Participatory and Inclusive Rural Education with Brazil’s Landless Rural Workers Movement (MST)


Brazil’s Landless Workers Movement, Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (MST) in Portuguese, is a social movement for agrarian reform that has been fighting for the democratisation of access to land in Brazil since 1984 and has pushed for the establishment of public schools in its settlements. MST has settlements in almost all states of the country (24 out of 26), with about 350,000 families that have occupied unproductive land. The families are organised in participatory and democratic structures for decision making in the settlements, which revolve around different working groups, among which education is a core group that is responsible for addressing the educational needs of all members.

With principles of radical democracy and social justice, its pedagogy draws from Freirean approaches. The schools, which are part of the public system, are managed in partnership with the community and implement a localised curriculum – usually with local teachers (most are from/live in the communities). The schools also offer education to young people and adults who dropped out of school. These schools are connected to each other in order to exchange experiences, and they often collaborate with universities nearby. The MST is an example of the promotion of education access and inclusion of rural citizens through advocacy for the improvement of public rural schools and cooperation between government and social movement with participatory formats.

This case describes the challenge of ensuring access to quality education to rural populations, particularly in Brazil, MST’s approach to this issue, and lessons that can be drawn from this experience.


Providing quality education for rural populations concerns both the provision of education as a right and as a tool for social and economic development. All children should receive adequate education, ensuring they have the opportunity to learn and develop as individuals (United Nations, 1948). This is fundamental in reducing social inequality and promoting social inclusion, whilst also promoting the development of rural areas, thus contributing to the national economy (Moulton, 2001). However, offering quality education for rural populations is a challenge for many developing countries. There is often a lack of schools or limitations to offer high-quality teaching due to the lack of trained teachers and adequate infrastructure. The content, planned for urban schools, tends to be disconnected or irrelevant for the rural context (Moulton, 2001).

In Brazil, the right to education has been historically denied to rural populations, and, in general, there is little or no access to social services and rights, such as health, education and land (Arroyo et al., 2004). In 2010, approximately 15% of the Brazilian population lived in rural areas (about 29.8 million people). There were close to 80,600 schools in these areas, and half of them had a single classroom, offering only the initial years of primary education. The educational inequality between urban and rural areas is still stark. The average number of school years completed by rural citizens was about half the urban average (3.4 and 7 years, respectively). The aggregate illiteracy rate in Brazil in 2010 was 10.2%, but with 7.54% of illiterate people in urban areas and 24.64% in rural areas (IPEA, 2019). Regarding infrastructure, the inequality persists, as rural schools have less access to adequate bathrooms, libraries, computers and the internet (INEP, 2020).

Furthermore, rural schools have been closing throughout the country in recent years. According to a survey by Marcos Cassin and Luiz Bezerra (2017), published by the Federal University of São Carlos, out of more than 100,000 rural schools that existed in 2002 in Brazil, 17,000 were closed at the time of the study. The systematic closure of rural schools is a national contravention, as the right to Rural Education is guaranteed by law – both constitutionally, as per the Rural Education Policy, and through the National Rural Education Programme (Procampo). The contradiction persists as the access of rural populations to differentiated education is denied by the lack and/or precariousness of schools (Andrade & Rodrigues, 2019).

Education for rural populations is related to other countryside issues, especially land concentration. Data from the 2006 Agricultural Census conducted by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE) shows that, in 2006, 50% of the smallest farms occupied 2.3% of the total farm area, whereas 5% of the largest farms occupied more than 69.3%. Brazil also has one of the highest rates of unproductive land in the world, despite the large number of people demanding land (Reydon et al., 2014). Although this should be regulated and monitored by the government, these lands are left unused for decades.

Private alternatives have gained attention in the last few years to expand access to education. Namely, LFPS have emerged as a solution with little or no investment from the state. Some proponents, such as Tooley (2013), argue that poor communities, including rural ones, do not need state intervention because they can organise services themselves and even enjoy better-quality schooling in this way. It is also argued that profit is a good incentive for school owners to deliver quality education to the poor, and that profit does not need to work against affordability (Verger et al., 2016). International organisations, such as the World Bank, have promoted LFPS with the idea that they can address government failures and provide an efficient solution (Verger et al., 2016). Other organisations in the international aid community have been supporting this idea with a focus on widening access in response to international commitments, such as the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and the SDGs, especially concerning low-income countries (Srivastava, 2016).

However, rural areas might not offer sufficient profit motivation for private providers, given the low number of students in a given area. Furthermore, some studies have shown that, in places where there is a lack of schools, parents often do not send children to LFPSs as a first choice. Instead, the motivation is often the perceived lack of decent free public school alternatives close enough to their homes (Heyneman & Stern, 2014).

In response to this situation, rural populations have been organising themselves to have their rights protected in Brazil. The MST is one of the largest social movements in the country, which identifies unproductive lands and starts farming them, in the hope of having the settlements subsequently legalised. With a holistic understanding of development, welfare and community building, the MST works for the lifelong right to education. The schools opened in the settlements offer early years education, literacy for adult workers, access to universities and the right to an education that values and respects their own knowledge and culture. They address the inclusion of excluded groups and frame the quality of education with a broad social meaning. This rights-based approach depends on the mobilisation of social movements and their work with the state (McCowan, 2003). 


In response to a continuous situation of precarious schooling that has been unassisted by the state, rural movements started to pressurise the state with political advocacy in the National Congress and social activism for policies that were specific to non-urban populations. This work contributed with the development of policies and guaranteeing of rights in the countryside during the 1990s, and now educação no campo (education for and by the countryside) is a category of formal education in itself, guaranteed by the legislation (Barbosa, 2017).

The MST schools are an example of the expansion of access and inclusion of historically excluded rural populations in formal education, with a localised and adapted form of schooling that depends on the active work of rural social movements and organisations. These schools illustrate the resistance, struggle and political organisation in defending the right to education in the countryside. Teachers and educators aim to frame the countryside as a place of knowledge production, advocating for policies that guarantee an education that is public, secular and of quality.


In the 1980s, the families that started to create settlements considered that the struggle for land was not enough, and policies for the development of the territory were also needed. Since then, once a settlement is created on unproductive land, a school is created (in case one is not available nearby). The families look for support from local government authorities to open a new school. Thus, the MST schools are part of the public system and follow the national curriculum framework. The schools installed in the settlements and camps are not part of the movement, but public facilities linked to the states and municipalities, as well as other rural schools. These schools follow the rules of local education authorities, but have the particularities of each region, according to the territory they are inserted in (MST, 2019). Teachers are hired by the government, and teachers from the settlement that do not have formal training usually receive funding to attend higher education (Tarlau, 2019).

At the same time, the new school is guided and supported by the MST, which already has its method of teaching, organisation and management, further explored below. Thus, the strategy of the MST involves a collaboration between social movements and governments, a co-governance (Tarlau, 2019). This is not a privatising action, in which communities create independently run schools, but rather a movement, politically engaged and organised, that connects the needs, demands and solutions from citizens to public schooling.


Reflecting its worldview and social goals, MST schools have an educational approach that draws from the Freirean “popular education”. It aims to combine theory and practice, focused on local realities, based on humanist and collaborative principles, aiming to create critical citizens that can enact social change (Machado, 2014). Such principles are clearly articulated in MST guidelines. Some of the core aims are: teaching children how to read, write and analyse the social context; teaching by doing, in practice; working to create change; preparing students for both manual and intellectual work; teaching about the local and general reality; creating active historical agents; having a holistic approach to life (MST, 2005). As for the pedagogical principles, they describe that everyone should participate in all aspects of education, working, organising and mobilising, and participating. In other words, it aims to create “conscientiousness”, or a critical understanding of the social reality that people are embedded in, and how they can enact change. 

Regarding the curriculum, schools must follow the national guidelines, but schools and teachers adjust the content to local needs. Teachers can create new subjects and teach traditional ones with connection to the local reality (Santos, 2013). For instance, students can learn about agricultural and environmental practices, in which they visit and learn about the crops. They also learn about the peasant culture and participate in cultural and political events. The school calendar is also modified, respecting the settlement’s events, including the crop seasons (Tarlau, 2019).

Concerning governance, it follows the principles of a democratic and participatory governance. MST’s understanding of participation goes beyond the involvement of parents in children’s schooling through volunteering or having input on the curriculum. Participation is based on the movement’s ideal of radical democracy (McCowan, 2003). Community members are actively engaged in the management of the school, both through formal and informal channels. For instance, they organise committees, which participate in the local decision making, and also connect the community with government representatives, monitoring policies, presenting demands and pressuring for change (Santos, 2013). It is understood that, in order to prepare people for democracy, it must be lived, experienced and enacted in education itself (McCowan, 2003).

Finally, the MST creates partnerships with universities to offer training for the educators. The MST has its own training system, and the movement also mobilises to pressurise local authorities to provide training and courses in universities nearby.

Although these social movements have secured policy advances, the implementation of these rights is a continuous struggle and movement of social-political engagement. In every new settlement, the community engages with local government authorities to pressurise them to fulfil their legal obligations, while also articulating social movements to promote change and policies for the rural territories.


The MST is a very large organisation, with more than 9,000 settlements, in which 933,836 families live. In 2019, there were about 1,500 MST schools, of which 1,100 were recognised by local authorities, and these schools employ around 4,000 teachers. Currently, around 200,000 students access education through these schools. MST schools are known for offering schooling of considerable quality, which has been recognised with some prizes, such as an award at the 2017 Sciences Fair in the state of Santa Catarina (MST, 2017). They have also performed exceptionally well in the national exams (MST, 2018).

Young people and adults are also included in these schools. The National Programme of Education in Areas of Agrarian Reform (PRONERA in Portuguese) is jointly managed by the government, social movements and universities. It has provided education for more than 160,000 young people and adults, with 320 courses that involved 82 education institutions addressing the demands of 38 social organisations (IPEA, 2015). PRONERA has its own curriculum that prioritises peasant culture and needs, and challenges the neoliberal format of education (Fernandes and Tarlau, 2017). The Cuban method Sim, eu posso, is another initiative implemented by the MST for adults. It was first adopted in Brazil by some municipalities in 2006, and later, in 2007, by the MST. It has since been implemented in several states, such as Bahia, Ceará and Maranhão. In Maranhão, for example, over 20,000 adults have benefited from the programme.


The MST schools have been very successful in expanding education access and offering quality education to rural populations. Furthermore, their approach is a remarkable example of participatory governance, in engaging local communities and governments, which can inspire policies and solutions for rural and urban areas.

First, the MST schools exemplify how social movements can actively propose solutions and collaborate with governments to promote access to education, especially in rural areas. This approach addresses the lack of schools and the absence of quality in rural areas, combining the organisation of social movements with policymaking.

Second, the participatory approach that foments this collaboration with the beneficiaries is fundamental for a relevant education. It is by engaging with the people who actually live on the settlements that new and relevant solutions emerge. This approach advances a radical democracy that is lived in and through schools. This is in sharp contrast to neoliberal approaches that are characterised by a view of students and families as consumers (McCowan, 2003). In this case, the only “participation” that takes place is a consumerist one, in which parents can choose the school in which they will enrol their children, rather than citizens achieving freedom through participation in the political sphere.

Finally, although international organisations have been encouraging partnerships to ensure the right to education for all, there is an assumption that these partners are private partners. In practice, governments tend to partner with large philanthropic organisations or for-profit companies, such as low-fee schools (Verger et al., 2016). This case illustrates how, instead of using private providers to expand the access to education, governments can collaborate with local groups and social movements to expand the offer of education for rural populations, ensuring access and inclusion.

Despite the advances and lessons, the MST case and the countryside education in Brazil face challenges. Since 2016, rural schools have been closed, mostly due to the austere investment cuts that have resulted in the violation of the right to education. The relationship between the movement and governments often involves tensions and disputes, and positive outcomes depend on having governments that are more open to dialogue with social movements. However, the case offers inspiring lessons concerning participatory forms of governance for a transformative education.