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Trade Unions

new internationalist
issue 255 - May 1994

A force to reckon with
Five years on from the death of the rubber tappers’ leader, Chico Mendes, trade unionists and rural workers in Amazonia are still being assassinated. Women are now in the forefront of the struggle against violence. Anne-Marie Sweeney pays tribute to the remarkable work of one of them...

Jaide Barreiros: replacing anxiety with organization and strategy.

I first met Jaide Barreiros when I went to Brazil to make a film about women in Amazonia. We talked in her kitchen, which also doubled as the office for the teachers’ union of which she was president. More than a kitchen or an office, the room was a nerve centre. From here groups of peasants and trade unionists went out to support forest occupations that were under threat from cattle ranchers and their hired gunmen.

One night we were in the middle of a party to mark an international award for work on the environment – Jaide’s partner, Gatao, is the successor to Chico Mendes as the President of the National Council of Rubber Tappers, which received the award. The dancing, an essential part of all political events, was interrupted when a group of women entered, very distressed and exhausted after walking all day. They had been violently evicted from their forest community in Jandaia. Husbands, sons and friends had been brutally arrested and one man had been shot.

Jaide, as ever, replaced anxiety with organization and strategy. By early the next morning she had typed statements, contacted lawyers from the Society for the Defence of Human Rights, found transport to a meeting at their office and arranged delegations to the prison where their friends were being held. The women stayed with Jaide for months, sleeping in hammocks in an outbuilding, so they could campaign for the men’s release, cook food and take it to the jail. They had no money. Jaide and Gatao had little enough for their own needs, but somehow the pot was stretched. The women, with Jaide’s help, organized a campaign to raise funds.

We went with them back to their broken community, a few days after the police and the gunmen had been driven out by the rural worker’s union.

The place has been nicknamed ‘The Jaguar’s Throat’ because of the jaguars that inhabit the forest – and because of the violence endured by those who live there. On one side of the track was the impenetrable forest, towering castanha brazil-nut trees. Howler monkeys screeched and parrots took flight. This was the side where the rural workers were defending their homes, gardens and a few animals – and where they lived in harmony with the forest. On the other side was a scorched graveyard of burnt and sawn tree-stumps, hijacked by the cattle ranchers: a wasteland stretching as far as the eye could see, dusty scrub with the odd solitary cow.

The women’s homes had been smashed. A gas cooker used for target practice was riddled with bullet holes. We visited the burnt-out remains of a ranch where three peasants had been shot and their corpses left for pigs to feed on.

In the past 10 years there have been nearly 1,000 murders of rural workers and union leaders in Amazonia. Arnaldo Delcido Ferreira, much-loved President of the Rural Workers’ Union in Eldorado and a close friend of Jaide and Gatao, survived three assassination attempts, including one where the bullet passed straight through his neck and killed a nun standing behind him.

In September 1993 I received a letter from Jaide with the news that he had been killed as he lay sleeping in his bed. ‘Several other comrades have been threatened with death,’ she wrote. ‘We are confronting this with courage, but our anxiety grows with every day that passes.’

Arnaldo’s daughter and son-in-law, Zé do Feijão, have taken on the leadership of the union and are now in immediate danger of assassination. At the end of January 1994 Zé was the victim of an attempt on his life by gunmen from the Abaete farm belonging to Marco Antonio Rangel, who was accused of Arnaldo’s murder. Now Zé, who is seriously ill, has been arrested and imprisoned without trial by a judge who was recently investigated by the Human Rights Commission of Lawyers in the State of Para.

Jaide, writing on the climate of increasing social tension in the Eldorado region of Carajas, says the situation there is critical for both workers’ rights and the environment. She says the Rural Workers’ Union is desperate for international support. The odds are stacked against them. Jaide, however, refuses to be daunted. ‘We must never think that we are defeated,’ she said at a local women’s conference. ‘It’s no good us going on strike, occupying big farms, getting ourselves killed, hiding in trenches and I don’t know what else, if when the time comes to vote, we vote for some good-for-nothing and not for someone from our class who will represent us.’

Lula, a former steel worker from São Paulo, is such a person and could win the Brazilian presidential elections this year for the Workers’ Party. If so, land reform could be on the Government’s agenda. It would then face serious opposition from the same forces that Jaide confronts daily. The test would be whether it showed the same determination and courage as Jaide and her friends.

Anne-Marie Sweeney directed Amazon Sisters, a documentary film produced with TV Viva for Channel 4 and WDR TV, available from Oxford Film and Video Makers, the Stables, North Place, Headington, Oxford OX3 9HY, UK.

For further information and urgent action on Zé do Feijão, contact Brazil Network, PO Box 1325, London SW9 ORA.

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New Internationalist issue 255 magazine cover This article is from the May 1994 issue of New Internationalist.
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