Working Paper

IDS working papers;248

The Movement of the Landless (MST) and the Juridical Field in Brazil

Published on 1 January 2005

What modalities of legal change can social movements set in motion to diminish systemic and durable forms of social exclusion? This paper focuses on the Movement of the Landless (MST) in Brazil, which through a number of legal strategies has helped produce watershed high court rulings, contributed to the process of constitutionalising law, and made access to land more equitable in parts of Brazil by redefining property rights in practice.

The paper explores legal change triggered by the strategic action through what Bourdieu (1987) calls the juridical field. The MST has been successful in pushing forward legal change through this field, I argue, for two broad reasons. First, it has a remarkable ability to concentrate the talents of diverse juridical actors – lawyers, judges, law school professors – on defending its claims.

This ability has been built by mobilising across multiple fields, including the political, and not just in the juridical field. Second, the movement’s capacity for strategic legal action, and the impact of such action, has been contingent on substantial changes during the 1990s in both the social movement and juridical fields triggered by the unfolding of the country’s democratic transition and shifts in the transnational Catholic Church.


Peter P. Houtzager

Research Fellow

Publication details

published by
Houtzager, Peter P.
IDS Working Paper, issue 248
978 1 85864 879 3


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