“Agroecology is a Way of Life,” an in-depth interview with students of the agroecology school EDUCAR
By: Umut Kocagöz*
I was in Brazil to participate in the “International Encounter of Struggling Youth” as a Turkish delegate, which was held in Marica, Rio de Janeiro in June 2016. After the youth encounter, I had the chance to stay a couple of weeks in Brazil to visit some camps and settlements of the Agrarian Reform, some cooperatives and agroecology schools of MST.
This was a moment great importance to discover, because MST was putting very much importance both on the theoretical and practical sides of agroecology. The MST considers agroecology as a way of life, a way connecting to the society, as well as a struggle against agribusiness and the ongoing coup process put in forward by the neoliberal Temer government(1). This means that agroecology is not only a method of farming, but also a life vision, which is built-up day by day in the encampments and settlements, in the formal or informal agroecology schools, in political training of the militants. In other words, each space of MST is based on the formation of agroecology, as a political paradigm against the transnational agribusiness hegemony over agriculture and food systems.
In order to achieve a powerful political vision, formation [Ed. “Political education” and “training” are the most common definitions for the Portuguese word “formação.” However, the direct translation is “formation,” which will be used here.] is very important for MST in all its spaces. In terms of agroecology, MST uses its formation and training processes beginning from encampments and settlements, practically and theoretically, in schools, in the countryside, and in the political discourse proposed by its collective leadership.
MST proposes different kinds of formation programs, some of which are recognized officially by the state and run by a collaborative process with some universities or the national educational system. These formation processes include some courses directly for militants, and some are considered the parts of joint university programs. Instituto Educar is one of these schools where militants of MST have the opportunity to deepen their studies of agroecology.
Educar is a school that aims to train farmers; young people settled and camped in the areas of Agrarian Reform(2). This education is based on agroecology, which aims to develop a form of agriculture that preserves and defends the environment. In other words, formation in Educar is a way of systematizing the “peasant agroecology” which has developed over years, which has some new technological inputs, and which is not only a technique of agriculture but as well a life paradigm. Thus, in Educar, and in other formation schools of MST, it is aimed to promote grassroots based projects and models that guarantees food sovereignty and a better life for the people living in rural areas.
Moreover, the formation process is not only limited with “technical” terms. Educar has a pedagogical strategy to work on the construction and training of young farmers with the capacity to analyze the political, cultural and economic realities of the society, discerning the alternative and appropriate technological frameworks for the development of the rural without a dependence on agribusiness.
I had the chance to meet and discuss with five young landless people on how they experience this educational process in order to listen the experience from firsthand. I am very thankful to them for giving me this chance, and MST as well, providing this opportunity to meet and experience agroecology as a way of life.
Regiane de Souza Oliveira is 24 years old. She has been within MST since 10. She lives with her family in São Francisco II settlement located in São Francisco, Minas Gerais. I met her in Marica, while she was in Agrarian Reform Fair, selling products made in her region. She is a student of Educar, in a joint program with a university of her region (UFFS).
Saruê Karina Isaton is 20 years old. She was born to the MST; her family was already part of MST in Santa Catarina state where she was born. Since then, she has been part of the movement. She studies Agronomy in Educar.
Jacquelia Mendes is 21 years old. She is living in a settlement of the Agrarian Reform. She also considers herself as a militant of the MST.
Maferson Augusto Manica is 22 years old, living in a settlement of MST. He is also camped in Passo Fundo – Rio Grande do Sul.
Bruno dos Santos is 20 years old. He lives with his parents in the southeast region of Paraná state. He is a militant of MST and he studies in Educar.
I met Saruê, Jacqueline, Maferson and Bruno in São Paulo, where there is the Florestan Fernandes National School (ENFF), the central political formation school of MST. They were at the ENFF to complete a period of their studies, the practical part, as contributing to the agroecological production of the school, as part of their education.
Hello dear comrades. Thank you for giving me this opportunity. So, shall we start with the Educar? What kind of a school is the Instituto Educar? Can you describe it a little bit?
Bruno: Educar is a formation center of the MST. It is located inside the Nossa Senhora Aparecida settlement, in Pontão – Rio Grande do Sul.
Regiane: Educar was founded by the MST in 2005. The area is about 42 hectares. The Institution aims to train young people of MST, as well as other Via Campesina organizations in Brazil and other countries.
Saruê: It is emerged through the struggle of the landless people, to have a more adequate education for their children, with the purpose of bringing practice and theory together. In Educar, we have a pedagogy which is also used in other spaces of the MST. It is like, the students are not only trained in technical terms, but as well social and political point of view, with a broad vision.
Bruno: In this sense, it has a “cause.” It aims to train the children of the families and the activists living in the Agrarian Reform areas. Educar is a gateway towards a better future. The main idea is that these people trained in this school will give technical assistance to the settlers and the people who need support and knowledge related to our agriculture.
Maferson: Here, there are students from all over Brazil, almost including more than 10 states.
What kind of courses does Educar offer?
Saruê: Today at Instituto Educar we have two courses: First one is the Technical Agriculture Course with emphasis on Agroecology. This is a joint course with the Pronera (Agrarian Reform Education Program) and IFRS (Federal Institute of Rio Grande do Sul). The second on is the Agronomy Course with emphasis on Agroecology. It has partnership with the Pronera and UFFS (Federal University of Southern Border).
Bruno: This partnership was developed in 2014. Through Pronera and UFFS, Educar welcomed 55 students as the first group of higher education, in order to train agronomists who are capable of using technical knowledge and sustainable management of agroecosystems.
Saruê: I am currently studying agronomy. In the course of agronomy, there are people from 10 Brazilian states who have many different experiences that coexist together. Since the beginning of the courses in Educar, the relationship between the theory and the practice was a matter of question. In our worldview, theory without practice, or practice without theory cannot exist. Therefore, theory and practice should go together. The theoretical knowledge can contribute to the practice, and vice versa.
Jacquelia: I am studying Agronomy as well. Here, we have a pedagogy which is called the pedagogy of alteration (pedagogia da alternancia). This pedagogy is based on interchanging between the school and the base work that we carry on in the settlements, encampments, cooperatives or other spaces of the movement, regarding our studies.
Can you tell us more about this pedagogy? How does it actually work?
Regiane: I am a student of the agronomy course, where I study the third semester. For example, I am now in my study period, at the school. But after this period, I will go back to my settlement to contribute the base work.
Saruê: I am in the sixth semester. My task is now to contribute to the ENFF in terms of agricultural production. This is how alteration pedagogy works. We stay 90 days in the Institute, and in the next period, we return to where we live to develop some tasks assigned by the regional brigades of the MST. By the way, we also have technical trips and lessons directly in the fields, which are not done by traditional/conventional universities.
Jacquelia: Our Agronomy course differs from other courses of conventional agronomy. It is a training that aims to bring technical and political knowledge to the working class based on agroecological methods. It also aims to create a way that is easily accessible in different places where financial conditions do not become a limiting factor while we can still develop a sustainable management of natural resources.
So with the alteration pedagogy, you contribute to the different spaces of the MST?
Saruê: For example, we are now here, at the ENFF, to contribute to the works of the school. The alteration pedagogy proposes this kind of interchange in order to practice what we have learned so far, and to help the base level directly. We contribute to our society, our own movement this way. And within Educar, besides studying curriculum disciplines, we have many political studies and debates to better understand what is going on in society. This also helps us with our alteration process, as we go back to the reality that we have been debating on.
Maferson: The contribution can be at different spaces, in cooperatives, schools, encampments and settlements, which provide an exchange with the communities, as well the conditions to practice the knowledge we acquired at school. In this way, we also contribute and qualify the production and local development.
Regiane: For example, I practice what I study in the course in my region, in Minas Gerais. There, I participate to my regional cooperative, Cooperativa Veredas da Terra, in the projects of the productive processes. I put my knowledge as a candidate for agronomist; also, I work to commercialization of our products in fairs, as what I do here in Marica. Of course, since I am a student, the contribution process is limited.
This seems a very demanding process. You seem like you participate in many spaces. Is it also similar inside the school? What kind of an organizational structure do you have in Educar?
Regiane: The structure is same with other MST spaces. We are organized in núcleos de base (NB – base nuclei), where we have a group of comrades that is a basic organizational unit. My class has 57 students divided into 7 NBs. In general, NBs take care of the maintaining of the school, like gardening, cleanliness of spaces, breakfast, which are activities that we do every day. Each NB has two coordinators, one man and one woman. All the coordinators of each NB meet in a coordinating group, namely the Coordination of nuclei de base of the Class (CNBT). The function of CNBT is to raise the questions and discussions that we held during the NB meetings. In other words, through NBs, we have the decision-making power. Moreover, CNBT is our representative body in the Institute; it is our link with the general coordination body of the school, and with the different sectors of MST.
All these groups, the NBs, the CNBT, and the Coordination of Educar hold regular meetings every week to discuss matters related to the functioning of the activities, based on the comradeship among all in the Institute.
We have a rotating mechanism, changing at each stage, which allows everyone to participate in each activity, and learn about each work and to exercise coordination. For example, I was already a coordinator of our NB for some time. About the daily activities, I have already taken care of the garden and coordinated this activity. So far, I have already helped in the maintenance of spaces with minor repairs in the infrastructure sector. Today, I take care of the library and help prepare the breakfast.
That seems very interesting. You not only study, but also produce the life collectively! I believe you had some other opportunities, but chose to study in this Institute. Why did you choose to study at the Educar?
Jacquelia: In this school, we, children of the working class, the landless families, have the opportunity to have a graduation, which is in general not a common opportunity for the people from the working class. Educar gives us the opportunity to bring the knowledge we learn here back to our settlements and camps, to our comrades in diverse Brazilian regions.
Saruê: First of all, it is a school of the MST. I consider myself as a part of this big family, the movement. So, it was much more easy for me to attend, but it is also more appropriate to my needs and my reality. It is a school in the countryside, where I live, where I want to live. The traditional universities that are based in the urban parts of Brazil have too much inequality. We, as peasants, are almost always discriminated against. Here it is different. Moreover, the studies here are based on agroecology, which I see as a great way for healthier life and environmental balance.
Bruno: And of course, regarding the privatization of the higher education, this is a “public” institution, in a sense, that I am able to attend.
Maferson: Educar is a school which essentially seeks the construction of new men and new women with humanistic and socially egalitarian values. It provides the collective coexistence for the young people, as it has intense relation of study, work, reflection and organization of the space, together and collectively. This makes us different young people with another vision and context of the reality. So, this is a great opportunity to pursue as education.
Regiane: Regarding my understanding of pedagogy, Educar is a great place where I can be a subject of my own training, I feel as I am an agent. I can bring my experiences and opinions to the Institute and I have fellowship with people who, even though they are from different parts of Brazil, have the same ideals as me. Educar is a place providing a space for us to fight for our rights as well. Achieving a higher-level education for us, the Landless People’s Movement is an achievement that should be celebrated. A great deal of struggle has been done in order to be recognized in the university and spread our vision. So, I represent the Landless class in the academy.
So, this is a school built by long struggles of the Landless people of Brazil! As a young member of the movement, what do you think about MST youth studying at these schools in general?
Saruê: This is a place where young people have the opportunity to understand how society really works, what we are subject to and what we can be contributing in the places where we live. It is in these spaces that youth can express their opinions without suffering any kind of repression and discrimination. MST youth has this opportunity, based on struggles, which is very important and very special as well.
Bruno: In these schools, in addition to technical and scientific training, we learn to live in a collective, in a society, relate to other people, make political and conjunctural discussions. These do not exist in conventional schools. Taking responsibility of the school, in each space, is very educative as well. It makes a young person grow a lot as a person.
Regiane: Here, we not only become technicians, but we grow as a human, and also become militants. We learn, study and share experience with the people that we fight together, who share our values, our morality, our mistica(3). We are responsible for various tasks from planning to execution; we learn that tasks such as cleaning the floor, caring for animals or gardening, which are important for our organization. Taking part in each of them contributes to the growth of our school and to the fight of the MST.
Moreover, leaders from the state level, regional and national levels of MST also participate in the discussions, which is an important element. Educar is always present in the actions and struggles of the MST, Educar lives the MST’s organizational processes, and we are all forged here as new militants in the communities of our origin. Therefore, studying in Educar is, for us, a continuation of becoming a militant of the MST, this time directly participating in an educational institution.
And you will use this knowledge going back, no? What will you do after you finish your course in Educar?
Regiane: The validity of the courses of Educar, having all the disciplines and contents of regular education, is recognized by the Ministry of Education. So, after finishing the course, I will be a Landless agronomist. I want to go back to my settlement, help the farmers who have difficulties in production, such as financial problems, climate problems, and drought. I also want to work in my family’s farm, through the knowledge I have gained at the course, to obtain a better quality of life for myself and for everyone at home.
Saruê: I will also receive a Bachelor’s Degree in Agronomy. I also want to go back to the areas of settlements and use my technical knowledge to help to farmers who lack technical assistance. I will also work to spread the idea of agroecology.
Jacquelia: The social movements, the base level work allowed us to take this education. So, I want to go back and give back what I learned to my base. I believe this reciprocity.
A couple of times you mentioned of agroecology. How do you see agroecology? How would you define it?
Saruê: Agroecology is the study of agriculture with an ecological perspective that does not harm the environment or the people. As the famous agronomist, Ana Maria Primavesi once said: “Agroecology is not an eccentric alternative to cultivating the soil, but the only possibility, if we want to survive on our planet.” As this phrase says a lot, I define agroecology as “life”, because if you do not practice this model of clean and sustainable agriculture, in a close future, there will be no life on our planet.
Bruno: In our studies, we are focused on the alternative ways of doing agriculture, alternative for the global industrial agricultural model. We do it in order to change the way we do agricultural production in our Agrarian Reform areas and as well in the society. For me agroecology is a way of life and the only alternative if we want to have a future for our planet. It is the alternative for the conventional model, and only possible model, solution for our planet. The conventional model of agriculture, the agribusiness treats the land as commodity. Its sole objective is the accumulation of capital, using enormous amount of pesticides, threatening our lands, our rivers, polluting them. Agroecology is a sustainable model, which is the production of food in quality as well respecting the nature.
Maferson: For me, agroecology is also a science that presents a series of principles, concepts and methodologies for studying, analyzing, directing, designing and evaluating agroecosystems, in order to allow the implantation and development of agriculture styles with higher levels of sustainability.
Jacquelia: It links the empirical knowledge with scientific knowledge, taking into account the spaces and traditions of each place, aiming at an environmentally more sustainable, economically efficient and socially fairer agriculture.
Regiane: I think, agroecology is a new way of seeing the relationship between men and nature; production and consumption relations. We cannot limit agroecology into a technical understanding of agriculture, no; it is much broader. It is not only about having crops free of agrochemicals or transgenics, but also seeing water and soil as something that besides being sources of life, they also have life. As a rural producer and as a student of agronomy, I can assure you that with a decent, non-poisoned diet we can avoid many modern diseases, or the old ones aggravated by our current production model. Agroecology is a way of living today, but it is also our future!
So, lastly, what is the relation between your studies and agroecology?
Regiane: Before I was a student in Educar, as I have been a landless farmer, I already believed that producing food free from poison and transgenics was important. But today, through my educational process I can problematize and politicize what goes on my plate every day. I now have theoretical and practical bases for doing so.
I find here, in the Institute, whether in the garden, classroom or in the field, we all participate in the production processes from planning to execution. In each case and at each space, agroecology is at work, happening in all our debates, and production processes.
Saruê: In my point of view, the relationship between education and agroecology is fundamental. We need to develop more of this; beginning from the settlements and camps, from the children’s early involvement in production processes, to set that agroecology is the only valid model for our today and future. Educar is a special school for this, giving us to realize this perspective. As coming from a settlement, I have been hearing agroecology since my childhood, and now I have the opportunity to develop and spread it in theory and in practice as well.
Thank you for both answering questions, and making the future today, doing agroecology as well as producing knowledge based on agroecology. I wish you success in your courses and our struggle.
(1) João Pedro Stedile, one of the national leaders of MST uttered this for a couple of times in different events: as the Temer government is the representative of agribusiness system, each product produced based on agroecology would be a denunciation of the Temer coup.
(2) The MST defines the area where encampments and settlements are located as Agrarian Reform areas. This is not only “discursive”, but it also reflects the political vision and reality of the movement. The Agrarian Reform areas are not only areas where there is occupation, but also the implementation of social rights, alternative formation processes, and the agroecology, as an alternative way of producing and living the life.
(3) Mistica is a special activity of MST, which has cultural, spiritual, educational, theatrical, poetical and political elements, done collectively in almost all MST spaces. To have a broad information, see: “Mística, meaning and popular education in the Brazilian Landless Workers Movement”, John L. Hammond.
The Dawn News / January 2, 2017 (http://www.thedawn-news.org/2017/01/03/agroecology-is-a-way-of-life-an-in-depth-interview-with-students-of-agroecologic-school-educar/)
*From the solidarity group of Çiftçi-SEN / Turkey (Confederation of Small-Farmers’ Unions). A Turkish version of this article is published on karasaban.net / to contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
All photos: karasaban.net