Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.
What are the aims of the MST?
The priority aims of the MST from the beginning were firstly to fight for land, secondly to fight for agrarian reform, and thirdly to transform society. But after we started achieving some agrarian reform we saw that there wer e many more complex things to do. For example, we have aims for education, for health, for an alternative agrarian production. We propose, in fact, a different society.
From the beginning, one of the main tactics of the MST was to occupy unused land. Can you tell us about how that works?
Eighty per cent of the settlements of the MST were created by organising these occupations and putting pressure on the government to redistribute land. But at the same time, the popular education that the MST does in preparation for the occupations, amongst communities near the big landholdings who have been told their whole lives that there is nothing they can do to change things, helps to create a revolution in the minds of the people there.
What does a typical MST settlement look like?
We have achieved a lot in the settlements. We are able to ensure that people are properly nourished, that children can go to school, that they have a decent minimum income and overall a better quality of life. People on the settlements also have a better perspective on life – they understand through popular education that if you organise, you can fight for your rights.
The MST has been quite important to developing the concept and practice of ‘agroecology’. Can you tell us what agroecology is?
The environmental crisis, of which climate change is the most obvious symptom, is a caused by the pattern of consumption under capitalism, and the way capitalism produces things, which is energy intensive and not sustainable. So we propose agroecology as an alternative to this model.
It is a way that farmers can have more autonomy and protect the environment. It’s a scientific approach, but one which prioritises health, biological diversity and security. It’s secure because it involves growing a diverse range of crops, so if there is a problem with one crop then farmers still have others to sell and provide them with some income. It’s an environmental approach because it doesn’t use inputs from outside the farm, like chemical fertilisers and pesticides.
Agribusiness uses a lot of genetically modified seeds, but we believe that the most important thing a small farmer has is his own seeds, not least because their seeds are usually the best adapted to their own climate and type of land. If you buy seeds from the big seed companies such as Monsanto, you don’t own those seeds, you have to buy them again the next year. We also encourage farmers to exchange seeds with each other to increase biodiversity.
In some ways it sounds like organic agriculture, but also like there is a social aspect to agroecology that is lacking in straightforward organic farming…
This is very important. Often organic farming is not a social system of production at all. There are some very big companies in Brazil who have a lot of money in organic production, but this does not change the relationship with the workers or the farmers who supply them, to which they still pay a very low price.
When the MST started it was very much focused on agrarian reform, but it seems increasingly you have organised against multinational corporations like the giant seed companies too.
Yes, there was a political decision taken by the MST to focus on developing agroecology as an alternative. And it’s not easy, because small farmers constantly see adverts on the TV from Monsanto and Syngenta encouraging them to use their seeds as a more modern, productive way of farming. But in addition to that we also have MST activists mobilising against the multinationals themselves. This is very important for raising the profile of issues that no-one is talking about.
When we took direct action against GM crops, for instance, or eucalyptus plantations, the media accused us of being anti-progress and against job creation. But without these actions there would be no discussion at all of the way that multinationals are literally stealing our resources and our land, and destroying the culture of the countryside. By taking these kinds of radical actions we create a discussion.
How has Lula’s government affected the MST and what it has been able to do?
Well, it’s a complex situation. We have been able to have more of a dialogue with the Lula government, although it’s not the same all over Brazil, as some states have a lot of power and their administrations are not prepared to talk to us at all. But in other ways the results have been quite bad. Lula came from the left and his election was a product of organising of the social movements and the trade unions. But when he got into power, he appointed lots of right-wing people to his administration. The head of the central bank was an ex-president of the Citibank group in the US, and the minister of agriculture represents the association of agribusiness in Brazil.
There was a famous photo of Lula with the MST, where he said he was going to institute agrarian reform, but when this eventually happened, the scale of it was very small. What’s more, they are now trying to change the Forest Code to reduce the area of the Amazon rainforest which has to be preserved. This change is only to placate the big soybean producers.
So in the next election we are not supporting Lula’s party, and are discussing with other social movements and left parties a popular programme for Brazil.
The MST has always faced repression and violence from both the police and the landowners. What’s the situation right now with the repression you’re facing?
From last November to the present we have seen an increasing level of attacks. This is due to the way that the right, including the right in the Lula government, is organising to criminalise social movements in Brazil. In Santa Catarina and Sao Paulo state, some of the leaders of the MST have been arrested and it is clear that there is a move to criminalise our land occupations.
What can people in the UK do to act in solidarity with the MST?
When people from the MST are arrested, international pressure from friends of the MST around the world can help a lot. But they can also help by joining with social movements around the world who are campaigning for agroecology, because we cannot make these changes only in one place, it has to be internationally.
The MST is Latin America’s biggest social movement and since 1984 has settled around 370,000 previously landless families on 7.5 million hectares of land. It has its own newspaper and a number of community radio stations. Some settlements farm collectively, others around individual plots of land, but there are also many kinds of cooperatives that support MST farmers, from credit cooperatives to stockbreeding and small food processing plants.
There are around 2,000 publicly-run schools on MST settlements and encampments (encampments are temporary settlements of landless people waiting to be given title to their land), as well as programmes of adult literacy and education. The MST also cooperates with universities to run relevant courses, and has its own Florestan Fernandes National School. Tackling gender inequality has also been a key task, which it has done through imposing 50 per cent participation by women in leadership bodies and on training courses, provision of childcare, political education and ensuring women get equal title to land.
For more information in English, see www.mstbrazil.org
The Spanish state is seizing ballot papers and raiding meetings, write Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte – but it is being met with united resistance
The crunch executive meeting ahead of Labour conference agreed some welcome changes, writes Michael Calderbank, but there is still much further to go
Dipesh Pandya speaks to documentary film-maker Sanjay Kak, who for 30 years has been working outside the mainstream to tell a story rooted in the struggles of those excluded by India’s militarism and its narrative of neoliberal growth
Jeremy Gilbert on how radical Labour politics can be inspired by the utopianism of the counterculture
Disasters have unequal impacts – it's the poor and marginalised who suffer most. David Harvey writes on Hurricane Harvey
Survivors of the fire are still relying on thousands of community volunteers, writes Dan Renwick - but the failed council is plotting a comeback
What if it's not us who are sick, asks Rod Tweedy, but a system at odds with who we are as social beings?
The people could reach a democratic and non-violent solution if they were freed from US meddling, argues Boaventura de Sousa Santos
A decade after the start of the crash, economic power is in our hands – we must take it, writes Ann Pettifor
Acid Corbynism’s next steps: building a socialist dance culture
Matt Phull and Will Stronge share more thoughts about the postcapitalist potential of the Acid Corbynist project
Flooding the cradle of civilisation: A 12,000 year old town in Kurdistan battles for survival
It’s one of the oldest continually inhabited places on earth, but a new dam has put Hasankeyf under threat, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson
New model activism: Putting Labour in office and the people in power
Hilary Wainwright examines how the ‘new politics’ needs to be about both winning electoral power and building transformative power
What is ‘free movement plus’?
A new report proposes an approach that can push back against the tide of anti-immigrant sentiment. Luke Cooper explains
The World Transformed: Red Pepper’s pick of the festival
Red Pepper is proud to be part of organising The World Transformed, in Brighton from 23-26 September. Here are our highlights from the programme
Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it
The dawn of commons politics
As supporters of the new 'commons politics' win office in a variety of European cities, Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel chart where this movement came from – and where it may be going
A very social economist
Hilary Wainwright says the ideas of Robin Murray, who died in June, offer a practical alternative to neoliberalism
Art the Arms Fair: making art not war
Amy Corcoran on organising artistic resistance to the weapons dealers’ London showcase
Beware the automated landlord
Tenants of the automated landlord are effectively paying two rents: one in money, the other in information for data harvesting, writes Desiree Fields
Black Journalism Fund – Open Editorial Meeting
3-5pm Saturday 23rd September at The World Transformed in Brighton
Immigration detention: How the government is breaking its own rules
Detention is being used to punish ex-prisoners all over again, writes Annahita Moradi
A better way to regenerate a community
Gilbert Jassey describes a pioneering project that is bringing migrants and local people together to repopulate a village in rural Spain
Fast food workers stand up for themselves and #McStrike – we’re loving it!
McDonald's workers are striking for the first time ever in Britain, reports Michael Calderbank
Two years of broken promises: how the UK has failed refugees
Stefan Schmid investigates the ways Syrian refugees have been treated since the media spotlight faded
West Papua’s silent genocide
The brutal occupation of West Papua is under-reported - but UK and US corporations are profiting from the violence, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson
Activate, the new ‘Tory Momentum’, is 100% astroturf
The Conservatives’ effort at a grassroots youth movement is embarrassingly inept, writes Samantha Stevens
Peer-to-peer production and the partner state
Michel Bauwens and Vasilis Kostakis argue that we need to move to a commons-centric society – with a state fit for the digital age
Imagining a future free of oppression
Writer, artist and organiser Ama Josephine Budge says holding on to our imagination of tomorrow helps create a different understanding today
The ‘alt-right’ is an unstable coalition – with one thing holding it together
Mike Isaacson argues that efforts to define the alt-right are in danger of missing its central component: eugenics
Fighting for Peace: the battles that inspired generations of anti-war campaigners
Now the threat of nuclear war looms nearer again, we share the experience of eighty-year-old activist Ernest Rodker, whose work is displayed at The Imperial War Museum. With Jane Shallice and Jenny Nelson he discussed a recent history of the anti-war movement.
Put public purpose at the heart of government
Victoria Chick stresses the need to restore the public good to economic decision-making
Don’t let the world’s biggest arms fair turn 20
Eliza Egret talks to activists involved in almost two decades of protest against London’s DSEI arms show
The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history
Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services
With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas
Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world
A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle
Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune
Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali
To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi