By Anna Lappé
From Mongabay Series: Agroecology
- Brazil’s Landless Workers Movement (MST) has been organizing landless families to occupy, settle, and farm throughout the country since the dictatorship ended in 1985.
- Agroecology–a highly sustainable form of agriculture–has become increasingly central to their platform of land reform, and it is taught in 2,000 schools that have been established in MST encampments nationwide.
- In the four decades since its creation, MST has organized more than 350,000 families to create communities, cooperatives, farms, small-scale food processing enterprises, and farmers markets increasingly based on this sustainable method of food production, which is also good for the climate and biodiversity.
- In an interview with Mongabay, three leaders of MST’s agroecology education program share their philosophy, accomplishments and goals.
The Landless Workers Movement in Brazil (or MST, its acronym in Portuguese) is one of the largest social movements in the world. Born in the early 1980s at the end of the country’s 21-year military dictatorship and in the midst of persistent land inequality, the movement has been at the forefront of land reform in Brazil for decades. Their work is focused on making a reality of the country’s constitutional promise that land should ‘serve a social purpose.’ Against a backdrop of great inequality – 10% of the largest farms occupy nearly three-quarters of agricultural land – the MST has been organizing families to occupy, settle, and farm throughout the country.
In the four decades since its creation, the MST has organized more than 350,000 families to create communities, cooperatives, farms, small-scale food processing enterprises, and farmers markets. An additional 90,000 families still live in informal encampments on contested land, struggling for official land title.
Education and training in sustainable agricultural practices have always been core to the movement’s work, with its commitment to agroecology deepening in 2000 when the MST identified agroecology as key to its strategy of building resilient food systems. Since then, the MST has been developing training centers for agroecology for its members, and beyond.
Author Anna Lappé interviewed three members of one of the movement’s agroecology schools in southern Brazil, Escola Latino Americana de Agroecologia (ELAA) to learn more about this history and philosophy. The conversation included input from Amandha Silva Felix, management coordinator and policy director at ELAA, and Vinicius Silva Oliveira and Wellington Lenon from the school’s “pedagogic sector.”
This is the third in a series of interviews with key people leading diverse agroecology training programs around the world, view them all here. This interview was conducted by email, translated from the Portuguese, and edited for clarity.
Mongabay: Let’s start with the movement’s commitment to member education. Can you talk about that work?
Felix, Oliveira, Lenon: Throughout its history, the MST has always had a strong commitment to education. The movement has built more than 2,000 schools in land-reform occupied encampments and settlements. In 2000, agroecology became a cross-cutting theme in all MST schools—from kindergarten to higher education. Today, many MST schools offer courses on agroecology in partnership with public universities.
ELAA launched in the fall of 2005. Together with the Latin America Agroecology Institute Paulo Freire (IALA) based in Venezuela, we launched what became IALA’s network of Via Campesina [the international peasant agricultural movement] schools to mainstream agroecological training for farmers, youth, and adults.
Since its founding, ELAA has trained nearly 200 people, offering a 3.5-year “Technologist in Agroecology” course and a four-year degree in Rural Education, Natural Sciences, and Agroecology.
Mongabay: Can you describe the place itself—what is the school like?
Felix, Oliveira, Lenon: ELAA is located in an MST settlement called the Contestado in the state of Paraná in southern Brazil. It’s truly a movement school: founded by the movement, built by volunteers, and part of the struggle for land reform, the school has 29 acres that include animal production—pigs, cows, sheep, and chickens—a vegetable garden, agroforestry, and field crops such as beans, corn, and manioc.
Mongabay: What is your program’s philosophy?
Felix, Oliveira, Lenon: Our courses are oriented toward young people as well as adults from land reform encampments and settlements in Brazil, and from other regions around the world, including farming communities elsewhere in Latin America such as Paraguay, Argentina, Ecuador, Venezuela, Haiti, Dominican Republic, and Colombia plus Africa, including Afro-Brazilians (quilombolas) and Indigenous peoples.
The program offers on-campus learning and in-community learning; students spend a portion of their time at school and another portion in their community. During their three months on campus, students learn from teachers connected with partner institutions, including the Federal University of Parana State (UFPR) and the Federal Institute of Parana (IFPR). When students return home, they take back the practices and knowledge acquired on campus. We’ve found this allows for powerful exchange and feedback between empirical and theoretical knowledge.
Mongabay: How have the principles of agroecology informed the MST?
Felix, Oliveira, Lenon: The MST adopted agroecology as a core approach in February 2000. After several decades of organizing, the failures of conventional agriculture in land reform settlements were very clear to us. We also learned much about agroecology from partner movements in other countries. La Via Campesina was a particularly big influence for MST to move in this direction.
MST members in the state of Parana have been at the forefront of the process of creating agroecology schools. In 2004, the MST Coordination in Parana State defined the purpose of these schools to create spaces for learning about agroecological production, presenting concrete results to farmers and encouraging an embrace of peasant culture. Just as importantly, these schools are a place for the development of our movement’s humanist values—a place where people work together, educating themselves, learning new perspectives, and having fun!
Mongabay: How would you describe your Center’s learning approach?
Felix, Oliveira, Lenon: At ELAA we talk about our grounding in rural education or educação do campo in Portuguese. For us, the idea of rural education is based on the pedagogical and epistemological philosophies of popular education, particularly of the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire. These are the pillars of the pedagogical praxis of rural education, which seeks a critical awareness of the world, contributing to the transformation of social relations necessary for human development. In this sense, both form and content matter—going from the hands-on and concrete to the abstract and back again. It’s a dialectic that not only creates ownership of knowledge, but also motivates action based on that knowledge. As Paulo Freire said: “We struggle for an education that teaches us to think—not one that teaches us to obey.”
Mongabay: What are some of the key agroecology themes of your program?
Felix, Oliveira, Lenon: Our teaching covers a range of content related to agroecology, linking theory and practice, scientific and empirical knowledge. The school also covers content on class, capitalism, the role of social movements in social change as well as gender, sexuality, and more. In 2022, the MST launched the Dictionary of Education and Agroecology [PDF in Portuguese]. With contributions from 169 authors from 68 different institutions—public universities, federal institutes of education, social movements, and research institutes—it aims to act in formal and informal education, bringing conceptual bases to the field of education and agroecology. ELAA is adding this tool to its pedagogy.
Mongabay: Can you talk about your research approach and favorite examples of research coming out of the school?
Felix, Oliveira, Lenon: Honestly, for us, every act of research done by our students is remarkable: These students are the sons and daughters of the land, water, and forests—the very people who have historically been denied access to education, especially college.
In terms of our research approach, we work hard at ELAA to ensure that we don’t conduct research for research’s sake, but rather ensure it is a process that gives a return to the community, region, organization, or movement to which the researcher belongs. Our students have conducted research in different areas, including agroecology, politics, gender, sexuality, social movements, and education. Specific research themes have included strategies for environmental protection, sustainable development, digital inclusion of rural families, conservation and management of agrobiodiversity, the saving and sharing of seeds, and more.
Mongabay: What’s one of the biggest challenges you face?
Felix, Oliveira, Lenon: We need to improve our infrastructure. We are at a moment when we need to expand the school building and improve the old ones. This is necessary to meet growing demand and offer better conditions both for students and teachers.
Mongabay: How do you think about the concept of agroecology?
Felix, Oliveira, Lenon: When we talk about agroecology, we are not just referring to a way of producing food without pesticides or chemical fertilizers. It is much more than that. We understand agroecology as a broad project of life: We see its political, economic, social, cultural, and environmental dimensions, too.
Agroecology combines sustainable production with a dignified way of life, both for those who produce (rural workers, peasants, traditional communities) and for those who have access to healthy food. Agroecology benefits the whole of society by being based on renewable sources of energy and respecting the biodiversity of the soil, fauna, and flora.
The diversification of production through agroforestry ensures countless benefits to society and the environment: biological insect control; soil biodiversity; long-term productivity from the integrated production of crops; greater financial security for farmers; more nutritious crops; strengthening local and regional economies; preserving of water/groundwater tables to ensure the proper functioning of hydrological cycles. Agroecology is today essential for the mitigation of global warming impacts, curbing the emission of greenhouse gases, and stimulating the sequestration of carbon by biodiversity.
Mongabay: How has ELAA worked to mainstream agroecology and climate action?
Felix, Oliveira, Lenon: To give one example, ELAA is part of the National Plan of Planting Trees and Producing Healthy Food, launched by the MST in 2020 to plant 100 million trees in a decade. MST partners developed a mobile application called Arvoredo to monitor tree planting across the country, and the agroecology schools’ students are playing a key role in promoting the tree planting in their communities.
Mongabay: How do you respond to the concern that agroecological farming cannot scale to meet the world’s food security needs?
Felix, Oliveira, Lenon: Our MST settlements already show that it is possible to produce healthy and abundant food using these methods. We also see how agroecology is economically more viable, because it prioritizes renewable energy and because it is appropriate for family farming, which is responsible for more than 70% of the food produced in the world. Agroecology is also socially just because it values life in the countryside while promoting the universal right to healthy food. It is culturally necessary because it is in tune with nature’s seasonality, the localization of food systems, and local food traditions. Agroecology has the commons as a core value, which requires participatory governance and the involvement of different agents of civil society and the state to be successful and expand.
Mongabay: What are the greatest hurdles to wider adoption of agroecology?
Felix, Oliveira, Lenon: Our biggest challenge is to define agroecology as the model for food production to achieve food sovereignty and to further make clear that the counterpoint—the agribusiness model, which prioritizes monoculture plantations with intensive use of pesticides, chemicals, and GMO seeds, plus the international trade of commodities—is unsustainable. To achieve this paradigm shift, we need to make progress on public policies to support agroecology, such as smallholder access to credit, and expand training in agroecology. For us, we are meeting these needs by continuing to invest in agroecological education at all educational levels, including launching the “Education and Agroecology in Rural Schools in Agrarian Reform Territories” initiative whose purpose is to expand access to education and agroecology in settlements and land reform camps all over the country.
Mongabay: What inspires you the most in your work?
Felix, Oliveira, Lenon: What inspires us? To promote the practice of solidarity and social justice on a daily basis, enabling the families of agrarian reform workers to be agents of their own destiny through popular organization. This is the way to promote popular sovereignty in favor of human dignity and respect for fundamental rights.
Mongabay: What is it like to do this work at this particular moment in Brazil?
Felix, Oliveira, Lenon: The MST emerged decades ago at a historical moment of struggle for the democratization of Brazil. Today, to fight for land reform means to deepen the ongoing process of democratization. Agroecology is at the center of the persistent land reform debate, pointing a way to food sovereignty for those who live in the countryside and for those who live in the city. Faced with the immense recent setbacks in the country—the advance of deforestation, especially in the Amazon, and the genocide practiced by the federal government during the pandemic—the MST has reaffirmed its commitment to fight for social justice and solidarity.
Anna Lappé is a bestselling author or co-author of three books, including Diet for a Hot Planet: The Climate Crisis at the End of Your Fork and What You Can Do About It, and a contributing author to 14 others, most recently the 50th anniversary of Diet for a Small Planet. The founder and strategic adviser of the communications nonprofit Real Food Media, Anna also directs a food systems-focused grant making program for a family foundation, which is a member of the Agroecology Fund.