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March 22, 2002 12:56 pm

Bamboo and Bin Bags

On Thursday we take a four-hour drive out of Rio to Campos. We are to visit a MST encampment, which differs from a settlement in that the former as where the members of MST protest by living close by or on land that they have a right to.

A settlement is what then happens if and when the government allow them to live on the land. Accompanying us is Nellie, who lives on the encampment and is a larger than life character. She tells us the story of how the land they wish to occupy was land they worked on but the owner went bankrupted, as he didn’t pay the Government taxes, and they caught up with him. They were evicted from their homes without any recompense but actually won a court order saying that they could occupy the land. A rich landowner, however, then paid off the judge, so he effectively sold the land twice! MST will not enter the land until it is officially given over to them and they have camped on the edge of the land in order to try and embarrass the judge and the courts into doing what is right. It is also Brazilian law that any land not being farmed in Brazil of a certain size must be given to landless people! The government ignores it’s own laws however and out of this farce came the birth of the MST in the seventies. For more info on the MST and Brazil see the links on the web site. So, a ton of information and then we arrive at the encampment…end of words. As we pull up I see a refugee camp, bamboo shacks covered in black plastic, no water, electricity, no nothing. Nellie shows us her home but is embarrassed, as she hasn’t had time to tidy up. Stefan, my middle son, and his mates have a den over the park from our house and it has much in common with the feel of the inside of the homes on the encampment. I don’t know how to describe it in any other terms; it is the most basic accommodation you can imagine. Julian, from the BBC, and I just look at each other and cant find any words. What’s even more remarkable is that Nellie has a house on a settlement but has chosen for now to come and live here with her fellow MST members to help them get their land. These people have great welcoming smiles and handshakes, yet one might drive by quickly out of ignorance, worried about lingering. They gather together in the middle of the camp and we introduce ourselves via our translator, the lovely Myra. They applaud our words, especially when Martin Nichols talks of Christian Aid’s support of the MST and land reform and Julian and I bring greetings from Wales and try to talk of the struggle our land has had in its history and how we are humbled to be amongst them. As they learn I am a singer someone runs and finds an old beat up Spanish guitar and I sing to them with a sense of wonder at the situation; a political rally, in the middle of a homeless camp, in rural Brazil and the guys up front don’t even speak the language of the workers yet music does and we are one. A little later I’m helping them draw water up from a well they have dug and then I wander over to the other side of the road where the land that has been given to them and then taken away waits. They could just occupy it but they wish to uphold the law and do things the right way, unlike the authorities. As I stand there a bronzed middle aged man comes over and talks to me smiling. I don’t know what he is saying but he smiles at me and points at the land. His name is Joleson and, along with the others, he has invited me back one day for a barbeque on the other side of the road. Not for the first time on this journey its hard not to get emotional. We leave them waiving to us smiling, yet looking so passive and alone. Later that evening and in the dark we arrive at an encampment, and the home of Ilson and Maria. For some reason there has been a communication breakdown and they are not expecting us. They are in bed as they don’t have electricity and they get up at five to start work on the land. However, they are delighted to have guests and busy themselves with preparing a meal for us, and preparing beds for us to sleep on. Although we are strangers to them they treat us like long lost family and I cannot imagine this happening in the U.K. Maria guides Martin and I through the field to draw water from their well. Ok, so the bed was hard and mosquitoes bit, and the Turkeys they keep woke us up at the crack of dawn but again, I’m experiencing a wonderful example of the dignity and joy that seems to pervade the lives of folk with very little in this world. We interview Maria for the radio programme and she speaks with great pride and joy of their original encampment and the battle won by the MST in this area. We talk also about the unfair trade laws and tariffs and middlemen that they now have to deal with and so their struggle continues. Later in the morning Ilson shows us his crops of Sugar Cane and Pineapple. He tells me that the middleman tells him the price, he has no comeback and although he takes all the Pineapples he only pays him for the good ones. However, he uses the bad ones to make Pineapple juice but Ilson earns nothing for it. This man has a face like leather and looks like he would die for you and I’m proud to get a photo with him. We leave and drive to what looks like an old bike shelter. Inside we find a dozen beautiful children being taught by a young teacher. Their little faces light up as we sing and play games together and hand out Christian Aid badges and balloons. Christian Aid has been supporting the work of the MST since 1986 and I remember highlighting the MST’s work in the World Of Difference tour a year ago. Now I am seeing at first hand and it’s heartbreakingly moving. When we arrive back at the hotel some hours later its very strange to press buttons and flick on the air conditioning. I stand in the shower for a long time, my thoughts far away.

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