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Fighting for land, environmental protection in Brazil

Brazil has a long history of social movements aimed at agrarian reform, some strengthened in the 1960s and '70s by the embrace of liberation theology by many Latin American Roman Catholics. The Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (MST), Brazil's Landless Rural Workers Movement, formed in 1984 when migrant workers, peasants, laborers and unemployed people active in smaller movements joined together.

Episcopal News Service
Thursday, October 20, 2011

 

Araides Duarte da Luz grew up in a migrant-worker family, living wherever anyone offered them a place. His wife, Marilene Hammel, grew up on a farm her family was forced to sell during Brazil's "green revolution." Today, they live with two children in a brick home in a permanent settlement camp near the city of Santa Tereza do Oeste, part of an agrarian-reform movement supported by the Anglican Diocese of Curitiba and led by one of its priests, the Rev. Luiz Carlos Gabas. 

Brazil has a long history of social movements aimed at agrarian reform, some strengthened in the 1960s and '70s by the embrace of liberation theology by many Latin American Roman Catholics. The Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (MST), Brazil's Landless Rural Workers Movement, formed in 1984 when migrant workers, peasants, laborers and unemployed people active in smaller movements joined together. 

The MST surged when landless workers organized themselves to fight for agrarian reform "in response to lots of land in the hands of the few and others with no land to work," said da Luz, who joined the movement with his brother in 1999. 

Today, 350,000 people belong to the MST, including 100,000 to 150,000 living in camps in at least 22 of Brazil's 26 states and up to 6,000 living in camps in Paraná, the southern state where the diocese is located. The movement's primary strategy is camping on unproductive agricultural lands to pressure the government and the property owners to transfer title to the campers. It also works to protect the environment and has spoken forcefully against using pesticides and genetically modified organisms and monoculture as agricultural techniques. 

For seven years, Gabas, the priest at Paróquia da Ascensão Igreja Anglicana, or Ascension Parish in Cascavel, has supported the MST, visiting the permanent and temporary camps near the southern Brazil city as a pastor and an ally of the movement, and sometimes as a mediator. He exudes a quiet and gentle nature, which has served him well as he has suffered harassment and threats because of his advocacy. 

"I have always acted with social work, not only here, but also in São Paolo," Gabas, a former Roman Catholic priest, said in Portuguese through an interpreter during an interview in Cascavel in May. "[It is] not only I, as the 'reverendo,' but others in the church have also started to get involved in social action."  

More recently, the diocese created Pastoral Anglicana da Terra, or Earthly Anglican Care, as a way for individuals, parishes and the diocese to address land reform, climate justice and the rights of indigenous people, peasants and the landless. The Episcopal Diocese of California, through its companion relationship with Curitiba, also has become involved. 

"Discovering the commonality in our fight for the rights of the indigenous in Brazil and in the United States; the fight for the rights of unemployed and landless farm workers, the homeless and the poor in North and South America; and the global fight for food sovereignty has brought us shoulder to shoulder and heart to heart," said Michael Tedrick, an Episcopal Church-appointed missionary from the California diocese who facilitates the companion relationship. 

"We have found shared purpose in our struggle. And through sharing our stories, we begin to obscure the economic, political, social and ideological borders that divide us," he added. "To further that effort in 2012, we are planning a young adult exchange focused on human rights and eco-justice." 

Life in the movement 

Along the two-lane rural highways through the southern state of Paraná, soybean plantations, which look like well-manicured green carpets, stretch beyond the horizon. Cornfields also line the roadway for miles. Agriculture, driven heavily by agribusiness, accounts for 25 percent of the country's gross domestic product, and is a key factor in its economic growth. Brazil's "green revolution," Hammel explained, began in the 1960s, when "capitalism in the form of industrial farming took over agriculture."
 
"The military used to say that Brazil was late in coming to industrial farming, which really took off in the 1970s," she said. Under military rule, she said, the government forced farmers to use machines and chemicals for which they were unprepared and that they couldn't afford; banks foreclosed on the land when the families couldn't afford to pay.
 
Hammel's family's farm was in Rio Grande do Sul. They grew grains, soybeans and corn, and milked cows and raised pigs for family consumption and to sell.
 
"Things destined for family maintenance were sold to pay for machines, and in the end my parents had to sell their land," she said. "When my parents sold the land, they bought a small house in an urban area, but I wanted to remain in the field. To engage in the movement was the way to stay in the field. My heart was in the field."
 

Hammel, now 34 and a primary school teacher, was 15 in 1992 when her parents sold the farm. She and da Luz, who was born in 1975, met in 2004 while both were studying in one of the movement's schools. 

The couple lives in the Olga Benário settlement, a permanent camp 10 families share, located some 100 kilometers from Cascavel. In 1999, da Luz and his brother were part of the "occupation" that set up a roadside camp beside what would become Olga Benário. 

To make the government address agrarian reform, the movement establishes camps along roadsides and other visible places, while the National Institute for Colonization and Agrarian Reform (INCRA) negotiates transfer of ownership with the government and landowners, a process that can last for years. 

"When we arrived here, this area was owned by the government and a communications company," da Luz said through an interpreter. "In the beginning all 10 families camped and huddled together." 

Families unite with other families, beginning by forming debate groups, where farmers find common opinion and a common cause to fight for, explained Hammel. 

"A family will never go out on its own," she said. "The community is the foundation of everything." 

Each community, da Luz added, has its own principles and policies to which everyone has agreed, and sometimes even family "fights" are taken to the community. A family can leave the land to its children, but the land signed over to the MST never can be turned over to commercial use if the family leaves.
 
According to government agrarian census
data, 1 percent of land owners control 45 percent of farmland, a land distribution dating from the 16th century, when Brazil, South American's largest, most resource-rich country, was a colony of Portugal. 

In fewer than 30 years, Brazil has become a world leader in industrial agriculture – producing commodities including corn, soybeans, coffee, cocoa, sugarcane and beef – at times at the expense of the local population and the environment. This has led to violent confrontations between environmental and indigenous activists and farmers and cattle ranchers. Sister Dorothy Stang, an American-born Roman Catholic nun who worked with the Catholic Church's pastoral land commission, is counted among the many activists who have been murdered. Thirty-four people were killed in conflicts over land in 2010.
 
Besides fighting for more equitable land distribution, the MST battles to protect water quality and the environment. "In every camping place you go to, 20 percent of it is set aside as a reserve, and there is always a 50-meter buffer near a lake or water source," according to national law, da Luz said. "Farmers all over Brazil break this law, but the government is trying to strengthen the law. And large farms and commercial farms and companies are fighting with the government to weaken the law."
 
"Agrarian reform is not only the concern of those who camp, it is also the concern of people like the 'reverendo' in urban areas," he said.
 

Gabas' involvement
 
Iris Maracáípe, a leader in the movement, lives with her two sons in the Valmir Motta de Oliveira settlement, named for her husband, near Cascavel.
Motta, or "Keno," as he was commonly known in his role as one of the movement's national leaders, was assassinated Oct. 21, 2007, during a protest.
 
The settlement sits just off the road in the foreground of a large industrial farm. The camp recently achieved permanent status. The wood houses all have well-manicured gardens. The camp's children attend a nearby government school. Maracáípe and Keno met in the movement.
 

Gabas became more involved with the MST after Keno's death. The two men were not close, as Keno acted at the national level and Gabas at the regional level, but they knew each other and talked regularly, Gabas explained. Keno's national position gained him respect in Cascavel and Paraná and throughout the nation; because of his actions, his death became "imminent," Gabas said.
 
Keno and other leaders, he said, participated in a "takeover" of Syngenta, a Swiss global agrochemical company that does genomic research and markets seeds and pesticides. The company was conducting agricultural experiments with transgenics and "toxic" chemicals less than 10 kilometers from Iguaçu National Park, one of the largest forest preserves in South America and home to the 1.7-mile Iguaçu Falls of the Iguaçu River that delineate the borders of Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay, he said.
 
In 2006, the MST, in partnership with the international peasant movement Via Campesina, alerted the government to Syngenta's actions in the region. The government didn't act, so protesters from both organizations staged a "sit-in." The government forced them to leave. In October 2007, the protesters held another sit-in on a rainy Sunday morning.
 Besides its own 40 heavily armed security guards, Syngenta recruited rural people from the west of Paraná to "fight with them," Gabas said.
 
"The security guards arrived in a bus, and then when they got off the bus they started shooting at the people from Via Campesina and knocked over the entrance gate. They executed Keno, and they forced a woman called Isabel to kneel and they shot her in the head," he said. "She didn't die because they put the gun over her head and the bullet crossed her eye.
 
"Four others from Via Campesina were hurt, and the security guards killed one of their own, too. So that's what happened on this Sunday in October 2007. Keno was murdered, not hit by a stray bullet. And the same stands for Isabel; she was shot intentionally."
 

It was Gabas who told Keno's parents of his death and later picked them up for the funeral and organized the celebration of Keno's life. And it was after that that strange things began to happen. 

Gabas's car began to leak gasoline. When he took it to the mechanic, the mechanic discovered bullet holes. Later, he was cornered by two other cars while driving. He began receiving threatening phone calls; cars would circle his home; motorcyclists would shine their headlights  

The church became concerned for his safety, and the government provided him security while it investigated the violence related to the movement. For a time, the situation stabilized, he said.
 
Then, in May 2008, shortly after midnight, heavily armed men driving tractors and a truck outfitted to allow gunmen to ride on top with their guns – what they called a "big skull" – rolled into the camp Primeiros Passos, or First Steps, shooting bullets, running over crops and destroying the chapel before the military police came and stopped them.
 
"Besides people being arrested, police found ammunition but no guns," Gabas said, adding that just after the invaders arrived someone from the camp called and woke Gabas. He drove to the camp, arriving just after the attack.
 
"People were desperate, confused," he said. "People would walk back and forth not knowing where to go. And I tried to help so that people would stay more tranquil. I made an effort to maintain the distance between the police and the camping in order to avoid people from the camping from getting arrested."
 

The MST doesn't allow members of the movement to be armed, Gabas says. Brazilian television -- the same 1 percent that owns the farmland also controls the media, he says -- shows them with rural instruments, pick-axes, to make them look like they are dangerous, but these instruments are used only for work. 

"If the people from the movement had been armed during the day of that attack, there would have been much more damage," he added.
 
The next day, people from the camp moved onto the two-lane road, closing it to traffic. So again Gabas drove out to the camp to intervene, and then on that same day he received more threats.
 

The First Steps camping site belongs to the Movement for the Liberation of the Landless, or MLST, a smaller breakaway movement formed in Pernambuco, in the north of Brazil, that keeps its focus mainly on land reform. The MST is more organized and has support both inside and outside Brazil, Gabas said. 

Gabas's involvement with the MLST began when someone in the camp died and no Roman Catholic priest would preside over the funeral. After that, Gabas began tending to the camp's spiritual requirements, celebrating Mass under a canvas tent before building the wooden structure that was destroyed in the raid.
 
Eventually, when the Paróquia da Ascensão Igreja Anglicana in Cascavel upgraded from a wooden to a brick structure, the old wood was used to build the current Capela Jesus Cristo Libertador, or Christ the Liberator Chapel.
 
In the beginning, Gabas celebrated a monthly Mass in the chapel and went more often to talk to people and join their meetings. Now he holds bimonthly services, baptizing the first Anglican in the area five months ago.
 
"Up until April it was an Anglican chapel, but there was no Anglican in the campsite," he said, adding that he didn't impose the Anglican Church on them, and that Roman Catholics also join the services.
 

Leadership and education 

The movement's emphasis on leadership and training has been key to its success, said Dawn Plummer, former national coordinator for the Friends of the MST, who wrote a master's thesis on its leadership development. 

The movement is composed of "thousands and thousands of leaders; it's not a movement of a few leaders and lots and lots of followers," she said, adding that the leadership and uniform organizational culture allowed members to multiply "massively." 

History notes that social movements were instrumental in the country's move to democracy. A military dictatorship ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985, with popular movements, dissident political groups, labor union-led strikes and peaceful protests largely credited with easing the transition from dictatorship to democracy. Elections came in 1989. 

"The movement fought for direct elections in 1989," said da Luz. "The people, everyone in Brazil, had the craving to choose." The MST's political influence also has influenced education.
 
Although Brazil has its own universal education curriculum, universities are required to contribute to the movement, said Liliam Faria Porto Borges, an education professor at the Universidade Estadual do Oeste do Paraná.
 

"The movement pressured the state to provide alternative access to education," she said, adding that this has required extra work and angered some professors.
 
Having developed their own calendar, she said, the movement's "students study 10 hours a day for 50 days and then go back to their communities to continue their studies … That is difficult for us because we have a particular way of organizing a course. Instructors have to adjust their methodology to the social movement."
 

Students from the camps typically study agrarian science, veterinary medicine and education, but some faculty resist structuring these courses to accommodate the movement. Many professors also disagree with the movement's goals. Conflicts exist between urban and rural areas, as well as and tensions inside the university, Porto Borges said. 

The conflict, however, doesn't rattle the students, who are politically adept and strengthened by their collective, she said. "They wear their flags and T-shirts and impose their points of view." 

The 80 children living in the First of August camp – a temporary camp – attend classes in small wooden buildings with dirt floors. Classes are small, and the children sit at typical metal school desks with wooden tops and hard plastic chairs. Murals of bucolic scenes are painted on the exterior walls of some classrooms. The students recite songs and chants with themes about educating the workers in the field.
 
Government teachers hold morning classes, and teachers from the camp take the afternoons, said Geni Teixeira de Souza, the camp's school coordinator.
 
"Always the focus is on everybody … cooperative education," said de Souza.
 

Through education and everyday camp life, the MST instills the movement's values in its students. The MST's flag – a male worker with a large knife raised in his right hand and a woman standing with him, posed in front of a outline of Brazil, all enclosed in a white circle in the center on a red background – flies throughout the First of August camp, along with flags bearing the image of Latin American revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara. On one building at the camp's entrance, Guevara's image is painted, his head hung low, his thumb and index finger pinching the bridge of his nose, alongside the quotation: "It is necessary to develop a consciousness in which values acquire new categories." What's missing is the rest of the quote: "As I already said, in moments of extreme danger it is easy to activate moral incentives; to maintain their effectiveness ... Society as a whole must become a huge school." 

One of the things the MST recognizes, which the rest of society often ignores, is the knowledge that poor people, peasants and campesinos have, said Plummer. 

While students receive instruction in the same subjects taught in regular schools, they also receive field education that teaches them how to work the land, de Souza said. "Their courses are geared toward teaching them everything they need to associate everyday life with the ways of living on the land … it is impossible to separate school from living and community from school." 

Another strength of the MST, Plummer said, is that its adherents live out its values and ideology. 

In a place where poverty is so intense, the value of access to seed and soil and the importance of sustainable farming techniques are not lost, she said. 

"I think what is so special about the MST is that they are really trying to embody their values, that caring for the earth is not just a nice bumper sticker," she said. "The political action they take is studied and strategic, and also something rooted in daily life." 

The First of August camp formed seven years ago on land owned by a private farmer when the movement discovered the farmer using only monoculture farming techniques. 

At first there were 1,200 families; now it is home to 90 families, and more than 300 people. Each family has a small patch of land, and the houses vary from well-built wooden structures with metal roofs to ones held together with plastic walls. Most residents come with an agricultural background or are poor people from the cities. Many of the camp's former residents left to work on farms in Paraguay, which borders Brazil to the south. INCRA, the government agrarian reform agency, still is negotiating with the farmer who owns the land to sign it over to the campers. 

One of the MST's strongest attributes, said Plummer, is that it fights for the immediate needs of the poorest Brazilians – access to land, shelter, food and health care – and organizes families as soon as they enter the movement. In the very short term, it works to resolve what typically is an extreme situation, but it also looks at why the family ended up in that situation. Later, it gets into broader social change and the long-term goal of land reform.
 
"It's not just a social-service provider or ideological movement," she said.
 

But staying committed, she added, can be difficult and one the movement's major challenges.
 
"Change comes slowly," she said. "In many encampments … life is not so great. People can live in tent communities for years, and it's not easy to stay committed and see it through. That's a real challenge."
 

Still, the MST has had success in Paraná, where permanent camps outnumber temporary ones – a growing pattern of more people becoming "fixed in the fields," said Porto Borges. 

That speaks to what the movement has achieved, she said. "Nowadays they are recruiting poor people from the cities." 

With a population of more than 200 million people, Brazil is the 10th-largest economy in the world. More than 26 percent of the population lives in poverty – many in extreme poverty. As the population has largely shifted from rural to urban areas, social programs instituted by former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva have lead to quality-of-life improvements.
 
New government income-redistribution policies and a special compensation program for the poor called "Bolsa Familia" have given people living in cities a "dignified life," and that weakens the agrarian movement, said Paulo Humberto Porto Borges, Liliam's husband and also a professor at Universidade Estadual do Oeste do Paraná, who has long worked on land issues in Brazil. "That the movement is not acquiring new people is a result of its success.
 

"At the same time, we fight for it, and I think it is positive that it takes strength from the mobilization power of the movement – it is a contradiction that cannot be solved," he said. "And that fact that there are more jobs now in Brazil, that is also taking strength from the movement." 

He sees it as an achievement of the Brazilian people, he added. "It is a very positive and interesting contradiction." 

Jair Francisco de Paula has been a political leader in the movement for nine years and is a leader in the First of August camp. A farmer all his life, he joined MST when he thought he wasn't being hired for jobs on farms because of his age. "I thought it was the only way to make improvements," said de Paula, who has a weathered face and well-worn cowboy hat.  

De Paula put it another way: Government welfare programs and jobs give people a false sense of security and make it so that "they don't want to fight" for land reform. 

"The movement tries its best to change the thinking of the whole society," he said. "At the moment it is particularly hard for the movement because there is work." 

For more information on Pastoral Anglicana da Terra, or Earthly Anglican Care, contact Diocese of California missionary Michael Tedrick at michaelt@diocal.org. 

*Lynette Wilson is an editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service. She traveled to Brazil in May to report this story.  

Photo: The Rev. Luiz Carlos Gabas, right, speaking with a resident of Primeiros Passos (ENS  Lynette Wilson) 

Source: Episcopal News Service, ENS: http://www.episcopalchurch.org/79425_130230_ENG_HTM.htm

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