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The Brazilian Agrarian Movement
by Dan Malakoff
15 Apr 2002
An interview with a BU Professor currently researching the exciting political changes in southern Brazil.
Jeffery Rubin has spent nearly a year studying social movements in Brazil’s Southern state of Rio Grande do Sul, the capital of which is Porto Alegre—the site of the World Social Forum earlier this year. These movements include the Participatory Budgeting project in Porto Alegre, a widely recognized experiment in direct democracy; the Movement of Rural Women Workers; and the Movement of Landless People (known as MST), a sometimes-militant group of farmers across Brazil that seizes unused plantations to work. His interest in grassroots efforts in Latin America grew out his work with indigenous movements in Southern Mexico.
Professor Rubin is a faculty member in the History Department and at BU’s Institute for the Study of Economic Culture. In the fall, he will be teaching Social Movements in 20th Century Latin America.
Could you quickly tell me why you decided to focus on Brazilian Social Movements?
In the period of recent democratization in Brazil, people have a lot of opportunities for innovative kinds of political and cultural experiments. I came here to get to know some of these innovative experiments and to learn about what makes them happen, how they work, where they succeed, what kind of limits they face, and how they relate to other political and social forces around them.
What have been a few of the surprises?
One surprise is the way successful experiments are talked about, and this relates in particular to Participatory Budgeting. I found that Participatory Budgeting is a very credible and interesting and successful effort to enable people in many neighborhoods—especially in the poorer neighborhoods—of a major city to participate and make decisions about how the budget should be allocated and how municipal services should be distributed and constructed in their neighborhoods. It works as a project because of the rootedness in local culture, because of the complexity of the procedure and because of the close relationships between people in government and people in the neighborhoods. What I found is that when this experiment is publicized worldwide, at the World Social Forum as well as in academic journals in the United States, people tend to abstract out the procedures, and say, ‘This is what happened at the first meeting, what happened in the second meeting, what happened in the third meeting, and when you carry out the set of procedures, you get a participatory system.’ It surprised me how little of the richness of local experience was made part of the didactic or scholarly material that was published and publicized elsewhere. I don’t think you can learn about successful experimentation and innovation in such abstract terms. As a result of that surprise, I’m trying to pay a lot of attention to the local rootedness and complexity of this political innovation so that when I write about it in articles and books, I can produce a different type of scholarship and a different set of lessons.
Another thing that interested and surprised me is related to the Movement of Rural Women’s Workers. About fifteen years ago, these women set up a movement that was separate from the agricultural labor unions and separate from the Movement of Landless People because they believed that forming their own movement was the only way to address women’s concerns—the economic or land concerns of women, health and gender concerns, their right to retirement or maternity benefits, the role of women in families. They believed the male leaders of the other rural agrarian movements weren’t willing to pay attention to these issues. The surprise in coming back is that these very same women have decided to de-emphasize somewhat these gender concerns and put their support back somewhat more into the issues around land and around forms of agricultural production. This is a surprise because what had interested me about this movement was the gender-focus, which is still there, but is less.
You mentioned how you were interested in the regional aspects of these movements and how those aspects were not in the academic dialogue. What makes these movements particularly Brazilian?
I can answer that question in two ways: one related to Brazilian politics and the opportunities available in the Brazilian political system at the moment, and the other in terms of local and regional cultures of daily life or cultural identities. In terms of Brazilian politics, in contrast to much of Latin America, this is a moment of hope and possibility for changes within a democratic system. Brazil has been a democracy since 1985. There are many limits to that democracy. There are many ways in which forms of violence and forms of authoritarianism coexist with democratic procedures. But what the present of national democracy has allowed is a certain degree of freedom for discussion, for forming new kinds of political organizations, for experimentation, and particularly for experimentation in the diverse regions and states of Brazil. It’s a very big country, and it’s a certain amount of decentralization of authority that allows this experimentation to happen. Elections are seen as focal points for potential change, and different kinds of negotiations and experiments on state and regional levels. That makes Brazil different from many Latin America countries. The moment of political opening and political opportunity is much greater in Brazil than in other places and that’s why these movements can grow and flourish to a greater extent here.
My work with different kinds of political and cultural experiments is to understand their relatedness to local and regional cultures. For instance, the Indian movement I studied in Southern Mexico was a Zapotec movement that used all sorts of languages, customs, procedures and understandings of Zapotec culture in order to form and maintain a political battle. I am seeing that is true here both in Participatory Budgeting and for the rural movements in the interior of the state.
The rural movements have grown out of both particular community cultures as well as the role of the Catholic Church and other organizations in the countryside in encouraging people to take an active role in questioning the world in which they live. Out of that there has been created a culture of organizing and a set of questionings about the political and economic status quo. It is only possible to understand the success of the rural movements here by understanding that connection between community cultures, religious cultures, and different forms of political activism. Again, the process couldn’t be exported or described without talking about that convergence.
Similarly in Porto Alegre, there has been a long history of, first, community activism in city neighborhoods, and second, political party activism in a place where there has been historic opposition to dictatorships in Brazil and a sense of regional identity. That identity is called Gaucho, and people in Porto Alegre, in Rio Grande do Sul, identify themselves as Gauchos. It’s a complicated cultural identity, one that supports this notion of active neighborhoods, of participation in government, and of people getting together to solve local problems. I think when the Participatory Budgeting project was initiated it brought together reformists within the city government who wanted to create a new system with this culture of activism, opposition to decentralized authority, and innovation in local neighborhoods.
Has one person in particular really impressed you?
There has been many. One person in particular is the Mayor of Porto Alegre whose name is Tarso Genro. He is one of the founders of Participatory Budgeting. He is the person who has best gotten it out there on the national and international agenda because he can talk about it, not just as a set of procedures, but as a reenergizing of the democratic procedure, a recreation and expansion of what it means to have a democratic system.
He is also able to make this process work in one of the most attractive poles for foreign investment in Brazil. What Tarso Genro had to do was implement this process of Participatory Budgeting, so empowering people in local neighborhoods, while at the same time raise taxes on property and get businesses to want to keep investing in the city. He is someone who could make it clear to the private sector and to business elites that, first of all, this project was strengthening the city, not weakening it; and, second of all, that even if they had some reservations, there was reason to accept the results of the democratic political system that had elected him as Mayor and be open to negotiations with a project that might have initially seemed at odds with the private sector. He is able to carry out complicated negotiations between a government that’s trying to stimulate participation and a very active and successful private sector.
Do you think these movements in Brazil could have a more worldwide impact?
Yes I do. Participatory Budgeting has gotten a lot of international attention—that’s probably one of the reasons you heard of it to begin with. Parallel to the World Social Forum, the municipal government of Porto Alegre sponsored a forum for municipal authorities. The Mayor of Paris, mayors of various Italian cities, and a lot of European as well as some African and other Latin American mayors came to discuss their experiences and also to learn about Participatory Budgeting. At the same time, major international institutions such as the World Bank have focused on participatory budgeting as a means of efficiently running cities. Here it is seen as a way of democratizing cities and some institutions see it as a way of efficiently running cities, but it is both. Also, I think anyone studying urban studies in the United States will come across what is happening here.
The project has been copied in at least a hundred Brazilian cities with very different effects in different places, and there are some research projects going on about how participatory budgeting is faring in other cities.
Participatory Budgeting is going to be copied and talked about. One of the things that I am concerned about as a scholar is that it is talked about in a way that facilitates reproducing what has been best and most successful about the experiment here. A lot of the material has been too schematic and too abstract, too based on a model. What I’m trying to include is more about the private sector, more about the regional politics, more about the neighborhood cultures, more about the past political history of the neighborhoods, so as to make that picture more expansive.
A lot of these experiments are traveling via the World Social Forum. The Women’s Movement, the Movement of Landless People, the rural labor unions here in Rio Grande do Sul all participated in the World Social Forum by themselves and via the Via Campasina, an international organization to which some of them are linked. They were able to articulate their vision of what is needed in rural areas and of the process of agrarian change to a much wider audience.
What do you think was accomplished at the World Social Forum?
People with very different experiences came from a lot of places and in many different conferences, seminars, and panels, the kinds of solutions, alternatives, ideas that they had developed and were being practiced in other places were put on the table. People were able to come to see not only ideas of social change, but particular kinds of alternatives that might be applicable at home.
For example, rural producers in Northern Spain could come here and talk to producers in southern Brazil about organic farming, about marketing methods for organic farming, about the ways in which they were trying to make small family farms into viable enterprises when faced with the expansion of a corporate based agriculture. They were able to talk about what they have actually done, and then go back to the interior of Brazil or to Spain with the knowledge of each other’s experiences.
What was best about the World Social Forum was its ability to publicize and promote interchange about particular kinds of innovations and new projects and experiments going on in different parts of the world.