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Last Updated: Monday, 14 April, 2003, 00:47 GMT 01:47 UK
Living with Brazil's landless
By BBC News Online's Dominic Bailey

When British university lecturer Dan Baron Cohen learned about the massacre of 19 landless peasants in north-eastern Brazil, it did not take long for him to make a life-changing decision.

He left his job as a drama education specialist with the University of Glamorgan in South Wales and has spent the last five years living and working with Brazil's Landless Workers Movement (Movimento Sem Terra or MST).

Castanheiras of Eldorado dos Carajas (picture: Dan Baron Coen)
Nineteen tree trunks are a memorial to the peasants who died

Projects he has helped develop include a community mosaic for one of the settlement's ecological schools, a community play which has toured to Kenya and a giant monument to the 19 people killed at Eldorado dos Carajas on 17 April 1996.

"I was inspired by the MST and its practical, visionary and humanist proposals," said Dan.

"I felt I was just beginning to learn about them, Brazil and Latin America when my initial one-year collaboration ended. I made a simple but profound decision to stay."

The MST works by organising the poor and homeless to identify a suitable site which could offer them a home as a community.

These are fertile but unused tracts of land on the vast estates that divide up the Brazilian countryside.

Co-operative culture

The MST then occupies the land, strikes a camp and sets about establishing literacy schools, natural medicine projects and taking steps to form a co-operative, self-sustainable settlement.

Finally, after considerable campaigning, if the settlement is officially recognised, the camp can go on to include plantations, primary and secondary schooling, even electricity.

Dan and his partner Manoela Souza are involved in the cultural development of the communities, always working in response to invitations from the MST leaders.

Dan Baron Coen (picture: Manoela Souza)
In many cases survival has meant that any community culture falls by the wayside
Dan Baron Coen

Projects they have been involved in tap into the traditional cultural forms of each of the Brazilian communities they work in and are used to strengthen the MST's message and vision.

"The leaders of the MST now have a strong sense of the importance of culture," he said.

"The idea is to attempt to revive and build a new cooperative culture in the community and among families who have been stripped to the bone by poverty."

Working unwaged, Dan and his partner describe their work as cultural collaboration in solidarity with the settlement communities.

In Eldorado dos Carajas the MST wanted to build a permanent memorial to replace the 19 wooden crosses that marked the site of the massacre.


Initial proposals from MST members included a statue of a clenched fist holding a sickle.

Through discussions with Dan and Manoela, the MST community decided on a more poetic object - 19 dead trunks of castanheiras, or chestnut trees typical to the region.

Triplets on an MST settlement (picture: Dan Baron Coen)
Triplets on an MST settlement enjoying meat for the first time

Dan said that the community now use the towering, blackened trunks as a monumental theatre of resistance.

"They wanted a permanent monument that would pose questions to the whole of Brazil and break the silence around the massacre," he said.

"Within and behind the 19 trees, we'd defined an internal community space, an intimate space of reflection."

Dan's closeness to the MST and its members comes from living with them in the settlements and camps.

"Life in the camp is very human.

"It is very intimate. The people we live with and work with become close friends. They are very generous and sensitive and share all that they have.

"Going to fetch water together with them, sharing their bread and participating in births, celebrations and deaths and living in solidarity with them means the relationships we form are very profound."

But Dan's commitment to the MST is not without its dangers.

The movement's own leaders and activists are regularly targeted by gunmen paid by disgruntled landowners, die in suspicious "road accidents" or simply just disappear.

Into hiding

Dan's own safety was threatened after he agreed to help the indigenous movement build a monument to mark 500 years of resistance on the exact beach where the Portuguese invaded Brazil on 22 April 1500.

In April 2000 armed military police were called in to destroy a monumental map of "Latin America without frontiers" being built by some 200 Pataxo indians.

Segment of the MST mosaic Land is life (picture: Dan Baron Coen)
Dan was involved in the creation of the MST's Land is Life mosaic

"Manoela and I were smuggled out on the floor of a car into a safe house," said Dan.

"I was advised by people in the state to leave as the Federal Police were looking for me and there was a very real danger that I would disappear."

Dan knows his solidarity with the excluded in Latin America involves carefully considered risks.

"But the nature of confronting the injustice and inequality in Brazil as in any part of the world means making clear choices," he said.

Those choices do not come without their own rewards.

As well as the development and completion of the artistic projects, Dan has also seen and learned more about how communities develop.


In Eldorado dos Carajas, 690 families are now part of a settlement that has electricity and crops of fruit, rice and vegetables growing among the fallen trees of old slash and burn practices.

"They have come from surviving a massacre to constructing a new community," said Dan.

"After all the difficulties of dealing with the legacy of poverty and repression - alcoholism, low self-esteem and lack of confidence - they are now planning to select their first political candidate to stand for a place on a council traditionally dominated by rich landowners."

The announcement of the selection will coincide with hundreds of occupations across Brazil to mark this year's anniversary of the massacre on 17 April.

Dan and Manoela are now back in the UK to take time out to reflect on the last five years' work and to put some order to the archives of 5,000 photographs and hundreds of hours of videotape from the projects.

Each part of the MST they have worked with will then have its own archive of the projects they have carried out together.

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Country profile: Brazil
11 Mar 03  |  Country profiles

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