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This is the account of three months that I spent in an occupied tent camp in São Paulo, along with the Movement of the Homeless Workers (MTST) and the people of Paraisopolis. The territory that they occupied lays on the edge of the favela of Paraisopolis, and borders with the wealthy neighborhood of Morumbi. So, they named it Faixa de Gaza (Gaza Strip) in order to represent the extreme inequalities between the two areas. Their goal? To create a sense of community in a degraded environment, and at the same time, put together an army of activists to fight for the urban reform.
From the sky, it appears like a stretch of abandoned land – approximately the size of two football pitches – covered by eucalyptus trees. It’s just a tiny insignificant spit of mud in that ocean of concrete which is Sao Paulo, Brazil’s economic capital. That venue is called Faixa de Gaza (Gaza Strip in Portuguese) – currently occupation Faixa de Gaza – and it is not a misplaced picture on Google Earth. That bizarre name is real, and it is somehow appropriate, because in that place we find a real boiling point in terms of social inequality. Israel and Palestine alike the rich neighborhoods of São Paulo compared to the adjoining favelas: this is what the people that occupied that land, on August 2013, had in mind when they gave that name to their tent camp. Still, even months later, many of the occupants that I interviewed, used to look at me quite perplexed when i mentioned the “real” Gaza Strip.
If there is such thing as what the ancient Romans called “genius loci”, the spirit of a place, and if that idea can be referred to such an enormous city, with all its contrasts and contradictions, then i suggest that there are also some specific vantage points where one can get an intuition of that sublime complexity, all at a glance. In my opinion, the occupation Faixa de Gaza is a good candidate for that, because it is like a multiple frontier between radically different economical conditions, social structures and ideologies, each one carrying a peculiar legacy to that small environment and in some ways pretending to ignore the others.
Every day São Paulo’s huge traffic arteries are like rivers of baffle and despair. At rush hour, the news report an average of five hundred kilometers long snakes of cars, apparently stuck. The occupied piece of land named Faixa de Gaza is not that far from the center, but it seems a world apart. Especially if you try to get there by public transportation, it can take up to two hours.
The occupation, which appears as a tent camp, lays on the stretch of land that separates the favela of Paraisopolis and the wealthy district of Morumbi. Counting more than eight hundred thousand residents, Paraisopolis is one of the largest and most populated shantytown in Brazil. While Morumbi, that in native Tupi language means green hill, is literally that: the site of the State Government palace and one of the city’s largest green areas: with plenty of parks spanning between silent private roads, that lead to heavily guarded luxury mansions, with tidy gardens, pools and tennis courts. All roads except one, which climbs to the other side of the hill until it reaches the top where the occupied land is. Then, abruptly dives amidst the barracks of Paraisopolis, down until the bottom and then up the next steep hill, for two more times, before the favela cedes back the space to the high class neighborhoods of Vila Andrade and Campo Limpo.
Favela is a place where the Government fails to provide infrastructure, security and public services, which doesn’t necessarily mean that it lacks all of them. Like most of the Brazilian slums, Paraisopolis grew up in a few decades, since the 70’s. Many of the fist inhabitants still remember how all those hills were covered by trees at those times.
While other parts of the city grow up in accordance to an organic Master Plan, the expansion of the favela proceeds for spontaneous initiatives, in a muddled and unstable way: it is driven by one or more families that spot an empty snippet of land and start building shacks on it. After that, for them it is all about staying there until the police come to evict them, which may happen immediately, after years, or never. In the case of the occupation Faixa fe Gaza, however, events were meant to unravel quite differently.
It all started in August 2013, when some 1200 families from the favela occupied the area under the eucalyptus trees, which belongs to a federal body of the Government (FINEP: Financiadora de Estudos e Projetos) and has been abandoned for more than fifteen years. They were led by a local NGO called Filhos de Paraisopolis (Sons of Paraisopolis) who, aware of the magnitude of the challenge they were facing, decided to call in some real experts on the matter: the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Teto (Movement of Homeless Workers: MTST). Indeed, in recent years the MTST have spread in many Brazilian’s States, and have become notorious among the general public of the Tv news for its demonstrations and occupations, when it showed a solid organization and a fast growing legion of hard-core militants. For the police, however, they are one of those movements that they can have a dialogue with. While for the politicians, they are those who they have no choice but to negotiate with. What is their secret?
When the leaders of MTST fist came in, they put the red flag of movement to wave on a pole in front of the camp, in order to deliver this message: “This is not a wild occupation. We know our rights. We are not going to create security problems”. Then they divided the occupied area into sectors and assigned each of the families into one group. Each group was then asked to elect four coordinators in order to set a chain of communication between the occupants and the “leading group”. Right after that, they started taking a census.
The main peculiarity of the occupations by the MTST is that the housing units they adopt are provisional, and made only of bamboo sticks and plastic canvas. This choice, that at first make the tent camp look a bit like a waste dump, is meant to ease the negotiations with the ownership of the land, by assuring them that the occupied land will not turn into a mere extension of the favela. Their regulation states that only the common spaces can be made of wood panels. This means the kitchens – one for each group – the social spaces and the big room known as barracão, for the coordinators’ assembly. The kitchens provide lunch and dinner every day. Cookers are volunteers and food comes in form of donations by the occupants of each group. In general, all the works to improve the infrastructures of the camp are done by volunteer labor and donated materials: this because the MTST is a strictly no profit enterprise: they get no money from the occupation, neither from the occupants nor as funds from the State. But they also put no money into it, letting the occupants find the resources they need by themselves. The only exceptions are the reimbursements of expenses payed to three of their long course activists, that live in the camp and represent the Movement inside what I called the “leading group”.
As the name itself states, the MTST is a movement aiming at the low income working class. So, the entire set of rules and duties for the people that take part to their occupations is designed in such a way to allow them to be activists and at the same time maintain their jobs. At least three times a week, the occupants need to get to the occupation in order to check the integrity of their tent – wether or not they live in it – and register their presence with the coordinators of their group. After being absent for fifteen times, one is expelled from the occupation and his/her shack overthrown.
This may seem a bit pitiless, especially when it comes to people that are struggling to scrape up a living for their families: commuters, night shifters, sometimes even attending more informal jobs at the same time. Or those who need to take care 24/7 to ill members of the family, with no social assistance. However, this attention payed to the data collection is one of the key features that differentiate the Movement’s strategy when it comes to interface with the local and State institutions. Every month the presence lists are handed over to the MTST who use them, alongside with the census datas, to conduct a negotiation with the city Government based on solid numbers. But, what are they negotiating for exactly?
The sun has already set when the assembly is called, and the muddy football pitch that front the occupation is packed with silhouettes, noses up, waiting for the leaders of the camp to give a speech. This time however, it is not a routinary assembly. And in fact, who takes the word is Guilherme Boulos, coordinator of the MTST nationwide. He has probably become one of their most famous faces in the public arena, showing a good tempered charisma and competency. As I was told: “in every situation, he always has the right telephone numbers to call”.
As it often happens, the leaders show up when there are good news to give, and this time is no exception. But quite surprisingly, Guilherme initiates his speech talking about Moses. He knows that everyone in the favela know the story of the man that kept leading his people towards the sea, despite it seemed like a suicide choice as the pharaon’s troops were chasing them. He points out how hard must have been relying that something would have saved them, that the waters would open. “We all have been in a similar situation here at the occupation Faixa de Gaza” he shouts with no microphone, pointing his arm, straight beyond the crowd’s shoulders, at Paraisopolis and at the rich towers shining in the background. “But now the waters are opening for us”. Then he waited for the cheer of the crowd to stall in the air and ignited a chorus of the Movement, customized for the occasion: “eh aí (hey there)”, to which they all replied “o povo dos sém teto vai morar em Morumbi! (the homeless people are moving home to Morumbi!)”. This happened shortly after one month of occupation. The negotiations with the Government seemed to be geared to success: “I’ve never seen such a rapid progress like in this case” stated Guilherme at the time. Such an optimism was justified by the fact that the city major had privately agreed on buying the land estate currently occupied, and promised to apply there a social housing program named Minha Casa Minha Vida (My home, my life). Which in their case would mean that the Government agreed to pay for the construction of two blocks of apartments on that land, and that those apartments would be assigned among those families, on a subsidized rent. The promise by the city major Fernando Haddad had come as a response to a mass rally that saw the families of the occupation blocking one of the main traffic roads in Sao Paulo, the Marginal Pinheiros, and just a few days later, the attempted invasion, by the same mass in red T-shirts, of the Urban Development Secretary offices. Those alone were quite remarkable demonstrations of pressure over the authorities. But, could it really be so easy?” I guess that’s what everybody wondered that night.
It was not, of course. They still had a tricky obstacle on their path: according to the city Master Plan, that piece of land bordering the neighborhood of Morumbi was reserved to the construction of luxury mansions. Hence, the Government could not keep its promise unless there was a change of destination for it to be used for social housing. The Master Plan is renewed every ten years, and the new one was about to be voted by the City Council’s aldermen in early 2014.
That was the beginning of an intense season of upheaval. Six months that saw hundreds of dwellers and workers from the favela of Paraisopolis, turning themselves into part-time activists during various demonstrations in the streets and other public acts, all meant to pressuring the vote of the Council aldermen and obtain the change in destination for the land. But at the same time, living day by day inside the occupation, they all have also been experiencing a radically different paradigm of coexistence. For many of them, that night the tent camp started to look like a home.
“Plastic canvas is the best choice if you want to prevent damages from fire”, says Bené, who is in charge of the night patrol, explaining the task to some new volunteers “because it blaze itself very rapidly and it doesn’t spread the way it would in a block of barracks made of wood”.
Every night, between 10pm to 3am, groups of volunteers from the occupants’ families circle the camp with torches, alley by alley, in shifts every 15 minutes. The surveillance is meant to avoid or contain possible threats to the camp, the first of which is fire indeed. It can start with somebody accidentally overturning an unprotected candle in the tent, from some inobservance in the kitchens, or from some short-circuit the electric wiring of the camp, which was obviously hacked from the public lighting system. Then there’s a less destructive but more common treat: cobra snakes. Most of the people there walk even at night with Hawaianas – it’s Brazil after all -, and these poisonous snakes really seemed to be in their habitat around that bush. Many had been found at night, creeping among the tents, and killed by the patrols on the spot.
“The personnel of the patrol must be polite and discrete – continues Bené -, remember that you are there to protect the sleep of the workers. In no case you will open a tent without asking. If somebody is quarreling, you will try to calm them down, if they are fighting you will have to divide them. But pay attention not to mess with husband and wives. That can lead to bigger problems”. At the beginning the night patrol was attended by men only, which thing, along with the presence of a variable number of young girls in the camp, threatened to deflagrate the social peace of the entire favela. But then quite rapidly the patrol started to get pinker: wives and girlfriends stepped in and volunteered for it. Initially they were asked the permission by the husbands to be out at night together with other men, as it should be done according to the moral code of the favela. But this argument was contested based on the rules of the MTST, where there’s no space for paternalism, and the opposition fizzled out. Hence, the occupation Faixa de Gaza, that for some time had become a leisure venue of the Paraisopolis nightlife, slowly receded to a more appropriate level of morals.
As far as the population is concerned, the occupation can be seen as an extension of the favela, because the occupants are families that come from, or still live, in rented shacks in Paraisopolis. So, many of the social problems of that environment, such as drugs and alcohol abuse, violent behaviors or underage prostitution, at times end up affecting the camp, especially at night. Bené and his volunteer patrollers have to face a daily struggle to maintain order and apply the rules, that explicitly forbid the entrance to the camp to drunk people and prescript immediate expulsion for those responsible of acts of violence. But then, nobody there forget that an occupation is still an illegal enterprise. So the police, that on its turn is patrolling the favela and the surroundings of the camp, is always seen as a lurking threat.
They are not really worried about a possible eviction, which is made improbable by the negotiation in course and deterred by the flag on the front. “What we really don’t want – says Carioca, that is responsible for the security together with Bené – is to give them an excuse to enter the camp, for example with the pretext of chasing a traffic of drug, or because they spotted from outside the presence of minors unaccompanied and so on… we also don’t want them to implant here drugs or weapons. We always need to be aware of who gets in and out”. In reality, the only unexpected visit during those months was that of the Guardia Civil (civil protection), not at night but during the day, in a rare moment when nobody was really manning the entrance of the camp”.
It is common knowledge that the real power in the favelas is in the hands of a parallel Government, which in the case of Paraisopolis is held by the notorious criminal organization called Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC). Nothing happens in the favela without their approval.
Until now, I delayed a better explanation about what I’ve called “leadership” of the camp. I already have mentioned the three senior members of the MTST: Luis and Laura, both former homeless that became activists in other occupations and then given a task of responsibility in the occupation Faixa de Gaza. And there’s Ana Paola, who is a long experienced activist and coordinator between all the occupations of the MTST in Sao Paulo. Besides them, the core group of the camp is composed by the already mentioned Carioca, Bené, and Marcondes, a construction worker that represents the favela’s dwellers organization Filhos de Paraisopolis, who accompanied the occupation from the beginning. Actually the initial prompt for it came from Marcondes himself, along with Carioca. They obtained the permission from the parallel Government to go forward with the initiative, implicitly accepting the responsibility in case anything went wrong. Hence, when the leading group was formed, the presence of the three of them became somehow mandatory in order to counter-balance the representatives of the MTST.
For the MTST, Faixa de Gaza was the first trial occupation of a land inside the context of a favela, and moreover, one that did not start on their initiative. They had to fit into that complicated social environment with their set of rules and principles, but still, fundamentally, had to share the control of the operations. So for them it revealed being a new and complicated challenge. As a matter of fact, the occupation never served the interests of the PCC., and the rules in charge in the camp were always those of the MTST. Nonetheless, the point of balance between the two groups was not reached that easily. That creeping conflict became clear quite early, as the people of the occupation, well aware and accustomed with the rules of the criminal world, started witnessing glitches in the Movement authority and glimpses of the other authority, which is invisible and impersonal, but still present and effective.
That was enough to scare out quite a large part of the people, especially those that originally participated in the takeover of the land along with the NGO Filhos de Paraisopolis. They stopped participating in the occupation or reduced to a minimum their presence in the camp.
“They are the organization, we are the discipline”, says Carioca, describing how he saw the coexistence between the values of the MTST and those that shape the lives of the criminal world and its surroundings, meaning: the people affiliated with the PCC (irmaõs), those who are friendly to the organization, their parents, relatives, neighbors and so on.
The Primeiro Comando da Capital is an organization born in the early 90’s in the prisons of São Paulo State, that later on spread its power in many of the Brazilian favelas, where they usually take control of all the criminal activities and at the same time provide security for the dwellers. In Paraisopolis, they gained popular support because, since they took over the favela, they put an end to the bloody skirmishes that were raging before on a daily basis. What distinguish the PCC from most of the other criminal organizations is the ideal of “equality”, that was introduced in 2006 by their leader Marcola who, by stating it, denied the reality of his leadership. The ideal of equality radically changed the organization, from the bottom to the top, determining what they now call the “paz entre os ladrões” (peace among the criminals), and creating a new breed of criminals that value rhetoric more than guns. The ideal of equality states that “all criminals are the same”, from which derives that “forbidding is forbidden because no one is superior to another”, but still “everything has consequences”. All this has lots of implications when it comes to dealing with problems, even silly ones, related to the coexistence in the camp. That is what they call a B.O.: a boletim de ocorrência (“accident report”, a term borrowed from the police). It’s when somebody violates a rule and need to be “evaluated” by a collective authority, which in this case ended up being the assembly of the coordinators and of the “leaders”. They consider that a B.O. is a violation of equality, so that the person that committed should be involved in a discussion allowing him/her to defend his/her actions and prove that they were in line with the values and the objectives of the collective. For this reason, the people inside that environment gain respect and authority by their argumentative skills. And by converse, those that fall in contradiction during the discussion prove themselves deserving of a “cobrança”, which means consequence, not punishment.
The ideal of equality is somehow shared by the MTST, whereas with it they mean that the all occupants have the same rights, and that the only superior authority is the voice of the assembly. So the actual process of maintaining the discipline in the camp was still conducted within the guidelines of the MTST, that also use to solve problems discussing them in small assemblies. Still, the register of those discussions couldn’t help being affected by the parallel code, which thing frequently led to endless debates played like chess games. Especially when the persons involved were in some way part of the family of the PCC., one would avoid threatening anyone (unless he/she is ready to carry out what threatened), or make an accusation in absence of concrete proofs. Discussion like those would progress from tangled reconstructions of the relevant events, framed within formulas like “passar a visão” (transmitting the vision), “trocar ideias sobre a caminhada” (exchange ideas about somebody’s conduct), “acompanhar uma linha de raciocínio” (follow a line of reasoning), until every minute aspect of the B.O. has been gutted and there is a collective agreement about what is to be done. In that uncomfortable environment, with all those hundreds people mostly not knowing and not really relying each other, a B.O. was a live threat at every moment. Wether it was a theft, a marital betrayal, an illegal traffic or any other possibly immoral attitude, the assembly had to meet to evaluate the conduct, literally suspending the life of the camp.
As intricate as it may seem, this system allowed the problems of the camp to remain within its borders, not affecting the lives of the occupants in their life within the wider community of the favela. Indeed, if the occupation’s leaders proved unable to solve their problems within the assembly, they would have felt forced to consult a superior authority, namely the leading group of the PCC in Paraisopolis, which would have meant recognizing their sovereignty over the occupation and, beside that, extending to the outside world the social consequences of what happened in the camp.
On the weekends at night, Paraisopolis unleashes its voice by means of loudspeakers. Those in the cars that block the main intersections in order to create a dance floor: they scream funky music for the kids – stoned, drunk, some riding like crazy their motorbikes up and down the hills – for the girls – showing off, dancing in groups, shaking their bundas (round butts) like they were trying to brush the ground – and for all the other human nuances of the favela. At the same time, the noise of the funky music is contended by the loudspeakers of the tens of evangelical churches, screaming the passionate speeches of the ministers of God – threatening hell, swearing miracles and performing exorcisms. Those churches attract a somehow opposite flux of human beings – modest families, tidy humble clothes, eyes stuck to the ground, eyes crying belief, eyes rotating by demonic possessions -. These two groups share the same streets, apparently not disturbed by that proximity, each one just trying to be louder than the other.
On the weekends at night, the occupation Faixa de Gaza responds with a crappy amplifier, playing at full distortion the rap of Racionais Mcs, that tells the dubious story of Guina, one of the savagest criminals in town, that survived 32 shots in his body and hence decided to turn to god. “Because the only way to get out of the crime alive is to become a man of God” explained to me a member of the PCC., claiming that he knew the miracle guy.
God had already appeared in the occupation Faixa de Gaza, when Guillherme summoned the faith of Moses and his people, the night he swore alliance between the people of Paraisopolis and the MTST. God was already protecting João’s tent from the fall of the eucalyptus deadwoods – damn dangerous in the windy days – as long as he kept a bible on his pillow. God was also the last thought of Carioca every morning, as he used to end his patrol shift making the sign of the cross and blowing a kiss in direction of the quebrada (the favela). And God was definitely in the mind of Marcondes, when he realized that he had allowed into the camp a dangerous ideological peril for his people: socialism.
Despite Gullherme’s rhetoric, he realized that the MTST’s background is at the very least agnostic. And he got worried when he saw that the coordinators of the groups were being involved by the Movement in formation courses that exalted the lives of Che Guevara, Chico Mendes and of the freed slave Zumbi dos Palmares… To the point that the decided to make explicit the creator’s presence, by inviting the ministers of all churches of the surroundings to celebrate an ecumenical ritual in the camp. For the chronicles, only a tiny minority of those invited showed up, possibly because they were not that eager to bless a red flag. But still he took that as a confirmation, and called the people of the occupation to be distrustful of the communist ideas. Although this advise might seem trivial, it represented an ideological conflict that in various degrees was at play in the minds of the people of the occupation. In particular for the coordinators of the groups, who were the most exposed to the MTST’s propaganda, and frequently invited to take part in voluntary classes. They were introduced – most of them for the fist time – to the history of Brazil as seen from the point of view of the poor people, the indigenous and the slaves, to the history of the social movements in latin America, and to that of the MTST, the one they were then being part of. Some of them considered those sessions just as boring duties: “I came here in order to get points of participation, that will allow me to get an apartment – one of them told me -. I don’t care about this atheist’s crap. I just want my house”.
Others, however, saw those lessons and the life under the rules of the occupation as an opportunity for their social emancipation, beyond the concrete aspirations for a dignified home. What they discovered is a path, one that starts when the people realize that they have rights and that, when they are unite, they have the power to have them recognized by the authorities. Or overthrow them if they won’t.
One night, I heard Carioca catechize a group of people from another occupation, a rogue one, about the importance of pursuing objectives within a wider organization. At first I supposed he was referring to the PCC., but he was not. On the other hand, the National leaders of the MTST, most of whom have a middle class background (Guilerme himself studied philosophy and works as a psychotherapist), they themselves take classes, where they learn how to use the language of religion to communicate the ideas of the Movement. This could appear just a marketing operation, but it also give them the basis to understand the mindset of the people of the favela. And moreover, the language of religion allow them to get straight to the hart of many people. One night, i heard one of the ideological trainers of the Movement, Ana Paola, recognizing the perturbation of her atheist beliefs in front of the questions raised by another course, this one about the ancient spiritual wisdom of the indigenous people. More precisely, it was about the rituals that allow every member of the tribes, to exist on a collective plan. To be community and individual at the same time. Something that echoes in the MTST’s most used refrain, that say “if you can’t stand an ant, do not stir the anthill”.
In a very short time, the simple needs of a worthy house that sparkled this occupation have snowballed in a swarm of tiny individual evolutions. Those are small changes that will produce effects far beyond that strip of occupied land, which may or may not turn in the two buildings destined to social housings that they are dreaming of. “The season of the Pt (the worker’s party of the presidents Lula and Dilma) is almost over – I leave the conclusion to Ana Paula – and with that, the season of the consistent governmental aids like the project Minha Casa Minha VIda and Bolsa Familia. In the next years, the inequality in Brazil will grow even more than now, to the point that the social anger will be uncontrollable. In my vision, what we are doing here is creating an army for that moment”.
The right to a dignified housing is recognized in the Brazilian Federal Constitution (Art. 6).
The program MInha Casa Minha Vida was established by the Brazilian president Lula in 2009, in cooperation with the Caixa Economica Federal, in order to promote social housing the country. And is continuing under the Dilma presidency.
It has been estimated that there’s a housing deficit of more than 6million houses in Brazil, one million of which are needed in São Paulo State only. Since 2008, São Paulo witnessed an average rise of the 188% in the price of real estate, and 92% in the rents.
The program was also meant to help the national construction companies cope with the ripple effect of the 2008 US mortgage crisis.