Sadly, yet not unlike the inception of many commemorative days, the events that inspired the first International Day of Peasant Struggle were soaked with blood. It was April 17, 1996, a calm day in the northern Brazilian municipality of Eldorado dos Carajás, where the country’s most renowned social movement, the Landless Worker’s Movement (MST) had organized a demonstration against the federal appropriation of a vacant ranch where nearly 3,000 rural working families were living and cultivating the land. The protest turned violent when the secretary of public security ordered police to clear the roadway – “at any cost”. The operation was costly indeed: nineteen people lost their lives in that event that would come to be known as the Eldorado dos Carajás massacre.
Word of the massacre ricocheted throughout the world, particularly north to Mexico where the international peasant movement known as Via Campesina was gathered for its second conference in Tlaxcala. Via Campesina was only three years in the making at the time, but had already achieved much. The movement boasts a unique global base of farmers, fishers, and pastoralists, connecting labor movements, women’s organizations, and a host of underrepresented and mostly rural members. The conference in Tlaxcala, Mexico would prove to be historic – it was there that Via Campesina solidified its groundbreaking framework of “food sovereignty” – redefining the fundamental right to food to the advantage of food-producing peasants themselves.
But when Via Campesina’s leaders and organizers learned of what had occurred in Brazil that fateful day, their world stood still. Anything that happened within MST struck a chord within Via Campesina – the two groups were intrinsically tied from the moment MST helped pen the international movement’s founding documents. Via Campesina simultaneously grieved the loss of its colleagues in Brazil and reflected on similar incidents of violence against peasant activists in Latin America and around the world. The movement quickly recognized a public awareness gap that it was convinced could be filled by education and advocacy by and for peasants. Via Campesina spared little time and declared April 17 an annual celebration of peasants everywhere in honor of those killed in Brazil.