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The agroecological activist

Alex Kawakami is an agronomist and activist with Brazil's Landless Rural Workers' Movement (MST). James O'Nions spoke to him about how the MST organises and its vision of 'agroecology'

May 29, 2010
7 min read


James O'NionsJames O'Nions is a former Red Pepper editor. He is the head of activism for Global Justice Now.


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What are the aims of the MST?

The priority aims of the MST from the beginning were firstly to fight for land, secondly to fight for agrarian reform, and thirdly to transform society. But after we started achieving some agrarian reform we saw that there wer e many more complex things to do. For example, we have aims for education, for health, for an alternative agrarian production. We propose, in fact, a different society.

From the beginning, one of the main tactics of the MST was to occupy unused land. Can you tell us about how that works?

Eighty per cent of the settlements of the MST were created by organising these occupations and putting pressure on the government to redistribute land. But at the same time, the popular education that the MST does in preparation for the occupations, amongst communities near the big landholdings who have been told their whole lives that there is nothing they can do to change things, helps to create a revolution in the minds of the people there.

What does a typical MST settlement look like?

We have achieved a lot in the settlements. We are able to ensure that people are properly nourished, that children can go to school, that they have a decent minimum income and overall a better quality of life. People on the settlements also have a better perspective on life – they understand through popular education that if you organise, you can fight for your rights.

The MST has been quite important to developing the concept and practice of ‘agroecology’. Can you tell us what agroecology is?

The environmental crisis, of which climate change is the most obvious symptom, is a caused by the pattern of consumption under capitalism, and the way capitalism produces things, which is energy intensive and not sustainable. So we propose agroecology as an alternative to this model.

It is a way that farmers can have more autonomy and protect the environment. It’s a scientific approach, but one which prioritises health, biological diversity and security. It’s secure because it involves growing a diverse range of crops, so if there is a problem with one crop then farmers still have others to sell and provide them with some income. It’s an environmental approach because it doesn’t use inputs from outside the farm, like chemical fertilisers and pesticides.

Agribusiness uses a lot of genetically modified seeds, but we believe that the most important thing a small farmer has is his own seeds, not least because their seeds are usually the best adapted to their own climate and type of land. If you buy seeds from the big seed companies such as Monsanto, you don’t own those seeds, you have to buy them again the next year. We also encourage farmers to exchange seeds with each other to increase biodiversity.

In some ways it sounds like organic agriculture, but also like there is a social aspect to agroecology that is lacking in straightforward organic farming…

This is very important. Often organic farming is not a social system of production at all. There are some very big companies in Brazil who have a lot of money in organic production, but this does not change the relationship with the workers or the farmers who supply them, to which they still pay a very low price.

When the MST started it was very much focused on agrarian reform, but it seems increasingly you have organised against multinational corporations like the giant seed companies too.

Yes, there was a political decision taken by the MST to focus on developing agroecology as an alternative. And it’s not easy, because small farmers constantly see adverts on the TV from Monsanto and Syngenta encouraging them to use their seeds as a more modern, productive way of farming. But in addition to that we also have MST activists mobilising against the multinationals themselves. This is very important for raising the profile of issues that no-one is talking about.

When we took direct action against GM crops, for instance, or eucalyptus plantations, the media accused us of being anti-progress and against job creation. But without these actions there would be no discussion at all of the way that multinationals are literally stealing our resources and our land, and destroying the culture of the countryside. By taking these kinds of radical actions we create a discussion.

How has Lula’s government affected the MST and what it has been able to do?

Well, it’s a complex situation. We have been able to have more of a dialogue with the Lula government, although it’s not the same all over Brazil, as some states have a lot of power and their administrations are not prepared to talk to us at all. But in other ways the results have been quite bad. Lula came from the left and his election was a product of organising of the social movements and the trade unions. But when he got into power, he appointed lots of right-wing people to his administration. The head of the central bank was an ex-president of the Citibank group in the US, and the minister of agriculture represents the association of agribusiness in Brazil.

There was a famous photo of Lula with the MST, where he said he was going to institute agrarian reform, but when this eventually happened, the scale of it was very small. What’s more, they are now trying to change the Forest Code to reduce the area of the Amazon rainforest which has to be preserved. This change is only to placate the big soybean producers.

So in the next election we are not supporting Lula’s party, and are discussing with other social movements and left parties a popular programme for Brazil.

The MST has always faced repression and violence from both the police and the landowners. What’s the situation right now with the repression you’re facing?

From last November to the present we have seen an increasing level of attacks. This is due to the way that the right, including the right in the Lula government, is organising to criminalise social movements in Brazil. In Santa Catarina and Sao Paulo state, some of the leaders of the MST have been arrested and it is clear that there is a move to criminalise our land occupations.

What can people in the UK do to act in solidarity with the MST?

When people from the MST are arrested, international pressure from friends of the MST around the world can help a lot. But they can also help by joining with social movements around the world who are campaigning for agroecology, because we cannot make these changes only in one place, it has to be internationally.

MST: a very short history

The MST is Latin America’s biggest social movement and since 1984 has settled around 370,000 previously landless families on 7.5 million hectares of land. It has its own newspaper and a number of community radio stations. Some settlements farm collectively, others around individual plots of land, but there are also many kinds of cooperatives that support MST farmers, from credit cooperatives to stockbreeding and small food processing plants.

There are around 2,000 publicly-run schools on MST settlements and encampments (encampments are temporary settlements of landless people waiting to be given title to their land), as well as programmes of adult literacy and education. The MST also cooperates with universities to run relevant courses, and has its own Florestan Fernandes National School. Tackling gender inequality has also been a key task, which it has done through imposing 50 per cent participation by women in leadership bodies and on training courses, provision of childcare, political education and ensuring women get equal title to land.

For more information in English, see www.mstbrazil.org

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James O'NionsJames O'Nions is a former Red Pepper editor. He is the head of activism for Global Justice Now.


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