‘Without land reform, there is no democracy’

Judite Stronzake, a member of the National Coordination of the Landless Workers’ Movement (MST) of Brazil, gave the closing address at the Latin American Conference on Democracy and Dictatorship at Cornell University on September 28, 2013. The following is a translation of her address.


Good afternoon to the conference organizers, students, teachers, researchers and social activists.

On behalf of the MST and La Vía Campesina, it is an honor to have the space to be able to share our current experiences on such a profound and complex topic for the peoples and social movements of Latin America and the Caribbean. Thank you very much for the invitation.

In these last years, in the last twenty years in particular, in our countries and in Brazil, what we’ve had is a representative democracy. Every four years we have the opportunity to participate with our vote. After 21 years of dictatorship in Brazil, from 1964 to 1985, the working class and the organizations achieved a democratic opening.

So having a democratic and representative regime with legislative, judiciary, and executive powers with institutions, rules and the existence of a constituent assembly is very important for the democratic process. But we must understand that it is insufficient. We vote but there are not mechanisms in place for a more direct and participatory democracy.

So the democracy that we have is insufficient from the point of view of social participation. It is necessary to have a political system where the people are sovereign, opening paths to heed popular demands and aspirations such as free, quality education; quality public transportation; land, urban and tax reforms; renationalization of privatized companies; and free, quality healthcare.

In our democracy, we have a constitution. When the military dictatorship was overthrown in 1985, the mass movement put the need for new institutions in Brazil on the agenda. Despite the advances in social rights, some which only stay on paper, the Constitution of 1988 preserved many institutions created and strengthened by the military regime. For example, militarized police and the agrarian structure. In spite of this, there is a very important article, Article 184, which states that all land must fulfill its social function. The land that does not comply must be expropriated and distributed among landless peasants or preserved in indigenous territories. It is democratization of access to land.

In addition to this, all of the land that employs slave labor or that’s linked to drug trafficking has to be expropriated by the government and also distributed to landless peasants.

So from the point of view of our current democracy, we’ve advanced. But, at the same time my country is the world champion in concentration of land. In Brazil, one percent of the population owns 46 percent of the land.

The democracy that we have now is important. But we have to create mechanisms so that society can also intervene on a constitutional basis with its organizations and movements. We must also create new mechanisms for society to be able to say what they want and what they don’t want for the present and the future of the country.

A concrete fact is that there must be a model of direct democracy so our people can decide whether or not they want to consume seven liters of toxic chemicals each year.

Nobody consulted us about whether we want to swallow seven liters of chemicals in our water and food every year. We’re obligated to consume this. So, what degree of democracy do we have? We’re obligated to consume agrotoxins and genetically modified food every day, junk food that only causes sicknesses and cancer, which has no remedy.

Therefore, the questions we have to ask today are: Democracy for what? Democracy for whom? Democracy for which social groups? And what type of democracy do we want?

Brazil ended its dictatorship 21 years ago. Today we’re the sixth largest economy in the world. But we rank 85 on the index of human social development.

From an economic point of view, Brazil is doing well. But from the point of view of human development, our country is in the same condition as many of the most underdeveloped nations in the world.

This causes us to think that there is a new dictatorship that operates through the international institutions of our bourgeois state. Why do we think this? We read the international agreements.

With the global crisis of international finance capital there has been a search for wealth in natural sources. The land, water, biodiversity and minerals. All of this is backed by international agreements between large companies, institutions, governments and states.

The peasant and indigenous communities are most affected by this model of production on an international level. So we say that this is the new type of dictatorship that we currently have.

There has been a new unity in the last 20 years between transnational companies, international finance capital — which are the bankers — and landowners that have created a new model of dictatorship that threatens peasants. It’s called agribusiness.

And the consequences of this? Its what we eat — patternized and genetically modified food.

In Brazil we have a culture of eating rice and beans everyday. They’re trying to impose another culture of food that’s not ours with fast food. They know this quite well. It’s the burgers, the McDonalds restaurants.

There’s also a change with seeds. Agribusiness is trying to take native seeds. Social movements are carrying out a strong resistance to keep and preserve native seeds in the communities.

This is the same model with water. There’s a lot of privatization and attempts to privatize water. This too is part of the new model of dictatorship that we have. Our communities say that water is a common good. It doesn’t belong to companies. A liter of water costs 4 reais, or 2 dollars. A liter of gasoline is cheaper than a liter of water.

They’ve created their own crises. They’ve produced them to attack peasants and indigenous people to take their natural resources and to mine on their land. And what do they create? The transnational companies, international finance capital and agribusinesses want to create a countryside without peasants.

They’ve already achieved this in Europe. In many countries in Europe only 1 percent of the population lives in the rural areas.

Agribusinesses are producing in monocultures, large extensions of high quality land for food production. They produce sugarcane, soy, oranges, corn, and eucalyptus. All for it is for exportation.

United Nations specialist Jean Ziegler confirms that as a consequence, there is so much hunger in the world that every five minutes there is a child that dies of hunger in the world. He says, “hunger in the world is equal to organized crime.”

Another current model of dictatorship is that the mass media has united with transnational companies, the banking sector, and agribusiness so that people do not realize the truth, alienating them from reality and creating a world of consumerism, individualism and competition.

To conclude, I want to share a little of our understanding of democracy. One idea that we pose is that without land reform there is no democracy.

We must democratize access to land. The majority of the owners of the large extensions of land in Brazil come from the 500 largest transnational companies in the world that produce genetically modified and patternized food. We understand that if there is no democratization of land, democracy is not strengthened. Today we believe in popular agrarian reform for all of Brazilian society.

Another proposal of democracy is that each community and each group must have the right to decide what they eat and how they eat. Genetically modified and patternized food should not be imposed by transnational companies. We want democracy with food sovereignty.

A third proposal is democratization of access to knowledge and to universities. We demand access to free, quality education. And also access to quality public transportation and healthcare.

There are some people in my country who have never seen a doctor. Now, a month ago the government of Brazil made an agreement with Cuba, and 6,000 Cuban doctors arrived in Brazil to work in peasant and indigenous communities, located farther from the large urban centers. Welcome, Cuban doctors, to Brazil!

Six thousand doctors have come from Cuba, but at the same time we have to create more medical schools so that workers who would like to practice medicine can become doctors as well.

Democracy must also consist of jobs with dignified salaries so that people can live with dignity. People must have access to transportation, and housing, sports and culture. The right to have celebrations, music, art and fun must be fulfilled.

We need to create mechanisms for direct participation in society so that we are not waiting to vote every four years with the hope that just the gesture of our vote makes structural changes in the country.

A problem that we have in our continent is that democracy must not mean intervention of countries in other countries. There is currently a military intervention in Haiti by MINUSTAH, the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti. The Haitians need their sovereignty, not an army. There are military bases like this in other places around Latin America and the Caribbean — just in Colombia there are seven.

Also, democracy must mean that social movements can protest and have manifestations in whatever country without being considered terrorists. It is the right of the people to come and go and have freedom of opinion.

These forms of dictatorship and domination are the experiences of the people without land, the peasants, the indigenous people and the afrodescendants in my country. These are times of intense battles for basic human rights.

We have to push the government to resist the demands of the transnational companies. It’s a permanent battle. We must remain in the streets so that the government works for the benefit of the working class and not for the interests of large corporations and agribusiness.

Thank you very much!

CUSLAR’S Paulo Freire Engaged Practitioners Program

This talk by Judite Stronzake of the Landless Workers’ Movement officially launched CUSLAR’s Paulo Freire Engaged Practitioners Program in September 2013. Freire, a Brazilian educator and social theorist, spent his life developing a pedagogy for equality and human rights.



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