FEMINIST ECOLOGICAL ECONOMICS IN PRACTICE; A Visit to the "Lagoa Do Junco" Settlement in Tapes, Brazil

Article excerpt

FROM JANUARY 31ST TO FEBRUARY 5th 2002, I was one of over 60,000 people who travelled to Porto Alegre, Brazil in order to attend the 2nd World Social Forum (WSF). The purpose of this now annual event is to provide a space for activists to share ideas, visions, and strategies in an attempt to develop and articulate alternatives to the current destructive world order, under the broad theme "Another World Is Possible."

Though many different social movements were represented at the forum, one of the groups with the largest presence was the MST (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra), or landless movement of Brazil. The MST is the largest social movement in Latin America, and has been active since the early 1980s in pushing for land reform, primarily by means of land invasions. Despite severe repression and the deaths of over 1,000 MST activists in the past 10 years, 250,000 families have succeeded in gaining title to over 15 million acres of land. In the process, the MST has also gained a great deal of international support and recognition, winning such honours as the Right Livelihood Award (also known as the alternative Nobel Prize), among many other accolades.

I had the opportunity to visit an MST settlement, in large part because of a tourist solidarity project initiated during the first WSF by the state government of Rio Grande do Sul. After the forum was over my Brazilian hosts were kind enough to bring a small group of us to the "Lagoa do Junco" settlement in Tapes, where two residents, Petra and Orestes, graciously showed us around.

During our tour we learned that the 35 families that occupied Lagoa do Junco received title to their land in 1995, and in 1998 many of the settlers joined together to found COOPAT (Cooperativa de Producao Agropecuaria dos Assentados de Tapes), an agro-fishery cooperative. COOPAT produces a wide variety of goods for both internal and external consumption, and in the past year has also initiated a project to cultivate rice organically, using fish in place of pesticides. In fact, as Orestes explained to us, ecological values are extremely important to them, so they use no chemical inputs in any of their production, and are working towards becoming completely organic in order to clean up the contaminated farmland.

In talking with Petra and Orestes, it became clear to us that the MST is not a movement simply pressuring for land redistribution, but is also struggling for fundamental changes in the neoliberal socio-economic model that is currently destroying the livelihood of so many Brazilians. The MST seeks to create an entirely different way of life based on social and ecological harmony rather than profit accumulation, such that taking over polluted and unproductive land becomes a means of regenerating the earth while simultaneously providing a healthy and dignified life for landless peasants. These values are evident in COOPAT's system of collective production, whereby land, capital, and work are all shared. Different groups are responsible for different sectors (for example, Orestes and Petra are part of the rice/fisheries unit), and decisions about how the cooperative should run are made collectively and democratically. Furthermore, the settlement itself is designed as an "agro-village," with a communal dining hall where all the residents gather to eat together and enjoy a vibrant community life.

All of this sounded wonderful to me from a social and environmental perspective, but as a feminist I was also curious about gender relations within the MST. …