Autonomous Land Occupations in Brasil

October 30, 2016

Vila Conquista

by dave onion

On February 18th 2005, a contingent of anarchists from Rio's anarchist federation (FARJ or Federaco Anarquista do Rio de Janeiro) made our way to Olga Benario Prestes, a squatted piece of land on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro to participate in their 2nd year anniversary and victory celebration. It had been two years of occupation and there was much reason to celebrate. The celebration was taking pace just days after Brazilian military and pigs had brutally evicted hundreds of families (12,000 people in total) from squatted land in Goiania, in the north of Brasil, killing several and disappearing many.

To put the occupation in further context, Brasil, who`s boundaries boast the world's 8th largest economy also is home to some 12 million homeless and landless people who share little of the country's wealth. From these landless (called Sem Terras) and homeless (Sem Techos) springs an enormous squatter movement , mostly internationally known by news of the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Tera or MST. Who after 20 years claim some 2 million in its occupations. Tracts of abandoned or unused land is taken sometimes by thousands of landless families who immediately go about building new more stable communities, often in the face of severe repression.

I had tracked down activists of the FARJ, Rio's anarchist federation a few days before at their Cultural Centre. Located in a sleepy neighborhood of Rio at the foot of favelas on the hills from where regular machine gun fire exchanges between police and extra legal capitalists calmly added punctuation to traffic noises. The FARJ activists had been keeping up solidarity work with and some living in various squats and occupations in and around Rio, all of which where autonomous from the MST and thus in many ways left out of the solidarity work some of the other occupations enjoy. Olga Benario Prestes is one of these.

Olga Benario Prestes

After a long ride to Campo Grande on the periphery of Rio and a short walk, we found ourselves at the gates of the occupation, a sign proudly announcing themselves Ocupacao Olga Benario Prestes. Through the gates, a main road led through the occupation, past houses in various stages of completion and sturdiness, past sleeping dogs, playing kids and adults leaning out of windows and doors with looks of cautious interest. Andre, a lawyer working with the occupations led us on a tour of the territory, explained some of their history.

OBP had been initially taken by about 115 families in February of 2003. According to Andre, the land had been used previously for burying cadavers, drug trafficking and orgies. The families immediately started building shelters and improving the structures into more stable homes as more resources became available. Work and materials were supplied in part by some friendly unions such as Sinpro-Rio (a professors union in Rio). But self governed life was not without obstacles. Andre cited 8 violent evictions within 2 years, during which pigs burnt down or otherwise destroyed homes and subjected the squatters to beatings and jail. Each time the families returned, refortified and rebuilt. Hearing this I immediately felt a ridiculousness thinking about the ease at which rebels in the US are prone to bend to usually much lighter repression. With Goiania's massacre fresh on everyone's mind (and as happened before elsewhere as no doubt every occupant at OBP knows well), murder by the state is of course a real life threat.

We walked down a road, crunching cinderblock debris underfoot. A deal had been made for trucks to dump construction debris at OBP to use as landfill, covering up a sewer system that the squatters had built on their own. And the electricity, "de gato" or stolen. A local walking with us smiled mischievously, proudly. I was immensely impressed, and there it was again the slightly foolish feeling. These people had built up an entire infrastructure impeded by 8 violent evictions, with kids, hardly any employment to speak of and no support by the state; running exclusively on solidarity and mutual support.

We made our way back through the ocupa to the party site where I chatted with some folks. One, a vegan, expressed his fear there would be nothing to eat but meat. His fears were well founded. Behind some tables, a small bovine community was slowly rotating over coals and flames. Squatters from the community served up generous, seemingly endless proportions of rice, beans, meat, beer and mango juice from the trees in whose shade we sat The program for the celebration started off with poetry stirring the still meager crowd to chuckles, yawns and sighs as only poets know to do. A moment of silence was held for those who'd died in Goiania as well as for those dead, tortured and disappeared from the landless and homeless and other struggles. Throughout the night musicians, dancers, a theatre group were interspersed with speeches and statements of solidarity from the various unions, individuals and groups that had shown up to share in the celebration. The visitors were especially appreciated. Numerous locals embraced me with heartfelt appreciation. And the feeling was mutual as I was inspired on a number of levels.

An old white haired old man approached me. He`d come along as part of the FARJ delegation. He introduced himself, an anarchist who had fled Portugal for Brazil only to have to live under the dictatorship here. He told me the story of Olga Benario Prestes, a communist troublemaker was arrested on politcal charges by dictatorship Getulio Vargas' regime and was delivered more or less as a gift of goodwill to Hitler who had her killed in Auschwitz in 1942. The squatters took her name as their own in order not to forget. He repeated the words "not to forget!" with insistence before diversions of the party had us both elsewhere.

As the meat kept coming, the beer kept flowing and economically poor rebels danced in those moments of solidarity, kids and adults alike danced lambada to the band. And just as OBP was starting to get into it, loosing the inhibition of being around us, it was the anarchists who were getting sleepy. We waited for cake cutting ceremony until the cake was most unceremoniously cut up and devoured before heading out.

Vila Conquista and Nelson Faria Marinho

I'd been invited to visit some occupations closer to Rio the next day. Other FARJists who also worked with the MEL (Movimento Educacao Libertario), a Paulo Freire inspired education collective were visiting to meet up with the community to discuss their first popular education project in the community. Entering the Vila Conquista, folks were relaxing and chatting in small groups. Some friendly faces from the FARJ called me over were I was introduced to Marcos, who immediately laid into me with a barrage of Portuguese. Not caring when I insisted I only speak Portunol, I made do with occasional translation breaks which Marcos reluctantly tolerated.

"We are libertarian! We don't want anything to do with the state. We want self rule!". Marcos was passionate to say the least. He stressed the communities refusal of leaders and horizontal intentions, the communities' resourcefullness in opposition to the state, their strong DIY ethics. Our conversation kept leading to education, though. The importance to teach people to read. With large numbers adult squatters illiterate, literacy is an important elemental need in all the occupations I visited. Unable to pass a basic literacy exam part of the basic entrance exam for schools in Brazil, people are kept out of schools, which for poor people with few resources is a catch 22 and nearly alwys, a systematic entrenchment of poverty. Vila Conquista and it's neighbor occupation Nelson Faria Marinho had a total of one (1) teacher: Jonas, 13 years old and though quiet (beside Marcos at least) full of warmth and intelligent creativity radiating from his smile. Jonas took us around the corner to the school, a one room shack with a couple desks. At one, a girl practiced writing, while at the other a teenage kid sketched pieces in a notebook. 'Graffiti!', Marcos boasted enthusiastically, pointing to the dance of contorted letters in the artists fingers. On a chalkboard, some basic elements of anarchist theory left over from an earlier day.

We left the classroom for the garden and compost pile still in experimental stages and then on to a recycling project started by a guy who'd started a similar project at the FARJ's centre, making furniture for sale from used plastic bottles and other trashpickings. We were introduced to a shed loaded to the ceiling with empty tetra packs and bottles. The tetra packs were used as roofing tiles and insulation, Marcos explained. We were then introduced to an apparently wise and certainly crazy old man who took me aside for a whirlwind tour of his medicinal herbs.

I caught up with the rest of the MEL activists, as Marcos led us through both occupations, separated apparently more by theory than geography. Nelson Faria Marinho, which was also younger by several years was noticeably less together than Vila Conquista, with more trash and less built up structures. Later when I asked someone about political prisoners in Brazil, I learned a group from NFM had carried out an armed attack on a police station intending to spark off a general uprising. The spontaneous insurrection didn't occur and all the militants were snatched up, in prison to this day.

Vila Conquista's history, like those of many other Brazilian occupations was punctuated by evictions, violent repression and trashing of houses. And again countered by stubborn resistance and persistence. The land, whose ownership was ambiguous from the start was squatted some 7 years ago by thirtysomething families. After five years and the aforementioned troubles, legal proceedings on part of the squatters gained them title to their land. Nelson had only been squatted for the last few years, but support from Vila Conquista has kept them stable.

We made our way to where I first met Marcos, under a tarp rescuing us from the relentless sun. A meeting was getting underway between the community and the MEL to flesh out plans for organizing classes in the communities. When the meeting wound down, the idea of expanding Jonas' literacy classes had grown into a number of other projects including health education, self defense workshops and a fund and foodraising benefit party for the squatters. We exchanged embraces and contacts and were off.

It was good to see that even in squatter occupations in Brazil, libertarian rebels finish their meetings with discussion on which bar to go to. Wee chose the only one we could find on the way to the bus. I caught up on bits filtered out via the language barrier. A woman from the MEL, reaffirmed what seemed glaringly obvious, that Villa Conquista though full of people with obvious drive and enthusiasm are more often than not stuck with nothing to work with.Unable to sometimes afford the very basics, such as nails or school supplies, many projects just stop despite extensive resourcefullness on their own part. One such project is a small social centre, a building which could hold basic meetings and events. At Olga Benares Prestes the situation was similar, with various education and building projects coming to a stop because of lack of resources. Also the folks at both occupations, specifically asked to tell others about their existence, their struggles and in the case of Vila Conquista, certainly welcomed visitors.

By the time our table ha filled to capcity with empoty beer bottles, conversations had shifted from solidarity to Michael Jackson`s trial and the sun had let up. Recharged with some inspiration and stories, we made our long bus ride back to the city of beaches, telenovela stars, surfers and favelas, and ghosts of past struggles forgotten and remembered.

Profile picture

by dave onion .... twitter / mastodon