Brazil's s Squatters' Movement Sees Backing In Updated

Tom Boland (
Wed, 12 Aug 1998 20:30:42 -0700 (PDT)
FWD  Washington Post Foreign Service  Thursday, August 6, 1998; Page A01


     By Anthony Faiola


Rose Marie da Silva recalls being cold, hungry and desperate the morning
that she and 200 others invaded this once-thriving ranch on the Sao
Francisco River. It was hours before the land's legal owner discovered the
squatters' makeshift tents, and by then they were firmly dug in. Now,
months later, their settlement has a name -- and, they hope, a sense of

"Nothing will get me off this land now," said da Silva, 34, who added that
for the first time in her life she feels like a landowner.

The land invasion here in the poverty-stricken northern region called the
Sertao, which took place last summer, was orchestrated by one of the most
active and controversial forces in Brazil's political life -- the Landless
Movement, known in Portuguese as the Sem Terra.

Some consider the Sem Terra a group of dangerous insurgents because of the
passions they have ignited in Brazil's estimated 2 million landless
families, many of whom are returning to the countryside after trying
unsuccessfully to carve out lives for themselves in the mega-cities of Sao
Paulo, Rio de Janeiro or Recife.

The movement's growing numbers are prompting headlines across Latin America
as they organize marches on the capital, invade land held by the wealthy,
hijack food trucks and stage takeovers of banks and government offices in
their own brand of economic vigilantism.

"We agree that there must be land reform -- but the Sem Terra have a
complete lack of respect for the law," said Luiz Hasers, president of the
Brazilian Rural Society of Landowners. "Their path of reform is the path of
chaos and madness."

Yet there is method in their "madness." To justify its actions, the Sem
Terra, which grew out of radical elements of the Catholic Church in the
1980s, use Brazil's updated constitution, which mandates that unproductive
land can and should be taken over by those willing to cultivate it.

Although its members sometimes have been accused of invading productive
property, the Sem Terra mostly target land that the rich have abandoned. In
the 1990s alone, the group has staged more than 518 invasions, settling
151,427 families on 53 million acres -- an area slightly larger than

Many Brazilians regard the squatters as heroes, modern-day Robin Hoods in a
nation where 4 percent of the people own 50 percent of the arable land.

Widespread Support

At more than 600,000 members, the Sem Terra is one of the most powerful
grass-roots political movements in Latin America and has become an
international cause celebre, attracting donations from Europe, North
America and beyond. And despite its propaganda -- which runs to Che Guevara
posters and emblems reminiscent of old Soviet farm collectives -- its
ideology is closer to capitalism than communism. Invading families work for
ownership of land, not as members of a commune.

At the national level, the movement's university-educated leaders have
turned the Sem Terra into a fashionable brand name, winning the hearts of
millions -- and earning substantial profits -- with Sem Terra teas, gourmet
coffees, T-shirts and souvenirs.

"We are trying to right the wrongs of Brazil's past," said Neuri Rosseto, a
Sem Terra national director. "We are redistributing wealth because the
government won't."

Their latest battleground is here in the Sertao, a poverty-stricken region
that is experiencing one of the hemisphere's most severe food shortages.
Unlike most of this lush, tropical country, the Sertao is harsh and dry.
Its soil is almost like desert sand, yielding its nutrients only with
man-made irrigation systems that the poor residents -- descendants of
African slaves, Amerindians and Portuguese laborers -- cannot afford.

The region suffers drought seven months a year, and subsistence farmers
live off the sprinkles that follow. But the weather phenomenon known as El
Nino has prolonged the drought for 18 months, with no end predicted until
December. Coupled with a shortage of state-government food baskets -- often
handed out to peasants in exchange for votes -- the situation has become

For that reason, da Silva was an eager listener when the Sem Terra came to
her desert town on a recruiting mission last year. Although off-duty police
hired by land barons in the Sertao have killed several Sem Terra members
since last year, da Silva, like thousands of others, was willing to take a
chance for "dignity."

"We still don't have food every day, but we do have one thing," said da
Silva, her face serious in the scorching midday heat, as her children clung
to her red cloth skirt. "We have hope. That's something I've never had
since the day I was born."

Da Silva grew up without a home, sleeping under the stars with her parents
-- descendants of former slaves -- who labored in the fields of a powerful
land baron in Pernambuco state. "I suffered during my childhood," said da
Silva, who is 34 but looks to be in her late forties -- about the average
life expectancy for people here. "I was hungry most of the time, though
children in my family had first rights to food. I remember I cried from the
hunger. . . . Now, my children cry from hunger too. It reminds me of my own
childhood, and makes me feel sick to tears again."

Disease and Threats

Life at Nossa Senhora da Conceicao is no picnic. The cluster of 71 families
is suffering through one of the hardest stages of the Sem Terra settlement
process. As lawyers fight to get them legally recognized -- a process that
can take up to three years -- they live in a fetid village of open sewers
and mud huts. They regularly are threatened by security guards working for
the landowner.

Meanwhile, children start working at age 6, laboring in tiny fields to help
grow the rice and beans that feed their families.

Adults and children are thin and underdeveloped from lack of food. Disease
runs rampant; the tiny medical post is built of mud and sticks and is
devoid of supplies.

"There is no milk, still, and [one of my children] is very fragile and
weak," da Silva said. "I try to save the good food for her."

More advanced camps of the Sem Terra have evolved into thriving
communities, with their own schools, well-stocked medical clinics,
irrigation systems and crops grossing millions of dollars annually.

In Safra, a Sem Terra settlement only 20 miles away that was established in
August 1995, the government has recognized residents as new landowners.
They now have cement houses, tiny markets, irrigation systems and schools
for their children.

"I never learned to write my name, but now my children are in school -- and
one of them wants to be a journalist," said Jose Ferreira de Lima, 47, a
Sem Terra farmer in Safra. "I tell him, 'Fight for it.' I fought for this
land, and look, I have my dream -- a house and a little piece of land that
is mine. I am the owner of myself now."

Getting to that stage, however, can be a desperate struggle. In Agroisa, a
nearby encampment taken over by 150 families only a month ago, the
residents are nearly starving in their crude palm-frond huts.

To sustain themselves, they have taken to "sacking" food trucks -- one of
the more controversial Sem Terra tactics. The families -- including
husbands, wives and children -- stop the trucks by piling up barricades of
sticks and branches on major highways and take their cargo of food.

"I don't see it as robbery -- my family's only food was sucking on oranges
for four days before we turned to sacking," said Cicero Rodrigues de
Oliveira, 42, who took part in a recent looting that yielded sugar and
cornmeal. "Hunger can make you do things you never imagined."

President Fernando Henrique Cardoso is a harsh critic of the Sem Terra,
arguing that their disrespect for the law threatens Brazilian society. But
federal officials often have no constitutional choice but to work with Sem
Terra leaders. Unused land is legally open to the taking in Brazil -- and
such territories are vast in parts of this nation, which is larger than the
continental United States.

As the national economy has focused more on urban industry and less on
agriculture, many rich landowners have shut down their farming operations,
holding onto derelict spreads mostly as a source of tax write-offs.

The government insists that land reform is moving as fast as possible
"within the law," adding that 300,000 people have been settled since
Cardoso became president in 1995.

On the other hand, the Sem Terra have played a key role in that process.
According to government officials, 75 percent of those 300,000 were settled
with the aid of the movement.

Still, as the Sem Terra have become increasingly radical -- and
strengthened their ties to political opposition leader Luiz Inacio Lula da
Silva -- Cardoso's government is finding it harder to remain impartial and
cooperative, said Milton Seligman, president of the Institute of Agrarian
Reform and Colonization, the government agency responsible for settling
Brazil's landless.

"We consider them partners in land reform, but only when they operate
within the law," Seligman said in a telephone interview from Brasilia.
"That's the problem. There are two Sem Terras -- the social, just movement;
and the other, political movement that disregards law and the rules of
democracy and represents political candidates and political motives."

Strong Church Backing

Yet support for the Sem Terra remains extraordinarily broad, especially
within the powerful Catholic Church in Brazil, which has declared that
"sacking" and land invasions are not sins.

"The fact that land in Brazil is in the hands of a few is against God's
will," said Bishop Jose Rodriques de Souza, of the diocese of Juazeiro, a
city in the Sertao.

The bishop uses his sermons at the local cathedral to publicly support the
Sem Terra and provides meeting space for recruiting sessions.

"We base this belief on the first page of the Bible that said God created
the world for all men and women," he said.

"The Sem Terra are doing God's will in Brazil, and God's will cannot be


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