Inside Brazil's Landless Movement

What Do the Shantytown Residents Do All Day?
Notes from different corners of the world.
June 9 2006 5:35 AM

Inside Brazil's Landless Movement

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Some families retain houses in Sinop's slums, but to be a part of the movement and agitate for land to settle and cultivate, they must live full-time in the encampment

A 24-hour guard post divides the landless movement's encampment from another shantytown closer to the highway. At first glance, the squalor on the other side of the fence doesn't seem so different. But some residents of the encampment look down their noses at their neighbors. It's a village of "homeless people," they told me. The homeless aren't fighting for anything, and they have no discipline and no future, they said; at best, they're merely surviving. "They have lots of guns. It's like a favela."

The landless activists may be fighting for some higher purpose while their neighbors in the so-called favela are just ticking off the days to oblivion. But they're waiting all the same. On that score, there have been some positive developments. The government land-reform agency appears close to acquiring some nearby private farms for redistribution to the MST. Families who've been in the movement the longest—two years—will get first priority.

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Nothing is certain, and in the meantime, there's a lot of daylight to kill. The thrilling land invasions and demonstrations are relatively rare, and few in the encampment have regular work to occupy their time. A few more residents are unemployed now that the federal police have cracked down on a fraudulent logging-license ring. Dozens were arrested for the scheme, including top officials at the state's environmental-protection office. With more monitoring than usual, the timber supply has tightened, and local sawmills have reduced their workforces. (Not that the sawmills employed that many people to begin with. They're like cemeteries, one movement militant told me, "Lots of dead trees and one person looking after the mill.")

The hard-core movement types tend to crowd their schedules with committee work. Someone has to organize the nighttime security patrol, get the trash holes dug, teach the literacy classes, hold the disciplinary hearings for the people who skipped their assigned work shifts. One woman already had her hands full helping run the disciplinary committee and the encampment's pharmacy, but when she was laid off by the nearby sawmill, she felt the anxiety of inactivity. She took to carrying around a stethoscope and cuff and randomly checking people's blood pressure.

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To aid further development, the state government of Mato Grosso is building a bridge across the Teles-Pides River, a tributary of the Amazon, which will allow heavy-truck traffic further into the rain forest and speed deforestation

There are regular fishing expeditions to the nearby Teles-Pides River, a branch of the Amazon, where a sort of satellite camp sits on unused private land that was once cleared for soy. "House of Friends" reads a sign nailed to the shack. "Preserve nature. It needs us and we need it." The anglers there told me the fishing had gone bad because of the toxins from the soy crop dusters. Near the shelter, workers were building a bridge that will extend the paved road further into the rainforest.

The encampment also has its share of opportunists—single men who show up at the gate because they hear there's a plot of land in it for them. They move their few belongings into a barren shack and then disappear after a few months, tired of holding out for a payoff that might never come. One afternoon, I found myself with a group of malcontents who had gathered in a shack taking slugs from plastic bottles of pinga and complaining about the encampment's rules. You're always having to attend meetings for this or that, they whined, and if you miss a few, you're liable to get kicked out of the movement. A few hours later, one of the men was wandering drunk around the encampment wearing a dress and with the word "Amor" scrawled on his forehead in red lipstick.

In early 2005, when the encampment was located farther up the highway, there was something of an insurrection. A group of about 20 people announced that the movement wasn't getting them anywhere. They burned the MST flag, stalked around armed with guns, and opened merger talks with another landless organization. At a general meeting that was called to resolve the situation, one of the gunmen fired into the air, scattering everyone to their shacks. The residents of the encampment were packing up for the new location anyway. With the move to a new patch of dirt, the putschists were left behind. They later requested re-admittance and were refused.

Plenty of the people I spoke to said they were willing to stick it out forever, no matter how long it took to get farmland of their own. But others were more restless. My neighbor in the encampment, Valdir Oliveira, had thought it through. This is an election year, and President Lula, theoretically an MST ally, isn't likely to do anything to upset landowner interests. So, 2006 is a wash. If Lula wins again, Valdir will expand his two-story shack and give the president 2007 to get his rocky administration in order. If Valdir's prospects for settlement still didn't look good by then, he'll move on.

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Many of the encampment's plastic roofs blew off in a storm; here, Vilson, a camp newcomer still adjusting to a long stay in the muck, helps re-cover the medical dispensary

Valdir's friend Vilson had more difficulty adjusting to the idea of an extended stay. He was in his late 30s or early 40s (he wouldn't say exactly how old he was), the last surviving brother of five. He had spent five years as a prospector during the Amazon gold rush of the '80s and had done seven months in prison for something he wouldn't disclose. But he was no longer a desperado. His current wife (his 10th) was pregnant, and he wanted to slow down. He was all for the movement, although at one meeting I saw that after two months he still hadn't mastered the words to the MST anthem. A major storm hit during my week in the encampment, and the roof of Vilson's shack blew off. The following day he had to borrow a bicycle and cash and travel 15 miles to get more roofing material. When he returned, he seemed crestfallen. Life in the mud was wearing him down.

"We live under plastic roofs," he said. "We cook under here. It gets real hot. It's not healthy. When it rains, the floors become puddles. This is suffering."

He said he'd give it six more months. He's still there, eight months later.

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 davidsmorton1975@gmail.com.