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29 June 2009

The Landless rural workers movement and democracy in Brazil

Dr. Miguel Carter School of International Service American University

On the night of October 29, 1985, more than 200 trucks, buses and cars
converged from 32 different municipal districts in Brazil’s southernmost state of
Rio Grande do Sul to occupy a mostly idle, 9,200-hectare cattle ranch known as
the Annoni estate. Over than 6,000 people participated in what was then the
largest and most thoroughly planned land occupation in Brazilian history. By
morning they had erected a sprawling village of black-tarp tents and organized a
security team to prevent police eviction. In a matter of days, the peasants
established an elaborate internal organization: a network of family groups, a
variety of task teams, a coordination council and a leadership committee.
Everyday life at the encampment was a busy hive of activities and meetings. Next
to a patch of dense forest, the landless gathered daily by a large cross for prayers,
religious and protest songs, announcements and hearty words of encouragement
from an array of supporters. A vast solidarity network was established to further
the cause of the peasants at the Annoni estate. Shortly after the occupation, the
local Catholic bishop and 80 priests showed up at the camp to bless the landless

Approximately 1,250 families obtained a landholding from the concerted
pressure and long-sustained mobilization which followed the Annoni occupation.
This involved a broad range of essentially non-violent collective action measures,
varying from countless lobbying efforts with government officials, including three
trips to meet with national authorities in Brasilia, and an array of high-profile
protest tactics. The statistics of the struggle undertaken by the Annoni occupants
are quite revealing. In the eight years it took to settle all these families, landless
people from the Annoni estate were engaged in 36 land occupations; at least 30
major protest rallies; nine hunger strikes; two lengthy marches, including a 450
km, 27-day march to Porto Alegre, the state capital; three road blockades; and
nine building takeovers, six of these at National Land Reform Institute (INCRA)
and three at the State Assembly. Ten human lives were lost in these struggles,
including seven children who died from precarious health conditions at the
landless camp.

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