Settling landless people on unfarmed land to pressure the government to carry out land reforms

Since its creation in 1984, the Brazilian Landless Workers Movement (Movimento Dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra, or MST) has addressed the issue of land reform by organizing large groups of landless farmers to settle and farm unused land belonging to wealthy landowners. After occupying an area MST attempts to gain the land legally through petitioning and legislation, using an article in the Brazilian constitution stating that unproductive land is available for agrarian reform.

Although the Brazilian government has promised land reforms for the last 20 years, little land has actually been redistributed through government programs. Half of Brazilian land is currently owned by one percent of the population, while nearly five million agrarian workers are landless.

MST sends organizers into a new area to contact landless families and recruit them for an occupation. The orga­nizers consult with the local community to choose a site that is not being farmed and is known to be fertile, and whose legal ownership is disputed. Often, organizers will remain in the community for six months or more to prepare local people for the occupation. The local community divides the work of preparing for the occupation, which allows them to take ownership over the process. On the day of the action, landless families go to the site, peacefully cross any barriers to the land and occupy it. If they are evicted, they leave peacefully but return to the same place when the eviction order has ended.

The occupations are brought to the attention of the national agency that deals with land reform, where activists pressure for legalization of the occupation, often through the expropriation of land. As part of this pressure, MST organizes marches and occupations of government buildings, and publicly denounces the government for failing to abide by its own constitution. The legalization process can last as long as five years. Once a new settlement is established, schools and health clinics are built and the land is used for sustainable farming, allowing settlers to access their right to food. This tactic has been extremely successful, although it has been met with occasional vio­lence. MST has gained land for about 250,000 families living on over 1,600 settlements.


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What we can learn from this tactic: 

The Brazilian Landless Workers Movement puts pressure on the government to enact reforms while at the same time providing support — in the form of peacefully occupied farming land — to victims of abuse.

MST’s story is a remarkable one: peaceful occupations leading to real change for thousands of people who can now support themselves agriculturally. While the occupations alone would have been divisive and danger­ous, when combined with pressure on the government to enact promised land reforms they became part of a successful campaign. MST is able to safely use this tactic by ensuring that a sufficient number of people participate. If landowners or local authorities use violence against the peaceful occupiers, MST activists gener­ate pressure through the media attention.

There are numerous examples of land occupations in other parts of the world that have not been peacefully carried out or that have resulted in high incidents of violence. The use of this approach carries great risk in some contexts and must be very carefully planned and carried out to ensure nonviolence.