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Landless, Jobless, But Not Hopeless | The Nation

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Landless, Jobless, But Not Hopeless

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"It is necessary that the weakness of the powerless is transformed into a force capable of announcing justice. For this to happen, a total denouncement of fatalism is necessary. We are transformative beings and not beings for accommodation." --Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Heart

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Tom Hayden
Senator Tom Hayden, the Nation Institute's Carey McWilliams Fellow, has played an active role in American politics and...

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The day after the World Social Forum dialogues, I visited an encampment of landless people squatting in garbage-wrap tents alongside the road an hour from Porto Alegre. Having tramped through miserable shantytowns from Rio to Manila, I was prepared for hopeless gazes and wrenching odors of decay. Indeed, the flies were thick, the heat a burden and the 200 families suffered the daily deprivations of the poor. But there was a difference. There was purpose and hope.

I noticed the spirit first at the friendly, makeshift pharmacy where herbal medicines were dispensed for coughs and colds. It was most apparent in the dirt-floor classrooms where more than twenty children engaged in the participatory educational format designed by the world-renowned Paulo Freire, author of Pedagogy of the Oppressed and formerly the education secretary of São Paolo. The students laughed, sitting at desks under sweeping photographs by Sebastião Salgado with textbooks by Freire scattered around.

This community growing by the ditch is called Acampamento Oziel Alves, after a young man killed by police in Par´ state in 1986. The squatters have been here since May of last year. They came as landless people, many with substance-abuse problems. They are preparing themselves for a dawn in the near future when, tools in hand, they will seize and occupy nearby fallow land and begin to grow food for a community of their own.

This is ground zero for the movement against corporate globalization. All the panels, pamphlets and pronouncements at the World Social Forum would weigh little without being anchored by real social movements among the dispossessed. Perhaps none have succeeded in recent years on the scale of the MST (for Landless Workers Movement, the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra).

The landless people at this encampment face enormous barriers, including repression, but they are buoyed by successes over the past decade. A few miles up the road we visit an impressive example of their progress, the Centro Filho de Sepe, named for an Indian who, our guides say, simply fought for the land. This vast place, twenty-five kilometers across, was occupied eight years ago. The government finally chose to compensate the private owner rather than send the army against the jobless campesinos. The owner bought himself a hacienda on 12,000 hectares in Uruguay and the landless workers settled in. Today 376 families operate a school, produce rice, grow everything organic, experiment in permaculture, feed themselves and live in tiny "agro-villas" sprinkled around a kind of laboratory in Eden.

This is not an isolated example. Since their origin, in 1984, the occupations have resulted in land titles for 250,000 families on some 1,600 settlements. Another 70,000 people squat in wait for government recognition. A thousand schools have arisen, alongside new medical clinics. Agricultural cooperatives generate $50 million annually for the families and social services. The MST is involved in the production of coffee, rice and medicinal herbs. It has staged the first festival of "agrarian reform music."

The mesmerizing black-and-white photos of Salgado have been seen at 800 exhibitions around the world, and the MST is linked to Via Campesina, a network of ninety campesino organizations in sixty countries. On the day I visited Filho de Sepe, there were a dozen family farmers from Massachusetts, Wisconsin and California exchanging views with Brazilians on drip irrigation, wheatgrass, soil and wetlands restoration.

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