Paulo, Maria — and the Hulk

19 Jun


About a week ago,  fully expecting to receive a ‘yes,’ I sent an email to find out if legal possession had finally been granted to the families occupying an already expropriated estate in north east Brazil. I had stayed with the families in June 2006, after which the National Institute for Agrarian Reform designated the land as “unproductive,” and visited again in 2010.

But the answer I received instead was ‘no.’ Why? “Because,” in the words of the Landless Peasant Movement coordinator there, “the purchase value is very high because of the many physical structures” on this estate.

What??? Excuse me, Brazilian government, but haven’t you just spent $30 billion on a soccer tournament? Aren’t you pouring more billions into “physical structures” for the upcoming FIFA world cup and the Olympics? You don’t have a few tens of thousands available to pay for the estate owner’s house, office and the simple concrete dam he built in the nearby Meio River?

If an illustration were needed to explain the nation-wide anti-government protests roiling Brazil right now, the predicament of landless peasant farmers like Paulo and Maria da Silva would provide the perfect one. Theirs is just one example of the extraordinary inequality between a huge population of poor and under-served Brazilians and the comparative few who have reaped fortunes from the country’s erstwhile economic boom.

For me, Paulo da Silva is one of this world’s great unsung heroes. He had a job on the 5000-hectare estate, where a Recife-based magnate named Slaibe Hatem raised a few cattle. When the MST targeted the land for occupation and expropriation, he went straight down to join them, frustrated for years by his paltry salary and the unrelenting refusal of the estate manager to let him plant a garden, raise chickens or even collect honey. He has stuck with the occupation through thick and thin, patiently waiting for the day when the INCRA would finally — finally — make good on its decision to hand this enormous piece of land to the hundreds of poverty stricken families who would turn it into a patchwork of productive farm land.

And now it’s saying, sorry, giving you the right to earn your own living is just too expensive. There is money for show-off projects that will bring no economic capacity to Brazil, but none for agrarian reform, education, health care or paying the people, whose houses we have bulldozed in order to build stadiums, a fair and decent indemnification.

The lack of action on the plight of Paulo and Maria da Silva is especially heart-breaking. I have huge respect for this couple and know about their many great ideas to make Hatem’s former fazenda a model of diversified organic farming, including a major honey operation that could potentially boost exports and provide jobs in a region where unemployment is chronic.

No one should be surprised at the level of fury behind the current protests in Brazil. People expected better of a government run by the Workers Party, a party that struggled for years to win acceptance and always vowed to forge a different, more equitable society. Because of their popular political positions, it was difficult to organize any meaningful protests against them when they fouled up on their principles, although in fact, the MST has been demonstrating for years on the lack of importance given to agrarian reform. But now the rhetoric of the WP government has been shown for hollow thing it is, and the tables are being turned. For several days now, hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets of Rio, Sao Paulo, Florianopolis, Curitiba, Belo Horizonte and Belem. On Tuesday, members of Toronto’s Brazilian community held a sympathy march in front of City Hall.

Even the Brazil team midfielder Givanildo Vieira de Souza, known as Hulk, has come out in defence of the protesters. “I come from the bottom of the social ladder and now I have a good life,” he said. “I see these demonstrators and I know that they are right.”

So if the news about Paulo has left me depressed and incredibly indignant, the news a few days later about the scope and determination of the protestors has given me back some hope. I hope it gives Paulo some as well. And I hope Brazil’s bureaucracy wakes up, looks out the window and sees the real Hulk, the average person who has turned into an angry, fed-up super-hero. And  realizes that these are the people they should be working for. Not a government that has lot all sense of fairness, honesty and integrity.

(This great little video by Carla Dauden has me feeling pretty good as well.)


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