Is MST for or against women’s emancipation?

Tord Björk | Latin American movements,MST,Women | Monday, March 9th, 2009

Are female activists in MST an emancipatory force in women’s struggle or do they represent backwardness and traditional rural values?

Man and woman at Jair Costa MST camp. Photo Pertti Simula

Many positive towards womens emancipation and female activists struggling may see this as an odd question. That antipatriarchial activists within MST from any point of view positive towards women’s emancipation are good for feminism is something everyone can agree upon. But that does not mean that they might be misused by a movement that in the end is authoritarian struggling for traditional values working against emancipation. Or that they are used or choose themselves to use old-fashioned methods that can be stamped by media as violent.

Men and women at Coptar MST cooperative. Photo Pertti Simula

Swedish author Magnus Linton have described his ambiguity towards MST in his book Americanos. On the one hand he sees MST as an impressive movement bringing social justice by breaking with authorian old parliamentary party politics. On the other hand he cannot decide himself clearly. He show how beating of wifes still continue in MST camps and settlements. He gives examples on how social hiearchies are reestablished in MST settlements between those that succed and those that fail to enlarge the small resources of animals and seedlings they are given by the government once they are recogninzed to get their piece of land according to the agragrian reform. And how a women living alone is less worth than a women living in a stable relationship.

But this reality may no movement be able to change alone. In reality both Linton and many others can show that MST is making things better for most people in the movement.

Women at Coopan MST cooperative. Photo Pertti Simula

Linton sees that the there is especially one conflicting issue between MST and socially interested presidents as Lula or other parts of the global justice movement which causes problems for women. That is the highly critical view on urbanisation.  Linton quotes one of the old MST leaders, Irma Brennetto, who describes how hard it is to maintain young people and especially women in the settlements. A majority of the young do not want to stay in the settlement she describes. They prefer the unsecure precarious job market and chaos in the cities instead of becoming peasants. The old still dominating leadership in MST also come from the Catholic liberation theology tradition and thus do not have the most liberal views on issues as abortion.

To others female activist in MST are manipulated by this old leadership to become guerilla soldiers. To some also left intellectuals in the cities and many middle class people and the media i Brazil MST started well but have turned into a movement using violence. The arguments starts by claiming that the movement is old-fashioned celebrating figures as Che Guevara and Lenin and organized in a hierarchic way. And then some few examples when violence against people have occured and blamed on MST are listed. But primarily the most prominent examples of violent acts carried out by MST are destruction of property.

Women and child at Jair Costa MST camp. Photo Pertti Simula

This is the result of MST and other female activists in Via Campesina organisations that the last year have occupied plants or plantations and begun deliberately to destroy equipment or cutting down trees. Such acts of civil disobedience are claimed by those against MST to be acts of violence.

What has been especially given as an example is how 2000 women from MST and other Via Campesina organizations on March 8 2006 entered and destroyed parts of Aracruz laboratory in Barra do Ribeiro, Rio Grande do Sul, uprooting more than 1 million eucalyptus tree seedlings. in protest against gene technology and in solidarity with Tupnikim indians that was violently evacuated from land which once belonged to them by Aracruz Celulose. After the action they immediately went to the demonstration on Women’s international day in Porto Alegre.

Activists and especially leaders are regularly violently attacked and killed by gunmen hired by landowners or killed or violently harrassed by police. But what emberass those claiming that MST is using violence is not the acts of violence against the movement or even acts of violence occurring against those defending the status quo. The violence considered as most horrible is occupying and destroying property. With such a definition of violence the feminist activists of MST becomes a great threat to modern patrirarchic Brazilian society.

The short impressions I got from visiting MST settlements and the national congress was that there are problems within MST for women’s emancipation but that the society that MST is trying to change is much worse. And that few social forces are doing so much for emancipating women in Brazil as MST. When MST invited organizations to come to their 25th anniversary celebrations there were many man coming. Within MST there were not only men taking the stage. As speakers, as people making comments from the floor, as leaders of cultural actions, as leaders of settlements and schools, as the most militant activists of the movement, there were many women to be seen.

Intervention from the floor at MST 25th anniversary plenary in Sarandi

I dared to ask one question. Was the chose of female activists to carry out action the result of tactics to present the movement as more vulnerable hoping for media to be more symphathetic or was it mainly due to a fact that many of the most militant activists were women. The answer confirmed clearly the last suggestion.

Women singing at MST cooperative. Photo Pertti Simula

Linton wrote his book in 2005. His ideal for emancipating the Latin American women were rather militant urban middel class activists in Bogota using international law and the power of modern medicine technology and subversive culture against traditional values rather than MST. His criticism against MST for maintaining traditional family values and illusions about rural life thus standing in the way for emancipation has been challenged. The wave believing in international laws and courts have proven to be as much an illusion as ever the idea of establishing rural societies with small farmer villages and cooperatives. Today it is the MST women that are the most militant feminists in Brazil and turns March 8 into women’s workers struggle day. On the scene in Sarandi at the MST 25 celebration they show the cultural strength of a movement now also orienting itself towards la periferia, to the suburbs of the cities.

The Lilac Bloc

You see them everywhere now. At the MST 25th anniversary, the lilac scarves. Hanging around the neck of women or put in front of the mouth on pictures of activists with sharpened agricultural tools in their hands.

The development seems to have been quick. On the first photos of determined actvists on the way to occupy and even cut down eucalupty trees seen as a threat against a sustainable future the scarves are multicolor. But now in short time they are all lilac. Some with prints on them in black promoting Via Campesina, the global organisation for peasants. The lilac block which is quite different and better organised than the masked blocs in rich countries. A lilac block that carefully carries out both resistance and constructive actions building wider and wider solidarity between oppressed groups using direct actions.


The militant actions on Womens international day March 8 have strengthened the unity among rural women in Brazil struggling for common interests against domestic land owners but more and more mainly against transnational corporations.

Lats year actions took place in 17 different states. The largest was an action against Finnish-Swedish forest company Stora Enso. Here is how the action developed. It started early in the morning:

Female activist chopping eucalyptu at Stora Enso plantation

Around 900 women of the movements belonging to Via Campesina occupied the Tarumã Farm, 2,100 hectares big, in the municipality of Rosário do Sul, at about 400 km from the state capital Porto Alegre. They arrived at the area at about 6 am and started immediately to cut down eucalyptus trees and to plant native trees seedlings.

The Swedish Finnish company Stora Enso had illegally bought land close to the border in the hope that they later could influence the legislators and get the laws changed.

“Our action is legitimate. It is Stora Enso that is acting illegally. Planting this green desert in the border region is a crime against the legislation of our country, against the ‘pampa’ (type of grassland) biome and against the food sovereignty of our state that stays with every time less land to produce food crops. We are cutting what is bad and planting what is good for the environment and for the people of Rio Grande do Sul”.

900 female rural workers occupation declaration against Stora Enso

Planting for the future

Time for men to arrive with their boss, the head of the military police as you can see in the middle

The first import thing to do is to get rid of mass media.

Now the real action can start

Police aiming at female activist with a gun

Destroying the milk for the children

Arresting the women

Many hundred arrested women

How the police were beating the women

We are not afraid!

Paula Acampada expain why i is necessary to struggle against the corporations.

So watch out for the lilac bloc if you see the future only in corporate rule

Stora Enso and MST

Tord Björk | Environmental movements,Latin American movements,monoculture,MST | Saturday, January 24th, 2009

A meeting took place at the MST 25th anniversary on the conflict with the Finnish-Swedish Stora Enso, Veracell and other paper companies. Due to much pressure a meeting took place in Helsinki between MST and Stora Enso. The company were willing to promise things as:

Not to use GMO plants

Have an environmental profile

Admit that they had bought land close to the Uruguayan border in a wrong way

Not to intervene in Brazilian elections by supporting candidates

They assured that did not send for police on the of March 2008 when 800 female farmers were arrested during occupation

They wanted an official meeting with Via Campesina. VC do not want to negotiate but are willing to discuss problems.

The concessions have been made in a situation when there has been some important victories for the movement. Veracell have lost trials and has to pay 20 million reales, ca 7 million euro. Stora Enso lost the conflict on the legality of owning land close to the border. The company hoped for acceptance as plantations and new cellulosa factories are presented as the great possibility for the region. But the military opposed that the law forbidding foreign company to own land close to the border should be overlooked. This victory also meant that those in the environmnetal movement in Rio Grand do Sul that had been sceptical towards MST now joined forces with Friends of the Earth and others who already supported MST in their struggle against Stora Enso. The crisis also makes company to stop from continuing their expansion plans. Farmers get angry when the companies do not by the Eycalyptus.

In general the paper companies are on the defensive and ti is a good time for campaigning.

MST and World Social Forum

Tord Björk | Latin American movements,MST,WSF | Tuesday, January 20th, 2009

At the headquarters in Sao Paulo there is big stress as everyone is preparing for the 25th anniversary. But there was some time to talk to Joao Paulo, the landless movement MST international secretary and buy some material.

It became evident that MST has a somewhat problematic situation. As a Brazilian organization that have participated in the WSF process from the start MST feels obliged to make efforts and activities at the forum in Belem. But the growing criticism among popular movements against the NGO and governemental influence in the WSF process puts MST into a problematic situation. Especially because Via Campesina, the global peasant organisation to which MST belongs will not be represented at WSF 2009.* The chair Henry Saragih and other leaders have chosen to not to go to Belem. MST is the organisation that keeps up the peasant spirit at WSF.

But there are problems for MST doing this. Belem is far away from most MST activists so the organisation cannot afford to bring but a small delegation to the event (which means somehing like 500 as it is a bi organisation that normalyy participates with many more when WSF aes place in Brazil. There are also anxiousness on different levels. On the one hand big NGOS, and especially envrionmental NGOs have dominated the process together with governmental interests in a way the frustrates popular movements. There is also a growing sense that the kind of open space were decisions cannot be made in combination with the assembly of social movements with a very large number of organisations and consensus decision-making prohibit popular movements for coming further.

Thus MST have focused mainly on their own program connecting to other interested movements by inviting them to the 25th anniversary celebration in Sarandi in Rio Grande do Sul and then continuing in Maraba in Para state ending at the MST activities at WSF in Belem. Central in the WSF activities is a meeting for networks and international social movements on the 29.1. This is an attempt to come further together with similar popualr movements as friends of the Earth International, Womens’ World March and tohers. This may constitute a necessary reform of the WSF process complemtary to the more loose Assembly of Social Movement.

*This is not correct I found out later. The chair Henry Saragi have chosen not to come but there will be a smaller delegation coming from Via Campesina international. The incorrectness might be the result of that my portuguese is not good enough. A blogpost will be made with Josie Riffaud, the respresentative of VC International.

Environmentalists and rubber tappers

Tord Björk | CNS,Environmental movements,Latin American movements | Monday, January 19th, 2009

Ecological and folkore festival in Purranque in Southern Chile 1991

1989-1992 I visited the environmental movement in all of Cono Sur from Southern Chile to the innermost of Amazonia. It started in 1989. Walter Moreira and Waldemar Schettini were two political refugees from Uruguay that became active in Alternativ Stad – Alternative City, the local environmental group in Stockholm. With their interest in strengthening the social activities of the group and their broad political perspectives they contributed to the internationalisation of the activities of Alternativ Stad. By the end of the 1980s this resulted in that activists from Alternativ Stad started to travel to Uruguay to exchange experience and organising small scale solidarity efforts to support local envrionmental groups. In 1989 I travelled for the first time to visit DEMAVAL, Defensa de Meio Ambiente do Colonia Valdense and participate in the first Latin American ecological conference in Montevideo.

Ecological summer school in Santiago de Chile organised by Red Nacional de Ecologia, RENACE and Instituto de Ecologia Politica

In 1991 I together with Charlotte von Essen made a longer tour visiting all together 25 local environmental groups in Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Uruguay. With the exception of Rio Branco in the Brazilian state of Para bordering Bolivia and Peru there were local environmental groups everywhere to a large degree working very similar to the local environmental groups in Europe. They were fighting pollution from local industries, promoting schemes for collection of garbage, making plans for local envrionmental friendly development, struggling against acidification and organizing lectures on the ozone layer and how to protect oneself against the sun as we were close to the South pole.

At the head quarters of the rubber tappers in Rio Branco discussing cooperation projects with Julio Barbosa, leader of CNS after Chico Mendes

In Rio Branco it was instead the rubber tappers Consejo Nacional dos Seringerious that had the same function as the envrionmental groups in the rest of Cono Sur closely allied to the main trade union CUT that was dominated by rural workers. The rubber tappers defended the rain forest and opposed larger development schemes when the ecological effects went against the interests of people living in a unstainable way in the forest. The rubber tapper leader Chico Mendes that had done so much for building alliances with the Indians and other important but often oppressed groups in the Brazilian society as well as with the international environmental movement had been murdered two years earlier. But others carried on his work.

Visiting ecological project in Valparaiso at the Pacific

The core of the building of an international movement in Latin America had been the antinuclear struggle. For many days people travelled by bus all over the continent to international meetings to discuss and organise antinuclear activities. In Latin America the struggle was completly combined against both nuclear power and nuclear weapons and not as in Europe often kept separate. In Brasil, Argentina and other Latin American countries nuclear power was an entirely military project considered as a military secret with not very hidden nuclear weapon ambitions linked to it.

Founder of the environmental movement in Sao Paulo at APEDEMA-SP meeting in 1991. He alone demonstrated against air pollution in 1973, a protest that became an example to many more

Later more well funded activities on environmental issues brought people together but also separated them. It was on my first trip to Latin America were I for the first time were made conscious about a clear difference between popular movements and non-governmental organizations, NGOs. Ecoturistas was the concept used by activists in DEMAVAL for the NGO representatives from Montevideo. These NGOs were often funded by international grants for which they were accountable. The experience of DEMAVAL was that these NGOs competed in organizing national meetings for environmentally interested groups and persons. Regularly this meant that the local environmental groups had to pay out of their own pocket their costs for participation, when they arrived much was already set and when the meeting came to an end the NGO from the capital announced that they would be responsible for the follow-up. Thus it became impossible to build a democratic movement accountable to the members and local grousp all over the country. Instead a pattern developed of professional NGOs in the capital often built on professional dominance and self-selected steering committes that were dependent on the conjuntures on the funding market. The local environmental groups becames a decoration in the marginal with the role of being objects of different NGO projects without being able to democraticall influence these activities and even more probelmatioc not being able to democratically adress the issue of how to prioritise among the many different issues which a movement have to try to democratically adress in its overall aspects.

Meeting in Sao Paulo in 1991 preparing social movement and NGO participation at UNCED were the conflicts between movement activists and NGOs were evident

This became evident in the preparations for the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro 1992 which was in its preparations during the tours we made to Latin America. The strongest networks of local environmental groups were coalitions at the state level in Brazil called Assemblea Permantente de Meio Ambiente, APEDEMA. The strongest were in Sao Paulo with some 110 members and in Rio de Janeiro with some 80 members. APEDEMA-RJ and APEDEMA-SP became the core of the efforts to make the alternative activities at UNCED more democratic and without influence from local business. They both won and lost this battle which in the end became a way for Brazilian NGOs as IBASE to strengthen their professional dominance of the popular movements. According the information I had when I analysed and compared the popualr movement and NGO participation at the first UN conference on the environment in Stockholm 1972 and the second in Rio 1992 APEDEMA-RJ ceased to exist after the Rio conference. Among the APEDEMA activists there was great diappointment of the lack of interests among the 20 000 visitors coming from NGO and social movements to the alternative actvities at UNCED. They had hoped to meet thousands of interest environmental activists but noone seemed interested in their experience. But according to the information I get now APEDEMA-RJ is still alive and kicking but APEDEMA-SP has been passive for some time although discussions now in January is taking place to discuss restart the network again.

Travel gallery from 1991

Los Andes at Mendoza on the way to Chile

In a contaminated suburb of Santiago de Chile together with local activist and Thijs de la Cour

Tired travellers helping each other on their way back through thousands of miles of Pampas

Together with local environmental activists, you guess where – yes of course tango in Buenos Aires

Meeting with the local group in Sao Leopaldo UPAN in Rio Grande do Sul the state were Brazilian modern envrionmentalism was born and popualr movement cooperation have been so strong for decades producing such results as the birth of Moviemnto Sem Terra and World Social Forum

Carlos Avelline from UPAN

Friends of the Earth Brazilian headquarters in Porto Alegre with Ben Hur and other activists

Ecological seminar in Porto Alegre

The center of the political capital Brasilia with motor ways at three levels and huge shopping centers and nowhere for pedestrians or a lively city life

The trade union headquarters in Rio Branco

Trade union party in Rio Branco

Concert to support Amazonia in Sao Paulo with Gilberto Gill

Silvia in Sao Paulo were I was staying. In the 1960s she was raised in the working class quarters in the middle of the huge city and they did not look the door when they went out at night. In 1991 Sao Paulo was filled with gated communities for the rich and a lot of violence in the city center. By good luck and some precaution I did not loose my wallet when a picket pocketer searched my front pockets from the back. Violnece has with other words nothing to do with big cities, it is the social order that creates the problem which became endemic during the military dictatorship that started in 1964 and became worse in the 1970s.

View from the social movement and NGO preparatory meeting for UNCED in Sao Paulo

Capobianco from SOS Mata Atlantica

Rubens Born, environmental activist who opened his home for me in Sao Paulo

APEDEMA-SP meeting

APEDEMA-SP newspaper promoter

APEDEMA-SP activist

Visiting the local APEDMA-SP group i Piricicaba and one of the activists testing honey, a former railway worker and bee keeper

Finally going into the forest and the nature we want to protect

Finally going into the water we all want to enjoy

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