Soil, Struggle and Justice: Agroecology in the Brazilian Landless Movement

Andreas Hernandez

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Unreformable: Week #4 Soil, Struggle and Justice: Agroecology in the Brazilian Landless Movement
Andreas Hernandez

73 Minutes

Artist Cinemas

Streaming till November 30

This documentary chronicles the history of the MST (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra, known in English as the Landless Workers Movement) in Brazil, offering a detailed account of their activities beginning with land occupation, land restoration, and a complex social system that includes continuous political formaçao as its core principle.

The film is presented alongside an interview with the filmmaker Andreas Hernandez by Adelita Husni Bey.

Soil, Struggle and Justice is the fourth installment of Unreformable, an online program of films and accompanying texts convened by Adelita Husni Bey as the eighth cycle of Artist Cinemas, a long-term, online series of film programs curated by artists for e-flux Video & Film.

Unreformable runs in six weekly episodes from October 18 through November 28, 2021, streaming a new film each week accompanied by a commissioned interview or response published in text form.

Andreas Hernandez in conversation with Adelita Husni Bey

Adelita Husni Bey (AHB):
I found out about the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (MST), the Brazilian landless peasant movement, in 2012. It was at a screening hosted by 16 Beaver—an artist-run space central to the Occupy movement in New York—where a group of MST representatives gave a presentation. I was immediately struck by the way the MST integrate member learning into their framework via a central process called formação (formation). In your documentary the topic is described by members of the coop as building “basic capacity to attend needs of the collective” or producing “a production matrix” to attend the coop’s needs. Paulo Freire, the author of Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1968), is pictured visiting their cooperative COOPAVA, which to me further highlights the MTS’s roots in popular education. Could you describe the centrality, or more importantly the intertwining, of technical (machine operation), administrative (accounting), and political education in the MST, as you describe it in your documentary?

Andreas Hernandez (AH):
formação is so critical to the praxis of the MST! The Movement brings together dispossessed peasant farmers, who historically have not had access to basic rights of citizenship. For example, in the film several COOPAVA members speak of how they had second grade educations. Marli, in the film, speaks of how she comes from a culture that has generationally been forced to keep silent and bow down to dominant plantation owning classes. She continues on how the formação of the encampments is so critical to future success on settlements. Apparently simple roles within the encampment, like running a firewood committee, begin to support what Movement members call the recuperation of human dignity and power.

The encampments are also spaces where new members have left their traditional community structures and are now in daily relation with hundreds or even thousands of other new members. It is here that a Friereian pedagogy explicitly comes into play. New members form nucleos which are the basic social and political infrastructure of the MST. These roughly ten-to-twenty-person groups discuss both the daily activities of the encampments as well as strategies for occupying land, and what to do once land is gained. They also discuss the wider political systems that have constructed their exploitation and marginalization. One of the key outcomes of the encampments is this grassroots, participatory, political education—which creates a political base that is so critical to the ongoing success of the Movement.

In the film, COOPAVA members speak of how, through the nucleos, they decided in the encampments that when they did get land, they would work cooperatively. However, upon arriving on the land they quickly learned that their community did not have all the skills necessary to form a functional cooperative in the context of wider Brazilian society and economy. This is when they adopted The Laboratory—a forty-day training process set up by the MST, but run by the cooperative. It was here that capacities were built in areas such as accounting, machine operation, legal issues, and other production matrixes. This participatory capacity building, organized and run by the families themselves, was core to the construction of a successful cooperative, and was finalized through the election of cooperative officers—legally establishing COOPAVA as a juridical entity.

Later, degraded land and health and economic issues pushed the families to adopt agroecology. They started to develop agroecology not only as a set of agricultural practices that understand the farm as an ecosystem, but as a system to rethink all their relations—with each other, with other species and the land, and with wider society. I believe that it was through the tool of agroecology that COOPAVA came to a praxis where their agricultural production, the creation of value-added products, and the creation of new local and regional markets became truly intertwined through an ecological (relational) worldview.

In the film the history of the Movement is described as a history of “dispossessed families” who rally together against super-exploitation. Interestingly, the reason why the coop successfully switches from the use of pesticides to an agroecological framework is their desire to avoid injury to themselves or to their children. One of the members states: “It is worthwhile to take care of our children—what about the children of others?”

How do the MST, and perhaps cooperative movements more generally, redraw and reconfigure the notion of the family in your view?

This is a huge and interesting question! The quote you bring out addresses what I believe is different about the cooperative. They became increasingly conscious that pesticides a harming their community, particularly the children. And they decided they are not only going to protect their children, but also the children to whom they sell their products. This is a political decision that comes, in my view, out of the formação discussed above. They also made a political decision to sell high-quality food to working-class families at low prices. Easily, another pathway would have been to market their “beyond organic” production to urban middle classes in the nearby cities of Pelotas and Porto Alegre.

As you mention, the families that eventually formed COOPAVA are among the most marginalized rural groups in Brazil. At the beginning of the film, several families speak of how they left their communities to join the MST—often to the great resistance of their wider families and communities. I know that the framework for this screening series is around the nuclear family. Perhaps what is interesting about the COOPAVA experience is that these families were never integrated into capitalist relations. From a sociological perspective, each of the members of the cooperative were raised in traditional communities with significant feudal dimensions to social, political, and economic life. Whereas the history of capitalism saw societies move from the “mechanic community” of traditional bonds, family, religion, and moral solidarity to an “organic community” of bonds of economic relations, the families of COOPAVA transformed from mechanic solidarity to what we might call a cooperative solidarity. In many ways the cooperative relations resemble and transcend the relationships of their traditional communities. For me, perhaps critical parts of this transformation are the politicization of the community, and the emphasis on collective empowerment (vs. traditional hierarchies). Collective and democratic empowerment were crucial in the opening of spaces by women to transform gender relations in a particularly machista region of Brazil. The critical infrastructure to this collective empowerment were the nucleos discussed earlier—spaces of collective learning, debate, and decision-making.

I am sure that people have looked more deeply into the remaking of the family within the MST, but I am not aware of this work. When the Movement speaks to wider society, they often mobilize the narrative of “family farming” to counter that of “agroindustry.” This is a quite effective political discourse. And this is often accompanied by the narrative of “healthy, nutritious organic food.” I would say that the family remains a foundational social structure within the MST, but this is a family embedded in political community, and often, cooperative solidarity. And in COOPAVA, I believe, the worldview of agroecology goes beyond even cooperative solidarity to relationality with one another, the land and other species, wider society, and the wider web of life.

In the film a member of the collective makes a distinction between being a subject of the ecological cycle, versus being a dependent of the industrial cycle. Cooperative family farming on reclaimed land is seen as a subversive struggle by the MST—as it is not subject to the blackmail of capitalist wage labor. What is the MST’s relation to capitalism and what do you feel is important about this movement and the wider La Via Campesina?

One of my favorite parts of filming was speaking with the food workers’ union leader, in a nearby urban center, who argued that COOPAVA avoids the three sins of capitalism. He made the claim that COOPAVA does not destroy natural systems, it recuperates them. The cooperative does not exploit labor: Members receive the direct fruits of their labor. And COOPAVA does not exploit the consumer, as they provide high-quality, low-cost food. Within the cooperative itself, however, there is debate whether or not they are capitalist!

Capitalism is a pretty slippery word. In my view a good starting point is to separate markets, which have existed in various forms long before the system of capitalism. The historian Fernand Braudel understood capitalism as something above everyday material life and the operation of markets. Capitalism, he argued, takes advantage of high-profit opportunities generated by linking markets into a world economy. Activist and scholar Raj Patel, draws from Marx to understand capitalism as the mobilization of money from financial and administrative centers through frontiers, exploiting and “cheapening” human systems and the wider web of life to make and sell commodities, with the profit returning to urban centers (repeat cycle endlessly). From these perspectives, I do not see COOPAVA as capitalist. On the contrary, I see them actively constructing a new form of cooperative rural life outside the flows of capital. And far from exploiting nature, people, and money, COOPAVA is regenerating these relationships, and integrating them through the practice of agroecology. Importantly, COOPAVA is accomplishing this “with and against the state,” meaning working with and pushing the state where there is good will towards common goals, and resisting the state where there is not.

Agroecology then, for COOPAVA and increasingly for the MST, is a political tool. The families of COOPAVA were embedded in histories of exclusion from essential dimensions of social life, including education, healthcare, and the opportunity to earn a livelihood. As they engaged with the natural world degraded by the dominant agricultural paradigm, the families worked out a new conception of the world rooted in ecological recuperation and equilibrium, connection with nature, and cooperation. And through building the structure of COOPAVA and transitioning to agroecology, the families increasingly constructed the autonomy they needed to become creators of history, or political agents. In doing so, they are constructing an alternative development on the ground, territorializing new human/nature relations on their settlement and supporting the Movement and other settlements in transitioning to agroecology.

Via Campesina is of course the world’s largest social movement, bringing together landless and small farmers around the world. The MST was a core organizer for the formation of this global network. While the MST began regionally, they quickly saw they needed to organize on a national scale to be effective in the face of the then-military government. But soon after, they saw that beyond the national government was global capitalism. Via Campesina has become an increasingly effective global actor, transforming debates about food systems and democracy through their concept of Food Sovereignty—which I believe can be understood as the democratization of the food system from under the grip of corporate capitalism. Interestingly, the United Nations has been a forum where Via Campesina has made real transformations in concepts of food and agriculture in relation to wider society and the web of life.

The documentary does not depict the settlement as a utopia, but addresses the complications of living together and perhaps unlearning both industrial methods of farming and ways of life. A segment of the film describes women’s struggles within the coop—how women were typically entrusted with the work of raising children as well as with ripping weeds from the fields. One coop member proudly states how demands were made on men to partake in ripping the weeds and how a more equitable sharing of labor was arrived at via internal struggle. Could you elaborate on this part of the documentary?

Several women in the cooperative sought me out off-camera, when we were filming the transition of the dairy cows to agroecology. You might recall that in the film, the first step of this transition was to change the relationship between the humans and the cows. Men were the ones largely working with the animals, and were using horses, dogs, and whips for herding. COOPAVA changed the gender makeup so that teams were equally divided between men and women. The men were a bit suspicious of the recommendation to begin talking to and petting the cows, but the women jumped right into this new direction. And the men had to follow as this had been decided collectively. The film speaks of how getting rid of horses, dogs, and sticks and changing their relationship with the cows quickly resulted in 25% more milk production, with the cows no longer needing to be herded in and out, saving hours of labor each day. However, these women also wanted me to know that they saw this transformation reflected in their families. They said that many men started changing their relationship with their children. And that domestic violence virtually disappeared from the settlement. This is what ecofeminists have been telling us! That our relationship with the land and other species is intricately tied with our relationships with one another. For me, this is perhaps the most exciting dimension of agroecology—that transforming our relationship with the earth and other species might be critical in transforming gender relations!

Back to your question, in the cooperative itself, I see the women as actively taking and creating spaces. The cooperative structure sets up an opening for this, but it was the agency of these women that was able to create new liberatory spaces, and year after year, transform the role of women on the settlement—and to some extent in the wider MST. I really like in the film when one woman says that women in the collective saw that the first thing they had to do was transform themselves—in order to be agents of wider structural transformation—and that the Movement made this space possible.

I was struck by one of the members describing “assistance as a relationship, not purely as an application” in relation to the way the cooperative employed technical expertise to develop their particular agroecological model. Could you describe your role as a filmmaker within this framework?

As we discussed earlier, many COOPAVA members speak about how agroecology, at its core, is not just a system of sustainable agriculture, where the farm is seen as an ecosystem—but is about relationships at every level. In that way, I believe the manner in which the MST is using agroecology is really about a paradigm shift, to understanding the world as a system of relationships (instead of a collection of inanimate objects). And through agroecology, they have remade their relationships with each other, wider society, non-human life, and the living earth.

They have also made a new relationship with knowledge production. They are clear that agroecological technologies are a combination of the best of traditional agriculture with cutting-edge ecology and biology. Industrial farming was constructed in Brazil in great part by the State, with companies and universities arriving to apply the Green Revolution practices (monocropping with intensive uses of petrochemical fertilizers and pesticides) upon the lifeworlds of farmers seen as ignorant to these “advances.” These applications were often backed by subsidies, and promises of quick short-term profit. I hope the film was able to show, in a grounded way, how the application of these technologies bankrupted hundreds of thousands of small farmers and launched what was, up to that point, the largest and most rapid rural to urban migration in history. Although peasant struggle has a long history in Brazil, the application of the Green Revolution during the Military Government is perhaps the major social crisis from which the MST emerged.

COOPAVA by no means attempted to isolate and create a utopia apart. They actively sought knowledge and support for every aspect of the development of the cooperative. During the transition to agroecology, they invited people with extensive technical knowledge to contribute. However, they came to understand knowledge construction as a relationship—between critical technical support and the territory, culture, and history of the cooperative. New knowledges came in, were debated, chewed upon, transformed, and if useful, ultimately embedded into the ongoing praxis of the cooperative. And clearly, the experience of COOPAVA was increasingly sought out by other settlements, farmers, and organizations—so that the knowledge of the cooperative’s territory went out to inform numerous transformations.

The decision to make this film was debated in the general assembly of COOPAVA. The members knew they had done something quite extraordinary, but in the hard work of daily life in the cooperative, they had not yet communicated this as widely as they wished. So they accepted the idea of making a film. Of course, I did not show up with “Hello, I’m an American, and I would like to make a film about your Marxist cooperative.” I had been living and working in Brazil, researching and participating politically since the World Social Forums in Porto Alegre in the early 2000s. I came to know about COOPAVA through a wonderful friend and scholar from South Africa, Razack Karriem, who had been doing research with the MST to learn lessons for the South African landless movement. We were actually supposed to make this film together, but health issues prevented him from participating. Through Razack and the state office of the MST, I met members of COOPAVA and we discussed how a film could be made.

This was a political decision by the cooperative. There is a single set hourly wage for all cooperative members based on the output of the cooperative—all roles receive the same hourly wage. It was decided that anyone working on the film (interviews, etc.) would count this process as part of their working day. The cooperative was very much involved in setting up key structures of the film. Perhaps most importantly, they wanted the work to be based around what ended up being three nights of roundtable discussions, in which members of the cooperative collectively told their story. With a relationship of trust and friendship, they also gave me leeway to take the ingredients they thought most important and put them together in a film in ways I believed most useful. This film, like other technical support, was not an application, but a work built out of relationship on the territory of COOPAVA.

Andreas Hernandez’s research, filmmaking, and teaching examines just transitions to sustainability and regeneration. His focus is on social movements and ecovillages in Brazil, and their construction of agroecological systems and emergent politics and worldviews. He also examines how social movement activity can be translated and implemented into social policy and may engage with the United Nations System. He is a lecturer at the Sustainability Studies Program, University of New Mexico.

Adelita Husni Bey is an artist and pedagogue invested in anarcho-collectivism, theater, and critical legal studies. She organizes workshops and produces publications, broadcasts, and exhibition work using non-competitive pedagogical models through the framework of contemporary art. Involving activists, architects, jurists, schoolchildren, spoken-word poets, actors, urbanists, physical therapists, students, and teachers, her work consists of making sites in which to practice collectively. She is a 2020-2022 Vera List Center Fellow with a project centered on the radical changes in social relations brought about by responses to past and current pandemics.

For more information, contact program [​at​] e-flux.com.

Film, Nature & Ecology, Labor & Work, Land & territory
Documentary, Ecofeminism
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