Peasant Union In Brazil Organizes Land Takeover

By Martin Koppel, The Militant, Vol.59/No.31, 28 August 1995

APRIL FIRST CAMP, SAO PAULO STATE, Brazil—Grassy fields stretch to the horizon all along the road, dotted only by clumps of cattle and scattered trees. Big landlords own this land, but they don't use it. They don't even live here, said Gilberto Vilant de Biasi as the bus headed toward the squatters camp.

Six busloads of peasants were returning from the third national convention of the Movement of Landless Rural Workers (MST), held July 24-27 in Brasilia, the country's capital. Five thousand landless farmers from all over Brazil took part in that gathering, where they discussed the next steps in pressing their fight for land reform.

The April First camp is one of several hundred settlements organized by the MST around Brazil, where the fight for land is heating up. Some 862 families are occupying this land and demanding the government recognize their legal right to it. The farm community lies 400 miles west of Sao Paulo, near the Paranapanema River.

Besides acampamentos like this one, the movement has hundreds of assentamentos [settlements]. On the assentamentos, peasants have already established their right to the land they occupied and they're fighting for the government to give them electricity, water, schools, health care, credit, and so on, said Vilant, 26, an MST organizer who has been active in the group since he was 16.

Landlords left lands idle

The MST members piled into flatbed trucks for the final eight-mile stretch of dirt road. In this region we're occupying 15,000 hectares [37,000 acres] of land, Vilant explained as our truck rolled into the camp in a cloud of dust. This area includes six big estates, which are occupied by a total of 1,500 families at April First and a few nearby camps.

Until we started working it, this land wasn't being used productively. It was just used for a few cattle to graze, remarked Elisio Pereira, 56, over a plate of rice and beans and rich coffee—all products now grown on their land. He and his wife, Encarnación Segura Pereira, 48, were sharecroppers in neighboring Parana' state before joining the April First settlement.

I was living in [the town of] Presidente Prudente and was unemployed before coming here, said Antonio Carlos Alvis de Souza. I heard about the planned occupation and signed up. We had a half-day preparatory meeting.

Then, before sunrise on April 1, we loaded up our lumber and drove right onto the land. Watching that huge car caravan, with hundreds of us, was impressive. I never imagined we could do something like this, said Alvis de Souza.

Asked about police repression, he explained, When we took the land there were no police to be seen. Many camps in other parts of this state, and especially other parts of the country, have been attacked by cops. But in this region there hasn't been much recent police violence because our movement is strong. We had announced our occupation on the radio for a week and mobilized our people.

The first thing my family did April 1 was build our house. The movement organized a meeting and we divided into groups to take responsibility for different tasks—health, education, distribution of supplies. By the second day we had all our committees organized.

We had our school functioning within three weeks—after the teachers ended their national strike, which we supported, Alvis de Souza noted.

Pereira explained that the government of President Fernando Henrique Cardoso was on the defensive because of his stated support for land reform and because the constitution authorizes the government to appropriate idle lands and distribute them to the landless.

Still fighting for legal recognition

The landlords don't have documentation to prove ownership of this estate. So the government agreed to negotiate with us, Pereira said. A couple of months ago we held a meeting with representatives of the governor, the landlords, and some congressmen. We said this land should be returned to the government, who would then pay the landlords for their expenses—the houses, fences, and roads they built.

We reached an initial agreement, but it isn't finalized and we're still fighting for it.

Another MST activist, Gilmar Contarato, said, Olga and Isaac Souza, the owners, have holdings in Matto Grosso and Parana' states besides the one here. We know most big estates in this country were actually stolen. In many cases the landlords never paid their land taxes, and some have big debts to the Bank of Brazil.

One of our immediate demands is that the government confiscate the estates of these landlords as payment for their debts, Contarato said. Other landlords grow coca and other drug crops—we de mand the government expropriate their land too and give it to the peasants.

Just think about all the unproductive land in Brazil. And at the same time, there are 4.8 million landless peasants, said Vilant emphatically. He scooped up a handful of sandy soil in the central square of the camp. This is how bad some of the soil was, from lack of care. And look at how we've transformed it, he added, pointing to the rows of vegetables in a dark brown field nearby. If there was a real land reform in Brazil, there wouldn't be any more hunger and our country wouldn't have a huge foreign debt.

On a tour of the camp, Vilant pointed out some of their crops: corn, beans, rice, cassava, cotton, sweet potatoes, sugar cane, soy beans, and a variety of fruit from mamey to passion fruit. They also raise dairy cattle, which provide enough milk for the children.

Fight for basic services

We had to dig our own wells, because we have no water, electricity, or other services. That's another aspect of the land reform we're demanding from the government, the young MST activist said. Most families here live in small shacks made with black plastic sheets over a wood frame.

Here's our grade school, he explained, pointing to the four small, neat classrooms they built. We have an electrical generator to provide lighting for the school. The school has four regular teachers plus two adult literacy teachers. The nearest high school is in the town of Mirante, 20 miles from here.

Once a week, a doctor visits the camp's medical post, which is staffed by resident nurses. Nearby is the distribution center. We supply people with food, shoes, and other goods, explained a young woman, Edir Segura Pereira de Nardi.

There is also an office that provides the monthly MST paper and other literature. Camp residents expressed delight at receiving a small donation of Pathfinder books for their library. Che is my hero, said Nilton de Souza, a young camp security guard, perusing a copy of Socialism and Man in Cuba by Ernesto Che Guevara.

Camp residents hold regular meetings in the main square. Our next meeting will hear a report on the MST convention as well as discussing the regular work of the camp, explained Vilant.

Alvis de Souza complained that the population of the farm settlement has gone down somewhat since April. Not everyone can put up with the harsh conditions, so some families have left. We've had to fight the government and the landlords every step of the way.

Watching fellow camp members water the lettuce fields, he added, But you know, this struggle has changed my life. When I joined this occupation, I was just trying to solve my own problem. Now I'm involved in something bigger.