Democratization Through Land Occupation

MST demo in Brazil

In the rural settlement Cípo Cortado, Brazil, 245 families organized in the Landless Workers’ Movement (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais sem Terra, MST) have been able to achieve direct democratic control over their own labor.

Cípo Cortado is a small rural settlement located in the south-west of the brazilian state of Maranhão. The land belonging to the settlement totals about six thousand hectares, and is primarily used for cultivating crops for the peasants’ own consumption. The settlement was created by families who squatted the land together. Last year, after eight years of struggle, these families were granted the formal right to use the land.

The history of the settlement originates in popular meetings organized by the MST in the small town of Senador La Roque eight years ago. They started hosting popular meetings where they wanted to mobilize peasants for occupying idle fields outside of the city, Through the process, they were able to recruit more than a hundred families ready to make living in an squat their life.

Some of the squatters had backgrounds as rural wage workers, while others were city dwellers wishing to become settled as small scale farmers. Common for both groups was how the current economic system was unable to offer them anything else than a life of toil and extreme exploitation, either as rural wage workers or as marginalized urban slum dwellers.

The Landless Workers' Movement (MST)

The primary objective of the Landless Workers' Movement is to provide arable land for its members, as well as struggling for general land redistribution through the implementation of a national popular agrarian reform. In the long run the movement seeks to abolish capitalism altogether, and replace it with a vaguely defined socialism. The movement emerged during the last few years of the military right-wing dictatorship that ruled Brazil between 1964 and 1985. In 1984, the MST was formally formed at a congress of various local peasant movements.

The need for land redistribution has historically been a prominent issue in Brazilian society. Ever since the times of armed indigenous resistance to the Portuguese colonization (from 1500 onward) and the legalized practice of formal slavery (abolished in 1888), various social movements challenging the political power and property of the rural bourgeoisie emerged now and again just to be repressed. These movements has historically been unable to win concessions from the ruling classes, and as a result of this, property relations in Brazil are still extremely unequal. According to the MST, three percent of the Brazilian population own two thirds of the arable land in the country.

Ever since the movement emergenced more than thirty years ago, their primary strategy has been to occupy arable lands for its members, by establishing camps of squatters and resisting oppression afflicted upon them by landlords and the repressive state apparatus, before eventually building permanent settlements. This strategy is reflected in their famous slogan: “Occupy! Resist! Produce!” By occupying lands, the movement is able to improve the material conditions of their members in the here-and-now, and they are also constructing democratic structures of self-management and administration. Today, MST has an informal membership of more than 1, 5 million people, and controls approximately one percent of the Brazilian national territory.

As mentioned, MST’s most important long-term goal—besides their ultimate goal of socialist revolution—is the implementation of a popular agrarian reform. Such a reform would include that the state expropriates land owned by huge landlords and distributes it to the country’s landless. In the current political climate, such a general agrarian reform seems out of the question.

That being said, article 186 of the Brazilian constitution of 1988 states that the state should expropriate arable land which does not fulfill its social function. This means that these lands that lay idle and lands where working conditions do not meet the minimum standards determined by state labour regulations, are all to be expropriated. While this may be seen as a positive step towards an agrarian reform, the state agency responsible for implementing the law (INCRA) has been less than eager to put it into practice. Still, by means of occupation, the MST has been able to put pressure on the INCRA, which has resulted in more than a million landless peasants gaining the rights to use the land. Among the occupations that have been regularized in this way is Cípo Cortado, which gained these rights to the land in 2013.

Sípo Cortado

Cípo Cortado is a small rural settlement located in the south-west of the brazilian state of Maranhão.
(Photo by Karl Ruben Gaasø.)


On land areas controlled by the MST, the strict hierarchical relationships between landlord and peasant, which historically has dominated the Brazilian countryside, has been abolished. In its place, workers self-management of production has been implemented, creating a democratic alternative to the feudal-like social relations many of the landless workers have been living under.

In the MST settlements, workers self-management of production generally takes one of two forms: Either the land held by the settlement is divided individually among the workers, with each worker controlling the piece of land his or her family is able to work by themselves, or the production is put under the control of democratically organized workers cooperatives.

The workers of Cípo Cortado have decided to work the land individually. This means that production is not subject to collective decision making, but does not mean that theres no room for practicing radical democracy in the settlement. All issues that affect the community as a whole are dealt with in a general assembly that convenes every sunday. In the assembly, every member of the community has the right to make proposals and vote on the proposals of others. The assembly deals with day-to-day issues like the physical infrastructure of the settlement (roads, water, and so forth) and education, as well as deciding upon issues concerning the political struggle of the community.

Complementing the general assembly, the settlement has also organized itself into small base groups consisting of about ten families each. These groups deal with internal matters that only affect those in the group, as well as electing two ccordinators who meet with the coordinators from the other base groups. The coordination committee meets once a week. Issues are often discussed at these coordination meetings before they are presented to the general assembly. Recognizing how patriarchical tendencies reproduce themselves within their own movement, the MST has a policy of always electing both a woman and a man to these committees.

The struggle continues

By organizing with the MST and utilizing direct action as their primary form of struggle, the inhabitants of Cípo Cortado have been able to create a better life for themselves, a life where they have democratic control of their own labor and community. Currently there are about half a million people living on lands occupied with the MST. For the next few years, the organization hopes to obtain formal user rights for 50.000 of these each year. Hopefully their struggle will bear fruits, like the one in Cípo Cortado has.