Issue 173 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published March 1994 Copyright © Socialist Review
|Women from the Amazon protest against eviction|
What does it mean being an urban worker and trade unionist in Amazonia, to the area of the Carajds Programme?
It's a big challenge. It demands some courage and a real will within yourself to do something, because by comparison with the size of the struggles there, the trade union movement has problems keeping pace, especially when it comes to the struggles over land.
Working as a trade unionist in Pará is also, I have to say, a bit dangerous, because you're in direct confrontation with capital and with the bosses. I'm the leader of the Education Workers' Union. Because of our work we've suffered a degree of repression.
Since the time of the Mutran administration in Marabi, from 1991, the aim has been to target me and a comrade, Angelina. This meant not just attempting to remove me from the school where I was head teacher, with the intervention of the police and lots of people getting beaten up, but also in the sense that I started to get threats at home. My kids were threatened in the street by people we knew to be gunmen hired by Mutran.
My 15 year old son was held up against a wall to try to make him say something, but he resisted and I had to send him away from the area. I'd hear people walking around outside my house at night, and there was a time when the comrades had to stand guard, armed with shotguns, so that I could get some sleep.
Mutran's aim was not just to stifle the movement through repression, but especially to eliminate the leaders of the movement. But we resisted.
Since I belong to the CUT confederation, I'm involved in a lot of activity with the rural workers. Last year I had a really bad experience. I was going to discuss trade union organisation in a rural community, when someone came and told me I was going to be ambushed.
Against everyone's advice I took the longer way there, and then found out the ambush was waiting on the other road. Just when I thought I was safe, the leader of the ambush turned up with 40 armed men, asking who was the woman who'd come to talk about land reform, because their boss, a big landowner, wasn't about to divide up his plot with anyone else. I went out and spoke to him, saying I was representing the CUT and that no one was going to stop me discussing what I'd come to discuss unless one of his gunmen killed me. I said that if anything happened to me on the way back, they'd be responsible, and when I left I'd report them to the police for intimidating the trade union into not entering the area and threatening its supporters. While we were arguing, one of the others went and slashed the tyre on our car.
We had to go the same way back, past all these armed men, but we got through. When we arrived at the town of El Dorado, though, the police station was closed and there wasn't an officer to be found. So we went on to Marabi, reported the matter, but the police didn't want to know.
Apart from the question of direct violence, what other problems do you face as trade unionists and as women in the region?
There's the problem of the bosses not recognising the unions, especially a union like mine where the membership is mainly women. With the jokes, the lack of respect in meetings with management, where they don't accept that we're capable of discussing problems on a par with the men, you have to impose yourselves that much harder to get any respect.
Is sexism also a problem within the trade union movement itself?
Amongst the comrades right on the frontline it's decreased a lot. Incredible though it may seem, amongst the rank and file in general, there are no sexist jokes. There's a real respect for you. In my case they call me 'Professora'.
The trade union movement in general in Brazil is sexist, starting with the leadership of the CUT, the majority of whom are men, through to the Rural Workers' Union, where you might have three women in non decision making positions. And in my union branch there are few women who will actually take up responsibility. Not because they aren't capable, but because they think it's the men who've got to decide things. To be heard, you've got to have both the technical knowledge of an issue, and a political understanding of things.
How do you see these ideas being overcome?
Through work and struggle. The Workers' Party introduced this business of a 30 percent quota but I voted against it in the Congress. I think that we women have to win a space for ourselves through our work in the unions, and as you get respect then you'll automatically go for a vacant post. It's not something you can legislate for.
Most people in Britain see the Amazon as an environmental issue, above all about the destruction of the rainforest. How do you, as trade unionists living and working in the region, view the issue of the environment?
Differently from some green organisations who see the Amazon as a kind of sanctuary that shouldn't be touched, ignorant of the fact that a lot of people live in the forest--traditional populations who've been there for centuries.
You can't talk about protecting the environment without working with the people who inhabit the forest--only they can preserve it, not people from outside. And we have to combine this protection with alternatives for local people to make a livelihood. You can't say you've got to protect the environment and not touch it.
There's a proposal being worked out in various places that we've called sustainable development. That means finding ways of adding value to the resources the local population extract from the forest or that they produce in the countryside. Otherwise they aren't going to generate any wealth themselves, these resources will just be raw materials to be processed and exported by others. There have been some successes in the state of Acre with Brazil nuts and rubber, with new techniques to ensure the elasticity and durability of the latex, for example. In Pará we're looking at techniques to process palm oil and fruits like cupuaçu and açaí.
The problem is that this goes against the grain of the government's agrarian policy, which is to encourage settlers and squatters to clear the forest and plant crops, and when the soil's exhausted the cattle ranchers move in and plant grass for pasture. So you've got to fight with the government for the right of the local communities, say 100 to 200 families, to set up their mini-processing units. However, the section within the Department of the Environment which deals with this is the most underfunded.
The idea of local rural workers controlling the resources of the forest and their exploitation has been seen as a way of putting socialism on the political agenda.
What does socialism mean to you?
It is an answer to the capitalism that's destroying everything. If it's to be the seed of another kind of society in the future, we'll have to fight even harder for it.
Look, if I didn't have a perspective that the world is going to change some day, I swear I wouldn't be here. I'd be there working on my little plot, minding my own business, trying to save a bit of money. All the endless running about I do, it's just with a single thought and hope that one day, if not my generation, then some other generation is going to see a different world from this one. I know that a lot of people in Brazil, especially the so called academics, are having real problems in believing in this, but I do believe in it.
Tell us something about your political experiences before you joined the Workers' Party.
My political involvement began with the Church in Oeiras in 1969, and the pastoral work allowed me to understand something of the outside world.
In 1976, by which time I was working in education and active in the union and the women's movement, I came into contact with the still clandestine [Maoist] Communist Party of Brazil (PC do B) and started reading. The first thing I read was The Ideas of Karl Marx, which was really heavy going and I didn't understand much. Then I read the Communist Manifesto and in the following year I was recruited.
With the shift to the right in the party around 1980 everyone in our group left and formed a new party, the Revolutionary Communist Party (PRC), which lasted until 1985 [the end of the military regime]. Since this was again clandestine, we had to act both in the newly founded Workers' Party (PT) and in the PRC. With a deep division between those who believed we should contribute to the building of a democratic government and those who believed we should go on arguing for and building the revolution, the PRC was dissolved.
We remained in the PT, without a specific tendency, but we did belong to a tendency in the CUT union confederation, called 'CUT from below'. The PT shifted and shifted, and is today on a path away from its origins, from what made me first join it in 1982.
The leader of the PT, Lula, appears in a very strong position to win the presidential elections in November. What are the prospects for radical change in Brazil with the PT leading a new government?
A PT victory would be very good for us. The popular and trade union movement would be given a boost to enable it to organise itself better. On the other hand, Lula's government is going to face serious problems with the bosses, with national and international capital and the military.
Personally, I don't believe Lula's government will bring major, structural changes. It might introduce some social reforms, which would be very significant with the enormity of the chaos Brazil faces, but nothing structural.
I don't believe you can bring about that sort of change through parliamentary elections.
To change the way the country is organised, with the big landowners and the capitalists on one side and the workers on the other, I still believe we'll need a social revolution, a direct confrontation with capital. The capitalist class, which in Brazil is very backward, might adjust to a PT government, but will carry on exploiting workers--with new, more sophisticated, and maybe more profitable methods.
How can trade unionists and socialists in Britain best contribute to the struggle of workers in Pará?
You here, we, have to strengthen the trade unions. I think it was Lenin who said the trade unions are the school of the revolution. We need good trade unionists on the front line confronting the bosses, but with a political perspective, not just wanting improvements in wages or working conditions.
The work of the trade unions isn't separate from political work, the work of the party. We need strong unions, and strong political parties, but revolutionary parties. The unions must be autonomous, but the party is the flagship.
It's my first time in Europe, but everyone seems to talk of trade unionism and politics as being completely separate things. I don't see it like that. I'm in the leadership of my local party and in the leadership of my union. The party gives me a political perspective to work by.
Beyond that, solidarity in the sense of organising campaigns and raising funds is great, provided it's within the perspective not of donating charity to the hungry and needy, but of strengthening the struggle for social change.
For further information on links and solidarity with trade unions in Brazil, contact: Chico Mendes Solidarity Fund, Brazil Network, PO Box 1325, London SW9 0RA.