Building movements for transformation: defending and advancing agroecology in Brazil

For several decades, wider societal transformation has been sought by new social movements. These movements, which include buen vivir, rights to nature, and agroecology, are challenging neo-liberalism and advancing alternatives that reconnect society to nature and local communities. The agroecology movement in Brazil has supported the development of more inclusive practices, has formed alliances to support territories and has 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.

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. 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.

This thesis uses the concepts of affect, resistance and articulation to address the research questions, and to enable a comprehensive understanding of transformation by the agroecology movement in Brazil. 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. The concepts applied 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 that 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.

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. Territorial alignments bring diverse alternatives together in an assemblage that affirms difference. 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.