Brazil’s largest and most iconic social organization, the MST landless workers movement, has slammed the governor in the state of Brasilia for acting in an “authoritarian manner” in administering a land reform program, rejecting the effort as an “undemocratic” affront to the longstanding struggles to improve living conditions in the Brazilian countryside.
At issue is the Rural Workers Settlement Program, also known by its Portuguese acronym PRAT, which Federal District Governor Rodrigo Rollemberg imposed by decree on Aug. 30, just a day before the Senate voted 61 to 20 to remove ousted President Dilma Rousseff from office after a lengthy impeachment trial.
The program’s stated purpose is to promote “access to land, credit policies, technical assistance, resource preservation actions and guidelines, conservation of natural resources, and social dignity and well-being.” But critics say that by centralizing the land redistribution process in a bureaucratic, state-run system, PRAT individualizes the agrarian reform system, empowering the government while at the same time weakening social movements.
The MST — the iconic 1.5 million-member movement that pioneered the tactic of mass land occupations in the country over two decades ago to resettle tens of thousands of landless families — blasted the program for ignoring the on-the-ground realities of rural people and effectively “depoliticizing” and disempowering essential social movement organizing.
“The decree was implemented in an authoritarian manner, without discussion with the social and trade union movement in the countryside,” wrote the Federal District and surrounding areas chapter of the MST in a statement dated Sept. 27. The decision was also overshadowed by Rousseff’s impeachment, which was itself condemned by the MST, other movements, and the broader international community as a parliamentary coup,
“The decree is undemocratic for centralizing the land tenure process in government bodies and preventing debate on infrastructure inherent to the quality of life of settlement families and agriculture production involving the social organizations that organized the people to struggle for social rights,” the statement continued.
The MST added that the measures in the decree “aim to neutralize social forces historically responsible for legitimate agrarian reform in the country.” Over the years, the MST has been the central driver of rural reform in Brazil by effectively putting pressure on both right and left-wing governments. The movement has settled some 370,000 landless families through more than 2,500 mass farmland takeovers, and the strategy of squatting for land access has been imitated by movements across the region.
In particular, the MST demanded that the Federal District government in the state of Brasilia immediately scrap land reform provisions that it says criminalizes legitimate forms of social struggle by effectively removing farmland from the list of parcels eligible for redistribution. That measure renders obsolete the movement's central strategy since its inception.
A federal law brought in by former right-wing President Fernando Henrique Cardoso in 1997 paved the way for the Federal District’s new PRAT.
The MST demanded that the state government open up a public debate to allow social movements and labor unions most intimately connected to rural issues to participate in decision-making on matters of agrarian reform, infrastructure, and land management.