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[Cassava] Bread and Roses: Brazilian Farmers Seek a Dignified Life

July 2009

During our visit to Brazil earlier this month, Saulo Araujo and I met with Grassroots International’s partners and the communities in which they work. I had prepared myself to talk about a range of issues, from Creole seeds to water scarcity to land occupation. I hadn’t expected to hear so much about the importance of a dignified life.

In an earlier blog I introduced Elisa and João, two farmers in the Central Plateau whose small plot of land is now literally surrounded by vast fields of sugar cane. Agrochemicals flow down the incline of the fields to their property. In this area, industrial agricultural firms are systematically taking over vast swaths of land to grow sugar cane for the production of ethanol, destroying thousands of hectares of biodiversity in their wake.

Elisa told us: “We cannot make flour from the cassava anymore because of the ashes from burning sugarcane.” João added, “It’s hard to keep your dignity when they try to take it from you.”

A nearby neighbor told us about a similar struggle. João Batista da Silva is 57-years old and lives alone. The company has denied him access to electricity for 5 years in an effort to force him off the land. Only João and one other family remains of the 45 who previously farmed the area. We asked him why he stays. He said, “This is my land. I’m connected here. This is my life and there is no money that can buy this land.”

Once we left the Central Plateau for the Northeast region of Brazil, the theme of a dignified life became even more prominent in our discussions. In these areas, we met with communities who are living in encampments or settlements waiting for legal right to the land. The Brazilian Constitution allows this process for unused land, land that is left unproductive by land owners. In Brazil, the Landless Worker Movements (the MST) – a Grassroots International partner – has settled nearly 150,000 families onto land in the past 25 years. We met with communities who are still waiting, often engaged in serious and sometimes violent conflicts.

In one such area—the Sister Dorothy Settlement—the concept of a dignified life came more to the fore. Manuel da Silva is a grown man whose three daughters are also adults. “To have education, to keep the land, to have health care, that is a dignified life.”

Saulo and I spoke with youth at the MST’s Maria Aragão Training Center. Here dozens of young men and women learn about sustainable farming and political organizing, as well as math, Portuguese and other academic subjects. Unlike most of his classmates, Uriel Aucuezes de Souza comes from the urban area of São Luis. He was fascinated by the US policy toward Cuba after meeting a Cuban doctor, and felt great solidarity with social movements in the U.S. Uriel worried about our struggles for justice in the belly of the beast.

Uriel told us that working for social justice brought dignity to his life: “Social justice is a beautiful cause and our hope is much bigger than the challenges that we face. We face the same oppression, and it tries to prevent us from understanding and defending our rights. Even though we speak different language, we are fighting for the same cause: social justice. We will struggle together for liberation. Not a step backwards: Liberation or death.”

Big words from a young man with a very big heart.

The concept of a dignified life took on greater meaning when Saulo and I met with two communities with whom Grassroots International had not met before: a village of the indigenous Trukás and a settlement of the Afro-descendent Quilombola community.

By way of background, the Brazilian Constitution that allows for land settlement also designates entirely different processes for the three movements groups: peasants, indigenous and afro-descendent. Whether intentional or not, the result has at times been a divide and conquer type situation. Just as here, many people fall into more than one category—often into all three. The choice of primary identification means not just personal pride but political and land affiliation. It’s a tricky situation, and even trickier to build meaningful alliances across these artificial divides.

I met with the Trukás and Quilombola communities in the state of Pernambuco in the Northeast. This is an arid area with dry soil. When it rains, they often experience floods because the land doesn’t absorb the water.

Like indigenous communities worldwide, the Trukás have suffered repeated relocations as colonists and capitalists move into their land. Even so, they’ve maintained their culture and pride. They’ve also become increasingly fed up with the pace of settlement. The center in which we met had a big monument in the middle, surrounded by clay and thatch huts with some electricity. The monument bore a date: July 17, 2005. This was the date they reclaimed the land, but not without the death of some of their brothers.

Now Brazilian leaders plan to build a dam and huge irrigation canals right through the community. Known as the Transposition Project, the path of the São Francisco River will literally be shifted through their land. We visited the enormous canals being built to carry the water—vast highways of white, clean concrete that looked like a skateboarders dream.

The Trukás do not want to leave, and they don’t want to answer any more of the government questionnaires about their identity—as Trukás, peasant, Quilombola, etc. I fear for them in many ways. But I also recognize a fierce commitment to the survival of their people and know they will figure out a way to move forward.

Of the many truly impressive and powerful people we met, one visit crystallized the importance of a dignified life for me. Antonio and his wife Maria do Socorro work with  ASSEMA, another of Grassroots partners. Maria goes by the nickname of Lela. This couple stood out to me for a few reasons, not the least of which was their fruit trees. They grew more than 30 varieties of fruit trees, something that baffled their neighbors who struggled to make them grow in the sandy soil: Pineapple, cashew, coconut, açaí berry. This was in addition to the cassava and chickens and goats and rice, etc.

Lela is probably in her mid-30s. She was wearing a t-shirt showing the Babaçu nut as part of a women’s cooperative and exchanges them for wholesale goods at the cooperative market.

Lela told me that she didn’t originally want to plant so many fruit trees because she wanted to plant flowers. I asked her why. She said, “Because they’re beautiful.  I wanted something that was just for the beauty of it.” Later she showed me her little flower garden, mostly in pots in front of their house.

I told Lela the story of the women’s strike in Massachusetts in the early 1912. The strike was remarkable for the cooperation among immigrant workers, for the role of women, and for the strikers’ practice of expressing themselves in song.  The women proclaimed, “We want bread, and roses, too.” Lela understood completely. She said, “That’s the life with dignity.”

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