Landless Rural Workers Movement (MST), Brazil

October 1, 2018 Scott Fletcher Bowlsby
September 30, 2018 Scott Fletcher Bowlsby
November 17, 2017 PRODEP
May 26, 2016 PRODEP

Note: This is the English-language translation of a case study that is also available in Portuguese 

Mission and Purpose

The Landless rural Worker's Movement (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (MST) in Portuguese) is the largest and most well-known of Brazil's social movements fighting for the reformation of rural working conditions. Through occupations, encampments, marches and rural settlement, the MST has introduced Agrarian Reform into Brazilian policy guidelines, re-invented ways of protest, and established new terms of relation between rural workers and the State. More recently, the movement brought attention to agribusiness and the agro-exporter model which opened up discussions around food sovereignty and the peasant economy's need for a government support structure.

The relevance of MST consists not only in its activities, but in its influence upon other brazilian social movements – in the field and in the city – and upon rural movements more generally, especially after its prominent role in the creation and in consolidation of the transnational peasant movement Via Campesina.

The MST is present in 24 Brazilian states and all regions of the country. According to the organization, 350 thousands families have gained control over their land through the MST's efforts. It is estimated that the MST have approximately 1.14 million members, 2 thousand settlements under its control, and representation in 61 cooperatives and 140 agro-industries. Although the agricultural reform movement is often criticized as sporadic and transcient, the MST has played a major role in the distribution of more than 3.7 million hectares of land (as of 2009)iii.

Origins and Development

When a Brazilian civil-military dictatorship (1964-1985) already showed signs of weakness, rural populations and city populations returned to organize themselves publicly. Part of this scenery, the MST was born in the first decade of 1980, organizing rural populations to fight for the access to the land through agrarian reform. Organized initially in the states of South and south-east of the countryvi

Scholars of the MST work with four moments of group territorialization: 1) Gestation (1979-84): begins with land occupations in the South of Brazil and extends until its foundation, in 1984, when occupations start to occur in the Southeast and Midwest too; 2) Consolidation: (1985-89): when the movement gain nacional extent and Brazil back to tread the path of democratization; 3) Institutionalization: from 1990, period wich the MST becames “ the main interlocutor of federal government in relation to agrarian reform and is internationally renowned”vii. Are created new public policies for rural populations, the example of a credit program for family farmers. The MST creates co-operatives, schools, centers of formation and research and organizes its collective, finally, phase 4) Globalization: phase concerning the creation and strengthening of Via Campesina. viii

There are, however, researchers who question certain periodization, arguing that the phases are not static, but overlap. They affirm, for example, that the international ties of the movement are even prior to its official creation in 1984.ix

The MST obtained national acknowledgment since the occupations that gave rise to it. In 1981, the support to the encampment in the Encruzilhada Natalino, in Rio Grande do Sul, gathered more than 600 families, added support from all over the country and became a symbol of the struggle for land in the period of redemocratizationx. Shortly after, there were large occupations in 1990, in the Pontal do Paranapanema, in São Paulo, which marked actions of the group in the most populous state in the country, and in Pernambuco, 1992, when mill of sugarcane production, in crisis, were taken over by workers, reinventing the occupation of land as a repertoire of action in the region.xi

Other crucial moments for the national projection an international of the movement were its national marches in 2005, 1999 and in 1997 – this last one gathered 100 thousand persons in Brasília. The massacre of rural workers in Corumbiara, Rondônia (1995), Eldorado dos Carajás, Pará (1996) e Felisburgo, Minas Gerais (2004) put the movement in national and international press. In those moments, the MST managed to catalyze the feeling of indignation of many people.

Organizational Structure, Membership, and Funding

The organization of MST it’s based on core families living in settlements and camps. Each core family is composed by approximately dozens of families, who choose their coordination. As a result of the gender’s ‘debates, it is established that there is always a pair of coordinators: a man and a womaniv. Camps and settlements hold assemblies periodically, which indicates coordinators for the state instances. The coordination of the state activities is under the responsibility of the state secretariats and the definition of priorities of the State Meetings.

There is also a secretariat, a coordination and a national direction. In this sphere , the decisions instances includes the Nacional Congress (which happens, in general, every five years) and the Nacional Meeting (every two years)v. Besides, nowadays the movement organizes in eleven sectors: Training, education, production, gender, health, communication, projects, mass front, human rights, finance and international relations. There are also collectives on cross-cutting themes such as mysticism.

The MST finances its activities through contributions from its members, donations from supporters and projects resources, through international and national cooperation.

Specializations, Methods and Tools

At least until the last decade, the way of action that characterized the activities of the MST was the occupation of land. After the entry of organized groups in areas where the movement like to see expropriated, a camp is set up and intense disputes ensue, usually with evictions and repossession. Sometimes, the camps moved to the edge of the roads. With the repetition of these actions, chiefly in decades of 1980 and 1990, The black tarpaulin tents and the raised flag began to be understood by society with the sign that someone had a search for land. More than that, the "camp form" became the "appropriate way" to demand land in Brazilxii, because the Brazilian State eventually accepted it, adapted its bureaucracy to this format and organized its agrarian reform action tied to the Demands of social movements. It was then imitated by other social movements, the country side and, later, also the city.

When there is agreement about the possibility of expropriate areas – and financial resources – the State responds to the pressures of the movement, legitimizing them. However, it does not always expropriate the areas in question and sometimes installs settlements in places far from the requested, of the consuming markets and of the infrastructure – for example, in the North region of the country, where there are still larger stretches of public land available.

The relations between MST and Brazilian state are important issues, focus of much reflection and controversy: where some authors see mainly conflictxiii, others see also cooperation and interdependencexiv or until the emergence of an unlikely participatory democracyxv. The MST, in general, affirms see the state as a place dominated by economic elites, aimed to follow their interests – that, in countryside, were summarized in the figures of the landowners, up to the beginning of the 21st century and in agribusiness, from then on. What that the movement can do is to contest the hegemony of the state (and, at long term, fight for deeper transformation processes)xvi. In view of the reduced access to resources by poor people, the possible action is the public confrontation, of mass.

This understanding have important impacts on how the MST thinks about institutional political participation. The movement resists to employ the time of its militants in activities related to participatory institutionsxvii, as it identifies little potential for transformation. Still during the government of Fernando Henrique Cardoso, when was created a national program of credit for family farmers – the Pronafwhich led to the installation of municipal councils of territorial development, the MST do not occupied such spaces institutionally, concerned in maintaining autonomy and avoid co-optation. Despite this, local associations linked to the movement participated in certain periods, in some municipalities, and were responsible for important discussions around the democratization of the practices of these councilsxviii .

This stance has been maintained in the years of the Workers' Party (PT) since 2003, when institutional participation spaces have multiplied. The option by the institutional participation happen only occasionally played by some sectors of the movement. The health sector of MST, for example, has been walked in that direction - at this time (2015) substitute on the National Health Council and has representation on the group of Land, which discusses the policy for populations in the field. Until today, the MST doesn’t participates of National Council of Sustainable and Solidary Rural Development (Condraf). During the governments of PT, due to greater policy identification with the party in power, the MST has more access to managers, having even participated of indications for positions of second-tier.xix There are authors who points to a change in strategies of fight against the movement, (as well as in other Brazilian social movements), which would have reduced the emphasis on actions of protestxx and would, therefore, modifying their repertoires of action in this new period.

Recently, in 2014, João Pedro Stedile, one of the national coordinators of the MST, signed a letter alongside researchers and jurists defending the National Policy on Social Participation proposed by President Dilma Rousseff. Decree 8.243 / 2014, which established mechanisms for social participation in public administration, was questioned by sectors of Brazilian society, with wide repercussions in the media.

Major Projects and Events

For the MST, “the conquering of the land it is only the first step for the accomplishment of Agrarian Reform”, since it brings demands for installation, in the settlements, of public services which are not used to be extended to rural populations - such as energy, water, education, health, culture and leisure.

In addition to the public policies, the MST has been developing its own practices in several areas. In health, developments activities of rescue and valorization of traditional knowledge and maintain cooperation programs for training popular doctors with Cuba. In education, discusses policies for education in the field and proposes pedagogical practices such as the alternation between periods in the settlements and schools, seeking to prevent the removal of youth from their communities; Created the National School Florestan Fernandes, space of training of militants. The MST has raised flags also on combating violence sexist, democratization of communication, development, ethnic and culture diversity. Involves and sometimes leads debates on the political system, national and popular sovereignty and what calls construction and a Popular Project for Brazil, alongside other social movements.


Jornal Sem Terra -

Biblioteca Virtual sobre Questão Agrária no Brasil -

See Also 

Via Campesina


  1. ROSA, Marcelo. 2010. “Para Além Do MST: O Impacto Nos Movimentos Sociais Brasileiros.” In Carter, Miguel. Combatendo a Desigualdade Social. O MST E a Reforma Agrária No Brasil,São Paulo: Ed. Unesp, 461–447.
  2. Fonte:
  3. Carter, Miguel. 2010. Combatendo a Desigualdade Social. O MST E a Reforma Agrária No Brasil. São Paulo: Ed. Unesp, p.38-39
  4. Fonte:
  5. Fernandes, Bernardo M. 2010. “Formação E Territorialização Do MST No Brasil.” In Carter, Miguel. Combatendo a Desigualdade Social. O MST E a Reforma Agrária No Brasil, São Paulo: Ed. Unesp, 161–97.
  6. Outros fatores relevantes foram o apoio das igrejas Luterana e Católica, no contexto do Concílio Vaticano II e da criação da Comissão Pastoral da Terra, em 1975, como apontam Stedile, João Pedro, and Bernardo M. Fernandes. 1999. Brava Gente - A Trajetória Do MST E a Luta Pela Terra No Brasil. São Paulo: Fundação Perseu Abramo.
  7. Fernandes, op.cit.
  8. Fernandes, op.cit.
  9. Bringel, Breno, and Alfredo Falero. 2008. “Redes Transnacionais de Movimentos Sociais Na América Latina E O Desafio de Uma Nova Construção Socioterritorial.” Caderno CRH 21: 267–86.
  10. Carter, op.cit.
  11. Sigaud, Ligia. 2010. “Debaixo Da Lona Preta: Legitimidade E Dinâmica Nas Ocupações de Terra Na Mata Pernambucana.” In Carter, Miguel. Combatendo a Desigualdade Social. O MST E a Reforma Agrária No Brasil, São Paulo: Ed. Unesp, 237–55.
  12. Sigaud, op.cit.
  13. Fernandes, op.cit.
  14. Sigaud, op.cit; Rosa, op.cit.
  15. Wolford, Wendy. 2010. “Participatory Democracy by Default: Land Reform, Social Movements and the State in Brazil.” Journal of Peasant Studies 37(1): 91–101.
  16. Severo, Denise Osório, and da Ros, Marco Aurélio. 2012. “A Participação No Controle Social Do SUS: Concepção Do Movimento Dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra.” Saude e Sociedade 21(SUPPL. 1): 177–84.
  17. Para definição de instituições participativas, diferenciando-as do conceito mais amplo de participação política, ver Avritzer, Leonardo. 2009. Participatory Institutions in Democratic Brazil. Washington: Woodrow Wilson Center Press.
  18. Schneider, Sergio; Silva, Marcelo K.; and Marques, Paulo (org.). 2004. Políticas Públicas E Participação Social No Brasil Rural. Porto Alegre: Editora UFRGS, 2004. Porto Alegre: Ed. UFRGS.
  19. Fernandes, 2010, op.cit.
  20. Silva, Marcelo Kunrath. 2011. “Sociedade Civil No Brasil : Institucionalização E/ou Contestação.” Em Debate 3(4): 37–43.

External Links

Página do MST:;

Jornal Brasil de Fato:;

Editora Expressão Popular:;

Página da CLOC:;

Página da Via Campesina:


Lead image: Perspectives in Anthropology,