This Land Is Their Land

By Fox, Michael | In These Times, February 2009 | Go to article overview

This Land Is Their Land


Fox, Michael, In These Times


The Landless Workers Movement claims a big victory in southern Brazil

SÃO GABRIEL, BRAZIL-THE THREE-DAY, 30-mile march stopped before the main gate. Hundreds of exhausted farmers from Brazil's Landless Workers Movement (MST) fanned out along the fence. On the other side of the gate was the Southall Plantation, which for the last six years had been at the heart of a relentless struggle for land in southern Brazil.

Two people slammed metal farm tools into the lock, forcing it open. Marchers poured into the plantation, chanting "MST, MST!" as fireworks rocketed off in the distance. "Agrarian reform! MST! We will succeed!"

On Dec. 18, 700 families from 13 MST land occupations were awarded land from the Brazilian government in the São Gabriel region of Brazil's southernmost state, Rio Grande do Sul.

"This is perhaps the most important victory in the region in the last 40 years, and maybe even the 40 years to come," says Cristiano Schumacher, a regional coordinator of Brazil's Movement for the Struggle for Housing, who came to support the landless movement.

The victory was unprecedented, mostl;y for its location. Two and a half centuries ago, the Treaty of Madrid turned presentday Rio Grande do Sul over to the Portuguese. The region of Säo Gabriel became the heart of the native Guaraní resistance. In 1756, joint Spanish and Portuguese forces killed Guaraní leader Sepe Tiaraju and 1,500 of his followers when they refused to leave their native lands. The Portuguese distributed the territory among the rich. Even today, "the large landowners have complete economic, territorial and political control over the whole Western region of Rio Grande do Sul," says Ana Hanauer, a state MST leader.

Over the last six years, the MST has led marches, occupations and encampments in Säo Gabriel, but resistance from local landowners and the police has been fierce.

"This is a region that is completely dominated by the latifundios [large landowners]," says Hanauer, "We always struggled for land here, but we never achieved a setdement."

But with the economic downturn, many of the region's landowners face financial crisis, and eucalyptus pulp companies are moving in. Early last year, Alfredo Southall, owner of the Southall Plantation, agreed to sell half of his 32,000-acre ranch to Brazil's Agrarian Reform Institute (INCRA), which is charged with purchasing and distributing unproductive state land to landless farmers. The property would be turned over to 350 MST families, and another 350 would be granted similar plots of land nearby.

"We marched last year, which was really hard, and lasted 60-plus days," says Raquel, who like most MST members declined to giver her last name. She settled with her husband and 4-monfhold baby in Itaguaçu, São Gabriel, in December. …

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