Landless, Jobless, But Not Hopeless
"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
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.
More often than not, the land seizures have met with fierce police and paramilitary response on behalf of absentee landowners, with a death toll of 1,517 campesinos since 1988. The movement is a direct challenge to neoliberal policies that favor export-based agribusiness plantations and World Bank plans to privatize land reform. Under the Bank's proposal, campesinos would seek loans to purchase land at market prices, with no obligation by rich landowners to sell. Brazil has perhaps the greatest gap between wealth and poverty in the Americas, with 3 percent of the population controlling more than 60 percent of the arable land. About 25 million people are landless campesinos, no different from the Irish and other famine victims in centuries past.
The MST has been associated with the Workers Party (PT), which successfully elected Luiz In´cio "Lula" da Silva to Brazil's presidency last October. Lula is expected to encourage land reform and curb police repression. In the run-up to October's election and even at the Porto Alegre social forum, the MST lowered its profile as a gesture to the Workers Party, but the land occupations are expected to resume in the future.
The MST has been the vanguard of similar movements across Latin America as people, sensing the utter failure of institutions, take matters into their own hands. Not only is there widespread direct action on the continent to implement land reform, but in next-door Argentina, where the economy has collapsed, workers have taken over nineteen abandoned factories in Buenos Aires, unemployed people known as piqueteros are blocking roads to bargain collectively for jobs, many thousands have established a barter economy, and the popular cry is que se vayan de todos ("they all must go"), which is not an idle chant, since five presidents were forced to resign in a two-week period in December 2001. While fostering dreams of an anarchist's utopia, these actions simply reflect the powerful desire of ordinary people to survive the disintegration of the state and economy. Argentina was the poster child of corporate globalization only three years ago, but last week the government's official figures showed a poverty rate of 58.7 percent.
Electoral politics in Argentina seems bankrupt and clueless at the moment. While Argentina stumbles toward a national election that many people will boycott this April, independent trade unionists are organizing a political party, along the lines of the Brazilian Workers Party, to contest for power in future elections. The unique difference in Brazil is that the social movements of the disfranchised have helped propel Lula and the Workers Party to an astonishing national victory. What is the lesson? Can revolutionary direct action at the grassroots level bolster a mass political movement? Can Lula and the Workers Party remain closely linked with social movements like the MST and still retain middle-class and small-business support? Does a serious electoral strategy mean that resources and people power are diverted away from social movements? Above all, how can Lula's coalition challenge and reshape the official debate on globalization, from the property rights of absentee investors to the needs of landless laborers who talk of land, bread and freedom?
At this point, the MST and social movements are likely to benefit from Lula's triumph, not least from the surge of hope that an alternative to neoliberalism has been endorsed by a 61 percent democratic majority. But George Bush is not going to invade Iraq while abandoning the Monroe Doctrine toward Brazil. The US Trade Representative, Robert Zoellick, has already warned that if Lula opposes Washington's "free trade" plans, he can go trade with Antarctica. If Lula's government is isolated and destabilized, the World Bank will have its way in blocking serious land reform. But if his government gradually advances, it could mean greater protection for millions of landless people taking radical action, and will accelerate similar political challenges in Argentina and elsewhere on the continent.
Solidarity with Lula and social movements in Brazil is thus an important challenge for the global justice movement. It is important that US progressives undertake a campaign to understand, explain and defend hopeful developments emerging there. The last time anything this stirring politically has happened in Latin America was perhaps the 1970 election of Salvador Allende in Chile. That alone should remind us that if another world is possible, its sudden appearance in Brazil cannot be taken for granted.