MST Founder João Pedro Stedile Faces Off against Right Wing in Congress
João Pedro Stedile of the National Board of the MST testifies in the CPI on the MST
The leader was summoned by right-wing deputies to testify before the Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry that is “investigating” the Landless Rural Workers’ Movement
After seven hours of questioning before the Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry (CPI) “investigating” the Landless Rural Workers’ Movement (MST), João Pedro Stedile exited the Chamber of Deputies and was embraced by dozens of representatives of people’s movements, religious leaders, and parliamentarians who sang “This struggle is ours, this struggle is of the people. And only in struggle, will we create a new Brazil.”
Stedile was summoned to testify to the CPI by the right-wing deputies Ricardo Salles, the minister of the environment under Jair Bolsonaro, and Zucco, a member of the Brazilian military. The establishment of the CPI was approved on April 26 by the Chamber of Deputies of the National Congress, dominated by the right, in order to “investigate” “the activities,” “the real purpose,” and “the means of funding” of the MST.
The CPI had its first session on May 23 and since then they have received testimonies from diverse “witnesses” and experts who are questioned by the deputies in the commission. The information collected throughout these months is then drafted into a report which is presented to different entities of the judicial, executive, and legislative branches of power with conclusions and recommendations.
However, analysts have pointed out that the “investigative” commission has largely focused on bringing former or disgruntled members of the two million person movement to testify about grievances they have with local leadership, alleged irregularities or even alleged crimes which they participated in or witnessed, and other isolated incidents. Right-wing deputies which until recently composed the majority of the commission, have also used the space to launch baseless sweeping accusations at the movement and criticize its struggle not only for popular agrarian reform but for social change, against racism, and for a sovereign Brazil where all can live with dignity.
Many have also pointed out that it is no coincidence that this CPI is occurring alongside moments of great political difficulty for the country’s right-wing including an ongoing CPI investigating the coup actions committed on January 8 in Brasilia by thousands of Bolsonaro supporters with links to government officials and businessmen, as well as the investigation of several members of the Bolsonaro government as well as some of his close allies over corruption.
So, what has come to be known popularly as the “CPI Circus against the MST” had one of its last major days of work on August 15 with the testimony from João Pedro Stedile, one of the founding members of the MST and a member of the national board. Despite their efforts to catch the leader off guard and tire him out through hours of questioning and accusations, the testimony of Stedile ranged from explanations of Marxism, a defense of the organizational structure and vision of the MST, and a deep criticism not only of capitalism and agribusiness, but also of how the deputies carried out the work of the commission.
The deputies running the CPI have employed a common tactic used by the right, which is to use testimonies of specific individuals who have been sought out and previously identified as against the MST, to support their claims about the movement. This move was sharply criticized by João Pedro in his testimony.
He said that in order for the CPI to have results found more faithful to reality, it should have taken a random sample of people that live on MST settlements and encampments, and not pick certain groups in advance.
“I want to make a statistical observation. We have 500,000 settled families and 60,000 encamped families, according to INCRA [National Institute for Colonization and Agrarian Reform]. If you take a random sample of 1%, that would be 5,000 families you would have to listen to, although the most serious evidence is of even higher percentages.”
After Deputy Salles, asked his opinion about cases where people allegedly try to personally benefit from the MST’s projects on settlements and encampments, the landless leader responded by referencing the German sociologist Karl Marx: “In a capitalist society, all classes, whether the bourgeoisie, the petty bourgeoisie, the working class, the peasantry, the workers in general, have a lumpen fraction. What is a lumpen? It’s that opportunist who wants to live off the work of others, who wants to exploit the work of others. So these lumpens exist throughout society. You’ll find them among the bourgeoisie – drug traffickers, for example, are billionaires and are lumpens – in the middle class, among liberal professionals, among lawyers, journalists, MPs, among workers and among peasants.”
Can the right understand movement organizing?
Another major line of questioning lodged at the landless leader was regarding the work that often takes place in the collective areas of the MST. The right-wing deputies, seemingly unable to understand why people would willingly organize collectively and distribute work to advance the common good, attempted to accuse MST leaders of authoritarianism and imposing forced labor on members.
In response, Stedile highlighted the characteristics that mark the movement’s form of organization, citing aspects such as the collective awareness, the use of a decision-making process that is always collective rather than individual, the division of tasks, discipline, and the educational and intellectual training of the militants that join the movement on their own volition.
When he mentioned the organization’s characteristics, the economist sent a message to Kim Kataguiri from the União Party and one of the founders of the Free Brazil Movement (MBL) who is part of the CPI. The organization has produced different conservative and extremist youth leaders since its creation nine years ago.
“Among the organizational principles, everything has to be collective. Everything has to be in the form of a committee because it is the collective that protects [us] from the opportunism of false leaders. Don’t adopt this terminology of ‘president’, ‘treasurer’, ‘secretary’. The organizing principles are universal. They apply to the workers’ movement and they apply to Kim’s movement. I hope he’s taking notes. Any popular social movement has to adopt these principles,” Stedile explained in what many have deemed a master class on popular organization, provoking laughter from the audience.
Education for all: another conquest of the MST
While explaining the actual work and functioning of the MST, João Pedro also emphasized the centrality of study and education in the MST. Whether its carrying out literacy campaigns with adults and young people for people in MST and in communities they work with, developing popular pedagogy for the childcare and primary schools organized within the MST settlements and encampments, or fighting for policies that facilitate access to higher education for the landless, education for all is more than a slogan.
During the CPI, João Pedro highlighted that, as a result of this historic effort, around 250 landless workers have already studied law in the university. He also highlighted the importance of the National Program for Education in Agrarian Reform (PRONERA) created in 1998 during the Fernando Henrique Cardoso government (1994-1994), as a result of pressure from union and social struggles. Stedile described PRONERA as a “fantastic achievement” for the movement.
“I brought here the proof of the ‘crime’ – that’s how you use [the word], right? Ney [Strozake], the comrades who are here, are all lawyers who are children of [land reform] beneficiaries. Can you believe that? If it hadn’t been for PRONERA, they’d be [working the land] or they’d have become lumpens,” Stedile joked, pointing to the group of MST lawyers accompanying him at the session. The mention was also made in front of a silent plenary and a visibly embarrassed Ricardo Salles: Ney Strozake, one of the MST’s legal advisors, is also the lawyer of the former Environment Minister in some cases.
During the hours-long testimony, the economist heavily criticized the more conservative agribusiness. At one point during his answers to the CPI deputies, the leader pointed out that this segment of the rural sector is currently experiencing divisions in response to the PT administration. Part of the sector is active in the Lula government, as is the case of the Minister of Agriculture, cattle rancher Carlos Fávaro, who is a senator-elect for Mato Grosso and is currently on leave from his mandate.
“Agribusiness is divided. The half that has any sense supported Lula. The other half is Aprosoja [Brazilian Association of Soybean Producers, one of the sector’s political arms], which only thinks about making money. Part of agribusiness is already aware of the limits and is already migrating to another form of agriculture, what is now known as ‘regenerative practices’, to replace pesticides with agroecological pesticides. Part of agribusiness is still going to heaven,” Stedile joked. “But the dumb agribusiness, which only thinks about easy profits, has its days numbered,” he added.
Occupation vs. invasion
The key political disputes between the Bolsonaristas and MST supporters were present throughout the landless leader’s CPI testimony. At one point during the hearing, deputy Rodolfo Nogueira from Bolsonaro’s Liberal Party, questioned Stedile about whether the leader “believes he has a license of impunity” for allegedly “inciting crimes” in the country. “I have never incited any crime,” replied the economist, to which he was interrupted by the deputy, who said that “land invasion is a crime.”
Stedile took the opportunity to highlight the difference between “occupation” and “invasion”, the latter being an expression often used in public debate by more conservative politicians to create confusion on the subject. “Land invasion is a crime, like the farmers in Mato Grosso do Sul invading indigenous land. What the MST is doing is occupying land as a way of putting pressure so that the Constitution is implemented. Invasion of land or any public property is when someone does it for their own benefit, and then it is characterized as squatting and is criminalized by the Penal Code,” said Stedile.
The MST leader continued his reasoning by highlighting the legal aspects surrounding the issue: “What our movement is doing, recognized by jurisprudence, is not an invasion. It is occupation, and occupation here is not squatting, so much so that, to your despair, of the many occupations that have taken place over the last 40 years throughout Brazil, no one has been arrested or convicted.” “If you want to end the occupations, expropriate large unproductive properties, because then there’s land for everyone,” he added.
In another moment, the deputies asked about Stedile’s participation in the entourage that accompanied President Lula to China in April this year. Deputy Salles asked him if there was “any movement in China analogous to the MST in Brazil”. “No, because in 1949 they carried out land reform. [For] those of you who want to defeat the MST so badly, the formula is simple: carry out agrarian reform and the next day the MST will disappear,” he said.
Half an hour before the start of the hearing, João Pedro Stedile’s arrival at the Chamber drew the attention of everyone nearby. The landless leader was welcomed by dozens of people who had gathered there to show solidarity. Federal deputies, religious leaders, trade unionists, and members of different popular movements crowded around and chanted slogans and songs about agrarian reform as a way of embracing Stedile with words of support. From there, he made his way to the room, accompanied by a procession. “We are here in the name of the model of society that we seek to give our support to those who help organize the people in Brazil,” said Pastor Luís Sabanay.
“What drives me to be here is that I want the land for those who plant on it. I want nature alive because we don’t eat dead nature. And what moves me to be here is that, as well as not letting go of anyone’s hand, is that it is [important] to be together at a time like this. It is to say that the MST moves us because it teaches us what my religion already brings in its daily life, which is [the idea that] we need nature because without it there is no orixá,” said Makota Celinha, general coordinator of the National Center for Afro-Brazilian Africanity and Resistance (Cenarab), who received a public greeting from Stedile at the start of the session.
Members of parliament who are not part of the CPI also joined the procession to embrace Stedile and wish him strength. “The MST is a movement that we all cherish, which fights for the democratization of the land, demonstrates to the Brazilian people that it is necessary to fight the ultra-right, defend democracy, and share wealth. It’s a movement that lives in our hearts, that’s why I came here, on his behalf, to congratulate the entire MST,” said Congressman Rogério Correia of the Workers’ Party (PT).
Politicians from other levels of government also attended the event with the same objective. This was the case of Pernambuco state deputy Rosa Amorim of the PT, who is the daughter of founders of the MST in several states and grew up on an agrarian reform settlement. “We have an elected agrarian reform caucus in several states of the country and, at this very important moment, which is also a battle in the institutional realm, we have to be here to show our solidarity. Today we are going to send a message to Brazil about what the MST does and produces,” she said.
One sighting that attracted the spotlight was that of the governor of Ceará, Elmano de Freitas of the PT. Having come to Brasilia to fulfill agendas in some ministries, he went to the Chamber of Deputies to greet Stedile at the CPI and stayed for a couple of minutes. Speaking to Brasil de Fato, Elmano highlighted the movement’s work in the countryside of Ceará.
“In Ceará, we are closely acquainted with the landless movement, which has built an agro-industry in the milk production chain in the Quixeramobim region, which has developed agro-industries in the area of [production with] goats and sheep, in the area of honey, generating opportunities for thousands of families who used to live in extreme poverty and today live with dignity, have children going to college, going to school full time. Therefore, the landless in Ceará, as it is throughout the country, represent an organization of the most humble people to be able to live with dignity,” said the governor.
Various parliamentarians from the progressive camp wore MST hats during the CPI meeting as a way of paying tribute to Stedile and the organization. “I wear it with great pride and as a way of recognizing the struggle for agrarian reform in Brazil,” said Fernanda Melchionna, deputy from the Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL). Congressman Nilto Tatto of PT also joined the group. “Wearing the MST hat at the CPI that wants to criminalize the movement is an act of resistance, solidarity and gratitude for everything the organization has done for the Brazilian people,” he said.
MST evaluates CPI
Ayala Ferreira, one of the leaders of the MST’s Human Rights Sector, said following the hearing that Stedile had demonstrated his superiority in terms of political capacity and knowledge of the subject.
“Our evaluation is that he gave a lesson, which we already imagined would happen. He didn’t come here to convince the agro-military, Bolsonaro sectors of the importance of agrarian reform and the relevance of the MST in this agenda. He came to talk to Brazilian society, to all the people who followed [the testimony] online, on the pages that published [the testimony], to see everything we’ve been saying: that the MST is going to celebrate 40 years of history and struggle for the democratization of the land, highlighting the need for agrarian reform,” said Ayala.
In a public statement sent to the press shortly after the committee’s session, the national leadership of the MST expressed a positive assessment of João Pedro Stedile’s participation in the committee, but also criticized the CPI’s handling of the work. “This CPI has been running for three months, under the command of Bolsonaro parliamentarians, in an attempt to criminalize the MST and prevent the resumption of the National Agrarian Reform Policy, as well as trying to wear down the federal government. However, the baseness and lack of legitimacy and seriousness of the Bolsonaro deputies is leading it to be closed earlier than expected by these parliamentarians themselves,” the text says.
With reports from Brasil de Fato.