Brazil: Still Waiting for the Promised Land

(IPS) – In their mud and clay tile house in a camp set up by the Brazilian Landless Workers Movement (MST), Eliana and her husband Eleidimar started the new year with a sense of trepidation. They know that at any moment an order can be issued to evict them from the land they have occupied for almost a decade.

They have come to feel that the land is theirs. It is where their three daughters were born and raised. It is also the source of the livelihood that has sustained them throughout the years.

"Our future is uncertain. We don’t know if we will be thrown out of here," Eliana, 27, told IPS. She and her family are members of the Terra Livre ("Free Land") camp set up by the MST in Resende, 176 km from the capital of the southern Brazilian state of Rio de Janeiro.

The MST is an organisation of rural workers that has used the occupation of large landholdings as its main weapon to speed up the pace of agrarian reform. It is made up of some 350,000 families living in settlements established throughout Brazil and another 150,000 who are living in makeshift camps, like the one in Resende, while waiting for the government to provide them with land of their own.

Almost 10 years ago, Eliana’s family and another 31 families from the MST occupied the Fazenda da Ponte poultry farm, which was classified as unproductive by official standards and owed back wages of close to one million dollars.

But the land, around 480 hectares, will only belong to them once the Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva administration’s Agrarian Reform Institute (INCRA) grants them legal title to it.

INCRA reached an agreement with the farm’s heirs to purchase it from them, pay off its debts and use the land for agrarian reform. But the necessary legal proceedings got tangled up in the red tape of the Brazilian court system.

When Mario Luzio Melo took over as director of the INCRA regional office in 2005, he reopened the proceedings that were first initiated in 1999.

"I took an interest in the case because of the concerns of the people living in the camp, but they are in no imminent danger of being evicted," Melo assured IPS.

Terra Livre, like all MST camps, will only be considered a legal settlement once land titles have been issued. In the meantime, the families living there work the land and sell their produce door to door in the nearby city of Itatiaia, which they travel to by boat along the river.

Like the other families of Terra Livre, Eliana’s has just over a hectare of land to farm. She and her husband use it to the fullest, planting string beans, squash, corn, cauliflower and okra.

With a minimum of resources, such as a simple irrigation system using river water or stored rainwater, Eliana and her husband could significantly increase their crop yield. But their income of roughly 300 dollars a month is not even enough for buying better tools.

The money they earn barely covers the costs of food, clothing, medicine and school expenses. "There’s nothing left over," said Eliana.

This is why having legal title to the land is so important.

"Agrarian reform is not just about land," explained Melo. It also encompasses credits for technical assistance, planting, settlement, and the purchase of seeds, fertiliser and tools. These benefits are immediately provided once ownership of the land has been granted, he noted.

The beneficiaries can also pursue other forms of production and marketing by establishing a cooperative, the INCRA official added.

For now, families like Eliana’s help each other to raise crops. They have a shared greenhouse that provides seeds and seedlings to all of the camp’s residents, coordinated by Adelivice Conceiçao Lima, a woman from the northeastern Brazilian state of Bahia known to everyone by her nickname, Dadá.

A dozen children follow Dadá everywhere she goes. They are on vacation from school, and she is teaching them how to plant vegetables and prepare natural fertilisers and pesticides.

While the children busy themselves filling pots with soil, Dadá shares the recipe for her infallible organic pesticide, 100 percent free of toxic chemicals: "Ox pee, toasted rice hulls, sugar cane molasses and crushed animal bones," she laughingly confides.

The camp’s residents first began to work with organic fertilisers and pesticides out of tradition and for lack of resources. They later adopted organic production as a question of "ideology", in line with the MST’s policy of not using agrotoxic substances, commented Eliana.

Dadá knows from experience what it is like to be evicted. "But I have no regrets and I would do it all over again," she declared. Her dream is to "win the land, live off of it and raise my children here."

Most of the families in the Terra Livre camp are from the interior of the state of Rio de Janeiro or from the Baixada Fluminense, a poverty-stricken strip of flatlands on the northern outskirts of the city of Rio de Janeiro.

Like many people living in the favelas or slums of Rio, they either moved to the city from the countryside themselves or are the children or grandchildren of rural-to-urban migrants.

The MST encourages people to return to the countryside and pursue a family farming model geared towards the domestic market.

Eleidimar, Eliana’s husband, is originally from the southern state of São Paulo and has always been a rural dweller. "He was born and raised in the country," said Eliana.

Eliana herself is from the city. She lived in a favela in Rio and earned a living as a street vendor until she learned about the MST. She said she owes the movement "the social and political awareness I now have," in addition to the farming skills she has developed.

Like other women in the MST, Eliana is articulate and well versed in political issues.

When it comes to designating spokespersons or leaders, the MST always selects one man and one woman, "because we are working on the question of women’s inclusion," she explained.

"It was here that we started to think about the future," commented Eliana. Now she worries about the fate of the rest of her family, who continue to live crowded together, unemployed and hungry in the favela. "It breaks my heart," she said.

Her children, like the other 50 children living in Terra Livre, go to a little school located in the camp, where they are taught by teachers from the public education system.

In a communal shed where the camp’s residents hold assemblies twice a month to discuss their priorities, IPS interviewed Mariana Cutis, a former teacher at the school who went on to become an environmental technician and is now studying geography.

The MST chooses young people from its camps who show interest and aptitude to study at public universities with which they have agreements. "We encourage this interest so that our young people aren’t just left stranded," said Mariana.

Now 23, Mariana is attending the State University of São Paulo under the "rotation" system. She spends 40 days in the city studying on campus, then 60 days in the camps, "putting into practice what we have learned in theory."

At the Terra Livre camp, Mariana is studying the environmental impacts of nearby eucalyptus plantations. Since these plantations were established by the forestry company Votorantim, she explained, there has been a decrease in the flow of the springs that used to bring water to the camp’s fields, because much of the water is absorbed by the fast-growing eucalyptus trees.

In her thesis she plans to address the differences between the activities of forestry companies and the MST’s reforestation efforts. "They plants forests solely to generate a profit and exploit raw materials, while we reforest to increase the flow of the springs," she stressed.

Mariana, like the other young people from the MST attending university, is under no obligation to work for the movement when she graduates. "But you develop a degree of conscience and awareness that makes it inconceivable to work for a multinational, for example," she said.

According to INCRA, there are around 1,700 families like those in Terra Livre who are living in camps located throughout the state and waiting for land of their own.

"We have a registry of camp dwellers, but when we manage to get some settled, others appear. It’s like trying to dry off ice with a dishtowel: it’s always wet," said Melo.

Joaquim Lemos de Oliveira, one of the camp’s oldest residents, insisted on taking this reporter to the house "that me and God built," as he put it.

In this humble house with three rooms separated by partitions and curtains, his two-year-old grandson is sleeping, while his daughter Andrea takes advantage of the opportunity to catch up on housework.

Joaquim also wants to show off his small fortune: three milk cows, two pigs and 20 hens.

The camp’s livestock are raised on communal pasture lands.

Joaquim’s dream "is for the land to be freed to us." He has spent much of his life working in the countryside, but has never owned land of his own.

Like many poor farmers, he left his native state of Minas Gerais for lack of employment opportunities and headed for Rio, where he worked as a bricklayer and carpenter, among other trades.

Daylight is fading as the first boats start arriving back from Itatiaia, where some of the camp’s farmers have gone to sell their produce. Men and women begin preparations for an early dinner, and the children who have spent the day running and playing along the red-dirt roads come streaming back home.

The sun sinks behind the banana trees.

"They say that we left civilisation behind, but this is where we found it," concludes Dadá.