16 March 2012

Squatting North and South

The Brazilian landless peasansts movement MST ( Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra) is well known for its advocacy of land reform to enable people to establish sustainable livelihoods through their own labour, rather than having to engage in exploitative labour-markets and unsustainable economies. I'm glad to see that they now have a website, telling the history of their movement and inspiring similar change in other societies.

In the urban context of Brazil the MST have now been joined by the MTST, the movement of roofless workers (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem-Teto). As they say on their website:

Nosso objetivo é combater a máquina de produção de miséria nos centros urbanos, formar militantes e acumular forças no sentido de construir uma nova sociedade. A ocupação de terra, trabalho de organização popular, é a principal forma de ação do movimento. Quando ocupamos um latifúndio urbano ocioso, provamos que não é natural nascer, viver e morrer pobre e oprimido. Não aceitamos a espoliação que muitos chamam de sina.

'Our goal is to combat the production machine of poverty in urban centres, to train militants and gain strength in order to build a new society. The occupation of land by people's organisation is the primary mode of action of the movement. When we occupy idle urban land we prove that is not natural to be born, to live and to die poor and oppressed. We do not accept the dispossession that many call fate.'

As well as their direct action in the form of land occupation, these people of the shanty towns, whose daily life is a struggle against violence and dispossession, communicate their social and political message through a theatre of the oppressed.

I've raised the question recently of why we don't think of the people who live in our deprived communities as 'landless poor'. Since our 'great transformation' to a capitalist economy took place so long ago we accept that without a job you are worthless, whereas in the countries of the South people's first demand is for land so that they can grow their own food, gather fuel, make furniture and so on, rather than having to enter into an unequal contract with an employer.

This demand does not arise often enough in the post-industrialised economies of the West, however the demand for land for housing does. It finds its latest expression in the campaigning group Squash, which is lobbying against government plans to illegalise squatting. This legislation, clearly designed to serve the interests of the land-owning, property-owning class who the Conservatives have always served, will cost £790m. according to research carried out by Squash. More importantly it will deprive the homeless and the landless with the thin vestiges of the right to indepedence that our legal system still respects.

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