Building a Life of Dignity in Brazil With Agroecology
This is a guest blog post by WhyHunger’s Senior Director of Programs, Alison Cohen.
“A dignified life,” according to our campesina host Sueli during a recent site visit to her rural home along the Ribeira river in Brazil, “is one where you can work to produce food — enough to feed the family and to sell at the market; one where you can build and live in a comfortable house that will protect you from the rain; one where our children have access to education in the rural areas, and a transportation system so we can get to school and the market. Oh — and of course — one where you have good health.”
It was February, and WhyHunger staff and partners from the United States were in Brazil to attend the VI National Congress of the Landless Workers Movement (MST). But just prior to the historic event that would bring together 17,000 campesinos for five days to camp, eat, celebrate, march and learn together in the capital of Brasilia, we had stepped out and were driving down a dusty road with our colleagues from MAB (the Movement of Dam Affected People). An extraordinary opportunity to learn more about MAB’s work and to witness firsthand the role of social movements and agroecology in improving lives today and changing systems for tomorrow, we were excited to take this first step to deepening our relationship with and support of this massive peasant-led movement.
MAB was founded in March of 1991 to be a national, politically-autonomous social movement organized by the people most affected by dams. Their goal is to develop and implement actions against the hydroelectric energy policies that have displaced thousands of families from rural areas and farming lifestyles to the fringes of urban areas over the past 2.5 decades. Today 80,000 peasants form grassroots “base groups” in 17 states throughout Brazil and continue to struggle together for a new energy policy that is “fair, participatory and democratic.” At its core, MAB is fighting for true participation by front line communities in the decision-making processes that lead to policies and practices which affect their quality of life and livelihoods.
Sueli and her husband Roberto — whose home and farm we visited — are members of one of MAB’s grassroots base groups. The structure is multi-tiered; the base groups bring together 10 to 12 families from the same community who are affected by dams and form the movements’ foundation. Clusters of base groups form MAB’s local coordination groups, representing one or more neighboring municipalities. In each state, the local coordination groups constitute the state coordination body. And from each state, two members are appointed to represent their state’s base groups in the national coordination — MAB’s main decision-making space.
In the Ribeira valley area, MAB is currently working with 50 families in 3 separate municipalities. Sueli and Roberto are one of five families participating in their fledgling base group. MAB began organizing communities in this part of Sao Paulo state just two years ago. Roberto told us that “it’s not easy to be a part of the movement. There is a lot of individualism in our community — it takes time to build trust and a collective process.” The collective process ultimately leads to the movement’s articulation of the kind of energy policies they will pressure the government to adopt. And the collective process is also a space where families learn from each other about new farming practices and markets they can access immediately to begin building a sustainable livelihood.
Sueli’s job as a local coordinator for MAB is to encourage families to join the movement. She engages with her neighbors in dialogues about the political and economic realities they face as a peasant class of rural families living from the land. These dialogues take place while families are also learning about agroecological methods of food production through resources and farmer-to-farmer training provided by the movement. Sueli proudly showed us the several hundred chickens she was incubating that would soon be shared with families new to MAB. These families would be raising their chickens in a system they were affectionately calling “the subway,” for the wire tunnel chicken run that opened at feeding times between a free range area and a gazebo structure. In the feeding area, the chickens scrap for feed and insects and leave their droppings to be worked into the soil to nurture the leafy greens that require shade in Brazil’s hot climate.
Agroecology is creating roots of stability for campesino families, Roberto told us, and it provides ways for young people to stay on the land and live a dignified life. The goal of MAB’s PAIS (Integrated Agroecology and Sustainability Program) program in the Ribeira valley region is for each participating family to produce enough food to feed themselves and sell at the market two times per week and, eventually, to install alternative means of electricity through solar power. Agroecology is not just about food production. It’s a form of land and community stewardship that links ecology, culture, economics and society to sustain agricultural production, healthy environments and viable food and farming communities. It’s a whole systems approach which privileges local and indigenous knowledge and the innovations that come from those working towards co-existing with the natural environment.
After a lunch of beans, rice, beef and cabbage, Sueli and Roberto took us on an extended tour of their two-hectare property where they are growing a variety of different fruits and vegetables in addition to raising ducks and chickens. Roberto had built their home — still a work in progress — from the ground up. They had running water, a flushable toilet, and electricity — which afforded them the opportunity to own a refrigerator and washing machine. Their house was perched alongside the river with neighbors a short walking distance on either side. Rowboats were docked in the river, ready for fishing during periods when the water wasn’t too contaminated with agrochemical run-off from the large tracts of monocropped bananas, corn, soy and rice grown nearby by absentee land owners for export. What we were seeing on his land today, Roberto told us, is merely the “seed” of agroecology. They had worked hard over the past couple of years to put in basic systems. And now they are ready to start innovating and finding the systems that work best for them in their particular micro-climate. “Then,” Roberto said, “we can begin spreading these innovations to our campesino neighbors.”
“Because we are a part of the MAB movement,” Sueli told us, “we now have the means to build a meaningful life. For instance, through MAB we now know we can sell produce for school meals, and the government pays a better price than the local market. And we are proud that we are selling organic produce even though we can’t get a higher price in the market. We are very wealthy in natural resources but not necessarily in cash. It is very important to us to practice chemical-free agriculture – for our own health.” All that was missing from their dignified life, according to Roberto, was a second floor addition on their house where he would place a hammock for long naps, and a car so that he didn’t have to hike out to the road to catch a bus to sell his produce and livestock at the market twice a week.
MAB’s tactics are deceptively straightforward: political education + technical support. As a social movement, MAB campesinos are working together to define a new vision for society and demand that their democratically-elected government work to protect the rights of the people and the environment in the face of encroaching multi-national companies — especially those who are building dams, buying up large tracts of land for export crops, spraying pesticides that leach into the rivers — all of which destroys rural life and livelihoods, displaces families and banishes them to urban areas. At the same time, social movements like MAB are investing in changing the current reality of rural families through agroecology, spreading innovations and information from one family to the next as they work to insulate themselves from hunger by rebuilding a local food and farm economy.
As a core part of its anti-hunger strategy, WhyHunger supports social movements as a means of bringing about grassroots-defined systemic changes needed to ultimately end hunger worldwide. As a grassroots support organization, we are also invested in the innovative solutions that communities are implementing today through agroecology to end hunger among peasant, fishing and indigenous communities worldwide. WhyHunger demonstrates its allyship to social movements like MAB through our willingness to learn about their struggles and achievements, spread awareness and mobilize resources, and ultimately to support grassroots-led social movements in the United States grounded in the belief that another world — one free from hunger and poverty and rich in lives lived with dignity — is possible.
Photos provided by WhyHunger