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Landless, Jobless, But Not Hopeless

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  • Dan Clore
    News for Anarchists & Activists: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/smygo This article can be found on the web at
    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 9, 2003
      News for Anarchists & Activists:

      This article can be found on the web at

      Landless, Jobless, But Not Hopeless
      by TOM HAYDEN
      [posted online on February 9, 2003]

      "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
      --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

      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

      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.

      Dan Clore

      Now available: _The Unspeakable and Others_
      All my fiction through 2001 and more. Intro by S.T. Joshi.

      Lord Weÿrdgliffe and Necronomicon Page:
      News for Anarchists & Activists:

      Said Smygo, the iconoclast of Zothique: "Bear a hammer with
      thee always, and break down any terminus on which is
      written: 'So far shalt thou pass, but no further go.'"
      --Clark Ashton Smith
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