Book Review: Rebecca Tarlau’s Occupying Schools, Occupying Land



Rebecca Tarlau’s new book, Occupying Schools, Occupying Land shows how the MST “transformed Brazilian education.” The book, which began as Tarlau’s 2014 University of California doctoral dissertation in education, is divided into two parts of three chapters each, as well as an introduction and conclusion. It also includes an epilogue written in November 2018, which examines some implications of recent dramatic changes in Brazil’s political economy on the MST and its rural education initiatives. Included in an appendix are English translations of five key documents referenced in the text. The book is peppered with useful tables, graphs, photographs, and maps.

The first part offers a historical analysis of the MST’s experience of constructing a national education programme, from the first makeshift land occupation encampment schools to Pronera and the national Educação do Campo initiative. In the second part, regional case studies examine state–society relationships as experienced by diverse MST projects in varied spaces, from settlements to towns to states. The principal examples are in the states of Rio Grande do Sul, Pernambuco, and Ceará. A contradictory São Paulo state case is also investigated. Through visits to Brazil between 2009 and 2014, the author personally witnessed many of the events examined in these chapters. Like a reporter, she interviewed militants, policy makers, and participants.

Tarlau assesses the MST’s capacity to “transform” the Brazilian public education system, and by drawing on Gramsci’s “war of position”, she argues that the MST embraced the long revolutionary game to gain experience in governance and accumulate allies. She maintains that schools are one of the best institutions to target to build critical political consciousness in civil society. MST educational ideas and practices, promoted by movement militants, popped up in diverse parts of the country, intensifying interest in rural education and changing the lives of thousands of individuals. More importantly, the MST disputed public education policy, securing a long-sought space for equitable forms of education in the countryside. In educational institutions, especially public ones, the MST has sought to hone its leadership skills and foster social transformation. Her study centres on an assessment of how the MST’s engagement of “contentious co-governance of formal education serves as a generative sphere for [it] to build internal capacity and social influence” (21).

Tarlau describes the institutional integration of the MST as “contentious co-governance” that provided the movement a precious opportunity to influence public policy, gain high-level administrative experience, and “prefigure” part of its “future project of constructing a fully socialist society” (5). She does this through drawing on the MST activists struggles to get Pronera, the National Agrarian Reform Education Programme, established and institutionalized in the federal budget, a move made possible by the inclusion of union and social movement representatives in the hierarchy of decision making from a programme coordinator in Brasília to students in local schools. She shows how a social movement can, in fact, use a privileged position in the government to bring about change rather than be co-opted by it. Questioning the central argument of new social movement literature that dismisses electoral politics and the state, she demonstrates how MST discipline, training, and strategy contributed to unexpected successes in public education policy.

While the MST cannot be said to have “transformed Brazilian education,” as the book’s title argues, it certainly made a difference in the countryside. But where MST activists were pushed out or unable to influence policy, their rural education innovations soon disappeared. A case in point was the MST’s campaign for Educação do Campo (Education of the Countryside). The campaign started in the 1990s, and the idea was to pressure the state to expand and strengthen schooling in rural areas, based on a renovated curriculum that valued rural life and work. According to this campaign, rural schools should be modernized, teach the humanities, and offer technical training useful to making one’s livelihood in agriculture. Moreover, students should be involved in running the schools, and study time should be alternated with time off to farm and build communities. However, the success of the campaign meant that agribusiness organizations hostile to the MST soon got interested and managed to influence the law and establish their own programmes. With such big players involved, the MST lost control of the meaning of the concept, as majors were created to educate future agribusiness technicians and managers. In short, the MST built internal capacity and proved influential but was ultimately shut out at the federal level.

One of the most original arguments that Tarlau makes is that by taking control of schools, the MST intensifies the struggle for land and strengthens agrarian reform policies. In short, occupied schools strengthen the land occupation movement. As she cites, “The problem of education is the most important class problem” (281). Much of the success of the movement depends on providing services, and the educational project is a very important glue holding the MST together. All the same, the evidence Tarlau marshals shows that while the movement’s educational front made significant strides forward between 2005 and 2015, the land struggle and agrarian reform policy implementation entered a phase of sharp decline, dropping to historically low levels in subsequent years.

The monograph offers an extraordinary description and analysis of the struggle of one of the world’s leading social movements to define, implement, and administer a radically ambitious education project for poor people, most of them in or of the countryside. It combines insights from participant-observation, historical analysis, and theoretical assessment to create a truly unique study of a peasant organization’s capacity to influence policy and, consequently, people’s lives. In the epilogue written in 2018, Tarlau argued that “cautious optimism” is a reasonable expectation for the permanence of the MST’s rural education project. However, with the election of Jair Bolsonaro as Brazil’s president, there has been a rollback on agrarian reforms, an extinguishing of educational administrative units (see Caldas, 2020); in turn, this has meant that while the MST has proven remarkably resilient, a lack of funding has severely crippled its rural education project.


Post edited by Siddharth Chakravarty. This is an abridged version of Cliff Welch’s review of Rebecca Tarlau’s book Occupying Schools, Occupying Land: How the Landless Workers’ Movement Transformed Brazilian Education.

Image from Oxford University Press

Occupying Schools, Occupying Land