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The Squatters Won’t Go Away
by Philippe Revelli
From Morro do Osso -- Bone Hill -- in Itapecerica da Serra, on the southwest fringe of greater São Paulo, you can see rows of homes made of black plastic sheeting supported by wood or bamboo poles.
 
 
Here and there a column of white smoke rises from a fire on which the morning coffee brews.
 
Some 3,000 families from the city’s favelas have occupied an area of private land beneath the banner of the Homeless Workers’ Movement (MTST).
 
 
 
[republished at PFP with Agence Global permission.]
 
Housing conditions for the poor of Brazil are so grim that the Homeless Workers’ Movement (MTST) has mobilised thousands of families to occupy and improvise housing on waste sites -- particularly those that are empty because of land speculation. President Lula da Silva and  other political leaders continue to  make promises to improve housing problems in Brazil’s cities.
 
 
There are the sounds of hammering, sawing and digging: there are always wells or latrines to be dug, roofs to repair, walls to reinforce. The MTST is a 1997 offshoot of the Landless Workers’ Movement (MST). Gilmar Mauro, an MST national coordinator, recalled:
 
“We set it up in response to the fact that 85% of Brazil’s population lives in urban areas, with the aim of linking the struggle for land with that of the urban population.”
 
Its first major operation was in Campinas, a city northwest of São Paulo, where 5,000 families occupied waste ground, which they christened Oziel Park in honour of a victim of the Eldorado do Carajas massacre. Ten years on, Oziel Park has a distinct identity, reasonable infrastructure and a powerful sense of community.

The MTST extended its activities to the suburbs of São Paulo, Brazil’s northeastern states, and Rio de Janeiro, where occupations led to the construction of 10,000 homes in Nueva Septiva. Rosildo Santos, in MTST from the beginning, admitted: “We had no experience of the urban context and relied upon the same strategies we had used in the land struggle.” The favelas are a more problematic environment than a farming community: The MTST had to deal with organised crime, evangelical sects, and local politicians, all fearful of losing control of their traditional clientele.

At a national level, sections of the movement developed independently; some changed their names and the MST and MTST became autonomous organisations. Around 2000, two successful occupations in the working class municipalities of Guarulhos and Osasco helped revive the movement in greater São Paulo. In July 2003, the MTST organised an occupation in another municipality, São Bernardo do Campo.
 
The land belonged to the German car company Volkswagen and the reaction of the authorities was immediate: Riot police, backed by helicopters and marksmen posted on neighbouring buildings, attacked the squatters, wounding many and arresting others. The brutality of the assault provoked anger in Germany, where a demonstration outside Volkswagen’s headquarters helped put Brazil’s homeless movement on the international map.

Despite a warning from the state governor, Geraldo Alckmin, that any further attempted occupation would be prevented, in 2005 the MTST managed to squat land in another part of greater São Paulo, Taboão da Serra. After an eight-month struggle the members of the Chico Méndez community secured a promise from the authorities to build 600 homes.

The capital of the homeless
 
On the night of 16-17 March 2007, the MTST established the João Cândido community. Silvana de Jesus Oliveira was among the first wave of squatters: “We reached Itapecerica da Serra at one in the morning. For security reasons, nobody on the bus knew where we were going, apart from a few MTST leaders.” Planning had been going on for several months. According to Guilherme Boutos of the MTST: “At a meeting with people from a favela who were campaigning against the closure of their school, someone told us about Fazendinha. It was an area of waste ground where thieves stripped down stolen cars and gangs dumped the bodies of their victims.”


The site lies between São Paulo and Itapecerica da Serra, in a district that has a severe housing shortage. The Banco do Nordeste do Brasil (BNB) bought it under obscure circumstances in 1991, before passing it on to a private company, Itapecerica Golf Urbanización Ltda. There was a longstanding plan, never finalised, to build a golf course. In reality, Boutos said: “This was just waste ground, the focus of land speculation. It was sold for $1m in the early 1990s; its estimated value now is $22m.”

The MTST had used its contacts in the favelas, talking to families involved in the movement and drafting a list of potential squatters. On the night, about 300 people with torches, machetes, pickaxes, hammers, wire, bamboo poles and plastic sheeting, invaded Fazendinha. By morning the first homes of João Cândido were up. As news of the occupation spread through working class districts of São Paulo, hundreds of people converged on the site. A local newspaper, the Jornal da Tarde, described the small town that had grown up after a week as “the capital of the homeless.”

Patricia Cardoso, a lawyer and a member of the Pólis Institute, said: “The impact of occupations like this is an indication of the severity of the housing crisis in the metropolitan area.” According to the institute, 11% of São Paulo’s population lived in shantytowns at the beginning of the 21st century, compared with only 7.4% in 1980. “Most of the favelas are the product of illegal occupations. Many are in dangerous areas where violence is endemic and basic infrastructure -- roads, street lighting, sewage, education, public health -- is inadequate.”

The Pólis Institute also notes unauthorised housing developments and buildings where several families pay exorbitant rents to share a single apartment. According to Cardoso, “In greater São Paulo there are more than two million people living under difficult conditions, with a shortage of about 600,000 homes. The IGBE [Brazil’s National Institute of Geography and Statistics] has listed 254,000 empty apartments in the city and 540,000 across greater São Paulo. So there are enough empty homes almost to solve the housing problem.” But public policies for city centre regeneration have encouraged speculation and sent prices soaring. Successive governments have attacked the most disadvantaged and curtailed employment rights.

The IGBE calculated that 54 million people, 53.5% of the economically active population, are working off the books and that 70% of urban workers have no job security. Telemarketing staff, supermarket cashiers, packers and security guards had joined scrap dealers, peddlers and cleaning women in the army of casual labour. Families with middle and low incomes were excluded from the housing market and driven out to the edges. Over the past decade, the population of São Paulo’s shantytowns has increased at five times the rate of the city as a whole, aggravating an already catastrophic and explosive situation.

A shared project
 
“I heard about the João Cândido squat from neighbours,” Rosimari dos Angeles, 24, explained. She is unemployed, previously worked on a switchboard, in shops and as a cleaner, and now lives in a favela in São Paulo. “I hadn’t much to lose,” she said, so she left her furniture with a friend and joined the MTST. “I’d never bothered with politics and it was the first time I’d been involved in an occupation.”

As soon as the encampment at Itapecerica da Serra was established, MTST leaders began negotiations with the municipal, state and federal authorities, and representatives of the owners. They argued that the land was fulfilling no social purpose and called for its expropriation and the construction of houses for the occupying families.

At the end of March, 5,000 homeless people marched on the Palacio dos Bandeirantes, the seat of government of the state of São Paulo. The João Cândido community was flooded with supportive messages and visits from radical leftwing MPs, trade unionists, activist clergy, the MST and groups campaigning on housing issues. Press coverage was unprecedented.

Three weeks into the occupation, the MTST was still unhappy with the official response. But it had reached an agreement with the landowners that provisionally removed the danger of eviction, in return for which the squatters agreed that no more families would settle on the site. A new phase of consolidation began. The squatters organised themselves into 36 groups, each between 100 and 180 families. They appointed coordinators, as well as officials responsible for discipline, infrastructure and health. Collective kitchens used food aid donated by sympathetic organisations and volunteers from among the homeless.

Artists staged plays and concerts as a gesture of solidarity. Students organised theatre workshops and cultural events. There were political education classes every afternoon. At daily meetings the squatters listened to the latest developments, discussed the community’s organisation and agreed actions to spread the word and put pressure on the authorities. Rosimari dos Angeles, who was elected coordinator of group 15, was one of the many women who assumed responsibility.
 
“It’s no easy matter getting so many people to work together, especially in conditions like these: no running water, no electricity, no privacy. But there’s a general enthusiasm. In the favela we all struggled to survive, every man for himself. This is different -- solidarity is the number one priority.”
 
This was a constant theme. The inhabitants of João Cândido all felt that their values had changed, that they had shaken off resignation and acquired a new dignity and pride in being part of a shared project.

Helena Silvestre, an MTST leader, described squats as a school for participatory democracy and a training ground for future community leaders: “We want to use a specific issue, housing, as the starting-point to help lay the foundations of real popular power.” The MTST protects its independence from political parties and refuses to suggest how anyone should vote or to join any existing popular movement, although, as Silvestre points out, “this doesn’t prevent us from having good relations with them or with the left as a whole.”
 
In April, the homeless participated in demonstrations organised by the teaching unions and the landless movement; on 1 May, they marched with the radical left. “We believe that it is possible to unite different campaigns, currently conducted in isolation in separate communities, around shared objectives. Through the process of struggle our movement becomes stronger and attracts new recruits. Meanwhile, we don’t even have our own office or the means to pay staff.”

For all its energy and organisational abilities, the MTST remains an informal movement. Its collective leadership is unelected, although its legitimacy is uncontested. There is an activist hard core: dissidents from the MST, community leaders, families who joined during previous occupations, trade unionists, and students linked to radical Marxist circles or to the resistance to liberal globalisation. “Our strength,” Silvestre said, “lies in our ability to mobilise the favelas.” She pointed to a cluster of shacks, over which flew a flag with the image of a bone. “Bone Hill,” she said. “Our comrades from group eight chose the name because the homeless are a bone that sticks in the authorities’ throat.”

The João Cândido community was finally evicted on 18 May, but the federal and state governments gave a written undertaking to build houses for all the squatters. The municipal authorities in Itapecerica da Serra offered a site where 350 families, with no other chance of finding shelter, built a new encampment. Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Brazil’s president, is no Hugo Chávez or Evo Morales; but the people of Brazil are very like those of Venezuela and Bolivia. -- translated by Donald Hounam




Philippe Revelli is a journalist and photographer based in France, and reporting on Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia.

Copyright © 2007 Le Monde diplomatique

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 Released: 20 November 2007
 Word Count: 1,843
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Agence Global is the exclusive syndication agency for The Nation, Le Monde diplomatique, as well as expert commentary by Richard Bulliet, Mark Hertsgaard, Rami G. Khouri, Peter Kwong,Tom Porteous, Patrick Seale and Immanuel Wallerstein.   -------------------
Released: 20 November 2007
Word Count: 1,843
Rights & Permissions Contact: Agence Global, 1.336.686.9002, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.  
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