Matthew Niederhauser is an artist, photojournalist, and cinematographer. He is a cofounder of The Megacity Initiative, along with John Fitzgerald, and a visiting scholar at the MIT Center for Advanced Urbanism.
Brazil’s Homeless Workers’ Movement stages occupations against rising corruption and inequality in South America’s biggest city.
Over the past decade, São Paulo sat at the epicenter of Brazil’s economic boom. Millions flocked to the metropolitan region in search of jobs and a better quality of life. This mass migration, however, did not give rise to commensurate social programs or more inclusionary housing practices. São Paulo remains a city notoriously divided by class, with development driven by an avaricious property market.
These issues were largely addressed in a new master plan for the city passed last summer. Its core tenets revolved around bureaucratic transparency, greater mobility, spatial inclusiveness, and environmental sustainability. At the forefront of agitating for such change has been the Homeless Workers’ Movement (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Teto, or MTST), which has long stood on the front lines in battling corruption and advocating for low-income housing. But now, much of the organization’s hard work to reform municipal policy could be undone.
Brazil is facing a crippling recession and rising unemployment. Any hope for improvement in the near future seems lost. The sovereign debt of the country was downgraded to “junk” status by S&P last month, and President Dilma Rousseff of the Workers’ Party continues to be ensnarled in the aftermath of the enormous Petrobras scandal, where construction companies were found to be inflating costs in order to provide political kickbacks. Dramatic spending cuts at all levels of government are imminent, and many social programs will be the first to go.
Today, hundreds of thousands of laborers across São Paulo still lack affordable housing and full access to the city. Barriers to entry are now likely to increase even with the new master plan in place. Many question whether promises can be kept to expand public transportation, end discriminatory housing practices, and revitalize the city center in an equitable and ecological manner.
In the meantime, MTST, first organized in 1997, continues to expand its activities. Some of its biggest successes were realized last year during the World Cup, when the organization pulled together an occupation called the People’s Cup close to a new stadium built for the event. Leveraging their position through international media, in-town to cover the World Cup, MTST threatened to disrupt the games unless demands were met.
The following interview with Alfonso Silva, an MTST coordinator since 2005, delves into the ideology and drive behind the organization as it continues to organize occupations, mobilizations, and rallies in an effort to force municipal authorities to provide adequate shelter for those most in need. It is becoming clear that the low-income housing deficit in São Paulo will only be exacerbated by the current economic collapse. Occupations like those pictured here are likely to increase, and some could last for years.
When your group occupies land, how do you determine which land to pursue? And what are the group’s basic demands?
The first aspect that we consider is the size of the land, which needs to be flat, large, and, ideally, abandoned for decades. Also, we look for plots of land that are being used for real estate speculation, where the owner’s sole intent is to turn a profit. We also consider how many debts are pending on the land, because there are owners who do not pay taxes for years to the point that the taxes due to the municipality and state end up being higher than the land’s value.
It is also important for distressed communities to live around the land. This way, people are interested in participating in the occupation of that land. The immediate demand is that the government buy the land and build homes. Once it is bought with that purpose, we discuss additional projects such as proper housing programs with public services associated to them.
How do you get people to take part in the occupation and make decisions?
When we want to do an occupation, we need to organize a core group of people to enter the land and start building the first shacks. Then we need to resist eviction, because the police can remove you from the land immediately. But once we hold the land, we post flyers and we use a sound-car to drive around the communities announcing: “If you are living as a favor in someone’s home, if you’re paying a rent that is too expensive and are experiencing deprivations because of that, come and fight for better housing with us.” Then, people join us in the occupation and start building their shacks and participating.
Eventually, the occupation will hold assemblies, sometimes with up to 3,000 or 4,000 people. At an assembly, people are made aware of the status of the negotiations between the landowner, municipality, and state government to purchase of the land. There are open debates, and an agreement must be ultimately accepted by the occupation assembly.
Is it hard to keep the work of the MTST separate from political parties?
The MTST is an autonomous, independent movement that does not nominate candidates to run for elected office. The movement’s objective is to organize the peripheries in the poorest regions, to raise public awareness of the complaints and demands of the poorest population. And that is obviously political work, political work that conflicts and goes against the government and programs of other parties—including parties which claim to represent workers but do not, like the Workers’ Party. We know how to create dialogue in the interest of the people and organize them to take to the streets. But there is a lot of conflict. That is a fact.
For us, it is about the number of people that we can organize during and after the occupation. It is about whether we have the capacity to lead the community around the occupation to fight for other necessities: health, education, basic sanitation. For us, these are victories. There is also an ongoing water crisis and continuing transportation difficulties in São Paulo. We address the government’s economic policy. We have managed to get organized on the periphery in such a way that people are active about specific issues, but also for general issues and that is a victory for us. Other organizations follow what we are addressing and take it as a cue to get active.
How many people are in the Paulo Freire Occupation?
The occupation represents about 4,000 families. But they do not all necessarily live in the occupation shacks. Our occupation is also symbolic. Some people who occupy the land also live in homes and pay rent that can take up to 60 to 80 percent of their income. They participate in the occupation with dreams of obtaining a house of their own.
We do not make it mandatory for people to live in the occupation. If the people take furniture, televisions, mobile phones, everything, to their shack and then there is a repossession [by the government], people lose everything and end up worse off than before. Most people are symbolically occupying the land in order to dispute the current logic of the property market. They do not need to live here and constantly inhabit the space in order to voice their political demands. Still, they need to come to the occupation and take part in the assemblies. The only thing that the movement asks from people is their participation. We do not ask for money, just their participation in the struggle.
How has the current situation with the Brazilian economy affected your work?
With the economic crisis, you first see impacts and cuts in the government’s social programs, among which are the housing programs. The government, for example, delayed a large part of the programs that were scheduled to build homes for MTST. So we enacted more occupations as a response, and we said, “every time there is a delay by the government or there is a postponement in launching the housing programs, we will move ahead and do more occupations.” We have been building considerable strength in this process, which gives us the ability to put pressure on the government. However, the situation is quite complex now and getting worse, because many people in occupations started losing their jobs due to the economic crisis. Inflation is also going up, and people are experiencing difficulties to ensure their day-to-day needs. Even though a party that calls itself a “party of the workers” leads the government, the truth is that the government takes cues from banks and businessmen, all of whom actually gain from this policy— not the poorest. This means that social tensions will increase as the economic crisis continues.
Did the politics of the Workers’ Party cause this economic recession?
The economic crisis facing Brazil today is a consequence of a global recession that can be traced back to 2008 with the bursting of the subprime bubble. Although Brazil managed relatively well through this period of economic turmoil and global slowdown, the recent drop in the growth of the Chinese economy and the drop in the value of commodities has had serious effects in Brazil. The Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT) government managed, somehow, to postpone the effects of the crisis until the end of the 2014 elections. Then, when addressing the crisis and taking steps to overcome it, they attacked the poorest part of the population. The crisis was not generated by the PT, but by the mechanisms of the capitalist system—the big mistake was that the PT didn't break with the big sharks of international financial speculation.
How is the worsening economic recession affecting housing programs in São Paulo?
Rather than facing the crisis, the Dilma-led PT government attacks those who aren’t to blame, adopting measures that puts the crisis on the backs of the poor. Instead of adopting measures like taxing large corporations, controlling financial evasions by multinational companies and banks, increasing taxes for the rich and the non-payment of interest and debt (which represents nearly 50 percent of the budget), the Dilma [Rousseff-led] government chose to cut public services such as education and health, freeze public sector wages, and cut important public housing programs such as Minha Casa Minha Vida.
How does MTST plan on responding to the needs of homeless workers during the recession?
The MTST will do what it always does: Fight! We've done several mobilizations and recent occupations of the Ministry of Finance and its subsidiaries in seven states to make it clear that the government must fulfill all agreements with housing movements.
This interview has been edited and condensed.