Reflections on a Journey
By Celso de Alvear
Reflections of a Journey: on a US university campus, the Brazilian landless peasants movement inspire organic agriculture initiatives and efforts toward articulating methods of political formation and activism.
On a Monday night in Berkeley (California / United States), on October 16, 2017, about 15 young people gathered in a student dorm to discuss topics such as Capitalism, Socialism, Neoliberalism, Racism, Feminism and the struggle for land. In the center of world capitalism, they discussed how they could develop revolutionary actions in their localities, inspired by the struggle of the MST.
I came with my family to live for six months in Berkeley as a visiting professor. Although there are many interesting left-wing struggles and reflections here, one of the things that caught my attention was how strong the influence of the MST was in groups working with agroecology and the struggle for local food production and against financial speculation in the city.
Near my home, I encountered the Student Organic Garden Association (SOGA), a student-organized agroecological garden at the University of Berkeley. There students produce healthy foods, do activities open to neighborhood residents, and promote lectures and cultural events. About 400 kg (882 lbs.) of food is donated each year to a university program that helps poor students.
One of these talks was with the militant Effie Rawlings, who had just returned from a training seminar with the MST held by the international Friends of the MST brigade, and who had been at the Florestan Fernandes National School and in several settlements. The objective of this lecture, besides recounting to the student body their experience with the MST, was to think about strategies of resistance for SOGA, since the university has a project to build new buildings in the field.
Here in the US, even public universities are paid for (and they aren’t cheap) and managed by business logic, often by deans appointed through councils permeated by corporate CEOs.
Effie had already gone through similar proceedings when she was a student at Gill Tract Community Garden in 2012 in the same town. She and many residents of the neighborhood occupied a campus of the university to prevent it from being sold to generate profit for the institution. The occupation faced police assaults and lawsuits, struggling against residents who understood the importance of transforming the land into a community garden, yet managed to negotiate with the University and city hall to stay there.
Effie then teamed up with Rebecca (Becky) Tarlau, who earned a doctorate working on the MST in Berkeley, living in camps and settlements for nearly two years between 2009 and 2015, and Dasha Pechurina and Grace Treffinger, both of whom are university students and SOGA coordinators, to think about the creation of a study group whose focus centered around political formations. The four militants, inspired by the methodology of the MST, formed the PPC (Political Pedagogical Coordination).
On October 16, 2017, the first experience of this study group began. For six weeks, with weekly meetings on Monday night, they discussed topics such as Marxism, neoliberalism, globalization, racism, colonialism, feminism, resistance movements, food sovereignty, among other topics. In addition, they used MST pedagogy, performing mystic rituals at the beginning of each debate, with communal contributions such as bringing foodstuffs, the group divided into Core Bases. Each week a different Core was responsible for manual work, such as organizing the learning space and general cleaning at the conclusion of meetings.
The purpose of this group was to assist political formation so that members of SOGA could better comprehend the context in which their struggle was taking place, but also ways of better organizing methods of resistance. The MST in this sense has been a great inspiration for all, with its organization, its pedagogical method, international solidarity and all the achievements that it has had since its inception.
As a final activity, the study group, following the methodology of combining theory and practice, the collective held an event at the Department of Natural Resources, University of Berkeley, on December 7, 2017, in order to pressure the administration to give up on the construction project that would ultimately dismantle the local community garden. The event consisted of rituals inspired by the MST, a press conference to publicize the situation, in which the department director was invited to participate, and a public debate in order to mobilize more people to join the struggle.
I took advantage of one of these meetings to interview PPC and some students:
Celso: How does the current US context with Trump affect family agriculture and agroecology?
Grace: We've been involved in local struggles for land and agroecology in the US, and that's always been on the sidelines. Agroecology and agrarian reform are not supported by Republicans or Democrats, who approved NAFTA in 1994. No party supports small-scale agriculture in the US.
Although we did not feel the direct consequences of Trump's election in our organizations, he has changed the context by articulating a more overtly racist, white supremacist project. One effect we have seen is that this scenario has led more people to engage in activism. For example, engagement with SOGA has increased.
Regarding the greater effects on agriculture, Trump engenders fear toward migrant agricultural workers potentially effecting agriculture (both large and small). However, we are not directly feeling these consequences in our organizations.
The implications are not clear, but we are feeling a return to the classic neoliberal paradigm with a fascist tinge of white supremacy.
One bit of hope is that land and food sovereignty movements are globally in a better position than in the 1990’s. Although we do not have the support of political parties, we are working to transform food systems.
Celso: How did you get in touch with the MST?
Rebecca: First, it's important to tell Brazilians that, here in the United States, social movements make actions, protests, marches, but there are practically no member education and training seminars in any organization. The trade union movements, which formerly gave political education to workers, currently only get people to become members without continuous communal practice.
So my contact with the MST has to do with this frustration regarding the social movements here and their lack of action geared specifically toward education and political training - and my willingness to understand how the major social movements incorporate educational practices.
For these reasons, I came to do a doctorate here in Berkeley in order to study how the MST incorporates education into its struggles. Since 2009 I began to visit MST settlements; that is, for approximately eight years I was able to learn a lot about how the MST inserts education in its struggle and, more than any other social movement I know, is always able to involve new people in the organization, leadership, which suggests that social movements in the USA still have many lessons to learn. I now intend to bring these experiences into the social movements here.
Effie: I had two contacts with the MST. My first time was in the national congress in February 2014 and my second time was this year alongside the international brigade of Friends of the MST (Europe and USA), in the Florestan Fernandes National School. In this brigade we also visited four or five occupations and settlements and it was really inspiring to see how much the MST has already achieved in its thirty years and made me think how we have to act at all levels, electing candidates, taking courses within universities and doing direct actions such as occupations.
We have seen how this works, we have seen people who have grown up since childhood in the camps, for example a woman we met, who graduated in economics and today helps cooperatives of the movement, thus allowing us to connect different spaces of the movement within a singular strategy.
So it's still hard to imagine that we'll get there, like the MST, but it inspires us to try to achieve our goals.
Rebecca: It is also important to say that Effie and I are part of the Friends of MST, which is a US organization initially created in solidarity with the effort to help the MST, but today it is also an organized collective that seeks to bring lessons of the MST to US movements, having an important role, connecting organizations from Latin America and around the world, with training in English and for countries in Africa, India, USA and others.
Celso: Lastly, how do you imagine that this study group can contribute to your struggle?
Dasha: The study group helps us give context to our local struggles, allowing us to provide a analysis of our own situation. This way we can think about how to put into practice the concepts we have learned. And one thing I've been learning a lot about is how to structure and organize our collectives and I really like this idea of grassroots groups communicating ideas and information to make things happen, with the MST being the inspiration.
Translation by Kenny Knowlton Jr.