The embattled northeastern Brazilian state of Maranhão is experiencing its worst drought in 50 years. Yet in the midst of this brutal dry spell, one farmer settlement is brimming with abundant vegetables, fruits and crops.
“We are producing cashews, berries, passion fruit, oranges, pineapples, limes…” says Edileu, a farmer at the settlement, with a note of pride. “The secret is using agricultural practices that are in harmony with the local environment, not at war with it like industrial agriculture.” In short—agroecology is the secret behind the settlement’s success. Peasants like Edileu are dedicated to practicing and developing agroecology – a farming approach that builds on the best of local and traditional knowledge, and is firmly anchored in good stewardship of the environment. The approach also depends upon farmers uniting and organizing so they can stand firmly against the encroachment of industrial agriculture with its seductive—and misleading—promises of commercial seeds and chemical pesticides and fertilizers. To apply agroecology successful, farmers need to be keenly aware of the negative impacts of industrial agriculture on the environment, farmers and consumers’ health–and on the farmers’ pocket. Peasants have learned the hard way that industrial agriculture mostly only benefits the agribusinesses that control the seeds, agrochemicals production, processing and distribution of grains. Organized landless workers are like canaries George Naylor, an Iowan farmer and one of most knowledgeable food sovereignty advocates in the United States, sums it up by saying: “We farmers are like canaries in the mineshaft. The rest of the world had better start listening.” And farmers like George and Edileu remain steadfast in their resolve to stay on the land and produce healthy crops, despite the looming presence of industrial agriculture. Farmers around the world won’t give up their struggle for food sovereignty because to do so essentially would be the death-knell of family and smallholder farmers. Globally, there is a growing consensus that the brutal logic of market-driven agriculture must be resisted. Edileu’s farming group in Maranhao is part of the Brazilian Landless Workers Movement (MST) settlement. They lived in tents for six years while waiting for the fulfillment of their constitutional rights to land and food. Police evicted the occupying families four times, and every time the police showed up with the intention of teaching the families a good lesson. But Edileu and his community never gave up. “Thankfully, we got our land. But if we had to stay in put [even longer], we would have continued to fight for our rights with the same intensity,” Edileu said. On July 25, 2010 the group finally received land title for a farm big enough to settle the 98 landless families. After getting the land, the families urgently needed credit and funding to buy tools and seeds to begin making the land productive. Unfortunately, the bank gave a flat “No. ” They didn’t like the idea of lending money to peasants without any assets. So the group sought the support of allies like Grassroots International. And the fruit of that support continues to flourish, both literally and figuratively. MST: building food sovereignty, a community at time The newly established settlement needed enough resources to build a demonstration unit to train farmer in agroecology practices as well as develop individual backyard plots. Back in Boston, Grassroots contacted its network of supporters about the Maranhão settlement. People responded with generosity and donations, inspired by the example of a community that just wouldn’t give up. Over the years, with the expansion of sugar cane plantations for producing ethanol (mostly for export), peasant communities are facing intense challenges to their land and livelihoods. As part of the effort to defend farmlands, Grassroots International supports movement organizations like the MST to provide technical assistance, foster alliances that are necessary to reclaim their land rights, and work to make sure those families can build a dignified life through agroecology. “We are grateful for Grassroots’ support,” said Edileu. “This project helped us to produce our food and opened new opportunities. For example, we were able to build a partnership with local agronomy students who are working with us to expand the project to other areas.” The group of food producers is now working on an initiative to market the fruits through a newly formed cooperative. “Many people from the government have visited us to learn about our initiative. And some of them promised to help us, because our next step is to figure out ways to sell our products to local markets and generate an income for the families and the movement.” Agroecology, food sovereignty are forming the new leaders Edileu shared with me the story of Juca, 34, and his family to demonstrate that the project was not only about food production but also strengthening the movement. Juca, his wife Maria and their six children lived through the four evictions. Juca and Maria knew how to grow just about anything, but they didn’t have land, resources and the support they have today. For Juca and Maria, the big and small victories of getting the land and planting their backyard with different fruits are results of the families’ organization and persistence through years of struggle. “It was not a government handout, believe me,.” Edileu insisted. Edileu mentioned that the struggle taught families to organize themselves. Juca, for instance, now leads the meetings and provide assistance to other families with inevitable problems with their crops. “He coordinates the activities among the families. Juca is an example of how this project makes us stronger and self-sufficient as community and movement of peasants. We are not waiting anymore for the orders of a larger landowner and politicians to say what we should or can do.”