Struggle continues for landless Brazilians

Though a moratorium on evictions has been extended in Brazil, families still face forced removals. Activists are fighting for the right to land amid increasing precarity.

The Brazilian Federal Supreme Court extended the moratorium on evictions on the day of its expiry to 30 June. This is the third extension since June 2021. In July 2020, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights called on the country to stop evictions during the pandemic after more than 2 000 people were removed from their homes.

Although the moratorium has been extended for only a short period, national coordinator at the Movimento Sem Terra (MST) Kelli Mafort says it is a victory that has been welcomed by landless movements and rural and urban organisations. The ruling has spared about 500 000 people from evictions. There is now pressure to achieve the right to housing in the city, and the right to land, roof and work in the countryside, but Mafort says they are already working on this.

“Our fight is for there to be a new law to prevent evictions … when the pandemic ends because of the economic impact of the pandemic,” she says, adding that they are waiting for a response from the president of the Brazilian Chamber of Deputies Arthur Lira to engage on the matter.

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“Removing these families from access to land and shelter will drastically affect access to one of the most fundamental rights, which is the right to food, since it is in these areas where they live and work that peasant families who are camped and settled produce food for their subsistence,” says Mafort.

The eviction ban applies to urban and rural regions occupied before March 2020 when a lockdown order was first introduced in the Latin American country. The Landless Movement has about 65 000 families in camps throughout the nation, some living in camps and fighting for land for up to a decade. 

Brazil has seen an increase in unemployment, hunger, cost of living and violence during the pandemic, which has highlighted right-wing president Jair Bolsonaro’s lacklustre response to the country’s overlapping health, economic and housing crises. The vulnerable are most at the mercy of Brazil’s neoliberal policies.

No housing policies

In April 2021, the government slashed funding by 98% for the construction of new homes for low-income Brazilians under the Minha Casa, Minha Vida (My Home, My Life) programme. With no government recourse to housing, families – mostly headed by women – face forced removals that often involve police. 

“The occupation, both urban and rural, only exists because the Brazilian state does not have a housing policy, nor does it expropriate or collect land for the purpose of agrarian reform. We should have this as a state policy. People’s rights are above private property,” Mafort says.

But even with the moratorium, there is still “the need to work on … the resettlement of urban families and agrarian reform … for rural families. The current government is not in favour of these social policies, neither urban nor rural.”

When evictions take place at MST camps, families do not disperse. Rather they retreat to a protected area a neighbouring settlement provides and remain there while negotiating with authorities. They stay in these peasant communities until the land is recognised as an agrarian reform area. 

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But evicted families outside of camps have nowhere to go, despite legislation guaranteeing alternative accommodation. They often have to reorganise child care themselves, along with education, productive work on the land, food, security and health care, among other things after evictions.  

Maria Carolina Maziviero, an assistant professor of urbanism and urban planning at the Federal University of Paraná in Brazil, says these vulnerable communities have to create common resources through non-market economic activities. The families at the camps live off their urban and rural work, food production activities and through rearing small animals. 

“The solidarity networks that weave in the territory are social technologies that sustain life, in the face of the complete absence of public assistance policies … Territories with vulnerable populations have historically been compelled to invent survival strategies and to produce associative life forms,” Maziviero says. 

“Many land occupations, our rural encampments, are productive encampments,” Mafort says. “They have cultivation areas, agroecological gardens and many of our encampments manage to produce for their own consumption, but they also share the surplus through solidarity actions with people who live in urban outskirts in an action of class solidarity that was present throughout the pandemic.”

Forced evictions

Despite the highest court in Brazil’s judicial system banning evictions, they still take place in some parts. Mafort says municipal and state police who act independently of the law take advantage of families not organised into social movements, who “individually have difficulty in triggering the local justice system to suspend evictions”. Urban and rural militias are made up of private security guards, many of whom are off-duty police officers who end up “promoting this violence”. The only way to fight this, according to Mafort, is to work with popular movements. “What guarantees no evictions during the pandemic or any other period is the organisation of popular movements.”

“Occupation is a legitimate way for people to fight for their rights, whether occupying a building, an empty lot or a rural area that does not fulfil its social function, which means respecting environmental and [labour] legislation, being productive and establishing a harmonious relationship within that space,” says Mafort. 

Maziviero, who is part of the Zero Eviction Campaign, echoes a similar point: “When living is a privilege, occupying is a right.” Social movements and national entities from the countryside and city collectively built the campaign, which was launched in July 2020. The campaign, which has been instrumental in demanding the suspension of rights violations, reports that more than 27 000 families have been evicted between March 2020 and February 2022. Its research shows that more than 132 290 families are currently under threat of eviction in the country, a significant increase since the beginning of the pandemic.

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Brazil has a history of forced evictions, including before and after the 2014 Fifa World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games. Private interests are placed over the rights of those with ancestral connections to the land. Maziviero says the struggle for land is difficult, but human life is more important than profit. “Life needs to be above property and the fight for roof, land and work is fair and necessary as the country is experiencing aggravation of hunger, the result of austerity policies of the Bolsonaro government,” she says. 

“For all these urban and rural people, the meaning of having a roof over their heads during a very difficult situation like … the pandemic means the concrete possibility of conquering their right to housing and land to produce food and survive,” says Mafort. “And this is very important because at the same time that it is an act of resistance today, it is a sign of hope for tomorrow.” 

It remains to be seen if the moratorium on evictions will be extended after 30 June.

Correction, 9 May 2022: This article previously said that the government slashed funding a year ago this month instead of April.

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