Slave labor areas must be destined for agrarian reform, says MST leader João Paulo Rodrigues

According to him, the wineries case isn’t the only one: “What concerns us is the invisibility of precarious works”

Translated by: Ana Paula Rocha

Brasil de Fato | São Paulo (SP, Brasil) |
“If a company doesn’t comply with the labor law or disregards environmental issues, [its area] must be destined for agrarian reform” - Reprodução

“That’s agribusiness in its essence.” That’s how the national coordinator of Brazil’s Landless Workers Movement (MST, in Portuguese) João Paulo Rodrigues assesses the operation carried out by the Department of Labor Inspection of the Ministry of Labor and Employment, the Brazilian Department of Labor (MPT- Rio Grande do Sul state), the Federal Police, and the Federal Highway Police that rescued workers living under labor analogous to slavery in the grape harvest in the town of Bento Gonçalves, Rio Grande do Sul state, on February 22. 

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“If the Brazilian agribusiness [companies] be inspected, there will be found many areas similar to those recently discovered in the wineries. What concerns us is the invisibility of precarious works in rural areas around the country, which have low average wages and few rights,” highlights Rodrigues to Brasil de Fato, also mentioning that it’s still necessary to apply punishments provided by law. “What the Constitution says is that these areas where slave labor occurred must be destined for agrarian reform. That is, it’s not just about fining the companies. The law determines it.”

In the following interview, João Paulo Rodrigues also talks about the recent nominations for Incra (National Institute of Colonization and Agrarian Reform), Conab (National Supply Company), and Ceagesp (Company of Warehouses and General Warehouses of São Paulo); the demands for the federal government to define goals related to the agrarian reform; the fight against hunger and the main struggles popular movements will face in the following months.

Brasil de Fato: On the names to take office in Incra – which you had demanded last week – the government confirmed César Aldrighi and also appointed people for the Board of Development, Strategic Management and Land Governance of the institute. How do you assess these appointments?

João Paulo Rodrigues: First, I have to say that I’m very happy that the government – after the Bolsonaro government – built a new Incra. All these names appointed are serious people. They are committed to agrarian reform and, above all, they have the required knowledge. 

Our main concern is that, during the previous Lula governments, the Incra budget was about 4 billion reais to be applied to the agrarian reform in the program for obtaining and implementing settlements. Today, we are living in a little more difficult period: Incra has a budget of circa 250 million reais, that is, a really small budget. In this sense, we have to reinforce to minister Paulo Teixeira, president Lula and the Chief of Staff that it’s urgent to establish a new budget for agrarian reform. Second, we want to demand that this new Incra administration may, firstly, solve the infrastructure problems in the old settlements that weren’t consolidated, Minha Casa, Minha Vida (My House, My life housing program), credit, and also the organization of old settlements. The second mission is to settle new families – most of them occupying lands for over five years – and it needs to be regularized. This step is crucial. That done, I believe we managed to think of a new model of land reform after the Bolsonaro years.

You had talked to Brasil de Fato about the matter involving superintendencies in the states. Do you think that names will also be appointed quickly in this case?

This is the biggest damage because, as the government failed to establish protocols and new political orders for the states, those names appointed by Bolsonaro stayed in office. We are practically 60 days into Lula's government, and most of the superintendencies are still in the hands of Bolsonaro supporters, who, in addition to not committing to agrarian reform, represents an attempt to boycott any and all initiatives related to popular movements.

Therefore, we are demanding the government appoints new names as soon as possible. The appointments are an arrangement of political parties, popular movements and parliamentarians. In the meantime, about 16 states have already decided on names, which were sent to the Chief of Staff. Another ten states still need to decide on it. That’s where we are right now. 

Once we finish the first stage, the superintendent will also form staff. Both the land security division, the technical division, development, and even the Attorney General’s Office sometimes has to adjust. We cannot enter April without having Incra working flat out. That is why we are in a hurry and we want this process to move forward as soon as possible. 

So, do you think April would be a reasonable deadline to have the names of the superintendencies?  

At least by April, it has to be working. In March, we would have to have all of them [superintendencies] ready, in the process of reorganizing the institute and structuring an approach. I think that April, and the month of March too, with Women's Day, is a period of intense mobilization.

The government must establish goals. How many families will the government settle during 2023? How much implementation credit will be released? How many homes will be available through the My House, My life program in rural areas? A lot of families have been living in land properties for more than five or ten years and lack Incra documentation. Bolsonaro lied about the old settlements – which are over a decade old – saying he gave a document to the families granting usage. This has its importance, but it was not the same as granting new land or granting land for new families. The problem is the new families, which were settled, especially at the end of the Lula government and Dilma government, who need to be recognized as settlers of agrarian reform.

It’s crucial, at least at the beginning of the current mandate, to have a definition of what the government proposes to do about this matter.

Perfectly. First, to deal with the settled people who aren’t regularized yet but are in the land already. That’s the fastest [thing to do]. Why? Because these families need credit to invest. The granting of land to the families has a technical name: beneficiary registration, or RB (in Portuguese). That’s the kind of information we need now. How many of these people will be regularized within agrarian reform in the first semester of the year? It guarantees credit, housing, technical assistance and everything else. 

The second step is to advance the process of obtaining land aimed at settling families that already are in land occupations, but still don’t have their own land or need to negotiate it. From a legal and economic point of view, this may take a little longer.

At the beginning of [last] week, there was also the appointment of the presidents of Conab and Ceagesp. What is your assessment of these important agencies in a political articulation to tackle hunger that, unfortunately, still is a priority in Brazil?

That is the first time these two agencies have links to agrarian reform. Historically, both Ceagesp and Conab have always been linked to agribusiness. So, we have high expectations. Ceagesp provides vegetables and fruits to at least 16 Brazilian states. If we also mention Ceasa (State Supply Center), at least the unit in Minas Gerais state – which is also linked to Conab – we are talking about approximately half of the population that eats products that, at some point, were at Ceagesp. 

Our biggest concern is to revert Ceagesp privatization and change it so that each day it becomes more and more a state-owned company and dominates the entire fruit and vegetable production chain, reducing the amount of middlemen's profits, improving its relationship with family producers and the consumers, the market traders. This is the first public policy that needs to be put into practice.

The second [concern] is Conab, which has three major responsibilities from the point of view of agriculture. The number one is to organize the production supply through large silos. Currently, Brazil has nothing or practically no type of product stocked. This is a problem. If we face a drought, rain or weather problem, we will need to have a food storage policy in place to make sure we get through the tough times.

The other mission is to monitor fair prices. Conab helps to guarantee the minimum production price. It organizes food prices in Brazil at all levels. This is important because we can’t let families use production credit to produce while having a minimum price on the horizon but then, during the harvest period, it drops significantly. Conab has to help solve it. The last but not least issue is the purchase of products from agrarian reform production through the Food Acquisition Program (PAA, in Portuguese). It currently has a huge resource aimed at the program, which was guaranteed by the government transition process in Congress. The government will have resources to manage the whole agriculture production. I’m talking about 800 million reais, which refers to Conab and the Ministry of Development and Social Assistance combined. The expectations are very high because I believe that as of March, Conab will be able to purchase products for school lunches, distribute them to social programs and so on. Consea (National Food and Nutrition Security Council) has now been launched, which will help to reorganize the role of food in Brazil.

That’s another thing I would like to ask you: what is the importance of the National Food and Nutrition Security Council in fighting hunger?

Brazil has so many problems related to food distribution and production that we naturally need an agency to oversee the regulation, quality and monitoring. Above all, we need an agency that engages businessmen/businesswomen, producers, consumers and the Brazilian state to assure we won’t have problems. It’s incomprehensible how a country like Brazil, with its dimensions, the largest food producer in the world, has 30 million people who can’t eat properly and at least 12 million who have nothing to eat the next day. It’s a shame for a country such as Brazil. And the problems arising due to climate change and the fluctuation of the dollar rate made the agribusiness sector put efforts only into producing soybean. Also, as a consequence of the lack of agrarian and family farming policies we see a decrease in the production of products such as beans, rice, corn, milk, vegetables and fruits. All of them have dwindled in the last period, and they are precisely the ones that supply our tables.  

What is the concern the government have to bare in mind? If we have a real wage increase policy, due to which instead of buying twelve eggs Brazilian families can buy sixty eggs, we will not have eggs in the market to supply this demand. If these families intend to buy 20 apples, so there will be no apples. That’s why the increase in the economy has to walk hand in hand with expanding cultivated areas. 

The council has this task of helping, thinking about the climate challenges combined with the demands of the population and ensuring a quality diet to solve the problems of the Brazilian people.

In Lula’s previous governments, we saw some tensions between the Ministry of Agrarian Development and the Ministry of Agriculture. Is it an unbalanced relationship, including from the perspective of this third Lula government?

In my opinion, our task was to have only one ministry of agriculture, and not two ministries to avoid a dichotomy between big and small decision-makers. We have only one agriculture model, and the government is the one that decides which model to apply more energy. The Lula government won the elections to meet family farming demands, and not agribusiness ones. When Bolsonaro won the elections, he met agribusiness interests, and that’s why his government had just one ministry. Lula should have only one Ministry of Agriculture and Small Agro-Industry. However, the idea of having two ministries won, and you will be in accordance that we will never have the same strength within Congress, the same lobby that the agro sector has made to get the same budget.

In the last Lula government, the Harvest Plan budget (Plano Safra, in Portuguese), which is an element of the agro-industry, was 230 billion reais. Family farming had 32 billion reais. It’s obvious there is a differentiation, and I think it has to be reduced. But what concerns me most now – something fundamental – is to make Incra guarantee an agrarian reform policy. Second, to guarantee resources, especially for the Northeast region, to finance family farming settlements. Third, to have a public policy for marketing and acquiring these products. By building this food system, we can take a big leap in quality without disturbing the class that develops agribusiness activities, business agriculture and so on. Let's put it bluntly, why do they need the state? Meritocracy should be applied in such moments. They produce thousands of tons, so let the state care about small producers. 

Social participation – the expansion of ways to engage in decisions – has been a recurring topic, including among people from the government when they attend events and seminars. What are your views on this disposition by the government and also on the articulation among popular movements to make their demands be addressed?

The Lula government has already put this approach into practice, it’s a democratic government. The transition team started with 60 people and ended up having 4,000. I think that popular participation will happen in four different ways. It needs programs and resources. Second, I think there is a challenge that’s not only presumed in the execution of policies, but also in the formulation of these policies. The government will have to be patient and listen to everyone. The third is to create real tools such as, for instance, the well-known experience of the Participatory Budgeting experience in the state of Rio Grande do Sul, which is pretty interesting, or the conferences that the government itself organized in the past.

I think the government should take a more radical stance every now and then and call up citizens to vote as other developed countries do. For instance, in the Eletrobras case: the government wants to return to being the main shareholder. It is a decision that should be taken after hearing the population in a referendum. The same issue applies to tax reform. Popular participation is not just listening to people at meetings in Brasilia [Brazil’s capital city] but having a participation process in your municipality, your locality, on matters that interest you, and the government needs to be as democratic as possible to consolidate this.

In this respect, can the experience of popular committees be an important instrument of articulation to put forward people’s participation?

It can be an instrument for the organization of popular movements, both popular committees and campaigns such as the Campaign against Agrotoxics, for planting trees, against hunger, etc. But committees are the most rooted idea: there are more than 7,000 committees throughout the country. It is a reference from the point of view of the organization.

Recently, there was an operation to rescue workers facing conditions analogous to slave labor during the grape harvest in the countryside of Rio Grande do Sul state. What do you think about this episode? Does it reflect part of the reality in rural areas of Brazil?

That’s agribusiness in its essence. Agro is pop, agro is tech [referring to a Brazilian TV channel propaganda] agro is slave labor. And I’m not referring to slave labor in coal plants in the state of Maranhão [a poor state of the Northeast region]. It’s labor slave in the city of Ribeirão Preto, in the ridge area of the state of Rio Grande do Sul and so on. It happens because agribusiness doesn’t care about two major aspects of wealth accumulation. First, the environmental issue. They will vdeforest and use pesticides because that’s how they increase their profit rate. Their second major front is to generate precarious jobs. Agribusiness is the number one in generating precarious jobs. If the Brazilian agribusiness [companies] be inspected, there will be found many areas similar to those recently discovered in the wineries. What concerns us is the invisibility of precarious work in rural areas around the country, which have a very low average wage and few rights. This precariousness was intensely validated by the Bolsonaro government and its labor reform proposal. 

That’s why we are asking President Lula to present a new labor reform. He has to cancel the previous one and make a new labor reform. Second, monitoring is needed. What would be the right way? The Constitution says these areas where labor slave were identified should be destined for agrarian reform, and not just make the companies pay a fine. That’s what the law says. If a company doesn’t comply with the labor law or disregards environmental issues, [its area] must be destined for agrarian reform. This is a tragedy foretold, and there are probably other wineries with the same problem. I hope the population, particularly the Judiciary along with consumers, can give due repair to these dozens of workers who have experienced this situation, a tragedy.

And how do you see the fact that the Bento Gonçalves Industry, Commerce and Services Center published a statement trying to blame what they called “assistencialism” for the slave labor found in the countryside of Rio Grande do Sul? How do you understand this kind of manifestation from this kind of entity? 

It’s part of their strategy, their narrative, to try to find a way of justifying what they did. We all know that there are 12 million unemployed workers. They are not facing hunger thanks to the emergency aid from Family Grant (Bolsa Família, in Portuguese), which guarantees a monthly payment of 600 reais to these families. These families are seeking a job to supplement their income. Then they found this kind of businessmen that offers them their “goodness”, that is, work analogous to slavery. That’s the Brazilian agro-industry, that’s the bolsonarist country we are dealing with. 

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Regarding the revocation of the labor reform in order to fight the precariousness of work and informalization that dominates Brazil, what is the importance of the principles of associativism and cooperativism, mainly in the countryside, to structure and organize workers?

First, we must fight for a labor reform that regularizes workers and guarantees them the rights obtained with the 1988 Constitution: the right to take a vacation, 13th month’s salary, paid rest, access to health care and salaries that correspond to the work they develop. I saw recent research about some of the developed countries in Europe that, instead of reducing the weekly workload, reduced the weekly journey from five to four days. Everyone came out winning: businessmen, workers and families.

We have to find ways of improving workers’ lives and that will be a big struggle. We are entering a new difficult phase of the world of work, which is the combination between precarization and technology – we call it uberization –, the app workers. This is even worse because it creates a narrative, an ideological dispute in which the informal and explored worker is an “entrepreneur”, the owner of his/her own business and not someone explored and stripped from minimum rights.

This has to be clear so that people don’t mix up with the perspectives of cooperativism, associativism and solidarity economy. On the contrary, it’s a perverse logic of exploitation in this so-called “new normal” that the pandemic and the capital forced into us. We would have to have technologies to reduce our efforts and increase time, as the great philosopher Karl Marx would say, for us to be able to fish, sing and stay with our families. Not today. There is an app that increases work and reduces my rights. This is the great debate, not only in Brazil but in the whole world: what are we going to do in the next phase?

The reduction of working hours was and still is a demand of trade unions. Is it possible that workers' movements come out of the defensive line a bit, with a less adverse scenario, and bring this topic back to the discussion?

It’s still soon to say. We are still solving issues such as hunger, which is very difficult. So, first, we will work on hunger, agrarian reform and housing. In a second moment, after Brazil had achieved a better financial growth rate, we will be able to think about a new policy for reorganizing the world of work in Brazil. It will be done together – agribusiness, industry, services sector – and, above all, in a new cooperativism agenda, one that includes entrepreneurship and the generation of jobs and income. Brazil has the potential to make it happen. There has to be a set of norms, and the state will have to inspect them attentively. I think that Lula understands the importance of the world of work, especially in a country as big as ours. 

First, we will have to follow closely the environmental agenda. Brazil is seeing first-hand the consequences of climate change, as shown by events in the São Paulo seashore area, Bahia state, and the drought in Rio Grande do Sul. [It’s] An agenda that damages Brazil and kills people. We will have to solve it very fast. 

The second topic in this agenda is tackling fascism. We are seeing a wave of violence with armed people. The case that happened in the town of Sinop raised a red flag. Also, we have a set of problems from the terrible legacy of Bolsonarism and we need to have a fine-tuned follow-up to maintain democracy, freedoms and the guarantee of being able to fight. And finally, I really want March 8 to be a great day of women's mobilization that can move forward in three directions: improving women's rights, facing Bolsonarism and defending the Lula government. This tripod is the 2023 challenge.

Edited by: Flávia Chacon e Vivian Virissimo