In greater Sao Paulo, the movement’s actions escalated on Mar. 16, when about 500 families occupied an area of 1.2 million square metres in Itapecerica da Serra, a municipality of 160,000 located 38 kilometres from Sao Paulo’s city centre.
This Wednesday the invasion had grown to some 3,000 families, a total of 12,000 people, camping in shelters made of bamboo and black plastic sheeting.
The MTST and other organisations demanding housing, like the National Union for Popular Housing (UNMP) and the Downtown (Sao Paulo) Homeless People’s Movement, stepped up their mass protests this month, holding street marches and rallies in front of government buildings and occupying abandoned old buildings.
The MTST’s activities have expanded the traditional "Red April", when social movements take action to commemorate International Day of Peasant Struggle on Apr. 17 and the national Indigenous People’s Day on Apr. 19.
This year these actions extended over several weeks, and in the case of the Landless Rural Workers Movement (MST) are still continuing.
"Red April" gets its name from the red flags that are the hallmark of MST demonstrators and carried prominently in their marches.
"The biggest social movement in Brazil today is the Landless Movement (MST)" which is campaigning to accelerate the agrarian reform. It joins forces with other movements with common aims, such as protesting social injustice, Breno Bringel, a political scientist and visiting researcher at Campinas University, told IPS.
Apart from the landless MST and the homeless MTST, who are "revitalising urban protest," organisations of indigenous peoples, garbage pickers, and people affected by dams are also active, he noted. There are also organisations fighting for education or health; youth culture groups, such as hip hop; and the Afro-Brazilian movement, Bringel said.
Social movements emerged as political actors in Brazil during the 1970s, when they "organised opposition to the military regime," developing new forms of grassroots organisation. In the 1980s they acquired new dimensions, going on to claim social rights like the rights of women, the environment, and sexual and ethnic minorities, he said.
But in the 1990s, with the advance of free-market policies, "the influence of organised social movements declined. They lost ground to non-governmental organisations, as public criticism of the system ebbed away," Bringel said.
"The demonstrations this April are seeking to break the state-market-service sector tripod, while rejecting policies based on welfare or charity," and they signal a return to the fundamental demand for social transformation, said Bringel, who holds a doctorate in the theory of social movements.
The growing strength of social movements, which played an important role in the Brazilian elections "by cementing the forces of the left," contrasts with the crisis in trade unionism which has been exacerbated by the rise in unemployment, the growth of the informal labour market, and the "flexibilisation and increased precariousness of labour relations," he said.
The fundamental contradiction between capital and labour has been displaced outside the factory, with "workers being excluded or rejected by the formal employment structures," said the academic.
"If they do not adapt, trade unions with a vertical structure will only plunge deeper into crisis, because of their disconnection from the new realities," he predicted.
The high level of social unrest this April is also a response to political circumstances in Brazil, as President Luiz In?cio Lula da Silva, who began his second four-year term on Jan. 1, has belatedly only just completed the appointment of his ministerial cabinet, historian Dulce Pandolfi, head of the Brazilian Institute of Social and Economic Analysis (IBASE), told IPS.
The trend is for social movements to take m