Agroecology is emerging as a new market for peasant farming
In the 2019 harvest, members of the Landless Workers' Movement (MST), in Rio Grande do Sul state, Brazil, commemorated a harvest estimated at 16,000 tons of organic and agroecological rice, the biggest production of its kind in the whole country. 363 families in 15 settlements work in the rice production.
In the south of the state of Minas Gerais, 20 families of the Campo Grande "quilombo" community produce Guaií organic and agroecological coffee, internationally recognized for its high quality. Coordinated by two women's collectives, the production process is also free from agrotoxins.
In Ceará state, small rural producers in Chapada do Apodi, after years of confronting large agricultural corporations and an enormous effort to recover lands, have created a new regional market for selling organic cassava and beans. The region is known for its large banana production for export and also for contamination by agrotoxins.
"These are three examples in three regions of Brazil, but I could present cases in all regions of the world. They involve a process of resistance and overcoming of the global agrarian question. After decades of subordination to agribusiness, the socioterritorial movements have created their own food system based on agroecology," said Bernardo Mançano Fernandes, a professor at the Geography Department of the School of Science and Technology and at the Institute of Public Policies and International Relations of São Paulo State University (UNESP), in a lecture given November 22 in Paris at FAPESP Week France.
According to the geographer, although economists and governments have long bet that the solution for this population would be to produce commodities for agribusiness, the movements have understood that it is possible to produce for society, without intermediaries and creating a new market.
Thus, some Brazilian peasant movements have innovated with the creation of a new food system. "This new system is based on the principles of food sovereignty, with experiences of agroecological production, family business, and community markets, as well as, of course, the fight for lands. Until recently these peasants were subjected to deterritorialization processes, when, due to economic pressures, they had their lands expropriated. More recently, there has been reterritorialization, when they have tried to return to the land," he said.
Fernandes coordinates the UNESCO Chair in Rural Education and Territorial Development, which, through an agreement between UNESP, UNESCO, and Via Campesina, created the first post-graduate program for the population of traditional territories focused on sustainable territorial development.
A condition of existence of the indigenous, "quilombola," or peasant socioterritorial movements is territory. "They are people who do not exist without their territories," he said.
According to Fernandes, in the 1970s and 1980s, various governments tried to implement policies for the "integration" of these populations in the production of crop and livestock commodities. "They then started to produce commodities on small scales for large corporations. However, despite this process being called integration, it was, in fact, a subordination process, since it created a series of problems for these families and these territories, such as poverty and the loss of land," he said.
According to Fernandes, it was from the 1990s onward that a new concept—that of food sovereignty—emerged, created by the socioterritorial movements, at the forefront of which was Via Campesina, based on agroecology, that is, agriculture based on an ecological perspective. "This is happening in almost all countries of the world and, evidently, in Brazil, since there is an ever greater demand for the production of healthy food. It is a new market," he said.
Selling directly to the consumer
Another characteristic of this global phenomenon, linked to the "quilombola" and indigenous peasant movement, is it does not compete with the traditional mode of monoculture, on large land properties and with the use of agrotoxins. "It is another logic. It makes no sense for agroecology to compete with the capitalist form of agribusiness. They are different production and product models, with different qualities and scales," he said.
Following this same logic, organic and agroecological products are not sold to large corporations, but at fairs, institutional markets, and cooperative stores. "They are creating new markets and relationships with the communities that support the farmer, offering organic and agroecological baskets sold directly to the consumer. They also sell to schools and hospitals," he said.
According to Fernandes, all the farming families that produce rice, beans, cassava, and coffee in the examples mentioned in Rio Grande do Sul, Ceará, and Minas Gerais were subordinate to the agribusiness model. "Now, organized in the Landless Workers' Movement, they have recovered their territories and gone on to produce organic and agroecological foods, as they understood that it was the only way to continue existing," he said.
Fernandes highlights that, although it is the most well-known, the MST is only one of the 126 socioterritorial movements listed in Brazil by DATALUTA—the Fight for Land Database, of the Center for Agrarian Reform Studies, Research, and Projects (NERA) at UNESP.