Emancipation of young agroecological peasants in Zona da Mata, Minas Gerais, Brazil: an identity in-the-making

Goris, Margriet


Farmers, researchers, and policy makers point at peasant agroecology as a pathway to preserve biodiversity, to deal with climate change and to become resilient to market fluctuations. This thesis engages with these issues by focussing on young people in Brazil involved in agroecology. In particular, this thesis zooms in on how popular education and social movement organisations support youth in their efforts to engage in transformative changes toward agroecology. In so doing, this thesis throws unique light onto the way in which young agroecological peasants create space for themselves by exercising a variety of emancipatory practices.

In Chapter 1 I position emancipation as political and relational, and explain how it can be enacted in peasant agroecology. The diversified farming systems in peasant agroecology ensure a self-controlled resource base potentially for all agents in agriculture if power is also reversed in relationships that include parents and youth, and men and women. Subsequently, the chapter introduces the research site Zona da Mata, a region in the Southeast state of Minas Gerais. Zona da Mata is a coffee region in the Atlantic Forest biome of Brazil and is home to a vivid agroecological movement that has a history of 30 years of collaboration between peasant unions, the Centre for Alternative Technologies of Zona da Mata (CTA-ZM) and researchers of the University of Viçosa (UFV). This collaboration allowed me to engage in an ongoing action research and to co-create an emancipatory research with all involved participants. Emancipation was promoted through film-making, which was also the main research methodology. Film-making with youth created a space to articulate meanings in new ways, to shift power relations, and to create more space for alternative ways of living.

In Chapter 2 I explain how youth engaged in the agroecological movement change social frames, i.e. the specific ways in which people understand reality. This chapter highlights the use of four framing strategies. Youth frequently employ frame amplification, i.e. the building on narratives that preceded the dominant discourse on industrial agriculture. They use frame extension to extend the meaning of agroecology to include feminism and they bridge frames to link with social movements that share a similar ideology (such as the National Movement of Quilombola Rural Black Communities). Finally, they transform frames by changing the meaning of objects, for instance by replacing the word ‘remedy’ for pesticides with that of ‘poison’. As the chapter shows, such frame transformation changes farming practices – as when youth from conventional farms who attend popular education on agroecology decrease or even cease their use of pesticides.

In Chapter 3 I demonstrate that popular education on agroecology not only creates a place to produce and exchange knowledge on diversified farming systems and livelihood diversification but also addresses power in multiple relationships. This chapter shows how affective pedagogies and methods that create emancipatory practices work within popular education. An example of this is the pedagogy of alternation – frequently used in popular education on agroecology in Brazil – in which school time is alternated with time spent in the community. This social pedagogy shifts power in parent-child relationships because both are recognised as knowledge holders; this enhances dialogues at farms, which in turn are crucial for youth to continue with farming, and at the same time engages students and parents from conventional farms to participate in an agroecological transformations.

In Chapter 4 I describe how autonomy is created in relations among people and between people and nature. I show that autonomy created in social movement relations has a catalysing and dispersing effect at the level of farms and bodies. In social movement activities youth experiment with un-gendering agricultural and domestic work; this fosters relational autonomy among young women and men and supports farm-level dialogues that turn out to be decisive for youth to continue with farming. This chapter also shows how social movement organizations deal with racism in agriculture by hiring Black youth, by including elements of Indigenous and Afro-Brazilian cultures in social movement activities and by arranging transportation to these activities from the settlements of agrarian reform. Bodily autonomy is created by not attaching the category ‘peasants’ to rural bodies but by opening up peasant identity to people who want to farm in harmony with nature, including youth who farm in the peripheries of cities. However, this autonomy can be impaired by governmental bodies that do not always recognize/allow agriculture in urban areas.

In Chapter 5 it becomes clear how (young) peasants deal with the recent, authoritarian neo-liberal governments in Brazil by shifting from ‘rightful resistance’ to ‘overt resistance’ and ‘resistance of the third kind’. Under the Workers’ Party administration (2003-2016) various laws and policies that support agroecological peasants and popular education were developed through a collaboration of social movement organizations, governmental bodies and researchers. This ‘rightful resistance’ is more difficult at the moment, however, young peasants reclaim their democratic rights through ‘overt resistance’, street protests and other forms of public rallies. In general the focus has shifted toward ‘resistance of the third kind’; that is, to become more autonomous by way of on-farm diversification, collective food processing and joint market organisation. The agroecological peasant territories studied emerged from a wish to do things differently and according to peasants’ own values - such as reciprocity and solidarity. By doing things differently, (young) agroecological peasants resist the negative impacts that policies of neoliberal authoritarian governments have on their livelihoods.

In Chapter 6 I answer the research questions, and I demonstrate the interactions between three important emancipatory practices, namely 1) resignification, 2) the reversal of power relationships and 3) the diversification of farming systems. Reversing power and exchanging knowledge on diversified farming systems in popular education create the situated abilities necessary to resignify the dominant narrative on agriculture; conversely, resignification changes the relationships, knowledge and practices of diversified farming systems. The thesis shows that youth not only create more space for diversified farming systems and livelihoods but also create more space to adhere to multiple identities; they do so by revealing the collective identity-in-the-making of peasant agroecology