This summer, a group of Grassroots International supporters and allies participated in a delegation to Pernambuco, Brazil. There they saw first-hand the resilient and powerful work of the Landless Workers Movement, the Movement of People Affected by Dams, and the Via Campesina. Along the way, delegates talked with with small farmers, families living in encampments waiting for land, and indigenous communities working to protect their ancestral lands from the incursion of impending dams.
Below is a blog from Peggy Newell, one of the delegates and a Grassroots International supporter, offering her reflections on the journey.
Traveling to Not That Brazil, by Peggy Newell
I so want to tell wonderful thought-provoking emotional stories about my recent trip to Brazil. It was a wonderful thought-provoking trip, filled with visits and experiences that hover in my brain throughout my day. When I start talking about it to friends, I feel tongue-tied and can’t find the perfect sound bite that will capture the experience. Explanations and background go on too long and faces start to glaze over. A few suggested that times are tough all over the world—a comment I don’t find helpful, productive or much else but which may be representative of people’s ability to focus on a small state in Brazil that they haven’t been to and the small number of people who are living there whose lives are tough who they will never meet. We all have our causes and interests. I would like to tell you a little about mine.
We went to Pernambuco state in NE Brazil—kinda where the country pokes out into the Atlantic. It’s a jagged horizontal rectangular shaped area about the size of Massachusetts that is dwarfed by the rest of the country. I felt like we had seen a fair amount of countryside until I looked at Pernambuco in relation to the country. A little peanut of a place. It is pretty rural, except for the parts that aren’t—Recife has over 4 million people. Who knew? At one point, we were staying in an inn along a dusty road in what felt like something out of the Old West or maybe the Australian Outback. I said out loud, as there was no one around to hear: Where the hell are we?
I was there with Grassroots International which is a non-profit that “works around the world to help small farmers and other small producers, indigenous peoples and women win resource rights: the human rights to land, water and food.” [Words in quotes in this come from the GI website…why reinvent the wheel?] They obviously do it well as we were treated at every stop as honored guests. And they attract good supporters—it was a congenial group.
We visited many members of the Landless Workers Movement (MST) in various locations and living in various states of establishment of their communities. “Under the Brazilian Constitution, landless families have the right to occupy arable land that is not being used to grow food to feed themselves.” The transition from unused arable land to occupied is often bumpy with lots of time in courts and often violence. I never felt in danger but we heard many stories of violent actions against folks who are simply trying to grow food to feed their families. It was a profound experience. I have often, well, joked that when the revolution comes, I am hosed. These folks won’t be. I was inspired by their resilience—their stick-to-it-ness, and their humor and laughter in the face of challenging life threatening daily experiences that last for years. They sang to us, danced for us, fed us well, gifted us.
At one stop—I only mention it because it is a feeling I will never forget and which still stirs deep emotions when I think about it—we were visiting an encampment that had recently moved inside the boundaries of a landholder because they were being violently harassed by the owner of the land they were occupying. The landowner had hired guns who stay in a blind across the field, shooting sometimes into the air, sometimes at people. The MST folks had lost most of what they had owned and were living in tents covered in black plastic. There were gobs of children in the community. These folks were under siege but were committed to staying. As we came off our comfy air-conditioned van, the community members cheered for us, for showing up, for our support. I will never forget the feeling. I can’t describe it, but it was humbling and I know I want to do more than just show up.
We also visited members of the People Affected by Dams (MAB) and communities of indigenous folks who are living along one of the most beautiful rivers I have ever seen, the Sao Francisco, and are…in the way of “progress.” There are literally hundreds of plans to dam and move water from this and other rivers in Brazil to keep up with its growth and prosperity. Sigh. We met one woman who was 101 who was having a chapel built near her home that she had wanted her whole life. Her goal was to live to see it finished. If the powers that be have their way, it will soon be under water. Ironically in this same area, the Tourist Bureau is featuring photographs of this gorgeous spot and the lovely river as part of their publicity—never mentioning that it could all be gone, along with the land that has belonged to these people for generations. Call me naïve but I don’t get it.
I was sitting at the window of the restaurant atop the JB Hotel, looking out over Petrolina with the Sao Francisco river in the middle ground. I kept tearing up. The river means so much to so many, and big guns have their sites on changing its course and the course of a lot of people who've lived along its banks for generations. Epic. And then, how much cash should I get at the airport? Will I have time for a shower now or after the site visit? Wonder how the dog is doing...Popcorn brain. It often confuses me that we can think and feel almost conflicting things at the same time. I just spent ten days meeting with folks fighting for their homes, land, history. And we laughed and danced and ate really well and traveled with good people.
So now I am home and all the things that are here to do stand before me and I think about those people in a small state in northeastern Brazil who were so grateful and so gracious for and during our visit. What to do? I’m pondering on that.