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  • Land, Protest, and Politics: The Landless Movement and the Struggle for Agrarian Reform in Brazil
  • Stephen Aldrich
Ondetti, Gabriel. Land, Protest, and Politics: The Landless Movement and the Struggle for Agrarian Reform in Brazil. University Park, PA: Penn State UP, 2008. 304 pp.

Since the collapse of Brazil's military government in the early 1980s, social movements have helped define public life in Brazil. Among these movements few have remained as strong or contentious as the landless movement, epitomized by the Moviemento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem-Terra (MST). Gabriel Ondetti makes the case that a combination of perspectives on social movement formation can explain why this movement has remained strong while others have faded into relative obscurity.

Ondetti develops a meta-narrative of the successes and tribulations the landless movement has experienced in Brazil, most often focusing on the MST, by drawing on an extensive interview list and accounts in the academic and popular press. The narrative traces the history of the movement through a series of chapters covering its emergence (1974–1984), growth (1985–1994), takeoff [End Page 227] (1995–1999), decline (2000–2002), and resurgence (2003–2006). In each chapter, the actions and outcomes of the period are related to perspectives on social movement formation. The approach is useful because it reminds those familiar with the struggle for agrarian reform of its general trajectory and important events, but is clear and complete enough for those just becoming familiar with the movement to serve as a good introduction. It also ensures that the perspectives on movement formation are appropriately engaged without making them an overbearing portion of the book.

The social movement perspectives which Ondetti engages are presented in such a way as to seem less at odds with each other than the general literature may display. Perhaps the most refreshing aspect of the book is the way he shows how the perspectives of Grievence/Discontent, Organizational Capacity, Activist Strategies, and Political Opportunity, can all contribute to the rise and resilience of a social movement. Though he lends credence to each of these perspectives, Ondetti finds the political opportunity perspective the strongest explanation for the success of the MST. One example of his reluctance to discard alternative perspectives is Ondetti's exploration of the emergence of the movement; he finds that grievances stemming from the injustices of the military governments of the 1960s and 1970s, the capacity building activities by the church and unions, and the political wavering of the military government combined to aid in the re-establishment of a broad landless movement.

Taking center-stage in Ondetti's narrative are two massacres, both in the remote Amazon, which redefined the landless movement in Brazil, and also help explain the incredible rise in property occupations between 1995 and 1999. As these massacres forced the Cardoso administration to take the landless movement seriously, occupations soared nationwide from 119 in 1994 to 398 in 1996, and then to a high of nearly 600 in 1998. The political opportunity perspective would dictate that such a rise in occupations was possible because the massacres redefined the politics of land reform, opening a new opportunity for mobilization, a fact which Ondetti makes clear.

Ondetti goes on, however, to argue that political opportunity then began to work against the MST, as more violent and destructive tactics were integrated into the MST's contentious repertoire. In particular, sacking of vehicles and commercial establishments and acts of vandalism began to turn public opinion against the MST. For Ondetti, the resulting stagnation in the landless movement was due to the MST's lack of constraint, which led to decreased political opportunity lasting until President Lula's first term in office.

Overall, Ondetti's book underlines the fact that social movements are often subject to the overarching climate of national politics, even when discontent is strong, activists are enthusiastic, and organizations are in place. Scholars investigating aspects of social movements and agrarian reform around the world will find this book useful and engaging, and the content could quite easily inform lectures on social movements, Latin America, and Brazil. Given Ondetti's extensive interview list, it is surprising that more discussion of the rise and fall [End...


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pp. 227-229
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