By Aaron M. Smith
ARAXA, Brazil – Flies buzzed around plastic-encased toilets on the edge of the broiling-hot landless camp. Dirty dishes with crusted rice, beans and vegetables were scattered in metal buckets filled with brown water. Disheveled children with dirt-stained clothing and open sores sauntered in the red mud instead of playing.
For me, it was an experience I will always remember. For the thousands of poor, landless farmers, it is a lifestyle they don’t have the option of forgetting.
In February, I had the privilege of visiting Brazil for two weeks, taking trips to the many landless camps and settlement farms near the cities of Uberlandia and Araxa in the central region of the country.
I visited homes constructed of splintered planks of wood that served as wobbly frames. Black plastic bags draped the spindly foundations, protecting the farmers from the blazing sun, but not from the horrible heat. This was home – at least for now it was home. The land owners could force them to leave the land at any time with no warning.
Strolling through the sometimes inhumane living conditions, it was heartbreaking to put myself in their tattered sandals. But it was heartwarming to start understanding what it all looks like through their eyes.
The poor in Brazil don’t want fancy cars, air-conditioning, or three-level houses. They don’t want steak dinners at classy restaurants, video game systems, or computers. They don’t want handouts.
They simply want to work. They want land they can call their own. They want an education so that they can take care of themselves and contribute to society. They want dignity. They want an identity. They simply need an opportunity and the guidance to accomplish this reasonable goal that most of us take for granted.
Imagine sending your children to school in a building with bugs, a dirt floor, and mold, where students don't have enough paper or pencils to last them a third of the year. Imagine your children using outdated materials as their only source of education. Imagine not sending your children to school at all because you don’t trust the bus driver, who has reportedly beaten and molested the children.
Six-year-old Rafael won’t be going to school this year because of the dangers of simply traveling to the broken down building an hour-long drive away from his landless camp.
“The worst thing about all of this is that there isn’t any real education,” said Luzinete, Rafael’s mother. “It’s hard because you want what’s best for your children and they can’t get that here. (Rafael) wants to learn but where is the opportunity?”
Luzinete tries her best to teach Rafael, but she has had no formal education of her own.
“It’s hard,” she said. “It’s an endless cycle.”
Thousands of miles away, Fr. John Quigley, Franciscans International (FI), and Franciscans Network (FN) have an eye on Rafael, Luzinete and the millions of desperately poor children and their parents throughout the world.
Franciscans Network contributes to human rights work on two levels. The first is a direct approach, helping fund programs in Brazil which educate and clothe the poor. The second is by having a presence at the international level to affect standards of trade, human rights, environment, labor, health, etc. and to monitor countries' adherence to these standards.
Before my trip to the landless camps, I knew of these organizations. I knew what they did to help the poor, but I didn’t fully grasp the impact FI and FN had thousands of miles away. After seeing first-hand the suffering of these landless farmers, I understand just how important FI and FN are, and just how much even the smallest ounce of support can provide.
The organizations do not simply give money to the poor or send them a basket of food. Their help goes far beyond a mailing. Instead of giving handouts, FI and FN give a helping hand. By providing funding for teaching and advising, they give hope to the landless farmers and to all the oppressed who are so desperate for the most basic of human rights.
I have witnessed first-hand that these organizations have indeed made a difference. I have seen a man who was once landless, commuting to a university where he is finishing his law education because of the support of FI and FN. He will then use his law degree to advocate for other landless workers.
I have seen settlement communities, complete with electricity, running water, and lush crops thriving simply because these organizations made it possible through their funding and through their partnership with APR, a pastoral land organization that works with the landless and homeless in Brazil. APR volunteers show the poor how to defend their right to land, then provide agricultural and spiritual support once land is granted.
I have seen the hope in the eyes of the poorest farmers, and I have seen the excitement when they come to understand there are people in the United States and other countries looking out for them – that know they even exist.
Traveling to the poorest areas of Brazil was a rewarding trip for me and one that opened my eyes to the injustice and suffering people are forced to live with every day. It allowed me to see life from a totally foreign perspective. It gave me a sense of just how big this world is and a clear idea about what is truly important.
And it warmed my heart to know that I could actually make a difference, that I could actually bring a smile to a face that so desperately needed one.