Brazil: Cutting the Wire
Witnessing a land occupation
BY Adam Raney and Chad Heeter
December 13, 2005
Adam Raney (left) earned master's degrees in journalism and Latin American studies from U.C. Berkeley in May 2005. He's fluent in Spanish and Portuguese and currently works as a staff writer for Iceland Review.
This is Chad Heeter's second FRONTLINE/World Rough Cut. His previous film, "Seeds of Suicide," was shot in rural India.
Half of Brazil's farmland belongs to just 4 percent of the population -- a glaring inequality in a nation known for its stark division between rich and poor. Brazil has one of the biggest GDPs in the world, larger than the combined economies of all the other countries in South America. But nearly a quarter of Brazil's 186 million people live below the poverty line, many of them in notorious urban slums, or favelas. As author John Krich once caustically asked, "Why is this country dancing?"
This week on Rough Cut, we travel to a dusty patch of rural Brazil where FRONTLINE/World Fellows Adam Raney and Chad Heeter witness a land occupation by a thousand poor people and activists who take over a strategic corner of a ranch that is about an eight-hour drive west of Sao Paulo. As you'll see in their video, "Cutting the Wire," it is an invasion conducted in the middle of the night, with stealth and precision.
The Negrao family has owned the land -- a vast expanse of 17,000 acres -- for three generations. They are, understandably, furious. "If somebody invades your house, are you going to let them have it?" an angry Marcelo Negrao asks Raney and Heeter. "I want the state to guarantee my rights, and if they don't, I will."
But those occupying the land -- including a couple living with HIV and other refugees from Sao Paulo's desperate slums -- claim that the Negraos are absentee landlords whose ancestors took possession in an illegal 19th-century land grab.
The land occupation was organized by the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra, or MST, a national movement with more than 1.5 million members. The MST acts like Robin Hood, seizing what they consider to be "unproductive" land and redistributing it to the landless poor. They rely on the Brazilian constitution, which states that all land must be productive. Absentee landlords can be compelled to forfeit idle land. Since its beginnings more than 20 years ago, the MST has pushed the government to redistribute more than 20 million acres to nearly 400,000 families.
One MST leader, Padre Renee, tells Raney, "This isn't just about agrarian reform. It's bigger than a piece of land to work on. It's about changing Brazil, creating a new society, just, equal and brotherly."
Large estate owners, fazendeiros, don't see it that way and regard the MST and their machete-carrying adherents as a dangerous Marxist organization bent on stealing their land. Many owners employ private security forces to intimidate MST organizers and repel their land invasions. Sometimes the clashes turn violent. Nearly 1,500 landless activists have died in confrontations over the past two decades.
The election in 2002 of Brazil's first working-class president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, was supposed to be a turning point for the MST, but Lula has disappointed the more radical advocates of land reform. In May 2005, some 15,000 MST activists marched on the capital to express their displeasure.
Raney and Heeter capture the spirit of what is happening within a movement inspired by Catholic "liberation theology" and Che Guevara, a movement that exists in a country that produces cars, airplanes and software and that exports more sugar, coffee and beef than any other nation worldwide -- but that can't find jobs or farmland for millions of its citizens.
About FRONTLINE/World Fellows
This week's Rough Cut -- Adam Raney and Chad Heeter's "Cutting the Wire" -- is a production of the FRONTLINE/World Fellows program, sponsored by the Carnegie Corporation of New York. It is part of our ongoing effort to identify and mentor the next generation of video and print journalists.
Our Brazil story begins a new round of Fellows reports, which will appear on our Web site over the next few months, featuring stories from Colombia, Japan, China, Italy, Uganda and Pakistan. Previous Fellows stories have included journeys to Guatemala, Kashmir, Afghanistan, Haiti, Venezuela, Peru, Mexico, Egypt, Israel and Sicily and across Europe by train from Istanbul to Paris. You can see them all here.
In spring 2006, we will solicit a new round of applications from graduate-level journalism students for FRONTLINE/World travel grants. Look for the announcement on this Web site.
Danielle Sigl - Lacrosse, WI
This film was very informative becuase I had no idea this was going on in Brazil. It does help tremendously that the reporter talks to both sides to see where they are coming from. I agree that the inequality is Brazil is great but at the same time, I think the government needs to be doing something about this, not private land owners. How can they give rights and land to the poor people if they can't even follow their own property rights and laws? It's completely unfair for both parties and the government is who needs to do something about it.
Wes DeVries - La Crosse, WI
Getting a visual look really enhances the problem Brazilians are facing with land reform. Previously I have only read about these problems from the MST point of view. The balance of views from both sides adds even more complexity to the dispute. The Brazilian government really needs to step up and make some concrete changes if these problems are ever to be mended.
deer park, NY
I think us as Americans should take our education more seriously. I think we should take more advantage of our resources that we have and start deciding our futures.
Laura - Eugene, OR
While reading other comments I see that a lot of people say that what MST is doing is a noble cause, yet they are going about it the wrong way. How then are they supposed to solve their problem? I understand that property owners have the right to their property, but the land isn't productive. The government isn't helping the peasants, so they are doing what they can to survive.
lakshman rao - visakhapatnam,India, Andhra Pradesh
Thought provoking article and am delighted to be aware of what is happening globally.Thanks a lot, and looking forward to have the pleasure of more such
items to go through.
La Crosse, WI
What a tremendously difficult ethical debate faces a county in such a state. Land owners have absolute legal right to their property; however under such circumstances where the land lies dormant and so many require access to land for their livelihood, one is apt to think there are situations in which property rights (land ownership) simply fail to be applicable.
La Crosse, Wisconsin
I found this video to be very informative, and very well organized. It's not often that you see a report investigating both sides of the story. I think what the MST is trying to do is a noble cause, but I don't necessarily agree with how they go about doing it. In essence they suffer the "Robin Hood" syndrome; stealing from the "rich", and giving to the poor. What they don't realize is that they may be causing themselves more problems in the long run.
Jon Flancher - La Crosse, WI
The video did a nice job of capturing both sides to the issue of the landless workers. It is obvious that some sort of land reform must take place in Brazil, but I do not believe that the MST's way of reform is the right way. I understand they rely on the Brazilian Constitution for their actions, but that just illustrates the need to change that document as well. It doesn't seem fair that a thousand people can just camp out on a corner of your property because they deem it unproductive. Which in my mind translates to "we want this land for ourselves." Just the connotation of 'land invasion' sets up a negative image. I believe there are better ways to solve this problem. The current method of the MST has resulted in numerous casualties (both for the MST and others) and by the nature of how they conduct business many more casualties will follow.
Kamil Kaczmarski - La Crosse, WI
I am deeply impressed by this movie. It is a very good piece of work, as it shows the opinion of both sides and still stays impartial. Actually the message of both parties is the same: they want their right to be guaranteed by the government, and if not, they will do it on their own. It is impressive if you look at the numbers mentioned. During 20 years 20 millions acres were "redistributed" to 400,000 families. But what actually does "redistributed" mean? The MST claims the landlords have stolen the land years ago. On the contrary, the landlord claims the MST is stealing his land right now. Now, who is right? It is only the government who can end this dispute. It is very sad that over the past two decades 1500 had to die and still no solution was found. How long will this situation last? How many people have to die so that finally something happens?
I really liked this documentary. I thought it was very interesting to see both sides of the situation. Both parties intend to produce the same result, yet getting there they take different measures. The members of the MST believe that they deserve land and that they can steal it if it is not being used productively. The landowners also agree that the MST deserve land, but that they should go through the government to get it. The two parties will have to work together to solve this ongoing problem and hopefully this happens soon so the MST can receive what is rightfully theirs.
La Crosse, WI
Are the MST modern day Robin Hoods or present day Vigilantes? The landowners should not be the ones to suffer. The Brazilian governement needs to be the one blamed. They need to understand what needs to be done to stimulate an economy. The redistribution of wealth is not the answer. To rid poverty new wealth needs to be created.
Gelena Yufa - La Crosse, Wisconsin
I liked this video especially because it also showed the reaction of the landowner on the land-occupation. Its important that even though the occupations are not always successful, they still make a lot of people all over the world aware of such a social problem in Brazil!
Christopher Robinson - La Crosse, Wisconsin
I understand the efforts of MST to occupy "unproductive" land in order to increase awareness of inequality in Brazil. I do, however, stand on the side of the landowners. With what sort of standards are the MST deeming the land they occupy productive or unproductive? They certainly don't bargain with the landowner before occupation to determine if the land is productive. The landowner may have future plans for a particular part of his property. An economy cannot be expected to grow without protection of land rights. I do believe the government of Brazil should be working to reduce inequality among its people, but giving away private property is not the correct way to go about that. I think the MST has done its job by using media coverage of their occupations to increase the awareness of inequality. It is important to show the world that they are tired of being stomped on - and they deserve better. I just think there should be a different approach to reduce inequality. Where does the taking of private property end? Will the MST organize an occupation of a skyscraper in downtown Sao Paulo and deem it more "productive" as their headquarters than its current use?
La Crosse, WI
The video was very informative and well balanced because it showed both sides of the story. The landowner's side and the side of the peasants. I believe that it is good that the peasants are trying to better themselves, but they are going about it in the wrong way. You can't just invade private land and try to claim it as yours. They should go through the government to get land, and the government should give it to them because half of the land should not belong to only 4% of the population. On the other hand, the landowner was right in saying that if the government doesn't protect his right to private property then he will. The land is his and he doesn't deserve to have people invading it.
Austin Olds - La Crosse, WI
I found the report very well done and was impressed that the side of the landowner was represented. It was interesting to see the efficient work of the MST. The horizontal organization of leadership is great and the established committees in areas like health, education, security and others seem to be very effective. I certainly agree with the idea behind the organization, however I have some concerns with their mission. It was stated by a member that they want to take all of the land from the landowner and that the landowner should find a different profession or buy new land. I found this to be a slightly startling statement. Possibly they see it necessary to take a hard line in order to, from the end, compromise to their "fair share" of the land. However, if this truly is their goal and they think the land was stolen from them, they are simply heading for disorder. Property rights need to be established by some definite means. There will always be a poor, middle, and upper class in a capitalist society. If people are looking for absolute equality they should create a socialist government, we all know how effective that can be. The government should find a way to assign the MST a certain amount of land and then protect the rights of the land owners, or else it seems the society will just remain in chaos.
I think Brazil is caught in a catch-22. They have a lot of poor people with out their own land to call their own and the government could help them out by granting them land. However, it goes against the rights of the current land owners because they have owned the land for generations. It will be interesting to see if and how they resolve this.
Mel - La Crosse, WI
I have done a little bit of research on this issue from one other source and it really made me appreciate the non-biased report Adam and Chad presented! It is such a hard situation for both landowners and the MST to be in! Both would like to see the MST with land of their own, but they also have different views on to how to get that result! The MST feel as though they should be given land because they currently do not have any, but is it their place to say what land should be given to them with no empathy for the landowner?! And how can a landowner not feel empathy towards the thousands of Brazilians who have invested their life to one day own their own land?!
Kasey Clausen - La Crosse, WI
Cutting the Wire was a great documentary. I loved hearing (for the first time) each side to the argument. I believe the MST is a great organization and that Brazil's government is in dire need of reform groups such as the MST. However, I do see the importance of protecting the landowner's property rights. While generations ago, the ancestors of these landowners received this land illegally, I do not believe this brings a sufficient case to "steal" that land back. I believe the Brazilian government itself needs to reform first, before the MST tries to change the problems of land distribution. While land distribution is a very serious problem in Brazil, I believe the MST needs to fight for more political and administrative change, rather than land intervention. I would also like to find out more information about how people like me (and perhaps the U.S. government) can help in situations like this one.
Emile Phaneuf - So Paulo, Brazil
I'm an American living in So Paulo, Brazil. I've visited the nearby MST camps so it was nice to see a report on such a good topic.I've got another idea for your next project. A Memorandum of Understanding was signed by the US and Brazil in March, 07, which seeks to increase the production of biofuels in the Americas. MST says this means much deforestation will occur in the Amazon region in order to make room for sugarcane crops to be used for ethanol export demands.Shoot me back an e-mail. This is what I study, and it would make a great follow-up report for you.
Hermann - Halle, Germany
A compact report about the struggle of land in Brazil with an good example of an occupation. Surprising that the decision of the court came out so quickly. Sometimes those land occupations take years. We'll see what will change in the second term of Lulas time, probably not the hoped-for big changes. Thx for the nice video.
Leandro Reis - Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais
Brazil has about two times more unproductive land than it is necessary to all its landless families. Nevertheless, most of these lands belong to landlords with power in the parliament, so that the parliament does not do what has to be done. Therefore I agree that the real problem is the lack of education. An educated population will be able to turn Brazil's parliament into real hard-working legislators. Education would make it much easier to solve Brazil's problems, like the dirty political games and the poverty.
Todd Norris - Fort Worth, TX
If we could magically tally all of the world's wealth and redistribute it evenly amongst everyone, it would be 1 minute before some had more than others. And after 1 year, there would be a wealthy class, a middle class, and the poor.
Coral Gables, Florida
Excellent report, congratulations.
Reality is relative to the position and speed of the observer. This documentary is naive, candid and idealistic. It is biased by the human desire for justice and social fairness. The reality could not be more different. The MST became a political institution filled with corrupt leaders and lazy members...It is true that inequality and social unfairness is the cronic disease of Brazil. But it is also true that without a proper societal incentive system that values education, hard work and personal values, organizations like the MST will continue to perpetuate corruption, unfairness and exploitation.
Jorge Atalla - So Paulo, SP
Great work Chad! Very well shot; great script. Check out two other films on the same subject shot in Brazil. The first shot in 1991 called O Sonho de Rose (Roses Dream) and then the second shot 10 years later (O Sonho de Rose-10 anos depois). These films are about an organized land occupation in the south of Brazil that went right. The problem with land occupations organized by the MST is that they are really organized by the PT political party (President Lulas party). They are very well organized by the political party and disorganized by the invaders and they use simple, poor, uneducated people we see on this film, offering them money to leave their homes and board on a political ship with nowhere to go. The government should stop stealing so much money from the population in Brazil and invest more on education, which is the real problem. Instead of offering money for the poor to join a disorganized movement, made only to call attention, they should give productive government land to the MST instead of leading them to invade land they call unproductive but private, with no positive results. The federal government has unproductive land and productive land to give the MST, a lot of land. Good work again, Chad and Adam.
FRONTLINE/World's editors respond:
Jorge, thanks for your kind words and your comments. We would have to disagree with your charge that the PT organizes MST occupations. From our experience, and also from years of independent and verified research, the MST acts completely independently of the PT. Yes, they supported Lula in the 2002 election and many PT members have probably given financial, moral and logistical support to the MST over the years. Still, they are two different organizations that are actually often in conflict with each other. The MST wants more land reform and tries to put pressure on Lula. Meanwhile he wants their support, but hasn't pushed a progressive land reform movement through government at the rate they would like. Thanks for your comments. Adam and Chad
I think Brazil, like any other third world country, needs to rebel until they secure the rights that they are entitled to. But they should keep in mind that in the end, no matter what type of government you create, the government is always in the pockets of the rich.
Brent Rendel - Miami, Oklahoma
A very good documentary, but viewers are left with the impression that MST is only squatting on wasteland. As an American farmer, I can assure you that the land in question was NOT unproductive. I would love to know how much time, energy, and money was spent by the "absentee" landowner and his family on that piece of ground. If he is grazing cattle, they have made a major investment in that land to improve its fertility. Brazil has huge tracks of unimproved land and MST could easily move onto that land without anyone batting an eye. The reason they don't is that that would be too hard and require real work to grow food! They seek out the landowner-improved, now-fertile land and that is where they "discover" all this unproductive land.
John Okpara - Nashville, TN
I believe that no 4% of any population in any country should have 50% of the land. Not one person should be allowed to have more than 2000 acres unless there is enough for everybody - agriculture not included. If the 17,000 acres was purchased and not acquired, then the government should have a land buy-back policy. The land should then be given or sold at a subsidized rate to the poor. This should be done only if the land is not being used for agricultural purposes and if the owners are not willing to build apartments or homes for sale. If the MST is allowed to take matters into their hands on this issue, they might on other issues as well. For this reason, this issue should be a top priority of the Brazilian government as it would bring down the rate of crime and increase ownership among poor people.
Mike Garcia - Naperville, Illinois
I just watched this video online and came away with a totally different feeling than the other reactions posted here. The piece was interesting but the real problem didn't seem to be the "greedy land owners" but rather the elephant in the room ... the corrupt Brazilian government. Brazil, like many third world nations, needs to reform their economic policies to encourage free market capitalism. A well run economy doesn't take its queues from the poor in order to make a stronger economy. Governments brought in by the poor, elected on the backs of promises to change the fortunes of the poor, soon realize that the only way to increase employment and reduce poverty is to have an open economy. Since this is seen as catering to the wealthy, the government gets kicked out and the whole process starts all over again. Make it easier for all citizens to create a business and you'll improve the situation. It's worked everywhere from the US to Chile.
Laura Zaks - New York, New York
I worked with the MST earlier this year and had the chance to visist various settlements in Southern Brazil. It is important for people to understand the urgency of the problem of land distribution in the world. While many criticize the MST for their radical tactics, they are a peaceful social movement and are offering an alternative that few others are able to do. Share this video with friends!!!!
Strother Marshall - Los Osos, California
This is like what happened in Guatamala, where the CIA interfered and left that country still an armed camp. Pray that the USA stays out of this country, and others.
Ronald Jensen - Spokane, WA
In the 21st century, Heeter and Raney open our hearts to the issues that should propel each of us to take part in improving the well-being of all the earth's inhabitants!
Tania Menai - New York, NY
Adam and Chad, you've done a great job telling such us a complex story in 15 minutes. You gave voices for people that really need to be heard - and travelled far to do so! Congratulations and thank you for bringing this subject up to the world!
Martha Quirk - Elsah, IL
Having just returned from South Africa, I am aware of the thousands and thousands of disenfranchised people in this country -- those trying to make it day by day with nothing. This film simply enlarges that awareness for all of us as we realize that the world is full of the disenfranchised. Thank you, Chad and Adam, for filming and telling an important story affecting us all.
I am constantly amazed by the videos that PBS provides and I find them essential to building a redefined self. As for this video, I feel empowered by the strength of the MST. One day I will make a change in the politics of the world so it is essential for me to see all apsects of the world. Please keep making more videos so that all citizens may be better informed.
Bob Whittlesey - Menlo Park, CA
Cutting the Wire was incredibly interesting, informative and surprisingly balanced. The issues were filmed and narrated very clearly, which is remarkable given the rural environment where much of the action took place. Documentary film makers Adam Raney and Chad Heeter did a terrific job! Thanks for supporting the dissemination of this type of information.
Bob Whittlesey - Menlo Park, CA
Cutting the Wire was incredibly interesting, informative and surprisingly balanced. The issues were filmed and narrated very clearly, which is remarkable given the rural environment where much of the action took place. Documentary film makers Adam Raney and Chad Heeter did a terrific job!
Chris Williams - Yuma, AZ
Great job and very interesting Chad and Adam (My 3 year old even watched the whole thing!) It was refreshing to see the lower class in Brazil doing what they can to make a decent life for themselves. Seems like the government landowners and poor could reach some kind of compromise, but in reality it probably won't be that easy.
Susan Whittlesey - Palo Alto, CA 94306
I'm an ESL teacher and found this piece particularly informative. In my work, I meet people from all over the world, and the more I know about their cultures, the more effective I am in the classroom. This piece was professional and showed both sides of the issue. Thank you Chad and Adam and thank you Frontline!
Jack Mills - Ft Lauderdale, Florida
A fascinating look at the part of the Brazilian population that does not share in the country's overall prosperity, and may never do so unless major changes are instituted. What really happens when the government seems unable to make significant changes and the poor take matters into their own hands.