to asking questions and collecting the answers. It had the merit of capturing the feelings, of knowing how to listen and respect the characteristics of each person interviewed. The interaction between interviewer and interviewee has resulted in a collection of testimonies on life, which is not a mere pile of interviews. In this detail, too, lies the wealth of this book.

The book will surely be of great importance for agrarian reform to reach broad sectors of society and attract a larger number of sympathizers and militants to our struggle. We are grateful to all who have contributed in some way to the making and publishing of this precious historical document.

(1) Ed. Andrea Paula dos Santos, Suzana Lopes Salgado Ribeiro, José Carlos Sebe Bom Meihy. São Paulo: Edições Loyola, 1998). Produced by the Department of History of the University of São Paulo. Reprinted by permission of the author.

(2) The author refers here to the television serial 0 Rei do Gado [Cattle King], produced by the Globo Network in 1996, which treated the theme of agrarian reform and the MST.

Editor Note:The author graduated in Economics from the Pontifícia Universidade Católica do Rio Grande do Sul, with post-graduate course at UNAM (Mexico). Assisted the Pastoral Land Commission. One of the founders of the MSTand current member of the National Directorship. Author of Questão agrária no Brasil [The Agrarian Question in Brazil] (São Paulo: Atual Editora, 1997), A luta pela terra no Brasil [The Struggle for Land in Brazil], with Frei Sérgio (São Paulo: Scritta, 1993), A reforma agrária e a luta do MST [Agrarian Reform and the Struggle of the MST] (Petrópolis: Vozes, 1997), Brava gente: a trajetória do MST e a luta pela terra no Brasil [Brave People: the Trajectory of the MST and the Struggle for Land in Brazil], with Bernardo Mançano Fernandes (São Paulo: Fundação Perseu Abramo, 1999).


November 2002

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