Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Mass Favela Eviction Highlights Squatters' Fight in Brazil

The fallout continues from the mass eviction of thousands of families from Pinheirinho, a favela just outside of Sao Paulo, Brazil. The operation, which police initiated Sunday, saw violence continue Monday, as protesters blocked roads and burned vehicles. Some standoffs reportedly provoked a forceful response from the security forces, with police firing rubber bullets and tear gas, reports the Latin American Herald Tribune. According to the Guardian, 15 people have been arrested, while no deaths have yet been confirmed. Across Brazilian social media, some users called the event a “massacre,” but there is little evidence that this is the case. Al Jazeera has a video report from the region, while both the Guardian and Folha have interesting photo galleries displaying the homemade defense equipment used by Pinheirinho residents.


As the Guardian points out, land evictions are not unusual in Brazil, but the Pinheirinho case was striking for the number of people reportedly evicted -- some 6,000. The incident also calls attention to the issue of property redistribution and squatters’ rights in Brazil, where some 11.5 million people are thought to live in illegal or sub-standard housing,

Brazil has a significant housing deficit of between six to eight million houses, according to Habitat for Humanity. The housing shortage issue is a key cause for the Landless Workers’ Movement (MST), one of the largest social movements in Brazil and frequently described as one of the most successful land occupation movements in Latin America. Officially founded in 1984, the MST has reportedly taken over some 35 million acres in Brazil, settling over 370,000 families. The group plays a major role in defending squatters’ rights, and now claims to represent nearly 2 million landless people.

The organization condemned the Pinheirinho evacuation, but unlike other squatters’ communities which were organized by the MST, it is unclear whether the Pinheirinho settlement originally began as an informal MST encampment. According to reports, the area was first populated in 2002. The land is technically owned by a “bankrupt property company,” reports the BBC.

The Pinheirinho evictions may possibly become a key cause for the land reform movement in 2012. There have been questions over how influential the MST remains as a political force, especially given the success of government poverty reduction programs, like Bolsa Familia, initiated under President Lula da Silva. The MST has been highly involved in rural land reform issues in recent years, particularly the defense of small farmers as soybean and sugarcane agribusinesses continue to expand. Over the past decade, many of the most high-impact land occupations engineered by the MST were intended to protest the activities of agribusinesses like Monsanto. Still, there is a good chance the MST will become more prominently involved in the Pinheirinho cause, despite the fact the group is less associated with urban squatters’ movements at this point.

President Dilma Rousseff has not issued any formal statements on the Pinheirinho evictions. The outrage may not last long enough to put land reform back on the top of the presidential agenda. While the MST supported Rousseff’s presidential campaign, there is little sign so far that she will take a proactive approach towards housing or land issues. But the attention paid to the Pinheirinho riots could pressure her to do so. As detailed in a Mercopress report, six out of ten Brazilians are now thought to belong to the middle class. As the Pinheirinho violence indicates, such estimates may be a simplification, and for many Brazilians there is still a long way to go.

News Briefs
  • From the New York Times, indications of a small rift between Brazil and Iran. The former “top media advisor” to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told Folha that Rousseff “has been striking against everything that Lula accomplished.” Blogger Greg Weeks has some useful insight on the issue, noting: “As sanctions tighten, Iran really wants to showcase how it has ties to major countries like Brazil, but I wonder whether Rousseff wants to stick her neck out that far.”
  • The Associated Press on how authorities in Mexico unraveled a child trafficking ring that tried to supply Irish couples with babies.
  • Election intrigue from Mexico as an influential teachers’ union party has split from the PRI party, meaning rivals the PAN may quickly begin courting the party as a new coalition partner, the LA Times reports.
  • Through the Inter-American Dialogue, Current History has a long piece titled “The Shifting Landscape of Latin American Regionalism.” Bloggings by Boz has a four point summary of the article, which examines the role of regional organizations like the OAS and UNASUR, in light of greater Chinese economic influence in Latin America, as well as Brazil’s rise to power.
  • For those with a subscription, the New Yorker reports on Tijuana’s efforts to refashion its image through its emerging restaurant scene.
  • Tim’s El Salvador Blog and Salon discuss allegations that Mick Romney’s private equity firm benefitted from wealthy Salvadoran families, some with links to death squads. “I'm not sure that taking money from the corrupt Salvadoran wealthy class to help them make money outside of the region makes someone a friend of Latin America,” Tim’s El Salvador Blog notes.
  • The United Nations is set to investigate allegations that UN personnel committed sexual abuse in Haiti. From Americas Quarterly.