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  • Challenging Social Inequality: The Landless Rural Workers Movement and Agrarian Reform in Brazil ed. by Miguel Carter
  • Christian Brannstrom
Challenging Social Inequality: The Landless Rural Workers Movement and Agrarian Reform in Brazil. Miguel Carter (ed.). Durham: Duke University Press, 2015. xxix + 494 pp., maps, diagrs., photos, notes, and index. $31.95 paper (ISBN 978-0-8223-518-3).

This is the best English-language book on Brazil’s MST, the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (Landless Rural Workers Movement), and its geographical, political, and social contexts. Challenging Social Inequality is an authoritative starting point for readers interested in multi-disciplinary views on the MST. The quality of editing is high (Miguel Carter also translated several chapters from Portuguese to English), the coverage is comprehensive, and the index and 40-page bibliography are valuable. As the title suggests, Carter’s position is that the MST’s strategy of land occupation and redistribution for peasant agriculture is a viable means to reducing Brazil’s high social inequality, although some chapters offer findings that question the success of this strategy.

The MST, which has organized land occupation, marches, and the occupation of buildings to force dialogue with the state in the pursuit of agrarian reform while suffering repression and violence, is the most visible and widespread political and social movement in Brazil today. As several chapters recount, the MST originated in the land struggles of northwestern Rio Grande do Sul in the late 1970s. Carter’s chapter traces three periods [End Page 287] of public activism in the MST’s development, starting from the 1978 expulsion of 1,100 farming families from an indigenous reserve. About half went to an Amazonian colonization program, and some of the rest met with a progressive priest who was joined by activists from the state capital. Their meetings, and favorable dialogue with a sympathetic governor, led to the occupation of a large estate in September 1979. Long marches and pressure and dialogue with officials of INCRA, Brazil’s national agrarian reform institute, complemented land occupation to pressure the state to expropriate and redistribute land to the landless.

The complex trajectory from land occupation in Rio Grande do Sul to highly visible national movement is a major theme in Challenging Social Inequality. Among several authors contributing to this issue, Bernardo Mançano Fernandes, a geographer based in Presidente Prudente (São Paulo state), shows how the MST’s presence has changed over time; especially important are maps showing land occupations and land reform settlements. Other chapters focus on historical and ideological basis of resistance to agrarian reform, noting how the past three Brazilian presidents have relied on political alliances with agricultural export sectors and export revenue from agribusiness, and discussing social movements that preceded the MST and forged complex relations with it. This is important, because other groups are influential in land reform; in 2006, groups other than the MST led 45% of land occupations (p. 259). Wendy Wolford, a geographer at Cornell University, contrasts the MST’s stated objective in the mid 1980s to become a national movement that would develop particular focus in northeastern Brazil with the fact that in the northeast the land struggle was really a struggle for better working conditions on sugarcane plantations. For Wolford, “the MST and the rural workers could not reconcile their perceptions of what it meant to own land” (p. 313).

Four chapters focus on processes of community formation and the social, political, and economic development of MST settlements, emphasizing what Carter and Horacio Martins de Carvalho call “struggle on the land” (p. 230). Several authors synthesize years of research on relations between MST and rural worker’s unions in Pernambuco and Pará states. In settlements in São Paulo state, no apparent contradiction exists between land reform settlements and the dominant agro-export model, but another chapter details difficulty in community building in Pernambuco because the settlement pattern did not meet with approval by all settlers, the communal area did not received its planned use, and settlers were angry that promised infrastructure never arrived. These findings contrast with Carter and Carvalho, who argue that the MST’s biggest challenge is “Brazil’s positon in the...