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Alternative Modernities and the MST in Latin America and Brazil

Updated on December 30, 2012
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Brazil's Landless Workers' Movement (MST)

"Brazils Landless Workers Movement, or in Portuguese Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (MST), is the largest social movement in Latin America with an estimated 1.5 million landless members organized in 23 out 27 states.
"Brazils Landless Workers Movement, or in Portuguese Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (MST), is the largest social movement in Latin America with an estimated 1.5 million landless members organized in 23 out 27 states. | Source

MST: Taking Back the Land in Brazil

Social movements across Latin America base their vision of modernity on local needs and theoretical frameworks. In his work Territories of Difference , Arturo Escobar writes about 3 frameworks that would lead to modernity in Latin America. The first path Escobar describes is alternative development, where the idea is to integrate the Latin American poor into the global market economy. The purpose is to raise productivity and bring material prosperity to the downtrodden. The second path is alternative modernities, where the idea is local people should engineer their own path to modernity with their knowledge and experience. The goal is people should be autonomous to dictate change meaningful to them and become independent from foreign capital. The purpose is to have a decommodified view of people, culture, and land. The third path is alternatives to modernity, where instead of pursuing modernity as it is known today with the industrial, mechanized and mass consumption complex, shelving it aside for regional and cultural practices as viable way of life. The Movement for Rural Landless Workers (MST) in Brazil has chosen a path to modernity that closely resembles Escobar’s second path called alternative modernities.

Escobar says “alternative modernities, [is] building on the countertendencies on development interventions by local groups and toward the contestation of global designs.” Alternative modernities are a theory that says modernity should be initiated from the grass roots level from the bottom to the top, unlike what is prevalent today. It assumes that the native poor are able to rise up economically, politically, socially and culturally by themselves. The theory states modernity must be a bottom-up initiative that brings change for the people in accordance with what they need. It is converse to today’s dominant practice, where foreign capital moles in to underdeveloped countries and utilizes the people, culture and land as objects of profit instead of bringing social and financial mobility. The MST in Brazil has arrayed itself against this neoliberal trend to make Brazilian farmers autonomous and self sufficient. The MST has made good progress by following Escobar’s alternative modernities path.

The Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra, or the Movement of Rural Landless Workers is a grassroots movement in Brazil for landless workers to obtain land. It is composed of farming families who current census reaches 1.5 million in 23 out of 27 states. The movement voices the concerns of Brazil’s landless peasants who are at the bottom of the social ladder. The movement started officially 1984 in Cascavel, Parana and was recognized nationally in 1985. But its origins began in the late 1970s when Brazil was under a military dictatorship and unfair land policies plagued the Brazilian countryside. In Brazil, 1.6% of the landowners controlled 46.8% of the land on which crops could be grown and only 3% of the population owned two-thirds of all arable lands. Brazilian landless workers mobilized to ensure their social and economic well being due to unjust land concentration, expulsion of the poor from rural areas, modernization of agriculture, mass exodus to the cities and remnants of colonial policies. To reverse this trend, the landless farmers occupied land peacefully from Rio Grande do Sul to the Macali land in Ronda Alta, and progressed to Mato Grosso and São Paulo. Farmers occupied the land because they believed that land was for those who worked it. The movement has progressed by also securing “access to credit, housing, technical assistance, schools, healthcare” for farmers. The movement has arrayed itself against the neoliberal economic policies of commercialization of agriculture and Brazilian industrialization dependent on foreign capital. Instead it wants a “sustainable socio-economic model that offers a concrete alternative to today's globalization that puts profits before people and humanity.”

Since the founding of MST, it has grown rapidly to answer demands specific to Brazilian landless workers. By cooperating with “parties of the left, labor unions, and other social movements, progressive churches, international cooperation agencies, NGOs and “Friends of the MST,”” MST has proclaimed its vision of a better Brazil in two parts: firstly opposing the neoliberal model of globalization and capitalism by organizing self- sufficiency and dependency; secondly by preserving the Brazilian farmer’s culture, and providing the social, physical and mental well being of its members. The idea of Brazilian self-sufficiency has been applied principally in the economic sector, namely agricultural production, environmental preservation and economic transformation from corporate dependency to food sovereignty. In the area of agrarian production and cooperation, their project has included establishing “400 production, commercialization, and services associations; 63 Agricultural production Cooperatives, both Collective and Semi-Collective with 2,299 associated families; 22 Trade Services Cooperatives with 11,174 direct members; 3 Credit Cooperatives (Popular Bank) with 5,400 associates . . .” MST firmly renounces multinational corporations monopolizing the agricultural and financial sectors because it makes the workers jobless and puts them in debt. MST opposed the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) and NAFTA by partaking in a global march on February 4, 2002. In the area of environment, MST believes it is imperative to keep the environment as natural and untainted from industrial modes of cultivation and maintenance. MST has introduced Bionatur seeds which are MST’s organic seeds without any pesticides. It is worthwhile to notice that these achievements have not been accomplished with external impositions, but with Brazilians directing reform in ways meaningful to them.

The areas included in MST’s second part are education, transformation of society with special regard to gender inequality, MST ownership of media and cultural outlets as an alternative to corporate ownership, healthcare and human rights violations. In the area of education, MST has achieved “Basic education of 15,000 youth and adults, by means of partnerships with 59 universities; 1,000 1st to 4th grade schools and 100 5th to 8th grade schools . . .” In the area of societal alteration MST envisions “the need to end inequality in gender relations. The MST believes that in order to grow as new women and men new economic, social, political and environmental relationships must be based on values such as respect, friendship, solidarity, justice and love.” To this end, MST wants to “have 50% of men and women in all activities of education and training; struggle for joint land titles and right to credit in the name of couples; assure that projects of investment, definitions of lines of production, and finally, economic decisions are taken only with family participation . . .” In the area of culture and media, MST envisions the holistic well being of the person in addition to socio-economic welfare. To this end it has promoted cultural exploration and preservation by recording its first CD, “Arte e Movimento", with music composed by Sem Terra militants and interpreted by established artists of Brazilian Popular Music (MPB), the First Festival of Agrarian Reform Music in 1999, in Palmeira das Missões and Rio Grande do Sul. As for the media, MST owns radio stations and issued its own newspaper and magazine. This is an effort to make the landless workers knowledgeable citizens by being aware national politics, economics, society and cultural and international news. In the area of health care MST equally values the physical well being of their members. They have achieved training of community health educators; HIV/AIDS prevention program; medical training in Cuba for youth from settlements; diagnostics reaching 9,000 settled families. In the area of human rights violations, MST wants to stop “imprisonments, assassinations, torture, death threats, and violent expulsions” by providing “public legal assistance network composed of a team of 500 attorneys across Brazil.”

From a brief description of MST’s activities, MST’s vision of modernity and the route to it are in line with alternative modernities. Escobar mentions the use of cooperatives, literacy projects and biodiversity projects that promote local versions of modernity. In the area of agrarian reform, production and cooperation the institutions set up by the MST are not planned and implemented by foreigners for profit, but are set up according to the needs of the local farmers to grow natural crops for sale. MST has started hundreds of cooperatives, associations and banks for the landless farming community. Similarly, MST is educating the countryside youth to use their knowledge to become better farmers, professionals and citizens. One sector which foreign intervention cannot change that MST is trying to change is gender equality. MST’s goal is greatly appreciable as it bringing men and women into a new economic society that ensures well being for both sexes. What makes MST noticeable is its members are trying to correct the troubles of the landless famers by coming up with their own methods using their knowledge to rise up economic prosperity. This view of modernity as envisioned by MST is in line with Escobar’s alternative modernities. Altogether, Escobar’s second track seems to correct the troubles of the Brazilian poor.


Escobar, Arturo.Territories of Difference: Place, Movements, Life, 'Redes'.Durham: Duke University Press, 2008.

Workers, Movement for Landless Rural. 11 May 2009 <>.


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