Land & Sovereignty in the Americas: Report Back from Brasilia

Zoe Brent | 06.04.2014

Visit to MATR - Ruth Hall, Jun Borras, Ben Cousins, checking out their preserved peppers, photo - Alberto Alonso FradejasAround 30 professors, students, NGOs and social movement representatives gathered in Brasilia May 5-7, 2014 for an International Seminar on Agrarian Transformations, Land and Development in the BRICS countries, hosted by the University of Brasilia. BRICS is an acronym for the world’s five major “emerging economies”: Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. The event was the second international seminar held by the BRICS Initiative for Critical Agrarian Studies (BICAS), which brings together an interdisciplinary and international team of scholars to advance research exploring the changing dynamics of BRICS countries.

Reflecting the overarching commitment of the project to engage with social movements, our first day was spent outside the city under the hot Brazilian sun, visiting a settlement of the local Movement of Support for Rural Workers (MATR) who had gained legal land titles through occupation, followed by a visit to a camp of the Landless Workers Movement (MST) who were in their fourth attempt of a series of land occupations in an ongoing struggle for control over state land.

Getting to know some examples of Brazil’s internationally recognized land reform movement set the stage for three days of presentations, discussions and meetings focusing on land and development in the BRICS countries and regions. Presenters ranged from senior academics like Henry Bernstein, who offered a friendly challenge to agrarian social movements and the notion of food sovereignty, to representatives of the movements themselves such as Geraldo Gasparim of the MST and Rosangela Piovinazi of the Movement of Peasants Women (MMC). We heard from NGOs and research institutes throughout Latin America with presenters like Juan Pablo Soler from Colombia’s CENSAT/Agua Viva; Gonzalo Colque of Fundación Tierra, Bolívia; Natalia Landivar and Juan Carlos Morales González from FIAN Ecuador and Colombia; and Fernando Prioste of Terra de Direitos in Curitiba, Brazil.

What was resoundingly clear from this four day event in Brasilia is that the pressures on land throughout the Americas are of great concern to social movements, NGOs and researchers, making networks like the Land & Sovereignty Collective ever more relevant.

True to the spirit of the research initiative, participants came from partner institutions in South Africa (PLAAS) and China (China Agricultural University) as well as a number of researchers from the Institute for Social Studies (ISS) and the Transnational Institute (TNI) in The Hague, Netherlands, and Food First in Oakland, CA, each contributing to a rich conversation about the dynamics of agrarian change as they relate to BRICS countries. Key themes that emerged were: the role of international finance capital; the impacts of expanding agroindustrial frontiers on rural communities; and the relvance of new governance instruments like the FAO Land Tenure Guidelines in both the Global South and North.

Beyond the panel presentations, there was space for extensive meetings and debate about the future and shape of the BICAS project as well as other similar and connected initiatives trying to confront issues of land in the Americas. For example, FIAN Latin America discussed its  project to monitor the implementation of the FAO Land Tenure guidelines, and Food First held a meeting to convene members of the Land and Sovereignty in the Americas Collective. Although the diverse participants were all brought to Brasilia in the context of the BICAS initiative, the event created an important space for broader conversations between individuals and organizations addressing similar issues.

Visit to MATR settlement, photo Alberto Alonso FradejasOur meeting to discuss the work of the Land and Sovereignty in the Americas Collective, coordinated by Food First, was especially productive. A number of Collective members were present includning Sergio Sauer from Terra de Dereitos, Brazil; Natalia Landivar from FIAN Ecuador; Alberto Alonso Fradejas from ISS, TNI, The Netherlands; Celia Varela from FIAN Brazil; Gonzalo Colque from Fundación Tierra, Bolivia; Bernardo Mancano from UNESP, Brazil; Gustavo Oliveira from UC Berkeley, based in Brazil; Ben McKay from ISS, based in Bolivia; and Zoe Brent from Food First and ISS. In this meeting we reaffirmed the value of the Collective, and agreed as a group that extra effort needs to be made to broaden our networks in Latin America. In order to do this we decided to form a smaller facilitation group with key representatives throughout the Americas to serve as bridges with other research institutes and social movements and to make internal communications and coordination more agile.

The following day we discussed progress and strategy of the monitoring project spearheaded by FIAN and the potential role of the Land and Sovereignty Collective in that work. The project consists of developing indicators with which to monitor the Land Tenure Guidelines, but also plans to bolster the work of ongoing land conflict observatories in the Americas, as well as generating analyses of the information gathered and diffusing of that information. The Land and Sovereignty collective will be able to provide support gathering data on the ground and producing timely analysis of the dynamics of agrarian change as they relate to land and territory in the Americas.

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What was resoundingly clear from this four day event in Brasilia is that the pressures on land driving agrarian transformations throughout the Americas are of great concern to numerous social movements, NGOs and researchers, making networks like the Land and Sovereignty Collective—in which we can develop collaborative research and action agendas—ever more relevant. Having these conversations in the context of the BICAS initiative was also a good reminder that these issues are not just regional, but indeed global. Finally, as we navigated through Brasilia—a city that represents the height of mid-century, top-down urban planning—I was struck by the power of the completely opposite approach. As diverse grassroots organizations and movement-oriented researchers came together, we worked to develop a bottom-up, collective vision for the future we intend to construct.

Feature image: Food First fellow Zoe Brent and Ruth Hall receiving MST flags at visit to land occupation site outside Brasilia. Photo by Alberto Alonso Fradejas