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BRAZIL: Homeless Take Fate into Their Own Hands

Mario Osava

SAO PAULO, May 31 2007 (IPS) - The occupation of the huge empty lot was carried out at night, by some 300 families. Just a few days later, there were nearly 5,000 families living in a sea of black tents in Valo Velho, a poor, sparsely populated neighbourhood in Itapecerica da Serra, on the outskirts of this Brazilian city.

 Credit: MTST

Credit: MTST

For 62 days, starting on Mar. 16, the Joao Cándido Camp resisted the pressure to vacate the 1.2 million-square-metre property, which had stood empty for over a decade.

The eviction order, issued by a court on Mar. 18 at the request of the owner of the property, was not enforced until May 17.

But the families that had moved onto the land are not losing hope that they will eventually be able to reach an agreement with the authorities that would enable them to obtain decent low-cost housing.

Those two months were sufficient for the MTST or Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Teto (Movement of Homeless – literally “Roofless” – Workers) to convert the families into an organised community aware of their “right to decent housing” and mobilise them to press officials for a solution to their needs.

The people who occupied the land are mainly unemployed or underemployed slum-dwellers, who face the choice of paying rent or eating when they do have some income, through casual work, for example.

One of them, 46-year-old José Oliveira dos Santos, decided to join the camp the day after he was laid off from his job as a watchman at a nearby company.

“They didn’t expect to see so many people in need of a place to live,” he tells IPS. “A lot of people showed up in the early hours of the morning, despite the difficulties, like the lack of water, which we have to carry in jugs on our backs from far away.”

Maria das Graças Cerqueira also moved into the camp a few days after the start of the occupation, the news of which spread swiftly through the surrounding neighbourhoods and to nearby towns and cities.

The 53-year-old widow, who is a domestic worker and is estranged from her three adult children, has now been allowed to live in a relative’s store. “At my age, no one will give me work,” she says.

She comments to IPS that she liked living in the camp, where she was in charge of the cooking for Group 10, the largest of the 34 groups into which the community was organised. Her group was made up of 180 families.

Das Graças Cerqueira says she made a lot of friends in the camp, with whom she would sit around talking “late into the night, in the warm, peaceful breeze.”

>From now on, she says, “I will help out wherever the homeless set up camps.”

The MTST has grown with each occupation it has staged since it emerged in 1997 as the urban equivalent of the MST – the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (Landless Workers’ Movement), the largest social movement in Latin America.

Hundreds of thousands of rural families in Brazil are living in well-organised MST camps or more permanent settlements around the country, pressing for faster, more effective land reform.

The success of the first occupation, in a semi-urban area of Campinas, 100 km from Sao Paulo, led to the construction of permanent, affordable housing there for 5,200 families. In the following years, the MTST expanded its activities throughout the poor areas on the outskirts of Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, and large cities in Brazil’s impoverished northeast.

In Sao Bernardo do Campo, a city that forms part of the Greater Sao Paulo and that was impoverished by the exodus of car-making factories from the area, a July 2003 occupation of unused land by 300 families also attracted more than 4,000 families within just three weeks, who were later violently evicted by the police.

In the Sao Bernardo do Campo camp, the MTST was joined by Helena Silvestre, who is now one of the movement’s state coordinators.

Silvestre was working as a telephone operator and was fired for fighting off sexual harassment by her boss. Estranged from her poor family of immigrants from Brazil’s hinterland, and unable to afford rent, she decided to join the camp. She was only 17 years old.

“To help organise those who most need to secure their rights” was the reason she was drawn to the MTST. “I fell in love with the movement’s capacity to restore people’s control over their own lives and their ability to dream,” she tells IPS.

She organises people living in favelas (shantytowns) in the so-called ABC Paulista, a string of industrial cities southeast of the capital of the state of Sao Paulo, to demand sanitation, affordable child care, cheaper energy and community gardens.

The charismatic Silvestre represents this MTST region in the movement’s state coordinating body.

The habit of “expecting everything from the government,” prolonged unemployment, and profound poverty that destroys people’s “self-esteem and hopes for the future” are serious challenges faced by the movement for decent housing and public services, says the activist.

The beautiful young woman, whose features and brown skin reflect a typically Brazilian mix of black, indigenous and white, has not entirely escaped the problem of sexual harassment. “The movement is not an island; it reflects society’s ‘machismo’,” which she says is expressed “in a more aggressive” way among the poor.

Nevertheless, she adds that she can no longer imagine a future outside of this “intense life.”

Despite the “machismo”, women held half of the leadership posts in the Joao Cándido Camp, and “20 percent of the group coordinators lost their husbands, who refused to accept their new leadership roles,” she says.

But the home “is a traditionally female-dominated space,” and having a home for one’s dependents is “a very strong feminine demand and need,” she argued.

Giovana Nascimento, who has three children between the ages of three and 12, is one of those who did not accept her husband’s ultimatum of “it’s me or the movement.” She has taken part in two camps in Osasco, west of Sao Paulo, and has won the right to build her own permanent home. But she says that in the MTST she learned “to think about others” and offer them her solidarity, as she continued to do in Itapecerica.

The MTST is only active on the outskirts of the cities, seeking out empty spaces and empty buildings where affordable housing can be built.

In that, it is similar to the MST, which stages occupations of unproductive land. Another similarity is the camps it sets up, of bamboo and wood covered with black plastic sheeting.

It also follows MST methods in its form of organisation and training of activists and communities, based on socialist ideals and using identical slogans, like “this struggle is for real”.

However, the MTST has earned its autonomy from the MST and developed “its own methodology,” carrying out its activities in different conditions, with a more fluid base of families and camps that last for a much shorter time than those set up in the countryside, says Gustavo Moura, one of the movement’s coordinators in Sao Paulo.

At its peak, the Joao Cándido Camp held nearly 5,000 families, but more than 1,000 left after several weeks of deprivations and uncertainty, he remarks to IPS, to illustrate the group’s more volatile grassroots base.

While the landless rural workers in the MST live in camps for years on unproductive private or public land, the occupations staged by the urban “roofless” last a maximum of a few months, and that requires a “fast-paced” style of organisation and training, he says.

In the Joao Cándido Camp, each of the 34 groups had its own collective kitchen and coordinators, to maintain discipline, improve infrastructure and secure food, which was provided by the families themselves or came from sporadic outside donations.

“Political training” is a priority in the near-daily meetings held by the coordinators, as are educational and cultural activities. “We defend the construction of socialism through the power of the people,” without ties to political parties, explains Sergio Carozzi, a member of the regional coordinating committee in the western part of the Greater Sao Paulo area, which comprises Itapecerica.

“The movement does not believe in the electoral route” but in the “radical transformation of society,” in which securing decent housing for poor shantytown-dwellers is “only a first step,” he tells IPS. Jobs, quality education, health care and other rights are the following demands taken up by the movement.

The Joao Cándido Camp took its name from a black hero who led a revolt in 1910 to put an end to the routine practice of whipping sailors as punishment.

All of the MTST camps carry names chosen in assemblies which reflect the movement’s ideals. Other names include Rosa Luxemburg, the legendary Polish Marxist revolutionary, and Chico Mendes, the Brazilian rubber-tapper who was murdered by ranchers in 1988 for his activism in defence of the Amazon jungle and local people.

MTST activists are all volunteers. They receive no payment, and the movement receives nothing from those in the camps or the people who have been mobilised. The movement’s press services are provided by four volunteer journalists, and the educational activities, such as schooling for children and adult literacy classes, are carried out by teachers who volunteer their time and energy.

The communal, solidarity-based life in the camps acts as a kind of “therapy” for some, as in the case of a woman who was suffering severe depression but improved when she joined the camp in Taboao da Serra, another municipality in the Greater Sao Paulo area, says Marco Fernandes, a social psychologist who is a member of the coordinating committee in the western part of the region.

The woman fell back into depression when the camp broke up, but her symptoms disappeared again after she began to help organise the Joao Cándido Camp in Itapecerica.

That is the “addiction of the black sheeting,” Fernández jokes to IPS.

The struggle for housing is a good school for learning about social injustice, as it reveals the glaring contradiction between the immense unused properties of the rich which coexist alongside millions of people who do not even have room to build a humble but dignified dwelling, in this “upside-down world,” says Moura.

The area that was occupied by the camp in Itapecerica, which in the past was said to function as a clandestine airstrip, was purchased for one million reals (520,000 dollars) a few years ago by a company that now quotes its value at 40 times that price, he explains.

The more than 3,000 families in the camp peacefully pulled out on May 17, when the eviction order went into effect.

But the movement got the city government to grant it a smaller piece of property, for 350 homeless families, while the rest are waiting in the homes of relatives or friends for state or central government bodies to live up to their promise of identifying other available areas and finance the construction of affordable housing.

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