The MST and Agrarian Reform in Brazil*

Mançano Fernandes

This article offers a brief reflection on the Landless Workers’ Movement (MST) and the recent changes that have taken place in the politics of the Brazilian land reform. Land reform is a territorial policy that does not address the full complexity of the agrarian question. For this study, we view the agrarian question as a structural problem of capitalism (Fernandes 2001), part of its inherent logic of development. As such, it generates inequalities and processes of differentiation, expulsions and expropriations, thereby excluding, making subaltern, destroying, and recreating the peasantry. Relations between the peasantry and capital are permanently conflictual and are defined, on one hand, by the subaltern position of the peasantry vis-à-vis capital (including the power of capital to destroy and recreate the peasantry in accord with its own interests), and on the other, by peasant resistance in setting the terms of its own reproduction, through land occupations (Fernandes 2008a).

At the core of these antagonisms is the territorial conflict over the process of creation and destruction of the peasantry. The agrarian question is thus a territorial question, and agrarian reform is the face of this aspect of the conflict. The struggles are over structural processes and their conjunctural traits. The accelerated expansion of monocultures and the increase in agro-industry in the 1970s, accompanied by the near-extinction of peasant movements through the military dictatorship’s repression, constituted one of the greatest crises for peasant resistance in Brazil. With the re-democratization of the country in the 1980s, the agro-export/agro-industrial model was consolidated alongside the territorialization of the struggle for land, with the spread of land-occupations as well as the struggle for agrarian reform.

During the 1990s, peasant movements struggling for land multiplied, broadening the conflict and increasing the number of rural assentamentos (settlements), and the MST was at the forefront of that process. In this decade, national and transnational corporations extended the agro-export model to a broad group of systems which has come to be called agribusiness. This grouping brings together, in different forms, the agrarian, cattle-raising, industrial, mercantile, financial, technological, scientific, and ideological systems.

In the first decade of the 21st century, these conjunctural changes in the agrarian situation generated various conflicts. Peasant movements increasingly came to confront transnational corporations rather than latifundistas. This change reflects the globalization of the agrarian question, as transnational corporations have obtained landholdings in various countries, and a world organization of peasant movements, the Via Campesina, has come into being. The food crisis put an end to the myth that agribusiness would be a great producer of food. It thereby highlighted the importance of the peasantry as well as the need for a politics of food sovereignty. The increase in the price of petroleum and the ramping up of the production of biofuels are transforming the countryside into a place for the production agro-fuels as well as food. The MST and more than 90 other Brazilian peasant movements are the center of the resulting conflicts. At this juncture, the politics of agrarian reform are themselves changing. The changes constitute a pressing current issue.

The MST and changes in the agrarian situation

The MST was officially founded in January 1984, in the city of Cascaval, in Paraná state. Nonetheless, its first struggles and the first meetings took place from 1978 to 1983 (Fernandes 2000). In its three decades of existence the MST passed through several different stages of the agrarian question. These changes brought with them new challenges, one of which can be found in the name of the movement itself. When it was founded, the MST was called the Movement of Landless Rural Workers (Stedile & Fernandes 1999). However, the expression “rural workers” didn’t survive in the acronym, which came to be MST (Movement of those without Land) by the end of the 1980s. Since the middle of the 1990s (and especially because of the founding of Via Campesina), the phrase “peasant” appeared more and more in the MST’s speeches and documents. If the word peasant was rarely heard at the time of the MST’s founding, today it is commonly used in the encampments and settlements, in meetings, and in all the spaces and territories where the Movement exists.1

This definition strengthened the identity of the MST as a peasant movement. And this strengthening in turn highlighted the territorial aspect of the struggle. A peasant movement does not exist without peasant territories. A peasant movement is thus also a socio-territorial movement (Fernandes, 2005). The peasants make a living from the land and from all the goods produced by the land. Therefore territory is fundamental to understanding the MST and agrarian reform today. It is evident that territory is the essential condition for all the types of organization. Hence, the MST battles for territory with its main opponent: agribusiness. This fight has always been a central aspect of the agrarian question. It became even more significant, and the battles more intense, with the modernization and globalization of agrarian production. Paradoxically, this new reality frees the idea of agrarian reform from meaning simply redistribution, and broadens it to signify a wider struggle, complex and multi-dimensional. To struggle for agrarian reform means to struggle over all the dimensions of territory – among them technology, the market, education, health – but above all against capital, which seeks to control it.

This understanding of agrarian reform as a territorial struggle is one that the MST has worked with since its foundation. In this sense, the MST is a modern peasant movement (Oliveira 2005). One of the characteristics of modern peasant movements is the breaking of dependent relations with parties, governments, and other institutions, as has been well-argued by sociologists studying the “new social movements.” The MST since its foundation has maintained autonomy from the institutions that helped found it, such as the Pastoral Land Commission (CPT), the Central Workers’ Union (CUT), and the Workers’ Party (PT), to cite only the three most significant ones. However, it is important to recall that the MST also contributed to the formation of those institutions. The relationship of reciprocity among them can be better understood as part of the development of policies to transform the country – policies which have been held back by the uneven correlation of forces.

Another trait of the MST’s modernity is its ability to adapt to changes in the political conjuncture. This is highly relevant to its resisting the encroachments of capital. The MST’s participation in Via Campesina has had a similar effect. A deeper understanding of reality is possible when one follows the struggles of peasant movements around the world. The common enemy of peasant movements the world over is agribusiness. To be a peasant movement in Latin American means to struggle for agrarian reform and against agribusiness. The countries of Latin America have the highest land concentrations in the world, and their territories are tightly controlled by transnational corporations (Fernandes, 2006). Agribusiness poses a huge obstacle to agrarian reform in Brazil, Bolivia, and Paraguay. The complex of multinational corporations challenges peasant movements by pressuring governments, playing its part in the arc of alliances that support governments of right, center, and left in Latin America.

The MST, the governments of Fernando Henrique Cardoso (FHC) and Lula, and the politics of agrarian reform

Lula’s campaign for his first term in office (2003-06) had the support of the MST.  There was the prospect of a government that would aggressively pursue agrarian reform, as this had been one of Lula’s promises. In 2003, members of the MST participated, alongside a group of specialists coordinated by Plinio de Arruda Sampaio, in drawing up the second National Plan for Agrarian Reform (PNRA II). The first PNRA was formulated in 1985 (the Sarney government) under the management of José Gomes da Silva (1987; 1989). The projects introduced by those two historic defenders of agrarian reform were never implemented. In the 1980s, the main opposition to implementing PNRA I came from the countryside, principally with the creation of the Union of Rural Democracy (UDR). In the beginning of the 21st century, agrarian reform’s main opponent is agribusiness, which defends access to the land under its control “without class struggle and without conflict” (Bruno 2008). Market-based agrarian reform, in all of the various guises this policy assumes, is a form of territorial control through commoditization (Pereira 2004), or the commercialization of land, removing agrarian reform from the terrain of politics and shifting it to that of the capitalist economy (Ramos Filho 2008).

The differences and similarities between large agricultural producers (ruralistas) and agribusiness can be understood through their interconnections. Large agricultural producers, during the 1980s, partially integrated themselves with agribusiness by producing for or renting land to corporations. These producers are mostly involved in animal husbandry and in soy and sugar-cane production. They saw the agribusiness model as a way of using their lands to expand crop production, whether directly or through renting it out. Big landowners control a great part of Brazil’s arable land, and typically keep it fallow. Agribusiness has encroached on this land for its large-scale monoculture production. The changes in the use of soil, from livestock-raising to soy or sugarcane production, typify a process in which production and non-production join together as barriers to agrarian reform.

This new conjuncture has redefined the correlation of forces and blocks any agrarian reform that would impinge on territories owned by agribusiness. An agrarian reform will take place, but mainly on public lands in the Amazon. This conjuncture presents a fresh challenge for peasant movements, which we must now analyze.

The governments of Fernando Henrique Cardoso (FHC, 1995-2002) and Lula created more settlements than any other government since the [1985] re-democratization of Brazil. About 80% of the settlements, and of the families and area settled, took place during these two governments’ time in office, as can be seen in tables 1 and 2. These two tables make clear that agrarian reform only occurs alongside the organization of peasant movements, through land occupations. A policy of agrarian reform is not only a State action. Before that, it is the work of peasant movements. Without a struggle for land there is no agrarian reform. The struggle for land, through land occupations, grew most intensely during the first term of the FHC administration. The two terms of this government were characterized by different approaches to agrarian reform. During the first term, the FHC government bet on the elimination of the agrarian question through a policy of extensive settlements. This was the period when the most families were settled. However, the agrarian question endured, precisely on account of its structural character (as we noted at the outset). The theory of the FHC government having failed, it switched to the opposite strategy. It began to criminalize land-occupations, creating makeshift measures so as not to settle the occupying families and not to take over occupied land. These measures partially affected the actions of peasant movements, as can be seen in the reduction in the number of occupying families in the FHC’s second term. And since occupations have a determining effect on the creation of settlements, the reduction of the number of occupying families led to a reduction in the number of families settled. 

Table 1: Brazil, Land Occupations, 1985-2006


Sarney (1985-1989)

Collor/Itamar (1990-1994)

FHC (1995-1998)

FHC (1999-2002)

Lula (2003-2006)


Source: DATALUTA (2008)

Table 2: Brazil, Agrarian Reform, 1985-2006


Sarney (1985-1989)

Collor/Itamar (1990-1994)

FHC (1995-1998)

FHC (1999-2002)

Lula (2003-2006)


Source: DATALUTA (2008)

The Sarney government’s time in office was unique in that the number of families in occupations was less than the number of families settled. At that time, it was believed that the government would carry out an agrarian reform. Disappointment with the Sarney government, which carried out less than 10% of the goals of PNRA I, propelled peasant movements into becoming the main protagonists for agrarian reform during subsequent administrations. The first term of the Lula government began with great expectations for the passage of an agrarian reform. Peasant movements carried out the largest number of occupations – in terms of both land occupied and families participating – in the history of the struggle for land in Brazil. In contrast to the policies of FHC in his second term, which criminalized occupations, the Lula government always talked with peasant movements. Nevertheless, it also created a new agrarian reform policy that, paradoxically, has at once advanced and set back the struggle for land and for agrarian reform.

Agribusiness is part of the alliance of interests that supports the Lula administration. President Lula has made clear statements of admiration for agribusiness. As we noted earlier, agribusiness is appropriating the lands of the latifundia and wants to maintain a stock of land in reserve for the near future, principally for the expansion of sugarcane production for biofuels. The Lula government has discreetly refrained from expropriating land in regions of interest to corporations, so as to guarantee agribusiness’s political support. Likewise, in regions where land has been declared to be illegally held (that is, public land controlled by latifundistas or agribusiness), the government has refrained from strong action – i.e. expropriation. Only occupations accompanied by open conflict have persuaded the government to negotiate with agribusiness to cede some fraction of the fought-over territory. But the president, despite his reluctance, needs to give a meaningful response to the landless peasants. This predicament results in a paradoxical agrarian reform. Taking advantage of the experience accumulated in the creation of settlements, the Lula government has invested much more in the regularization of peasant land-holdings in Amazonia than in the expropriation of new lands for the creation of new agrarian reform settlements.

The policy choice of the Lula regime – to refrain from carrying out an agrarian reform by expropriation, and instead to do so mainly through the regularization of tenuous land-holdings – has generated a problem for the peasant movements that have contributed most to carrying out land occupations. The MST is responsible for 63% of the families involved in land-occupations between 2000 and 2007 (373,000 families out of a total of 583,000). In 2007, close to 70,000 families occupied land, of which 45,000 were organized by the MST (DATALUTA, 2008). The policy of the Lula government has affected the MST. The predominance of settlement creation through the regularization of tenuous land-holdings has led to a considerable increase in the time families spend in temporary encampments. Without victory, many families abandon the camps, thereby diminishing pressure on the government. The compensation policy of the Bolsa Familia program – an insignificant, auxiliary monthly payment – has also reduced the potential power of organized movements. Although studies are being done on this matter, we do not yet have numerical results. Our assessment is based on conversations with peasant leaders.2

he refinancing of agribusiness’s debts and the issuing of new credit for investment has made it possible for agribusiness to colonize Amazonian lands, deforesting record areas in the states of Mato Grosso, Rondônia, and Pará. In the Center-South, corporations have purchased extensive areas for the expansion of sugarcane and eucalyptus production. These practices diminish the power of peasant movements and intensify the dynamic of agribusiness. This same is occurring in Roraima, on the frontier with Venezuela, putting indigenous territories at risk. This conjuncture challenges us to rethink the concept of territory. The simple notion of territory as mere geographic space is insufficient for addressing the conflicts among the peasant movements and indigenous movements of Latin America. It is necessary to understand the different types of territory in dispute that make up the overall national territory (Fernandes 2008b).

The MST and the diversity of movements and of settlements

To better comprehend the paradox of agrarian reform in Brazil today, it is necessary to analyze the diversity of peasant movements and peasant territories that have formed in recent years. Even though the MST has been weakened by the policies of the Lula government, there have been important advances, as well as challenges to confront. The MST and the movements that comprise Via Campesina Brasil have been weakened, because they have not been able to make the Lula government carry out an agrarian policy that would meet the needs of the peasantry. It has failed to implement an aggressive agrarian reform, which would have intensified the process of territorialization of peasant movements by relying more on expropriation than on the regularization of tenuous land-holdings. The advances have been in the expansion of peasant territories and in experiences in education and production. But it is still necessary to overcome many challenges in order to increase the participation of the peasantry in these policies. The MST is the most active peasant movement in the struggle for land in Brazil. Nonetheless, dozens of other peasant movements have emerged; 93 such movements were active in 2008 (Massaretto 2008). The increase in the number of movements has intensified the territorial conflict.

The agricultural frontier in Brazil is still open, so that agribusiness and peasants can both envisage gaining new space in the Amazon. This is the paradox of Brazilian agrarian reform. Agrarian reform normally means a change in the structure of land ownership in a country. In the case of Brazil, this change is occurring, but de-concentration of land ownership is not. Brazil is increasing the agricultural land-base but is also increasing the concentration of land. It becomes easier to understand this contradiction when we analyze the data on agrarian structure in Brazil, and see that agribusiness, as well the peasantry, have increased their land-holdings in the last 15 years (Fernandes 2008a).

During Lula’s presidency, the increase in peasant holdings occurred through the appropriation of public lands by means of land credits. By the increase in the peasantry’s territory we are referring to an increase in the number of farming units and official recognition of possession (which occurs when INCRA [the National Institute for Colonization and Agrarian Reform] lists in its registry the numbers of families and the area they occupy as being the result of the agrarian reform). This new policy increased the types of units categorized as settlements. According to studies by Coca (2008) and Rocha (2008), among the settlements created, agro-forestry predominates, to the detriment of farming, a tendency that has been increasing since the first term of the current government. In these two researchers’ studies, 18 types of settlements are registered as resulting from the agrarian reform in the strict sense, and 7 types as being the fruit of market-based agrarian reform. This diversity results from the creation of new types of settlements, beyond the classical farming model, and also reflects regional differences. Peasant movements, and, especially, the MST, have invoked this diversity to justify the struggle for land in areas close to metropolitan regions. Models of agroforestry-based settlements developed in the Amazon have been established in the metropolitan region of São Paulo (Golfbartt 2007). At the same time, the number of settlements resulting from market-based agrarian reform has also increased, principally in the Northeast and Central-South regions (Coca 2008; Rocha 2008).


The increase in landholdings of the peasantry and of agribusiness suggests that there will be a heated territorial dispute in the near future, as the Brazilian agricultural frontier begins to close. This will put an end to the current paradox of the agrarian reform and will intensify the conflicts. Another element of the territorial dispute that is only now taking shape is the use of land for the production of biofuels. Current policies, which seek to resolve the oil crisis, are heating up the territorial dispute over how land will be used. On one side, agribusiness is intensifying the production of biofuels and of commodities for the food industry. On the other, Via Campesina is defending the increased use of land for food production. The paradox will end up as a structural contradiction of the agrarian question.

Bibliography Bruno, Regina 2008 “Agronegócio e novos modos de conflituosidade” em Fernandes, Bernardo Mançano (coord.) Campesinato e agronegócio na América Latina: a questão agraria atual (Buenos Aires: CLACSO). Coca, Estevan Leopoldo de Freitas 2008 Análise e mapeamento dos tipos de assentamentos no Brasil: compreender a diversidade e a atualidade da reforma agrária brasileira. Estudo dos assentamentos das regiões Norte e Nordeste (Presidente Prudente: NERA).

DATALUTA-Banco de Dados da Luta pela Terra 2008 “Núcleo de estudos, pesquisas e projetos de reforma agrária” (

Fernandes, Bernardo Mançano 2000 A formação do MST no Brasil (Petrópolis: Vozes).

----------. 2001 Questão agrária, pesquisa e MST (São Paulo: Cortez).

----------. 2005 “Movimentos socioterritoriais e movimentos socioespaciais” em OSAL (Buenos Aires: CLACSO) Vol. 16, enero-abril.

----------. 2006 “Questão agrária” em Sader, Emir e Jinkings, Ivana (coords.) Enciclopédia Contemporânea da América Latina e do Caribe (São Paulo: Boitempo) Vol. 1.

----------. 2008a “Entrando nos territórios do Território” em Paulino, Eliane Tomiasi e Fabrini, João Edmilson (coords.) Campesinato e territórios em disputa (São Paulo: Expressão Popular).

----------. 2008b “Questão agrária: conflitualidade e desenvolvimento territorial” em Buainain, Antonio (coord.) Luta pela terra, reforma agrária e gestão de conflitos no Brasil (Campinas: UNICAMP).

Golfbartt, Yamila 2007 “A luta pela terra entre o campo e a cidade: as Comunas da Terra do MST, sua gestação, principais atores de desafios”, Dissertação de mestrado, São Paulo.

Massaretto, Nívea 2008 DATALUTA-Banco de Dados da Luta pela Terra: organização do cadastro de movimentos socioterritoriais (Presidente Prudente: NERA).

Oliveira, Ariovaldo Umbelino 2005 “O MST como movimento socioterritorial moderno” em Revista USP (São Paulo: USP) Nº 64.

Pereira, João Márcio Mendes 2004 “O modelo de reforma agrária de mercado do Banco Mundial em questão: o debate internacional e o caso brasileiro. Teoria, luta política e balanço de resultados” Dissertação de mestrado, CPDA-UFRRJ, Rio de Janeiro.

Ramos Filho, Eraldo da Silva 2008 “De pobre e sem-terra a pobre com-terra e sem-sossego: territorialização e territorialidades da reforma agrária de mercado (1998-2006)” em Fernandes, Bernardo Mançano; Medeiros, Leonilde e Paulilo, Maria (coords.) Lutas camponesas contemporâneas: condições dilemas e conquistas (São Paulo: UNESP).

Rocha, Herivelto Fernandes 2008 Análise e mapeamento dos tipos de assentamentos no Brasil: compreender a diversidade e a atualidade da reforma agrária brasileira. Estudo dos assentamentos da região Centro-Sul.

Silva, José Gomes da 1987 Caindo por terra: crises da reforma agrária na Nova República (São Paulo: Busca Vida).

----------. 1989 Buraco negro: a reforma agrária na constituinte (Rio de Janeiro: Paz e Terra).

Stédile, João Pedro e Fernandes, Bernardo Mançano 1999 Brava gente (São Paulo: Fundação Perseu Abramo).


*An earlier version of this article appeared (in Portuguese) in Revista OSAL (Observatorio Social Latinoamericano), vol. 9, no. 24 (October 2008). The present text is revised from a draft-translation prepared by Max Ajl.

1. Examples can be found in the published materials of the MST or at its website (

2. Other views of this process may be seen in the article of Osvaldo Russa (ex-president of the National Institute for Colonization and Agrarian Reform),, or in O Estado de São Paulo, April 27 2008, p. A10. See also Folha de São Paulo, November 4 2007, p 4.