Caruaru What’s the line people always say, “the book was better than the movie,” or vice versa? Well, we were well prepared for our meetings with representatives of the great Brazilian social movement, known popularly as MST, or the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rujrais sem Terra. I had read the book, the classic by Penn State Professor Rebecca Tarlau, and she had been what one of our organizers called the “fairy godmother” of this Organizer’s Forum, including spending 90-minutes with all of us on Zoom. Furthermore, several of us had been on the first Organizers’ Forum twenty-one years ago in Sao Paulo and met with the MST there and visited a training center some distance from the city, as well as one of the occupations in land that was not producing “social value” as required by the Brazilian Constitution. The trip to settlements and encampments around Caruaru, the 5th largest city in the state of Pernambuco, about 100 kilometers from Recife, was going to be the highlight of our visits. Expectations were sky-high, and, amazingly, they were surpassed!
Our translator joined us, and we were off from Recife by 730 AM. We made Caruaru in a couple of hours and finally located the administrative office of MST. After a short, but valuable lesson in the financing schemes for participants of land occupations by a 27-year MST veteran who handled the complicated transactions with a colleague, we were off to the production center. This was a holiday, but there was a skeleton crew baking. The facility was clean and tidy. We had to wear hairnets and masks to enter. Before the coup, as they called the pushout of Lula’s elected successor, Dilma Rousseff, they were doing 10,000 meals per day with contracts to produce food for schools and public entities, but much less so now. Sacks of corn were stacked in one room and a filled truckload was outside still waiting for buyers. From there we went nearby to an MST settlement that dated over 30-years, called Normandy. The huge farm house was largely unused and waiting for extensive repairs, and various buildings had been constructed with dormitories, meeting spaces, and a huge kitchen, all of which helps them accommodate meetings of 800 to 1300 members annually from all around the state of Pernambuco.
We met with leaders of the settlement, including a member of the national executive who showed us around both the production facility, these buildings, and where his family and 40 others lived and farmed. Walking through the corn, cactus, manioc, and other crops, we saw a gorgeous wild peacock walk in the bushes and a half-dozen small big-eared, long-tailed monkeys of a type that was unknown to me. A highlight was gifting an ACORN flag and receiving a MST flag in return.
The last stop was the crowning moment of the day. We visited an encampment 20-miles to the east where 800 people had taken over 1800 acres only five months ago. They were living in shelters made of sticks and black plastic, often without floors, and always without lights, water, or sanitation. They had been prepared by MST to live this way for up to 5 years until they had control of the land. The staff communication guy addressed a crowd of more than 50 that had assembled to meet us. He said that negotiations with the owner were on a fast track. The members applauded all of us extravagantly as we described our work and our pleasure at visiting with them. We were hardly able to tour the encampment to see their progress for all the selfies, group pictures, and hugs that some of our delegation received. We walked with them as they proudly pointed out early plantings or some chickens or goats they had fenced in, until we came to a spring-fed water pond, which was also providing some of the irrigation for this arid country. A final stop was unique. A clock of sorts had been planted, ringed by plastic bottles, in the dirt. The “clock,” the elderly woman responsible explained, indicated the best time to use the plants, which were all medicinal. She described how this one or that one would be good for cancer or high blood pressure or whatever.
Spirits were high. The courage and commitment showed on every face, next to their smiles. These were people and families who had made the leap of faith in some desperation to try to gain control of land in a collective enterprise. Their only guarantee was the opportunity to fight, to embrace “luta” or struggle for the land to break their poverty. There are very few experiences that are both totally humbling and totally inspiring. We drove back to Recife marked by yet another lifetime lesson and experience that moved us all.