Cover image for Land, Protest, and Politics: The Landless Movement and the Struggle for Agrarian Reform in Brazil By Gabriel Ondetti

Land, Protest, and Politics

The Landless Movement and the Struggle for Agrarian Reform in Brazil

Gabriel Ondetti


$34.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-03354-9

304 pages
6" × 9"
1 map

Land, Protest, and Politics

The Landless Movement and the Struggle for Agrarian Reform in Brazil

Gabriel Ondetti

“The Brazilian landless workers’ movement has become an iconic social movement of the turn of the century. Land, Protest, and Politics provides an excellent overview of its origins and subsequent development. Gabriel Ondetti brings theoretical rigor to the study of this important movement, making a compelling argument that the movement’s changing political opportunities were most important for shaping its comparative success.”


  • Description
  • Reviews
  • Bio
  • Table of Contents
  • Sample Chapters
  • Subjects
Brazil is a country of extreme inequalities, one of the most important of which is the acute concentration of rural land ownership. In recent decades, however, poor landless workers have mounted a major challenge to this state of affairs. A broad grassroots social movement led by the Movement of Landless Rural Workers (MST) has mobilized hundreds of thousands of families to pressure authorities for land reform through mass protest. This book explores the evolution of the landless movement from its birth during the twilight years of Brazil’s military dictatorship through the first government of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. It uses this case to test a number of major theoretical perspectives on social movements and engages in a critical dialogue with both contemporary political opportunity theory and Mancur Olson’s classic economic theory of collective action.

Ondetti seeks to explain the major moments of change in the landless movement's growth trajectory: its initial emergence in the late 1970s and early 80s, its rapid takeoff in the mid-1990s, its acute but ultimately temporary crisis in the early 2000s, and its resurgence during Lula's first term in office. He finds strong support for the influential, but much-criticized political opportunity perspective. At the same time, however, he underscores some of the problems with how political opportunity has been conceptualized in the past. The book also seeks to shed light on the anomalous fact that the landless movement continued to expand in the decade following the restoration of Brazilian democracy in 1985 despite the general trend toward social-movement decline. His argument, which highlights the unusual structure of incentives involved in the struggle for land in Brazil, casts doubt on a key assumption underlying Olson's theory.

“The Brazilian landless workers’ movement has become an iconic social movement of the turn of the century. Land, Protest, and Politics provides an excellent overview of its origins and subsequent development. Gabriel Ondetti brings theoretical rigor to the study of this important movement, making a compelling argument that the movement’s changing political opportunities were most important for shaping its comparative success.”
“Gabriel Ondetti has written an important book. For those interested in Brazil’s landless movement, this new and persuasive explanation of the rise of the movement combines a focus on the political opportunity structure with subjective and cultural factors left out of much mainstream analysis. For those wanting to learn about Brazil’s agrarian reform, Ondetti provides evidence that the reform was a significant political achievement. His argument about how the landless movement avoided the Olsonian collective action problem will interest anyone curious about social science. Ondetti’s book combines, in a rare fashion, in-depth research at the grassroots level, a rigorous theoretical argument, substantial use of macro-level data, and a comparative Latin American focus. It is the best work on this topic currently available.”
“Ondetti provides the most comprehensive and useful work [on this subject], giving a meticulous chronology, statistical report (through 2006), and a well-written analysis of the ebb and flow of invasion activity since it began in the 1980s.”
“[Land, Protest, and Politics is] the best synthetic analysis of the MST to date. I know it will enhance my lectures on modern Brazilian and Latin American history.”
Land, Protest, and Politics is an excellent piece of scholarship, and I recommend it to scholars and teachers of social movements and Latin American politics. Ondetti has made an enduring contribution that will shape how we understand the MST and the landless movement of Brazil.”

Gabriel Ondetti is Associate Professor of Political Science at Missouri State University in Springfield, Missouri.


List of Tables, Figures, and Maps

List of Abbreviations



1. Theoretical Perspectives

2. Emergence, 1978–1984

3. Growth amid Decline, 1985–1994

4. Takeoff, 1995–1999

5. Decline, 2000–2002

6. Resurgence, 2003–2006


Appendix: Interviews




By the end of the 1980s, agrarian reform seemed all but dead in Brazil. The return to civilian rule in 1985, following two decades of conservative military dictatorship, had widely been seen as an opportunity to finally restructure the country’s rural landholding system, one of the most unequal in the world. But President José Sarney had granted land to only a tiny percentage of the country’s landless and land-poor families. Worse still, the Sarney years had brought a constitutional reform that substantially restricted the conditions under which private farmland could be expropriated, effectively removing many of the country’s larger farms from consideration. In October 1989 Brazilian voters had put what seemed to be the final nail in agrarian reform’s coffin by selecting as their next president Fernando Collor, scion of a wealthy family from one of Brazil’s most conservative states and an avowed champion of state-reducing “neoliberal” reforms.

Predictions of agrarian reform’s final demise proved to be premature, however. About six years after Collor’s electoral triumph, land reform abruptly reemerged as a major national issue, filling the newspapers and television news programs and inspiring one of the most successful telenovelas of recent decades. Land reform policy output also increased rather dramatically. During his first term in office (1995–98), President Fernando Henrique Cardoso implemented easily the largest land redistribution in Brazilian history, expropriating more than five million hectares of private farmland and granting small plots to some 250,000 families, an amount probably more than that of all the previous presidents combined.

At the same time as land reform was exploding as a public issue and a state policy, grassroots protest for land redistribution was expanding at an unprecedented pace in the Brazilian countryside. Land occupations, the major tactic of the movement for land reform, had been growing gradually in number since the early 1990s. In 1996 they multiplied almost threefold and continued to grow gradually in subsequent years. By the late 1990s more than fifty thousand families were said to be gathered in makeshift encampments on occupied land or at the margin of public roads, awaiting settlement by the federal government.

At the center of protest activity was an organization called the Movement of Landless Rural Workers (mst). Created in 1984 in southern Brazil, the mst had expanded gradually across the country during the following decade, becoming an actor of national scope, although one known to relatively few Brazilians. During the second half of the 1990s, with the explosion of protest and media coverage, the mst emerged as a major political force, and it became virtually a household word. For progressive political activists, both in Brazil and abroad, it became a symbol of popular resistance to oppressive social conditions and rejection of the neoliberal program of state retrenchment.

The dramatic resurgence of the agrarian question in Brazil in the second half of the 1990s underscores two important aspects of the dynamics of social movements. One is the ability of a well-organized popular protest movement to keep an issue from disappearing from the national political agenda, despite the best efforts of powerful elites. Through their determination and innovative tactics, the landless managed to keep the flame of land reform alive despite the crushing defeats of the late Sarney years and the indifference and repression of the conservative Collor government. The aggressive pressure they exerted on President Cardoso also forced him to make good on at least some of his promises.

The rise of the agrarian question, however, also underscores another, equally important theme. That is the crucial influence that changes in the broader political context have on the intensity and impact of protest activity. The explosive growth of land occupations and the ascension of the mst to the status of high-profile political actor were products, not only of the movement’s persistence, but also of changes in the larger political environment over which activists had little control. These included a shift in national governing coalitions toward less conservative, more urban-based forces in the early 1990s, and a rapid transformation in the Brazilian public’s perception of the urgency of the rural land problem, brought on mainly by two acts of shocking violence against land reform protestors in the Amazon basin in the middle of the decade.

In this book I trace the evolution of the Brazilian landless movement from its birth during the twilight of the military dictatorship in the late 1970s through the first Workers’ Party (pt) government, which ended in December 2006. Like other discussions of the landless movement, this one illustrates the first of the two themes mentioned above: how the mst and other landless groups have used mass protest as a political resource to sustain pressure on Brazilian authorities to implement land reform. Much more than other analyses, however, it also gets at the second theme: how the landless movement’s development has itself been shaped in fundamental ways by the larger national political environment. Far from being static, as I demonstrate, this environment has changed repeatedly over the course of the movement’s history, sometimes constraining and other times facilitating its growth. By underscoring the two-way interaction between the landless movement and its broader political environment, I seek to provide a richer and more accurate account of the forces shaping its development.

The book fills an important gap in the academic literature. As one of the most important grassroots social movements in the less developed world, the landless movement has attracted a great deal of attention, both within Brazil and abroad. Yet there are few studies of the movement in English. Their other merits notwithstanding, the two book-length treatments that do exist (Branford and Rocha 2002; Wright and Wolford 2003) do not explicitly relate the movement’s development to the rich body of theory about social movements that has developed during recent decades. By applying theory to this case, I hope both to strengthen our understanding of an important contemporary movement and to contribute to our broader theoretical comprehension of the dynamics of social protest.

The main empirical focus of this study is on explaining the major moments of change in the movement’s growth trajectory: its initial emergence in the late 1970s and early 1980s, its explosive expansion in the mid-1990s (described briefly above), its sharp crisis in the early 2000s, and its resurgence beginning in 2003. In addition, I try to account for the anomalous fact that the landless movement continued to grow during the decade following the end of the military regime in the mid-1980s, while virtually every other major social movement that emerged during the democratic transition declined.

From a theoretical angle, I seek primarily to contribute to the ongoing debate regarding the “political opportunity” perspective on social movements. The central idea of this vein of theorizing is that movements rise and (at least in some versions) fall as a result of shifts in the vulnerability or receptivity of the larger political system, over which activists have little or no influence (McAdam 1982; Tarrow 1994). This notion has had a strong impact on movement scholarship during the past two decades. However, it has come under increasing fire in recent years. Critics have questioned the empirical validity of political opportunity theory. Social movements, they argue, often rise in the absence of expanding opportunities and collapse even when the prospects for successful protest seem bright (Kurzman 1996; Goodwin and Jasper 1999). The critics have also attacked this perspective on conceptual grounds, citing the diverse ways the “political opportunity structure” has been defined or operationalized, the theory’s inattention to subjective or cultural processes, and the tendency to neglect or underestimate how movements shape their political contexts through their own actions (Goodwin and Jasper 2004; Hobson 2003).

This debate has injected a healthy dose of conflict and pluralism into social movement theory. What is still missing are rigorous empirical tests of the political opportunity thesis. Several scholars have sought to demonstrate its effectiveness in explaining the evolution of particular movements (Meyer 1990; Costain 1992; Smith 1996). Yet few have actually pitted it against competing explanations in a systematic fashion (Meyer 2004). In this study I undertake such a test. Moreover, I seek to address some of the conceptual objections that critics of the political opportunity perspective have raised by setting out a definition of the political opportunity structure that is both unambiguous and narrow enough to make the theory readily falsifiable.

The landless movement lends itself well to the task of testing political opportunity theory. In almost three decades of existence, it has experienced major fluctuations in intensity of protest and important changes in its economic, social, and political context, providing variance on both the dependent and independent variables. In addition, existing analyses (Fernandes 1996, 2000; Veltmeyer and Petras 2002; Wright and Wolford 2003) would seem to position this movement as a challenging case for political opportunity theory to explain. The central emphasis of these works is on how the skill and determination of activists has allowed it to survive and achieve success in the face of a hostile political system. The idea that the Brazilian state has at some times and in some ways facilitated the movement’s growth is, at most, downplayed.

In emphasizing the role of variation in the political vulnerability of the state in shaping the landless movement’s development, this book generally strikes a strong blow in favor of political opportunity theory. I confirm the critical importance of changes in the broader political environment in explaining the growth and decline of movements over time. I also show that political opportunity structure can be an influential factor in determining why movements that arise in the same broad wave of protest activity subsequently experience different growth trajectories.

At the same time, I do not offer an unmitigated endorsement of this theoretical perspective. In particular, my empirical analysis provides support for suggestions put forward by the critics of political opportunity theory, including the need to recognize how subjective or cultural factors not stressed by mainstream analyses can influence the political opportunity structure for protest, and the need to focus more attention on the idea that movements can shape their own political opportunity structures.

In addition to contributing to the current debate on the political opportunity perspective, this book also speaks to the long-standing controversy surrounding economist Mancur Olson’s (1965) theory of collective action and its relevance for social movements. Movement scholars have often disagreed with Olson’s emphasis on the role of material “selective” incentives for promoting collective action. However, they have at least implicitly accepted his assumption that movements inherently pursue public or collective goods—ones that cannot be feasibly denied to individuals who do not contribute to their provision—and must therefore somehow overcome what he called the “free-rider” problem. Based on my analysis of the landless movement, I argue that this assumption is unwarranted.

Research Design and Data Sources

This is a book about a social movement. By that I mean a collective effort to pressure relevant authorities for a desired change through the use of protest (or “social protest”). The latter consists of tactics that are both highly public and are not explicitly legitimated by existing political institutions. Thus, for example, marches, demonstrations, sit-ins, road blockages, and land occupations are forms of protest, but voting, lobbying legislators, making campaign contributions, and writing letters to public officials are not. Nonprotest actions have played a significant role in forwarding the cause of land reform in Brazil in recent decades. For the most part, however, in this book I will discuss such actions only to the extent that they have influenced the intensity of protest activity.

The empirical focus of this book is somewhat broader than that of most studies of protest for agrarian reform in contemporary Brazil. Existing works generally focus exclusively on the mst, which is easily the most important, but by no means the only, group active in this struggle. The topic of my study, in contrast, is the totality of attempts to pressure authorities for land reform and supporting policies (for example, credit, housing) through protest since the revival of social movement activity in Brazil in the late 1970s. This is what I refer to as the landless movement.

I set out to explore here two fundamental issues regarding the movement’s development. One is variation in the intensity of mobilization and protest over time. More specifically, how can we explain the four major changes in the movement’s strength, namely, its initial emergence as a significant actor during the democratic transition of the late 1970s and early 1980s; its rapid takeoff under the Cardoso government in the middle of the 1990s; its abrupt, but ultimately temporary, decline during Cardoso’s second term in office; and its strong resurgence under the pt government headed by legendary former union activist Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva?

The second issue has to do with the landless movement’s exceptional trajectory relative to other social movements that arose during the democratic transition period. Why did this movement continue to grow following the resumption of civilian rule in 1985, while virtually every other major movement was fading? Since the first issue can be broken down into four specific questions (one for each episode of change), I deal mainly with five empirical research questions. I use a broad theoretical framework that synthesizes the existing literature on social movements to guide and discipline my investigation of these questions. For each, I evaluate the plausibility of an answer oriented by each of what I see as the four basic theoretical perspectives on social movements. Which of these perspectives, I ask, provides the most convincing answer to the question at hand?

The data on which the book is based were gathered mainly during two extended periods of field research in the late 1990s and 2000. I made two additional research trips in the summers of 2003 and 2005. All told, I spent about two and a half years conducting research on the landless movement in Brazil. My fieldwork was conducted mainly in four states: Alagoas, Pará, Rio Grande do Sul, and São Paulo. In selecting these states, I sought to capture as much of Brazil’s regional diversity (discussed further below) as possible, especially with regard to the rural sector. Rio Grande do Sul represents the relatively equitable, family-farming economy of southern Brazil; Pará the changing frontier economy of the Amazon region; São Paulo the highly modernized commercial farming of the industrialized Southeast; and Alagoas the typical northeastern blend of labor-intensive plantation agricultural subsistence farming and extensive cattle-ranching. I also conducted a smaller but significant amount of research in two other northeastern states, Pernambuco and Paraíba. Finally, I did about three weeks of research in the national capital, Brasília.

Much of my fieldwork involved formal interviews. I interviewed 128 activists directly engaged in organizing the grassroots struggle for agrarian reform. Most, but not all, of them were linked to the mst. I conducted an additional 60 interviews with people involved in the struggle over land reform in some other way. These included state and national legislators, leaders of a wide variety of nongovernmental organizations, and officials in the federal agrarian reform bureaucracy. Unlike many students of the landless movement, I spoke to those opposed to, as well as those in favor of, agrarian reform. My interviews included twelve with representatives of landowner organizations and five with legislators known for their opposition to land reform.

My research also benefited from numerous informal conversations with movement leaders and months of participant observation in the landless movement’s camps, settlements, and offices. I ate and drank with activists, slept in their homes and tents, rode in their cars and on the backs of their motorcycles, and got to know their spouses and children. This gave me a privileged view of the movement’s internal workings.

I also tapped a variety of other primary sources of information, including media coverage and documents published by the mst, state and federal governments, nongovernmental organizations, labor unions, and political parties. Finally, I was aided by the existence of a large number of published and unpublished studies of the landless movement by Brazilian authors. These works gave me insight into specific aspects of the movement and helped to extend the geographic scope of my knowledge of the movement beyond the states in which I was able to conduct field research.

Theoretical Perspectives on Social Movements

What tools does the literature on social movements offer to analyze the landless movement’s development? I address this question more systematically in the following chapter, drawing on examples from the literature on rural movements to illustrate my discussion. Here, for the purposes of laying out the key arguments of the book, I briefly outline what I see as the four major theoretical perspectives on social movements, each of which focuses on a particular variable, broadly defined. These are discontent/grievance, organizational capacity, activist strategy and political opportunity.

The discontent/grievance perspective includes a broad variety of theoretical approaches, all of which see movement activity as a more or less direct reflection of the felt needs of the people involved in protest. Discontent can arise from a variety of sources, including socioeconomic changes and political dislocations. It may result from absolute declines in welfare or from conditions that make people feel that they are worse off than they should, or deserve to, be. It may also result from a reorientation of priorities, which causes people to be concerned about issues they once ignored. Discontent, or grievance-based, theories have focused mainly on explaining why movements initially emerge, but the logic behind them can be applied to other questions as well. I include in this category Marxist approaches to social protest, post–World War II “collective behavior” theories, and contemporary European “new social movements” theory.

In contrast to the discontent/grievance perspective, the organizational capacity perspective focuses, not on needs, but on the capacity of social groups or communities to organize and sustain mass protest. A major concern of this approach to social movements are the grassroots organizational structures that exist prior to or independent of social movement activity. Researchers working within this perspective tend to see the density of such “indigenous” organizational structures, including churches, clubs, labor unions, and friendship networks, as the key determinant of a community or social group’s capacity to organize a social movement. These networks provide a number of resources, including leadership, communications, normative incentives, and a reduction of the uncertainty that can undermine the potential for collective action. Although it focuses mainly on indigenous organizational structures, the organizational capacity perspective also looks at the human and material resources made available by external actors and how they affect the possibilities for creating and sustaining social movements.

Social movements are sometimes influenced by structural and contextual forces that are largely beyond the power of activists to control. But the literature that comprises what I call the “activist strategy” perspective shows that movement development is also affected by the particular strategic choices made by movement activists. Especially since the 1970s, movement researchers have examined how the decisions taken by top movement activists shape the fate of the movements they lead. In particular, they have highlighted four key types of decisions, regarding (1) the structure of the organizations they create or adapt to coordinate their struggles; (2) the tactics they use to pressure authorities; (3) the basic goals they adopt; and (4) the rhetorical/symbolic “framing” strategies they employ to appeal to actual or potential supporters, the media, and the state. Although some scholars place these different types of decisions in separate theoretical categories, I treat them together because they all pertain to the question of how the choices made by movement activists matter.

Finally, the political opportunity perspective sees variation in the intensity of protest activity as a function of the degree of political vulnerability or receptivity of authorities to pressure for change. Although some researchers have applied political opportunity to explain variations in protest between polities, work in this perspective has concentrated mainly on explaining change over time. Political opportunity theorists have seen the rise and decline of social movements and broader “cycles” of protest as largely a reflection of the opening and closing of the “political opportunity structure.” In outlining the relevant aspects of that structure, researchers working in this vein have tended to emphasize institutional structures and alliance patterns, focusing on shifts such as regime transitions and partisan realignments. These are shifts that are, for most part, beyond the capacity of activists to influence, at least in the short term.

These four basic perspectives constitute the theoretical framework that will guide my analysis of the landless movement’s development. I will use this empirical case, in turn, to assess the explanatory power of each perspective. Later in this introduction I provide an overview of my major findings. Below, I lay the necessary empirical groundwork for that discussion by talking about the issue of rural land inequality in Brazil and the evolution of struggles for agrarian reform. I begin with a synthetic historical analysis of the issue of rural land inequality and what should be done about it—what Brazilians refer to as the “agrarian question”—before the rise of the landless movement. Then I discuss the landless movement’s trajectory in somewhat greater detail.

The Agrarian Question and Struggles for Land Before the Landless Movement

Brazil inherited from the colonial era an extremely unequal structure of rural landholding, in which a relatively small number of wealthy landowners controlled much of the good, accessible farmland (Guimarães 1981). Upon arriving in what is now Brazil at the beginning of the sixteenth century, the Portuguese established an economic system dominated by vast sugarcane plantations, initially based in the coastal areas of the Northeast. Much of the population, including the millions of slaves brought forcibly from Africa, remained landless. The small farms that existed were relegated to land that was poor or located in remote areas. As colonial society expanded, this basic structure was reproduced in new regions. The indigenous groups that inhabited the areas taken over by the colonists were either subjugated or driven progressively farther into the interior.

Independence from Portugal in 1822 did little to change this landholding system, since agricultural elites retained or even increased their influence in politics. In fact, the Land Law of 1850 was meant to limit popular access to land on the frontier and thus ensure a plentiful supply of cheap plantation labor (Silva 1996). The abolition of slavery in 1888 also failed to affect the landholding structure, since the freed slaves were not granted land. The only significant exception to the rule of extreme land concentration was Brazil’s South. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, authorities sought to stimulate European migration to this region, mainly for the purpose of defending the country’s southern frontier, leading to the establishment of a substantial class of solid smallholders in the states of Rio Grande do Sul, Santa Catarina, and Paraná. These colonos, or “colonists,” as they were called, were mainly of Italian, German, and Polish origin.

By the late nineteenth century, the sugar elite had been displaced by the coffee planters of São Paulo as Brazil’s dominant social group. In 1930, however, the paulista coffee “barons” were defeated in a political confrontation with an alliance of army officers and regional elites, led by Getúlio Vargas. Under Vargas, who ruled as the elected or de facto president until 1945, the political system became more centralized and industrialization and urbanization accelerated (Skidmore 1967). Although no leftist, Vargas sought to incorporate the urban working class into his coalition through labor reform. These changes reduced the economic and political weight of agricultural elites. The latter, however, were by no means vanquished. Symptomatic of their continued influence was the fact that Vargas’s labor reforms excluded rural workers.

The fall of Vargas’s dictatorial Estado Novo (New State) in 1945 led to the establishment of a limited democracy. Although the new parties sought to mobilize workers, appeals to class were initially relatively muted (Weffort 1980). Policies that would undermine landowner power in the countryside did not enter the political agenda. The 1946 Constitution held that land had to be used in a manner that promoted social well-being and could be expropriated from private owners if it did not (Welch 1999, 244–46). The principle that farmland has an inherent “social function” was probably borrowed from the Mexican Constitution of 1917 and reflected the conviction of some intellectuals that the acute maldistribution of farmland created obstacles to Brazil’s economic and political modernization. Yet it remained little more than words on a page.

Agrarian reform would emerge as a major political issue for the first time in the 1960s. Grassroots protest for land reform played a major role. In the late 1950s a movement called the Peasant Leagues arose among poor tenant farmers in the sugarcane zone of the northeastern state of Pernambuco. By the early 1960s the movement had spread to a number of others states and attained national prominence. The leagues demanded a “radical” agrarian reform and vowed to make it a reality “by law or by force” (Azevêdo 1982; Bastos 1984). Protest for land also arose in other regions. Most prominent was a movement that emerged in Rio Grande do Sul, at the southern tip of Brazil. Centered on an organization called the Movement of Landless Farmers (master), it was supported by populist governor Leonel Brizola and had a heterogeneous social base (Eckert 1984). By 1964, however, these groups were being overtaken by a union movement led by two rival organizations, the Brazilian Communist Party and the Catholic Church, that also supported agrarian reform but were more concerned with incremental changes (Pereira 1997).

Elite politics combined with social movement activity to put land reform on the national political agenda. In 1961 the unexpected resignation of conservative president Jânio Quadros brought a left-leaning populist and Vargas protégé, João Goulart, to the presidency. In a context of increasing popular mobilization, ideological polarization, and economic crisis, Goulart sought to break the political deadlock by pressing for major social and political reforms, especially agrarian reform. His drive to extend the right to unionize to rural workers was successful, resulting in the Rural Worker Statute of 1963. However, his push for agrarian reform was blocked by Congress. Goulart’s subsequent attempts to intimidate or go around the legislature only served to accelerate the mobilization of conservatives against him, culminating in a military coup d’état, initiated on March 31, 1964.

The coup would have major consequence for the rural sector. With few exceptions, progressive activism in the countryside was quickly crushed. Instead of redistributing land, the new authorities aggressively promoted the technical modernization of agriculture and the growth of commercial crop production. This emphasis tended to erode popular land access in the core agricultural regions. The military governments also accelerated the demographic and economic penetration of remote areas of the country, especially in the Amazon basin, that had previously been populated mainly by indigenous peoples.

Although it did not engage in significant agrarian reform, the military regime did bring about an important change in the legal framework concerning this policy. Rather surprisingly, the idea of redistributing private farmland was embraced by General Humberto Castello Branco, the regime’s early leader (Cehelsky 1979). His sponsorship led to the approval of the Land Statute, a law that could potentially provide the basis for an extensive program of land redistribution. In particular, it allowed the state to compensate expropriated landowners with twenty-year bonds, rather than cash, a change Goulart had sought in vain. Elite resistance proved too great and agrarian reform did not go forward. However, the Land Statute’s acknowledgment of the need for land redistribution would eventually—once the political context permitted open dissent—provide activists with a justification for pressuring the state to implement agrarian reform. In addition, the law provided important legal instruments that could make this policy viable, given a political will to carry it out.

Trajectory of the Landless Movement, 1978–2006

Organized protest for land reform was rare during the first fifteen years of the military regime. At the tail end of the 1970s, however, land occupations and other forms of protest began to intensify. These actions were part of larger wave of social protest that occurred amid mounting indications that the military regime was loosening its repressive grip on society. The movement emerged in various regions, intensifying and diffusing geographically during the early 1980s. It took on its most massive and organized expression in the smallholder-dominated areas of southern Brazil, reviving the social identity of the sem terra, or landless rural worker, created by the master. Over time, this term would come to be applied to all rural workers with little or no land of their own who struggle for land redistribution through protest.

During the 1970s, a powerful progressive movement had emerged within the Brazilian Catholic Church, pushing the historically conservative church to the left. Catholic clergy and lay activists inspired by liberation theology played a critical role in the landless movement, providing leadership, ideological support and access to material resources. Protest tactics, pressure from the church, and the intensification of land-related violence in frontier areas all helped to push agrarian reform tentatively back to the political front burner in the early 1980s though policy initiatives in this area were quite timid. Catholic activists played an instrumental role in the creation, in 1984, of the mst. Although intended to lead the struggle for land at the national level, this loose organizational network was initially based mainly in the South.

Agrarian reform reemerged as a key national issue in 1985, when new civilian president, José Sarney, announced a major land redistribution program. The announcement helped accelerate the pace of landless protest, but also provoked a massive landlord counteroffensive, which crushed the program. Protest for land continued to grow gradually during the late 1980s and was increasingly dominated by the mst. Building on the movement’s earlier experiences in the South, the mst made the massive, highly organized land occupation its core tactic. When expelled from an occupied property, mst families would set up their shanties at the side of a road or other public place, waiting to be settled by federal or state authorities or to mount a new occupation.

Protest for land reform stagnated somewhat under the following president, conservative Fernando Collor, but accelerated moderately in 1993 and 1994, after Collor was removed from office on corruption charges. By the end of 1994, although the landless movement was still not well known to the national public, protest for land reform had arguably reached levels not seen since the 1960s. The mst had expanded far beyond the South and become a truly national organization, with a centralized leadership structure, a large corps of activists, and a strong collective identity. Despite the slow pace of land reform, tens of thousands of mst “campers” had gained land. Although it still had strong ties to the church and other progressive entities, the mst was an independent organization. In fact, its fierce defense of its autonomy often created friction with other leftist groups.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the landless movement’s development during the 1985–94 period was the fact that protest persisted, and even intensified, despite a general trend toward movement decline. The broad wave of social protest that had emerged in Brazil as the military regime decayed had already begun to decline by the time Sarney came to power. Collor’s 1989 electoral victory brought a definitive end to it. Popular quiescence was interrupted only briefly, in August 1992, by large demonstrations for Collor’s impeachment in some cities. The landless movement was the only major democratic transition–era social movement to clearly buck this general trend.

After growing gradually during the preceding years, in late 1995 and 1996 land occupations intensified dramatically. The state of São Paulo was the key area in late 1995, but in 1996 occupations multiplied in every major region of the country. Occupation activity continued to grow at a slower pace through 1999. Although the movement was truly a national phenomenon, during the second half of the 1990s, the coastal sugarcane areas of the poor Northeast and parts of the Center-West experienced particularly intense activity. The magnitude of the movement’s growth is suggested by the fact that the number of land occupations in 1999 was close to five times the 1994 total.

The landless movement’s takeoff began not long after Fernando Henrique Cardoso, a well-known intellectual and leader of a centrist political party, donned the presidential sash. Cardoso had won the election mainly on the strength of his success in controlling inflation as finance minister under interim president Itamar Franco. Although known as a progressive thinker, Cardoso had not made land reform a major element of his campaign, and the strong presence of conservative forces in his coalition seemed to bode ill for this policy. Nevertheless, as I mentioned at the beginning of the introduction, during his first term in office (1995–98) the agrarian question once again became a crucial national issue. Media coverage and public debate on this question intensified enormously, and Cardoso implemented undoubtedly the largest land redistribution program in Brazilian history, although the actual magnitude of the program was the subject of heated debate between leftist forces and the government.

As protest for land grew, the mst’s share of total occupations diminished. Nevertheless, this organization continued to be easily the most visible actor within the movement, in part because the mst, in its quest to find more effective ways to pressure authorities, increasingly made use of high-profile alternative tactics. Although its tactical repertoire had never been limited to land occupations, during the late 1990s the mst increasingly resorted to marches, occupations of government offices and highway toll plazas, and even looting. Effective in provoking media coverage and harassing authorities, some of these tactics were at the same time quite controversial and met with widespread public disapproval.

By the end of the 1990s, the landless movement had undoubtedly become the largest rural movement in Brazilian history. At least fifty thousand landless families—perhaps two hundred thousand people—were actively engaged in the struggle. Cardoso’s second term (1999–2002), however, would bring hard times. In 2000 land occupations dipped sharply in number. The decline continued the following year, bringing occupation activity in the Brazilian countryside back down to a level comparable to that of 1995. Although other types of protest activity seem to have at least maintained the intensity of earlier years, the decline of occupations was a major blow, and activists began to ask how much longer the movement would last. Mobilization failed to revive in 2002, but activists were heartened by the success of the leftist pt—traditionally a staunch defender of land reform and one of the mst’s key allies—in the October national elections. Lula captured the presidency, becoming the first leftist and the first person of humble, lower-class origins ever elected to that office.

The movement’s crisis proved to be only temporary. In 2003, Lula’s first year as president, protest for land experienced a strong resurgence nationwide. Land occupations more than doubled in number relative to the previous year and other tactics seem to have intensified as well. Landless camps grew in size and number. Mobilization and protest for land reform continued to grow in 2004, leveling off in 2005. By 2006, some 150,000 families were said to be gathered in the movement’s land occupations and roadside encampments. Although Lula’s first term brought an intensification of protest for land reform, actual policy results were modest, leaving activist groups disappointed. The mst promised to continue pressuring Lula for greater progress in land redistribution during the pt president’s second term, beginning in 2007.

Major Findings

As mentioned above, in this book I ask what the case of the landless movement suggests about the causes of two basic types of variance: temporal variance in the intensity of protest activity within a given movement, and variance in the growth trajectories of different movements that emerge during the same cycle of protest. With regard to the first, the findings clearly support political opportunity. All four episodes of change in movement intensity examined in this study—the movement’s initial emergence near the end of the military regime, its takeoff in the early Cardoso years, its decline during Cardoso’s second term, and its resurgence under Lula—were caused largely by political shifts that affected the receptivity or vulnerability of authorities to press for land distribution and, as a consequence, activists’ expectations about the probable outcome of protest.

The national political context of democratic opening, which diminished the threat of repression and increased the possibility that authorities would respond positively to grassroots pressure for land redistribution, was a central factor behind the movement’s rise in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Similarly, in the mid-1990s, land occupations and other forms of protest accelerated when it became clear that the Cardoso government would be more responsive to grassroots pressure for land reform than were past governments. Land occupations declined in 2000–2002 because, after years of tolerating or even implicitly encouraging these actions, Cardoso reversed course, taking pains to make clear that occupations would no longer be rewarded with concessions. Finally, the revival of landless protest beginning in 2003 resulted from the rise of the center-left pt government and, especially, its decision to ignore the anti–land occupation measures adopted during Cardoso’s second term if office.

Factors rooted in each of the other three theoretical perspectives also played a role in one or more of these episodes of rapid change. Rising grievances were critical in the initial appearance of the movement and played a significant part in its expansion in the mid-1990s. Increasing organizational capacity also contributed to the movement’s emergence. Changes in activist strategy, finally, were an important factor in the movement’s temporary decline in the early 2000s. Overall, though, political opportunity is clearly the most effective perspective for explaining the landless movement’s ups and downs.

Thus, my findings lend further support to the political opportunity perspective’s claims to superiority in explaining social movement development over time. Nevertheless, they also contribute important qualifications, which support elements of the contemporary critique of this theoretical model. First, they suggest a need to pay more attention to the subjective aspects of the political context. As I noted earlier, political opportunity theory has focused largely on the impact of relatively concrete institutional, alliance, or electoral shifts in producing or closing down opportunities for protest. My analysis of the landless movement’s takeoff in the second half of the 1990s, however, shows that the political opportunity structure for protest can also be shaped by particularly jarring or noteworthy events that affect the beliefs or priorities of the general public and civil society.

With the fall of President Collor in 1992, Brazil came to be governed by party coalitions with a stronger base in the moderate urban middle class of the Southeast and South. Although this shift created a more favorable political context for the landless movement, these coalitions also had a strong conservative component closely tied to rural landowners. Not surprisingly, the Cardoso government initially emitted very ambivalent signals about land reform. What tipped the political scales in favor of increased land distribution was the impact of two particularly large and visible police massacres of land occupiers that occurred in the Amazon region in late 1995 and 1996. Because they shocked public opinion and the media and galvanized progressive groups, these incidents forced the government to show that it was serious about land reform. They also made it riskier for state-level authorities, who control police forces, to repress the movement. These changes, in turn, provoked a major upsurge of landless protest.

Second, my findings underscore that, beyond the emergence phase, the political opportunity context for protest is not altogether independent of a movement’s own actions. While political opportunity theory has sometimes paid lip service to this notion, it has not really explored it in any depth or with much rigor. This idea is illustrated by two episodes analyzed in this book. One is the landless movement’s takeoff in the mid-1990s. As noted earlier, the structure of political opportunities facing the movement underwent a crucial expansion as a result of the two big massacres of the mid-1990s, which took place in the Amazon municípios of Corumbiara and Eldorado do Carajás. Landless activists could not have foreseen and certainly did not actively seek to provoke these incidents, which together took more than thirty lives. Nevertheless, these events were partly a product of the threat the movement’s aggressive protest tactics seemed to pose to the interests of landowning elites and their allies within the state.

The decline of protest for land reform in the early 2000s also illustrates how movements can shape their own political opportunity structures. As discussed, the abrupt drop-off in land occupations was a product of the declining receptivity of authorities to these actions. Nonetheless, Cardoso’s decision to crack down was itself partly a response to the increasing aggressiveness and disruptiveness of mst protest actions, beginning in the late 1990s. These both embarrassed the government and, because they were quite controversial, made it politically easier to take a hard line. Although the mst’s options were quite limited, a different strategic tack, one more attentive to the conditional nature of public support for the movement, might well have avoided the crackdown.

The second issue dealt with in this book is why individual movements that arise as part of the same cycle of protest subsequently experience different growth trajectories. More specifically, how can we explain the landless movement’s striking failure to follow the general trend toward the decline of social protest in Brazil after 1985? The activist strategy perspective provides part of the explanation, I argue. In particular, the decision by movement activists to prioritize the land occupation as a pressure tactic played a critical role in its continued growth. This is the case because the way in which authorities responded to these actions, by granting concessions only to those people actually involved in them, greatly reduced what Olson (1965) called the free-rider problem in collective action and thus made the movement less dependent on the normative or idealistic incentives on which social movements usually rely to overcome this problem. As a result, this movement was less vulnerable than other social movements to the decline of such incentives for protest activity that occurred following the end of Brazil’s military dictatorship.

The mst played a particularly important role in diffusing this tactic nationally. Its creative use of land occupations and the resulting roadside camps were also critical to the movement’s survival and expansion. In particular, mst leaders employed the camping process as a space for ideological indoctrination and identity formation, leading some campers to eventually become full-time activists and many others to continue to contribute time and money to the movement even after gaining land.

Nonetheless, the movement’s exceptionalism was not simply a product of superior strategy. The possibility of using the occupation as a pressure tactic was simply not open to other social movements to the same extent. Some goods Brazilian movements sought, such as the protection of women’s rights or greater freedom in labor union organizing, were simply physically impossible to occupy. However, others potentially could have been occupied. What set the farmland apart was its unique constitutional status, as the only type of private property that can be subject to expropriation on the basis of the social efficiency of its use. This difference made authorities politically vulnerable to the land occupation strategy. Hence, my account of the landless movement’s exceptional trajectory also provides support for the political opportunity perspective.

A Note on Brazil’s Regions

It would be useful before proceeding to say something more about Brazil’s geographical regions, since I will refer to them repeatedly during the course of the book. Brazil is a vast country with great regional diversity. Official terminology divides the national territory into five major regions: Center-West, North, Northeast, South, and Southeast (see the map at the beginning of the book). Each has fairly distinct characteristics. The Southeast is the most industrialized and urbanized region. It is dominated by the state of São Paulo, Brazil’s wealthiest and most populous. The South has traditionally been the second-most-developed region. Although not as industrialized as the Southeast, its solid smallholder heritage makes it the least socially polarized region. Both these regions are characterized by relatively modern, highly capitalized agricultural sectors.

The other three regions have traditionally been much less developed and urbanized. The Northeast is poor and highly unequal. Its coastal areas boast a substantial commercial agricultural sector, dominated by sugarcane, but this sector has generally been characterized by relatively low technology. The North, which contains most of the Amazon River basin, and the Center-West were historically sparsely populated and economically backward frontier regions, dominated by subsistence farming and crude extractive activities. The advance of commercial agriculture and mining in the past few decades has changed parts of these two regions dramatically. Today, the Center-West has a farm sector that rivals those of the South and Southeast in its technological development and emphasis on export-oriented monocrop production.

In political terms, the less developed regions of Brazil have tended to be more conservative. The Northeast, in particular, is known for providing the electoral base for the country’s major conservative parties. During the period discussed in this book, however, signs of change began to appear. In particular, the pt made major headway in some of the less developed states.

Chapter Layout

In the first chapter I flesh out the study’s theoretical framework, laying out the four major perspectives in greater detail and discussing how each has been, or potentially could be, applied to explain the basic issues addressed in this book. As part of this discussion I evaluate some of the conceptual criticisms that have been leveled in recent years against political opportunity theory. I also provide some examples of how these general perspectives have been employed in studies of rural social movements. Also addressed in this chapter is the long-standing debate about Olson’s theory of collective action and its relevance for social movement activity.

The five chapters that follow trace the landless movement’s development between 1978 and 2006. The focus of each is on solving a specific question regarding the movement’s growth trajectory. In each chapter I try to provide enough information about its internal organizational processes, tactical initiatives, and external socioeconomic and political environment to rigorously evaluate the competing theoretical perspectives.

In Chapter 2, I analyze the landless movement’s emergence, between 1978 and 1984. Why, I ask, did a substantial social movement for land reform arise after years of conservative quiescence in the countryside? The discussion in Chapter 3 is of the movement’s evolution between 1985 and 1994 and why it persisted, and even grew, despite the general trend toward movement decline in Brazil. Since the mst gelled as an organization during this period, this chapter includes a close analysis of its internal development.

In Chapter 4, I explain the rapid “takeoff” of landless protest during the second half of the 1990s, which transformed the landless movement into easily the most important grassroots social movement in contemporary Brazil. In doing so, I also shed light on the causes of two other important changes related to the agrarian question that occurred during this period: public and media attention to this issue intensified greatly and the Brazilian state’s agrarian reform efforts reached unprecedented levels. In Chapter 5, I discuss the 2000–2002 period, when land occupations, traditionally the landless movement’s core tactic, declined sharply, calling into question the movement’s future. Finally, I analyze in Chapter 6 the movement’s resurgence between 2003 and 2006, under the first pt government. Although the movement grew under Lula, the rise to power of a historical ally has presented the mst and other agrarian reform activist groups with new strategic challenges, which I discuss in this chapter.

In the book’s conclusion, I take on three tasks. First, I briefly summarize the major findings of the preceding chapters. Second, I discuss some of the broader implications of these findings for social movement theory. In particular, I touch on what the results mean for the utility of political opportunity theory as a tool for explaining movement growth and decline, as well as on the validity of the notion that the free-rider problem may not always be relevant to social movement activity. Third, I shift gears a bit and talk about agrarian reform as public policy and a tool for socioeconomic change. I try to answer a number of questions: How much agrarian reform has been accomplished in Brazil since the landless movement’s rise? What have been the results of this effort in terms of the welfare of settler families? Finally, what can we realistically expect agrarian reform to contribute to Brazilian society in the foreseeable future?

Mailing List

Subscribe to our mailing list and be notified about new titles, journals and catalogs.