An interview with João Pedro Stédile, Founding Member and Member of the National Board of Directors of the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (MST) , conducted by Raffaele Marchetti specially for wpfdc.org
Raffaele Marchetti: What are the most difficult challenges ahead MST today?
João Pedro Stédile: The MST was created 30 years ago to organize the peasants and to fight for the land reform and an egalitarian society. During these 30 years we have fought a lot, we have occupied many pieces of land, with many defeats and some success. The last 3 years have been the most difficult. It is not just the landowners, but more significantly also a new agricultural model of capital, dominated by the financial capital and multinational enterprises (banks, multinational firms, landowners, and urban bourgeoisies) that oppressed the peasant world. In this situation, it is not simply a matter of democratizing the access to land, but it is a matter of defeating such financial, agro-business model imposed on us.
In the last decades, capitalism has changed. The mode of dominance is now in the hands of financial capital and multinational corporations. For the first time in the history of mankind, we have a single mode of production that is dominating the whole planet. On top of this, beginning in 2008 with the crisis, many capitalists decided to run to the third world to protect their capitals by investing in natural resources. The benefits deriving from the natural resources are much more robust of the investments in the financial market. This way, the bought land and hydroelectric plant, they privatized motorways, controlled water, and even sold oxygen (the politics of the carbon quotas). As a reaction to this, in all parts of the world there are social movements resisting such capitalist offensive: in Asia, in Africa, in America Latina.
RM: What are the difficulties of the political-institutional crisis of this phase of capitalism?
JPS: I see new forces that are alive and getting ready for a new phase. Class struggle develops as waves with ups and downs, not through steps that always go up. There are moments of great mass mobilization against the capital. There are moments of confrontation. There are moments of refluxes. Unfortunately in the last 15 years we have passed through a moment of decline in mass movements all around the world and this has created deviations, crises, and ideological confusion: the class struggle was in a moment of defeat. But, precisely for this reason, the resistance movements are important, even if they are small. They are like seeds, and the masses are like fertile soil. One day, these seeds will sprout in the fertile soil and new offensive phases will be developed through big mass mobilizations. So, do not lose hope, history belongs to those who fight. If you don’t fight, you are defeated from the beginning.
RM: Is there a problem of international hegemony at the cultural level?
JPS: The political, ideological and cultural hegemony that the neoliberal capital constructed at the global level passed through the monopoly on TV, internet and the movies. In Brazil we think that the main counter-hegemonic struggle in this space consists in the struggle for the democratization of the means of communication. We need to fight in order to make possible that each social movement develops its own spaces for culture and communication, be they on internet, on alternative audio-visual, or on alternative cultural spaces in the big cities. Newspapers distributed in the metro and in the public spaces are also important. Equally crucial is the usage of cultural languages that are close to the youth such as theater, music, visual arts.
RM: What is the geo-political situation in South America?
JPS: South-American geo-politics is divided into 3 blocs. There are 3 projects that shape political and ideological struggle in each space of confrontation. 1) the project of re-colonization of the Latin-American continent in which the US tries to reappropriate our economy and our natural resources. Also during this second Obama presidency, there have been attempts of revitalizing agreements such as Alca, TPP and the agreement with Mercosur. This is a project led by the US and carried out together with a number of associates such as Mexico, Colombia and others. 2) The project of Latin-American integration within the model of capitalism. This is a project advanced by the bourgeoisie and by those capitalists that do not want to share the North-American imperialism. Here we find countries such as Argentina, Brazil and other. 3) Finally, the project Alba, that derives from the agreement among 7 countries (Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Bolivia, and other Caribbean countries). It is an anti-imperialist and anti-neoliberal project, but it is not a socialist project since there are no conditions for the establishment of socialism right now. The actors holding these 3 projects get together depending on the political circumstances. With the Lula government, for instance, we had a strategic alliance between project 2 and project 3.
RM: What is your economic model? What is your political recipe today?
JPS: I think that in this historical moment, the socialist ideas are valid, but we need to present them in a different way. The central idea is that of an egalitarian society in which all have the same opportunities. But there are also other values that were not so present in the previous decades, such as the value of solidarity and the principles of conduct to be applied in our daily life. What has changed is the way to interpret the political struggle to reach the change. In the past, we used to think that the political change was achievable through the assault on power, with a revolutionary magic. Today we need to re-evaluate the thinking of Saint Antonio Gramsci, a socialist thinker during a period of crisis. This is why Gramsci is important.
In a period of crisis in which the working class is in a phase of reflux, of difficulty, in such a period Gramsci helps us in understanding the process of accumulation of power that needs to develop in the societal spaces, in the “wide state”: the schools, the media, the trade unions, and in all the places of struggle. We need to organize a struggle for hegemony, for the thinking of the majority. If the majority of the Brazilian people do not believe in socialism, we are not going to achieve socialism.
This is the challenge ahead of us in Brazil. The aim is to build up the strength of the movement and make structural changes to society in order to march towards socialism. We have learned from the experience of Eastern Europe and China that socialism is more than having a socialist government. Socialism means deep changes to economic structures, social relations and ideology in society. We are far from achieving that. But we are going through a construction process taking us towards socialism.
RM: Is it possible to change society without taking power?
JPS: No, it isn’t, but power isn’t just in the state. Power is diluted into multiple forms beginning at home, and spreading to the community and society. It is in schools, churches and the media, as well as the state. That is something which we learned from Gramsci. Changes must be made at the base of society. The criticism that we make against the orthodox left parties is that they see power as only being in the presidential palace. But just changing the palace’s occupant does not resolve society’s fundamental problems. At the same time, we shouldn’t fall into the trap of seeing the problem as just in my family or village and that we don’t have to worry about the government. We need socialist people’s governments, but based on political consciousness and participation.
RM: What is the value of nationalizations for the MST?
JPS: Nationalization is a very positive measure because it proves that another way is possible. It is the Bolivian people’s right to use their natural resources to combat social problems. At the same time, we shouldn’t forget the context in which the nationalization is taking place. I notice that in Europe people talk about how changes are taking place in Latin America. Yes, there have been changes, but they are not as deep as people imagine. Luckily, the governments of Evo Morales in Bolivia and the former Hugo Chavez in Venezuela have given signs of hope for the Latin American people. But we are still not faced with a large scale popular mobilization either in Venezuela or Bolivia. Movements has brought down presidents, true, but it is very easy to bring down a president. What is difficult is to build a national development project based on the interests of the people and in opposition to neo-liberalism and imperialism. We need the social movements to build up permanent organized forces. This still doesn’t exist in any Latin American country.
RM: What is the specific content of your model of social land reform (Reforma agraria popular)?
JPS: We think that the land needs to be used in a collective mode: land, water, wind, biodiversity all need to have a public function to the benefit of the common good and of the whole society. The form can vary, but the end goal must be one. We live in a historical period in which land reform is blocked all over the world. There is no land reform policy, nor a country that allow for democracy in land property. Since the new financial capitalism pushed for the agro-business, a huge quantity of financial capital went to the countryside and contributed to the privatization of land, water, natural resources up to the air with the policy of carbon credit: a complete hypocrisy. This model also imposes an intensive use of machines and chemical poisons. It just expels peasants from the countryside.
In this context, we need to fight for a new kind of land reform, one that pertains to the whole people, not only to the peasants. The land reform needs to change the paradigm of agricultural production: substitute the mono-culture with diversity, substitute the biodiversity destruction with the reforestation of the territory, substitute the commodity production with food production, substitute food security with food sovereignty, substitute the predatory technology with agro-ecology, and finally uphold a principle of democratization of education. In order to fight for this struggle, peasants are not enough. What is needed is a large popular alliance that unites urban workers with country peasants.
RM: So, what is the value of being in an activist network? How do you combine local and global struggle?
JPS: We have learned from those that fought before us that we must be more united and generous, and less sectarian. We learned that our strength does not come from saying that our ideas are best, but from our ability to organise more people towards a common aim of changing society. That’s why in Brazil, Vía Campesina [the international peasants’ network] is made up of several movements. We also participate in the social movements and the big forums, such as the World Social Forum.
Our effort needs to be on stimulating all possible initiatives that advance the democratization of information and the construction of educational spaces so that a new generation can be educated with ideals towards social change. This can be done from below with reference to concrete needs of our countries and to topics that are common to the whole world. There is a positive contradiction. As much as the financial capital internationalizes, also problems, topics, and struggles internationalize.
The fight against their predatory aggression on natural resources is international. Equally, the fight for healthy food, for the right to water, for the youth employment, for democratic media, and against transgenic seeds, are all issues that are in the political agenda of our country and in the international agenda. The prediction of the old Marx that the workers, the poor, need to get together at the international level to confront the capital has never been clearer than today.
RM: What is the biggest challenge that the MST and its transnational network, Via Campesina, face today in global food governance?
JPS: FAO is a contradictory organization. On the one hand, it represents the governments, and the majority of the governments of the world are neoliberal governments that defend the interests of capitalists and of the firms that elect those governments. On the other hand, inside FAO there is a technical body that is sympathetic to the idea of food sovereignty, to the fight against hunger. The previous FAO policy against hunger was a failure. The green revolution has, as a matter of fact, improved hunger. The introduction of transgenic seeds has been a defeat. The election of Jose Graziano da Silva represents a change. He is sensitive to the theme of hunger. For this reason, we need to support those experts within FAO that want to change policy paradigm.
But we need to have clear in mind that real policy change will only come with mass struggle and with the democratization of public policies. The agriculture needs to be reorganized on the basis of peasant life. We need to have as a priority the search for food sovereignty, i.e. the need for each people to produce its own food in an healthy way. As in all our history, we need to develop and enhance the agro-ecological techniques, with a productive matrix that widens the productivity of the work and the land without affecting the environment. But we also need to bring education to the countryside in order to democratize the knowledge. We need to build up cooperative agro-industries in order to produce well-made food that is healthy and not in the hand of transnational corporations.
 The MST grew out of mass struggles against the military dictatorship of General Geisel in the late 1970s. It was officially founded in 1984. Progressive sections of the Catholic church played a key role in its creation. MST activists have occupied unused land to establish cooperative farms and built schools and clinics. There are now 1,800 schools on MST settlements. MST has won land for 500,000 families, some three million people. The MST has expanded its activities to marches on the capital, urban occupations, destroying genetically modified crops and creating a university for rural activists. The MST has faced attacks from the police, judiciary and media. Some 1,600 rural workers have been killed in the last 20 years, including around 100 MST activists. The movement in Brazil has helped to set up the first international network of rural labourers’ movements in history, Vía Campesina, which is now active in 87 countries.