In a place called promise Glasgow Herald 21st December 1998

MARIAN PALLISTER reveals how Ricky Ross is helping the landless find hope in Brazil

FOR a country which spent a month in the world's headlines in 1998, very little is known about Brazil. Beyond its football team and its carnival, this huge South American country is unknown territory for most of us.While even those overcome by compassion fatigue can cite the ills of Somalia and Bangladesh, few of us are aware that, while 44% of the land in Brazil is owned by just 1% of the population, 4.8 million families are landless and live in poverty.

There is an apparently benign law which appears to offer the answer to such inequalities. This legislation stipulates that it is illegal to own land which is not being cultivated, and the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Ruruas Sem Terra (MST or Movement of the Landless) has become one of the most important social movements in Latin America, pressurising the government to find such land for the hungry families of Brazil.

Without the support of MST, the law means little, as Scots singer-songwriter Ricky Ross discovered when he visited Brazil with Christian Aid.The Brazilian government is certainly not pro-active on behalf of the landless. Many families camp by the roadside without water or electricity for as long as 10 years while they wait for MST's claim to the land to be settled by the government. Nor are landowners philanthropic in their approach to the problem: once they realise their land has been occupied, many hire gunmen or pay for paramilitary police to evict the families.

Ross discovered that 1000 people have been killed in the struggle for land in Brazil since 1987.Ross admits that he also knew little about the country when Christian Aid invited him to see the work of MST for himself. He says: "I used to think to myself, looking at the World Cup crowds, this is a Third World country, so who are all these people who can travel to Europe?" How, he wondered, did the ghettos of Sao Paulo square up to the fun-loving fans who jetted into France?

Urban poverty is most obvious in Brazil, as Ross discovered when he flew into Sao Paulo. Rural poverty, however, is the hidden cancer of the country. To be landless means also to lack education and health care, which is why being able to make a legitimate claim on even the smallest plot is so vital to this forgotten sector of society.

Where MST supports a claim settlements grow up, while farmers and their families wait for that claim to be recognised. Larger settlements, which become tent cities, have schools, medical centres, creches, adult education facilities, and courses in agriculture and women's leadership.

Currently, according to Christian Aid, 38,000 children are in MST schools, but adult literacy has become a priority because in some camps, only 10% of adults can read.

Ross drove 500 miles from Sao Paulo to a place called Promissao. "It literally means 'the promise'," he explains, "but it means more than that. It means something like the promised land, and is quite symbolic in that." The journey there highlighted the contradictions which make up Brazil: the motorways were fast and efficient; communications easy; motorway stop-offs compared with the best in Europe. Yet he was going to a place where the government had provided no schools and where hundreds of homeless people were fighting for their right to live a decent life.

Out on the encampment, Ross encountered 150 families living in Third World conditions. They were there with the support of MST, which works in all but two of Brazil's states.

Over the past 13 years, MST has helped house 150,000 families who have become homeless because they could not pay their rent. When MST is about to settle uncultivated land, it invites such families to join the movement.Ross says: "There is fairly violent opposition, so MST does not identify the land until the very last moment." When they make a claim, they erect tents, move in Calor gas, dig wells, lay on electricity, and eventually grow crops.

In the five years it officially takes to formalise such claims, families on the encampments remain open to harassment. "They could be thrown off at any time," Ross explains, but being near to already-established settlements, there is some protection.Government money is, in theory, made available to the landless, but it can often get no further than the banks. Hence the reason for a 65-year-old woman explaining to Ross: "This is the song we sing when we occupy the bank."

Christian Aid backs the MST projects with cash for education and health projects to improve the quality of life. The movement's main interest is to win the battle with the government to give people the right to land. Ross learned the struggle would never end until the last parcel of uncultivated land had been allotted to a homeless family.

MST is now doing work in the cities, where it helps families who migrated from rural areas in search of a better life. Ross says: "Nothing can be achieved without someone hurting. In this case, wealthy landowners have to suffer to give poor people a chance."

The bond between the landless people is strong. Ross notes: "These people have a very heightened sense of injustice because the odds are stacked against them. They have taken a very intelligent attitude towards it. They respect and look after what they get."

Ross's Brazilian visit was in the wake of the Central American hurricane disaster. Christian Aid, however, has made the on-going project in Brazil the focus of its appeal this year, and Ross says: "What Christian Aid does in development work is not about answering disasters all the time and being an ambulance service for the Third World, but rather empowering people to take control of their lives. Where people are willing to do that, we should be supporting them."

Christian Aid Scotland is located at
759a Argyle Street,
G3 8DS
(telephone: 0141 221 7475)