International Solidarity Moves Brazilian Governor, Supports Landless Families

It is rare to see direct changes resulting from international solidarity. But it does happen. And while international solidarity alone doesn’t move governments to protect the land rights of landless peasants, when combined with and informed by actions on the frontlines, grassroots international pressure can spur huge inroads towards justice. Such is the case of land resettlement claims in Serro Azul, Brazil.
 
On June 7, guided by the Landless Workers Movement (MST), Grassroots International launched a campaign to demand protection for the Serro Azul families. These small farmers and their families – members of the MST – are occupying underutilized land on the Serro Azul farm in Pernambuco. They have been facing grave threats and acts of violence. Since mid-April when the occupation began, small farmers have been shot upon and physically beaten by thugs hired by the landowners. Local authorities, working hand-in-hand with the landowner, refused to investigate abuses or enforce any laws protecting the human rights of the families in the encampment.
 
In support of these families, Grassroots drafted an urgent appeal in collaboration with Serro Azul occupiers themselves, citing numerous cases of violence caused by the landowner and his armed security personnel. As a result, more than 7,600 US activists sent letters to Brazilian authorities, demanding protection and human rights for their sisters and brothers in Serro Azul. As Nikhil Aziz, Grassroots’ Executive Director says,
 
“The situation of families in Serro Azul has caused indignation among our supporters and allies in the United States. Based on that, we reaffirm that we will continue doing what is possible to protect the camped families against the action of criminals and we will support them to achieve their rights to land and a dignified life.” 
 
While this organizing was taking place in the US, a delegation of Grassroots International supporters and allies paid a visit to Serro Azul families to see first-hand their situation. One peasant woman in her 50s asserted that a political victory for landless families will happen because of their long struggle. She said she was happy that other people from other countries are joining her in this long struggle. “As you know, nothing has been handed to us on a silver platter. We have to struggle for everything we need.”
 
As we gathered in a circle near the farmers’ fence, the landowner’s security forces looked on from afar. Instead of intimidating us, it emboldened us to talk about ways of collaborating. Teary eyes, full of hope, were visible on the faces of both our delegation and Serro Azul families.
 
The power of international solidarity had asserted a new momentum for the families. A few days later, a previously scheduled delegation of human rights officials visited the camp to hear the testimonies of the families themselves.
 
Not surprisingly, the landowner and his hired guns did not back down. According to the MST’s Human Rights Sector, the situation had not changed. In fact, it had worsened. The landowner had entered in an agreement with a local police officer, offering him land in exchange for his security services. According to MST, similar arrangements with the same police office were in effect in other places.
 
With this new information, and in collaboration with our partner the MST, Grassroots International decided to step up the international solidarity work. With the support from the NGO Terra de Direitos, we implemented a two-part strategy for our international campaign: Organize a second campaign to ask Grassroots supporters to send letters to the Brazilian authorities in federal and state governments; and draft a document to denounce the case to the United Nations rapporteurs on Right to Food, Human Rights Defenders and Extra-judicial Executions.  
 
In response, more than 1,900 people sent more than 13,500 messages to the UN and Brazilian authorities. More and more people in Brazil and abroad learned about the plight of the families in Serro Azul, and the complicity of Brazilian authorities in their human rights violations.
 
And the pressure is starting to make an impact. In his recent visit to MST headquarters, the state governor and members of his cabinet expressed concern for the families’ situation and demanded prompt action. He affirmed that his cabinet will work to end the violence against the families and speed up the families’ land rights due process, which has been languishing since it was initiated in 2009.
 
The ongoing struggle for land rights
 
In Brazil, more than 87,000 families are currently living in road side camps, awaiting title to land. The conditions are atrocious. Many live in make-shift tents, without running water, sanitation or enough food. The schools for the children are improvised by the families themselves. The hoes and other tools are in storage while these family farmers, are eager to produce food, daily look across the fence at idle farmland.
 
It is a tragic scenario that repeats itself in many places in the vast country. It is also an image that the Brazilian government doesn’t want to talk about it.
 
Successive administrations have supported large agribusinesses with bank loans, technical support and political clout in negotiations in the World Trade Organization, World Bank and G20 meetings.
 
In the last year, according to the MST, cases of land rights brought by landless families have been rotting in the offices of the National Institute of Agrarian Reform or have been thrown out by judges with close ties to oligarchy groups.
 
Instead of receiving title to idle lands, landless families are being lured to cities to take temporary jobs in the construction sites of stadiums for the 2014 World Soccer Cup. Those jobs will end soon, leaving families to once again scramble to find work.
 
It is clear that the chronic problem of landlessness will go nowhere without coordinated organizing between those on the ground and international solidarity efforts. That is why the struggle for Serro Azul remains vital not only for those families but thousands more throughout the country.