- This Land is Ours Now: Social Mobilization and the Meanings of Land in Brazil by Wendy Wolford
The landless movement of Brazil has been at the center of global social-movement literature for the last two decades. The MST (the Landless Workers Movement) is presented by most scholars and activists as a hopeful antidote to the neoliberal land policies it grew up with. It is an inspiring exception to the many popular movements that have been defeated or corrupted. How has this movement been able to vanquish lati-fundismo? How has it negotiated around the demands of global agribusiness for export crops—soybeans, sugar cane for ethanol, oranges for juice pulp—that have displaced peasants and the food they produce? How could impoverished farmers and workers march away from cities to join the movement? What has made the MST parade so loud, rhythmic, and melodious?
But wait . . . is the parade stopping? Is it slowing? Where is it going? Why are the drummers out of sync? Wendy Wolford's work on the MST, including but not limited [End Page 127] to this book, has given us an alternative approach—friendly yet critical, admiring yet skeptical—to this exalted story of resistance to capitalism. Wolford draws on her identity as a geographer to accomplish this task by setting up a comparative regional framework for the study of the MST. She could not miss the fact that the movement in the South, where it was born, held firm to many of its foundational themes—a strong family ethic, love of the land, a commitment to food production—but in the Northeast, where land reform has always been seen as a priority by the left, and where people are much poorer on average than in the South, the movement suffered as settlers' commitment to it slipped. Wolford shows that persistence on the land by settlers is much higher in the South than in the Northeast. She notes that in a Northeast settlement, just four years after militant activists had marched with new settlers to demand land and government support for food crops (1999), she could not find any settlers who were still active in the movement. Almost all had converted to planting the infamous symbol of 500 years of exploitation—sugar cane—to the detriment of food crops.
The word "meanings," in the plural, is key to Wolford's research and to this book. Wolford shows that regional histories and cultures shape how people see land and crops. The focus of the book is on the Northeast, where the movement has apparently faltered most. Wolford tells stories of settlers, movement leaders, and government technicians to help explain this paradox. Using ethnographic methods (basically, living in and returning repeatedly to settlements), Wolford gained access to meetings, to celebrations known as místicas, to field work (literally, working in the fields), and to people's homes. Their trust in her, and her friendship and admiration for them are evident when she confronts evidence from life histories and people's explanations for their choices, in contrast to the fanfare and militant literature that the movement invokes to keep itself coherent and strong.
Wolford's book is not a "best and worst" of the MST. Instead, she teaches us to expect differences in social movements when we look at them at different scales. Along those lines, it would have been helpful to know how settlers in both regions are engaged in mobility between the settlements and cities, between their settlements and other settlements, and in and out of the agribusiness holdings that make up the regional fabric. With 80 percent of the Brazilian population in cities or towns, and with small rural towns growing quickly in dynamic agricultural regions, it is likely that households engage intensely in labor market migrations on a subregional scale. Similarly, the extent to which settlers in the South are planting soybeans would be of interest. Like sugar cane in...