Orfalea Center Thematic Research Cluster
Environmental Justice/Climate Justice
The Forest Society: A Food Forest of the Landless Workers’ Movement (MST) in Brazil
Noa Cykman, with Terra Vista (MST, Brazil)
Could the most promising ecological innovations of the contemporary, technological age be 10,000 years old?
Indigenous agricultural practices historically oppressed by Western societies are re-emerging as solutions capable of restoring ecosystems while also fostering social justice. Informed by this traditional ecological knowledge, leading peasant grassroots movements, such as the global La Via Campesina and the Brazilian Landless Workers’ Movement (MST), are adopting practices of agroecology and agroforestry, linking their struggles for human liberation to the regeneration of agroecosystems. Those agricultural practices are increasingly known by natural scientists, but little has been studied from social perspectives about the values and worldviews of communities enacting them. Conversely, literature on the MST has widely discussed its social forces, but lacks interdisciplinary work to account for the ecological dimensions of their struggles.
Familiarity with the connections between social and ecological aspects of regenerative agriculture is essential in order to advance the necessary transition from modern industrial agriculture towards more localized, culturally-relevant, sustainable, and equitable food systems.
To advance this agenda, I will conduct a study of, and with, Terra Vista, a settlement of the MST in the North of Brazil. Terra Vista initiated agroecological agroforestry of cacao in 2000, and has since made progress in restoring the local ecosystem and building food sovereignty among the fifty-five families of this community. I will work with them to identify how social and ecological elements are connected in their practices. How does Terra Vista see their ecosystem and the relationships they establish with it through agricultural practices? How are collaborations arranged between the social movement and the forest, and what do they look like? What are the implications of these collaborations for the community and for the local ecosystem?
I will follow a cacao bean to answer these questions. From seed, to tree, to fruit, to chocolate (made and commercialized by the settlement’s youth), to commodity, the biography of a cacao bean will allow mapping all the human and more-than-human relationships imbricated in its journey.
The research method is a multispecies ethnography, an approach that is growing among the social sciences, but which remains underused in sociology. The study will be supported by a theoretical framework connecting relational and environmental sociology, multispecies studies nested in the environmental humanities, and agroecology, a field that includes natural and social sciences, social movements, and agricultural practices. The challenge is to study an ecosystem as a society—a more-than-human society upon which human societies depend.
What universe of connections flows through a small seed—the heart of a community—into broader webs of relations? What might a cacao bean teach us about interconnectedness? Might the bean’s biography indicate solutions to problems related to the climate and ecological crises, based on Indigenous knowledge applied by a grassroots social movement?
This project investigates contemporary practices rooted in ancestral knowledges that prioritize balance between human societies and their ecosystems. The study will assess both social and ecological aspects of agroecology by collaborating with a leading grassroots organization. The accumulation and dissemination of systematized knowledge about the practice and practitioners of agroecology may help social movements, governmental and nongovernmental organizations, international agencies, and other institutions to support this transition.