Feature - issue #4
Drawing inspiration from Brazil’s Landless Workers’ Movement, chef, author and food activist Bela Gil believes agroecology is themkey to averting climate change and ending food poverty.
Some years ago I made a television series called Bela Raízes (a play on my name that translates as beautiful roots), in which I met with female community leaders who hold a deep knowledge of everything from midwifery to Indigenous sacred rituals. One such encounter happened at the Latin American School of Agroecology, which is based in the Contestado settlement in the south of Brazil, an area occupied by the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Terra (Landless Workers’ Movement) and named after the 1912 battle for land between settlers and land owners. I went to Contestado to learn more about the work of two women: Dona Maria (who is known simply by her first name) and Priscila Facina Monnerat. Dona Maria cultivates medicinal herbs that she uses in the health centre to take care of her patients, while Priscila was one of the first settlers to implement agroforestry- in which biodiversity is encouraged by growing trees or shrubs with crops or pastureland - as a method to cultivate food.
Around 108 families live in Contestado, and the community has a health centre with medical and dental care, a school teaching elementary to higher education, a football field, and a cultural centre. The settlement is a showcase for how a life based around sustainable agroecological production can lead to wellbeing.The community has 2,250 hectares of arable land, and produces 270 tons of organic fruit and vegetables every year. The produce is sold through farmers’ markets, deliveries,the Programa de Aquisição de Alimentos (Program for Food Acquisition: a government scheme to ensure a marketfor smallholders at a fixed price) and the Programa Nacional de Alimentação Escolar (National School Food Program: a government initiative to ensure a healthy diet for schoolchildren).
Strawberries growing at Contestado. Photographs by Leandro Taques.
Agroecology, of which agroforestry is a part, uses agronomic concepts from priorto the industrialisation of agriculture, or the so-called Green Revolution (associated with chemical fertilisers, agro-chemicals, and industrialised farming techniques). By contrast, farmers in Contestado use animal fertilisers, legumes and cover crops to provide nutrients to the soil, and implement biological pest control by mixing and converging the plantations, which also leads to agricultural security and a varied income. In short, agroecology works with nature rather than against it. Agroecology does not prohibit mechanised methods, but the small scale requires the constant attention, skill and inventiveness of the farmer.
It also promotes rural development, because it is knowledge-intensive and generally requires more labour, generating greater employment opportunities in rural areas, while attention to the seasons distributes work more evenly throughout the agricultural year. The agroecology movement in Brazil incorporates social, political, cultural, environmental, ethical and energy-related issues into its agricultural practices. And agroecological studies focus on political economy in opposition to the power of the corporate food system in which food is treated as a profitable commodity rather than as a human right. The aim is to reduce hunger, regardless of profit, and counter the methods of agribusiness, which is based on the indiscriminate use of pesticides, the exploitation of land, and the standardisation of food production and consumption, often at the expense of the population’s wellbeing.
Tomatoes slowly ripening in the greenhouses at Contestado. Photographs by Leandro Taques.
Priscila demonstrating how to extract the heart of palm from the banana tree. Photograph by Ana Paula Rabelo.
Agroecology in the Brazilian context cannot be defined exclusively as a scientific discipline, a social movement, or an agricultural method. It is a concept that permeates all these areas: it is a lifestyle, in favour of life. “It is a knowledge that passes from generation to generation,” said Dona Maria, who learned everything about plants from her mother and grandmother. A 2010 report by the United Nations found that agroecology can increase agricultural productivity and food security, improve farmers’ incomes and reverse the damage caused by industrial agriculture. And agroecological systems produce more per hectare than conventional monocultures, although only in small to medium sized areas.
So land redistribution and investment in infrastructure in rural areas are crucial measures for the implementation of agroecology as the basis for a sustainable food system. This is recognised by The Landless Workers’ Movement, which became a national movement in the 80s, and is now organised in 24 states, in the five regions of Brazil, and made up of around 350,000 families who look to occupy land on large unproductive estates. A small number of the wealthiest people own just under half of the country’s agricultural land (according to the government’s 2006 Agricultural Census, private agricultural land accounts for 37.7% of total land in Brazil), with much of it given over to agribusiness. So the reclaimed territory functions not just to produce food, but also to take care of nature, recognising the peasant farmers as the guardians of forests, springs, rivers, flora and fauna.
Priscila, Bela and Dona Maria (left to right). Photograph by Ana Paula Rabelo.
This respect for nature is present in Contestado. Dona Maria asks permission from the plants before taking them from the soil because she recognises that they are living entities. As agribusiness has become consolidated in Brazil and its technologies have become increasingly aggressive, with more poisonous pesticides and the introduction of genetically modified organisms, the Landless Workers’ Movement has realised that the only way for Brazilian agriculture to respond to people’s needs is to fight not just for agrarian reform, but also for control over food production through agroecology.
There are 7.8 billion people living on earth, and the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that 690 million of us suffer from chronic undernourishment. In its 2020 report, the FAO states: “It is unacceptable that, in a world that produces enough food to feed its entire population, more than 1.5 billion people cannot afford a diet that meets the required levels of essential nutrients and over 3 billion people cannot even afford the cheapest healthy diet.”
Example of agroforestry and agroecology at Contestado. Photograph by Leandro Taques.
The problem of hungerin the world is not a lack of food, but the centralised power of production and distribution of food in the hands of private companies, in addition to the speculative nature of food as a commodity.The transition to a healthy food system must begin with popular land reform, the implementation of agroecological production, and the democratic distribution of food. Recent studies have found that agriculture is responsible for around a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions globally. However, with agroecological production it is possible to sequester carbon into the soil, reducing and even averting agriculture’s footprint.
In Contestado,Priscila showed me how to work with the banana tree, an important part of agroforestry design in Brazil, as it is used to produce organic matter that will protect the soil. She showed me how to extract the banana heart of palm, and we made a delicious salad thatI still rememberthe taste of. “We are not only producing food, we are also producing healthy soil,” she told me. “What a great way to feed the body and the earth. This chimes with the words of agronomist Ana Maria Primavesi, regarded as the mother of Brazilian agroecology, who said: “I guarantee that organic crops have all the conditions to feed the planet. That was how the world was fed until the arrival of the Green Revolution. They are as productive as a conventional crop and still preserve the soil. A soil in which life is preserved responds well to any cultivation.
Photograph by Leandro Taques.
I have a great admiration for Dona Maria and Priscila, and the perseverance of the Landless Workers’ Movement as they have grown from being a peasant movement claiming land rights to becoming the biggest organic rice producer in Latin America.That’s why I believe in agroecology as a means to reduce and avert the negative side effects of agriculture for the environment, and prevent food poverty.
Although agroecology has become more widespread through the efforts of NGOs,farmers’ movements and university projects, it remains marginal to government efforts to end hunger or reverse climate change. Corporate agricultural interests do not see food as a human right, and their political and economic sway presents the biggest challenge to transforming the food system and making it more effective, but it is a challenge that we should all be embracing to create a fairer and more sustainable world.
Example of agroforestry and agroecology at Contestado. Photograph by Leandro Taques.
In Favour of Life