Victor Albert: Brazil’s Homeless Workers’ Movement is an assertive social work organization

On 21 October, Jair Bolsonaro, the now president-elect of Brazil, made an announcement via his smartphone that was transmitted to crowds of supporters gathered in São Paulo: “Criminals of the MST [Landless Workers’ Movement], criminals of the MTST [Homeless Workers’ Movement], your actions will be classified as terrorism.” This was delivered as part of a broader threat made to the Left (Mollona 2018)—singling out Fernando Haddad, his Workers’ Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores) opponent in the presidential race, who he promised could “rot in jail” together with the currently imprisoned former President Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva—which would be “cleansed” after he assumed presidential office.

This characterization of the MTST is an absurdity that I, as someone who has researched the movement over the past few years, feel compelled to repudiate. Instead, I argue that it can be better described as a social work organization that is adapted to the social, urban, and political conditions surrounding it. But first, some context is warranted.

Bolsonaro has been trading barbs with MST and MTST leaders over recent years. Bolsonaro, of the Social Liberal Party (Partido Social Liberal), and MTST leader Guilherme Boulos, who also participated in the presidential elections as the candidate for the Socialism and Liberty Party (Partido Socialismo e Liberdade, PSOL), are visible poles in a political landscape that has become perilously polarized in Brazil’s ongoing institutional, political, and economic crisis (Saad-Filho 2017). Bolsonaro’s missive is part of a narrative that he has developed during his recent surge of support. This stereotypes the left as inherently “corrupt,” as a “cancer,” as made up of “communists” who want to turn the country into a variant of Venezuela and to “poison” the young with homoerotic messaging. Criticism of the MTST is part of this rhetoric of fear that helped propel him to the presidency.

Bolsonaro’s narrative is shared and propagated by a range of social and political actors. Flávio Rocha, the CEO of the large Riachuelo Stores company, similarly labeled the MST and the MTST terrorists while campaigning for president for the Brazilian Republican Party (Partido Republicano Brasileiro). Jerônimo Goergen, a federal deputy from Rio Grande do Sul and affiliated with the right-wing Progressive Party (Partido Progressista), in February proposed a legal modification in the Chamber of Deputies that would extend anti-terrorism laws to include building and land occupations. On 31 October, Magno Malta, a senator from Espírito Santo, brought this project to the Commission of Constitution and Justice in the Senate, where a vote is to be tabled on criminalizing social movement occupations. Right-wing commentators such as the activists from the Free Brazil Movement (Movimento Brasil Livre)—a social media and political organization that has emerged during the crisis—have likewise characterized the MTST and the MST as terrorist groups. However, few have been as directly threatening as Bolsonaro, who once urged that the MTST and the MST occupations be “met with ‘lead’ and ‘flame throwers.’”

Why does the MTST occupy land?
Such threats take place at a time when Brazil’s current housing deficit is over six million units. This means there is constant social and material pressure at the base of the social pyramid on those who cannot afford formal housing. This is part of a long history of land concentration that was formally addressed in the period of institution building that followed the country’s return from authoritarian rule in 1985.

Two important instruments sought to remedy the housing problem in Brazil: the 1988 Constitution of the Federative Republic of Brazil, which guarantees housing as a right, and the City Statute (Law 10.257), enacting legislation for the urban articles in the constitution, which inscribes the Lefebvrian ideal of “right to the city” into what social scientists have described as a new “jurídico-urbanística [legal-urban] order” (Cymbalista and Santoro 2002: 6). Despite forming an important improvement to the legislative framework that strengthened the hand of government in dealing with property owners and developers, however, these have not been employed with the coordination, energy, and resolution needed to address Brazil’s housing problem. Deference to real estate capital has instead brought about an “impasse in urban policy” (Maricato 2011).

In other words, the housing problem is a symptom of malfunctioning labor and real estate markets and inadequate resourcing, coordination, and determination among federal, state, and local governments to ensure affordable housing for low-income families. As a result, over the past 25 years, the occupation of land—the first step toward the creation of informal housing and thus the cycle of peripheral development—has continued to be an integral part of urban social movement repertoires of action (see Tilly 2008), as low-income families struggle to find a decent place of their own in the city.

A brief history of the MTST
The MTST is one of scores of Brazilian housing movements that emerged in response to the existential problem of finding shelter in cities and in so doing campaigns for more far-reaching urban reform. Though it has grown explosively over the past five to six years, its history goes further back and has roots in the struggle for agrarian reform. Brazil’s MST (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Terra) is Latin America’s largest rural movement, and though it emerged in the southernmost Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul in the early 1980s, it quickly expanded interstate—one case of which has been examined by Jonathon DeVore (2016). After protracted deliberations about whether an urban arm of the MST should be established, a separate organization called the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Teto was formed in 1997 after the Oziel Park occupation in Campinas, the third largest city in the state of São Paulo (Albert and Davidenko 2018). This new movement sought to take the MST’s rural struggle to the city. However, transferring the tactics that were successful in the countryside to the city was difficult, and the MTST in its first 15 years failed to maintain any of the occupations it had organized in the city of São Paulo, where it had its most concentrated presence. This was because landowners were more vigilant in the city than in the countryside—partly because of land prices—and drug gangs were more pervasive in the urban periphery, making occupations a more problematic proposition for the MTST and other “socio-territorial movements” (see Fernandes 2001).

This changed during the second decade of the new millennium because of a complex interplay of factors. First, the political conditions of the housing crisis were amenable to social mobilization, particularly after the waves of street protests that began in June 2013 (Mollona 2014). The world’s media was in Brazil for the FIFA World Cup, and the MTST adroitly increased its public standing through several high-profile occupations in and around São Paulo. Second, Lula’s government introduced Brazil’s largest federal housing program—My House, My Life (Minha Casa, Minha Vida, MCMV)—in 2009. Though the vast majority of funding for MCMV was devoted to private developers, a small subprogram called My House, My Life—Entities was introduced that allowed civil society organizations and social movements to construct housing for members (Tatagiba and Teixeira 2016). This meant movements like the MTST could assume the role that developers did in the main MCMV program; they were able to select a site and negotiate with government agencies for the purchase the land and the construction of housing for members thereon. MCMV—Entities allowed the MTST to employ its lobbying nous and at the same time construct formal housing complexes on occupied land for low-income families. Third, during its earlier phase, the MTST’s organization strengthened, and the movement assumed a more energetic strategy. The MTST’s growing recognition and an experienced cadre of organizers and coordinators helped to effect permanent occupations, where the movement had been evicted or forced from the land for various reasons in the past. Boulos, a young state coordinator for São Paulo who had cut his teeth in several difficult occupations in the 2000s, became a noted figure within the movement. During the crisis, his media presence and reputation grew significantly, eventually prompting a more explicit role in formal politics, which was signaled with his presidential candidacy with the PSOL in 2018.

Countering Bolsonaro’s accusations
So, what then might prompt Bolsonaro’s extreme characterization of the MTST as a terrorist organization? Apart from the political motive of criminalizing social movements that are opposed to his political project, there can only be a couple justifications: first, that the MTST participants take what is not theirs and, second, that they terrorize the public with protests and blockades of traffic and workplaces.

In countering the first of these charges, it is important to know that the MTST occupies land that is normally owned by governments or property speculators and has generally been unutilized for decades. When the movement occupies private land in São Paulo, where it has its strongest presence, it does not challenge the ownership status but rather negotiates with different actors to purchase the land from the landowner so that a formal housing complex, financed via MCMV, can be constructed on it. In these cases, its activities are directed toward the purchase of the land from the landowner. While the owner often tries to get the best price possible, this is normally part of a long negotiating process, where at times the owner seeks to maintain a portion of the land for independent construction. Not only is this not theft, but it also effects remuneration for the landowner in a much more expeditious way than other, more widespread kinds of land occupations in Brazil. These occupations use, not steal, vacant land—and that is not even considering the fact that the City Statue makes property rights dependent on their serving a “social function.”

Instead, powerful commercial and farming interests routinely take over land through a practice called grilhagem and, through manufactured legal claims, use the judicial system to gain ownership in a way that does not remunerate the prior landowners. However, Bolsonaro fails to condemn such practices that verge much closer to theft than do the MTST’s occupations.

The second possible charge—that the movement terrorizes through engaging in street protests—is similarly baseless. Certainly, the MTST has been a key protagonist in street protests in recent years. It has occupied roads, organized sit-ins inside and outside government buildings, and instigated protests against national and local government policies. Yet, these are basic practices of peaceful protest and civil disobedience and thus a legitimate part of democratic politics. During my fieldwork with the movement, such occupations interrupted or disrupted (often just aurally) the work of government departments rather than halting them altogether. While there may have been the odd scuffle among different sets of supporters, to classify such activity as terrorism is quite clearly absurd.


The MTST protesting for affordable housing in December 2013 (photograph by Marcelo Camargo / Agência Brasil, via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 3.0 BR).

Indeed, Bolsonaro does not seem entirely opposed to such disruptive tactics when they serve his own political purposes. In May, when a truckers’ strike across 18 Brazilian states threatened severe product and gasoline shortages—evincing a kind of hold over the country’s economic life that the MTST could never have—Bolsonaro voiced his support for it.

The MTST is an assertive social work organization
Indeed, the MTST has been a contentious actor during the crisis, but protests and campaigning are just a part of what the movement is and how it should be characterized. Before joining academia, I spent about eight years off and on as a social worker, mainly working in the housing sector in Australia. During my fieldwork with the movement, I saw many similarities between the Australian NGO I worked for and the MTST; the efforts of both organizations were directed toward the needy and driven by an ethic of care for the vulnerable. Let me illustrate with just one example.

Anna (a pseudonym), having spent five days on the street with her baby son, came upon one of the MTST’s occupations in the far eastern zone of São Paulo in March 2016. She approached the organizers, who took her in, gave her a well-constructed shack, and provided her with cooked food. Later, Anna helped out, mostly with cooking duties but also with maintaining the black plastic tents of the occupation, which often tore in the wind.

When I asked if she planned to stay, she said: “Of course, of course. Of course I’ll stay, man. I don’t have anywhere to go. I’ve got a place here” (interview, 5 July 2016). While MTST protests often capture the headlines, there is a deep sociality in the occupations, which is cultivated through cooking and eating meals together, maintaining herb and manioc gardens, and doing regular walkthroughs to ensure that nothing untoward is happening on-site. As can be seen in Anna’s case, they also serve a vital social function by providing food and shelter for the needy. While only a couple dozen people lived on-site at this occupation, in others there are hundreds of formerly homeless people, who are given food, shelter, and community.

If Bolsonaro ever paid one of these occupations a visit, he would see that the MTST, far from being a criminal gang, is much like a social work organization that is adapted to the conditions in which it operates. That is, of course, a fanciful proposition. Instead, his words indicate that these moves against the MTST and the MST may be just a part of what Alfredo Saad-Filho (2016) calls the “class war” in Brazil, which promises not only to neglect the housing problem that is faced by low-income families but also to criminalize their attempts to remedy it.

Victor Albert is an Honorary Fellow at the Institute of Latin American Studies at La Trobe University, and Assistant Professor of Public Policy in the School of Political Science at the National Research University Higher School of Economics, Moscow. His work focuses on participatory democracy, social movements, and urban planning and policy.

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Fernandes, Bernardo Mançano. 2001. “The occupation as a form of access to land.” Paper presented at the 23rd International Congress of the Latin American Studies Association, Washington, DC, 6–8 September.

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Saad-Filho, Alfredo. 2016. “Overthrowing Rousseff: It’s class war, and their class is winning.” FocaalBlog, 22 March.

Saad-Filo, Alfredo. 2017. “Fora Temer—eleições diretas já!’ Brazil’s political rupture and the left’s opportunity.” FocaalBlog, 24 May.

Tatagiba, Luciana, and Ana Claudia Chaves Teixeira. 2016. União Nacional por Moradia Popular and Social Innovation in Housing Policies for the Poor in Brazil. ImPRovE Case Study no. 11/21. Antwerp: Herman Deleeck Centre for Social Policy, University of Antwerp.

Tilly, Charles. 2008. Contentious performances. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Cite as: Albert, Victor. 2018. “Brazil’s Homeless Workers’ Movement is an assertive social work organization.” FocaalBlog, 30 November.