Soap Opera and CD Give Brazil's Landless a Boost

Celebrities flock to squatters' cause

Nearly 13 years ago, actor Paulo Betti took his place among thousands of landless farmers squatting on a private ranch in the state of Rio Grande do Sul.

"I went to give them credibility in the public's eye and make it harder for the police to attack," he says. Mr. Betti thus became one of the first Brazilian celebrities to pick up the red, white, and green banner of the Landless Rural Workers Movement (MST), a grass-roots organization founded in 1984 to speed up agrarian reform by invading large holdings.

Since then, he has been joined by popular samba singers, filmmakers, and pop stars. "They are fundamental for our program because they reach the public's soul," MST cofounder Joo Pedro Stedile said of his movement's trendy backers.

Since its inception, the MST has successfully settled 200,000 landless families on 17 million acres of forcibly sequestered land. As the movement's ranks have grown to more than half a million members, so has the status of its artistic support.

Last April, samba superstar Chico Buarque released a CD about the MST, which was marketed alongside a photo essay book by a renowned photographer. Terra (Land) is sold in 30 nations and is expected to earn $2 million for the movement's coffers. A few months later, about 20 of Brazil's most famous folk singers joined for a "We Are the World"-style recording session in support of MST leader Jose Rainha, who many believe was wrongly convicted last summer of a landowner's murder.

In Brazil, the richest 20 percent of the population owns 88 percent of land, while the poorest 40 percent holds only 1 percent. According to the MST, Brazil has 195 million acres of fallow land, some 62 percent of its arable territory, which is often used for speculation and tax write-offs.

This skewed distribution is the major reason for rural violence that has resulted in the deaths of nearly 1,000 people since 1985, according to the Roman Catholic Church's Pastoral Land Commission.

And while the participation of artists in the landless struggle hasn't cut back noticeably on the bloodshed, it has added some significant markers to Brazilian culture.

After police gunned down 19 MST activists in 1996 in the state of Par, Oscar Niemeyer - the architect who designed Brazil's capital - built a monument on the site of the massacre. Last year, four documentaries were filmed about the MST, including "Rose's Dream" by award-winning director Tete Moraes.

But it's television, specifically the wildly popular soap operas, that have given the movement its most powerful support. In 1996 and '97, Benedito Rui Barbosa's protest against the unfair distribution of land - "Cattle King" - became one of the nation's most successful shows ever and sparked threats from landowners to sue Mr. Barbosa.

Actor Carlos Vereza, who played a crusading senator, took his role so seriously that he lectured President Fernando Henrique Cardoso on agrarian reform when Mr. Cardoso visited the set. " 'Cattle King' was a vehicle to bring the land question to a national forum," says Barbosa. "And its high ratings - thank God - meant viewers were rooting for the landless."

In the meantime, some MST leaders are becoming celebrities in their own right. Mr. Stedile and Mr. Rainha have been invited to parade at next month's carnival in Rio de Janeiro. Rainha, who is free while awaiting a new trial, hobnobbed with Danielle Mitterand, the widow of the former French president, after receiving a human rights award in Paris in December.

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