I recently took an opportunity to visit the southernmost region of Brazil to learn more about the food and educational systems of the Brazilian Landless Workers’ Movement (MST). This agrarian movement arose in the 1980s in response to extreme land concentration that reached a breaking point after over 2 decades of dictatorship rule. During this time, most rural land was sold for large-scale commercial agriculture and the peasant population was driven into the cities. I saw this as I flew into the city of Sao Paulo, when the rural landscape of vast monocultural plots transitioned to the overcrowded supercity of Sao Paulo, which holds over 12 million people.In the 1980s, thousands of poor urban families began to organize themselves to occupy parcels of land that were not being utilized by their owners. This way they could produce their own food instead of relying on unpredictable wage labor in the large cities. These occupations were legitimized by a Brazilian law that requires all land must serve a social purpose. Though not all occupations are successful, over a million people have won their right to produce food on occupied land, as well as develop their own systems of housing and education.
During my visit I stayed with various families that lived in settlements that had been claimed by the MST for over a decade. On the entryway of one of the houses I stayed in was a mural of the MST flag and the words O que não se socializa, se perde – what is not socialized is lost. The importance of human connection and cooperation was demonstrated by the overwhelming generosity and willingness of these families to share their homes, food, rides, time, and gifts to us. They even lent us their car! They have learned to build systems that are so deeply grounded in collectivity and trust that they easily welcome more people into their lives.
I was surprised to find that on the surface, these settlements don’t look so drastically unique from farms I’ve seen in the past. They are not isolated, small-scale subsistence communities that I admittedly imagined when first reading about them. Once they stabilize their means of feeding themselves, there is a common tendency toward commercialization so that they can participate in the broader economy. As a part of their mission toward agrarian reform, MST producers organize themselves into cooperatives so they can pool their resources. For example, small grape growers combine all their grapes in the same juice factory, beginner rice growers can access tractors from the co-op, and all producers can combine their networks of distribution. Replacing a system of competition for one of cooperation and shared wealth has made it possible for the MST to grow immensely. Today, it is the largest producer of organic rice in Latin America, which is now a key source of food for schools throughout Brazil, as well as for MST groups that are in need of food assistance. This form of widespread commercialization is distinguishable from the industrial agriculture we know because the wealth produced by every MST plot is shared among hundreds of families rather than a single or small handful of owners.
Many of the farmers we work with at Fresh Approach farm their products organically, but are prohibited from using the word “organic” if they have not paid thousands of dollars for a certification. To deal with this issue, farmers in Brazil developed an alternative, decentralized, and participatory process to organic certification.
The farms I visited held strong opinions against the use of agro-toxins. But similar to our experience in the U.S., Brazilian farmers face many barriers to access the centralized organic certification, which is bureaucratic and expensive to maintain. Similarly, many of the farmers we work with at Fresh Approach farm their products organically, but are prohibited from using the word “organic” if they have not paid thousands of dollars for a certification. To deal with this issue, farmers in Brazil developed an alternative, decentralized, and participatory process to organic certification. Organic producers can now gather into self-governed groups and certify one another based on a list of criteria, which are reinforced by monthly group meetings and inspections. This process makes it possible for an agro-ecological farmer like Nate, who sells his produce to local markets, to call his products organic even though he lives less than 3 kilometers from a soy farm that uses pesticides, which would have disqualified him from receiving the centralized certification. The only compromise required by the participatory certification is that he must plant a eucalyptus barrier to filter the pesticide drift from his neighbor.
The MST educational structure also reflects the same respect for cooperation and distribution of power that I saw in the agricultural sector. While most of the schools we know in the U.S. operate in a classic lecture style, in which a professor passes knowledge downward to the sitting students, the MST pedagogy is much more multi-dimensional. In the schools I visited, students are expected to read and study, but also to clean their own bathrooms, cook food for each other, do laundry, maintain the green spaces, create artwork, complete office tasks, organize the library books, fix a broken wall, and even organize the formation of their schools. Hierarchy is alleviated through this well-rounded experience because all participants in the school take part in the powerful administrative tasks, as well as the traditionally less-valued physical work. I was also inspired by the combination of work, home, and play, which in our society are often siphoned into isolated sectors of our lives.
In all aspects of MST life that I experienced – agriculture, education, housing – there was an uncompromised commitment to participatory democracy and resistance to hierarchy. When I asked questions about the role of individualism in their societies, which I assume is innate in all humans and disturbs any attempts to foster collectivity, they explained to me that there is a shared understanding that competition is harmful to their mission and simply wouldn’t work. It is possible to construct new forms of living that are based in mutual support and growth, and I feel it’s important to remember that when pursuing goals toward justice and equality.
In the past year at Fresh Approach, we have been making strong efforts to define our goals and stay true to them. As a non-profit in a capitalist society, we face rigid barriers of funding and societal hierarchies that can work against our collective mission toward justice. For example, how can we support the struggling, beginner, disadvantaged farmers while the white, landowning farmer from an established farming family can offer much cheaper produce that keeps prices low for low-income shoppers? How can I best share food resources with the residents of San Pablo even if I don’t live there and know the neighborhood? As we constantly discuss the obstacles and contradictions within our work, we are learning how to better understand and confront these issues. Too often in some non-profits and other institutions more value is placed on the opinions and experience of high-ranking administrators, so we are working to increase communication across all dimensions of our work and place more power in the hands of those who lack it, those who experience injustice. The work of the MST is an inspiration for our need to redistribute power to achieve good health and food security for all. Going forward I will remember their will to resist the forces that divide us and instead cultivate healthy relationships through cooperation.