Activist farmers in Brazil step in to feed the hungry and aid the sick

. May 19, 2020
Activist farmers in Brazil step in to feed the hungry and aid the sick Farm in Marilia, Sao Paulo. Photo: Alf Ribeiro/Shutterstock

For months, President Jair Bolsonaro has insisted the coronavirus is not a serious threat. Beyond decreeing a nationwide state of calamity in mid-March, his government has left 209 million Brazilians largely without federal help during the pandemic. Brazil has the most confirmed Covid-19 cases in Latin America: 254,220 infections and 16,792 deaths as of May 18. Nevertheless, Mr. Bolsonaro continues shaking hands, hugging supporters, urging the country to reopen. 

And he has pushed out two Health Ministers for promoting social distancing.

Some state governors are defying the right-wing president’s calls to restart the economy, and Congress recently approved a monthly cash payment of BRL 600 (USD 104) to help 54 million newly unemployed workers — less than the national minimum wage of BRL 1,045. Since other federal aid does not appear to be forthcoming, neighborhood associations, churches, community groups, and unions are stepping in to support struggling Brazilians.

</p> <p>One of Brazil’s civilian-led initiatives goes well beyond an average <a href="">mutual aid society</a>. Drawing on its vast network of farms, doctors, schools, and restaurants, an activist group called the Landless Workers Movement is providing food, medical care, and other pandemic support to hundreds of thousands of Brazilians nationwide.</p> <h2>Landless workers change Brazil</h2> <p>The Landless Workers Movement, or MST, was born in 1984 after groups of landless families began to occupy rural estates that were lying fallow. The organization is a direct consequence of Brazil&#8217;s <a href="">extremely unequal land distribution</a>. One percent of the population owns approximately 50 percent of the country&#8217;s arable land.</p> <p>According to Brazilian law, land must be used for a “social function.” As such, the MST&#8217;s occupations effectively forced the government to buy up these estates and allow squatters to farm there, not by way of a traditional land deed, but through “usage rights.”</p> <figure class="wp-block-image size-large"><img loading="lazy" width="1000" height="633" src="" alt="landless farmers covid-19" class="wp-image-39733" srcset=" 1000w, 300w, 768w, 610w, 460w, 630w" sizes="(max-width: 1000px) 100vw, 1000px" /><figcaption>Landless Workers Movement invades an eucalyptus farm in the municipality of Eunápolis, Bahia. Photo: Joa Souza/Shutterstock</figcaption></figure> <p>Since 1984, the Landless Workers Movement has won such land access for 1.5 million aspiring farmers. My research on this Brazilian agricultural movement examines what happens to rural squatters after they obtain territory. New farmers need more than just a plot of land — they need a home, schools for their children, healthcare, seeds, fertilizer, and often, training.</p> <p>As an activist movement, the MST organizes rallies and protests pushing the Brazilian government to support agricultural communities. More unusually, however, it also has a network of institutions dedicated to serving Brazilian squatter farmers.</p> <p>In partnership with state and local governments in 23 of Brazil’s 26 states, MST activists help to run 170 community health clinics, 100 agricultural cooperatives, 66 food processing factories, and 1,900 farmer associations, according to the <a href="">movement’s own count</a>. These jointly operated services, developed over the past 35 years, are largely funded by the government but staffed and governed by the Landless Workers Movement.</p> <p>As I documented in my 2019 book on MST education initiatives, the group also runs 2,000 primary and secondary schools and co-manages degree programs at 80 universities. Its education system has served more than 400,000 students since 1984.</p> <h2>Solidarity in practice</h2> <p>Now, all of the MST&#8217;s resources are being redirected toward the coronavirus pandemic.</p> <p>The movement has donated over 500 tons of produce, such as watermelons and cassava, to hospitals and poor neighborhoods. It has transformed six urban cafes into soup kitchens for the homeless and converted some education buildings into makeshift hospitals staffed in part by its <a href="">130 affiliated doctors</a>.</p> <p>The Landless Workers Movement is also running a blood donation campaign and producing rubbing alcohol, soap, and face masks for local clinics. Furthermore, some 10,000 MST-affiliate teachers are helping Brazilian public schools adapt to remote learning.</p> <figure class="wp-block-image size-large"><img loading="lazy" width="1000" height="563" src="" alt="Landless Workers volunteers load produce for distribution during the coronavirus pandemic. Photo: Ronaldo Rodríguez, CC BY-SA" class="wp-image-39734" srcset=" 1000w, 300w, 768w, 610w" sizes="(max-width: 1000px) 100vw, 1000px" /><figcaption>Landless farmers volunteers load produce for distribution during the coronavirus pandemic. Photo: Ronaldo Rodríguez, CC BY-SA</figcaption></figure> <p>To a public steeped in President Bolsonaro’s coronavirus skepticism, the movement’s national communications network of newspapers, radio, social media, and live streaming — normally used to share updates from the organization — is now broadcasting health information.</p> <p>Though the Landless Workers Movement is a rural initiative, its pandemic response operates in cities, too.</p> <p>To feed hungry families in Santa Maria da Boa Vista, a poor municipality in northeastern Brazil, activist Ronaldo Rodriguez asked his fellow MST for donations. In just one day, he told me, his team collected three tons of produce from farmers who had obtained their land with the movement’s help.</p> <p>“We are practicing social distancing but also community solidarity,” said Mr. Rodriguez, a rural school supervisor who graduated college with assistance from the Landless Workers Movement.</p> <h2>‘Stay home, but not silent’</h2> <figure class="wp-block-image size-large"><img loading="lazy" width="754" height="485" src="" alt="Yucca and other fresh produce grown on land that once sat fallow. Ronaldo Rodriguez, CC BY-SA" class="wp-image-39735" srcset=" 754w, 300w, 610w" sizes="(max-width: 754px) 100vw, 754px" /><figcaption>Yucca and other fresh produce grown on family farmers&#8217; land that once sat fallow. Photo: Ronaldo Rodriguez, CC BY-SA</figcaption></figure> <p>Brazil’s Landless Workers Movement is an exception to the rule that grassroots movements avoid partnering with the government. Activists typically see their role as pressuring the government from the outside and fear that working with administrations would allow politicians to co-opt their cause.</p> <p>Criticism of government remains central to the work of the MST. Along with other <a href="">activist</a> groups, the Landless Workers Movement is demanding that the Bolsonaro administration support quarantine efforts, invest in public health, and send food and financial assistance to Brazilians.</p> <p>“The current government has done nothing to help,” says Indiane Witcel, a 26-year-old economist who works as an accountant in one of the movement’s agricultural cooperatives, Coopan.</p> <p>Ms. Witcel was born at Coopan, in the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul, back when it was a squatter encampment. Her mother helped occupy and cultivate the land using the Landless Workers Movement’s preferred sustainable farming methods.</p> <p>Since the coronavirus pandemic began, Coopan has donated 12 tons of its organic rice to poor urban neighborhoods in the nearby state capital of Porto Alegre. “<a href="">Solidarity</a> should be part of everyday practice,” she told me. “Now more than ever, when so many people are in difficult situations.” With hospitals already overflowing with patients and the Covid-19 infection curve climbing, Brazil’s already difficult situation is likely to worsen.</p> <p>The Landless Workers Movement has a message for Brazilians during this crisis, promoted on Twitter and in its media outlets. Like its coronavirus response, the hashtag slogan combines pandemic assistance with an implicit rebuke to Brazil’s president:</p> <p>#FicaEmCasaMasNãoEmSilêncio. Stay at home, but don&#8217;t stay silent.</p> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <div class="wp-block-image"><figure class="alignleft"><img loading="lazy" width="300" height="24" src="" alt="the conversation brazil article" class="wp-image-398" srcset=" 300w, 768w, 1024w, 2000w" sizes="(max-width: 300px) 100vw, 300px" /></figure></div> <h6 class="has-text-align-right">Originally published on<br><a href=""><strong>The Conversation</strong></a></h6> <p>

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Rebecca Tarlau

Assistant Professor of Education and of Labor and Employment Relations, Pennsylvania State University.

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