We are millions!

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(ARTICLE FOR GORAKHPUR FILM FESTIVAL CATELOGUE)
Feb 2009

We are millions of companheiros and companheiras/ In the search to free the land/ Of men and of women in a country where land is worth gold

And human beings a few grams of gunpowder moulded in bullets/ which form the bleeding destiny of our suffering people.

The dark night of pain and of death passes quickly/ and the sound of our anthems raise our consciences/that the fight will make up for our poverty.

That in the sunrise we will meet smiling, celebrating our freedom.”

‘We are millions’ – song of the Movimento Sem Terra.

Zaterdag 19 september wordt deze film vertoond in de Grote Broek: meer info. What has been described as the most dynamic social movement in the world, the Movimento Sem Terra, or Brazilian landless movement marks its’ 25th year of struggle this year, 2009.

With over a million and a half members, the MST has been feted worldwide by human and workers’ rights organisations but its’ fight for vital land reform continues to be paid lip-service by the government and it finds itself demonised by the elite-owned press.

Its’ provocative and successful direct action tactics of taking over unproductive farms en masse has always irked the authorities – even though their right to the land is enshrined in the post-dictatorship 1988 constitution.

Last year the state prosecutor even attempted to kickstart a legal challenge for “the dissolution of the MST and a declaration of their illegality.”

In a moved likened to the dark days of the military dictatorship which lasted from 1964 to 1986, the prosecutor claimed the MST was “a paramilitary organisation and a threat to national security.”

The threats are understandable and a testament to the effectiveness of the movement. The hands of the landowning elite have never been far from power. Land has always been a potent issue dating back to the colonial carve up by the Portuguese and it has simply never been resolved.

Brazil has 190 million people and an area of 8.5 million square kilometres – twice the size of Europe – yet just 35,000 families own 46% of the land. Brazil remains the country with the second worst land distribution in the world.

To escape slavery conditions, millions flocked to the urban areas in the 70s creating megacities and vast slums, known as favelas. The Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra, MST, was founded in January 1984 and has since settled an incredible 370,000 families.
Another 230,000 are currently living in extreme poverty in straw huts and under black plastic sheeting in camps waiting for the government land agency to legalise their situation, but it can take years.

In a recent newspaper poll, 80 per cent said they believed that the MST should be outlawed. Just seven families of the elite control the mass media in Brazil, who paint the movement as dangerous outlaws, even terrorists. One proposed law passing through the Senate suggests that land occupations be re-classified as “a terrorist act”.

The irony is rich. In the latest figures available, 1,349 people were murdered in land conflicts between 1985 and 2004. But the landowners know they can act with impunity – only 75 cases even came to court.

The most notorious being the massacre of Eldorado do Carajás on April 17, 1996 when 19 sem terra died after being shot by police. No police officer has even been condemned for the crime.

The MST press on regardless. Now spanning two generations, they have developed organically with a flexible structure that allows for bottom-up and top-down decision making.

The MST works with nuclei of ten families who form brigades 500 families-strong, who comprise tens of thousands from each state. There are national co-ordinators from each state who form an elected body.

The MST is also part of Via Campesina, a network of 120 social movements active in 70 countries.

Day-to-day this means establishing more and more automomous communally-run settlements and creating parallel heath and education systems in a network that spans 25 of Brazil’s 28 states.

Education has become a key focus. The first communal building in all settlements is a school, but it is the national project of building their own university brick-by-brick that is perhaps the most impressive.

The Florestan Fernandes university, named after a working-class sociologist, took over 1,000 members of the MST almost five years to construct from scratch in an extraordinary voluntary effort involving members from across the country.

The modern-looking campus in the state of São Paulo is equipped with a computer room running on open-source software, a cinema, a library with 15,000 donated books, a refectory, a 200-seater auditorium, four classrooms and four dormitories which can sleep 200 people.

Typical courses include studies into revolutionary leaders in Latin America´s turbulent past from the Sandanistas in Nicaragua to Salvador Allende´s Chile, taken by sympathetic professors from Brazil´s leading universities.

One of those is Florestan’s daughter Heloisa Fernandes, professor at faculty of philosophy, letters and human sciences at Latin America’s leading academic institution, the University of São Paulo.

“These are people who want to take what they know and find out how to transform that into tools for work. What they learn is translated into the experiences that they bring from the camps, the settlements, the struggles, the victories and the failures of each one of them, ” she says.

The Escola Nacional Florestan Fernandes offers graduation, masters, and specialisations in partnership with 13 public universities. Courses are officially recognised by the ministry of education and culture.

The campus is run by the students themselves who work a rota for cleaning and cooking on the 30,000 m2 [square metre] site, and it operates as a base for many social movements.

To give a snapshot, when I last visited it was hosting a national meeting of feminist militants, 2,000 of whom had worn masks and taken part in the wholesale destruction of a research laboratory of the multinational company Aracruz Celulose in a protest over the mass planting of eucalyptus trees, a monoculture which creates ‘green deserts’, where nothing else can live or grow.

Living with the land, it is obvious that the MST are at the forefront of ecological protection, creating sophisticated new methods of sustainable farming – always run on a co-operative basis.

In 2002 came new hope with the election of a former metalworker and union strike leader as Brazil’s first working-class president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

He had formed a political party, the Workers’ Party, at the end of the dictatorship in the same year that the MST was created. The two pushed for social change in tandem as allies. But Lula only achieved his position of power by making a coalition pact with the devil.

Charles Trocate, MST National Co-ordinator for the Northeastern state of Pará says that “Brazil is perhaps the only country which has two ministries  the Ministry of Agrarian Development which looks after agrarian policy like the National Plan for Agrarian Reform and the Ministry of Agriculture which is the Ministry of the big landowners and of agribusiness.

“So it’s a government which has ministers from the left and ministers from the right. With President Lula, he is an ally of the working class but the MST maintains its’ political autonomy from political parties.”

In 2005, seeing that promises of agrarian reform were flagging, the MST undertook the biggest march in Brazilian history in an extraordinary display of organization.

In dry heat every day for 17 days, 12,000 men, women and children marched 16kms, occupied land, and camped on it. Like a giant festival on the move every day, it was an epic of eight months planning.

Between 1,200 and 300 people travelled from each of 24 out of 28 Brazilian states (everywhere the MST is active). Many spent three or four nights and days on some of the 288 buses to arrive at the start point – a football stadium in Goiania in the centre-west of Brazil on May 1, International Workers’ Day.

Each marcher was asked to bring with them a knife and fork, four rolls of toilet paper, a water bottle, a straw hat, a roll-up mattress, Bermuda shorts, Havaianas (flipflops), tablets for headaches and dysentery, MST caps and t-shirts and a bucket to wash with.

Each marcher was given a rucksack, a plastic rain cover (it never rained), a card for their name and state, pen, notebook, a book on agrarian reform written by MST groups, a transistor radio and headphones.

Every day began with a wake-up at around 4.30am with half-an-hour to pack, get into groups and form three lines stretching four and a half kilometres along with BR-060 motorway.

Covering on average 16 kilometres a day the march would set off before dawn, joined by two sound systems, six ambulances and 15 water trucks, and arrive four or five hours later at the campsite.

The sound system truck, a carnival-style ‘trio electrico’ was large, loud and transmitted a radio signal along the route for the walking-with-headphones masses.

Meanwhile another 350-strong team would pack up the entire camp, and drive it in 31 trucks and 8 buses to the next site. There they would find a farm, cut down the wire fences, smash down the wooden poles with the buses and drive in en masse. Then the site would be sketched out on paper and then re-constructed entirely before the marchers arrived around 10am.

Kitchens were set up at two points along the route. A team of 420 cooks – a group from each state – would rise at 3.30am and start preparing 24,000 meals a day with rice, beans, vegetables and a little meat brought from MST encampments. The hot food would then be packed into individual metal trays and driven to and back from the current campsite twice a day.

After showering, washing clothes and having lunch came the study hours from 3-5pm where invited speakers would give a lecture through the radio headsets and groups would then debate issues such as the 16-point demands of the march.

At the same time, two teams of 30 negotiators would take it in turns to get in a bus to the capital Brasilia and spend all day going from ministry to ministry (28 meetings in all) hammering out their demands, armed with the pressure the march was bringing to bear before coming back to camp.

And then there were the teams for health, childcare, theatre, finances, security (by the MST themselves of course), transport, general secretary, tents, toilets and the press.

At nightfall was music from every corner of Brazil around countless fires fuelled by cachaca (Brazilian rum), beer and, as half were under-25, a lot of fun with people from other states. By 10pm practically the whole site was asleep.

Leonardo Boff is known as a father of the movement. In the 1970s he advocated the ‘Theology of Liberation’ which argued that capitalism was anti-Christian. It led to his expulsion from the Catholic church by Joseph Ratzinger, today Pope Benedict XVI.

On the march he said: “I think that this march has many unique things which don’t exist in the world. It innovates that which not Marx, not Lenin, not any known revolutionary imagined.

“To unite the fight and marching with study and reflection as it is being done here every day … calling people, making groups … which is extremely unprecedented and very important because uniting practice with theory prevents excesses, creates roots … and hardens the resolve to fight to free the land.

“And an almost mystical aura of affection between everyone and a profound friendliness which seems like a little rehearsal of a happy humanity.”

Gilmar Mauro, MST national co-ordinator for the state of São Paulo says: “The history of the marches of mankind is very rich as a form of pressure, to take flight, to resolve problems, ever since the ancient Egyptians, Gandhi, Latin Americans, indigenous marches and in other parts of the world. And, within the MST, an interesting culture that in our understanding, the march is an action accepted by society.”

Reaching the destination was not the ultimate aim. For the MST, the march was designed to open up a long-term debate with society, a dream of the future.

But by the end of 2008, none of the government’s targets for agrarian reform had been met. For the MST, Lula’s government has “abandoned” agrarian reform.

Brazil remains the country with the second worst land distribution in the world.

As they mark a quarter of a century in 2009, the MST are focused on the next 25 years.

Gilmar Mauro, MST national co-ordinator for the state of São Paulo, says “We’ve concluded that on our own we are not going to get agrarian reform, there is no way to achieve agrarian reform if we are on our own.

“We have to continue mobilising, continue organising, continue fighting because from above to below it will be very difficult for us to achieve changes. Either we have the ability to organise the people, to fight, to demand, to win or they will not happen.

“Changes will only be sustainable from a historical point of view and will be long-lasting if it is a process that the people themselves manage to win.

“Whether it is pressure on the government, whether it is a change of government or, as we do with land, with agrarian reform occupying landowners, occupying these spaces but it has to have a major participation of the people and a people obviously keen to fight.”

We need to march again
To keep our hopes high
From a people suffering and tired
But you never tire of the fight
Up there the people suffering
Men, women, children.

March with us, march
And it’s Brazil in columns
The dream isn’t utopia
In the flutter of the flags
The dream isn’t utopia
In the flutter of the flags.

Pay attention, my country
Wake up to reality
What is happening
In the countryside and the city
Only the power of the people
Will change society.

‘March Brazil’ – song of the Movimento Sem Terra.

By Gibby Zobel, producer and director of ‘MST: Landless farmers and the biggest march in Brazilian history’.

gibbyz apedingest gmail.com

For more information on the MST in English:
www.mstbrazil.org

Contact the MST:
secgeral apedingest enff.org.br


BRAZIL’S FRIENDLY BIG LANDOWNERS

Biggest exporter of Brazil nuts in the country, the Mutran family. Fined for having slave workers. Osvaldo Mutran, then state deputy, murdered a tax inspector, spent ten years in jail then murdered an 8-year-old girl.

Biggest producer of beans, Norberto Manica.

Accused of having slave workers he ordered the successful assassination of three inspectors and their driver. Now in jail.

Biggest producer of cotton, Wander Carlos de Souza.
Mayor in the state of Goais. Found to have slave workers. Sacked 2,000 workers who are now in MST camps.

World’s biggest exporter of cellulose, Aracruz.
Bought 60,000 hectares of Atlantic rainforest and turned it into eucalyptus which creates a ‘green desert’ where nothing but eucalyptus grows. Stole 10,000 hectares of indigenous Indians’ land.