A Promise Made Good
Christian Aid 1999
Glasgow's Ricky Ross, former lead singer with Deacon Blue, recounts his week with the landless of Brazil.
Rock 'n' roll is a funny old taskmistress. One day you can be on a tour bus to Burnley, and on another you can be in a dismal, dank basement studio in Glasgow. There are also bad days. So when Christian Aid phoned and asked if I would like to go to Brazil for a week, I hummed and hawed. After three-and-a-half seconds or so, they twisted my arm.
First stop was São Paulo, Brazil. This place was hell on earth; it's easily the ugliest city I've ever visited and only the grafitti brightens a dismal skyline. Christian Aid invited me to meet their partner, Movimento Sem Terra (MST) - the Movement of the Landless - to see why hundreds of thousands of people opt to occupy land and undergo hardship and danger to find a piece of ground to call their own. A strong motivating factor would be the desire to get out of São Paulo.
The next day we got out of the city; we travelled the distance of Glasgow to London and experienced the Brazilian contradiction. We were on as good a road as any in Europe, and stopped at a service area with amenities we could only dream about in Britain. Yet we passed bleaker and bleaker slums, their monotony broken only by the occasional scene of a poor family setting up a stall.
We arrived at Promissão, which means the Promise. On the outskirts of Promissão, an encampment had been set up by the MST exactly one year before. Now it looks semi-permanent, with wooden-framed houses keeping out wind and water with black plastic sheeting. Inside these rough homes was all each family owned. About 150 people who had joined the camp were holding their first anniversary party. A huge PA system blasted out a series of top 40 Latin hits as campers let their hair down after a long and hard year of struggle.
As a Scot abroad, I was a little concerned about turning up at a party without a carry-out, so I insisted we swung by downtown Promissão for a few cans of exporto.
After the party I lay on a sadly sagging foam mattress, wondering what had become of the bright red bug that had stuck its tongue out at me on the way under the blanket. My room was in the more settled part of town, among the landless people who were ten years further on in their struggle; while last night's festivities were held in a hastily built encampment with dug-out latrines and central wells, here we were in the promise made good.
The roads here were of red earth and the buildings basic, but they were made of brick and roofed with tiles, and in the grounds were groves filled with mangoes, bananas and pineapples. Looking further, we saw the land itself. Ten years ago was wasteland, with an absentee landlord. Then the MST came along, proved that it was fertile land going to waste. They occupied, resisted any moves to oust them, then won legal tenure of the farmland and associated villages. Now they produce coffee, corn, sugar, rice, peppers, tomatoes and even fish.
To see what the MST has done for people here is to look at a huge success story. Once homeless, they now have permanent residences; once unemployed, they now cultivate their own land; once lacking any social amenities, they now have schools and health centres. All in ten years. This then is the empowerment of powerless people - taking action, sometimes at the risk of their lives, for themselves.
Our translator had been to Promissão a few times. The first night he'd told me that by the time we came to leave, I wouldn't want to go. I tried to look sympathetic, but had to contend with a few hard facts: the toilet was filthy, I couldn't phone home, I missed my wife and children, and the mosquitos were telling their pals about me.
The strange thing was that as we packed up on Tuesday night, I realised he was right. I was sorry to leave. Complete strangers had made us welcome. Telling people who don't even speak your language about how hard it is to bring your young children to live under a tarpaulin with a strong likelihood that you can be thrown off the land by shock troops is not easy.
So as we passed the school, the barnyards, the new chapel going up, and the encampment with its black plastic sheeting blowing in the breeze, I realised I'd had one of those experiences where you are drawn a little closer to Heaven. Ricky Ross