Annoni Farm: occupation that marks MST history challenges ‘the cradle of soybean’ with cooperative and diversified food production

Area of big estate expropriated during the dictatorship (1964-1985) is now home to seven settlements and 423 families

Translated by: Ana Paula Rocha

Brasil de Fato | Pontão (RS) |
fazenda annoni
In the region known as “the cradle of soybean in Rio Grande do Sul state”, the MST cooperative produces a variety of food for residents' own consumption and commercialization - Pedro Stropasolas/Brasil de Fato

The light of the full moon allowed them to see in darkness without using flashlights or artificial lighting. That's what the 1,500 landless families needed in the early hours of October 29, 1985, to silently gather on the road, evade the police, cut the fences, tear down the gate and occupy the disputed Annoni farm in Sarandi, northern Rio Grande do Sul state.

On the farm, all that was left was grass, a few heads of cattle and abandoned equipment. The occupation plans had begun two years earlier and brought together 7,000 people from 33 neighboring cities and towns. Around 150 buses and trucks were used to transport the people.

There was no police repression that could curb such a mass of people. Authorities were forced to negotiate. A long period of resistance followed until all families were settled in 1993. In the Annoni farm, 423 families remained, organized into seven settlements equipped with schools, gymnasiums, churches, leisure spaces, electricity, running water and basic sanitation.

After decades of struggle and a commitment to collective work, the 9,300-hectare area stands out from its surroundings in the northwest of Rio Grande do Sul state, a region of endless soybean plantations, by producing a diversity of food and starting experiments to produce non-transgenic and organic soy.

In what is considered the first land occupation in the history of the Landless Workers' Movement (MST), life has changed radically. The landless families of once are now proud to be respected rural producers in the region. If it's possible to point to any frustration, it's that the socialism they dreamed of – the transformation not only of their own lives, but of society – has not yet arrived.

From “having nothing” to “we have everything”

"Everything here was built, planted and produced. There was only grass here. There was nothing in this area, absolutely nothing. If you see a tree here, it's because it was planted by the families that settled here," sums up Irene Lill, a member of the March 16 Settlement and a resident of the Cooptar agrovillage, where 17 families live around a central tree-lined square and grow their own food.

She represents a group of families that, even after conquering the land, decided to follow the path of collectivity and agricultural cooperation.

The Cascata Agricultural Production Cooperative (Cooptar) was created in 1990 and has shown that it is possible to diversify food production, even in a region known as "the cradle of soy in Rio Grande do Sul state". Cooptar's members also plant soybean and corn, but their main source of income comes from producing milk, raising cattle and pigs.

They are currently investing in an experiment with 17 hectares of non-transgenic soy, using bio-inputs and conventional soy seed.

"The only reason our crops aren't organic is because we still need to use herbicides to control weeds. However, we intend to do this mechanically, using appropriate machinery," explains Isaias Verdovatto, one of the people responsible for the settlement's production. She explains that the viability of fully organic cultivation depends on the availability of machinery accessible to family farmers.

Mario and Irene Lili in front of their house in Cooptar agrovillage. (Photo: Pedro Stropasolas/Brasil de Fato)

"In that historical period, we didn't discuss the production model. We needed to show that we, poor peasants, were capable of producing, which is why we ended up reproducing the structure of food production seen in large estates," explains farmer Mario Lill, referring to the system of soybean monoculture adopted by most of the settled families.

"The second step we learned from history," Lill continues. According to him, with the modernization of capitalism in the countryside, large estates began to produce large-scale monocultures, which forced families to rethink their goals.

"Today, we produce milk, food, meat - all the production for food to left monoculture, to confront it and give an answer to society, to improve society's food standards with our production, our work," he explains.

"The agrarian reform of the future is one of diversification. Today, it's not enough to distribute land to create small soy producers. That's not what it is anymore."

The cooperative's total land area is 205 hectares, 12% of which is covered by native forest. Food grown in the gardens around the agrovillage supplies the families' kitchens and the collective dining hall. The surplus is sold through the Food Acquisition Program (PAA). The milk is sold to another cooperative located in Annoni, the Pontão Agricultural and Dairy Cooperative Ltda (Cooperlat), which was set up in 2006 and now supplies dairy products to at least 50 schools in the region.

From illiteracy to higher education

Paulo Freire visited MST settlements in Rio Grande do Sul state in the early 1990s. Although he didn't visit Annoni, at that time his literacy method was already being used by educators such as Maria Salete Campigotto, a resident of one of the settlements in the region and director of the Educar Institute, launched in 2005 within the settlement to offer certificate programs in farming focusing on agroecology.

Salete began her career as an educator in the MST when she was still in an encampment in the early 1980s, working alongside other teachers to educate children and adults.

"Today, we are in the teaching [sector], agriculture, health and law. In various areas, we have our landless army training [people]," she said, referring to the training opportunities offered by the movement through the National Program for Education in Agrarian Reform (PRONERA) and the MST's 49 teaching centers in all Brazilian regions.

In addition to certificate programs, Educar offers a degree course in Agricultural Engineering and will conclude its third class with MST students in March 2025, the year of the institute's 20th anniversary.

"At the beginning, I thought about the education of the settlement’s children and adults. I couldn't have imagined that, today, we would be a movement present all over the country, that thinks about the importance of the struggle for land, of living well and healthy, of our children’s education," says the educator.


t was a process that opened our hearts and souls. Today, I don't see myself as a person without the MST.

Meticulous organization

Farmer Isaias Vedovatto, 60, was one of four landless activists from a select group responsible for mapping out the Annoni farm beforehand. That way, on the day of the occupation, they would already know where to set up camp and build the tents quickly.

On Saturday before entering the area, the occupation’s leaders met at the traditional Baile de Chopp in the town of Ronda Alta. 

"We bought those barrels of beer, gathered 40 people as if we were partying at the ball. There, we agreed on the details of the occupation," he recalls.

"Those who were there had to go back to their places and we had some days to organize the trucks. We also agreed on how we could arrive at the same time," he added.

They planned to meet in the early hours of Tuesday. Crossroads were marked with green branches so that no one would get lost, and light signals were used as identification codes. Many trucks, especially those coming from far away, took longer than expected to arrive. However, when a police patrol passed - without stopping - the farmers hiding by the side of the road, the signal to move forward was given.

"I cut the fence, then we cleared it with the hoe so the trucks could pass. When we entered the farm, it was pure joy. It was such a joy!”, says Isaias Vedovatto. The photo shows the first days of the occupation." (Photo: MST)

"On the first night, there were shacks with six or seven families. Then, little by little, each family built their own shack," recalls Mario Lill, 58.

"The most important thing was to be ready for the struggle because, before dawn, officers were already there to take them away, wanting to evict them. At the time, the only reason we weren't evicted from Annoni was because there were too many people. There were too many people and the Military Brigade didn't have enough men," says the farmer, who reports that the site was surrounded by security forces for many days.

Movement of the struggle for land

The organized struggle for agrarian reform and the support of government leaders - such as Leonel Brizola and President João Goulart himself - were key factors in the military coup of 1964. Years later, when the dictatorship was weakening and rural and urban workers were organizing for their rights, the seeds of what would become the MST were planted.

It was in this context that, in 1979, a few kilometers from the Annoni farm, landless families occupied the Macali and Brilhante farms. These peasants had been evicted from irregular occupation on the indigenous territory of Nonoai, another town in the same region. From one day to the next, about a thousand landless families wandered around the different municipalities of northern Rio Grande do Sul and got together to fight for a piece of land again.

The memory of the settlements carried out by Leonel Brizola in the same area in 1962 was a source of inspiration. With the decisive support of the pastoral work of the Catholic Church and trade unions in the region, around 200 families were quickly settled. The victory of the settlements Macali and Brilhante increased the motivation of the landless workers.

"The church, the basic ecclesial communities, the Pastoral Land Commission (CPT, in Portuguese), they played a fundamental role in organizing the people," says Irene Lill, a settler on the Annoni farm who got involved in the struggle by following occupations with the Pastoral Land Commission. 

"We held meetings in the communities and worked on everything from reading the Bible to the importance of people organizing themselves to seek their promised land. You didn't need to die to win the kingdom of heaven," she explains, emphasizing the leadership training process that took place at the time.

In 1981, there was another important chapter in this story: a new camp was set up, bringing together around 500 families in Encruzilhada Natalino, in the same region as Annoni, Macalli and Brilhante, which continued the struggle. As the struggle for land became stronger in that region, the dictatorship commissioned one of its most prominent repressor agent, Major Curió, to demobilize the families. Curió was defeated after a month of federal intervention.

"Undoubtedly, religious mysticism was what sustained the entire struggle to confront Curió," said Father Arnildo Fritzen, 81, one of the most remembered names for his role in organizing the struggle for land in the region.

"It was very hard, especially on the side of a road. He [Curió] would drive his military horses through the water we were using to drink, and skidders over the road to stir up more dust," he says of the tactics used by the military to repress the encampment residents. "Then, children started dying."

Land occupations continued in defiance of the dictatorship, also in other Brazilian states. The effervescence of those years resulted in the creation of the MST in January 1984. It was also the result of the great mobilization that led to the occupation of the coveted Annoni farm.

"The collective was what formed people's minds and conquered all things. It continued after the settlement. I think that the journey that the movement has taken since settling on the land is enormously great," says Father Arnildo.

"It never stopped. We have always made questions. The struggle for land is one thing, but what do we have to do on the land for ourselves and for society as a whole?" he says, highlighting the movement's choices for collective production models, agroecology and the practice of solidarity.

"This banner has been embraced since the beginning of the struggle and, to this day, it is always one of the movement's highest points."

The community that occupied the Annoni farm doubled its bet by managing to remain on the land, especially in the period between 1985 and 1987, despite constant threat of eviction, facing exclusion from part of society, but organizing marches, processions, pilgrimages and hunger strikes to shed light on their struggle.

The most notable of them left the occupied territory to walk more than 300 kilometers to Porto Alegre, Rio Grande do Sul’s capital city. An initial group of 300 landless workers walked for 28 days to the capital, gaining members along the way. Father Arnildo estimates that there were 40,000 walking through the streets of the capital towards the Piratini Palace.

"We went through all this to show our public opinion, to show people that we're not what they read in the press, on television. We are serious people and we want to work, but we don't want to take the place of those who are in the city, the place of the workers," says Arnildo Fritzen.

The prolonged period of resistance until the final settlements, the necessarily communal life while each family couldn't access their dream piece of land, the violence and losses they faced along the way: all this transformed the mentality of the workers. That’s is Isaias Vedovatto's view.

"We peasants wanted to solve our problem, which was the struggle for land. But, then, we began to understand society, get a sense of things and have a greater vision of what the world is like," says Vedovatto, who says that he and several of his comrades were able to study and learn about other experiences of struggle in Brazil and abroad through their militancy in the MST.

Annoni: My unproductive land

Long before the MST existed, Ernesto Annoni, the patriarch of the Annoni family, decided to divide the land between 11 family members, fearing that Annoni's estate would be expropriated. It wasn't enough.

The farm was expropriated by the National Agrarian Reform Institute (Incra, in Portuguese) in 1972 to settle families evicted from their lands by the construction of the Passo Real dam by the Eletrosul company.

Then, the Annonis went to court to defend their estate. The litigation drags on and causes the land to be "frozen" for more than a decade, until it was occupied by 1,500 families in 1985. 

Meanwhile, in the world of business, farmer Annoni was looking to profit from the sale of a species of grass brought from South Africa. The farm of the same name was filled with this exotic grass - in fact, there was nothing else. 

After the occupation, it took an intense collective effort that brought together dozens of tractors lent by other farmers in the region to plow the land and begin cultivating in the area.

"We used 50 tractors, which was a lot at that time. There were tractors coming in solidarity. They weren't ours. They were friends of the agrarian reform struggle, friends of the MST and the struggle for land who came to help," says Mario Lill.

"That field was just goat's beard and annoni grass, which is a plague that has now taken over the state."

In fact, the annoni grass loved the Brazilian soil, but the cattle didn't like it. If today the Annoni farm is a large grain, livestock and vegetable granary, the grass that took over that land has become the main pest of the fields of Rio Grande do Sul state, infesting 20% of the area that has native vegetation.

Almost 40 years later, the landscape of the Annoni farm has been completely transformed – and so have the lives of those landless farmers who decided to fight. For Isaias, it's hard to sum it up in a few words. He and his comrades have comfortable houses, electricity, running water, internet, and the vast majority of them have cars. They all have access to schools and health centers.

"They are all studying. The vast majority of my generation's children have gone to college. They can graduate right here in the settlement," he says proudly.

For Isaias, Annoni represents, today, a political and economic force in the region, due to its organization and cooperatives: "Unlike in the beginning".

"In the beginning, we were discriminated against for being landless workers, because we came from rural areas. Today, companies in the region come to us here because our conditions are better than those of other producers in the region, who are even older than us."

Isaias Vedovatto trabalha diariamente na produção de hortaliças do assentamento. Na foto, faz a colheita de tomates para comercialização no PAA (Foto: Pedro Stropasolas/Brasil de Fato)

40 years back, 40 years forward

The first MST congress took place in January 1985, in Cascavel, Paraná state. Since then, land occupations - like the one on the Annoni farm - organized by the movement have sprung up all over the country. There are 400,000 settled families, and another 70,000 are camped out in search of land.

After 40 years, the MST is the longest-running peasant movement in Brazilian history, organized in 24 states, with a diverse production structure. There are 185 cooperatives, 1,900 associations and 120 agro-industries.

"The main thing that the MST has done in this period is to restore people's dignity, for people to become people again: to be seen, to have an identity," says Irene Lill.

"When we started to organize occupations, there was all this misery, and it wasn't just about material goods. So, I think the MST's greatest achievement in these 40 years is to have rescued people's dignity."

"At the same time, as you changed objective reality, you increased subjective dignity. People were able to raise their noses and say wait, I'm a human being!" adds Mario Lill.

Isaias Vedovatto feels fulfilled as one of the pioneers and after 40 years of militancy in the MST, but he confesses that he is also frustrated. "At that time, the idea of change, of revolution, seemed much closer. The debate on socialism and revolution was much more alive, much more present [before]," he recalls.

"My frustration is because I think we could have been a little more radical. We could have advanced further in the process of changing society," he concludes.

Salete, an educator, uses her experience to look to the future. "As long as there are people without land, we can't stop. That's our goal. As long as there is a concentration of land ownership, we can't stop."

"Whether it's 30, 40 or 50 years (I don't know) I won't be there, but we need to continue, because our struggle goes beyond the struggle for land. It's the struggle for social justice, to eliminate hunger in this country. It's a struggle for equality. That's why I think the movement has many, many years ahead," he hopes.

Edited by: Vivian Virissimo