In the past 20 years, more than a million people in Brazil have participated in the most vibrant, well-organized, and far-reaching grassroots association in Latin America, the Landless Workers' Movement. In a country of profound economic disparity and poverty, the movement has emerged as a significant force for agrarian reform, as well as progress in education, health care, agricultural production, promotion of women's rights, and democratic participation.
According to the Brazilian Constitution, any piece of unused land larger than around 500 acres should be taken or bought by the government and distributed to landless families. Since this rarely happens, the Landless Workers' Movement organizes people to occupy those lands and to force the government to do its job. Their actions are almost always successful.
Brazil is a nation of deep social inequalities - the wealthiest 20 percent of the population collects 34 times as much income as the poorest 20 percent, and approximately 55 million people live on less than $2 a day. These disparities are rooted in centuries of Portuguese imperial rule, under which huge tracts of land were given away to court favorites. Landowners were unable to farm much of the area even though Brazil imported more African slaves than any other country in the Western Hemisphere.
During the 20th century, despite a "squatters' rights" legal principle and a constitutional affirmation that land must "serve its social function," vast swaths of property went uncultivated. Brazilians began to take steps toward reclaiming their rights in the 1970s, during the struggle against the military government that ruled until 1985.
BRAZIL'S CATHOLIC CHURCH was wholly engaged in this social shift. The Latin American bishops' 1968 gathering at Medellín, Colombia (where the "preferential option for the poor" was adopted), coupled with the emergence of liberation theology, transformed much of the Brazilian church. Priests and lay church workers organized Christian base communities in their areas, which provided a place for those struggling in poverty to reflect on their lives, the gospel, and the connections between the two. The base communities were designed as non-hierarchical settings, where priests and peasants would engage in conversation as equals; the communities encouraged peasants to speak up for themselves.
On land reform, according to political scientist Ricardo Tavares, "priests and bishops sided with the posseiros (squatters who work the land but have no legal title) against the grileiros (colonists with fraudulent title) and large landowners, in a struggle which often became bloody." In fact, more than a thousand rural leaders, and sometimes their family members, have been murdered for their land reform efforts. (Fewer than 60 of the murders have gone to trial, and only seven ended in convictions.)
In the late 1970s, the Brazilian bishops began organizing land occupations through the "Pastoral Commission on Lands." According to author Michael Lowy, the commission was a "vast network" of clergy, including some bishops, as well as lay people, including theologians, sociologists, and lay workers, often from rural areas, and it "has been a formidable school for peasant leaders."
By 1984 the movement of landless activists was extensive enough to create the Landless Workers' Movement. It offers the rural poor a chance to participate in economic development and has won land for hundreds of thousands of families who now live in organized settlements. Not only have the settlers gained land to cultivate, they have gained dignity and a sense of their role as citizens. Along with the Catholic Church, evangelical and pentecostal groups and the Lutheran Church have also been deeply connected with the movement.
Instead of faith-based connections, today the movement uses misticas - a Spanish word that literally means mystical theology or mysticism. The word is used to describe moments at meetings that use theater, music, and poetry to instill people with the energy and motivation necessary to continue in the struggle. During a mistica, participants refer back to those who they call "fighters of the people," the heroes who were usually killed in their struggle for justice, as well as past popular movements and struggles - reminiscent, some would say, of the practice of invoking saints and martyrs.
In November 2003, the Landless Workers' Movement sponsored a march on Brasilia in which thousands of rural workers pushed the government to approve the "National Agrarian Reform Plan." Gilmar Mauro, the movement's national coordinator, saw the march as crucial in the effort to change and improve life in the countryside. Although many see "Lula" da Silva as the first Brazilian president to openly support agrarian reform, the Landless Workers' Movement and its allies have been deeply disappointed by the government's slow movement on the issue of settlements and land distribution.
The mandate of the Landless Workers' Movement goes beyond land reform to deep social transformation. This goal is shared by many in the Brazilian church. Bishop Tomás Balduino, president of the Brazilian bishops' commission on lands, was asked about the Vatican's chilly treatment of groups like the Landless Workers' Movement. "[N]ot absolutely everything depends on the hierarchy," the bishop said. "There is something that impels us forward, the Spirit of God who blows where it wills. There is a living force, not only inside the church but throughout the whole world, which is on a liberation journey. The journey of women, of ecology, of the Earth. We sense that with or without the church, this journey will move forward."
"We don't believe in change from the top down," said Gilmar Mauro. "That is not how to change the structures of this country, from above. It is a process that needs to be built. And how can it be built? By dialogue and the participation of the people."
Judy Coode is communications manager for the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns in Washington, D.C. Tom Bamat, Dan McLaughlin, David Kane, and John Hammond provided assistance with this article.
Find out more by reading To Inherit the Earth: The Landless Movement and the Struggle for a New Brazil, by Wright and Wolford (Food First, 2003)