Thomas Friedman, author of The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century, says that globalization and innovation are leveling the competitive playing field between nations while bringing millions of people into the middle class. But with all due respect to Mr. Friedman, Wendy Wolford says, the world is not flat. It’s full of crevasses that are getting deeper.

Wolford, a Carolina geographer, says Friedman can only talk about a “flat world” because he ignores land and agriculture, two of the glaring omissions in his book. In Brazil, an agricultural giant where 3 percent of the population owns 70 percent of the land, economic inequality and poverty are rooted in land politics, a specialty of Wolford’s. She says that the Brazilian government instituted policies after World War II that forced farmers and other rural workers into the Amazon and cities. But the Amazon is no place for farming and there wasn’t enough work in the cities. After a brief period of economic growth, unemployment and extreme poverty skyrocketed, creating a new class of people: the landless workers, many of whom wound up in Brazil’s notoriously violent slums.

Wolford has seen those slums, and for the past fourteen years she’s documented how more than one million Brazilians have responded to life there. They’ve returned to the countryside, busting through fences in the middle of the night to claim unused farmland. They’ve organized and protested in city streets, forcing the government to cede their central demand: land for those who work it.

This is Brazil’s Landless Movement (Movimento Sem Terra or MST), which has pressured the government to create more than forty-five hundred settlements with farmland for nearly one million families throughout Brazil’s vast rural expanse. This might sound radical—seizing land and protesting the government—but Wolford found out that the MST is a logical offshoot of Brazil’s weedy history and the thorny reality of international trade.

Click to read photo caption. Photo by Wendy Woolford; ©2007 Endeavors.

It’s true that Brazil is a top agricultural producer—soy, corn, coffee, cacao, bananas, poultry, beef, orange juice, sugar, and cotton. But most of these crops are exported from huge industrialized farms. “So you have a country that’s successful in agriculture with forty-four million people suffering from chronic hunger,” Wolford says. “The MST is trying to alter this a little bit; you could say it’s trying to flatten things out.”

The people’s history

As Wolford says, land is possession, power, and profit. In Brazil, due to colonization, old money, and politics, a tiny group of men owns most of the land. A similar thing happened in the United States, but in the nineteenth century the U.S. government eventually allowed some six hundred thousand families to create ranches and small farms on eighty million acres throughout the American West. Brazil, facing a similar dilemma, decided that all unclaimed land had to be purchased. The rich got richer.

But so much land lay fallow that in the 1940s the Brazilian government amended its constitution to allow expropriation of rural property that wasn’t “performing its social function”—in a word, agriculture. This constitutional article, Wolford says, is one of the MST’s main weapons. But the constitution also speaks of the sanctity of private property. And the government never put into place meaningful legislation to address this contradiction between social function and private property. And so some landless laborers infiltrated private land where they could to do subsistence farming, often getting chased off or killed.

But something changed on December 6, 1979, when a man nicknamed Natalino set up camp at a road intersection in southern Brazil, where land ownership had been hotly contested. In her book, To Inherit the Earth: The Landless Movement and the struggle for a new Brazil, which Wolford coauthored with environmental historian Angus Wright, she says that Natalino didn’t demand land; he just wanted to bring more attention to unfair land distribution. But with support from a progressive branch of the Catholic Church, hundreds of families joined him, and a local storeowner donated supplies. Natalino’s Crossroad, the symbol of the MST’s organic beginnings, was born.

According to local accounts, police and hired gunmen attacked the squatters but didn’t use their full force because of media scrutiny. The squatters stood their ground, bearing the burden of violence, disease, and limited food and potable water. Other encampments popped up in the next couple years.

Meanwhile, during the early 1980s, the Brazilian federal government was phasing out Brazil’s military dictatorship and setting up democratic elections. A politician sympathetic to small farmers won a governorship in the south and granted 164 families at Natalino’s Crossroad about 4,620 acres of land. The government granted land for other settlements, too. And Wolford says that by January 1984, the movement was so widespread that it could form a national organization and hold regular conventions.

Crickets and crooks

As an undergraduate in 1993 studying economic development, Wolford became so fascinated with this movement that she decided to take a break from school to work construction on a settlement. By then, the MST had gained enough attention to be vilified in the press. Seizing private property seemed so antidemocratic, well beyond eminent-domain laws that allow governments to seize private property for highways or whatever local politicians prefer.

Despite the negative press, the MST kept growing, and on April 17, 1997, one thousand landless workers marched into the capital city of Brasilia where tens of thousands of supporters cheered them on. The leaders presented their case to the government: land, they demanded, for those who work it.

The MST’s tactics were certainly questionable, Wolford says. But it turns out that rich landholders had been seizing land illegitimately for centuries. Wolford points out a common scam: a landowner forges a land title, puts it in a box full of crickets that defecate on the paper, chew it up, and turn it into a kind of yellowy, stained, and holey document that looks old and authentic. “This still goes on,” she says. “There was a huge scandal in 1998, so President Fernando Cardoso decided that all titles had to be checked with the cartography office.”

All told, the government found that rich landowners had fraudulently claimed 227 million acres—twice the size of Central America. “One guy claimed a huge piece of land that actually included large parts of Brasilia,” Wolford says. “The things that go on with land politics in a country that is otherwise ‘modern’ and ‘developed’ are astonishing.”

In the first four years of surveying, the government found enough arable land to settle every landless worker in the country, some twelve to sixteen million people. “But the federal agency in charge—INCRA—is supremely underfunded,” Wolford says. “It fights to stay alive, let alone do agrarian reform. At every turn INCRA is thwarted by landlords and the federal budget; each year the agency gets about one-tenth the amount it needs to settle landless workers.”

So, Wolford says, INCRA winds up following the movement. When landless workers chop down a fence, set up camp, and start the legal process of expropriating land, INCRA sometimes negotiates an official settlement. A lot of times, though, INCRA isn’t involved. In 2001, one landowner said that the main law in his region was “Law 44”—the law of the .44-caliber revolver. Several MST leaders have been assassinated, but that hasn’t deterred 1.5 million citizens from joining the MST, whose settlements are now located in 23 of Brazil’s 27 states.

Not for the faint of heart

Not all settlements are the same, Wolford says. They vary in size from twenty houses to one thousand. Some homes are made with cement and bricks; some with mud and thatched roofs. Larger settlements have schools with state-paid teachers. All settlers grow subsistence crops, such as corn, beans, cacao, rice, and manioc, which farmers try to sell in various markets. The MST helps create distribution networks, and it also lobbies the government for credit each year.

Click to read photo caption. Photo by Wendy Woolford, ©2007 Endeavors.

Wolford says that the MST has clearly been successful. A typical response to questions about life on a settlement came from a middle-aged man in the southern Bahia region: “You would have to know what life is like in the slums of the little towns around here,” he said. “In this settlement, I can go to bed when I want—early in the evening—and sleep soundly without worrying about what will happen while I’m sleeping. Here, I eat good food, breathe clean air, and drink clean water.”

This same man also said that his kids go to school—uncommon in the slums—and the settlement has a health clinic staffed by a nurse.

Yet Wolford is careful not to paint the MST as some sort of agrarian utopia, where all settlers are in loving agreement. Most Brazilians don’t even support the movement, Wolford says. Some assume that rich landowners earned their way in life, and wonder where the MST gets off seizing property. Others don’t like the revolutionary spirit of some MST leaders. To combat such sentiments, movement members go door to door to gather people for meetings in various towns.

But the MST has other problems, such as people without farming experience joining the group and then returning to the cities because it wasn’t what they had expected. As Wolford says, farming is hard.

Kids who grow up in the MST sometimes leave for the cities when they’re older, causing the cycle of poverty to continue because the jobs still aren’t available there. These criticisms, Wolford says, pale in comparison to the need for agrarian reform in a country that has the second-highest level of unequal land distribution in the western hemisphere.

“And people who criticize the movement for being radical or violent should visit a settlement,” she says. “They would see people who love the land, work hard, and meet regularly with their neighbors to solve problems and play soccer. Sure, not everyone in the MST is a good person or a good farmer, but not all of my students at UNC care about their education, and I don’t hold that against the university as a whole.”

Click to read photo caption. Photo by Wendy Woolford, ©2007 Endeavors.

The MST, Wolford says, “is not about creating some sort of harmonious agrarian populist lifestyle. That’s part of it but not all of it. What reform really means is creating sustainable development so that some poor people get to produce food that other poor people in the country get to eat.”

MST and the powers that be

The Brazilian government has grudgingly undertaken agrarian reform in response to MST land seizures, but in 2001, INCRA’s vice-director said, “What you are seeing here is what you might call ‘agrarian reform light.’” Slow and steady land negotiations are like a pressure valve to prevent the movement from spreading too quickly. True agrarian reform, he said, would be possible only with a left-wing administration. Brazil elected a left-wing president in 2002: Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Unfortunately for the MST, Wolford says, Lula’s never been a big supporter of agrarian reform.

“There’s a pretty strong distinction, particularly in Latin America, between the trade-union left and the agrarian-Catholic Church left,” Wolford says. Lula is trade-union left; he’s focused on making immediate conditions better for poor urban workers. For instance, he implemented the Zero Hunger Project to eradicate malnutrition in Brazil. “Had that program been linked to agrarian reform it would’ve been fabulous,” Wolford says, “because sometimes the MST settlements have no access to markets.”

The Zero Hunger Project gets food from large farms, the same ones that account for most of Brazil’s exports. Despite Lula’s Worker-Party roots, he still supports trade policy, taxes, and subsidies that favor chemically dependent, large-scale corporate agriculture. But factoring in the not-so-flat demands of globalization, Brazil often has little choice.

In the summer of 2002, when Lula showed strong in polls, Wall Street firms cautioned international investors about the possibility of another Hugo Chavez in the region, causing a rush of dollars out of Brazil. U.S. financiers and government officials disparaged Lula and predicted a severe economic crisis. Brazil’s currency lost value and economic indicators looked ominous. As a result, all Brazilian presidential candidates had to reassure the United States that they’d abide by the terms of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan program to avert runaway inflation and economic catastrophe.

“Brazilian leaders who might consider economic or political alternatives feel that they have no choice but to cooperate with the U.S. and IMF,” Wolford says. Consequently, agrarian reform takes a back seat. (Remember that settlement’s health clinic? A doctor had been regularly visiting it before the Brazilian federal government ended his employment in order to meet the IMF mandate to cut social spending.)

But not that long ago, small farming was the way of the world. The United States once supported small farmers and agrarian reform in Italy, Germany, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan—all successes of U.S.-sponsored post-World War II restoration. According to Wolford, U.S. officials thought that small agriculture was more conducive to democracy, while large landholdings encouraged authoritarian and militaristic government. And history has shown that small farms are much better for domestic economies. In 2001, a joint study by INCRA and the United Nations showed that small-scale farming in Brazil used credit and land far more efficiently than large-scale operations. Family farmers can’t afford to waste or mistreat land, so they are more inclined to use sustainable practices. As a result, some local economies around the world have flourished. In Brazil, more local merchants and politicians are supporting agrarian reform. And this is one reason why, against the odds, the Landless Movement in Brazil has survived for twenty-three years.

Meanwhile, the United States and the European Union now support large farms and agricultural corporations such as Cargill and Monsanto through tax breaks, subsidies, and import tariffs. Huge multinational operations dominate food production and consumption around the world. This, essentially, is the major stumbling block for the World Trade Organization, Wolford says. This is the debate between free trade and fair trade, and the main point of contention for family farmers around the world. They need better access to markets, even inside their own countries, if they’re going to survive. That’s basically what the MST wants, Wolford says—a level playing field, a flatter world.

Wendy Wolford is an associate professor of geography in the College of Arts and Sciences. Her forthcoming book on the MST will be published by Duke University Press. She was awarded a three-year National Science Foundation grant to research INCRA. In 2006, she was awarded a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to lead a Sawyer Seminar series at UNC on four land-related themes: property, mobilization, ecology, and food.