Interview with community activists
At midnight between Friday and Saturday, 16 and 17 March, hundreds of homeless people, organised by MTST (Movement of Roofless Workers), occupied an unused plot of land in Itapecirica, on the border of the city of São Paulo in Brazil. Members of Socialismo Revolucionário (CWI in Brazil), PSOL (Party for Socialism and Freedom, which SR members are part of), PSTU (another left party) and several unions, participated in solidarity in the first critical hours, when there is a big chance is of immediate eviction from the police. After the first day is gone, the police need a ruling from a judge to make an eviction.
Luckily, the heavy rain during the day had stopped. There was not too much mud, and the ground was soft, which helped in making the first provisional huts out of bamboo and the classic black plastic canvas used in land occupations in Brazil. The only light source initially came from a school close to the plot of land. The lights are on during the night because of security. One teacher that used to work there tells me that this area is the "periphery of the periphery" of Itapecirica. When the lorry arrives with foodstuff for the canteen every week, there is always looting.
After the provisional huts are up, most of those occupying the land gather around fires, talking and singing.
At two o’clock in the morning I spoke to Helena, one of MTST organisers.
“We work in favelas, organising poor families. Many don’t have a real home, living in a makeshift hut, in areas which are socially deprived with a high crime rate. They can’t get a loan to finance a house. To get a cheap loan financed by the state bank you must earn at least three times the minimum wage.
“With occupations like this we want to put the issue on the agenda, demanding housing for everyone. It is very hard to win something in a region like São Paulo, with such strong land speculation. But we can force a discussion about the issue, and also achieve victories, if we are organised.
“Our previous occupation, Chico Mendes [they name the occupations with names from different historical popular leaders] we managed to get the families in a programme for low-waged people. The state will subsidise the building material for homes, which will be built by the families themselves, helping each other. In the meantime many families are receiving an allowance for rents."
The Chico Mendes camp lasted for eight months, with more than 800 families taking part, and ended in June last year. The CWI played an important part with solidarity messages, protest letters against eviction, and also a visit from a representative from CWI, Tony Saunois, besides the help provided by members of SR. The local branch of the teachers union, APEOESP, where SR members are in the leadership, played an important role. One of the leaders of the MTST, himself a teacher, stood together with our members in the new slate in the last elections in this teachers’ union, where they won another big victory.
The MTST continues organising the families from Chico Mendes. There are still many problems for poor families living on the periphery of South Americas biggest city.
I went on the ask Helena why they chose this plot of land.
"The community was complaining about this huge plot of land that was not used. It used to belong to a company, but it didn’t pay taxes and accumulated debts. It was taken over by the biggest public bank, Banco do Brasil, which sold it in an auction. The new owner is not using it, he is just speculating, waiting for the price to go up. We think that when it was taken over by a public bank, for not paying taxes, it should have gone to public purposes, for housing."
I also asked her how the MTST organises, and she explained: "We have assemblies where everybody participates, but we also divide into smaller groups of 50 families. We have collective tasks like cleaning, health, etc. We organise education for children, but also adults, and cultural activities. It’s very important to try and raise the consciousness.
“It’s a very difficult situation, living in precarious huts, with no water and electricity. People depend a lot on each other. But they learn also what power there is in a collective organisation. That we can organise a crèche, school, pharmacy, library, etc, with no money. We use that to show how the problems of society could be solved.
“I think that this is the best thing with the occupations, how people discover their own power, a power they don’t know they have. They notice the power of solidarity, the power of organised and conscious people and that doesn’t disappear after an eviction."
After a few hours sleep in a car chair, the sun went up. Now you could notice how big the plot of land is. The area is 1,2 million square metres, 15 times as big as the Chico Mendes occupation. After a first assembly, the occupiers began making more sturdy huts, and the first communal house. "The heart of a camp is always the kitchen", says Gabriel, one the MTST organisers.
Early in the morning a car with loudspeaker began campaigning in the area, calling more people to join the camp. After a couple of days, the camp has grown to one thousand people. At half past seven in the morning, the military police turned up for the first time. The occupiers greeted the police by chanting slogans, to show that they are conscious and organised, and will not easily be evicted. The MTST had a lawyer ready and the process of negotiations started.
An assembly decided that the camp will carry the name "João Cândido", after a black marine that led an uprising of marines in 1910 against corporal punishment, and who became known as the "Black Admiral".
Things are still very tenuous, and we do not know if the occupation will survive the first week. The military police is trying to block the entrance of more people into the camp, and the delivery of food and water. A judge has made the first decision calling for eviction, but that will be contested, and so far the mayor of the city has not cooperated to help with an eviction. An important task is to publicise the camp, to help put pressure on the authorities. CWI members and sympathisers can help by sending messages of solidarity to firstname.lastname@example.org and copies to email@example.com.
Since this article was first written over 2 500 families have joined the occupation. As a result of the pressure put on the local mayor he has pressured the state bank which funds social housing to provide funds for building homes for those occupuying the land. The mayor has agreed to provide another plot of land for the houses to be built on. The MTST has put pressure on the military police not to evict those occupying the land because an outline agreement has been made with the mayor. The MTST has appealed for letters of support to continue and for the pressure to be maintained so we call on all socialists and activists to send letters of support.