Between January 20th and 25th, 1984, a meeting took place in the city of Cascavél, located in the state of Paraná, between squatters, migrants, sharecroppers and small farmers who lost their right to produce food in Brazil.
Amid the effervescence of union uprisings, the decline of the military regime and the founding of the Workers' Party (PT), as well as the Unified Workers’ Central (CUT), a meeting gave rise to the Rural, the MST.
There, men and women founded the national peasant movement with three main objectives: to fight for land, for agrarian reform and for social change in the country. The following year, in 1985, the first Rural Landless Workers' Movement, or MST Congress stated: "Without land there is no democracy."
Over the years, their objectives have been expanding according to the needs of each generation and the dignity of workers in the city and countryside, where those expelled from their territories migrate.
In 2020, if on the one hand the movement suffered from attacks by the Bolsonaro government, on the other hand it showed the world the power of family farming and its grassroots organization, which made the donation of more than 3,000 tons of food during the first months of the novel coronavirus pandemic possible.
Regarding this and the expectations for 2021, Brasil de Fato interviewed Maria de Jesus Santos Gomes, from the state of Ceará, an historical figure of the movement throughout its 37 year history.
On behalf of so many Marias, throughout the interview she talks about the challenges of female protagonism in the movement, and points to agroecology as a way out of the food crisis in the country.
“The option for healthy production tends to grow in Brazil, and the only class that can offer healthy food is the peasant class. It is us, the farmers of the country” she says.
In relation to the dismantling of public policies deepened by the Bolsonaro government, in addition to the unrestricted support for large scale land owners, and even the encouragement of violence in the countryside, Maria de Jesus explains the contradictions preached by agribusiness and reinforces that the movement will remain firm in defense of the masses.
“We know what we want in the Brazilian countryside: we want land reform. As this has not taken place, we are very firm in our defense of this project. Agribusiness does not have the capacity to supply food to the Brazilian population, because that is not their goal” she points out.
Brasil de Fato: Almost four decades after its creation, the MST continues to be the largest mass movement in the country, with fundamental participation in several agendas: food, education, politics and even health. What is the reason behind this comprehensive profile?
Maria de Jesus: The MST is the fruit, I would say heir, of all the struggles of popular resistance and land access rights in our country.
Our movement is formed by families. It is not formed only by men, only by women or children. It involves the whole family, so that's why we don't fight just for access to land. We don't just have economic claims, we have social, economic, cultural and political claims.
Our movement has this characteristic, it is a movement that has a popular nature, a union, mass and political nature. It defends a political project for the countryside and for Brazilian society. Thus, creating such an important organization for the workers is a great hope for the people, for the workers, for the poor.
This year it will be 30 years since I joined the movement, and one of its main calling cards is land occupation.
We arrive with these families, most of them have only a pan, a bag with clothes, a bag with some utensils, but if we go to that settlement five years later, we already see a big difference with the families, we see an improvement.
I would say that the best policy to fight hunger in Brazil is land reform and we need to strengthen this struggle, especially at a time like this that deepens social inequalities in our nation.
In 2020 a milestone was set for the movement, the 1st National Women’s Congress. Is this a consequence of the strengthening of feminine protagonism, or has the gender sector of the movement been improving?
I would say that for me it was like reliving the memory of building women's participation, which is still a challenge for us.
In this pandemic, we are campaigning against the virus, because we have to be aware that it is not only the covid virus, but mainly a virus called Bolsonaro, that we have to face.
We know that when society is in crisis, women and children are the most affected and, with this pandemic, with social isolation, violence against women intensified.
Of course, in our settlements this is thankfully not a reality, but we know about the challenges that we still have with domestic violence.
We women in the MST have had several achievements. I would like to highlight some.
That of equal participation of men and women. In all instances, from the base to the camps, from the settlements to the national directorate.
I would also like to highlight the importance of early childhood education, which was an achievement of ours, the women.
We also have the challenge of organizing various themes and debates in our political construction, mainly, peasant feminism, which gives us much hope for the construction of this historic project of the working class, with the participation of conscious women, in the defense of the construction of new social and gender relations.
Fidel Castro himself has a quote which I like very much: “Every achievement is only worthwhile if we know how to defend it". So we need to defend the land and the rights we gained as a landless family.
In the midst of the pandemic, the MST played a key role in the donation of tons of food across the country. Food is the result of the production of the settlers themselves. What legacy do these actions leave for the country? What do they have to teach us?
I would like to highlight, for example, which state donated the most food? It was the state of Paraná.
Throughout Brazil, we managed to make these food donations whithin the states, but the abundance of food we have innside MST agrarian reform settlements in Paraná, is the result of two very important actions by the movement.
The state of Paraná already has more than 20 years experience with agroecology, an intense and widespread effort.
The other major action was the training of technicians. Paraná had more than 20 groups of trained technicians, sons and daughters of agrarian reform settlers.
So agroecology, agriculture based on agroecology, is very important for us. In this sense, it is not simply a matter of having access to land and producing without pesticides.
We are building agroecological production systems, where we are looking for peasant autonomy, food and economic autonomy, for our sovereignty, for feeding of our animals and water.
For us in the Northeast, this sovereignty is fundamental, water sovereignty, that now under the Bolsonaro government, policies to support semiarid regions have been cut, but we, the peoples of the semiarid, continue to fight for these policies, and one of them is water rights.
We also consider cultural sovereignty very important. The defense of our way of life, of the way we make our food, the matter of using our local foods.
Their importance from the nutritional point of view, but also in the adding value to these foods. And that is our great task.
It is to produce healthy food, both our families, as well as for Brazilian society.
The option for healthy production tends to grow in Brazil and the only class that can offer healthy food is the peasant class. We are the farmers of this country.
The Bolsonaro government has been one of the biggest challenges faced by the movement, with the dismantling of public programs and policies, in addition to unrestricted support for large scale land owners and encouraging violence in the countryside, but 2021 seems to bring with it new tidings, Stedile himself tells us this. Is this expectation of a mass popular uprising? Does the MST feel empowered for enough for this purpose?
The Landless Movement is experiencing an offensive by the Brazilian State and investors in the countryside, aimed at crushing the MST, but their offensive has contradictions. The first contradiction is that it is impossible to crush the MST due to the way it funcitons.
Throughout our trajectory, the MST has adapted to each moment of the class struggle and this has been greatly wise in from our collective and leads us to improve.
This leap in quality is driven by some elements. First, being a national movement. This gives us a lot of strength in our struggle. The second, having a project. We know what we want in the Brazilian countryside: we want land reform.
As this program did not take place, we are very firm in the defense of this project. Agribusiness is not a proposal that responds to the needs of the Brazilian people.
Agribusiness does not have the capacity to supply food to the Brazilian population, because that is not their goal.
We have to make inroads within society, in understanding this problems that we are facing, including food insecurity.
I am very indignant to know that Brazil ... with so much fertile land, how is it possible that Brazil is importing rice? This is absurd. Our country has the capacity and autonomy to produce all food supplies to all the families in our country.
In this sense, the movement is also an answer to the hunger and misery of millions, especially those on the outskirts of cities. We have to think about that, how we are going to aid the unemployed.
We are living in a moment when the issue of employment is structural. The hegemony of money in this juncture is not the hegemony of work, it is financial hegemony. Now agriculture, we need to understand this, there is no unemployment in agriculture.
We who live in the settlements do not realize the amount of work we have to do. So I want to say that I see that in the wake of this financial crisis, I also hope that other types of economies and other ways of life will emerge. Agriculture is one of the possibilities. Agroecology and agroforestry.
The movement is a great hope. The movement will not be destroyed, it will not be crushed, it will not be isolated, it will not be co-opted. The MST is the great hope of the poor, working and unemployed people of Brazil.
That's why they're not going to create big massive fights. We have to question the issue of private land concentration in our country.
We have to demand that the Brazillian state look after its people. See, we still don't have the safety of a vaccine, while the whole world is being vaccinated. So we need to face all this and put up with many struggles at once, and have a lot of hope and a lot of faith that we will win.
Edited by: Leandro Melito