Hope Is a Verb

June 29th, 2007
I opened my e-mail in-box this morning to a message from Vilmar Boufleuer, a sandy-haired ex-seminarian writing from Brazil. He asked if I remembered him. How could I not? I've been reciting his very words for the past six months.

I'd met Vilmar two years ago when I was exploring anti-hunger movements for a book I have coauthored with my mother, Frances Moore Lapp}, as a sequel to her 1971 cookbook and manifesto, Diet for a Small Planet. To Vilmar, I'd been just another foreigner interested in his social movement, the largest of its kind in Latin America. To me, Vilmar was a character in my book. His was a voice to humanize the struggle for land and dignity, a way to personify the accomplishments of the Landless Workers Movement. My mother and I had been drawn to Brazil by the drama of landless peasants wresting land from large landholders who for centuries had claimed the best land as their own while leaving most of it unused. The Landless Workers Movement (or MST, after its Portuguese acronym) emerged in the late 1980s around a constitutional clause requiring the government to redistribute idle land.

I'll never forget our introduction to the MST local staff at their southern headquarters in Curitiba. We had just arrived when two men entered the office, their arms slung around each other's shoulders. They invited us to join them for dinner at an all-you-can-eat pizza parlor. This was how I met Vilmar and his doppelg`nger brother, Dirceu.

As countless slices of improbably topped pizza passed by our table, Vilmar described the lawsuits pending against his brother, brought in response to an MST-sponsored sit-in meant to pressure the government to turn over unused land. Vilmar told us that more MST members had been killed in the struggle for land reform than had been "disappeared" under the military dictatorship that had reigned for more than two decades. But the conversation quickly turned from what they were fighting against to what they were fighting for. We began discussing education, as we would with almost everyone we'd meet, and the thousands of schools the MST has created.

The day after our pizzafest, Vilmar took us to our first encampment in a place called Lapa, in the state of Paran!. Encampments, now numbering in the thousands across the country, are the first step in the MST process of settling landless peasants. They are a sort of purgatory, marked by a period of waiting. The landholder has relinquished control, but the MST doesn't yet have official title. At Lapa one family we approached answered our questions with patience and openness while sitting outside their house, a shack constructed from thin black plastic pulled around tall poles. The parents described their arrival here four years ago only to face a landlord with hired gunmen. The families at Lapa were lucky; no one in their community was killed. But among the others settled by the MST - 250,000 families on 17 million acres of land - many have not been as fortunate.

My mother and I called our book Hope's Edge. After it was published earlier this year, we traveled on a book tour that took us across the country. People would often ask about our title. How could we have hope after all we'd seen? It was Vilmar's face I would conjure to help me answer. Hope, I'd learned, is not what we find in evidence; hope is what we become by taking action. Hope, I'd say, is more verb than noun.

Vilmar's e-mail this morning did not bring the usual news of death, injury, and trials. Today the news was good. The families we'd met in Lapa had received official title, and with it the chance for better farms, houses, and schools - the possibility of home.

Anna Lapp is the coauthor of Hope's Edge: The Next Diet for a Small Planet (J.P. Tarcher/Putnam, 2002; www.hopesedge.com).
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September / October 2002