Building movements for transformation : defending and advancing agroecology in Brazil

Berg, Leonardo van den


For several decades, wider societal transformation has been sought by new social movements. These movements, which include buen vivir, rights to nature, agroecology, commons, food sovereignty and environmental justice, are challenging neo-liberalism and advancing alternatives that reconnect society to nature and local communities. Social movements have sought transformative change by engaging in the domains of practice, territory and the wider institutional environment. For example, the agroecology movement in Brazil has supported the development of practices that are more inclusive of nature and citizens, formed alliances to support territories that advance and defend peasant and agroecological alternatives and organised itself in state and national level networks to advocate support for certain policies and to systemically challenge agri-business’ control over land, markets and policy resources. While many studies have been conducted on the engagement of social movements within a particular domain, less is known about how social movements engage in multiple domains for widespread transformation. This thesis contributes to a new understanding of social movements as transformative, by focusing on the engagement of the agroecology movement in Brazil in the domains of practice, territory and the wider institutional environment

In academic debates on sustainability transformation, social movements and agroecology, transformation is often depicted in technical, reactionary or oppositional terms. In the domain of practice the literature prioritises techno-scientific knowledge and economic values, paying little attention to the role of affect in motivating people to establish alternative practices. In the domain of territory, the literature tends to depict resistance in singular and reactionary terms, thereby overlooking how multiple forms of resistance can be combined in a more affirmative strategy to advance territorial alternatives. In the wider institutional domain, academic debates have tended to characterised politics as either conforming to or opposing the dominant regime, thereby overlooking how different conforming and opposing forms of politics can be articulated simultaneously in ways that transform the wider institutional environment.

To gain a better understanding of transformation this thesis employs a critical post-humanist perspective to forge a theoretical framework that combines concepts from post-humanism, agrarian political economy and post-structuralism. As such, reality is conceived as flat and relational, asserting that an agent or relation is never defined hierarchies of power, but is instead defined by the multiple relations in which it is situated. This serves the purpose of this thesis as it allows for a critical view of power without resorting to deterministic explanations. This thesis uses the concepts of affect, resistance and articulation to address the research questions. The latter two concepts are combined with the notion of existence and grievances, to bring non-oppositional forces to the fore. Taken together these concepts enable a comprehensive understanding of transformation by the agroecology movement in Brazil, paying particular attention to the how affects shape the construction of agroecological practices, how territories resist neo-liberal modernity and advance different modes of existence, and how local demands are articulated into diverse forms of politics to change the wider institutional environment.

The case of the agroecology movement in the Zona da Mata confirms the view that techno-institutional understandings of transformation, which emphasise participation, commodity markets and institutional collaborations are not transformative, as they do not challenge hierarchies of power or establish more horizontal relations between people and nature. Nevertheless, it shows that participation, markets and institutional collaborations can contribute to transformation if employed strategically and at the service of emancipatory change. Participation is transformative if it engages with the wishes and grievances that people have. This makes it possible to identify and challenge unsustainable relations and create alternatives to them. Markets can contribute to transformation if they are re-shaped in peasant-like ways whilst challenging neo-liberal control over resources, production and distribution. Finally, institutional collaborations can contribute to transformative change if employed strategically and combined with popular politics to strengthen the movement.

The concepts applied in the various empirical chapters show how social movements are shaped not only in opposition to hierarchies of power, but also rework opposition into a positive force through the multiple relations that constitute a social movement. The concepts of affect, resistance, existence, grievances and articulation explain how non-oppositional forces mobilise people, create alternatives and form broad political movements. The concept of affect shows how peoples’ capacity for mobilisation is unharnessed through the positive reworking of their frustration over disruptive power and the activation of multiple relations in which they are situated. The combined concept of resistance and existence shows alternatives are created by non-conflictive forces. Through these forces resources can be obtained, narratives forged and  networks established for the construction of alternatives. By combining the notion of grievances and articulation, this thesis shows how popular movements can carry non-oppositional demands to higher levels of politics.

This thesis ends by reflection on the practice of social movement transformation by comparing Brazil with the Netherlands. While the past decade, has seen the emergence of a new alternative food and agricultural movement in the Netherlands, this movement is largely segregated. Insights derived from the agroecology movement in Brazil show that much can be gained by assembling initiatives in a joint movement that aligns agents in horizontal, territorial and popular ways. Aligning professionals and farmers in horizontal ways enhances their capacity to devise alternative practices. By working together on the basis of horizontality problems can be identified, and shared ideas to tackle these problem developed and translated in practical or political action. Territorial alignments bring diverse alternatives together in an assemblage that affirms difference. Through these alignments joint narratives are formed that protect alternatives from neo-liberal co-optation and new resources are untapped that strengthen alternatives. Popular-democratic alignments pursue politics that address local demands and challenge the dominant institutional order. Through these alignments movements advocate for supporting policies and challenge systemic patterns of marginalization and exclusion.