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English Report

The settlements of Santana (Ceará), Conquista na Fronteira (Santa Catarina), Antonio Conselheiro (Mato Grosso) and the “quilombo” communities of Oriximiná (Pará) serve as references of organization and resistance. They contrast with the degraded and abandoned farms that lie under the control of a single landowner. When the farms are disappropriated for agrarian reform, despite the land’s precarious conditions, they are able to quickly expand cultivation and livestock.

Peasant Resistance in Brazil

Mônica Dias Martins[1]

The objective of the research project called “Alternative experiences in agrarian reform of Brazil”, an initiative of the Social Network for Justice and Human Rights, in collaboration with Via Campesina, is to analyze concrete situations of peasant resistance. The Landless Workers Movement (MST), the Pastoral Land Commission (CPT), the Women’s Farmworker Movement (MMC) and the Federation of Brazilian Students of Agriculture (FEAB) were all part of conducting the research for the project. A team responsible for all aspects of the research process defined the objectives and content; elaborated a theoretical frame of reference and methodologies; selected the areas of study; surveyed and interpreted the data; wrote the report; and communicated the results.[1] The work for the project was developed in collaboration with the “quilombo” communities of Pará and agrarian reform settlements in the states of Ceará, Mato Grosso and Santa Catarina.

Based on the principal results of this research we looked at some key questions in order to:

  1. 1. Understand how and why these communities became references of economic, political and cultural organization in dispute with the capitalist agricultural model based on monoculture for export, and on the World Bank land-market program;
  2. 2. Identify what the motivations were to change, since these changes in behavior and values were closely tied with the structural transformations;
  3. 3. Highlight that these experiences occurred in unfavorable national and international conditions, practically without governmental support;
  4. 4. Demonstrate that, despite their success, they came up against limits imposed by agriculture policies that did not alter the concentrated land ownership that persists, in association with serious problems such as environmental degradation, unemployment, hunger, poverty, social and economic inequality.

Initially, it must be made clear that there are no established criteria to compare or classify experiences, as each one of them is unique. On one hand, they are analyzed by the rhythm of their own development (life before the conquest of the land and life today, after the organization of the settlement), and, on the other hand, in relation to the specific social-economic, political-cultural and environmental context in which they exist. All of the experiences are recognized as being successful by the settlers themselves and by the local communities.

The settlements of Santana (Ceará), Conquista na Fronteira (Santa Catarina), Antonio Conselheiro (Mato Grosso) and the “quilombo” communities of Oriximiná (Pará)
are references of organization and resistance, measured by how: (a) they confront, with determination and vigor, the opposing forces to agrarian reform (b) they search to build alternatives to the agricultural model based on monoculture for export and large estates. Moreover, they are considered an example to be followed by communities in their respective regions. There are relevant aspects in each of them in that they confront the values that support the dominant productive-technology model and consequently the land market programs of the World Bank: individualism, competition, and profitability.

This unequal dispute gives birth to a long, difficult process of collective learning. It’s based on a collective decision-making process about how to protect natural resources (land, forests, rivers), and how to utilize social spaces (schools, cooperatives, etc.).

The settlers undertake enormous efforts to overcome the large obstacles they face to obtain land and organize their communities, amid constant conflicts, by developing their own abilities and skills. They occupy degraded and abandoned farms as their only guarantee of survival. When the farms are disappropriated for agrarian reform, despite the land’s precarious conditions, they are able to quickly expand cultivation and livestock, guaranteeing their own food production. One can see the development and growth of individuals and communities, in contrast to the families’ previous situation.  

In this territorial and ideological dispute, the communities organize themselves around specific elements. Starting with the local reality, they challenge the private appropriation of the means of production, and the policies based on monoculture for export. They develop an efficient strategy to demand agrarian reform mobilizing landless workers, and pressuring the government by organizing massive occupations of land. They have achieved positive results in terms of improved quality of life in comparison to their earlier conditions, and relative to other segments of the working class, especially with regard to rural salaries. They have achieved an intense and permanent process of dialogue and political action that aims to denounce neo-liberalism as one of the main reasons for the problems that affect the majority of the Brazilian population, such as hunger and poverty.

Agricultural cooperation, agro-ecological practices, the diversification of productive activities, work based on collective principles, and in the ownership and use of indivisible goods (land, equipment, animals, etc.), as well as the demands for objective material conditions used to support production, and community infrastructure (schools, childcare, health clinics) make up the routine actions of men and women who, grouped together in clusters and sectors of associated entities, live these experiences of agrarian reform. It was also noted by most of the 110 people interviewed, as aspects relevant to the growth of the settlers’ self-esteem, the affirmation of an identity as landless workers, and the equal participation of women, Black people, and youth in community activities.

The changes appear to reside in the dynamic of the social relationships established between settler families, and of those with nature and society. In respect to grasping the sense of this change, some characteristic were identified, with variations, in the four case studies:

· Respect to the environment and preservation of biodiversity;

· Collective administration of land, of work and of production;

· Clarity of objectives, political unity and visibility of actions;

· Democratic leadership responsible for the planning, execution and evaluation of strategic activities;

· Economic diversification and adoption of new technologies to produce food and generate income;

· Access to education as the essential factor to the learning of rights, the exercise of citizenship and political engagement;

· Stimulation to cultural activities, and its spread to the schools and to alternative vehicles of communication;

· Educational activities in the various instances of social life, by means of technical and political support, mixing theory and practice;

· Incentive to integration of young people and the affirmation of ethnic and gender equality;

· Establishment of alliances with labor unions, urban movements, churches and political parties;

· Economic and political participation in community organizing;

· World vision based on the values of solidarity and cooperation.

But this still does not seem to be enough to understand how and why these communities became a model of organization and resistance among their peers in the municipality, together with grassroots movements and the labor organizations, in the different levels of government, in religious groups, universities, artistic environments and even, in determined circumstances, with certain understanding in business and government circles.

Perhaps the key factor to understand this process is the significance the transformations in the researched areas. The related experiences, despite their positive results, are affected by unfavorable national and international policies, according to what multiple experts on the topic have shown in their analyses on the fundamentals and the consequences of the neo-liberal project on agriculture, such as plans of stabilization imposed upon governments by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, and the agreements within the World Trade Organization for the liberalization of agriculture markets.

It is widely known that the model for economic development adopted in Brazil in the mid 1980’s demanded a new form of government action, modifying the agricultural standard, through various measures, among them: a unilateral opening of the international market, with the importation of food and the exportation of non-traditional agricultural products, and the reorganization of the production chain and their control by large corporations. Such measures brought serious problems for those whose livelihood depended upon agricultural practices based on food production for the internal market.

I will conclude these reflections with a brief portrait of each experience researched. This study reflects the reality of many farming communities in Brazil.

NORTH: The “quilombo” communities of Arancuan de Baixo, Bacabal and Varre Vento, town of Oriximiná, Pará

Arancuan de Baixo, Bacabal and Varre Vento, which include a total of 94 families, are located in the headwaters of the River Trombetas in the Amazon region. These communities fought for the demarcation of their lands alongside other black communities and, with the support of the Catholic Church and the Pro-Indian Commission, formed the Association of the Descendents of the Quilombos of Oriximiná (ARQMO). The collective land title was given to the community in 1997 and corresponds to a common area of 80.877 hectares. The principal activities of the area are: the extraction of Brazil nuts, fishing, and the cultivation of manioc.

The Association brought material and social benefits to the community, such as vessels, trucks, warehouses and schools. It also inspired the appearance of other similar groups in the region. There are many reasons as to why this settlement is considered a success: the participative form of the processes of demarcation and obtainment of a collective land title, the possession of community goods, the education of children and young adults to develop a relationship of respect to nature, the growth of self-esteem, the development of “Black awareness” and the general improvement of the quality of life as a result of their own community projects.

These types of achievements find themselves threatened when confronted with other concepts of “development.” In an area of large hydroelectric projects, logging companies, mining companies and soy growers, the experience of the “quilombo” communities stand out because of their creative approach to organizing, and their relationship with the environment.

NORTHEAST: settlement Santana, town of Monsenhor Tabosa, Ceará

Santana, which has an area of 3.213 hectares populated by 76 families, is located in the backwoods of the Inhamúns, in the semi-arid state of Ceará. In 1986, a farm was disappropriated by the agrarian reform program. This disappropriation was a direct result of the mobilization of the area’s settlers, and young people of the bordering communities, as well as the support of CPT and the Labor Union of Rural Workers. The principal activities of the farm are: dairy cattle, beekeeping and a consortium of corn and beans. The Cooperative of Production Cattle Raising (COPAGUIA) was created in 1990.

The settlement is structured in the form of an “agrovila” and has small dams, stables, a cheese factory, bee colonies, a warehouse, a community store, a school, a daycare center, a health clinic, and a water treatment station. Today, it serves as an example of struggle and organization for other areas of agrarian reform, especially with regard to the formation of a collective council of land, and an equitable division of labor. The path traveled by these families to construct a dignified life included the creation of educational programs and agricultural cooperatives. The settlers’ accomplishments benefited the farmers of the town as a whole. The most notable contributions are: the elementary and middle schools; the health clinic; the production of honey and beans for the local market; the presence of women and youth in various organizations. In an area that is dominated by large estates, with serious problems such as illiteracy, the settlement Santana created new social relationships, carrying out a relevant role in town life, and in the formation of strong grassroots organizations.  

CENTRAL-WEST: settlement Antonio Conselheiro, town of Tangará da Serra, Mato Grosso

Antonio Conselheiro, which has an area of 37.258 hectars populated by 998 families, is located in the region of the “agricultural frontier,” in the southwest of Mato Grosso, between the towns of Tangará da Serra, Nova Olímpia, and Barra do Bugres. The disappropriation of the Tapirapuã farm occurred in 1997, after a year of occupation by the MST. The land was distributed in familial lots that varied from 25 to 38 hectares.

The principal production activities are the planting of bananas and rice, dairy, beef and the cultivation of corn, beans, manioc and vegetables. The settled families have electricity, water, transportation, technical assistance, and three schools, one of which is a high school. The production is being done in a new socio-environmental way through capacity building practices in agro-ecology, conservation of forest reserves and water resources, the formation of collective working groups, and food production for local and regional markets. Education, technical and political training are all contributing factors to the improvement of the families’ quality of life. In an area dominated by soy and sugarcane monocultures, the settlement Antonio Conselheiro stands out because of its community organization, diverse agricultural production, adoption of agro-ecological practices, collective commercialization, and its contribution to the provision of foodstuffs for neighboring cities.

SOUTH: settlement Conquista na Fronteira, town of Dionísio Cerqueira, Santa Catarina

Conquista na Fronteira, which has an area of 1.198 hectares populated by 60 families, is located in an area of Brazil that borders Argentina. The Tracutinga farm was disapropriated in 1988 because of the pressure of settler families organized by MST.  The Cooperative of Cattle Production of the West (COOPERUNIÃO) was created as a new economic alternative. Milk, poultry, fishing, tea, reforestation and the harvesting of grains are all noteworthy strategic activities.

The organization of the settlement transformed the large, non-productive estates into productive land, stimulating the preservation of biodiversity, the production of food, gender equality, and income generation. Women and young people participate in all production activities. The school is organized as a child-care cooperative.

Conquista na Fronteira is a planned area based upon the ideals of respect to nature, production for internal consumption, and the generation of food surplus for regional markets. The land is used in a collective form that enables its people as a group to determine the course of their lives. In an area dominated by the agro-industry of meat and tobacco companies designed for export, the settlement Conquista na Fronteira emerges as a model of organization and struggle, based on collective work, which benefits the entire region.

[1] Those who formed the research team were: Aparecido Luiz de Souza (CPT, Pará), Justina Cima and Zenaide Collet (MMC, Santa Catarina), Mariel Camargo and Wilker Souza Melo (FEAB, Mato Grosso), Silvana Lúcia da Silva Lima, Cleide Luz and Celina Moreira Lima (MST, Ceará), and Mônica Dias Martins (coordinator, Social Network for Justice and Human Rights).

[1] Mônica Dias Martins is a profesor at  UECE (State University of Ceará) and coordinator of the Observatory of Nationalities.

Marcio Seidenberg*