How to be a Good Friend (When You are 4,000 Miles Away)

Coming from small towns throughout the country-side, with stars overhead and veiled by the cover of darkness, Tania and 149 other families made their way in pick-up trucks and small vehicles, to a fazenda (farm) on the outskirts of Chatuba, a small town two hour’s drive from downtown Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. “Everyone was both scared and excited at the same time…we were doing something, we were taking our lives into our own hands,” said Tania. This emotional surge kept Tania warm on that late night trek to occupy an arable yet unused tract of idle farmland.

Slowly and with care, the families unloaded their supplies and few worldly belongings onto the center of a moonlit field. They were now occupying the land. Tania waited for the sun to rise over the eastern hills alongside hundreds of others, solidifying her place in Latin America’s most prominent and powerful social movement – the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (Landless Rural Workers’ Movement), better known by its acronym – MST.

Working primarily towards agrarian reform in Brazil, the MST utilizes a well-organized and ideologically oriented methodology while battling for a multi-issue platform. In the continent-sized country of Brazil, the richest 20% of the population controls 88% of available arable land, while the poorest 40% owns a mere 1%. Moreover, 20 million people (4 million families) are landless, most of them living in rural areas. Poverty is not merely an issue in Brazil, but a life-threatening problem faced by 4 million Brazilians (32% of the population).

Since 1985, Brazilian families have in large numbers taken to the MST’s call for “bottom-up” agrarian reform. What started as a coalition of 400 families has swelled into a 1.5 million-member force that desires to shift the policy of individual land ownership to a more equitable system “based on cooperative relations among direct workers.” The MST employs various mobilization techniques, including marches, road blockades, and occupations of government buildings (which often lead to negotiations with government officials) to accomplish this and other movement objectives.

However, the most commonly used and widely known practice by the MST is direct occupation of land, and the establishment thereafter of an “encampment” on the property. Organized by MST leaders, varying groups of families (numbering from the tens to thousands) mobilize en masse to first occupy and then cultivate unused tracts of arable land. The federal constitution – written into law in 1988 under the presidency of José Sarney – affirms that private property that is not serving a “social function,” meaning that it has failed to meet specific federally mandated productivity levels, is subject to expropriation. The MST occupies these lands, generally within the territorial boundaries of large farms (latifundia), to pressure the National Institute for Colonization and Land Reform (INCRA) to fulfill its charge and allocate land titles to MST members.

The MST has made tremendous progress since its establishment in the mid-1980s. The movement has organized land occupations in 23 of Brazil’s 27 states. As a result, roughly 350,000 families have been given more than eleven million hectares of land in a total of 2,300 agricultural settlements (see Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (MST), “MST em Dados.” São Paulo: ANCA, 2003). As Dr. Miguel Carter notes, this is roughly the size of Cuba, or the state of Oklahoma. In these settlements, the MST has established 88 collectively managed cooperatives and 96 food processing plants, the latter of which includes meat processing operations and yerbamate production facilities. The MST has also established 1,800 primary and secondary schools and a university on the outskirts of São Paulo. The MST has focused on economic production to provide settlers with a concrete means for survival, while simultaneously incorporating the movement’s political agenda into every aspect of social life.

As the movement has grown, the MST has enjoyed support from outside of Brazil. Individuals, groups, institutions, NGOs, foreign governments and other social movements from across the globe have pledged both moral and monetary support. International NGOs such as Oxfam, Global Justice, Global Exchange, and Food First International (FIAN) have raised awareness internationally regarding the MST and its goals.

The Friends of the MST – Organizing in Solidarity

Since the mid-1990s, the MST has developed robust transnational linkages with solidarity and advocacy networks, including the World Social Forum and Via Campesina. In addition, since this time, MST solidarity organizations have been established in 14 countries across the globe, including France, Spain, Portugal, Sweden and the Netherlands.

One of the most active of these solidarity networks is the US-based Friends of the MST (FMST) solidarity network. Founded in 1997 in the San Francisco Bay Area, the FMST is a solidarity network of individuals and organizations that support Brazil’s MST and its struggle for social and economic justice and respect for human rights. Facilitated by a National Coordinator and serving the English-speaking world (US, Australia, Canada, UK), the FMST “network” comprises chapters in seven major U.S. cities, including Boston, New York, Chicago, Louisville, and Washington, D.C. NGOs and other organizations also support the FMST network. While the FMST’s network comprises multifarious chapters and organizations, each chapter maintains the same core mission – “to build solidarity and educate the public in order to raise the international profile of the MST.”

One feature of the FMST that distinguishes it from other support and solidarity movements is that it does not profess an agenda or platform of its own. Rather, according to Juan Reardon, the former FMST National Coordinator, it exists as a support organization that “uses education to build a solidarity movement capable of responding to the MST’s most pressing economic, social and political needs.” What sets the organization further apart from other such solidarity movements is its fluid communication with the MST. The MST’s office of International Relations, based in São Paulo, communicates directly with the FMST National Coordinator in the U.S., which provides the FMST with a clear understanding of the movement’s priorities on the ground. As a result, the MST can quickly communicate its most pressing issues to the FMST, after which the latter strategically develops responses to “fill-in” certain gaps, when possible. While the FMST develops the aforementioned strategic responses, it is important to note that the FMST-MST link is one of partnership. FMST chapters understand the political context in their respective countries and how best to navigate the institutions and political brokers therein. Accordingly, the MST recognizes the comparative advantage that the FMST has, and is fully open to ideas and suggestions.

The FMST’s solidarity initiatives fall into two broad categories with separate but intertwining objectives: educational events and activities that aim to increase general awareness about the MST, thus raising its the international profile, and strategically targeted actions (such as marches, demonstrations and “action alert” emails) that respond to issue-specific requests from the MST’s headquarters.

Education to Foster Awareness and Activism

In order to raise awareness of the MST, the FMST organizes events – from film screenings of MST documentaries to speaking engagements by MST leaders – to educate the public about all aspects of the movement. Discussions and film screenings and are a key tool in the FMST’s repertoire of solidarity mobilization – in 2006, chapters in Berkeley, Chicago, Louisville, Minneapolis, Portland, and Washington, DC organized film screenings for hundreds to view the award-winning feature length documentary, The Landless: On the Roads of America. Such gatherings offer individuals familiar with the movement – and those who are new to its struggle – to discuss the MST and become more involved.

In addition, and recognizing that first-person interaction with MST members is crucial to give context to peoples’ understanding of the movement, the FMST fiscally supports and organizes speaking tours by MST representatives. In March 2006, MST leaders Andreia Ferreira and Daniel Correia attended the University of Florida at Gainseville’s Center for Latin American Studies 54th Annual Conference “Alternative Visions of Development: The Rural Social Movements in Latin America.” After the conference, the FMST organized a national, two-week speaking tour for Ferreira, which put the MST leader in front of audiences numbering up to 100 individuals in Louisville, Lansing, Chicago, Portland, Seattle, San Francisco. Such film screenings and discussions serve as vehicles for education, as well as fundraising – small donations are usually collected, and then sent back to the São Paulo-based Secretariat.

Education with Mobilization

The FMST’s instructive events are often linked to relevant historical dates, and infused with mobilization techniques used by the MST itself. In 2005, the Washington, DC FMST chapter held a two-day solidarity event observing the anniversary of the El Dorado de los Carajás Massacre, where in 1996 19 MST activists were shot and killed by military police. At the conclusion of the event more than 80 supporters – waving large MST flags, donning the well-known red MST t-shirts and led by the family of then recently murdered Sister Dorothy Stang – marched down Massachusetts Avenue to the Brazilian Embassy.

A delegation then delivered a petition to Roberto Abdenur, Brazil’s Ambassador to the U.S. signed by hundreds of supporters, demanding that the administration of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (Lula) both prosecute the killers of Sister Dorothy Stang and fulfill its promises to settle 430,000 families by the end of 2006. The following day, major Brazilian newspapers and media outlets published stories on the event. That evening, O Globo, the main television network in Brazil, ran a full two-minute segment on the march during their nightly news. Furthermore, the event was discussed in Brazil’s Congress during the weeks that followed.

To maintain regular contact with supporters, and to make background information, news, and print materials accessible, the FMST issues a bi-weekly newsletter update with MST-related news and a listing of all FMST chapter events in the US. The FMST website (www.mstbrazil.org), updated continuously, serves as a clearinghouse for articles, resources and interviews regarding the MST and its efforts. The site has been an effective tool to recruit new members, allowing individuals that are not located in the general proximity of an already established FMST chapter to contact the Coordinator and ask how they might become involved. Rounding-out the educational aspect of the FMST’s solidarity efforts are experiential learning trips to Brazil, where participants spend time in MST encampments, settlements and cooperatives, learning about the movement and its cause.

The Capacity to Call to Action

Aside from its efforts to educate the general public about the MST, the solidarity network also mobilizes to respond to the highest priority political and human rights-related requests from the MST leadership. The FMST’s direct link to MST leadership allows the FMST to strategically develop targeted responses to the initiatives and issues deemed most important by the MST itself. Two examples highlight the FMST’s role in this capacity – letter writing campaigns and fundraising.

In February 2006, after judicial authorities in the Northern state of Pernambuco ordered five MST leaders arrested and jailed for their (peaceful and non-confrontational) organizing efforts, the MST issued a request for support to the FMST. In response, the FMST initiated a worldwide letter-writing campaign aimed at the judicial officials that issued the orders to imprison the MST activists. Flooded with letters from across the globe denouncing the decision to imprison the activists, and in response to other domestic and international criticism, the judges revoked their orders, thus allowing the activists to continue their work in Pernambuco. At any given time, the FMST, through its listserv of contacts, can muster thousands of letters to send to targeted officials and organizations. In a letter of thanks to the FMST after the abovementioned campaign, the MST State Coordinating body in Pernambuco wrote of the FMST’s efforts: “Solidarity amongst those who struggle, those who dream, is an essential part of our human worth. So many obstacles, fences, and difficulties, can be overcome by this force.”

Whether it is food for marchers or bricks to construct schools, the MST’s monumental struggle requires a constant flow of funds. The MST maintains its own system to collect monies to fund such initiatives, and is an, almost entirely, independently-funded organization. The movement also receives some support, albeit in small amounts, from institutions and support organizations. The FMST plays a role in this regard, coordinating fundraising events and campaigns targeted at specific needs identified by the MST. In 2006, for example, the MST requested assistance to raise funds in support of sending delegates to the 5th National Congress and to help secure justice for the victims of the El Dorado das Carajás Massacre. Through small donations at events, on-line giving via its web-site, and other means, the FMST in 2006 sent $25,000 back to Brazil — $15,000 to support the National Congress and $10,000 for the justice campaign. In 2007 the MST has asked the FMST to assist in the campaign to raise money to support the MST’s National School Florestan Fernandes, or in Portuguese, the Escola Nacional Florestan Fernandes (ENFF), the movement’s University, 65 kilometers outside the city of São Paulo. The MST hopes that ENFF can become fully self-sustaining by 2010, and has asked for the FMST’s assistance in achieving this goal. In response, the FMST launched the “Escola Nacional Fundraising Campaign,” a program procuring donations for the purchase of technology (such as solar panels) to make ENFF’s academic buildings “green” and books. Amongst the most recent contributors to the campaign is Noam Chomsky, the well-known linguist, who wrote: “The MST can help Brazil reach the brilliant future that the people of ‘The Colossus of the South’ deserve. Donating books for the Movement libraries will be a great contribution to help the Movement carry out its important tasks.” Again, the FMST’s direct link with the MST allows its responses to be the most effective.

Solidarity as a Model

To be effective, solidarity movements and social movements must exchange ideas and lessons learned regarding the effectiveness of mobilization techniques and certain organizational structures. As the FMST has drawn lessons from other solidarity networks, movements may also learn from principles of the MST’s model of activism.

One main component of note, as described above, is the crucial role played by direct communication with the social movement or cause in question. Whether a solidarity network is established to support a bus driver’s union in Minnesota or a Farmer’s Coalition in Finland, a direct connection with the benefactor movement or cause would, if we use the FMST’s model as evidence, increase the effectiveness and impact of the network’s actions.

By maintaining fluid communication with the MST leadership, the FMST ensures that its campaigns and initiatives are not composed and organized in an indiscriminate, ad hoc fashion. This configuration helps guarantee that, rather than guessing at the needs of the MST in Brazil, or extrapolating what is “most pressing” from news wire reports, the FMST is able to develop discreet, individual initiatives and campaigns that respond to specific MST requests. Like many other solidarity networks and grassroots movements, the FMST operates on a shoestring budget, relying primarily on a vast cadre of caring volunteers to organize events and mobilize for marches. This relationship helps the FMST better direct and expend the minimal resources that are at its disposal.

Challenges

But this solidarity organizing does not come without its set of challenges. It has been difficult for some groups in the United States to always know how to respond to the MST’s efforts. This stems in part from the Brazilian media’s portrayal of the MST and its tactics. Instead of focusing on the essentially non-violent and peaceful nature of the movement’s efforts, the media and MST detractors harp upon the occasional fight with local police forces or property damage that result from such mobilizations. Using these events (which are the exception) as evidence the aforementioned critics attempt to brand the MST as a “violent” organization. As a result, solidarity activists in the U.S. – operating in a different and distant political context from Brazil and privy only to the aforementioned media reports – might not know how to respond. An underreported aspect, however, is that such struggles and clashes are often initiated by the police or gunmen hired by landlords. Many of the MST responses are acts of self-defense out of fear of being killed.

The FMST confronts this challenge by channeling reports on these and other incidents to the English-speaking world, in an attempt to better inform solidarity activists and others regarding the reality on the ground. By disseminating updates and informational resources, the FMST attempts to quell misinterpretations fueled by skewed reporting.

At the MST’s 5th National Congress in June 2007, João Pedro Stédile, an MST leader, signaled that the MST needs a new direction in terms of its goals for reform in Brazil: “The agrarian reform proposal that drove MST’s struggle for 20 years has run its course. We need a new model of agrarian reform.” This “new direction” includes such troublesome issues as the large-scale production of ethanol, and the effect of Agribusiness on small farmers and Brazil’s countryside. As the MST’s proposed model and approach shifts, the FMST, through its fluid communication with the movement, will be there to offer support and strategically targeted initiatives.

Patrick W. Quirk is a graduate of Bates College and American University’s School of International Service. He currently resides in Washington, DC, where he co-founded an FMST chapter and works as a development professional. He is a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.Photo Credit: minc_brasil from flickr.com