CESNUR - center for studies on new religions

The Landless Movement : an analysis about the religious discourse

Drª. Maria de Lourdes Beldi de Alcântara
Marcelo Justos -master (Núcleo e Laboratório do Imaginário e Memória da Universidade de São Paulo)
A paper presented at The 2001 Conference in London

It is our objective to briefly retell about the history formation of the Rural Landless Workers Movement ( MST ) focusing the important role of the Land Pastoral Comittee ( Comissão Pastoral da Terra - CPT ) and its origin. It is our concern to stand out the symbolic elements that originate from the Catholic Church , mainly from The Liberation Theology for the Landless Movement. Finally, it’s our aim to show the basis on which the leader’s discourse of this movement is built in relation to its basis .


João Pedro Stédile, a member of the nacional board of director’s, grants the MST formation to social economical and political factors ; among these factors he places the agricultural modernization as the first , in second place the "inherited ideology" of the Catholic Church pastoral work , and at last , the fight against the military political system [1964-88]. As far as he is concerned the MST wouldn’t exist if it handn’t been for Land Pastoral Committee (Comissão Pastoral da Terra ) ,since the Movement envolves from Catholic and Lutheran Churches work.

Besides the elements which helped originate the movement, the rural conflict which a historical and geographical landmarks maybe be added : the fights in towns such as: Nonoai, Sarandi e Ronda Alta, in Rio Grande do Sul, in the late 1970’s.

We could point many historical facts between 1978 and 1985 to be considered the starting point for the Landless Movement.

In 1978 the Kaigang indians from the municipal reservation of the town of Nonoai expelled over a thousand squatter families that had been living there since 1968 renting the land through the Fundação Nacional do Índio (Funai) . In that year a part of those families occupied a farm called Macali, but they were soon displaced . João Pedro Stédile, who used to work at Agriculture Bureau of Rio Grande do Sul and used to be an assessor at

Land Pastoral Committee, at that time , discovered that the Macali farm was "grilada" (the property title was a fake). In September 1979, the Macali farm and a neighbor area called "Glebe Brilhante" were occupied once more , both located in Ronda Alta/RS. Both the parish priest of Ronda Alta , who was one of the Land Pastoral Committee founders in the town, and Stédile cooperated with the orgazination of the families that were expelled from Nonoai Indian reservation. Another group of families occupied the Anomi farm , in Sarandi/RS , but they were expelled too. Due to the displacements the families camped in an area named " Encruzilhada Natalino" .Two years later ,in this place, there would be a huge national concentration for fight for the land with 30 thousand people , organized by pela Agricultural Worker’s Confederation (Confederação dos Trabalhadores na Agricultura - Contag) and by Land Pastoral Committee. In 1985, the MST accomplished the dispossession of Anomi farm , after promoting another occupation.

Since the beginning of the 1980’s the number of land occupations around the country increased ; however , those were local fights supported by the Land Pastoral Committee members . Fernandes e Stédile could see in the amount of land occupations the beginning of something new in the rural life, but it was still fragmented . After those ocurrences Stédile stated the need of giving the landless fight a nationwide character.

In 1982 there was a nationwide meeting in Goiânia/GO promoted by Land Pastoral Committee, to exchange fight experiences among the people from the South, Southeast and Middle West . In this meeting a proposal was made to create a committee for a fight for the land in the Land Pastoral Committee. However, this proposal was beaten by another one , which stated that it would be important for the rural workers to orgazine themselves in an autonomous way. Between 1982 and 1983 there were various meetings aiming at a nationwide conference which would incorporate what had been happening in the North and in the Northeast of the country. The First National Encounter of the Rural Landless Movement, held in Cascavel /PR in 1984, made it clear that the fights should have a wider range than the local fights in the states . Among the long-ranged objectives of the movement manifested in this Meeting one was the concern about the disconection in relation to the Church through the constitution of leadership and political direction (Fernandes, 1999: 79-80). As a result of this meeting January 1984 became the oficial Date of the Movement Establishment .

The second half of 80’s was marked by the aggravation of rural conflicts all over the country. The First Agrarian Reform National Plan , which ocurred during the President José Sarney’s government (1986-1989) , intended the settlement of over a million families., the landless organizations promoted big occupations all over the country. As a reaction , the landowners created the Rural Democratic Union ( União Democrática Ruralista - UDR), in 1985, a paramilitary organization that aimed at defending private properties.

As a consequence, there was the biggest increase in the amount of peasant’s homicides and their representatives in rural conflicts (Cf. CPT, 1986 e 1989; Oliveira, 1997).

During the 80’s and 90’s the Landless Movement kept growing , faster in certain states . The Movement won its independence from the church, but it still received the support and maintened a dialog with that institution.

Nevertheless , the MST leaders recognize the important role of the church work , particularly Pastoral action of the CEBs (Comunidades Eclesiais de Base), derived from Liberation Theology. . Stédile says about the MST : " Most of the well prepared militant people had their progressive education in church monasteries" (Stédile & Fernandes, 1999: 59). "The CEBs were channels of participation of the people in a period of political repression . The Liberation Theology was a new evangelism where the poor (expropriators and exploited people ) no longer were seen just as sheep but were liable to enjoy their own freedom and evangelism .The conception God’s people’s church attempted to reduce the traditional Catholic church hierarchy , to a more flexible model. . This organisation model , present in the CEBs, was a reference for the MST ".(Fernandes, 1999: 69-74).

Stédile takes notice of the important role of the Liberation Theology in the MST formation and qualifies as "mystic" the religious element in the Movement ,which is still a form of link among the members of the Landless Movement. According to Stédile, the mystic in the no MST is a widespread practice and it carries an influence of the church to fulfill the purpose of being a common factor , to attain the ideals; however, is the aim the mystic shouldn’t only be an ordinary liturgy in itself . In this aspects , the mystic must be part of everyday life, it can’t be an isolated moment , it’s an intensive feeling vented to a reachable goal.

So, the MST tries to " keep the mystic " during the activities of the movement while enhances the global project , and brings to the daily life the project to conquer "the promised land ".

Talking about mysticism instead of one religion, the MST goes beyond the Liberation Theology discourse . And through the rhetoric of the mystic it replaces the term "faith" by "mystic". What is the purpose of this discourse ? How is it articulated? Would it be a semantic strategy where the Landless Movement and the Liberation Theology realize the important and potencial role of the religious space in the culture of the people? And so be able to fill this space with different religious practices ? Would the MST learders figure out that the religiosity of these people goes beyond the Catholic religion? The usage of the term "mystic" by the MST intends to embrace all and any religious diversity, different from the term " Mystic" used by the Catholic church before the Vatican II (1963-65), that is , the latter widely used to disqualify the rural population that practiced a magic mystical catholicism full of superstitions and stimulated practices which were not recognized by the Oficial Catholic Church. The position change makes of this religious locus a place to evidence the faith and puts aside its negative connotation. The term Faith and Politics- Liberation Theology is recognised and later the term " Mystic" and Politics for the Landless Movement.

However , a reduction of the symbolic universe of the rural worker is found in the MST leader’s discourse , interpreting it in a social class project. Stédile stated : "The fight for the land becomes a fight for agrarian reform and ,consequently, it becomes a political project of the workers , if by fighting they become socially aware to change society " (Steédile & Fernandes, 1999: 119).

Also according to Stédile ; there are three distinguishing characteristics in the movement: it is of the people since it gathers not only rural workers’ family but also other professionals who fight for the agrarian reform; it has a union form , defending its corporation , and it is political , persuing the workers’ interests.

Stédile thinks that the mystic and the organizational principles are the innovative aspects of the MST . The principles are : collegiate direction , as opposed to the centralization of a president ; tasks distribution ,taking into account personal skills ; discipline respecting the jurisdiction decision; study; working group formation; mass fight; and, at last bond with the people in the basis . Analysing these principles we can attest that there is distinction between direction and poeple in the basis even if the direction be collegiate and the decisions democratic.

However , what is really going to call our attention is how the mystic discourse will merge the political project described above

An attempt to analyse the Landless Movement discourse

It is a fact , as shown above , that the Landless Movement emerged from the Catholic church womb, specifically from the church linked to the Liberation Theology.

What does it mean ? The catholic church came closer to its followers " genuine followers " - the ordinary people - What was the strategy? The approach didn’t come through an extraordinary imagination that the Church of High Middle Ages,used to represent , but through a political attitude ,where the place for miraculous acts would not be Heaven anymore but the Earth, and it would no longer be given but conquered.

According to Le Goff what is missing is the extraordinary and magic element; from the moment the church had to struggle for a space in the profane society, it was no longer mystic, but more temporal, that is the moment for the Catholic church "äggiornamento" in social issues; from then on , the mystic of rustic catholicism so glorified by the rural sociology no longer shows the extraordinary and starts to be ressemantized by the social movements led by the Catholic church. During this process popular catholicism is modified , thanks to a symbolical migration, into the main symbol of the liturgy and having as its aim : seeing, judging and acting ,right here and now. Shall we infer that what happens to the rural imaginary at this moment is a process of

" disillusionment with the world"?

This semantic strategy takes the millinery character and the extraordinariness of the world away from the popular catholicism , and turns into aggiornamento, this process becomes clear when the biblical passage is used as a parable for a provincial fight : "The king will answer and say to them, "Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to me ,(Mt.25,40,45). So, the blood and the death of the poor are beyond the politics and touch Jesus heart".

The Landless Movement works in this historical moment of huge social inequality; and in this place of fight , where Brazil is seen as basically agrarian .

From now on the symbolic efficacy of catholicism will no longer be reported to the Eternal (immortality ) , There(heaven ) which is taken as a wait, but it will be reported to Here (land) and Now (this historical moment); it means an action - a definitely political action.

When we report ourselves to this projected place, we are dealing with utopia and extraordinary, so we are waiting for a divine justice . But achieve this justice we have to fulfill the obligations that the rites demand.

Everyone knows that it is through the rites that traditions are restored. Analyzing this , how shall we definy the rite? We know it’s the moment of vivifying the founder myth which also has the role of belonging and mediation of the individual to the social context where he belongs . In such case how can we describe this rite where Here and Now prevails?

The rite will be performed by Land procession and the land occupation will denote The Promised Land conquered . Stédile says : " Concernig the fight for land, the book

Exudus [in the Bilble] was one of the references to help the workers better understand their own histories. In the communities, during the biblical studies, an analogy was made between the Hebrew exudus and the exudus experienced by the rural workers. This pedagogical process enriched the new organization being formed.." The yeasting of the walking to the promised land was in process" (Fernandes, 1999:74). According to Stedile’s above statement :This is the ideological character inherited by the church.

We could say that ,in this context, the rite expresses itself via a secular liturgy, where the hagiographies are examples of fight , here and now examples of fight to conquer the promised land.

Would this main symbol no longer have a mystic value and turns in to a secular value? Does it lose its extraordinary meaning ? Where are the myth vivification and the belonging connected to the political action ?

The fight or the Calvary is the divine proof to the Promised land conquer, which isn’t heaven . The rite will not liven the myth but the founder hero who will be represented by the people themselves. Facing this - as the Landless Movement - through the Liberation Theology strategy is it possible to get closer to the rural population,which is characterized by the extraordinary presence and where the prayers , processions and the miracle performance that change the sacred into something inherent to the ordinary daily life and it is no longer confined? Stédile, says that , (1996:263) " the extraordinary dimension of the popular manifestations is illustrated in the miracle performances reports, in the stories of the pilgrims, in the promises and sacrificies taken as penitence..Complementing Camargo’s (1971:16) statement : the dominant characteristics of the rural catholicism are clemency and the devotion , it has a sainthood character which is neither theocentric,nor christcentric , but self defined by the predominant devotion to the favorite saints. The great religious festivities that bring together population spread in vast territories,,establish at the same time a leisure activity, a social relationship , and religious manifestation. One of the aspects of the religious practice that reflects the high level of the local sacred culture is the practice of communal prayers, promises, blessings and processions connected to the natural phenomema and to the successful course of agriculture and cattle raising. Processions ask for produce rain (ad pluviuiam petendam), prayers asking for lightnings and hail protection..

The Landless Movement brings into the daily life the land promise, redemption for the expellee sufferings, occupations,settlements, police confrontation and private safety during the walks.

Each of these sacrifices bears the hope of having land to live in and to grow. The enhancement of the organization claims that it must be a mass movement, thus the section responsible for organizing the occupations is called Mass Front. The familiarity with the mass brings into the daily routine the possibility of transcending the limit and the personal interests. The land occupations , which is the movement nature, gives the people a sense of unity. " Going through the Calvary of a camp creates a feeling of community and alliance" (Stédile & Fernandes, 1999: 115). This mass sense of power is also experienced in the settlements with the Land promise fulfillment the sense of living in the promised land is stimulated. The ideal for Christian fraternity looms in the settlements as motivation to cooperative work . The peasant farmers still belong to the Landless Movement because the fight does not finish when the land is conquered, - they need support to produce.

Besides , the convergence of the militancy in order to convene meetings and congresses helps to strengthen the bonds. "We want to leave the meetings renewed, recharged,willing to fight", Stédile (Stedile & Fernandes, 1999: 85). The small conquests made by dispossessions make the land ideology become something more tangible .Stédile thinks that solution for the agrarian issue in this country will be land for everyone . In the Landless Movement the promised land is a promise of land for everybody .

How will the magic rural imaginary be recalled as a clear political function ?

One of the gretatest paradigms of their strategy is shown in a movie produced by Liberation Theology and. by Father Conrado Berning [1]. It creates a liturgy represented in a parable through popular catholic symbolisms.

In this way the peasants will be able to relive their fight for equality and brotherhood here on the Earth through the hagiographies . St.Francis is the greatest exemple of fighting against social inequality.

The" despossessed", and the "marginalezed" should fight against the differences held HERE AND NOW and won’t wait for the eternal heritage, heaven. At this moment, the fight for the Promised land loses its sacred sense and starts having the conquest function for the civil rights and the procession becomes a public parade of protest , leading to occupation.

?So, the movie "Pé na Caminha" approaches the work of the land pastorals developed by the Catholic Church in Brazil and its preferencial option for the opressed clearly expressing the binomial : Faith and Politics.

The Catholic religious rituals and its sacraments are seen as merging and harmonic spaces of the conflict; the mass/procession are the unifiable elements which mean the place to get together and get the counsciousness, thus it is a place to claim , putting down the geographic space of the church.

In this context the procession shows people’s mercy; a real parade of protests which are synonyms of unification strength and faith. In the movie the Catholic symbols such as the Bible and the Cross are shown as symbols of awareness, fight and hope.

Therefore the Church becomes the image of the people and the image of God through Landless " Eclesiais de Base" communities , synonym of a place which houses minorities , the landless, the native indians , the unions, the ramblers etc.

Its discursive purpose is to become the cultural diversity shelter, and so,ecumennical.

3 Narration of Leonardo Boff in the movie Pé na caminhada;po.cit.

As a shelter the " Eclesias de base" can avoid any social classification, because social categories are mistaken by any diversity in their option to help the poor .

The great metaphor used in the movie is the scene where everybody is walking together and the camera focusing the different kinds of feet that take part in the procession, serving as a symbol of the real people of God, the despossessed.

The Liberation Theology believes that could make others aware of the social transformation in the here and now showing the people misery through the hunger archetype of the 60’s, taking popular symbols of the religious imagination.

This movement uses the framework of the mystic and takes from its contents the magic dimension, so that the Procession, communion that becomes a parade ; the evidence of faith demonstration and so a potential for fight , but this fight would try to change the present social order , or rather, a political action.The sacred content fuses with the political interest. Stédile states that in this way the Processions are no longer : a popular demonstration which carries the tradition that is reinvented by pilgrims, dwellers and clergymen ,as a way to legitimate valuess,actions and patterns of behavior. Evoking tradition these actors intended to recall religious references and rite performances that were stored up around the sacred place with or without the orthodoxy seal. Now these references and performances are used to socialize a system of ideas and behavior pattern..

The processions produce a ritual walking capable of integrating various senses and performances that contain both the discourse of the miracle and the discourse of the sacrifice.

Stédile says (1996:259): Because of the popular manifesto that change the rites into political action , it is configured a contadictory reality of approach with the people and the institutionalization of the rite, the popular culture appraisal and reasoning of romantic belonging and enlightening distance, politization of the religious discourse and of sacralizing of politics. This movement that begins with the reforms of the Vatican II , reaches its significant expression during the Land Procession, where all the unsolved contradictions ,are placed in new form . So, the rite takes a teological language that enhances the dimension of the sacrifice, trying to redefine the catholic concept for sacrament , which was the core of the discourse of the"romanized". . For society , it will emphasize the religious leaders’ role as liberty agents,while it integrates the values for justice and the "love for your neighbor" as basic for its discourse. It’s possible to realize , in this clerical vision , the incorporation of an illuminist perspective that produces the dissacralization of the sacred space through a discourse that unfolds its mistery.It wipes out the presence of the extraordinary.There’s a new look at the cult towards a new value of the illuminist reasoning, as a true mediator between the human and the sacred spirit,making myths and images sources of mystification . A new trend follows the "aggiornamento" of this church.,which is to destitute the pilgrimage from its mystical heat and intensity and insert it among the set of practices of the renewed oficial Catholicism..

I have noticed that the Landless movement leaders follow par et passus the semantic strategy of the catholic church , although , it uses the Liberation Theology to define the religiosity of the people. This strategy will cover the concepts of people and mass and the whole inner diversity making them feel included, therefore,agents of the changes on the fight for the land.

The Landless Movement leaders are aware of the necessity of using the Faith discourse for a dialogue to take place and consequently an identification of the basis. The leaders change mysticism into "aggiornamento" in order not to lose its penetration.The great merging and identifying discourse is still in the locus of the "sacred".



ALCÂNTARA, M.L.B. - Cinema, Quantos Demônios. Dissertação de Mestrado, 1990-PUC-SP.

CAMARGO, C.P.F. - Igreja e Desenvolvimento. São Paulo , edições CEBRAP, 1971.

CPT (Comissão Pastoral da Terra) (1986). Conflitos no Campo- Brasil 85. Goiânnia, Loyola.

CPT (Comissão Pastoral da Terra) (1989). Conflitos no Campo- Brasil 85. Goiânnia, Loyola.

FERNANDES, Bernardo Mançano (1999). MST - Formação e territorialização. São Paulo, Hucitec, 2a. ed.

STEIL, Carlos Alberto. O Sertão das Romarias. Um estudo antropológico sobre o santuário de Bom Jesus da Lapa - Bahia. Rio de Janeiro, Editora Vozes, 1986:263.


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