With their critique of the sanctity of private property, the MST and EZLN build politicised societies, alternative to the mainstream. Being always ahead of the wave, they can see what the struggle is going to require.
In the mid 1990s the landless workers’ and Zapatista movements emerged to challenge the neoliberal policies that were threatening local peasant communities, bringing new hope to achieve radical social change.
Also, the revolutionary character of the two movements relied on their concern for gender equality, the reinvention of indigenous culture and the continuous search for alternative ways to radicalise their grassroots.
The book “Land and freedom” is the result of several years of research during which the author, Leandro Vergara-Camus, carried out several rounds of fieldwork in communities affiliated to the MST (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Terra, MST, or Landless Workers Movement) and EZLN (Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional, or Zapatista National Liberation Army).
Also, according to Leandro, the two movements managed to redeem their grassroots members from marginalisation, turning them into politicised citizens aware and willing to defend their rights.
Leandro Vergara-Camus is a senior lecturer in Development Studies at SOAS, University of London. His fields of expertise include theories of development, political economy of development, and historical sociology of state and class formation. His current research is on the internationalisation of the Brazilian sugarcane ethanol industry.
Vergara-Camus spoke to The Prisma.
“Land and freedom” is a comparative study of two Latin American peasant movements that have been challenging globalisation and neoliberal policies in the region. Why did you choose the MST and Zapatista movements for your book?
The mid 1990s was a period of crisis for the left and most of the left everywhere did not have any kind of positive experience to talk about. And then 1994 is the moment when the Zapatistas came out, they brought new hope in terms of the possibility of radical social change, and they propose a different strategy for social change.
The MST was the obvious comparison because, throughout these very same years, it was carrying out massive occupations of large properties, was involved in marches, and sit-ins in government buildings, it was one of the main actors involved in the World Social Forum. So, the MST was also a movement that was raising a lot of interest.
What are the major differences that you found between the two movements?
Well, the obvious difference between the two movements is the ethnic character, the indigenous character of the Zapatistas. The Zapatistas used and reinvented indigenous culture for their struggle. So, for example, they reclaimed the ejido as an egalitarian form of organising the community, but they challenged the way the ejido was working under the post-revolutionary Mexican state. For example, in an ejido assembly it’s only the people that have land titles that are allowed to vote and have a voice. That means that people that do not have a title do not have a voice within the assembly. The Zapatistas have challenged that. So, the Zapatistas reformed the ejido itself because they recognised that it was a limited form of organisation.
The struggle for autonomy is still going on in Mexico today. That gives the Zapatistas a different dimension, their struggle is also about control of natural resources, it is also control about the type of development they want in their territory.
It is also about cultural rights, the ability to have their own school system, their own forms of judicial system. So that makes them very different from the experience of the MST. Because the main struggle of the MST is not necessarily about the control of natural resources, it is about land for agriculture.
A big part of your book is about the fieldwork you have carried out in both Brazil and Chiapas. Did the two movements evolve throughout their struggle?
Throughout their years of existence, they have gone through different stages in terms of their strategies in relation to the state and political parties, in the case of the Zapatistas in particular.
The Zapatistas emerged during a process of struggle for democratisation in Mexico. So at the same time that you had the Zapatistas proposing a radical project of social transformation, you had the PRD (Partido de la Revolución Democrática) proposing a more conventional electoral option, trying to reform the state through electoral means and by gaining access to the state.
The Zapatistas had accepted those two ways of transformation from 1994 to about 1997-8.
But in their dealings with the Mexican state, they decided to stop any kind of negotiation and cooperation. They also decided about around 1998 that the electoral path was actually not viable for social transformation in Mexico, and they completely stopped developing any kind of collaboration with political parties, seeing them as basically more or less corrupt and leading to very limited transformations. They had not moved from this position until very recently, when they decided to present an indigenous woman as a candidate of the indigenous people through the Congreso Nacional Indígena (CNI) for the ongoing Presidential Campaign.
In terms of how they organised themselves, the Zapatistas have been able to consolidate their hold on a territory that is much bigger than their original stronghold, which was basically a corner of the Lacandona jungle. Now they have a presence in more or less half of the territory of Chiapas, basically only in indigenous dominated regions.
What about the MST?
The MST has also been evolving; its members have been changing. In the first wave in the 1980s, the MST was basically a movement of rural workers that had a peasant background. But in the 1990s many people joined them who had less of a peasant background. Lots of their members had been long-term rural workers and many had been living in favelas for several years. So, the grassroots members became much more urban in the 1990s.
The MST is a movement that is always ahead of the wave, seeing what the struggle is going to require. One of the problems that they were having in the negotiations with state officials, for example, was that they did not have technical skills. So, they started training their own members. They created schools. The most important one is the “Escola Nacional Florestan Fernandes” where they train their leaders and have even invited leaders from other Latin American movements.
They have established agreements with universities. The last time I went, in 2009, they were training leaders in law, politics and in rural geography.
These people are going to become leaders with BAs and are going to be able to negotiate face-to-face with government officials.
So, the MST has gone through a process of professionalisation of its leadership. Also, what was interesting about the MST was that it was continuously able to benefit from new waves of radicalised leaders that had gone through the process of land occupation.
What are the achievements of the two movements?
I think one of the biggest achievements is what they managed to do with their grassroots members.
People that are constantly marginalised by society tend to think of themselves as not being good enough, or they have low self-esteem and they think they have no rights.
These movements take those people and transform them into citizens that criticise politicians and criticise the state, and know that the state has to respond to their needs and demands. They become citizens that are going to engage in mobilisation against state policies. They politicise people and create politicised communities. They create political subjects.
That is easily perceivable when you go to a MST community or encampment. You talk to people and the way they understand politics, the way they understand mobilisation is incredible. And they continue to use that collective strength even after they conquer land. They are communities that very often are more cohesive, they engage in all sorts of practices of solidarity among themselves. So, they build a different kind of community that is actually an alternative to mainstream society.