A Radical Geography Community
by David Meek, University of Georgia
Adora sits on a rock-hard couch, leaning back to blow smoke upwards where it is refracted by the daylight, streaming through cracks in her clapboard house. Adora is one of the coordinators of the Brazilian Landless Workers’ Movement’s (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra or MST) Frei Henri encampment, which is located between Paraupebas and Curionopolis, Pará.
The MST is one of Brazil’s largest agrarian social movements, and its members tactically occupy land that they perceive as ‘socially unproductive’, pressuring the government to expropriate the land, and re-title it to the movement’s members (Branford and Rocha 2002). The Frei Henri encampment has become the most recent conflagration in a region characterized by land violence. Simmons and colleagues have written extensively about the territorial violence, including targeted assassinations of movement leaders as well as massacres of movement members, and hired gunmen and corrupt military police, that remains a too-common occurrence in this region (Simmons 2004; Simmons 2005; Simmons et al. 2007).
I take advantage of the daylight and the break in gunfire it presents to get Adora’s perspective on this newest land war. She looks exhausted, but resolute as she begins:
“It’s a war zone. For the last 12 nights no one has slept. As soon as it gets dark search lights start panning the encampment. Their light is so strong it comes in just like this”, she gestures waving her hand through the smoky streams of daylight.
Asking her how the conflict began, she sighs and starts again:
“On September 25th we had a meeting, a regional meeting of MST leaders. We decided that the cestas basicas [the food rations that the government provides to encampments] were nowhere near sufficient for our survival. In addition, the small amount of land that we had in the encampment is insufficient for us to produce our own food. So we decided to increase the amount of land we were occupying, to double it so that we could create more gardens, and help with the problems of food security. The encampment was originally four alqueidas, we doubled that to eight…”
“We hired a tractor, and began to start ploughing the new land. The fazendeiros [land owners] arrived, and while they weren’t thrilled, they said it was fine as long as we didn’t cross the creek and get near their corral. As a community we met again, and on October 5th decided that this still wouldn’t be enough land for our needs. And so we took the tractor across the creek and began to clear land over there”, she twists in her couch pointing backwards.
“On October 7th there were the municipal elections. That night the PT [Partido dos Trabalhadores, the political party to which the MST and its members are most closely affiliated] lost the Prefeito [Mayor] post in Paraupebas [the municipality in which Frei Henri is located], in Eldorado, and in Xinguara [nearby municipalities]. I’m not saying it was the new Prefeito that ordered this, but that night the shooting started. Gunfire, fireworks, all being directed at the encampment from the fazendeiros‘ corral. We escaped, and ran to the road where we slept the night, children sleeping on mattresses on the side of the road.”
“Since then there have been so many shots. No one’s slept. It’s more war than night, and everything is being hit – the water tank, street signs…yesterday a cat was hit by a stray bullet walking through the street.”
“Imagine what would happen to a child playing in the street. And it’s not stopping, they have four tractors on top of the hill, digging trenches and building earthen walls from which they’re shooting behind.”
“We closed the highway several times in protest, to draw attention to what is happening, but the police came and said that they can’t, and won’t, do anything to intervene. More than not intervening, we see the military police trucks driving up to the fazendeiros‘ corral, probably resupplying them with ammunition. We’ve tried to defend ourselves as best we can. We’ve been making small home-made bombs, taking fireworks, dismantling them, and filling small containers with the powder. There’s no way we could ever get near the fazendeiros‘ outpost [which is probably 500 meters uphill from the encampment], but it’s about all we can do to resist, to show that there is resistance. One member of the encampment did have a gun, and sadly, killed one of the gun-men of the fazendeiros. We decided in light of that to expel this individual from the community. Tragically, he was killed in a friend’s home the next day in a neighboring city. Stories diverge as to what happened: some say the police came after him for stealing a car. What’s more likely is he was killed by the fazendeiros in retribution.”
“Since the active conflict started we haven’t been able to plant the new land, much less be able to tend the small gardens on the outside of the encampment that we had planted near the creek. Many of these gardens have dried up and died in the last two weeks. People are just too scared to come out of their houses. When they do come out, and go down to the creek to bathe or wash clothes they see the gunmen hiding behind the trees, watching.”
Sighing, she concludes: “Our reality is the reality of the county. Those that have money are valued and those that don’t have nothing.”
* * *
Adora’s narrative account of the tumultuous topography of occupation, repression, and resistance is sadly all too common in this region where cattle-ranching and mining interests are tightly aligned with municipal power. Simmons et al. (2007) describe this ‘persistence’ as a regional geographical quality, tracing it’s history in the state of Pará back to the Portuguese domination and the 19th century Cabanagem revolt. The south of Pará, which is the region to the south of the TransAmazonica highway, remains in many ways a frontier; from the boom-and-bust cycles surrounding Brazil nut production, to timber extraction, industrial mining and cattle ranching, it remains a migration hotspot as the industrial mining giant Vale corporation is one of the region´s major employers. Following Simmons et al. (2007) once again, we can see the violence in Adora’s backyard as both a product of regional economic and political processes, as well as ecological conditions, namely what is considered excellent climate and pasture conditions for cattle. The clear geographical conflict concerning the valuation of this cultural landscape: on one side land as an originating point for capital, and on the other for social transformation and food sovereignty speaks to two of the major competing visions shaping the future of Amazonia. Various critical geographers and other social scientists have provided clear lenses through which we can understand this conflict (Fortmann 1989; Arima and Uhl 1997; Fearnside 2008; Siegmund-Schultze et al. 2010), focusing on the force that capital, political power, ecology, and place-based histories play in creating the geographic conditions that precipitate violence and resistance. Adora’s story simply adds to this scholarship, and our understanding of daily resistance, providing us with the everyday texture of determination and hope that we frequently miss in statistics of agrarian land violence.
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