Brazil’s Landless Workers Movement — Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Terra | MST — is one of those things that makes you realize you are not in Kansas anymore.
In some ways it resembles the UFW of the 1970s, or is evolving in that direction, at least, it seems.
A cable on MST activities in the Brazilian Northeast by the Consulate in Recife, Pernambuco, actually makes a pretty good case for this analysis, based on an extensive interview with a Catholic Church official close to the movement.
Some of the locals believe the gringos got it all wrong, however — as usual.
Clifford Andrew Welch, for example, is an assistant professor of History at the Federal University of São Paulo | UNIFESP who was interviewed by American diplomatic personnel this year.
He takes a dim view of the resulting diplomatic dispatch.
The O Globo daily published an article on these cable on Sunday, December 19, emphasizing the presence of MST “spies” in INCRA and the alleged practice by MST members of “renting the land back to agribusiness.”
“I never said this and never would. In the first place, the term ‘spy’ was invented by O Globo; it never appears in the cables cited by the newspaper,” Welch says.
INCRA is the National Institute on Colonization and Agrarian Reform, an agency of the Ministry of Agricultural Development.
In a first-person affidavit published on the Web site of the MST, Welsh says he was triply misquoted and misconstrued.
It took a long time. In April 2007, I made a personal request for the report prepared by a U.S. investigator who had interviewed me about the MST. I requested the document again in September of this year, by e-mil, but never received so much as a response, much less the document in question.
It was Wikileaks that recently published the report on the agent’s activities in Pontal do Paranapanema, in São Paulo, and my name figured in press reports that circulated on December 19 and 20.
As an assistant coordinator of NERA, the Center for Agrarian Reform Studies, Surveys and Projects at the São Paulo State University (UNESP) in April 2009, I confess to being less than enthusiastic about the visit paid by Vice Consul Benjamin A. LeRoy of the U.S. Consulate in São Paulo, who asked us to set aside a hour to inform him “about NERA’s work, agrarian reform and the MST,” as political affairs assistant Arlete Salvador wrote to us.
As a historian specializing in U.S. foreign policy in Latin America, I was already familiar with figures like LeRoy and his reports. These serve the hisrorian as important sources for understanding the methods used to keep the empire in business. Now the tables were turned and I was to play the role of source. I was astonished by the errors in Benjamin’s report and the distortion of the facts by Consul Thomas White — which together reveal a weakness of the empirical method used by historians, overly dependent as it is on official documents and press reports.
Does it make sense to trust an investigator who has no idea where he is or with whom he is talking? The report on Benjamin’s activities, for example, refers to UNESTE instead of UNESP and reports my academic affiliation as the University of Michigan — wrong in both cases..
Even worse is the statement attributed to me by Benjamin and passed along by White, which provided O Globo with its headline: “MST said to have spies inside Incra to aid in invasion planning.” I never said this and never would. …
In the May 29 telegram, White wrote that “the MST follows a strict methodology in its invasion of lands, including the use of contacts at INCRA to select its targets, according to […] Welch.”
At another point, the consul says I told him that “the MST uses contacts at INCRA to determine which lands will be expropriated next.” According to this report,, “Welch told Benjamin that Incra does not make this information public, so that the only way the MST can access this information would be through contacts at INCRA.”
The way in which the Consul passed on statements I never made to Benjamin about relations between the MST and INCRA reflects Brazilian MacCarthyism more than Brazilian reality. MacCarthism is the ideology of the “red scare” that so frightened Americans in the mid-XXth century, when Russian spies were said to have infiltrated the government.
But the current situation in Brazil quite obviously has nothing to do with the Cold War. Under the constitution, INCRA’s responsibility is to carry out agrarian reform. The MST seeks to pressure the agency to take action.
As I told Benjamin, furthermore, INCRA does make its information available to the public. I recall trying to explain to Benjamin that most MST occupations are not carried out at random, but target areas currently involved in a process of expropriation. That is, the MST makes an effort to assist in the identification of lands that are nonoproductive or subject to expropriation because of environmental or labor violations. The clandestine nature of this process is a figment of the Consul’s imagination.
Is that true?
It appears to be.
The top news item on the Web site of the government agency at the moment, for example, is “Federal President Designates Another 13 Areas for Agrarian Reform.”
The affected properties are identifed by name, location and acreage.
But wait, these are lands already settled by MST activists.
Can you actually get information about pending enforcement actions straight off the INCRA Web site?
It seems you can.
It takes some familiarity with the native bureaucracy and legal system, which is a far cry from your father’s good old British Common Law.
In the same April 2009 report, titled “The MST Method: Take Advantage of Government, Alienate Neighbors,” the Consul uses Benjamin’s report to alleged that MST members who receive land grants from INCRA wind up “renting the lands back to agribusiness” — “a cynical and ironic practice.” The source for this statement appeasr to have been “an agribusiness leader” in Presidente Prudente.
I cannot find a telegram with a title translatable that way in the cables published so far by WikiLeaks.
On the other hand, the controversial project is tending to leak cables selectively to its local media partners — Globo and the Folha group — before posting them for public inspection. I find that practice rather contrary to the spirit of a big public data dump, don’t you?
Another report from the April 2009 frames the issue as a question.
I would tend to answer neither, to the extent that the movement uses its legal standing to bring suit against landowners through INCRA.
The vast majority of this sort of “trespass and sue” cases as filed with INCRA seem to be brought by agricultural workers unions — above.
I would tend to want to say that the policy of the current and continuing government has been to channel the energies of the movement into this legal-institutional framework.
More lawyers arguing, fewer death squads in action. Our professor again:
Out of context, as it appears in the diplomatic dispatch, the rental of these lands seems “ironic and cynical.”
What the report does not take into account is the pressure brought to bear by sugarcane processors, who offer easy money in return for allowing them to plant sugarcane. This has caused problems for land grant recipients, as a number of studies by UNESP show. MST national leadership is firmly against the practice.
There are other errors of fact and interpretation in the diplomzatic cables and news reports based on them. The Folha de S. Paulo takes advantage of the leaked cables to allege that the MST is in “decline,” that the “popular base of the movement is shrinking.” O Globo cites the alleged abandonment of the movement by the federal president, an interpretation that figures in White’s cable as well.
A cable titled MST “RED APRIL” SHOWS DECLINE IN ACTIVITY cites sources close to the movement for this assessment. For example,
Feliciano noted that in recent years, the MST has had difficulty recruiting new members because recent economic growth has generated new jobs in the cities. An additional factor is the Lula administration’s Bolsa Familia cash transfer program for the poor, which now benefits more than 11 million families. Many Bolsa Familia recipients are reluctant to join MST for fear of losing their benefits. It is difficult for them to comply with the program’s conditions — keeping their children in school and ensuring they are vaccinated on schedule — when living in an MST “acampamento.” Feliciano indicated that Bolsa Familia is but one among a series of reasons that the MST settlements are emptying.
Although the U.S. interest in the movement tends to get justified in terms of the grotesque murder-for-hire of U.S. citizen Dorothy Stang — a naturalized Brazilian citizen active in the Pastoral of the Land — more attention appears to get focused on the risk scenarios of foreign-owned agribusiness concerns. For example,
Although most recent MST invasions have not involved violence, there have been exceptions. Per reftel, last October some militants from MST and Via Campesina, an associated organization, invaded an agricultural research station in Santa Tereza do Oeste, Parana state, owned by the Swiss-based biotech company Syngenta. A skirmish between the invaders and security guards killed two people and wounded eight.
I followed the news on that case. There was some pretty astonishing video of the incident.
To the extent that “involving violence”and “skirmishing” implies violence by both sides, I think this account is grossly misleading.
I saw a bunch of heavily armed people taking pot shots at a bunch of unarmed people, who did pretty much all of the dying and suffering from injuries.
Sorry, but this looked really bad for Syngenta, which ought to have responded with lawyers heavily armed with motions.
You have to be careful whom you hire for private security duties nowadays.
There are stiffer regulations, and increased federal police oversight, of these sorts of firms.
The other cable I read on this subject, on the other hand, argues that the consolidation of agribusiness ownership of extensive areas of lands has forced the MST to switch its focus to environmental advocacy and working conditions — which it visibly has done, I think, if you take the trouble to canvas the Web content they produced in the last year or so.
The MST does not like to give up the fight over title to lands which may, in the distant past, have been griladas — grilagem = “bushwhacking” and “claim jumping,” roughly. But it apparently has had to.
As I tell Brazilian friends, the MST seems more and more like the UFW of the 1970s, which took on agribusiness over working conditions such as occupational safety — pesticide use — and collective bargaining rights without challenging right of title.
We gringos have not seen latifúndio-like settlement patterns, with their accompanying legal uncertainties and violence, since the Range Wars of the XIXth century, if I remember my high school AP History.
So there actually could be something to that assessment, although our professor disagrees.
These arguments are difficult to sustain, however. In fact, government and NERA statistics both support the contrary conclusion, showing that the Lula government has settled more families than the Cardoso government, which claims it did more for agrarian reform than another other government in Brazilian history. The Lula government responds that it has settled 59% of all reform beneficiaries in Brazilian history.
Statistics on settlements by landless workers tell the same story. During the 8 years of Cardoso I and II, 57,.650 families took part in 3,876 occupations organized by 20 different movements. Totals for Lula I and II are not yet available, but during the first 7 years of the current government, 480,214 took part in 3,621 occupations.
A better measure might be government spending on incentives to family agriculture and agribusiness, respectively.
The source is an INCRA year-end budget execution report that I have only study in a half-assed manner so far. But these documents are easy to obtain by anyone, anywhere.
That report on changing MST tactics, sourced to someone close to the movement and unambiguously sympathetic to it, actually struck me as a pretty decent job of reporting by our permanent civil servants — even if in the telegrams leaked so far they appear to do less Web mining than they could do.
If it had been me, I would have done more legwork on the range of government programs in this area — like Amazônia Legal — and their calculated and uncalculated effects on the movement’s direction.
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