Inside Brazil's Landless Movement
Children's Day, a national holiday in Brazil, is like Christmas in October. Even at the remote southern edge of the Amazon rainforest, in a shantytown of the landless poor, they don't stint on the celebrations. Women from the encampment engineered a giant, 7-foot-long cake, baked in pieces in wood furnaces or propane stoves. The DJ powered up the donated stereo system with a car battery and cued up the forró. Another guy coated his face in red lipstick, transforming himself into a clown, the main event. Although not every kid got toys, the clown made sure none lacked a bag of candy, though they sometimes had to wrestle him to the ground to get at it. Dancing fizzled out when the car battery died. Some girls insisted on playing musical chairs without music, deciding that clapping worked fine.
About 400 families live in the wooden shanties of the Claudinei de Barros encampment, a dozen acres of muck on the outskirts of the city of Sinop. At the shantytown's borders are sawmills, a slaughterhouse, and a soy plantation. A generation ago, everything in sight was rainforest. Today, the red banner of the Brazilian landless movement's largest organization—known as the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra, or the MST—flies above a sort of do-it-yourself paradise for the people. "Here, you don't have to pay for water, for electricity, for rent," the encampment's 26-year-old coordinator, Edilson Silva, told me. He expounded on the dignity conferred on those who swapped a squalid life in the city for a dirt-floor shack and the key to a communal outhouse. Water comes from any number of wells, and there's a milky lake out back for washing clothes. They don't pay for power, because, apart from car batteries, there isn't any. And they don't pay rent because the land, the footprint of a long-gone sawmill, has fallen into the possession of a bank. The movement occupies it illegally.
The goal of the MST is to force the federal government to speed up land redistribution. Theoretically, the group has the constitution on its side. Much of the privately held farmland in Brazil lies fallow. The government can expropriate this idle land (negotiating a purchase price with the owner) and then settle poor farmers on the property. In practice, though, there's not much budgeted for the program. What's more, landowners have little trouble tying up the process in the courts. So, guided by the spirit of the legislation, the movement's strategy is to break the law. Several hundred families will leave their shacks at the crack of dawn, show up on private land waving hoes and machetes, and start building shelters with whatever wood and plastic sheeting they can carry.
The pressure tactics have produced results. The MST has moved more than 300,000 Brazilian families from temporary quarters like the one in Sinop to permanent farm settlements. But the confrontations have levied a heavy toll. Police and landowners have killed more than 1,200 landless activists since the movement began in the mid-1980s, according to the Pastoral Land Commission, a group affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church.
The Children's Day festivities happened to fall exactly two years after the movement's first occupation in the area. In 2003, Edilson and other MST organizers launched a recruitment drive in the slums of the cities of northern Mato Grosso, the state where Sinop is located, and staged the invasion of an abandoned farm. The occupation lasted only 30 days before police evicted them from the site. If its anniversary passed unnoticed, even by Edilson, it was probably because there hadn't been many successes worth remembering. Three years had passed since the MST had formed a permanent settlement anywhere in the state.
I spent a week at the Sinop encampment last October. The owner of my one-room shack was in the state capital. The movement had occupied the area around the land-reform agency there, and activists from Mato Grosso took turns living in shacks on the sidewalk for 60 days at a time. My closest neighbor in Sinop was Valdir Oliveira, a 40-year-old handyman who had built an elaborate two-story shack for his wife and four children, complete with a chicken coop, a living room, and a urinal that saved on perilous nighttime trips to the outhouse. Four months before, he had left his house because work was spotty and he could no longer pay the rent. His 19-year-old son and 18-year-old daughter were now the family's chief wage-earners—he in a Sinop clothing store, she at a sandwich counter—jobs that paid about $5 a day. They would soon leave their jobs to fulfill their two-month obligation in the capital. "We have to let them know we exist," Valdir said of his new turn as a revolutionary. "You have to wake them up. If not, nothing's going to happen."
The encampment would go silent at 10 p.m. when "quiet hours" went into effect, and every night you would hear the squeals of a dying dog chained outside the shack. I was told that, like many pets in the encampment, he had probably been poisoned by the lake water. You would also hear the rumble of trucks on the highway, those going south loaded with Amazon timber, those going north headed for another load. The military regime had opened the rainforest to development in the 1970s, and hundreds of thousands of people from Brazil's south and northeast came to Mato Grosso to stake out plots of land to farm. They discovered that, while land was plentiful, virtually none of it was theirs to settle. With the aid of faked title deeds, some corrupt local officials, private armies, and wealthy farmers claimed huge swaths, much of it federal property. They then cleared it flat, carpeting the earth with soy. The state became a Texas-sized environmental crime scene.
Agriculture has been steadily booming since, illicit logging runs rampant, and 2003-04 was the worst year of Amazon devastation in the last decade. The government says that most of the timber is logged illegally on fraudulent licenses. Some of it is exported, and a good share of the exports end up in the United States. The shacks of the encampment were built from the scraps.
David Morton is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C. He has also contributed to the New Republic, Foreign Policy, and Newsday. You can e-mail him at email@example.com.