Ivania Network of Autonomous Groups, Brazil

Contact details
c/o Joao Paulo
Av: Osorio de Paiva
911 c/48
Fortaleza -CE Brasil
CEP: 60.720-000
Bairo Parangaba
c/o email:

Ivania Maria is 39 and has two sons. An ex-nun radicalised by Liberation Theology, she rejected the politics of the Left to form an autonomous group of rural ecologists, part of a loosely affiliated wider network of autonomous de-centralised social movements from northeast Brazil. She worked initially with women abandoned by their husbands ("widows of living men") and moved on with them to organise land occupations. She distinguishes their group from other landless movements in Brazil by their belief in non-hierarchical forms of organisation and rejection of land ownership. She works with rural farmers to cultivate a more ecologically sensitive relationship with the land, moving from settlement to settlement with her two sons. (This interview was conducted in Portuguese with translation into Spanish.)

How did you get involved in political action?
From the beginning? I have peasant origins, I was born in the countryside but as there is only school up until Primary, especially in the northeast of Brazil, I had to leave the countryside very young to go to study in the city. I joined the church and it was there that we formed a group of young people, and began to reflect on Liberation Theology and Paulo Freire. I was a nun at the time, and I was given the option of leaving the convent and going to work on the outskirts [low-income areas] with three other compañeras, who were also nuns.

It was then that we saw that the Church did not corres pond with what we wanted to struggle for. The Church was not the path we wanted to follow. In the Church we did have a degree of self-reflection, but only up to a point, and we didn't manage to break with the patriarchal structures or models.

So we began to act, building the Workers Party in Brazil. (The Party was two years old already, but in our region it was only just beginning.) We didn't stay long in the party as we realised this wasn't what we wanted either. We became disillusioned with the Party structure, after we had been in the country side and had contact with rural workers.

So then we organised the movement with rural workers. That was more or less 16 years ago. This was a time of great conflict in the Sertao Central of the northeast, and also a very sad time because the conflict was accompanied by drought and hardship which brings a lot of misery and a lot of hunger - as in the present day.

What kind of work did you do?
When we first arrived, we began a focused discussion a bout the situation for women, and for women as rural workers. This is because we had many compañeras who were widows of living husbands. It happens a lot in the northeast, that men go south in search of work and never return, and yet the whole community, the church and their families, demand that their wives remain faithful.

We had to use new methods and be creative, to find a way for women to love themselves again, to recover their self-esteem. We had to find new dynamics to get out of this situation, to overcome it instead of learning to live with it. Even those compañeras who were afraid to take part realised that by participating they would be able to take control of their lives, but that they would go through a lot of pain at the same time. They were afraid to participate because they had to break with and confront that model of society imposed by the church and by every body else.

We explored new ways of working. I couldn't even write and I began to write. All this happened as a way to enable the women widows to find a way to speak, because they would not speak at first. I couldn't draw either, but I began to draw. We also used clay, mud to express what we were feeling. Mud and clay are things which are experienced first hand. The houses are made of mud, floors are made of "beaten mud". We washed clothes on a river-bank that was also made of mud. The idea came up that as they did not go out to attend meetings and that everything was work, work, work, we decided to wash clothes with them. We started to play with mud, to express what we were feeling, to make dolls, to destroy the house that is overwhelming me (literally, "crushing my head").

As a result of this work, some compañeras are now autonomous and independent. From this starting point, we passed on to more daring actions, like the land occupations. I had no sons then. There was some land where these compañeras who were "widows of living husbands" lived. They built a shack for me and we began to work on the land together. After a while the land was not enough to go round and we organised the occupation of a larger piece of land. But that was after doing political work and having worked on the land for a time.

You occupy a piece of land after you have managed to establish a relationship with the land, after getting an analysis of the global situation, an understanding of the way things are and a political awareness.

What work do you do on land occupations?
The settlement where I am at the moment is two years old. We were in another be fore that. As we don't want titles to the land or credits for houses, every body builds the houses together. When we leave a settlement and go to another, we leave the house for the next family to arrive. And when you arrive at another settlement, they receive you with a house that has been constructed collectively.

It's my choice to travel between communities. I go with my family. Sometimes I go with other workers or families that want to have this experience. There are people who stay. I choose to experience what is going on in the other settlements and to foster a new kind of relationship with the land. We don't have many means of sharing our experiences with other settlements and it is dangerous to be swallowed up by human society, so we do this to help and to share experiences with other communities.

Liberation Theology
Liberation Theology, a term first used in 1973 by Gustavo Gutierrez, a Peruvian Roman Catholic priest, is a school of thought among Latin American Catholics, according to which the Bible demands that the church concentrate its efforts on liberating the people of the world from poverty and oppression. Latin American priests in the latter half of the 20th century realised that most of their parishioners lived in grinding, abject poverty and saw the church as one of the few viable community organisations. Inspired by Marxist ideas, radicalpriests, nuns and lay-workers began to engagein the struggle for social justice using grassroots organising methodology. Theirsupport for revolutionary movements and their criticisms of traditional church institutions has won them fierce opposition from conservative factors in the Roman Catholic church. However they are still, paradoxically, part of the colonial legacy which was responsible in the first placefor the decimation of indigenous cultures, and set in place the structures of poverty in Latin America.

We don't arrive saying that we are ecologists. This is something that the workers themselves begin to understand and adopt. They realise that the culture of destroying the earth, of slash and burn techniques and so on, is something that is imposed and destructive.

You occupy a piece of land after you have managed to establish a relationship with the land, after getting an analysis of the globalsituation, an understanding of the way thingsare and a political awareness.

They start to change and it's a slow process. First you have to show what ecology is, and they have to understand it. We work with children, women and men on the idea that everything, from the microorganism in the earth to a horse, has a different value to the one it is given by society.

I began to travel from place to place after we researched the first droughts in the region. We began in the settlements in the driest region, where children die of hunger and thirst. We carried out the investigation over a year and then we went to another settlement and did the same. From there the idea was born to go from settlement to settlement.

When they started going on about this story of celebrating 500 years since the discovery of Brazil, we began to protest against 500 years of lies and domination. Two years be fore the anniversary, we collected a type of informal literature "de cordel", which used to be a way for workers to communicate with each other by writing in verse and stretching out the papers in ropes for display at fairs. It was a way to recover the history of people's struggle.

What are the aims of the group?
Let me see if I can explain it. One of the objectives of the group is not to be centralised. We discussed this and decided it by consensus after many years of selfcritique and internal reflection, years of trying to build a different society.

One of the objectives today, in the present time which extends back into the past and for ward into the future, is to develop ways of life, attitudes to ward life, which enable people to establish a new relationship between each other and between themselves and the land. We understand that the Earth is not the heritage of any group or even of the landless who occupy the land, nor of proprietors or big landowners. It is the heritage of humanity.

We understand that the Earth is not the heritage of any group or even of the landless who occupy the land, nor of proprietors or big landowners. It is the heritage of humanity

One of our objectives is to live autonomously on the land. And this is one of the big differences that we have with Movimento Sem Terra ("Landless Movement- MST) tod a y. We have a great divergence with them because of this belief of ours. Because when you occupy land, through the Agrarian Reform, the ministry gives you the right to receive a title as the owner of the land and so you stay in a relationship with the state, which finances yourwork on the land. This is why there is no longer a free relationship between you and the land, as this relationship is mediated by commerce . You are accountable to the state that pays for production .

How is your group structured?
We are autonomous and decentralised. When we criticised the structure of the Part y, we beheaded the leaders. So we start with the following principle: in our country and in others, leaders are reproducing society's values, despite having worked on representation, and run too high a risk of being corrupted.

There are 15 people in the group I am in at the moment. In the settlement there are 37 people. It has grown but there are problems with distance- it is very isolated.

Do you remember any actions you have organised with the group which have been particularly successful?
The last occupation we did was on the land of a powerful landowner. We were about 50 families. In the process of preparing the occupation we began to discuss how we were going to make decisions in such away that there were no leaders and we would all have a vote in the decision making process. This occupation was done by Movimento Sem Terra (MST) and the rural workers union from that area. When we began to criticise their way of working, the MST and the union pulled out and took the families they had brought away with them. And so there were only nine families.

Paulo Freire and the Pedagogy of the Oppressed.
Paulo Freire (1921- 1997) was an educator from Northeast Brazil, home to the country'slargest concentration of rural population,with the lowest living standards in Brazil. He practised a new theory of "liberating education", a way to give the dispossessed the tools to view the world critically, and to transform the self and oppressive powerrelations. The methodology he developed wasconsidered so threatening that he was forced out of Brazil for 20 years and it has since spread all over the world. You hear the word"concientizacion" frequently in Latin America. The translation of "awareness" or "consciousness raising" goes some way towards explaining it, but it refers specifically to learning to perceive social, economic and political contradictions and to take action against the oppressive elements of reality.

When they started going on a bout this story of celebrating 500 years since the discovery of Brazil, we began to protest against 500 years of lies and domination.

We were very sad because we had been preparing for a long time - sometimes even for a year. MST don't work on this process of transformation, of changing the relationship with the land. So we decided to do it anyway.

There were three single mothers left, including me with my two sons. To be more precise it was two single mothers, one widow of a living husband and six other families. One woman was pregnant. We got a lorry to carry the most necessary things - hammocks, food. We didn't know what we were going to find. There could even be police or gunmen and we didn't know how long they would fight. The lorry took us up to our route and then we walked from 11 until six in the morning, through dense vegetation.

Rural workers and the landless
Although there has been massive rural to urban migration in Brazil, nearly 40 million people still live in the countryside, and another 10 million live in towns with a population under 20,000. There are also signs of urban to rural migration as a result of exhaustion of employment and income opportunities in large cities.

Many of the inhabitants of the countryside are rural workers in agriculture, with permanent or, more typically, seasonal employment, particularly in harvesting, an activity which also involves women and children. Millions of rural workers are landless because land tenure is extremely concentrated in Brazil where less than 3% of the population owns two-thirds of Brasil's arable land. In the face of slowness of official land reform, they began to invade unproductive properties in the 1980s.

As a result of their organization and massacres of their activists in Rondônia and Pará, they entered the political limelight, and land reform was placed high on the political agenda.

When we reached a riverbank, we built our shacks. We were really very tense because there is a big difference between relying on 50 families for your security and to be only nine families. You have to mount guard, look for water. We were very vulnerable.

The following day, when they realised that we were there, the owner of the hacienda arrived with various gunmen and surrounded us, and the police surrounded us too. There we were, we had two compañeras on guard and two other compañeros. Everyone else stayed inside their houses or hidden in the bushes. We had planned it for the boys to make lots of noise with tins and saucepans, to try to give the impression that there many people in the huts.

The police said that they were going to come in to our compound and we said: "No, you 're not coming in." We had to be very firm and show a lot of courage. We had had an assembly where we had decided that we would not let them enter.

They took a step forward, saying that they were going to invade. With our faces full of determination, we said that we would not be responsible for the consequences. We said there were many families there, determined to defend the land that they had occupied and that if there had to bedeaths, they would be on both sides. Then we saw that they were having misgivings.

We said that we were determined, that we hadn't come here to risk our lives, but that if they wanted to come in, we were prepared to die. If they killed, they would also die. They left and then we began to shout. We had a set of pistols and shot a few times into the air.

There was a reporter there who started to commentate, saying that we were all mad and had nothing to lose, that we were armed, that there were many of us, that we were very dangerous and prepared to do anything. Thanks to this we escaped a massacre. We heard shots around us, but they didn't come near.

But it so happened that this land belonged to a very influential landowner. He had links with Members of Parliament, with senators. He had a lot of influence with the commissions who drew up the statutes for the agrarian reform in Brazil. It was the eve of the elections in Brazil. We thought they must be waiting until the elections were over so they could carry out a massacre. The landowner went to the National Institute of Agrarian Reform (INCRA) to ask for the land to be reintegrated, saying that the hacienda was not big enough to apply agrarian reform. So INCRA gave the rights to the owner's family because they said he had inheritors and so the land could not be expropriated.

So INCRA came to negotiate with us, as we had lied to them, saying that we were many families. Wenegotiated going to another farm. We had no foodand we did not have enough people to work in order to survive. They gave us a choice between three different farms. We checked out each one of the three.

They treated us with respect because they thought there were lots of us. They took us to see the land, for us to choose which one we liked the best. When we accepted one of them, we were worried because, how were we going to tell them there were only nine families?

When you negotiate with INCRA, you have the right to transpo rtation to take the families to the land. It was interesting because, at the time of negotiating, the president of INCRA asked us how many trucks we needed to transport all the families. We looked at each other and told him that we would have to discuss it with the assembly, because there were many families who were not present at this meeting for fear of the gunmen and repression and violence.

So when we got back there after the meeting we died laughing- we were only nine families! And so we told them, "Look, almost everyone has gone, there are only nine families left, but even so we are going to resist until the end and we want a truck for these nine families".

It was funny because when we passed by the door way of the house of the landowner, which was bristling with gunmen, in a little lorry headed for the city, there were only nine families, and they were mad with rage because they had expected a whole procession of lorries.

Movimento Sem Terra
The Brazilian Landless Workers Movement is one of the largest social movements in Latin America with over a million members. One of the founding groups of the PGA, it has facilitated occupations by hundreds of thousands of landless peasants, now living in 1,600 settlements around Brazil. MST also run education programmes and save organic seeds, while resisting the introduction of genetically engineered crops to Brazil and fighting neo-liberal economic policy.

Why did you come to this conference and what did you find?
We saw the PGA manifesto and it inspired us because we were criticising centralisation and issues around representation. It was very good to know that internationally, we were not alone, that there were other people and groups who wanted to break with the same models. It gave us strength to break with oppressive models and the possibility to be international in our struggle, to increase our profile.

We have taken part in global actions, like the 1st of May, when we did a decentralised activity, without speeches, only a procession of people. We also took part in another which was interesting, with rural workers and students.

There have been things at the conference which have frightened me, strange things, like the idea of a delegate which is far too similar to a representative. People were speaking, representing many groups and it seemed quite contradictory that PGA should adopt this way of working because the what PGA described in the manifesto is different to what you see here.

We also had problems because not all the group could come. I was chosen but it does not mean that I am representing the whole group, rather that I am the spokesperson of our collective experience.

One concept that is talked about but not put into practice with PGA, is the idea of horizontal relations as a new form of solidarity. Do you have an idea of how horizontal relations can exist between the north and south movements?

The contacts which we have had with groups in Europe has been with groups with very similar interests, so we have not had problems, nor have conflicts arisen. It has been about having discussions together. One thing which we have been afraid of is the money relationship which is established between some northern and southern groups, and this seems to alter the flow of relationships slightly.

The contacts we have with groups in Europe have mostly been in the sense of solidarity, of information, the sharing of experiences, communication, strengthening the communication of experiences. We wrote a repo rt about slave labour of children and women, which has put our lives in danger. There are groups in Europe who have asked how they act in solidarity, whether we need money or legal help if we are tried. We think that it is more interesting for them to come and experience our lives here, with or without money.

There is a magazine in France, whose name I forget, whose form of solidarity was to publish the report. We also suffered repression because of this, some houses were burned down. We had death threats, against children, against everyone. One form of solidarity would be to spread this information.

It was interesting because they took on spreading this repo rt, but some compañeros have come already, to share this experience, to eat beans with us and to live our lives. So it is possible to build a solidarity movement between the North and the South, putting an end to this paternalistic vision, which it seems some compañeros in Europe used to have. We already proved to the PGA that you can construct an international movement of solidarity that goe s beyond money.

Is there a conflict between raising children and being involved in political activity?
My sons were born during conflicts over land. One is 10 and the other is nine. So it was a case of one in the push - chair and the other in my arms. They were brought up collectively. We share children, we don't feel as if we own our children. Women have a supportive relationship with one another. There are times that some have six to eight children and we take turns to look after the children. If someone wants to go on a demonstration or some other activity, the children are looked after.

One time we occupied a piece of public land by the Secretariat of the Ministry of Agriculture, and we spent 17 days in the middle of the main street in Porto Alegre - sleeping and eating. The police arrived with the Minors Court to weaken the protest, saying that they were going to take the children a way to Social Services, because they said these children were in danger, because they were dirty there was a danger they could get diarrhoea.

We formed a barricade of women and children and said that the children weren't going anywhere. We were hungry and without water on our settlement - if necessary we would die there in the middle of a public square so that the whole world would know what was going on. From that point on, many people approached us, offering solidarity. One of the things which happens with children when we go on demonstrations is that when they begin to speak, they themselves already have a different outlook.

Can you describe your vision for the future?
Today we are beginning to write up, collectively, the life experience of the settlement, and through this we have begun to perceive the sexist, capitalist relations which play themselves out day by day in the settlement. The scorching, the beatings, men working whole nights to get the money together to pay the money owed to the government for credit. The group wrote about the life of the settlement and what they proposed as a group to improve their lives. Although the settlement is very divided politically, this group wants to change the relationship with the state, which it is linked to through INCRA, to be able to live out this experience more humanely.

One of the things which strengthens us, although I am repeating myself here, is to challenge the social relations, values, everything imposed by the free market system. And that's what we want to do, starting from food, for example, not to eat genetically modified foods, or industrial foods. To negate a consumer society, clothes and music and going on in the same vein, to comics and children's games.

We are living a dream based in reality, a dream of many generations, inspired by all the compañeros who have participated in the vision of a better world. I don't want to talk about it because it is a collective construction. It is the construction of many compañeros who thought, who died and others who continue to build relationships built upon solidarity, equality and love.

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