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Impoverished farmers gain title to land and employ sustainable, earth-friendly farming methods.
Grassroots International Group, Brazil.

“Building a New World” in Brazil

by Linda Unger

When a tangle of landless farmers first took possession of the terrain that eventually would become the Cristina Alves settlement in northeastern Brazil, the farmers must have had their doubts. The depleted soil, dry grass, and armed henchmen who guarded the land must have given them pause. Yet, over the years, those farmers in the impoverished state of Maranhão have coaxed promise from the abused land. By employing sustainable, earth-friendly practices, they are returning the soil to a lush and productive state that benefits their families and their community.

These Cristina Alves residents are working together. They have set aside 35 percent of the settlement as a natural reserve, by which they seek to promote ecological balance, expand the forest, restore the watersheds, and increase food production. They have also set up a model farm to experiment with crop diversification (or polyculture) and other agroecological practices, such as alternating rows of pineapple plants with fruit trees and local hardwood species for timber. These farmers then seek to replicate what they’ve learned at the reserve on their own small plots.Farmer Ulises Firmino da Silva works the land. All the food production in the Chico Mendes III settlement is based on agroecological practices.

Access and Title to Land

Organized by the Landless Rural Workers Movement, known by its local acronym, MST, with support from Grassroots International, a nongovernmental organization (NGO) headquartered in Boston, Massachusetts, impoverished farmers across Brazil are occupying and gaining title to abused or abandoned lands. As they build a new life for themselves, they are making a dent in the huge gap between Brazil’s landed and landless, rich and poor.

Their effort is supported by UMCOR, the United Methodist Committee on Relief through its Sustainable Agriculture and Food Security program.

Without access and secure title to land,” said Alice Mar, who heads UMCOR’s agricultural program, “along with the knowledge and resources to sustainably farm that land, it’s virtually impossible for rural families to meet their food and nutrition needs, escape from poverty, or otherwise realize their potential.

Mar also pointed out that, while Brazil is considered a relatively wealthy country, in fact, it ranks 16 out of 141 nations in terms of economic inequality—meaning, she said, that “only 15 countries on earth have a greater disparity between rich and poor.” Brazil also has one of the world’s highest levels of concentrated land ownership, with about 1 percent of Brazilian landowners owning about 45 percent of all the country’s land. “Agribusinesses grab as much land as they can,” Mar noted. “Since their cultivation practices exhaust the land after just a few years, they have to continually acquire new land in order to continue their business.”

Through the work of Grassroots International and MST, hundreds of thousands of Brazilian families have successfully gained title to land. Another 150,000 continue in that struggle. Because available land often has been depleted and abandoned by agribusiness, Mar said, “it is vital that these new communities learn sustainable and equitable ways to rebuild their agricultural resources and create just and representative governance structures.”


The Cristina Alves settlement is continually looking for new ways to employ sustainable, earth-friendly agricultural methods. Besides developing a natural reserve and a polyculture system, mentioned earlier, resident farmers are also planting nitrogen-fixing legumes to fertilize the soil, developing an organic composting project, and building a nursery to multiply native seeds for distribution among the farm families.

All of these are agroecological practices. “Agroecology,” Mar explained, “refers to farming practices that take into account the natural or environmental relationships in the area to be cultivated and in the land that surrounds it.” It’s an approach that helps farmland and other natural resources recover from past damage caused by unsustainable cultivation. Agroecological practices aim at systemically restoring and maintaining a healthy environment, minimizing artificial inputs (such as chemical fertilizers), and managing agricultural pests, weeds, and diseases in a natural way.

In agroecology, the cultivated land is understood as part of a broader environmental picture, including the human community. “Agroecology takes into account the effects of farming on water, energy, and other common resources,” Mar pointed out. “And it is concerned with how agriculture can be employed for the collective good—to advance the community and not just the individual farm family.”

She underscored that the work UMCOR is supporting with and through its partners in Brazil is a model approach for UMCOR’s Sustainable Agriculture and Food Security work. “It builds the capacity of local farmers through targeted and appropriate inputs (such as tools and seeds) and provides them with training in practices that are both environmentally and economically sustainable. It also builds the leadership capacity of community organizers and youth and builds partnerships with Brazilian experts in agroecology,” Mar continued.

Those experts are working not just on food security but on food sovereignty, Mar added, “where people acquire the knowledge and power to make decisions about what their food systems look like.”

Another Settlement Site

At another settlement of formerly landless farmers—Chico Mendes III in Pernambuco State—the farmers are using the “agroecology rule” whereby all the food produced in the settlement is grown according to agroecological practices. “They acknowledge that through agroecology, they are bringing health to the community and to Mother Earth,” said Jovanna García Soto, Grassroots International’s Brazil coordinator, who visits settlements and encampments.

Ulises Firmino da Silva is one of the farmers here who have become adept in agroecology. “The land is my professor,” he said simply. His wife, María, who works with him, has created a seed bank. There she collects and saves seeds for all the families of the Chico Mendes III settlement. By using agroecological practices, the da Silvas and other settlers have been able to diversify their production, improve the quality of food for their families, and increase their family income by selling some of their produce at the municipal farmers’ market.

María is proud of the life that she, Firmino, and the other settlers are making in Chico Mendes III. They have held title to their land now for more than six years. “This is a small space where we are building a new world,” María says.

Linda Unger is senior writer for the General Board of Global Ministries. This article was originally published in the May-June 2015 issue of New World Outlook magazine. Used by permission.

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