Promised land awaits over the fence

Landless peasants hope for a new future in their camp along the highway

Delegates attending the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre have taken a closer look at rural realities in Brazil.

This content was published on January 26, 2005 - 18:23

swissinfo visited a camp run by members of the landless movement, who want to take over an abandoned property neighbouring the camp.

For the past 25 years, the Brazilian Landless Workers Movement has been fighting to give poor peasants a place to earn a living.

Along the country’s roads, their camps have become a familiar sight, a constant reminder to all Brazilians that a quarter of the population lives below the poverty line. At the same time, huge properties lie abandoned by their rich owners.

The movement has had some success. So far, it has managed to recover small 15 to 20 hectare plots for half a million families.

But there is still plenty to do, says Frei Betto, a leading Catholic liberation theologian. “We are the world champions when it comes to inequalities,” he said.

No status quo

In Brazil, ten per cent of the population owns 42 per cent of all resources, and the 8,000 richest families have a total fortune of over SFr250 billion ($211 billion).

But Betto adds that Brazilians aren’t prepared to accept the status quo. “We probably have more non-governmental organisations in Brazil than anywhere else,” he told Swiss delegates attending the World Social Forum.

The landless movement is probably the best known of these associations. It has a strong political bent, demanding an end to the unoccupied properties that cover huge swathes of the country, but also calling for people to be put before profits.

In the camps, everything is based on solidarity. Families that have taken over plots are given a helping hand by their comrades from the camps, allowing them to earn more for the entire group.

Everything is shared, be it salaries, state subsidies or the funding from the landless movement. And when a property is taken over, land ownership is shared equally among all those who live on it.

Families help each other, looking after one another’s children. Politics also play a role in the camps, starting at school where children are taught to be activists, and not victims.

Roadside camp

Forty kilometres south of Porto Alegre, the camp visited by the Swiss delegates literally surrounds a roadside service area. Just beyond the fence lies a property covering 170 hectares claimed by the landless movement.

Two hundred families have been waiting there since April last year for a court decision allowing them to take over the land. They have already occupied it symbolically for one day, a strategy the landless movement has often used in the past.

If all goes well, 100 families, whose names will be drawn out of a hat, will settle on the property. The others will move on to another camp elsewhere.

The would-be settlers can already make use of some parts of the land they hope to move onto, such as the large pond.

For the Swiss delegation, it all comes as a shock. The contrast between the camp’s tightly packed tents and the abandoned property highlights the absurdity of the system.

The delegates are impressed by the peasants’ courage and their dignity, especially the fact that they have taken their destiny into their own hands.

And when it comes to sharing, it is the Brazilians who show the Swiss how it’s done, providing them with a meal and food for thought before bidding them farewell.

swissinfo, Marc-André Miserez in Porto Alegre

In brief

Around 53 million Brazilians out 180 million live under the poverty line.

Over the past 25 years, the Landless Workers Movement has helped 500,000 families take over unused properties.

Another 150,000 families are still waiting for the courts to hand over abandoned land.

This land is bought by the state, which then redistributes it.

Agrarian reform has been underway in Brazil since 1976, with varying results.

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