I was born in a village named Nova Alegria, in the municipality of Itamaraju, in the state of Bahia. I went to São Paulo to work and then go back home with some money in order to improve our lives. I went to find better living conditions, but when I got there I saw that it had been a mistake. I was lucky to get involved with social movements. I was part of the workers movement. In December 1986, I came back to Bahia. I kept listening to a song by Elomar Figueira Melo, Peão na amarração,(1) and when I arrived home, I said to my mother and father: “From now on, I will not work for a man or woman in the world who barely pays a salary for my labor, as if I was a slave!” From that moment on, I stopped being a slave and took on the responsibility of taking care of my mother’s small plot of land.
My sister had gone to work in Rio de Janeiro; she was raped and shot in the mouth, and the thirst for revenge came. My father said: “We can take our revenge in the fight for land!” When I talk about revenge, people think I am hateful, but it’s not really about hate. What we feel is the need to take back the land of our ancestral people. We must take back the land that belonged to our people, who suffered lashings, who had their land stolen by big farmers. We have the strength, the will and the ancestral energy that drives us to fight for freedom.
My relationship with social movements and their struggle was born out of necessity and conscience. My parents and grandparents used to say that we need to fight for what we believe in. My father had the fight for land and territory in his blood, and he passed that on to us. He used to say that the land is power, and whoever had that power did not depend on anyone. In this sense, my father was always building our conscience. We needed the land, as well as the awareness that the fight for it was a necessity.
Later, listening to the stories of my two grandmothers – Joana, my paternal grandmother, and Izabel, my maternal grandmother –, it became clear to me how they had lost their land at the behest of big farmers. Both were owners of a piece of land where they raised their families. My grandmother Izabel was a matriarch, and she was in charge of the entire family. My grandmother Joana was a religious leader. They were part of the land and passed that on to us. When they told me why they had lost their land, I was already in the MST, Landless Workers’ Movement.(2)
In March 1988, I was “baptized” at a camp, the Bela Vista camp, in Itamaraju. I was arrested. We were imprisoned for a few days and, when we got out of jail, we resumed the fight. In July of that same year, we conducted the biggest land occupation(3) driven by the new MST motto: “Occupy, Resist and Produce”. From there, we started to structure the Landless Movement throughout the state of Bahia.
We came to the South of Bahia in 1992. We occupied the Bela Vista farm, which today is the Terra Vista Settlement. I have been in this settlement for over 30 years. I fought, helped build the MST in Bahia, participated in all of its instances, and joined the National Directorate of the MST. When I started being part of the movement, there were only two settlements in the state of Bahia: Settlement 4045 and Riacho das Ostras. Today, we have nine regional offices in Bahia, several settlements, and countless settlers.
In 2013, I left the national and state leadership of the MST and retired to the Terra Vista Settlement. I wanted to take part in the agroecological transition – which we have been doing since 2000 – and I helped form Teia dos Povos,(4) a movement that brings together the native peoples, Black people, the people from terreiros(5) and the quilombola(6) people in order to fight for land and territory, against capital. Teia dos Povos also brings together students who want to be part of the struggle for an agroecological transition, as well as intellectuals who want to be part of the debate about land and territory. It is a spider’s web that will weave a great organization of peoples, without prejudice and without distinction. We want to make unity in difference.
Many people fight for utopian, idealistic freedom. My father, however, taught me that the struggle for land is concrete. As the song goes, “The real and the fantasy separate in the end”. If one does not have a concrete goal, and sticks to utopia only, one will not accomplish anything. It is necessary to combine utopia and reality. The MST struggle helped us to strengthen both our conscience and our capacity to take back our land.
When Banco Econômico went bankrupt, we set up a strategy and took back almost all the farms belonging to Ângelo Calmon de Sá.(7) I had the greatest pleasure and the greatest pride in taking back that land. Calmon de Sá is a family with a lot of blood on their hands for having killed many Indigenous and Black people and for having enslaved Blacks. There is a lot of blood in Bahia because of that family. I was there, on the front lines, with the strength and the will and the certainty that we needed to avenge our people.
Every day, I wake up dreaming of revolution, of giving the land back to our people. I will never stop; I will only stop when I die! The fight for land and territory is primordial. In 1500, this place was paradise. With the arrival of the Portuguese vessels came the cross and the sword, and it became hell. The native peoples that had lived here for over 12 thousand years, the real owners of the land, were displaced. They used to have extraordinary lives; they were happy people.
From then on, however, the war for land ownership and resources from the earth began; it continues to this day. We have faced 520 years of a senseless war, produced by white Europeans, the great invaders. This is a problem we all need to face: the native peoples’ fight for land. We, at Teia dos Povos, believe that this is just the beginning. We also need to consider that our Abolition Law(8) did not address the land issue. We fought, we have been fighting all these years, but we still haven’t been able to guarantee land for the Black people. After 400 years of slavery, Blacks were dumped on the streets, empty-handed.
This struggle remains a vital agenda, even though the Left, from 1994 onwards, has neglected our claim. Intellectuals and the student movement also moved away from the fight for land. The Workers’ Party,(9) which from 2002 onwards began to rule the country, also abdicated the fight for land, seen as a backward struggle. They chose to bet on large agribusinesses.
If we want to build a great civilization in Brazil, it is necessary to advance the perspective of the struggle for land. We, from Teia dos Povos, are resuming this discussion. We want to dialogue with the people from urban peripheries, with Black people and with native peoples. We see the need to wage a great war to restore the land to the peoples of the land.
Our fight aims to heal two wounds — the almost annihilation of native peoples and slavery, which later pushed Black people into favelas.(10) It also aims to rebalance our cities. Therefore, the fight for land and territory is a struggle that concerns not only peasants, but all of us. Contrary to those who claim that it belongs to the past, this fight is fundamental for today’s political agenda.
Those who are, in fact, inciting a return to the past (a horrible past) are the 10% who today advertise on TV: “Agro is pop, agro is everything”.(11) Agribusiness takes over the land, it uses machines and drones, and with its monoculture and pesticides it kills everything… It is not possible that so few families should own the media; it is not possible that so few families own land in Brazil.
Brazil has a lot of land and not so many people. Its population is concentrated in large urban centers. A very small group misappropriated the land and forced the population to go to the great centers. The force of the development of capital, which needed cheap labor, caused the exodus, both rural and from small towns, taking advantage of the droughts that are common in the country’s Northeast.
There are certain illusions that we must get out of our minds. Land and territory are power. The Black people, native peoples and peoples in the urban peripheries need to understand that we have to fight for this power. We have to fight to restore the land to the native peoples and demand land for the Black people who were taken from Africa, on slave ships, and who were left with no land, no shelter, no bread.
We must go into a radical fight. I do not believe that such fight will be peaceful or that we will ever receive anything from the government or from Jesus, should he return to Earth and come to Brazil. Only our struggle, our strength, our unity will be able to restore our land. The current holders of power will not give in. It’s been 520 years. They will never give in. The racist, backward, and slave-owning elite will never return the land to the peoples who are its rightful owners. We need to unite and fight to build a society beyond capital.
We conquered our land in March 1992. We chose that month as a tribute to women. When we arrived here, it was a surprise to learn that the property belonged to two women who lived in Vieira Souto, (12) in Rio de Janeiro. They inherited the estate from a great colonel who used to kill many people: Colonel Elias Cavanhaque. The land had become a land of colonels; they stole it from the Indigenous people, from the quilombolas, from the Black people who grew cacao through the cabruca system. Over 300 years old, the cabruca(13) system was created by Indigenous and quilombola peoples. The colonels appropriated the land and expelled everyone, but with the crisis in cocoa production brought forth by a fungus, they all broke. Some committed suicide, others went crazy. At that moment, the MST decided that it would conquer and occupy the unproductive lands throughout Bahia.
When we occupied the Terra Vista Settlement, we fought against everything and everyone: against Rede Globo, against the Military Police, against the main newspaper in Bahia. After five evictions, the 360 families we had upon arrival had been reduced to 28; such was the suffering. During the last eviction, which took place in 1994, we agreed we would conquer the land and build a school. We wanted to make sure our children could be doctors, so that they would never go through what we were going through. The construction of the school was our first goal. It began in June of that same year. Today, in addition to the Florestan Fernandes elementary school, we have the Milton Campos school, which is also called the School of Cocoa, a technical school. We have also created an Agronomy course and a graduate degree in Agroecology.
Between 1994 and 1999, we had insisted on the implementation of conventional agriculture processes. We wanted to be big producers, and we still had the illusion that we would fit into capitalism. We stayed in that mess for five years, damaging the land with chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and more and more our crops were drawing back. In 2000, we broke down and came to understand that we don’t fit within capitalism. Capitalism doesn’t want us. We understood that for our children to become doctors, we needed to make an agroecological transition.
We started with a small vegetable garden, trying to follow the legacy that Ana Primavesi left us, the legacy of soil regeneration. She used to say something beautiful: “Healthy soil, healthy plants, healthy people”. We must regenerate the earth and reconnect to it. We need to feed the soil because the lands we conquered were destroyed by capitalism and agribusiness. In this way, we recovered 92% of the riparian forest. Over 40% of our area is covered by preserved Atlantic Forest. We also have 300 hectares of cabruca and the rest of the land is used to plant vegetables and food.
The saying goes “out of sight, out of mind”; that is why we invite everyone, from anywhere, to visit us and get to know our work. Agroecology is a Science that should be studied and understood by everyone so we can rebuild our wasted lands. Agroecology is not a master’s thesis, a doctorate dissertation, or a fairy tale. It is something real that needs to be implemented alongside the native peoples, who have always used it as a principle. The Black people understand what agroecology is when they regain their land and territory.
The land does not belong to us. It belongs to the future generations, to nature, to higher powers. We know the power of herbs, medicinal plants, and trees. Everything is spiritual for us, everything is sacred. That is why we grew closer to agroecology, to transform the soil into a better land. We need to reconnect with what we consider sacred and with nature in order to build a new perspective for humanity: with our knowledge, our orixás,(14) our encantados,(15) our inquices,(16) with everything our wisdom has to protect us and to protect nature and Mother Earth.
Every little piece of land, every territory that we conquer, we must transform with the science of agroecology in action, on a daily basis. We learn from the ants, from the birds, from the trees. They teach us how to make the transition, how to die to give life to other beings, and how biodiversity is achieved. In our settlement, we are rebuilding paradise, here on Earth. If we don’t, we won’t have another paradise. The only planet we have is this one. At least for 90% of humanity. The other 10% can go to Mars – have a nice trip! We don’t need them here anymore. If we expelled 10% of humanity, we would make this planet a paradise, so that everyone could live in abundance.
Capitalism is an evil that has come to humanity. Within capitalism, even if we take back our lands, there are no possibilities for us to survive. We need to face capitalism in order to picture a humanly just and dignified society for all. This will not be the fruit and work of our rulers and of those who oppress us to this day. It will be the work of the working class, the native peoples, the Black people, and the peoples who live on the outskirts – surrounded, murdered, and humiliated by violent power. We are the ones who guarantee all the country’s wealth, which are appropriated by a very small group. We need to return to the earth and build another perspective for humanity, with dignity and hope.
A lot of people think that fighting for land and territory is backward. Many think that we are like Monteiro Lobato(17) imagined us – Jeca Tatus,(18) ignorant, illiterate. The first thing we try to do is to reaffirm our position. To assert that the struggle for land and territory, is the struggle of the 21st century. If we do not take back land and territory, all humanity might perish. This is more than a fair fight; it is a worthy fight, and it is a sacred fight.
How are we going to rebuild the meaning of labor? How are we going to forsake the Fordist means, the capitalist means? We can is only envisage one path: the fight for land and territory; the fight for power. Taking responsibility and working for freedom, not for slavery. We want freedom now; concrete freedom, in the land. Idealistic freedom is not for us. We do not fight for egalitarianism.
Freedom means building a society of difference, of contradictions, but with a consensus about what is better for everyone. We often say that what unites us is much bigger than the little things that separate us. Our struggle is for work and for freedom and autonomy. We want to be free people who work independently. We have to forget the illusion of alms, of public policies that continue to deceive us, giving us the leftovers of the bourgeoisie. We don’t need to live on alms. We need land and territory – to have comfortable homes, better living conditions, education as we understand it – to build the society in which we believe.
The Left, in recent times, has not been able to face violence. Black people, people from the urban peripheries, Indigenous peoples and women are the majority. We need to prepare because we are not the ones who have declared war on those who hold power. It was they who decreed war on humanity. Will capitalism allow us to be human beings, worthy of land, territory, and our riches? Never! We must abandon the illusion that peace, love, and flowers will be our defense in this war. We need to use all our forces and tools to face the war decreed by capitalism and imperialism.
We are the 90% and, if we don’t own this, society will move towards barbarism and destruction. The wealth of humanity is owned by 10% of the population — thanks to our labor and to our common resources, which have been appropriated — and we cannot give this group a chance. Confrontation is required.
All weapons will be needed for war. Defending ourselves is not a crime; it is a necessity for us to survive, and we have to start preparing for a defensive war. So that our children can be proud of us, of the people who avenged Indigenous peoples and Black people from the suffering of slavery and hatred. We need to make this confrontation; we need to refuse the deceptions and illusions of public policies. We don’t need crumbs to survive. We have it all. We want everything. It is all ours by right. We must fight for everything, not for trifles. Alms and pacifism get us nowhere. We have a responsibility to our ancestors who died, who gave their lives, who shed tears. We have a responsibility to the mothers of Black boys who, every day, shed tears for their murdered children. We need to respond accordingly.
Our cowardice and our lack of ability to fight back are the reasons why today we have militiamen in charge, cowards and crooks. My parents and grandparents used to say that those who stoop too low lose something. We need to stand tall and face the war. It was not we who declared it. It was not we who took the land from the peoples; it was not we who murdered them. We need to react with dignity, strength, and with organization. We have to bring all these peoples together and react.
Along with the decolonization of land and territory, we have to decolonize our thoughts and our souls. Therefore, we must take care of existence: in order to live on our land and territory, what food should we plant? How do native peoples live, what is their relationship with nature, and how do they take from nature, without ceasing to preserve it?
Thanks to the experience of the agroecological transition, we gradually regained the credibility of the families in the settlement. We are in a process that might still take about 20 years to reach the stage we aim for: going beyond capital in the process of fighting for land, with convincing experiences that come from our way of seeing, doing, feeling. I believe that the MST, the movements fighting for land, the native peoples, we all need to advance in the perspective of a new economy, based on our own knowledge, on the understanding of our ancestors, and also on new knowledge, which comes to strengthen our ancestry.
It hasn’t been easy. We first had to understand what our guiding principles were, and then the means to design and accomplish our project. First, land and territory, our principles. Then, how to live in it. Our turning point happened when we realized the importance of native seeds, of improving our agricultural practices, of seeing the Earth as a mother and all beings on it as part of a process. We have come to realize that we are almost insignificant in that process. That we needed to connect with the forest, with water, with food; to perceive the earth differently. The land is no longer an enemy to us, to be destroyed for the accumulation of goods and wealth. When one looks closely, that’s not wealth. There are other types of riches.
We know, for example, that food sovereignty involves seed control. Monsanto Company controls seed production and an entire marketing process based on what they call “technological packages”. Monsanto produces a kind of seed, called Terminator, that does not germinate. When it germinates, it does not surface. The seed cannot reproduce, unless we buy its so-called technological package, which needs to be constantly renewed.
While Monsanto has appropriated the seeds, Bayer controls the poisons and the medicines. Ten companies dominate the food market. They are poisoning the land, poisoning us. It’s a closed circle. How can we get out of it? By recovering our seeds; native seeds, traditional seeds. Producing, storing, and safeguarding our seeds today is revolutionary.
Most true farmers have not abandoned the search and care for seeds. At the settlement, we now have a variety of over 300 seeds, more than 300 types of food. In the meanwhile, we can count on our fingers: ten to fifteen types of crops feed the population today. It has all been overtaken, from the seeds to the agro-industrial processes.
Master Antônio Conselheiro(19) used to say that “The sertão(20) will turn into sea and the sea will turn into sertão”. Agribusiness and capitalism are destroying nature so fast that we could all perish without water. When we fight for land and territory, we are fighting for many things. Capitalism, imperialism, and agribusiness are destroying all water sources, as well as the nature that safeguards the water. Agribusiness is destroying the Cerrado biome with unprecedented speed and ignorance.
The consequences are showing. The destruction of the Cerrado biome will hit the South of the country. We sees droughts, typhoons, and a series of things that had never happened before happening now. The fight for land and territory includes all these different aspects: the fight for water, the fight for electricity, the fight against mining, the fight for seeds, the fight against the destruction of forests.
People in Western society are educated to think of themselves as superior beings. They give themselves the right to destroy everything, to put an end to everything, to disregard all things. “We’ll figure it out later.” Capital makes us think so. But the Earth is a being, it is alive, even though that is not what is taught in schools. For Indigenous communities, for native communities, it is alive. For a nordestino,(21) it is alive. The time has come for society to understand that we are part of the land, not owners of it. If the Earth’s life comes to an end, so do we.
The world we want to build does not belong to me; it belongs to nobody. It is our world. Everyone has to contribute and participate to build this new world, where the native peoples can return to their lands, to their knowledge, their ancestry, their wisdom; where Black people can also live happily with their knowledge, their science. We can build a better world for everyone. The Earth is a mother, and she is happy to welcome us, happy and joyful. We are committed to not wanting to be her owner. We are part of the Earth; we are her children. Together with other spirits, we will take care of our mother and leave her as a heritage for future generations.
1 The song talks about an agricultural laborer who dreams of leaving his hard life behind, wishing for a world where there are neither servants nor masters.
2 MST, Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra is one of the largest Brazilian social movements. Their goal is to give poor rural workers access to land through land reform.
3 The MST mobilization takes place through marches and land occupations – when MST establishes settlements. The settlements consist of the occupation of properties that are either idle or in irregular situation.
4 Teia dos Povos, The Web of the Peoples, is an articulation of self-managed communities, territories, and social movements. It was founded in 2012, during the 1st Agroecology Journey held in the Terra Vista Settlement.
5 Terreiros are the places where the cults and ceremonies of Afro-Brazilian religions such as Umbanda and Candomblé are held.
6 Quilombos are communities originally formed by enslaved Black people who were able to escape and resist slavery, in search of freedom and autonomy. With the end of slavery, these communities persisted and still do today. People born in a quilombo are called quilombolas.
7 Banco Econômico was a Brazilian bank founded in 1834. It went bankrupt in 1995, when under the direction of Ângelo Calmon de Sá.
8 The Abolition Law in Brazil was adopted in 1888.
9 Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT) is a Brazilian political party founded in 1980, one of the biggest and most important left-wing parties in Latin America.
10 Favelas are a type of Brazilian slum that suffer from governmental neglect and police abuse.
11 Rede Globo is a Brazilian free-to-air television network founded in 1965. The author refers to an advertising campaign they aired in prise of agribusiness in 2017, 2020 and 2021.
12 Street located in the South Zone of Rio de Janeiro, right by Ipanema beach, in one of the most expensive neighborhoods in Brazil.
13 Cabruca is an agroforestry system for cocoa cultivation in which the trees native to the region are used to provide shade to the cocoa trees. It is used in the south of Bahia and in the state of Espírito Santo.
14 Orixás are deities worshiped by many African beliefs, including Afro-Brazilian religions.
15 Spiritual beings in some Indigenous religions in Brazil. Also part of Afro-Brazilian religions.
16 Deities of Angolan origin, worshiped in Brazil by some strands of Candomblé.
17 Monteiro Lobato was a Brazilian writer. Born in 1882, he created very famous children’s books and characters, and was a nationalist. He has been accused of racism due to the way Black people were portrayed in several of his works.
18 One of Monteiro Lobato’s characters. A poor and ignorant peasant worker.
19 Antônio Conselheiro (1830-1897) was a Brazilian religious leader and founder of the Canudos village, where the War of Canudos was held, in which its residents were brutally slayed by the Brazilian army.
20 Sertão is a region in Northeast Brazil, marked by the caatinga biome and for being an economically poor region. It is a hinterland region.
21 Native or inhabitant of the Northeast region in Brazil.