Tue, Feb 18, 2014 - Page 9 News List

Landless workers reignite campaign in Brazil to mark 30th anniversary

After three decades of struggle, thousands of displaced farmers meet in the capital in a renewed effort for widespread agrarian reform

By Jonathan Watts  /  The Guardian, BRASILIA, Brazil

Shootings and attacks continue, but at a diminished level. Nonetheless, the MST says its struggle has become more difficult.

“It’s harder to fight the big companies than the cowboys,” said Kelly Maforatu, the gender secretary of the movement.

“They have more power so they don’t need physical violence. Instead they use, banks, the media and the government. We have to be more innovative to face that,” she said.

The changes were apparent in Brasilia. Numbers and energy levels were said to be somewhat down compared with the MST’s first big march on the capital in 1997, when 100,000 gathered in front of the congress. Living standards also seem to have improved. Instead of the makeshift tarpaulin coverings of the past, almost all of the activists this year had modern tents.

Maira Martins, a former member who is now with the non-governmental organization ActionAid, said the MST needed this year’s congress to remind Brazil’s politicians that it remains a dynamic force.

“It’s important to show the strength of the movement. The government is not prioritizing the landless movement. This congress is a way to show that it is still strong and that the occupations are viable and productive,” she said.

Around the camp on the concrete of the capital, it was clear the struggle is far from over for many of the families who have tried to make new lives by occupying land. Living in contested space, they have countless stories of expulsions, violence and pressure from the authorities, vilification by the domestic media and rulings of criminality by judges.

Jean Paulo Alves said he, his family and 70 others were expelled from a camp in Canguaretama in Rio Grande de Norte less than two months ago by police who used pepper spray on children and destroyed their crops. The families had lived there just five months, erecting mud houses and planting manioc.

Despite the struggle against the odds and the law, he vowed — like many others — to try again.

“The MST has arranged lawyers for us to contest the judge’s ruling against us. We want to show that we’re fulfilling a social role by using the land, something the landowner was failing to do,” he said.

TRAGEDY AND TRIUMPH

Among the greatest tragedies and triumphs of the MST was the campaign to occupy a ranch near Eldorado dos Carajas, which led to one of the worst massacres in recent Brazilian history.

Several delegates at last week’s 30th anniversary congress were among the band of more than 100 MST activists on highway PA-150 in Para state on April 17, 1996, when Brazilian military police opened fire, killing 19 of the farmers.

“We tried to negotiate. When that failed, we occupied the road and they started using guns and batons. I saw a lot of blood, people injured and children running,” said Carlos Alberto, who fled into the forest and hid.

He said others survived by pretending to be dead.

The Eldorado dos Carajas massacre prompted a national outcry, speeches in the National Congress of Brazil and eventually — with the help of MST lawyers — compensation for the families of the dead and wounded.

While rarely on such a scale, such killings are far from unusual. According to the PLC, almost 1,500 land reform activists and farmers were killed in the first 20 years of the MST’s existence. The perpetrators are prosecuted less than 10 percent of the time and convictions can take many years.

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