Nineteen burnt, twisted and branchless castanheira (chestnut)tree-trunks were being raised by cranes beside Highway 150 near the town of Eldorado dos Carajas in the state of Pará, Brazil.
Suddenly the work was halted.
Someone had noticed that at the top of one of the trunks, eight metres above the ground, grass was growing.
‘The trees have to be dead all the way through,’ said people to one another.
Eventually a 15-year-old boy volunteered to climb up and pluck the grass from the top.
People tried to stop him, worried that he would fall.
But the boy’s father told them: ‘He can do it with his eyes closed.’
The boy clambered onto the crane, which was raised to its full height of six metres. Then he reached for the trunk, gripped it between his arms and legs and shinned up to the top.
Below him, on the ground, those who couldn’t bear to watch fell to their knees and prayed.
Painstakingly he cleared every last blade of grass from the top and then slipped down to the crane which, in the gathering dusk, lifted him back to the ground.
When the monument was complete the community of the Seventeenth of April looked at each other, at what they had built, and wept.
Three years earlier, on 17 April 1996, some 1,500 families of landless peasants had gathered near the town of Eldorado dos Carajas. Camped beside Highway 150, they were demanding land reform. In Brazil one per cent of the population owns fifty per cent of the arable land. The authorities were insisting that the protesters, part of the Movimento Dos Sem Terra (MST – Movement of the Landless), be removed from a farm they had appropriated in the region. Military police, their ID tags removed, opened fire on the demonstrators. Nineteen dead men were left beside the highway. Survivors believe there is a mass grave containing women and children hidden nearby. Sixty-nine people were wounded. The MST has been seeking justice ever since.
Artist Dan Baron Cohen describes the incident as ‘Brazil’s open wound’. In 1999 a local MST leader approached Dan. The MST wanted a monument to the fallen that would provoke Latin America and the world into asking questions.
Dan has worked with social movements in Northern Ireland, in Palestine, in South Africa, and with radical playwright Ngûgî wa Thiong’o in Kenya. He found the MST settlements ‘an inspiration… created by people with so few resources, in a time of so little hope’. He gave up his tenure at a Welsh university to live with Sem Terra as a cultural activist.
Dan says that a common feature of all the movements he has worked with is that they are ‘incredibly sophisticated in their critiques, but underdeveloped in methods of community-based participatory democracy’.
‘The culture of the barricade, of opposition needs to celebrate its own lucid rage,’ he explains, ‘but what about that internal world behind the barricades? What happens to the doubts, fears, questions whispered in the silences between confrontations? Those voices of intimate reflection are an enormous archive of knowledge, but remain hidden behind profound doubt and fear.’
The starting-point of all his projects is releasing that knowledge ‘from all its obstacles, from fear, from lack of self-esteem, from prejudice.’
The process begins with a question. Groups of between six and eight people are asked to bring an object – perhaps an idea, perhaps the thing itself. An intimate object, an object that reveals them to themselves, that speaks of their wider meanings.
People might bring a ring. A shoe. A medicinal plant. An heirloom. As others in the group question them about their choice, slowly people begin to tell stories, present fragments from their lives, speaking about the world and their place in it. In this way they reveal themselves to one another, grow comfortable with intimacy, build a method of active listening and exchange in which all the people engaged in the dialogue are transformed.
They then are asked to choose by consensus a collective ‘intimate object’ for the group. No-one can propose their own, so the process of questioning and consensus-building grows. This is then repeated in a larger group. It takes time. The questions create a network of concerns, responses, curiosities which reveal the group to itself. In this way a large number of people can come to a collective proposal and rapidly build a community of empathy and solidarity. The strength and power of this emotional candour can be extraordinary.
Dan, who has been evolving his working methods for over 15 years, describes it as a process of ‘learning democracy’.
He asked the MST settlement of the Seventeenth of April in Carajas to identify objects that would articulate personal, regional, national history – in which people could see themselves and the massacre.
They replied: ‘We are not artists!’ But, shyly, they agreed to try.
Very rapidly the castanheira tree began to recur in their proprosals.
Closely identified with the region of Pará, on the eastern fringes of the Amazon rainforest, the castanheira is harvested by labourers for its nuts – and mindlessly felled by landowners to create grazing land for cattle for export.
‘In this way,’ says Dan, ‘already exploited people are dispossessed of their land and the world of its natural resources, concentrating capital in ways that require political violence and repression’.
As part of the process of creating a collective proposal for the monument to the fallen in Eldorado dos Carajas, a large meeting, a ‘tribunal’ of the community was called. One-by-one, and for the first time all together, the survivors of the massacre began to tell their stories of what had occurred.
Dan says: ‘The body retains the memory of oppression. Before they spoke at the tribunal the survivors rolled up their sleeves and trousers to show the scars, the places where the bullets were still lodged inside their bodies. Their bodies were mouths, screaming with anger, with accusation. It was those bodies that directed us to the castanheira trees – that landscape of trees standing, looking mutilated and burned, violated and scarred.’
They began to search the forests around the settlement for 19 dead trees, one for each of the fallen. Every day people would arrive breathless and declare: ‘We’ve found one!’ Some were too short. Some had branches. Some weren’t mutilated enough. And some were simply not ‘poetic’. Some MST members had never before thought of a tree as ‘poetic’. But they had owned this project from the beginning, as they had never owned anything before.
Eventually 19 trees were found and erected - in the shape of Brazil - by cranes that the MST went into debt to hire. They refused to let anyone else fund the project.
The monument asks an open question of Brazil, and of the neo-liberal project everywhere in the world.
Dan poses it this way: ‘It’s the day we are to begin the actual construction of the monument. Suddenly a woman of 17 comes running from the land to ask if we will photograph her child, who has died that morning. No-one else in the settlement has a camera. Hundreds of people are ready to begin work. And everything waits so that we can get onto that truck and go with that woman. And she takes us to the genocide that is continuing, the massacre that is still continuing, three years after the legalization of their settlement. They are still struggling against poverty and illness, still struggling to make that land productive. We spent hours listening to each person in the family, deciding how to arrange their hands around the child on the small bed. She was three months old.’
Below the tree-trunks are 69 stones painted blood-red for each of the wounded, and a plaque bearing the names of the dead.
‘MST planted young castanheira saplings around the base of the monument,’ explains Dan. ‘In 150 years those tree-trunks will have disintegrated and been surrounded by young forest. In the same way, these people are not permanent victims of history.’
Dan speaks not of resistance, but of liberation. His urgent question is: ‘What motivates people beyond opposition, and anger, and hunger?’
Finding an adequate answer is crucial for the long-term survival of a movement. ‘Once people have secured the land inside the settlements, problems resurface. The psychological and emotional consequences of what they have been through threatened to pull apart all that they have won. This is how the oppressed can become the oppressor, as happens so often in resistance movements. Activists carry such a history of humiliation and rage inside them, they can forget how to listen. Under the banner of democracy we can be abusing one another.’
Paulo Freire, the inspiration for much of Dan’s work, once wrote: ‘Sooner or later, a true revolution must initiate a courageous dialogue with the people. Its very legitimacy lies in that dialogue. It cannot fear the people, their expression, their effective participation in power. It must be accountable to them, must speak frankly to them of its achievements, its mistakes, its miscalculations and its difficulties.’
Dan echoes him when he says: ‘Democracy doesn’t spontaneously generate itself. Democracy is made from human skills that need to be developed, but can be sabotaged by history. We need constantly to question, to experiment, to innovate, to learn democracy. This is our greatest challenge.’
Dan’s methods rise, couragously and honestly, to meet this challenge. For resistance is nothing without self-criticism, humanity: ‘A process by which people recognize themselves as creative, fully human, not just soldiers or martyrs in a movement. This is part of the reclaiming of the political imagination.’
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