The issue of land lies at the foundation of many social movements, from struggles for urban affordable housing to environmental protections against toxic agricultural chemicals. In Brazil, a group called the Movimento de Trabalhadores Sem Terra (MST), or the Landless Workers Movement, has taken root since the mid-1980s in response to a situation of highly unequal land distribution and an expensive dependency on chemical inputs and mechanization brought on by the “Green Revolution.”
MST has carried out thousands of takeovers of of unused or abandoned agricultural land and has an estimated 1.5 million members spread across 23 or Brazil’s 26 states. In Soil, Struggle and Justice: Agroecology in the Brazilian Landless Movement, a film by Dr. Andreas Hernandez of Marymount Manhattan College looks closely at an MST group that successfully fought occupied and won the rights to land in southern Brazil. But what happens after the land is won? Hernandez’s film reckons with this question as well as the ongoing struggles of this cooperative settlement around environment health, gender equity, and perhaps the most universal, sustaining into the next generation.
Dr. Hernandez screened the film on February 4 for a public audience at the CUNY Graduate Center.
The film focused on one organizing campaign in the southernmost state of Rio Grande do Sul, which after several years of tent occupations, successfully gained land for about 50 families. The MST succeeded by occupying and demanding access to land under the Constitution’s requirement that land has to “serve a social function”. A key part of their organizing strategy is democratic governance at all levels of their organization. After winning land rights, we see how this popular participation plays out in the debates about how to organize social and economic life.
Despite the film’s title, agroecology — farming that privileges ecological solutions over chemical solutions — was not an original goal of the settlement. As residents tell the story, they began using chemical inputs (pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, etc.) in order to sell peaches from their inherited orchard to a nearby company. Soon, however, they noticed negative health effects on the community, especially the children, who on at least one occasion were found picking and eating peaches a horrifyingly short amount of time after a pesticide spraying. For safety’s sake, they stopped spraying chemicals in the parts of the orchard closest to the houses.
Making the Shift to Agroecology
While many agreed with the ideals of agroecology, settlement residents were concerned about making a profit. They began small experiments with reducing or eliminating pesticides and found that the peaches did not suffer considerably. As one woman described the internal debate, the desire for healthy and clean food production expanded from taking care of their own children to “what about the children of others?” The experiments evolved into planting cover crops of vetch or oats to capture nitrogen for the soil, employing crop rotations, and spraying milk protein to repel fruit flies from the peaches, all the while consulting with agronomists supportive of the MST.
Towards the end of the film, we encounter another internal struggle. Beyond gaining land and countering the exploitation of capitalism, one woman, Irma, spoke about “various other things that should be transformed in this process, among them, the condition of women in society.” Irma describes the MST as offering “space” for making a change in women’s unequal status, presumably referring to the autonomy and democratic principles of the settlement. That said, another woman tells frankly of the overrepresentation of men in administrative roles, while “women’s work” often involved more tedious tasks such as weeding the vegetable gardens. It is clear why Irma recognized: “We saw our struggle wasn’t just to get access to land.”
In the film’s introduction, a speaker shares a bright vision of the cooperative settlement’s potential to create “an alternative model of rural life that provides flourishing livelihoods, feeds a region, and restores the earth.” When Hernandez talked to a group of older youth, they express appreciation for the MST's impact on their lives, including how access to land diverted their families away from the rural-to-urban slum migration. One young woman pointed out that many youth have gone on from the settlement to occupy and seek land of their own, to continue the movement’s struggle, and only a minority have moved to the city. It is unclear, however, how well this trend represents the views of all youth who have grown up within MST settlements. The MST’s fight is ongoing, although their significant victories are already a cause for celebration. The strength of Hernandez’s film lies in its ability to shed light on the ongoing struggles of a legendary movement and provoke thought about how it could be improved as the mantle is passed to the next generation.