“Organizadas Somos Fortes” – Organised we are powerful. Reflections from the landless movement in Brazil.

“This dance is not mine alone, this dance is by us all” – they move as one circle, hand in hand. Then, still as one circle, they put their arms around each other – “when we are tired, we have each other’s shoulders to rest on.”

The women proudly show us the fruits of their labour: coconuts turned into oil, soap, flour and more; a cooperative factory that processes the goods so that they don’t need to rely on middlemen; a small farm with a vegetable patch, a fish pond and a chicken coop. And they talk of the victories won in the face of entrenched power.

“The richest man in this area claimed that all this land was his. He was also the area’s politician. He had the money power and the political power. The family have been powerful for hundreds of years. Police and gunmen kept harassing us. They told us to leave but we had nowhere else to go. I remember the sound of the six bullets.”

But they do not want to dwell on the pain. When a conversation turns to those who died, one woman interjects “but if we keep on telling all these sad stories we could go on for days. What do we need to do now?”

There has been real progress: those landless workers who collect coconuts from the forests and from the big estates successfully campaigned for a law that protects their right to do so; some communities have secured recognition for the small pieces of land on which they live and farm; the cooperatives have secured from the government a guaranteed minimum price for key products so that they can be assured of a minimum income; in several districts the groups have secured free, public, pre-school for small children and won access to water and sanitation.

All are clear how these victories were won. “Individually we coconut-breakers are small. But when we organised we became visible. We said ‘look at us, listen.’” “Everything we have achieved has been through the strength of our friendship.” “We got together in our community, then we linked with communities across the region. We went and got support from the trade unions, from the Catholic Church, and from the wider public. We started an association and kept pressing for our rights to earn a living and live in dignity.”

They are clear that they cannot rely on the good will of politicians. When the local establishment politician was replaced by his daughter, “it made no difference that she was a woman. She was her father’s daughter. He lived on through her.” There is a recognition that the national government of Lula, whose party emerged from the social movements and which brought several leaders of the social movement into power, introduced substantial reforms and was the best government they have known. Unemployment was reduced, the minimum wage increased, and inequality went down. But, they say, “we made a mistake of thinking when the good people got into power we didn’t need to keep pressuring them. It’s like we went to sleep. Whoever is in power we need to keep pushing.” “Yes,” says a coconut breaker, “things are better, but now, when we try to enter the coconut forests to which we have the right of access, the big landlords, who used to kill us with dogs and guns, kill us with electric fences instead.” “Yes,” agrees a peasant farmer, “we have managed to stay on our farm, but we are still denied water. We want more than to live, we want to live with dignity.” There is a worry that the Dilma government, which pledged to continue the progress of Lula has instead, under pressure from big corporations and landlords, started to roll back. “They have stopped listening to us. Government listens to the rich and big companies. Not to us, the poor, Indians, blacks, women. We have to struggle.”

They share, none the less, a profound sense that their struggle will ultimately win. Discussions regularly burst into song. “Even though it is dark, I sing, for the morning will come.” In one community facing eviction we meet in the one-room clay and straw building they built as their church, their school, the headquarters of their association, and their village meeting hall. They call the building “Our Lady of Good Hope.”

“We are strong. My grandfather escaped from slavery with his friends. And I have secured my piece of land with you, my friends. But we cannot just wait. We need to demand.”

At a special event of the landless movements, Deje, a coconut breaker, is seated next to a government official who apologises for having arrived late and for needing to leave early. Deje stands up and directly addresses him in front of the crowd. Brazilian Portuguese has such a sweet melody that to the English ear everything I’ve heard, whatever the content, has sounded gentle. Until now. She points her finger at his face. “Whenever we try to meet government they fail to see us. Whenever we write to government they fail to reply.” She pulls out a piece a paper. “We have a letter for you. I’m going to read it to you.” It begins: “We landless demand our right to fetch coconuts unharassed by landowners…” Then the coup de grace: “Now, you cannot leave until you to sign it. We need you to sign it right now.” And he does. Then he thanks her. “We know that all progress depends on the social movements. We need to work with you.”

We’ve just witnessed a lesson in courage, in democracy, and in power. It is the same lesson we learnt in the dance. And that we read on the T-shirt of one of the landless women workers: “Organizadas Somos Fortes” – Organised we are powerful.

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Ben Phillips

About Ben Phillips

Ben Phillips, currently based in Nairobi, is co-founder of the #FightInequality alliance, the growing movement for a more equal world. He has lived and worked in four continents and a dozen cities, and led programmes and campaigns teams in Oxfam, ActionAid, Save the Children, the Children's Society, the Global Call to Action Against Poverty and the Global Campaign for Education. He began his development work at the grassroots, as a teacher and ANC activist living in Mamelodi township, South Africa, in 1994, just after the end of apartheid. All his posts are personal reflections. He tweets at @benphillips76