I visited São Paulo for the first time two years ago, and I still remember that first drive from the airport to the city centre. Even now, the average visitor could be forgiven for thinking about asking the taxi driver to turn back. In the car window, a bleak landscape flashes by of boarded-up factories, dirty industrial zones and, most shockingly, huge expanses of shanty towns or favelas.
Running right up to the roadside, these slums are not confined to the urban periphery; they are present in the very heart of a city that is segregated by sickening inequality. While some buy apartments at London prices and enjoy a swimming pool on each floor, thousands sleep under bridges, outside shops and in makeshift shelters of wood, card and corrugated metal.
This brutal social division motivates the activists of the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Teto (MTST), or Homeless Workers’ Movement. Thousands from different backgrounds join together to campaign for the right to dignified housing for all. Through occupations, roadblocks and camp-outs in front of the mayor’s office, the group is forcing the housing issue on to the agenda from São Paulo to Recife.
For many, the decision to join this burgeoning movement flows naturally from the experience of growing up in the favelas. Helena Silvestre, a national co-ordinator for the movement at just 23 years old, grew up in poverty in Greater São Paulo and, aged 11, became involved in local political groups as a “response to the daily problems I was living and witnessing”.
The key moment for Silvestre came in 2003 when, unemployed and living alone, she decided to join an MTST occupation in São Bernardo, an industrial area of Greater São Paulo.
“My motivations?” she asks rhetorically. “My parents are very poor, and I have five younger siblings – one sister works at a supermarket for R$450 [about £130] a month. I’ve always seen my parents work hard but get nowhere – and it seems so irrational to live in a world that produces so much, but where so many people lack so much.”
The MTST grew out of the widely popular Landless Workers’ Movement in the 1990s and quickly gained autonomy from its rural-based counterpart. Since then, it has grown in numbers and prominence, drawing in many middle-class activists. One such is Lizandra Guedes, a specialist in child education who has put her skills to use for the movement’s occupations.
Guedes explains that she was initially attracted to the movement by its principles and methods of organisation, which, she believes, relate to important inner-city problems such as unemployment and drug trafficking. But the homeless workers quickly assumed a deeply personal sig nificance for her.
Describing an initially intense and difficult process as she “broke with the values of her class”, Guedes tells me how she realised that the privileges of her middle-class background – such as the education to which she had access – could contribute to class conflict. “The movement has made it possible for me to remake my identity, redefine my life objectives – and, of course, has produced a hope for an end to social domination and oppression,” she says.
The MTST focuses primarily on carrying out urban occupations. Since 2005 it has held two major camps in Greater São Paulo. The locations chosen for these protest camps are plots of vacant land, often owned by speculators simply waiting for the right time to make a profit on their investment. The names of the camps reflect Brazil’s historic social struggle: for example, there has been “João Cândido”, after an African-Brazilian slave descendant who led a sailors’ revolt in 1910, and “Chico Mendes”, after the rubber tapper and trade unionist murdered in 1988.
Each camp generates further actions, typically demonstrations targeting seats of executive or legislative power. Last year, 5,000 people marched 18km to the state governor’s house. Sometimes there is a crescendo of direct action, such as last year again when, in so-called “Red April”, a traditional season for leftist action, homeless acti vists blocked three main roads in São Paulo. In October, a similar protest created gridlock in the north-eastern city of Recife.
The camps that spring up during the occupations are not only a visible expression of outrage at unjust land ownership. In their very structure and activities, they embody a much broader political and social vision. The camps are built around communal kitchens where those who have no money to buy food are able to get a meal. There is a unity of both resources and vision.
“Everyone thinks of a better life! No one wants their children to pass through the same difficulties they have had – and I don’t have different dreams from others,” says Silves tre, whose association with the group started when she worked in one of the camp kitchens. “For me, the movement is important because it is where I am able to realise this dream, alongside and sharing with others doing the same thing.”
The results of the occupations vary. The first such action in Campinas eventually prepared the way for a housing project for more than 5,000 families. Yet there is always the risk that the authorities will refuse to negotiate, and that the military police will use violence to break up a camp before there have been any concrete gains. In some cases, the police have cut off supplies to camps, including food and water.
Living in hope
Brazil’s government is often described as being part of the general move leftwards of governments in South America, but police brutality against such movements has, on occasion, been authorised by local officials of President Lula da Silva’s own Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers’ Party). MTST activists can barely conceal their disdain at the way in which, in the words of the São Paulo State co-ordinator Marco Fernandes, Lula’s party forsook its once-impressive grass-roots support and turned into an “election-winning machine”.
Silvestre echoes her comrade’s disappointment, lamenting that the homeless activists have few supporters in government and must rely instead on smaller, radical leftist groupings. But perhaps the absence of friends in high places is not such a bad thing. Across South America, grass-roots movements have taken the lead in challenging neoliberal orthodoxies, sometimes as part of an electoral strategy (for example, propelling Evo Morales to victory in Bolivia) and other times by creating “pockets of resistance” (similarly to the Zapatistas in Mexico).
Guedes affirms her belief that forming groups such as the Homeless Workers’ Movement is the most effective way of organising people to work for “radical social transformation”. There is a long way to go, even in Brazil. However, the campaign for proper housing for all is, in its bold vision, kindling hope across the nation and keeping the spotlight on one of the country’s most pressing problems. The plan is to continue the occupations and direct pro tests throughout 2008, with the simple message of affordable and dignified housing for the rapidly increasing numbers of urban poor.
“You live in what capitalism has constructed, but you don’t stay still, looking on,” says Silvestre. “You live it, because you are obliged to. But from the inside, you plant the seeds of another place.”
Published in New Statesman.