Acting on Faith

September 25, 2007

IT'S BEEN HAPPENING NOW EVERY COUPLE
of months. Hundreds of poor city-dwellers descend on
the center of Sdo Paulo in buses, carrying their cloth
banners and home-made cardboard posters. Men in frayed
trousers and women in worn cotton dresses and scuffed
rubber sandals, their faces worn and tired, carry babies
while older children trail behind. Along the eight-lane
Avenida Paulista, Sao Paulo's banking Mecca lined by
temples of smoked glass, marble, chandeliers and gilded
giant doorways, company cars and limousines come to a
snarling standstill as the ragged army marches to the state
housing department, chanting "We Want Land."
They are members of Sem Terra-landless, in
Portuguese-organized by Brazil's Catholic archdioceses
throughout the country. Sem Terra's strongest urban base
is in the poor East Zone of Sdo Paulo. At one recent
demonstration, the landless sat in the road in front of the
housing office as a young woman in a long black dress-as
36
though on her way to a dance-and holding a microphone
led the songs and chants. A smooth talking public rela-
tions officer came out and began reciting lists of new
housing projects, but the sem terra stayed firm, sweating
in the hot sunshine, sharing out cups of water, until the
housing department agreed to a meeting.
Because of Brazil's worsening housing shortage-the
deficit is now reckoned at 10 million homes-Sem Terra
has become one of the country's most active movements.
Beginning with protests, Sem Terra has gone on to organ-
ize occupations of unused public or private land. Their
hastily thrown up shelters are often demolished and they
personally have been attacked by mounted police, 'but
they have also had victories.
On March 19, 1987, a thousand families organized by
Sem Terra occupied an empty wasteland in the East Zone
called Jardim SAo Carlos. Overnight, families measured
out their plots with string, each 125 square meters. Some
REPORT ON THE AMERICAShad only tents, while others, like Francisco Alves, a 52-
year-old municipal employee, brought boards and planks
to quickly knock up huts. The only water was from a
stream at the bottom of a hill. There were scorpions in the
undergrowth, and at night the mosquitoes were fierce.
This was public land, so the government let them stay.
The leaders of the occupation set up headquarters in a tent
and began organizing distribution of food and water and
medical assistance. Over the next months, as more fami-
lies came and some left, the shelters became more perma-
nent. The community built latrines, installed standpipes,
and started a broom-making factory. Church groups were
formed. Last year the government began building perma-
nent homes on the site, of which 1,341 are now completed.
For these families the fight was nearly over, but they are
a small fraction amongst the 50,000 said to be on the
housing lists of the Sem Terra movement.
The seeds of the grass-roots movements were sown in
the 1960s, with the appearance of ecclesiastical base
communities (Communidades Eclesiais de Base). "The
CEBs were thought of originally as a new form of reli-
gious community to replace the parish, but they also were,
and are, an important means of linking popular sectors,"
according to a Dominican priest close to the movement.
Participants from the poor neighborhoods studied the
Bible and decided that God did not want them to live in
such poverty. Especially during the most repressive years
of the military regime (roughly 1969 to 1976), "the CEBs
were an important means of consciousness-raising among
their members," writes the priest. "They stimulated the
creation of grass-roots organizations of all types: neigh-
borhood associations, labor unions, rural unions, and
committees fighting for day-care centers, health clinics,
schools, and land titles."
Like the CEBs themselves, these organizations func-
tioned democratically, with group discussions and elected
leaders, and women played a major role. They empha-
sized solidarity and mutual help. But the spark which led
to the rapid growth of grass-roots organizing throughout
the country began a little later, with the Cost of Living
Movement.
PUBLIC SPENDING ON HEALTH, EDUCATION,
housing and nutrition had steadily declined since the
1964 military coup. In 1977 an archdiocesan survey in
Sdo Paulo's sprawling Zona Sul, where hundreds of
thousands live in shanty-towns on the treeless hills, showed
that the cost of living had become people's major worry.
Church groups then began to organize a petition to the
government, asking for a freeze on the price of basic
foodstuffs. The idea caught on and all over Brazil groups
collected signatures: Those who could not write were
signed for by neighbors, and everyone added the number
of their identity card, which Brazilians are obliged to
carry at all times. One million three hundred thousand
signatures were collected and, in the fall of 1978, the
organizers in Slo Paulo traveled 14 hours by bus to the
VOLUME XXIII, NO. 4 (NOVEMBER/DECEMBER 1989)
capital, Brasilia, to deliver enormous bundles of petitions
to the military president, Gen. Ernesto Geisel.
Extra armed guards surrounded the presidential palace
that day and the petitioners had to leave their bundles
across the street. Once they departed, the president had the
papers picked up and carried into the palace. Two weeks
later, the government announced that handwriting experts
had analyzed the signatures and found many to be
false-signed by the same hand. The petition was de-
clared worthless.
But the Cost of Living Movement did not lie down.
The government's disdainful rejection spurred further
protests and demands for changes. It was then, in the late
1970s, as the military loosened its grip, that grass-roots
organizing took off. Mothers' clubs and neighborhood
associations sprang up, as did other local groups demand-
ing clinics, schools, water and child-care facilities. This
spontaneous boom in community organizing was one
important element leading to the founding of the Workers
Party (PT) in 1980.
By 1984 grass-roots movements again emerged in
national politics as part of Brazil's biggest mass move-
ment of modem times, the campaign for direct presiden-
tial elections "jd"--now. In every major state capital of
Brazil, huge crowds packed the main squares demanding
the right to elect the president. However, when direct
election was blocked by the military and their political
allies, the defeat was deeply frustrating.
That frustration, coupled with the transfer of power to
a civilian president, Jos6 Sarney, two years later, led the
movement to return to local activism. "Unlike the mili-
tary, the New Republic [post-military government] was
not a clear enemy, it was nebulous and this led to a
Sio Paulo Mayor Luiza Erundina (pictured with PT
presidential candidate Lula) has tapped community
leaders to run the city government
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dispersion of the popular movements," says Paulo Mal-
dos, coordinator of the Center for Popular Education of
the Sedes Sapientiae Institute in Sdo Paulo.
President Sarney promised to meet many of the move-
ments' demands-housing, land reform, more schools,
more food. He coined a slogan, "Tudo Pelo Social,"
meaning that social needs would be given the highest
priority, and became the most popular president ever
when he introduced the Cruzado Plan to stabilize inflation
in February 1986. Wages and prices were frozen, and the
population was invited to become price watchdogs. They
did, enthusiastically, and at first it all worked. Errant
supermarket managers who tried to put up the prices were
led off to prison in handcuffs before cheering crowds of
shoppers. For the first time in living memory Brazilians
went shopping and found that prices had not changed.
Low-income families could buy more food.
Once more grass-roots movements went through a
period of indecision and apathy when it seemed that the
government, after all, had the answers. But, intoxicated
with popularity, President Sarney ignored the advice of
his economists to make other, more difficult economic
adjustments, such as tax reform. Following gubernatorial
elections, in which the pro-government Brazilian Demo-
cratic Movement (PMDB) swept the board, the Cruzado
Plan collapsed. Fearing an upsurge in protest activity, the
new governors moved to co-opt the popular movements,
inviting their leaders to join the government. Conferences
were held and participation became the watchword.
Some of these movements had set up the National
Association of Popular Movements (ANAMPOS) in 1980.
They wanted to create a non-party structure that would not
be susceptible to the see-saw of political events and would
enable members of grass-roots movements to see the
forest and not just the trees. By March 1989 this umbrella
group had grown to include some 4,500 organizations,
around 75% of all grass-roots organizations, although
affiliation is on an informal basis, and ANAMPOS has yet
to adopt a plan of action.
I N NOVEMBER 1988, WORKERS PARTY CAN-
didate Luiza Erundina de Souza was elected mayor of
South America's largest city, Sdo Paulo. A former social
worker and a migrant from the Northeast state of
Paraiba-like many of the city's poor-Erundina, as she
is universally known, campaigned on a platform of public
honesty and priority attention to the needs of the poor.
Suddenly the doors of city hall were flung open to the
organizations of the poor neighborhoods, and their lead-
ers were recruited to run the new city government. But,
Homeless children collect scrap paper in Sio Paulo: Mayor Erundina has vowed to govern with and for the poor
REPORT ON THE AMERICAS 38Paulo Maldos maintains, "This was a big loss for the
movements, because now they have to prepare a whole
new generation of leaders. They know Erundina is on
their side, but there's still a certain wariness about being
co-opted. They don't want to lose their independence.
They want to maintain the right to question, to demand."
The grass-roots movements' first taste of power-sharing
has come, not only in Sdo Paulo, but in the other 32 towns
and cities where the PT won municipal elections last year.
Erundina set about keeping her campaign promise to
govern with the movements. Popular Councils, made up
of the representatives of all the organizations in each
zone, have been set up. To draw up the budget for 1990,
she has been holding giant meetings with 150 representa-
tives of the different movements.
The previous mayor, right-wing populist Janio Quad-
ros, placed emphasis on appearances-a clean city center,
swept and watered and cleared of street vendors and
beggars. Middle-class zones enjoyed efficient garbage
collection. Untidy favelas were removed to the distant
outskirts. Construction was initiated on costly tunnels and
bypasses to speed private car transport.
Erundina and the grass-roots movements have other
priorities. Street sweepers and garbage collectors now
also appear in the periphery. Public transport is given
priority over private. And once the city resolves the debts
Erundina inherited, investment in health, education and
housing can begin.
It is not going to be clear sailing. Already the mayor
has had to take unpopular decisions. When homeless
people invaded new low-income housing developments
already promised to people on the housing list, she brought
in the police to evict them. Sem Terra has offered a truce,
but if Erundina does not come up with solutions for the
chronic housing problem, the occupations and confronta-
tions will begin again. Leaders like Father Ticdo, a parish
priest who has led the movement in the East Zone from the
start, and has been hauled up in court several times,
believes the pressure has to be kept up whoever is in
power and even if that power is shared.
T HE PT IS THE ONLY POLITICAL PARTY
which takes the grass-roots movements seriously
-not surprising since, as Erildes Mescoloto, coordinator
of the party's grass-roots movements department, ex-
plains: "They have been one of the pillars of the PT, right
from the beginning in 1980. The other fundamental pillar
is the combative labor movement. It is the participants in
these movements-housing, human rights, blacks, women,
land, and all the others-who form the heart of the PT."
Mescolato sees them as a vital means for political con-
sciousness-raising. "Through belonging to them, people
learn to understand the role of the state....They become
aware that the state is at the service of the privileged, and
must be transformed into a state for the benefit of the
poor....People acquire the awareness that what will trans-
form this situation is not a salvador da pdtria, a savior of
After an eviction in Sio Paulo's East Zone: "The new
president will use repression if he cannot co-opt them"
the nation, a messiah, but rather they themselves, as
citizens."
He admits that the movements have an Achilles heel:
"Because they are specific, once they obtain what they're
fighting for, they can fall apart. It's no use just achieving
things that are an obligation of the state anyway. We want
citizens to have power....They have to organize on a
different level, to create a structure and prepare for the
conquest of a new society, not just a water supply or a day-
care center."
Behind this lies a certain pessimism about what will
happen after the presidential elections, which it now
seems the PT candidate Luis Inacio "Lula" da Silva does
not stand much chance of winning. Predicts Mescoloto:
"The economic situation will explode and the new presi-
dent, whoever he is, will use repression against the grass-
roots movements if he cannot co-opt them."
But today at least the potential for a powerful national
movement of community organizations seems bright.
Congresses, meetings, and seminars of grass-roots move-
ments are being held all over the country, laying founda-
tions with a constant exchange of information. At one
such meeting held recently in Slo Paulo, Jos6 Souza from
VOLUME XXIII, NO. 4 (NOVEMBER/DECEMBER 1989) 39RThe Homeless
The Homeless
the East Zone Transport Users told delegates from scores
of organizations, "A common program for the myriad
grass-roots movements is urgently needed. The will to
define a common way forward exists. And with it we can
build real decision-making power over the country's
future."

Tags: Brazil, Sao Paulo, squatters, MST, organizing


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