Coopcerrado, a farmer’s cooperative of 5,000 families, won the United Nations’ Equator Prize under the category of “New Nature Economies” due to its more than two decades of work in developing a farmer-to-farmer model of mutual support for training, commercializing and setting up organic and regenerative businesses in the Brazilian Cerrado.
The Cerrado savanna, a biodiversity hotspot holding 5% of the world’s biodiversity is also among one of the most threatened, with almost half of the biome destroyed for agriculture and a process of desertification already underway, scientists say.
To save the Cerrado, farmers and traditional extractivist communities have developed an expandable model of collective support in knowledge and resource-sharing while restoring the biome and providing an income for thousands of vulnerable families.
Bureaucratic and logistic hurdles in Brazil traditionally leave small farmers and traditional communities out of mainstream markets and industries, but bridging this gap has been one of the keys to the cooperative’s success.
When farmer Mônica de Souza Ribeiro moved into her landless settlement in the state of Goiás in central Brazil in the late 1990s, she was overwhelmed by the sheer amount of agrotoxins and chemicals deployed in the cattle- and soy-dominated region. At first, she followed suit, using chemical fertilizers to grow the vegetables that she sold for her family business. But she became increasingly concerned as she watched the destruction around her.
Brazil’s Cerrado, a Mexico-sized tropical savanna, holds 5% of the world’s biodiversity, but almost half of the natural vegetation has now been replaced by agribusiness — mostly soy and corn monocultures as well as cattle pastures. The vast destruction is now fueling desertification, threatening regional climate stability, biodiversity, and Brazil’s energy and food supplies.
“When we moved here, I wouldn’t see a single bird. The poison would kill everything,” Ribeiro told Mongabay in a telephone interview from the settlement in rural Guapó municipality. “I wanted to take care of nature and the Cerrado, but I didn’t know how.”
That changed when she joined Coopcerrado, now a 5,000-family-strong organic farmers’ cooperative and the 2021 winner of the United Nations’ Equator Prize under the category “New Nature Economies” for its two-decade-long fight to make regenerative and organic production possible for smallholders. Coopcerrado is today made up of 238 smallholder and traditional communities across five states in Brazil’s agribusiness stronghold.
Life has gotten harder for the region’s vulnerable communities under Brazil’s anti-environment president, Jair Bolsonaro. As economic and political pressures continue to favor the nation’s powerful agribusiness lobby, traditional communities find themselves under increasing threat of violent eviction, with land conflicts breaking records last year. Even as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to take its toll on the sector, burying a number of small businesses, the cooperative offers a glimmer of hope.
“The cooperative stood out as an effective model for the sustainable use of a vulnerable biome by successfully commercializing over 170 non-timber forest products,” Anna Medri, a senior analyst at the United Nations Development Programme, told Mongabay. “It provides a blueprint for sustainable supply chains that leave ecosystems intact.”
Less exploitation, more conservation when Cerrado communities are supported
Twenty years ago, the overharvesting of a bean pod called faveira was damaging the Cerrado and exploiting its pickers. With pharmaceutical companies creating high demand for the plant, which is rich in several flavonoids used to make medication for high-blood pressure, middlemen would source it from the region’s most vulnerable, often women and children without land.
At the time faveira cost the equivalent of only 0.22 reais, or 4 U.S. cents, adjusted for inflation. People harvesting the pods could barely make ends meet, according to Alessandra da Silva, a coordinator at Coopcerrado and one of its longest-standing members. Faveira was so cheap in its raw form that it could be exchanged for an equal weight of salt.
“The lowest price was paid to the people collecting this plant. It was devalued by the exploitative supply chain, and the environment suffered too,” Silva said. “No one had an incentive to protect nature.”
The cooperative’s first project, in 2000, saw faveira collectors organizing with the help of consultants and agronomists. With organic certification and improved techniques, and without the middlemen, the cooperative was able to collectively negotiate with local pharmaceutical companies. The result was that people at the bottom of the supply chain saw a price jump of more than 1,000%, now selling their faveira for 2.60 reais (50 cents). This agreement also put a stop to the predatory extraction that was harming the environment.
For the plant to have time to regenerate, farmers need to skip a harvest every two years. The collective planning and increased income for the families gave it the time required to thrive.
Working under one unified contract also made life easier for everyone. Pharmaceutical companies no longer needed to negotiate hundreds of separate contracts and had a reliable source for the ingredient. And faveira farmers could avoid having to deal with red tape.
“It’s a win-win situation,” Silva said.
Today, Coopcerrado has applied similar strategies for 170 native Cerrado species harvested by the cooperative, sold to local markets, nationwide supermarket chains, multinational companies, and for export. The cooperative negotiates billing, packaging and sale of the products collectively as well. The cooperative also takes responsibility for transportation, providing access for hard-to-reach families and communities in rural areas.
Sharing resources and skills key to success
Members of the cooperative subdivide into hundreds of smaller units. Every 10 families make up a local nucleus that meets monthly to receive support and training from the cooperative’s agronomists and share skills. “Recently, I shared my natural remedy for fending off an aggressive ant attacking the plants,” Ribeiro said. “We share the knowledge we carry between us and also learn from the technical, professional assistance from agronomists.”
Thousands of families and communities now make a better living restoring the environment and protecting the region’s biodiversity. But the challenges are still huge.
“Banks won’t dole out credit for this kind of project. They still don’t think it’s a worthwhile investment,” Silva told Mongabay, adding that government support has also fallen under both the Terner and Bolsonaro administrations.
Resource sharing among members helps bridge that gap. A pay-it-forward cyclical credit scheme, which is not always available to due funding limitations, and a free seed bank help support new and existing members.
In 2010, the project granted Ribeiro access to a cyclical project-based credit subsidy to plant her first chili pepper harvest, making it possible for her to get started. Once she earned the money back, the funds reverted to the next farmer.
A path away from greed and exploitation
In coming years, Coopcerrado plans to reach 10,000 families. For this, it needs access to resources such as credit, grants and donations, as well as changes in public policy.
“We want to revert this path of exploitation and greed and show that there is another possible path for the Cerrado,” Silva said.
Government action could make a huge difference in expanding the horizons of sustainable land use in the region, she said, but the prospects under Brazil’s current administration are dim. For years, the cooperative’s farmers sold flour made from the nutritious baru nut to the government for public school meals. But the program was slashed in recent years, and the government terminated the contract.
Improved land rights and government measures to support traditional communities are also in dire need, Silva said. “Many communities face high levels of precarity, but the cooperative can’t replace public policy,” she said.
Ten years after joining the cooperative, Ribeiro says she sees a massive change on her own land, now an organic vegetable farm.
“People aren’t waking up to the fact that we’re killing the life on Earth. If we allow large-scale farmers to destroy everything here in the Cerrado and plant crops right up to the riverbanks, where are the animals going to live?” she said. “Today, my farm is a happier place. Nature feels more alive. Life around me has transformed, there are lots of birds in the sky. Even people around us who aren’t part of the cooperative have started reducing agrotoxins.”
Brazil’s highest court has upheld a ban on missionaries entering reserves that are home to isolated and recently contacted Indigenous people during the pandemic.
The decision comes in response to a lawsuit filed by Indigenous organizations against a law passed in July 2020 that allowed missionaries to remain inside these reserves despite the pandemic, in violation of Brazil’s official policy in place since 1987.
According to Indigenous organizations, it’s crucial to reaffirm the non-contact policy under the administration of President Jair Bolsonaro that has pushed to “integrate” Indigenous people into society, and has been cozy with the evangelical movement.
Besides the risk of disease spread, the presence of missionaries in these reserves undermines traditional cultures and social cohesion, and compels these nomadic communities to settle down, making the land more vulnerable to invasions by illegal ranchers and loggers, activists say.
Brazil’s highest court has upheld a ban on missionary activity inside reserves that are home to isolated or recently contacted Indigenous people, in a bid to protect the communities against COVID-19.
Although the country’s official indigenist policy toward these groups since 1987 has been to not engage in any contact, regardless of whether there’s a pandemic, a federal law passed in July 2020 allows religious missionaries to remain inside these reserves. This triggered a lawsuit by Indigenous and political organizations, which the Supreme Federal Court (STF) has now ruled in favor of.
The 2020 law attempted to “legitimize something that is already forbidden,” said Carolina Ribeiro Santana, a lawyer for the Observatory for the Human Rights of Isolated and Recently Contacted Indigenous Peoples (OPI), one of the co-authors of the lawsuit. “As we are under an anti-Indigenous government, it is important to have a decision which reassures the Indigenous policy.”
OPI authored the lawsuit along with the Articulation of the Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (Apib) — the country’s largest Indigenous organization — and the Workers Party (PT). Justice Luís Roberto Barroso issued the court’s ruling on Sept. 24.
Last year, the court had already forbidden the entry of outsiders into these areas while hearing another case where Indigenous organizations urged the federal government to implement measures, including imposing sanitary barriers, to protect the Indigenous population from COVID-19. “In the current situation, where there is an ongoing pandemic, the peoples in isolation and recent contact are the most exposed to the risk of contagion and extinction,” Barroso said in that earlier ruling.
But threats against uncontacted Indigenous groups have escalated under the government of President Jair Bolsonaro, who has called for Indigenous people to be “integrated into society.” Bolsonaro’s hostility toward Indigenous people is no secret; last year, in his weekly live transmission on social media, he declared that, “more and more, the Indigenous is a human being just like us.”
At the same time, Bolsonaro is hugely popular with Brazil’s evangelicals, who are credited with helping him win the 2018 election. (His middle name translates to “Messiah.”) Once in office, he appointed evangelical leaders to key posts in his administration, including Ricardo Lopes Dias, who, until November 2020, headed the department responsible for protecting isolated and recently contacted communities at Funai, the Indigenous affairs agency. Dias was a pastor with the New Tribes Mission, an evangelical group notorious for reportedly spreading disease among the Zo’é people living in northern Pará state. More than a third of the Zo’é population subsequently died. Another top official, Damares Alves, the minister for women, family and human rights, is also reportedly linked to missionary groups, according to BBC News Brasil.
“These people choose isolation,” anthropologist Aparecida Vilaça, from the National Museum of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, told Mongabay in a phone interview. “What the state has to do is to not let anyone get in.”
One of the reasons for this isolation, according to Indigenous organizations, is precisely the trauma of almost being exterminated by the diseases brought by non-Indigenous people, like influenza, measles and malaria; Indigenous people, especially isolated ones, don’t have immunity to many of these pathogens.
But the threat of disease isn’t the only one introduced by missionaries, even to non-isolated groups. According to lawyer Eliésio Marubo, from Vale do Javari reserve in northern Amazonas state, missionaries undermine the social cohesion of the community by favoring the leaders who support them.
“The culture of our people is also weakened because certain practices are forbidden [by the missionaries], like traditional medicine,” Eliésio Marubo said. “The relationship with the territory also changes. Before, we used to move around a lot, but the missionaries want us to stay in one place only.”
Vale do Javari is home to the largest number of isolated Indigenous people in the world: 10 out of the 28 confirmed groups of isolated people in Brazil. The reserve is also home to non-isolated Indigenous groups, like the Marubo.
“It is a cultural destruction,” anthropologist Aparecida Vilaça said of the missions’ presence in Indigenous reserves. Vilaça witnessed the effects of missionary groups on an Indigenous community in Rondônia, also in the Amazon region. “They do a very deep process of humiliation of the traditional practices, by saying their dances and beliefs are things of the devil,” she said.
According to Vilaça, these changes in the traditional way of life make the Indigenous people more vulnerable to several economic interests. “The missionaries lead to the settling of all the community in the same place, releasing land to farmers and loggers. We can’t forget that these lands are very coveted,” she said.
Vilaça said the desire to convert Indigenous groups started with the colonization of Brazil, by the Catholic Church, and is now led by evangelical groups, some of which have deep pockets.
Rejection of “consentement” thesis
As the lawyer for Univaja, the Union of Indigenous People of Vale do Javari, Eliésio Marubo went to court last year against Andrew Tonkin, a U.S. evangelical Baptist missionary who was planning to travel to the reserve amid the pandemic to contact isolated Indigenous groups.
“Missionaries have been harassing us for 60 years,” he said. “They have helicopters, airplanes and they fly from here to the United States.”
Besides granting Univaja’s request to ban Tonkin’s entry, a federal court also ordered the expulsion of missionaries still inside the territory. Despite the victory, the missionaries are still lurking, Eliésio Marubo said. “They remain on the borders of the reserve, trying to co-opt people,” he told Mongabay over the phone.
In a setback for the Indigenous groups, Justice Barroso denied their request to remove the missionaries already inside the reserves. Besides creating a risk of contagion, Barroso said — since evicting them could “require third parties to enter such areas” — it was not clear that isolated groups had not consented to their presence.
“How can you give consent for something that you have no idea what it is? To people who don’t even speak their language?” Vilaça said. She added that missionaries use several strategies to win over the isolated people. “They offer axes, knives, and other benefits to those who join them.”
In their argument to the STF, the Indigenous groups noted that the way isolated communities express their will is different from the rest of society. “Our society gives prevalence to speech, to writing, and these people are talking to us in a different way. When they run away or attack an approaching person, it is a way of saying no,” Santana said.
Barroso’s ruling is a precautionary measure, meaning the case will be subject to trial in the STF plenary. In a statement, the office of Brazil’s attorney general said it had been notified of the decision but will only manifest in the court. Funai didn’t reply to requests for comment.
The only contacted member of the Amazon’s Piripkura tribe has voiced her fears that loggers operating illegally inside her people’s territory will soon kill her relatives.
Rita Piripkura is the only Piripkura person in regular contact with outsiders. In a unique interview released today by Survival International, she describes how nine of her relatives were massacred in one attack by loggers, and says that her brother and nephew, Baita and Tamandua, are known to still live inside the territory.
Rita says: “There are lots of land grabbers around… If they kill them, there won’t be anyone left.”
The Piripkura’s forest was deforested more than any other uncontacted tribe’s territory in Brazil in 2020. It is believed other members of the tribe are also living in the territory, having retreated to the depths of the forest.
The Piripkura’s forest is currently shielded by a Land Protection Order – an official order used to protect uncontacted tribes’ territories that have not been through the long process of official demarcation – but the order is due to expire on September 18.
A judge recently ordered the authorities to remove farmers and loggers inside the territory, but like most such edicts requiring government action, little has been done to comply.
Six other tribal territories are currently protected by similar Land Protection Orders, and in total they cover 1 million hectares of rainforest. But President Bolsonaro and his allies want to open up these territories, which remain vulnerable until they are fully demarcated as indigenous lands, as part of his government’s all-out assault on indigenous rights.
Sarah Shenker, head of Survival’s Uncontacted Tribes campaign, said today: “Rita Piripkura’s harrowing and urgent appeal for the survival of her relatives should be heard far and wide. The Piripkura people have been decimated by decades of killings at the hands of outsiders. Now those few that are left face the same fate, as ranchers and politicians, boosted by President Bolsonaro’s genocidal actions and proposals, are trying to rip up all protection of the Piripkura’s forest.
“The Land Protection Orders – and proper enforcement of them – are the only thing standing between uncontacted tribes like the Piripkura and total extinction. They must be renewed, all invaders evicted, and the land fully protected.”
Writing about history is important for this project, but why is that? I took for granted how important learning from history is without really thinking about why. When I read How Change Happens by Duncan Green, he clarified things. This got me thinking about wanting to understand learning from history better to then write about it.
Successes and failure of the left
Duncan Green, who’s area of focus is international development, describes how looking at history lets us question the world we take for granted and understand the long-term trends that shape it. By understanding how our current world has been created, we can find more realistic methods to change it. He describes how the success of the abolitionist movement shows that massive, immovable objects have been changed before. Green describes how history can inspire a deep respect for the personal sacrifices and campaign skills of our predecessors. History can also provide intellectual material to challenge the current narrow window of what’s acceptable. By studying historical examples that are an alternative and different from the norm, it gives new insights and ideas. Green explains that history encourages curiosity and humility and reminds us that activists are usually less influential than political, economic or unexpected changes. 
Campaigning for change: lessons from history by the History & Policy Network and Friends of the Earth explain that the case studies in the book: “illustrate, documenting activism and organising for change in the past gives us greater understanding of strategic choices, communications strategies, timing and serendipity in campaigning, as well as some extraordinary examples of mobilisation on a scale that today’s campaigners can scarcely dream of.”  The book explores ten case studies from the last 200 years in Britain.
They reference the famous quote ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’, and describe how politicians and pundits regularly use history to try to understand the present but without thinking how to do that appropriately. 
The History & Policy Network and Friends of the Earth describe the three questions that academic historians focus on the most:
how you choose your questions/choosing your histories,
the truthfulness of historical explanations/choosing your historians,
the unique character of historical events/translating past into present/challenge of drawing parallels. 
The conclusion of Campaigning for change: lessons from history identifies four areas of learning:
Big game-plan and proxy campaigns – many modern-day campaigns do not have a bigger game plan compared to campaigns of the past.
Approaches – using economics arguments instead of moral arguments is now common; movements do reach out to elites to build coalitions as they did in the past; we now have loose networks heading in the same direction compared to broad-based cohesive movements and coalitions of the past.
Tactics – strong individual and group identities are important; people have relationships with the place they live in and the people who live there; direct action has contributed to successful campaigns in the past when used strategically; over time women have extended their sphere of influence in movements resulting in novel and successful tactics.
The backlash – prepare for and understand what possible backlashes may appear and from where, and prepare how to use them to benefit the campaign; and understanding that those in power cannot always control the narrative so aim to control or change the narrative. 
In Stir It Up: Lessons in Community Organizing and Advocacy Rinku Sen describes how looking at the history of community organising shows several different models, that are based on a “specific theory of constituency building and social change”. These specific models of organising can be beneficial and limiting. Understanding the model that our tactics are based on means we can “follow that model to a logical conclusion, get help from others who have used it, avoid its pitfalls, and describe ourselves effectively in our attempts to raise money and train new leaders.” Models can also limit campaigns ability to innovate, which is key to success. Sen explains that pure models do not exist and effective organisers mix and match. Community organising and social movement history are full of examples of tactics from past campaign being applied to ongoing struggles. She argues the importance of being able to articulate the theory of social change being applied to then stick with it or adjust it as necessary. 
Professor Jodi Dean describes how historical accounts are meant as lessons and guideposts, ways of thinking that let us learn and do better next time. She argues that sometimes leftists forget this and get bogged down in lessons of the past as if they tell us exactly what will happen. As if history is completely determinist  and there is no alternative. She argues that the determinist perceptive is an academic approach and instead need to think in more political and revolutionary terms. Dean describes that we need to look at the past for guidance and the future should determine how we apply this guidance in terms of ‘strategy, tactics, practices, and slogans.’ 
Jodi Dean also argues that we need to learn the positive lessons from terrible historical periods. Jodi Dean wrote The Communist Horizon intending to reclaim ‘communism’, argues that when people reduce communism to the Soviet Union, they don’t want to learn from history. Instead, they want to universally criticise and condemn the Soviet Union. I’m no fan of the Soviet Union for obvious reasons (it was responsible for the mass murder of millions of people and highly repressive) but like Jodi Dean, there were experiments in self-management and collectivisation that we can learn from. It’s important to not write the whole period off. The people that undertook these experiments – scientists, doctors, farmers – do have something to teach us. 
Ben Reynolds who wrote The Coming Revolution: Capitalism in the 21st Century describes how we need to learn where the left has made missteps or gone wrong. Not so much about blame as being able to conduct an honest appraisal of our historical and current failures that will help us to build a strong and solid movement going forwards. He links this to how fractured the left is, with people being very ideological and not many reading or listening to opposing voices on the left. Reynolds describes how those on the left caricature those in other tendencies, so they are seen as evil and the enemy. The result is that no one learns from the historical experience and instead everyone is just regurgitating their talking points. He describes some of the lessons from the victory of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and the mistakes the left made there. 
Naomi Klein describes the emotional benefits of learning from this past in a talk she gave in 2011 about her book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. She explains that the large amounts of terrifying information that we are bombarded with result is us being in a state of shock so we don’t make important connections or construct analysis. This keeps us in the immobile state we’re stuck in. She describes that when we gather and tell ourselves stories then the clicks of connection happen. We can’t be effective activists if we’re hysterical. We can be calm and angry at the same time. Our role models in the effective political struggles of the past weren’t hysterical. They were focused and calm. Klein describes that when we make the connections between issues – war, torture, economics – between the present and our past, then our bodies start to relax. We calm down, get more focused and we can feel some of that rage as opposed to just fear. So we can be much more effective activists and fighters. 
The Marxist economics Professor Richard Wolff, explains in many of his youtube videos how important learning from history is in relation to why the 2008 economic crash happened and also what happened in the US in the 1930s in response to Great Depression – labour movements forced President Roosevelt to implement the New Deal by taxing the rich.  He also explains that most people know a lot of what he explains in his talks but he shares his understanding of history with a narrative in the hopes that it will cause people to join with other people to make a change. 
Richard Wolff explains clearly in this video how since 1980 the capitalists in the US rolled back the New Deal gains for ordinary people of benefits, pensions, and full employment. He explains near the end of the video that although the rich were heavy taxed during the New Deal period and post-war boom, they were left with the resources to be able to support the neoliberal project of think tanks and academics from the middle of the twentieth century. It then became the dominant political and economic ideology from the late 1970s. I will describe the history and nature of neoliberalism in a future post.
Richard Wolff argues in the video that what we learning from the last fifty years is that: if taxes are drastically increased and regulations are put in place to stop another financial crash, the rich have the resources to undo them again and they will do this. He concludes that “you can not leave some people in control of a disproportionate amount of the wealth of society and then be surprised if they use that wealth to keep themselves at the top. If we don’t want that, then let’s not fight over redistributing the wealth. Let’s not distribute unequally in the first place. We shouldn’t have some people earning millions of dollars and other people fighting to get $15 an hour as a minimum wage. That creates inequality and the corruption of politics to keep that inequality in place.’ 
History from below
In All Knees and Elbows of Susceptibility and Refusal: Reading History from Below Anthony Iles and Tom Roberts describe two perspectives of ‘history from below’: “‘radical history’ – the history of more or less organised political movements which challenge and sometimes shape the order of things – and history from below as the history of unheard voices and experiences per se.” 
All Knees and Elbows of Susceptibility and Refusal: Reading History from Below has eight chapters. The introduction describes core figures and institutions that are used as a starting point to explore the field. Chapter two looks at class, ‘the people’ and ‘the below’, and how history from below has expanded these categories. Chapter three explores questions related to the discovery and use of historical sources. Chapter four looks at how the working class developed intellectual practices and developed distribution networks for the dissemination of dissent. Chapter five focuses on the relationship between history, literary forms and myth-making, and how people construct their own identities and experiences about the dominant culture. Chapter six looks at education – university institutions, their critique and protest against them. Chapter seven looks at history and state politics, focusing on the Coalition Government concept of the ‘Big Society’. The final chapter describes some of the disputes and controversies that ‘historians from below’ have initiated.
Reflections on Knowledge, Learning and Social Movements edited by Aziz Choudry and Salim Vally brings together “radical adult education and historical theoretical frameworks to explicitly examine the knowledge production, learning and politics involved in processes of retrieving and critically engaging with movement histories and developing activist archives, and further, in ways which put them into dialogue with contemporary activism.”  Its asks important questions “How do educators and activists in today’s struggles for change use historical materials from earlier periods of organizing for political education? How do they create and engage with independent and often informal archives and debates? How do they ultimately connect this historical knowledge with contemporary struggles?” 
The book is divided into four sections:
engagement with activist/movement archives,
learning and teaching militant histories,
lessons from liberatory and anti-imperialist struggles,
learning from student, youth and education struggles.
Six of the chapters focus on social movements in South Africa. Struggles are explored from other countries including Argentina, Iran, Britain, Palestine and the US 
The introduction (download here) gives an overview of the book and aspects of learning from history. It describes the importance of developing “context-specific, locally relevant ways to connect historical movement knowledge with contemporary organising.”  It also states that “histories from below can be fraught with contradictions, silences, omissions, distortions, and absences in similar ways to official histories, just as learning and knowledge produced in activist milieus can sometimes replicate rather than disrupt dominant power relations.”  Using ideas and concepts from previous struggles requires us to be aware of potential problems of “constructing imagined histories and continuities with the past”, so we need to avoid romanticising earlier struggles. We need to avoid copying past victories and applying now in different conditions and contexts. We also need to seriously consider to value of ‘old tactics’ that did not work in the past. 
The introduction stresses the importance of being aware of the problems of historical and social amnesia. This amnesia “risks losing the thread and texture of what it takes to bring about social change, with all of its tensions and contradictions and threatens to leave us with a version of history that glosses over or ignores the significance of behind-the-scenes organising. Such amnesia can paper over the conflicts, tensions and power dynamics that have been part of these organising efforts and from which we can also learn.” 
It also underlines how important it is for many movements to identify the “historical context for the conditions in which people live and struggle”, related to capitalism and colonialism. It describes the essential need to fashion “tools from forms and histories of resistance that are sometimes forgotten and buried.” It is important to appreciate struggles “at the margins or dissenting currents within larger movements, the ideas that they produce and their contributions to organising.” Finally, the introduction describes the need to be aware of revisionism “we need to also bring to light ways in which the latter struggles sometimes get overwritten by dominant accounts which focus on individual leaders and more visible or more powerful organisations.” 
How Change Happens, Duncan Green, 2016, page 76/77
Campaigning for change: lessons from history, History & Policy Network and Friends of the Earth, 2015, page 9
Campaigning for change, page 11
Campaigning for change, page 12
Campaigning for change, page 160-174
Stir It Up: Lessons in Community Organizing and Advocacy, Rinku Sen, 2003, page lxiv
Determinism is the philosophical theory that all events, including moral choices, are completely determined by previously existing causes. Determinism is usually understood to preclude free will because it entails that humans cannot act otherwise than they do.
A person can go a few weeks without food, years without proper shelter, but only a few days without water. Water is fundamental, yet we often forget how much we rely on it. Only 37 percent of the world’s rivers remain free-flowing and numerous hydro dams have destroyed freshwater systems on every continent, threatening food security for millions of people and contributing to the decimation of freshwater non-human life.
Dams and dam failures have catastrophic socio-environmental consequences. In the 20th century alone, large dam projects displaced 40 to 80 million people globally. At the same time, the communities most impacted by dams have been typically excluded from the political decision-making processes affecting their lives.
In Brazil there is an extensive network of mining companies, electric companies and other corporate powers that construct, own and operate dams throughout the country. But for the communities directly affected by hydro dam projects, water and energy are not commodities. Brazil’s Movement of People Affected by Dams (Movimento dos Atingidos por Barragens, or MAB — pronounced “mah-bee”) fights against the displacement and privatization of water, rivers and other natural resources in the belief that everyday people should have sovereignty and control over their own resources.
MAB is a member of La Via Campesina, a transnational social movement representing 300 million people across five continents with over 150 member organizations committed to food sovereignty and climate justice. MAB also works with social movements across Brazil, including the more widely-known Landless Workers Movement (MST), unions and human rights organizations. These alliances speak to the importance of peasant movements and Global South movements in constructing globalizations from below.
MAB focuses its fights on six interconnected areas: human rights, energy, water, dams, the Amazon and international solidarity. The movement organizes for tangible policy and system-level changes and actively creates an alternative to capitalist globalization.
Just over two years ago, on January 25, 2019, the worst environmental crime in Brazil’s history resulted in the loss of 272 lives. In Córrego do Feijão in Brumadinho, in the state of Minas Gerais, a dam owned by the transnational mining company Vale collapsed. Originally a state-owned company, Vale was privatized in 1997 and since then has made untold billions of dollars mining iron ore and other minerals.
Brazil is the world’s second-largest producer of mineral ores and in 2018 iron ore accounted for 20 percent of all exports from Brazil to the United States. More than 45 percent of Vale’s shareholders are international, including some of the world’s largest investment management companies based in the US such as BlackRock and Capital Group.
The logic of profit has dispossessed people of their sovereignty, their wealth and their water, the very essence of life. The massive dams Vale uses in its mining operations privatize and pollute water used by thousands of people.
When you fly over the state of Minas Gerais, you can see the iron mines as large gaping holes in the ground. Vale and its subsidiaries own and control 175 dams in Brazil, of which 129 are iron ore dams and Minas Gerais accounts for the vast majority of these. Minas Gerais is a region where thousands of people depend upon the water for their livelihood and survival, but the mining leaves the water contaminated. Agriculture and fishing are disrupted or halted, and residents struggle to live without access to potable water.
Exacerbating the problems associated with the privatization and contamination of water for residents, local economy and ecosystems, the dams themselves are vulnerable: the types of dams Vale uses are relatively cheap to build, but also present higher security risks because of their poor structure. When the Brumadinho iron ore mine collapsed, it released a mudflow that swept through a worker cafeteria at lunchtime before wiping out homes, farms and infrastructure. The disaster killed 272 people and an additional 11 people were never found. What made it a crime was that Vale knew something like this could happen. In an earlier assessment, Vale had classified the dam as “two times more likely to fail than the maximum level of risk tolerated under internal guidelines.”
The Associação Estadual de Defesa Ambiental e Social (State Association of Environmental and Social Defense) conducted an assessment and released a report in collaboration with more than 7,000 residents in the regions impacted by the dam collapse. This report shows that depending on the town — the effects of the collapse vary from those communities buried in mud, to those impacted further downstream — 55 to 65 percent of people currently lack employment due to the dam disaster.
Brumadinho is considered one of the worst socio-environmental crimes in the history of Brazil, but it is far from the only one. Five years ago, a dam collapsed in Mariana, killing 20 people; the impacted communities still suffer the effects and are without reparations. On the second anniversary of the Brumadinho collapse, on January 24, 2021, another dam collapsed in Santa Catarina. On March 25, 2021, a dam in Maranhão state, owned by a subsidiary of the Canadian company Equinox Gold, collapsed, polluting the water reservoir of the city of Godofredo Viana, leaving 4,000 people without potable water.
On January 22, 2021, MAB held a virtual international press conference to commemorate two years since the Brumadinho collapse. Jôelisia Feitosa, an atingida (an “affected person”) from Juatuba, one of the communities affected by the dam collapse, described the fallout. People are suffering from skin diseases due to the contaminated water; small farmers cannot continue with their livelihood; people who relied on fishing can no longer do so. As a result, many people have been forced to leave. The lack of potable water has created an emergency. Feitosa said that presently, there are “not conditions for surviving here” anymore. The after-effects of the collapse, compounded by the pandemic, continue to take lives.
There are more than 100,000 atingidos in the region, but people do not know what is going to happen or when emergency aid will come. Further, government negotiations with Vale for “reparations” were conducted without the participation of atingidos. On February 4, 2021, the Brazilian government and Vale reached an accord. Nearly US$7 billion was awarded to the state of Minas Gerais, making it the largest settlement in Brazil’s history, along with murder charges for company officials.
To MAB, however, the accord is illegitimate. It was made under false pretenses, the affected population was not included in the process, and the money, which is not even going to those who are most impacted, does not begin to cover the irreparable and continuing damages. As José Geraldo Martins, a member of the MAB state coordination, said: “[Vale’s] crime destroyed ways of life, dreams, personal projects and the possibility of a future as planned. This leads to people becoming ill, emotionally, mentally, and physically. It aggravates existing health problems and creates new ones.”
As Feitosa put it: “Vale is manipulating the government, manipulating justice.” The accord was reached without the full participation of atingidos, and to make matters worse, Vale decided who qualifies as an atingido based on whether or not people have formal titles to ancestral lands. Vale’s actions create a dangerous precedent that allows corporations to extract, exploit and take human life with impunity. Nearly 300 people died from the 2019 dam collapse, and since then almost 400,000 people have died in Brazil from COVID-19. Yet, during this time, Vale has made a record profit. Neither the dam collapse nor the pandemic has stopped production or profits, even as workers are dying.
FIGHTING BACK: MAB’S STRUGGLE FOR WATER AND LIFE
MAB is committed to continued resistance and will bring the case to the Supreme Court. MAB organizes marches and direct actions and also partners with other movements in activities all across Brazil. They have recently occupied highways and blocked the entrance and exit of trucks to Vale’s facilities. MAB also uses powerful, embodied art and theater calledmística that tells a real story and asks participants to put themselves into mindset that “we are all affected.”
MAB emphasizes popular education to understand how historical processes inform present-day struggles. Drawing heavily on Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, they focus on collaborative learning and literacy by making use, for example, of small break-out groups where people take turns reading and discussing short passages. In these projects, there is an intentional effort to fight against interlocking systems of oppression: classism, racism, heterosexism and patriarchy, which are viewed as interlinked with capitalism at the root.
MAB also has a skilled communication team that makes use of online media, including holding frequent talks and panels broadcast via Facebook Live. A recent MAP pamphlet entitled, “Our fight is for life, Enough with Impunity!” details four women important to MAB’s struggle: Dilma, Nicinha, Berta and Marielle. Dilma and Nichina are two women atingidas who were murdered in their fights against dam projects in their communities. Berta was a Honduran environmentalist who also engaged in dam struggles and was murdered. Marielle was a Black, lesbian, socialist city-councilwoman (with Brazil’s Socialism and Liberty Party) in Rio who was murdered in 2018.
For MAB, the struggles of those who have died in their fight for a better world serve as seeds of resistance, a theme further explored in their film “Women Embroidering Resistance.”
For the past two years, MAB has organized events to commemorate the anniversary of the crime committed by Vale in Brumadinho. In 2020, MAB organized a five-day march and international seminar, beginning in Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais’ state capital, and ending in Córrego do Feijão with a memorial service. Hundreds of people from around Brazil as well as allies from 17 countries marched through Belo Horizonte, chanting, “Vale killed the people, killed the river, killed the fish!”
Famed liberation theologian Leonardo Boff is a supporter of MAB and spoke at the seminar, decrying that letting people starve is a sin and asserting that “everyone has the right to land; everyone has the right to education; everyone has the right to culture; we all need security and have the right to housing—these are common and basic rights.” He went on: “We don’t get this world by voting — we need participatory democracy.”
MAB commemorated the second anniversary of Brumadinho this past January with various symbolic actions. In one such event, people tossed 11 roses into the water to honor the 11 people who have still not been found, with additional petals to honor the river that has been killed by the mining company. They also organized various virtual actions since the pandemic precluded an in-person convergence like the one held the year before.
JUSTICE THROUGH STRUGGLE AND ORGANIZATION
Less than a month after commemorating Brumadinho in 2020, COVID-19 exploded and the world went into lockdown. Brazil is now one of the hardest-hit countries with the actions and inactions of right-wing president Jair Bolsonaro — from calling COVID-19 a “little flu” to encouraging people to take hydroxychloroquine as a remedy, to defunding the public health system, and cutting back social services — leading to a dire situation.
In April, Brazil recorded over 4,000 COVID-19 deaths in 24 hours, with a death toll second only to the United States. On May 30, the official death toll from COVID-19 was 461,931. Brazil will not soon realize vaccine distribution to the entire population, and people continue to die from lack of oxygen in some regions, prompting an investigation of Bolsonaro and the health minister for mismanagement.
On May 29, 2021, MAB participated in protests with other social movements, unions and the population in general that spanned across 213 cities in Brazil (and 14 cities around the world). The protesters called for Bolsonaro’s impeachment, demanded vaccines and emergency aid for all, and denounced cuts to public health care and education as well as efforts to privatize public services.
In the past five years, the number of Brazilians experiencing hunger has grown to nearly 37 percent. The COVID-19 crisis has only worsened this reality. In August 2020, Bolsonaro vetoed a bill that would have granted emergency assistance to family farmers.
But Brazil’s story is one of resistance, resilience and hope. Efforts bringing together many social movements, unions and other popular organizations have mounted critical mutual aid efforts. MAB is a leader in these efforts, putting together baskets with essential food, hand sanitizer and other essential goods for families in need. The pandemic presents significant challenges, but MAB has continued to resist Bolsonaro’s policies. For example, they are fighting against the defunding of the national public health care system and continuing to organize in communities impacted by dam projects or threatened by new ones.
The fight for the right to water and against the socio-environmental impacts of dams is global. MAB’s struggle is one of resistance against the capitalist system for a world where the rights of people come ahead of profit. As MAB has said: “In 2020, Brazil did not sow rights; on the contrary, the country took lives, especially the lives of women, Black and poor people, all with a lot of violence and impunity.”
MAB’s struggle extends beyond the fight against water privatization. It is part of a global effort to regain the commons of water and fight against the commodification and privatization of life. MAB’s insistence that all forms of oppression are interconnected is also a statement of hope and a catalyst for envisioning a different world. Imagining new possibilities is a prerequisite for creating them.
This year, MAB celebrates 30 years of fighting to guarantee rights and their message is that the only way is to fight and organize: “Justice only with struggle and organization.” In doing so, they are sending a strong message to Vale: they cannot commit a crime like Brumadinho again and profit will not be valued over life.
Caitlin Schroering holds a PhD in Sociology from the University of Pittsburgh. She has 16 years of experience in community, political, environmental and labor organizing.