As gluey oil drops continued being washed ashore, spoiling Atalaia’s sandy beaches in Brazil’s latest environmental disaster, eight miles inland, São Cristóvão sang and danced, wearing feathers, waving flags, honouring nature and celebrating a variety of social and cultural identities, knowledges and wisdoms in an act of defiance and reclaiming memory and territory.
A festival of the senses
This was the 11th Brazilian Agroecology Congress (CBA), the biennial event coordinated by the Brazilian Agroecology Association. CBA started in Portalegre in 2003 and this year took place in São Cristóvão, Aracaju, in the Northeast region of Brazil. The conference was hosted by the Federal University of Sergipe, in collaboration with other organisations, including the Articulation for the Semiarid region and Embrapa.
With about 2,400 presentations, 4,000 participants and a range of formats for sharing knowledge and debating, CBA was truly a festival of the senses. Experiences with agroecology – as science, practice and social movement – were expressed and debated with reference to research, field experiments, educational practices, political mobilisation, technologies, artefacts, seed, food products, recipes, ointments, crafts, cinema, dance, singing, storytelling and poetry.
Whilst some exchanged experiences with water-saving social technologies for the Semiarid, others debated the impacts of the oil leakage in the coastal communities of the Northeast. While some discussed public politics for agroecological and sovereign food systems, others still witnessed testimonies of suffering, resilience and emancipation cutting across diverse Latin American agrobiodiverse communities, as featured in the International Agroecology Film Festival.
Keeping it local
Food at the conference was sourced locally, with farmers themselves sharing their produce, and family businesses and collectives delighting everyone with regional delicacies. Fresh and colourful ingredients and appetising recipes reminding us that eating is more than a mechanical satisfaction of physiological needs – it is culture, taste and pleasure, even at academic conferences.
Farmers, fisherfolk, extractivists, indigenous groups, quilombolas (people of African descent), guardians of seeds, healers, spiritual leaders, social movements, artists, educators, researchers, and many more, mingled to discuss 16 themes that framed CBA’s ‘web of knowledges’ (teia dos saberes). Threads in this web included agrobiodiversity, territoriality, management of complex agri-food systems, resource scarcity, agrochemicals, GMOs, health and wellbeing, urban agriculture, youth, gender and feminism, in their relation to food and agroecological practices.
Methodologies used were rooted in the host place. The Griô Pedagogy, that helped to facilitate the exchange between cultures and languages of knowledge, is inspired in oral tradition and the celebration of territorial identity and ancestralism that is common in the Northeast. Griô (originally from the West African storyteller, ‘griot’) is the person (often an elder) who, through oral expression, keeps the memory of the territory alive and, by so doing, is an agent of social and cultural cohesion.
By using poetry, singing and storytelling, Griô facilitators transported participants to the places of living and being of those invited to debate in roundtables and seminars, indigenous peoples and scientists alike. Stories about the speakers’ origins, ancestors and childhood dreams were sung in rhyme by skilled Griôs as a preamble to the presentations. But make no mistake – this was not an indulging exercise in folk science. This was a political act of situating knowledge and a plea for reflexivity and, in the words of Elka Pankará (of the Pankará people), for ‘epistemic disobedience’.
Expressions of resistance and defiance
With no support from federal sources this conference risked not going ahead. That it happened, and at this scale, was itself an expression of resistance and defiance. Self-funding and mutual support were key to mobilise participants from across Brazil. The spirit of ‘mutirão’ (Brazilian term for collective mobilisation based on non-remunerated mutual help) ran high during the four days of the conference.
Also, rally chants and a colourful display of symbols – in flags, hats and t-shirts – showed this to be a space for political assemblage, aggregating various movements and identities, brought together by a shared sense of persecution, felt in the countryside and in academia, by social movements, indigenous communities, black people, women, girls, LGBTQI+ and many others.
Pushing agroecology way beyond a practice of production and firmly towards a political ecology, a reflex to the current political and ecological momentum, the spirit at the conference was one of confronting dominant regimes of truth and calling for a reconnection with plural territories and subjectivities. Ideas about scarcity were challenged by claims that ‘the Semiarid region does not lack water, it lacks justice’.
Gendered formulations of labour relations were denounced by feminists discussing the invisibility of care and mercantilisation of livelihoods and chanting that ‘without feminism, there is no agroecology’. And fixed social categories of peasant and farmers were contested by indigenous people, refuting the imposition of homogenising identities and disputing the ontological separation of their bodies from nature.
Reclaiming memory and territory
CBA was also an expression of pride in one’s identity, memories and histories. As written in the Letter from the Youth (Carta das Juventudes) at the end of the conference: ‘when we think about agroecology, we think about the territory. When we think about the territory, we think about culture. When we think about culture, we think about memory, history and identity’. Agroecology was affirmed as a vehicle for reclaiming memory and territory.
Yet, the territory and ancestralism were not (for the most, at least) portrayed in a conservationist or romantic manner. The connection between past, present and future was articulated as a pathway for liberation from an oppressive regime. For, as observed by Kota Mulangi, of the National Forum for Food and Nutrition Security of Peoples of African Descent, ‘remembering the past is to find a meaning for constructing the future’. This ‘omnitemporality’ of development is a core issue that IDS ongoing research on epic narratives of the Green Revolution is highlighting, albeit in relation to a very different type of technological pathway to that advocated for at this agroecology congress.
Although the prevailing sentiment was one of exultation of agroecology, there were also moments of self-critique. As one participant from an indigenous group noted, agroecology is the new term for what her people have practiced since pre-colonial times but has never been accepted as dignifying. The use of the term ‘wisdom’ (‘saberes’) to refer to their knowledge was disputed for implying theirs to be inferior to the knowledge of science, as their ‘crafts’ have never been accepted as work of ‘art’, a colonial exclusivity.
With the backdrop of an ultra-conservative and aggressive regime, Brazil’s agroecological community will surely continue to expand and become more plural and political in the coming years. But how far can it go in addressing Alfredo Wagner’s plea, at the closing session, that ‘tutelage of knowledge should always be refuted’, without losing its identity and purpose?