Occupy Brazil: The Landless Dig In (And Ditch The Pesticides)

Thursday, September 20, 2012

By  Nick OlleSeptember 20, 2012

In Brazil, less than two per cent of the population owns more than half of the nation’s territory. Over almost three decades, a movement of landless rural workers has won an area the size of Sweden to settle almost a million families by occupying and cultivating unproductive land — and going organic in a country that gobbles agrochemicals.

Just 30 kilometres from the chaotic concrete maze of downtown São Paulo, Maria Alves Da Silva strolls contentedly through a fertile green hillside, tending to her one-and-a-half hectare garden.

From the modest grey-brick house at the top of the block to the meticulously cared-for plots of organic produce below, everything here is the product of 10 years' hard work. Maria's work. When she arrived here in 2002, along with the 40 families who would become her neighbours, this land was no more than a promise, a clean slate for a new beginning.

Weaving her way through rows of vegetable patches, Maria, 59, plucks ripe fruits and vegetables from the ground and proudly extols the agroecology techniques she uses to produce such organic gems. By cultivating a variety of different crops simultaneously and avoiding agrochemical "poisons", she says, she can feed herself, sustain the land and even turn a small profit to help her two children and five grandchildren. "I feel like I'm in the place I've always looked for," she beams.

But her smile narrows as she explains that this land and all it entails — "my whole life, everything" — could be taken from her at any moment.

You see, technically, it has never really been hers. In fact, the land's legal owner is the state of São Paulo, and throughout the decade that Maria has been here, its fate has been the subject of much rumour and debate but, so far, no action.

There's been talk both of formalising the community's right to the land, and rumours of a mass eviction. The result for those who live here is a constant state of uncertainty.

Collectively, these occupied parcels of land (all one-and-a-half-hectare plots like Maria's) are known as the Hermana Alberta campamento (camp). It is one of hundreds of similar camps dotted around the country, none of which are recognised as legitimate by the state and, as such, are not guaranteed basic services such as electricity and water.

“[The land] is good enough for a garbage dump but it’s too good for us apparently.”

Fortunately for Maria and her neighbours, they have about 1.5 million people agitating on their behalf to formalise the campamento into a legal assentamento (settlement). "When the land is yours you have more of a chance than when the land belongs to someone else," Maria says. "Otherwise, you keep working and even if it goes well there is always the possibility that the owner comes and says that you have to leave."

Everyone here at the Hermana Alberta campamento is part of what is generally considered to be Latin America's largest social movement, the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (Landless Rural Workers Movement), better known as simply the MST. Essentially a grassroots socialist organisation that promotes land reform as a means of achieving social equality for landless rural farmers (or campesinos), the MST was created nearly three decades ago in 1985. Citing Brazil's unjust land-distribution system — in which less than two per cent of the population owns more than half of the nation's vast territory — the organisation is forcing the issue of equitable land redistribution through a process of occupying large public and private estates called latifundios. The land that the MST chooses for the occupations is always either unproductive or completely unused. The idea is that the occupying campesinos work the land productively — as Maria has — thus removing them from poverty and providing them with a dignified, self-sufficient existence. In this way the MST promotes land reform by implementing its own rudimentary version and inviting the government to take the next step — formalising the settlements and providing education, health and other services.

This strategy, coupled with more traditional political lobbying, has borne fruit. By 2006 the movement had gained territories across Brazil equivalent in size to Switzerland, according to Dr Miguel Carter, scholar in residence in the American University's International Development Program. The MST itself says its occupations have resulted in 370,000 families being legitimately settled on 7.5 million hectares of land, an area roughly the size of the Czech Republic. It's worth noting that the MST is just one — albeit the biggest — of about 80 similar groups, and if we add the overall territorial gains achieved by all of these, Carter says we're looking at about 825,000 families settled on more than 41 million hectares (to continue the country comparisons, think Sweden). These are legal assentamentos that are entitled to all basic government services. Pretty impressive stuff.

The Assentamento Estadual São Roque (Nick Olle/The Global Mail)

But this is the world's fifth largest nation (both in terms of territory and population) and the MST is redoubling its efforts to achieve the same for another 150,000 landless families living in about 900 campamentos scattered around the country. Some live in relative comfort, like Maria, while others live in far more precarious situations, but all of them face the constant prospect of displacement. Evicted campesinos are often left with no other option than to set up precarious roadside camps, where they fall back into poverty.

Brazil's 1988 Constitution explicitly provides for state expropriation of unproductive land for agrarian reform, with Article 184 stating that land "not performing its social function" can be taken over for fair compensation in the form of debt bonds. In practice, though, it is groups like the MST that get the ball rolling by identifying and occupying unproductive land. Former Agrarian Development Minister Guilherme Cassell admitted as much in 2007, saying "occupation provokes land reform".

The Constitution also has an adverse possession provision (Article 191) that confers ownership rights on squatters making uncontested productive use of land for five uninterrupted years.

Instead of dedicating public lands to social projects and land reform, they are given to foreign companies that exploit here and leave with their money.

Of course, land-reform activists squatting on private land can be charged for infringing property rights, though a 1996 Supreme Court decision ruled that land occupations designed to hasten reform were "substantially distinct" from criminal acts against property. Though the MST is essentially a non-violent movement, the occupation process has led to some violent — and deadly — confrontations, especially on private land. Naturally, large landholders have a financial interest in all of their land, including the unproductive plots, and some hire militias to forcefully evict squatters from their land. More commonly, though, state military police are deployed to remove the peasant settlers, from public land as well as private land.

Some of these rural conflicts get very ugly indeed. This year there have been several deadly clashes between MST activists and gunmen in the northern state of Pernambuco. On April 1, 2012, MST activist Pedro Bruno was shot dead in the district of Gameleiro. The MST says the killing was ordered by the landowner in retaliation against the re-occupation by activists of land they'd previously been expelled from. Just a week earlier, on March 23, MST coordinator Antônio Tiningo was killed in an ambush in the Jataúba municipality. And that same day, two women and a child were wounded by gunmen in separate attack in Altinho, also in Pernmabuco.

And of course, the issue of land reform was central to the impeachment and ousting of President Fernando Lugo in neighbouring Paraguay, which has similarly skewed land distribution and shares Brazil's model of rural development. On June 15, 2012, six police officers and 11 campesinos were killed in a shootout on unproductive land the latter were occupying in the remote town of Curuguaty. In what has been described as a political coup (though the process was technically legal), Lugo was impeached for mishandling the incident.

Maria lives in constant fear of displacement (Nick Olle/The Global Mail)

According to the Pastoral Land Commission (CPT), an ecumenical organisation linked to the Catholic Church and a long-time MST supporter, 1,465 land reform activists and campesinos, including dozens of children, were killed in rural conflicts in Brazil between 1985 and 2006. A CPT report states that only eight per cent of these cases have been brought to trial and that just 20 landlords have been convicted for hiring the gunmen who carried out the killings. Arguably the worst confrontation occurred in the northern state of Pará on April 17, 1996, when 19 campesinos from the MST were shot dead by military police in an incident that has come to be known as the massacre of Eldorado de Carajás. The 146 police officers charged with the killings (and the serious wounding of 70 others) were acquitted at trial, though two senior officers were subsequently found guilty.

For the MST, the violence and subsequent "impunity" for its perpetrators are the product of precisely what they are crusading against — structural inequality in the countryside. And the cosy relationship between the State and large landholding elites, whose Bancada Ruralista (Rural Front) voting bloc is one of the most powerful in the country, has only strengthened with the rise of agribusiness in Brazil.

This model of development was born in Brazil during its 1964 to 1985 military dictatorship, when the state led a large-scale modernisation of the countryside by adopting industrial farming techniques. Many of the traditional latifundio estates became involved in this heavily state-subsidised commercial farming business and eventually with the boom in agricultural commodity exports, foreign investors started flocking to Brazil to invest in land. Now, Brazilian agribusiness is very much entwined with global biotech giants like Monsanto and Cargill.

It is a new concept about organic agriculture and not exploiting the land in an abusive way that takes all of the earth’s riches for profit.

In the words of the MST's regional coordinator for the São Paulo metropolitan area, Adriana de Pieri: "The concentration of land in Brazil is a very delicate situation. Instead of dedicating public lands to social projects and land reform, they are given to foreign companies that exploit here and leave with their money."

Even with the government embracing this model and ever more intense modernisation of the countryside, there are still vast unused and underused tracts of rural land in Brazil that could be constitutionally expropriated by the State and used to provide housing and a self-supporting way of life to the rural landless. De Pieri says that even considering the movement's achievements over the years, agrarian reform has never been a serious government priority. Referring specifically to the current administration of President Dilma Rousseff, she laments: "We've achieved very few settlements, we have many more people and families who are still waiting, not just in this camp but in all of the others in Brazil." And these families, she continues, face substandard access to health and education. "We have situations where children have to get up at 4am to travel three hours to get to school." For children in the Hermana Alberta camp, getting to school entails walking several kilometres alongside a freeway.

To improve access to both health and education for people living in campamentos, the MST has made a series of agreements with institutions at home and abroad. "We have agreements with schools, universities, government programs and technical colleges," de Pierei says. "Now we have groups of graduates who come and teach things like agronomy." In terms of healthcare the MST even has an agreement with the Cuban government whereby members of the movement travel to the island nation to study medicine.

Maria’s home in the Campamento Hermana Alberta (Nick Olle/The Global Mail)

Historically the MST has counted on the support of Brazil's ruling Worker's Party (PT) but that backing appears to have all but dried up. President Dilma Rousseff has not delivered on promises to settle thousands of families and, if you ask Dr Miguel Carter, the President's comments about the importance of land reform "to build a country with justice, food security and peace in rural areas" ring hollow.

"I think the PT has largely given up on land reform, which is the MST's biggest problem," says Carter, whose book on the MST is due to be published later this year. "[Land reform] has been steadily eroding in the overall PT agenda to the point that under Dilma it has basically come to a full stop." The writing was on the wall when Rousseff's predecessor and mentor Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva came to power in 2003 and handed the agrarian development portfolio to the Trotskyite PT faction Democracia Socialista, a group that in Carter's words, has always had "bad vibes" with the MST.

Equally important for the MST and other land-reform groups are the political dynamics at the state level because it is the state governments that control the police forces. Take the southern state of Paraná, where there has been a clear difference in treatment of the MST under different governors. During the conservative urban planner Jaime Lerner's two terms as governor, because he was aligned with the landed elite, he used the state police to carry out "all kinds of evictions and repressive actions" against the MST. By contrast, former governor Roberto Requião — who served before and after Lerner and is now a federal senator — was far more lenient. Having been elected with strong MST support, even in cases where there were court orders to evict the MST, he wouldn't send in the police to do it.

“They would rather see a model based on small family farms, working through co-ops, producing primarily for local markets and subsequently exports.”

The official body that can make the campamento-to-assentamento transition a reality is INCRA (the National Institute of Colonisation and Agrarian Reform). INCRA administers Brazil's land reform policies in line with the Implementation Standard 45/2005, which prioritises the selection of families with precarious living conditions. The Global Mail arranged an interview with former INCRA president Celso Lacerdo, but he was removed from his post before the interview was due to take place. The reason why Lacerdo left the position is unclear and we've been unable to secure an interview with his successor, Carlos Mário Guedes de Guedes, who took over the role on July 24. INCRA reports to the Ministry of Agrarian Development, but despite repeated assurances, Minister Pepe Vargas's office did not respond to The Global Mail's questions.

A 15-minute drive from the Hermana Alberta campamento, just past a regional gaol, another MST enclave is tucked up into the rolling hillsides. And this one, the Assentamento Estadual São Roque, is legal. Set up in 2003 on 619 hectares, the settlement is home to 66 families. The land is not dissimilar to that at the Hermana Alberta campamento, but there is a lot more of it. The ordered plots of organic vegetables are reminiscent of Maria's and the dirt roads are much the same too. The big difference to the eye is the quality of the homes, which are hardly extravagant, but well-constructed and significantly bigger than those at the campamento. As befits an assentamento, there is a school for the children but, worryingly, the padlock keeping us out today has been in place for weeks. The MST's regional coordinator for the São Paulo metropolitan area, Adriana de Pieri, says many schools have been closed in rural areas on the basis of low demand. But this reasoning is unacceptable, she insists, arguing that rural schools — and particularly schools in assentamentos — have lower demand by virtue of their small populations. "It is a real concern for us to guarantee proper schooling."

Like Maria in her home, Mauro Evangelista da Silva doesn't want to be anywhere else. Sipping coffee on a bench in front of the house he shares with his wife, Sirlene, and their daughter, who sings unselfconsciously in a hammock, Mauro says he owes his life to the MST. In fact, he labours the point with a religious fervour.

The MST has legally settled of 370,000 families (Nick Olle/The Global Mail)

"I am here today because the MST saved me. I had fallen into alcoholism and some say the MST saved me from the bottom of a well, but I think I was in an even darker and deeper place," he recalls.

A zealot to the cause, Mauro wears his red MST cap wherever he goes and his home is bursting with paraphernalia related to the movement. Since joining the movement he's thrown himself into organic agriculture and developed a voracious appetite for reading, especially about the movement.

"The MST's work is the land, the basis of everything is land reform," he says. "Our other demands — education, culture, health — these things are [still] only for the rich and we have to fight for them."

But the MST is not just opposed to the further concentration of land in the hands of a powerful few. Over time its aims have evolved and it now aspires to moderate and ultimately change what it calls unsustainable agricultural techniques. The emphasis on monoculture, pesticides and genetically modified organisms benefits neither consumers nor the environment, they say. And they are not alone in this sentiment. The MST is now a leading figure in the international Via Campesina peasant movement, which has 148 members from 69 countries. In July this year Via Campesina released this documentary on the perils of using pesticides in agriculture. The documentary claims that Brazil is the world's biggest consumer of agrochemicals, with each citizen ingesting an average of 5.2 litres of pesticides each year. Indeed, the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), an initiative set up by the World Bank and the United Nations in 2002, shares this concern in its 2009 report on Latin America and the Caribbean. "The health of rural communities in LAC [Latin America and the Caribbean] has been detrimentally affected by problems of acute and chronic intoxications in the countryside due to the indiscriminate use of agrochemicals," the report reads.

Dr Miguel Carter says a fundamental aim of the MST is that Brazilians have good quality food. They want to achieve this by producing organic food for local markets and only thinking of exports later, he says. "It's the same ethos that Wholefoods has in the US — and there, people think there is value in organic food produced by small growers."

“[The land] is good enough for a garbage dump but it’s too good for us apparently.”

"[The MST] come from the standpoint that all of this involves challenging the model of development in Brazil, particularly the model of rural development. They would rather see a model based on small family farms, working through co-ops, producing primarily for local markets and subsequently exports."

Back at the Hermana Alberta campamento, Maria says everyone here understands the dangers of agrochemicals. "Many families now understand that the agro-ecological system is not going to provide huge profits," she says. "It is a new concept about organic agriculture and not exploiting the land in an abusive way that takes all of the earth's riches for profit."

The land here belongs to São Paulo state's environmental company CETESB. Investigating the unused but fertile area prior to setting up the camp, the MST learned that it was earmarked to become a garbage dump. Joining forces with other land-reform and community organisations, the MST managed to scuttle this plan but the land's destiny remains as unclear as ever. Maria says that over the past decade São Paulo state and "even INCRA" have said that the community would be formalised into a assentamento. "It was a big trick," she says, "everyone was agreed but we found out later they were planning to evict all the families.

"[The land] is good enough for a garbage dump but its too good for us apparently.

"But here we're the stone in their shoe, it's difficult for journalists to talk to families in the middle of nowhere, but we're close [to downtown São Paulo] and we'll keep fighting and promoting land reform."

Read more Nick Olle stories from Brazil, including a backflip on nuclear energy, the 'pacification' of Rio de Janiero's notorious favelas, and a novel way around peak-hour traffic.

Originally published in The Global Mail: