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Capital University News, California State University, Sacramento

September 22, 2003

“Landless” movement may protect rainforest

One key to saving the Amazon rainforest may lie in a 20-year-old drive to increase land ownership among Brazil’s rural poor, says CSUS environmental studies professor Angus Wright.

Despite its position as the tenth-largest economy in the world, Brazil has some of its poorest people, in part because of the way land is distributed. A few groups own huge areas of land and have a great deal of authority over it, creating a society with enormous economic differences.

The rural poor are extremely poor and have to do whatever they can to survive, Wright says. In the Amazon they are eating away at the forest land in areas that are not suitable for agriculture, encouraging the wasteful use of land.

In his new book, To Inherit the Earth: The Landless Movement and the Struggle for a New Brazil, co-authored by University of North Carolina geography professor Wendy Wolford, Wright tells of the efforts of the Landless Workers’ Movement or MST (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem-Terra) to narrow the gap between the richest and the poorest.

Since the late 1970s the group has used Brazil’s legal tradition of “use it or lose it” by occupying poorly-used land en masse – up to a thousand in each occupation – until the government agrees to turn it over.

The movement is largely peaceful. “The policy is to use non-violent confrontation, not guns,” Wright says. “They’re trying to change what is happening to society as a whole. Land is the first step.” Brazil is more than 70 percent urban so there is no way the land movement can in and of itself transform Brazil, Wright says. But it does address the needs of the poorest of the poor who are mostly rural.

“It’s a grassroots model for agrarian reform,” Wright says. “It’s a way to get land and preserve rural life.”

The book tells stories of how people are transformed by the movement. “That’s a process that is very hard to turn backwards,” Wright says. “Some may lose their land but won’t turn back the transformation. Education, health and nutrition have vastly improved in the settlements.”
Wright says the degree to which the movement succeeds in encouraging people to settle on land that is more suitable for agriculture instead of chopping down the rainforest has the potential to slow environmental degradation. “To the extent that it can reduce the pressure on the Amazon the movement is enormously important environmentally.”

Wright, who earned his doctorate in Brazilian history, came in contact with the movement in the early 1990s. He works with Food First/Institute for Food and Policy Development, which has an initiative on the land reform process supported by the Ford and Kaplan Foundations.

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California State University, Sacramento • Public Affairs
6000 J Street • Sacramento, CA 95819-6026 • (916) 278-6156 • infodesk@csus.edu
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California State University, Sacramento • Public Affairs
6000 J Street • Sacramento, CA 95819-6026 • (916) 278-6156 • infodesk@csus.edu