“We must never forget, so it never happens again”: Brazil’s peasant internationalism

On International Day of Peasant Struggles, we reflect on Brazil’s ‘Landless Workers’ Movement’, which has been at the heart of struggles for land and social justice for over three decades.

Breno Bringel Flavia Braga Vieira
17 April 2016
open Movements

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Poster from the campaign “O Grito dos Excluídos” (“The Scream of the Excluded”). Some rights reserved.

Poster from the campaign “O Grito dos Excluídos” (“The Scream of the Excluded”). Some rights reserved.

On 17 April 1996, exactly 20 years ago, 19 rural landless workers participated in a march in defence of agrarian reform in the state of Pará, Brazil. They were brutally murdered by police forces in an act of repression that gained international notoriety. In the same week, peasant movements, from all over the world, gathering in Tlaxcala, Mexico, for the II International Conference of La Via Campesina, declared 17 April as International Day of Peasant Struggles. Since then, on this date, thousands of actions worldwide are organised to reaffirm the struggle for land as a powerful proof of peasant movements’ international solidarity.

We live in times of deep reconfiguration of international(ist) solidarities. In the last few years, a new cycle of protest with specific social actors and cultural dynamics has emerged, marked by a wide occupation of public spaces, viral dissemination, and contingent solidarities. But despite its relevance today, this “geopolitics of outrage” illustrates only a specific pattern of movements’ internationalisation. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, a plurality of other expressions and tendencies of transnational activism – such as transnational advocacy networks, the alter-globalisation movement and so on – has challenged previous outlooks and perspectives from “classic/proletarian internationalism”.  

There are several patterns of the internationalisation of movements, and they vary according to their forms of action, experiences, geographic scope, type of social actors and projects. If we look at the increasingly close relationship between the local and the global, perhaps one of the most interesting features of contemporary internationalism is the fact that some of the most internationalised movements are also those more territorialised. In other words, movements that are very localised, but not localist.

Brazil’s ‘Landless Workers’ Movement’, Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (MST), is one of the best examples. MST was created in 1984 and it is organised in 24 states of Brazil. In the last 30 years, around 350,000 families conquered land through the occupation of land, struggles and organisation of the Landless Movement. Over more than three decades, the movement has been at the centre of many conflicts and struggles for land and social justice in Brazil and Latin America, and has also been an important influence for social movements from all around the world.

The centrality of MST in contemporary transnational rural activism is mainly explained through the multidimensionality of its external action, involving different actors, scales and projects in multiple space-time coordinates. Let us look at MST patterns of internationalisation, and some of its main internationalist experiences.

The patterns of internationalisation

Since its formal appearance in the early 1980s, the top priority of MST in terms of international issues has been coordination with other rural movements in Latin America. This assumes a double process: firstly, a ‘self-setting’ of the movement itself and its characteristics, and, secondly, the identification of similar movements in neighbour countries.

During the 1980s, peasant movements in different Latin American countries converged in a series of events and protests, including numerous meetings and demonstrations against the payment of foreign debt. At the end of the decade, this led to the design of the Continental Campaign: “500 years of indigenous, black and popular resistance”. This initiative was a central landmark for the peasant struggle in the region, generating continental connections. And so rural movements have succeeded in creating their own autonomous spaces, a central precedent to the constitution of the Latin American Coordination of Peasant Organisations (CLOC) in Peru in February 1994, created a year after La Via Campesina.

The ‘Support Committees’ are a second pillar of MST internationalisation. These groups are best known as “Friends of the MST”, as the movement itself prefers to call them in a broader sense, considering them as “friends” with a political and moral relationship. These committees arose in Europe in 1994, extending later also to the United States and Canada, in what can be considered as a new cycle of internationalist solidarity with Latin America.

The Committees are usually small groups of activists that, after meeting and interacting in some way with the reality and experience of MST, support the struggle of the movement in their localities in internationalist political solidarity. The committees have distinct functions, but generally they work to make visible and to publicise MST struggles and practices; to report and, from abroad, to press Brazilian authorities on the implementation of agrarian reform, as well as regional and international authorities on the protection of human rights.

On a third level, over the last decade, a wide space for collaboration has been generated with the MST – mostly in north America and Europe – through cooperation projects for development. Although in this case, political solidarity with MST continues to be the driving element of cooperation policies, the actors are different from ‘Support Committees’: universities, municipalities and progressive governments, trade unions, international cooperation agencies and especially development NGOs. Although, in practice, there may be a strong similarity with ‘Support Committees’, the distinction is important because, on the one hand, we are dealing with another kind of actor (in this case, more institutionalised); and, on the other hand, this cooperation also has a goal of economic cooperation (less usual or more insignificant in the case of Committees) that contributes through the battle-fronts opened by MST in Brazil.

These cooperation projects seek a political horizon for social transformation, supported by international solidarity. Although they are declining since the economic crisis in 2008, in recent years, most of these projects have been framed through the paradigm of food sovereignty, which involves not only cooperation with popular organisations in the design and implementation of these programmes, but a responsibility among people around the world to ensure the right to food.

The multiplication of networks, movements and campaigns that joined forces to build up alternatives to neoliberal hegemonic globalisation have led MST to enter into a variety of initiatives on regional and international scales since 1980, but mainly from the mid-1990s. We have already mentioned one of the major ones: the campaign of “500 years of Indigenous, Black and Popular Resistance”. We could list many subsequent initiatives with the active participation of MST, and with centrality to the contemporary reconfiguration of internationalism in Latin America and the world. But because of their importance, we cannot forget to mention at least two of them: the World Social Forum, since 2001, and the Continental Campaign against the Free Trade Area of America (FTAA) in 2002.

Each of these initiatives and spaces of convergence have contributed to different MST transnational articulations and dynamics and tensions of contemporary rural internationalism at a historical moment, the turn of the century. This marked the creation of an authentic geopolitics of resistance, that had generated so many transnational spaces of protest (those which, for example, served to delegitimise the World Trade Organisation in Seattle in 1999, and Cancun in 2003) and projects and proposals (the World Social Forums and Thematic and Decentralised Forums, in particular).

Most of these transnational spaces of convergence are characterised by ephemeral relationships between participants. They are important spaces to share diagnostics and agendas of action, but in general, do not allow a permanent exchange between activists, building strong ties and identities in common. Therefore, it is important to complement this map of contemporary internationalism of MST and Via Campesina with concrete long-term experiences, including, in this case, those related to both political formation and education: internationalist brigades.

The experience of social movement internationalism(s)

Since its origins, rural social movements in Brazil (and in Latin America, more broadly) have been facing a debate about the political formation and the formal education of its activists. In the beginning, these activities were performed in partnership with the trade union movement and with other organisations working with popular education. However, the movements’ growth and strength gradually consolidated the conviction that they should invest in their own process of formation.

The most expressive of these experiences is the Florestan Fernandes National School (ENFF). It began to be built and idealised by the MST as a national centre of formation in 1999, and through an outgrowth of an international campaign of solidarity, was opened in 2005, in the city of Guararema, near São Paulo city. In 2002, MST counted that around 53,000 activists had passed through its classes, even before the formal opening of ENFF, which multiplied the courses.

Many of these courses are only for MST activists, but in the last few years, several of them have reached an international audience, mainly Via Campesina members. The learning acquired through the participation of activists from other countries in MST´s courses has also diffused and ‘exported’ a concept and pedagogy of political formation.

However, this process goes beyond political education for social struggle. MST also has ‘educational sectors’ that develop formal educational projects. The data is instructive here: over the last decade, MST has taken part in the management of 2,000 public schools in their camps and settlements that have ensured access to education for more than 160,000 children and teenagers, and that have taught around 50,000 adults and young people to read and write. Since 1994, MST has also been involved in partnerships with universities through its education sectors, so its educators can gain graduate degrees. Nowadays, there are more than 100 undergraduate courses, many extension and graduate courses of La Via Campesina in Brazilian public universities.

As noted above, many courses offered by MST and other movements of Via Campesina receive students from various parts of the world, and especially from Latin America. All these courses allow a deep daily routine that contributes to strengthening transnational collective action in the most practical, subjective and affective dimensions.

Students from other countries and other social movements experience the practices and values of MST. Every morning, a little symbology introduces students to historical moments, personalities and ideas associated with peasant struggles in Brazil and the world. And through a so-called ‘socialist journey’, activists learn through music, theatre, and dance, many of the assumptions and values of the left. Another important element is collective work and study. Every day, there are specific moments attached to study and debate among colleagues, as well as to helping in everyday tasks, such as laundry, food preparation and the cleaning of common spaces.    

The international circulation of people, and the exchange resulting from it, play a major role in the International Via Campesina. The attendance of hundreds of social movement activists of several nationalities each year in Brazilian courses is strong evidence that this knowledge, built collectively and globally, strengthens both social networks and the density of international ties.

The exchange between activists from different origins does not take place only in these formative spaces or in these ‘transnational meetings of convergence’. It also includes a medium and long-term displacement to understand more directly the reality of other movements, countries and experiences. The main mechanism for these exchanges comes via the international brigades: a classic device of internationalism where activists move to places other than their own to fight for a common cause.

The brigades of internationalist solidarity of the late twentieth century and early twenty-first century, although continuing to intervene in many high-intensity conflicts as classic brigades did, are also quite different. In the case of MST, although activists participate in brigades in occupied territories in Palestine, priority is given to the international brigades which also operate under education and political formation.

Since its formation, the movement has opened doors for the largest number of activists possible to participate in international activities. This is a major challenge for social movements with a wide base, because, if this diversification of international interactions is not consummated, they run the risk of specialisation and elitism of transnational activism, similar to the situation of organisations where solidarity becomes institutionalised, like many NGOs of international cooperation, and their ‘international professional activists’.

The first international exchanges, in the early 1980s, can be considered as ‘fleeting encounters’, such as participation in a conference, meeting or summit. Due to the limitations of such relationships, and to avoid a kind of ‘activist tourism’, the movement took, as one of its priorities, long-term visits and exchanges that allow them to develop a deeper understanding of different realities, and to cultivate international solidarity based in joint programmes that have a broad horizon of social justice.

In fact, the success of educational programmes and political training within the movement allowed the development of several transnational initiatives, such as building schools to teach agro-ecology on broader scales. MST has a central role within La Via Campesina and CLOC, and also bilaterally with other movements, organisations and entities placing these initiatives. Nevertheless, there is a delicate issue with which the movement has always been very careful: whatever the mission of the MST brigade is abroad, the basic principle is to respect the autonomy and beliefs of others, knowing that each movement, place and country has their own story and vision.

This seems simple, but in practice it is not. Historically, many huge organisations with a prominent role within their sphere of action have acted vertically, as vanguards that always had the best solution for others. Although the MST has become an important reference point for international peasant struggle, playing the role of strategic leadership due to its organisational skills and admiration for its experience of struggle for land and social justice in Brazil, it has never tried to impose a model or example to other organisations. This, however, does not mean that the movement does not have explicit preferences for organisation, as well as their reading and political lines in relationship with other organisations. Nevertheless, there is a continual exercise of critical reflexivity, which is based on not imposing their ideas and views, and to instead coordinate in order to generate movement and mobilisation.

The brigades respond to a bidirectional sense. Besides the MST brigades abroad, the movement also receives in its territory a number of brigades. In some cases they come from peasant movements and strategic alliances around the world (mostly Latin American) that want to learn, in more detail, about the movement and exchange experiences. In other cases they are small groups, most of them activists in different organisations in their places of origin, which have prior basic training in Europe or north America from the Support Committees of MST, traveling to Brazil to learn first-hand the reality of the movement, visiting camps and settlements.

MST’s international politics, briefly analysed here, shows that contemporary internationalism is a round trip. On the one hand, there is a process of internationalisation of territorialised social movements. On the other, there is a process of internalisation of these exchanges and experiences outside its territory, which become incorporated into activist daily life and in the movements themselves.  

In sum, the MST and contemporary peasant movements in Latin America show that to live and to experience localised exchanges is exactly what can contribute to the sense of common struggle internationally. The affirmation of a national, regional or local tradition is often the necessary foundation for the recognition of solidarity values and of identification of common enemies and collective practices. The well-known phrase ‘think globally, act locally’ is too limited for contemporary internationalists such as the MST and its comrades. What they tell us is that a real internationalism should think, act, feel, live and struggle in local, regional, national and global scales at the same time.

Twenty years after the massacre of nineteen peasants in Eldorado dos Carajás, Brazil, that led to the creation of the International Day of Peasants' Struggle, we have an alarming scenario. Agribusiness has gained more global power. There is a brutal offensive of financial capital in the commodification of natural resources in the global south. States, which are often hostages of economic actors, end up supporting and opening spaces for these initiatives. Moreover, workers and peasants continue to be murdered while taking part in a legitimate struggle to obtain land (indeed, two MST activists were murdered by the police last week in the state of Parana). Yet, there is a continually reinvented peasant resistance that is articulated globally to construct alternative futures. Today, remembering all the comrades killed over the past two decades, we shout in unison: “we must never forget, so it never happens again”. 

How to cite:
Bringel B., Vieira F., (2016), “We must never forget, so it never happens again”: Brazil’s peasant internationalism, Open Democracy / ISA RC-47: Open Movements, 17 April. https://opendemocracy.net/breno-bringel-flavia-braga-vieira/we-must-never-forget-so-it-never-happens-again-brazil-s-peasant-in


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