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Home > English > Alternatives International Journal > 2012 > August 2012 > The Battle for Land and Survival

The Battle for Land and Survival

Wednesday 1 August 2012, by Michael Reford

There is a certain practicality to civil disobedience that ends with meaningful results. One simple act or specific instance can become a rallying point or spark that lights the fuse of something much bigger. Thereafter, the results of change can come over a much longer period of time and with varying results.

While wider scale movements and civil disobedience have gone hand-in-hand in the past, there is something to be said for the shorter-term, immediate impact of civil disobedience. Crafty ideas from civilians around the world have been used to gain more immediate and meaningful results. In this difficult economic time, land reclamation has become a popular means to break from societal norms, as citizens fight for their future. It has been a beacon for people who have come across difficult financial times or those who have been traditionally hard done-by.

The recent subprime mortgage crisis in the United States has left many working middle-class people vulnerable to the loss of their houses to foreclosure. Although foreclosure activity has been at its lowest since 2007, nearly 1.9 million properties experienced filings in 2011, still a significant amount. Those who considered housing as an investment were dismayed when they had lost their homes overnight, leaving many in dire need of shelter and with financial issues.

A unique and practical strategy was then devised, drawing inspiration from the Landless Workers’ Movement in Brazil. People move back into their houses, change the locks, and reclaim a property that is owned by the bank. The legality of the situation is ambiguous, but the bottom line is that, unless the banks call for aid in protecting their assets, police will not exactly be eager to jump in and evict organized squatters that have neighbourhood support.

The Take Back the Land movement in Florida was formed after the shaky housing market in south Florida started to struggle as excess supply and falling prices took their toll. Take Back the Land upholds the basic human right of obtaining shelter and works with communities in order to facilitate organized squatting and the return of houses to homeless residents. It has also proved difficult to combat, as the movement is decentralized and organized on a local scale.

The original idea comes from a Latin American social movement called the Landless Workers’ Movement (LWM) in Brazil. Landlessness has long been a central issue in Latin America. Peasant farmers can be victims of loan sharks, fraudulent documents, or pressures to sell land to large agro-industrial multi-national corporations. Renting land and working for abnormally low rates while being tied to the land creates a poor quality of life and a trap for rural farmers. Currently, fifty percent of the land is owned by two percent of the population in Brazil. The LWM has organized itself to reclaim fallow land owned by large landowners or multinational corporations.

This type of farmland occupation does not go without conflict. Encampments on large tracts of land in the countryside comes with the challenge of erecting schools, building health centres, and providing food and water for the many peasants turned activists. Violence against the poverty stricken occupants by paramilitary organizations is also an issue. Large landowners and corporations can hire armed individuals or paramilitaries to deter and destroy encampments.

This form of civil disobedience is not without its pitfalls, but is a strategically important method, through which victims of landlessness and rural farmers can obtain real results that have a direct impact on their livelihoods.

Harsh economic times around the world have led to mass layoffs in some manufacturing sectors as global production slows and economies contract. Many are subject to pains of the free market, though some have taken matters into their own hands.

In late 2008, with the financial crisis in the United States in full force, the workers of the Republic Windows and Doors factory were informed that the factory was closing as their financial backer, the Bank of America, was in trouble. The workers occupied the factory with the help of their union in order to save their jobs. The deal struck by the local union leader allowed for a further ninety days to find a buyer or form a co-op.

This idea—drawn from an early success in Argentina—shows the immediate benefit of a well-executed plan to protect the interests of citizens at the mercy of the free market. With Argentina in the midst of an economic crisis in the late 1990s, the workers of Cerámica de Cuyo were about to be laid off by a boss that had led them along, promising payment of wages after they were long overdue. They returned to the factory after a year of having been laid off. Sleeping outside, sharing blankets, providing food, and living at the factory in order to protect the valuable equipment were only the first steps. They now operate a successful cooperative and own the factory outright after a long struggle.

Employees admit that the work is much harder, but they can now enjoy a more hands-on, thorough approach to the business while also enjoying the benefits of salary equality and ownership.

Drastic measures against the injustices of the world must be taken in the face of the harsh economic reality of today. Civil disobedience is a necessary action when one is pushed to the limit. It is a natural, primal instinct to protect one’s own existence if that existence is threatened. Examined here is a unique approach with short-term, immediate results that stands out from other means of civil disobedience. It affects people close to the action, but has wider implications in a world where the needs of so many are threatened by abuse within a free market economic system.

Although independent, these small groups of people, trying to preserve the basics of life, are interconnected by larger implications of this form of civil disobedience. These daring, results-oriented, practical strategies of opposing a system that forgets many achieves an idea far greater than the material result of reclaiming land, houses, or factories: the idea of solidarity, human survival, and the capacity to grasp one’s own future while operating in an imposing, cut-throat system.