By Ilda Martines de Souza and Beverly Bell, Toward Freedom
“We take the land from one hand and put it in the hands of a thousand...landowners would only use this land for cattle, and now we produce beans, milk, food, for the entire population.” – Ilda Martines de Souza, a leader of Brazil’s landless farmer movement.
Long before the Crusades, through centuries of colonization, to the oil-motivated wars of the present day, land has been the currency of religious, imperial, and national power. Farmers have been made landless by economic and political forces within their own countries, as well as those from far reaches of the globe. Spikes in food prices over recent years have triggered the latest wave of international land grabs, with investment firms snapping up agricultural land, hoping to turn a profit for their investors in the next food crisis. An estimated 50 to 80 million hectares of land have been a part of international investment deals in recent years —approximately two-thirds of them in Africa.
Land and development experts Shalmali Guttal, Maria Luisa Mendonça, and Peter Rosset write, “Fair and equitable access to land and other resources like water, forests, and biodiversity is perhaps the most fundamental prerequisite for… a decent standard of living and… ecologically sustainable management of natural resources.” Today, land access remains largely unfair and inequitable. Never has such a high percentage of the world’s population been displaced from their indigenous or ancestral lands, left without land, a secure home, or the ability to feed themselves.
As the consolidation of land as a private resource for profit-making is global, so is the movement to relate to land in an alternative way, one which meets everyone’s needs. Landless, peasant, family, and indigenous farmers worldwide have long been engaged in land reclamation and land reform movements—either seizing unfairly owned or consolidated land or winning laws mandating redistribution. (The same concepts often underlie the struggle for fair housing.) Examples range from Americans fighting foreclosures as a part of "Occupy Our Homes" to Indians lying down in rows to block corporate tractors encroaching on their villages, Haitians still living in tents since the earthquake two years ago marching for their right to housing, and indigenous Hondurans reclaiming their territories in the face of violent repression.
Newer movements have much to learn from groups that have been mobilizing for decades, such as the Movement of Landless Rural Workers (MST by its Portuguese acronym) in Brazil, a country with one of the highest levels of land and income inequality in the world. The MST’s response to poverty, hunger, and landlessness is to put fallow land back into production in the hands of small farmers. It does this by organizing landless, unemployed, and slum-dwelling people to gain legal title to the nation’s vast unused land. Roughly one and a half to two million MST members have created about 2,000 cooperatively-run, democratic communities on tens of thousands of reclaimed acres. On them, they have established their own models of self-government, restorative justice, self-produced media, ecologically sound agriculture, collective production, law, social relations, cultural expression, and education.More...