Janaina Stronzake, Youth Activist: Growing up in Brazil’s Occupy Land Movement
Janaina Stronzake is a youth leader within Brazil’s Landless Workers Movement (MST) – the largest peasant movement in Latin America with over 1.5 million members. Janaina describes herself as a child of the MST movement; her family joined in 1985 when she was five years old, after losing their farmland to a bank. After spending years participating in land occupations, her family finally won title to land and Janaina and her seven siblings grew up in a MST settlement they helped established. With the MST’s support, Janaina went on to university, became an instructor at the MST’s Florestan Fernandes National School and currently is pursuing her master’s degree in International Development at the Autonomous University of Madrid, Spain. She spoke to us recently about her life, how her family came to join the MST, and her experience growing up within the movement.
GRI: What lead your family to join the Landless Workers Movement? My family lost their land to the “Green Revolution” – they became indebted to the banks because of adopting the Green Revolution farming methods that so many peasant farmers were encouraged to adopt in Brazil. Before all this happened, peasant communities had kept their own seeds, which they carefully saved and exchanged with each other, year after year. Farming techniques were passed on and improved upon from generation to generation, and the knowledge was shared among the families and communities. As the Green Revolution took hold, farmers lost control of their seeds and agricultural methods—all with the false idea that crop yields would increase. And with the easy credit and loans (used for buying farm machines, seeds, and all the rest), debts quickly became a horrible nightmare for many, many peasant families. Ultimately, they were forced to sell their lands, and leave. Around the time I was born, toward the end of the 70s, we lost our land and moved to Quedas do Iguaçu, in the [southern] state of Paraná. We kept having to move, depending upon where work was available. The most common job available was working as a farm laborer—living in the city but travelling out to the farm every day. We would leave the house at 4:30 or 5 in the morning—there was a truck that took everyone to the farm—and we would arrive at 7am, working usually till 6pm in the evening. Adapting to life in the city was difficult for us: Strange surroundings, different ways of living, the fear of theft and criminal activity which we hadn’t known before. It’s not that people in the city were more criminal, it’s just that poverty, sprawling urban growth, and overcrowded neighborhoods placed a huge pressure on people. My mother began volunteering as an organizer with the Christian base communities, a movement which was very influenced by liberation theology. We began to hear about the occupation movements that were gaining strength in Brazil. I have a vivid memory of her in meetings, talking about the land grabs by big agricultural companies, the expulsions of peasant farmers. I was five years old and each week I went with my mother to the base community meetings. Finally, in 1985, thanks to an MST convention held near my city, we were able to join the MST. The following year, my father, mother, and my eight brothers participated in our first encampment, or land occupation. Since then we have never left the struggle. GRI: What was it like for you and your family to participate in a land occupation? Our first land occupation was in October of 1985, on an unused piece of land in Lindoeste, in the western part of Paraná state. It took almost two years of preparing, studying, and organizing the 225 families who finally took part in the occupation. My smaller brothers and sisters thought we were going to be able to make nice little houses and play—going out to ‘camp out’ seemed like a stupendous idea. But I think that my elder siblings, my mother and my father suffered more. They knew how hard it would be. We arrived in the early morning hours, but the police were already there waiting for us. They stopped us from entering the land. So we camped out on the side of the road to reorganize and plan out what we would do. Life there was very hard. Water was two kilometers away, and we kids were responsible for going with buckets to get the water. To wash clothes, we had to walk four or five kilometers to the nearest river. Hunger and cold were always stalking us. We camped on the side of the road for about 4 months, and then after a Landless Workers Movement rally in Paraná’s capital, Curitiba, we moved to another piece of land in the west of the state, waiting for the government to give us title to land [an obligation under Brazil’s Agrarian Reform law]. We waited another four months, but the government didn’t do anything about our petition for land, so all the ten encampment groups in the whole state decided to occupy the plaza in front of the state government until everyone got land. That mobilization resulted in some major victories. Nearly half the encampment groups succeeded in getting land. My parents separated around then. My mother joined a settlement in 1993. I can’t remember how many occupations she participated in before getting settled – it was at least seven. My father was able to join one of the settlements two years later. How did you begin to get involved in teaching and community organizing? My first ‘organizing’ activity was in the first encampment. Together with two other children, we collected sweets and toys (by hitch-hiking to the neighboring cities!) and organized Christmas celebrations for all the kids in the encampment. As I got older, I helped with the distribution of our MST newspaper, The Landless Journal. Then I began to participate in other activities such as the struggle to get a primary school built for our settlement and fighting to secure school bus transportation for the high school students. This lead to helping form youth groups in the settlements, participating in other occupations with other groups of landless families, and ultimately to helping as a community organizer with the MST regionally. As an adult, you began teaching at the MST’s Florestan Fernandes National School (FFNS), a school for training MST members in community organizing, agroecology, and many other subjects. What was that experience like for you? I love teaching! I have taught different courses in political education, the history of agriculture, general history, and research methodologies. The School is more than the building where it’s located in Sao Paulo. We offer courses in many places throughout Brazil. That’s an important part of the school’s political and educational mission. The school also offers formal coursework in academic topics such as Political Theory and Geography. When I return to Brazil, I am going to help organize exchange courses between the MST and social movements in other countries, like the U.S for example. I want to continue with my teaching, and also continue furthering my own education. I want to return to the classroom to teach, wherever the MST needs me most. What experience has impacted you most in your life? The experience of hunger has had a permanent and profound impact on me. Not having anything to eat makes you internalize a deep fear. That’s why I have been studying the subject of nutrition for so many years. Suffering from hunger and not being able to study or do things that other children can do has brought me to the conviction that capitalism just doesn’t work. There are thousands upon thousands who weren’t as lucky as I was—I survived hunger. What role has international solidarity played? I probably would not have survived had it not been for the support and solidarity of groups like Grassroots International. International solidarity has a very important and positive impact. Without that solidarity, we couldn’t survive—as people, or as a movement.