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Chocolate and Sovereignty: A journey into Terra Vista, settled by Landless Workers' Movement

Documentary “Terra Vista” depicts the journey of a settlement to recover a degraded area and cultivate ecological cocoa

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Oblivious to the form of cocoa, but familiar with chocolate brands, the mainstream gaze ignores the world of “raw material” production that has been placed on the back of the south five hundred years ago - Noa Cykman

I take part in the extensive global club of chocolate enthusiasts. I’ve been eating chocolate for three decades, and I grew up in a country that was once a leader in cocoa production. However, I wouldn’t have been able to recognize a cacao tree, until recently. Driving through the cacao region of southern Bahia, Pedro pointed to me cacao trees here, cacaos trees there. Family and friends responded to the photos with similar questions: What is this yellow fruit? What is that thick white juice?

Besides showing the distance that separates many of us from the origin of what we are and what we eat (the earth), this estrangement strategically obscures the understanding of the reality of farmers in Brazil (and elsewhere) and the country’s position in global society. Oblivious to the form of cocoa, but familiar with chocolate brands, the mainstream gaze ignores the world of “raw material” production that has been placed on the back of the south five hundred years ago. Our focus tends to land on what suits the interests of power and the market: the consumption of the final product, processed and sold by multinational companies.

Power relations between classes, races and countries are fundamental questions for understanding the most urgent challenges we face, from poverty and hunger to the climate and ecological crisis. Conversely, some of the most potent alternatives also tackle these issues in a multidimensional manner. The documentary film“Terra Vista” depicts a community settled by Brazil’s Landless Workers' Movement, the MST, in 1992, at the forefront of a historical process of resistance to and change of the hegemonic system of cacao production in southern Bahia, typically marked by white farmers’ oligarchical power and degrading working conditions.

Today, a total of 55 families settled on 904 hectares (2,234 acres) are involved in the production of organic cocoa and chocolate, which stands out for its clean production chain, as well as for the agroforestal approach and ecological preservation. Formerly a degraded and abandoned farm, the settlement’s land was formally handed to Terra Vista in 1994 by the governmental agency INCRA (National Institute of Colonization and Agrarian Reform). It belongs to all members and cannot be sold.

During my visit I was enchanted by the abundant and vital forest that spreads across Terra Vista. I had the chance not only to witness the beauty of a thriving river but also to swim in its waters, at times deeper than my feet. Both forest and river were absent at the time of the occupation. Terra Vista began to restore the Atlantic Forest and practice cacao agroforestry in 2,000. Since then, the community recovered 92% of river Aliança’s riparian forest and 80% of its springs, bringing its dry streams back to life.


Aerial view of the Terra Vista settlement, located in the town of Arataca, southern Bahia state. / Noa Cykman

The film features new interviews with settlement’s dwellers, including some of its first members, and depicts how the process of agroecological transition began—and continues to this day. The trajectories and reflections of community members expose their operative agenda merging social justice, food sovereignty, and ecological restoration. They say that agroecology is not only a set of techniques—it is a way of life. It is a practice rooted in land stewardship, social justice and communitarian cooperation, guided by values such as collectivity, reciprocity and solidarity, not only between human beings, but also with the land, soil, waters, among everything that lives together. This is remarkable in the day-to-day life of the settlement and is portrayed in the documentary.

Problems such as poverty, hunger, loss of biodiversity are first-order concerns for agroecology, and the MST, alongside other peasant movements around the world, is demonstrating the effective potential of this practice and way of life to respond with integrity to these global and urgent challenges. Terra Vista is a living example of transformation of the production model and structures of local domination, and of (re)territorialization of people, fundamental processes in the construction of fair and ecologically balanced models of society and food systems. Agroforestry, Joelson explains, is a step on the path of food sovereignty within the long march towards liberation and the overturning systems of oppression. A task for a tactic within a strategy.


Actions in the settlement established by the Landless Workers’ Movement has recovered 92% of the riparian forest of the Aliança River and 80% of its source. / Noa Cykman

I arrived at the settlement on a Friday evening of August for a two-week stay, along with Pedro, documentary’s co-director, cameraman, and old friend. In the warm and humid evening of the tropical coast, I could have mistaken winter for any other season. Joelson Oliveira opened the window to see who was calling and invited us in. Joelson is one of the veterans who participated in the first occupation of the land, in 1992, and one of the three who still hold this living memory there today. With Solange, his wife, they work tirelessly for the world they are building: reclaiming land and territory for the people, reviving these territories through agroecology, and establishing networks of collaboration and mutual aid among the territories. Solange offered us dinner—tasty rice and beans, farofa and lots more of the Brazilian food I love and miss. Then she retreated to prepare for the “Marcha das Margaridas,” an annual event in the country’s capital reuniting thousands of peasant women, where she would be heading in a couple of days.

Joelson sat with us for hours around the large and cozy wooden table in the kitchen, the social hub of the house and the community. We listened to the history of the settlement and talked around maps, photos, slides and records. Under the calluses of a life dedicated to the struggle, Joelson maintains his sweetness and extreme generosity. Black eyes on his black face move calmly, replenished with memory. With modesty, passion and patience, he told us about the virtues, contradictions, setbacks, successes and mistakes of Terra Vista.

During my stay and the production of the documentary, whenever I called someone’s name in front of their house, they would come greet me with a smile and invite me in for coffee, even if we hadn’t met before. Peasants like Loro, Teresa, Sisi and others shown in the documentary live simply and show consistent generosity, kindness, humility, and intelligence. Despite the challenges of past and present, they express gratitude and pride for the achievements of the movement and of the settlement—every house has an MST flag painted on the front wall, and another one dearly stored somewhere inside.


Houses in the Terra Vista settlement, an agroecological cocoa production hub in southern Bahia state / Noa Cykman         

Seedlings

Terra Vista’s operative agenda include popular agrarian reform, peasants’ rights, the struggle for/defense of land and territory, and building sovereignty at various levels, from education to water, from energy to food. The settlement’s history already counts with remarkable accomplishments pursuing these goals, such as the establishment of two public schools within the settlement. The future includes advancing those layers of sovereignty, enhancing their income and the chocolate production, and establishing alliances with other peoples through the “Web of the Peoples” (“Teia dos Povos”, in Portuguese).

With the documentary “Terra Vista” we hope to create dialogues with other organizations and social movements around the world that are building agroecology as an alternative to agribusiness. We also hope to reach educators and policy-makers. The MST, and Terra Vista in particular, is an important reference for the advancement of equitable and just food systems.

Context: Cocoa in Brazilian History

Displaced and deprived from land since the beginning of Brazil’s colonization, with no systemic agrarian reform or any benefits to effectuate, upon the alleged abolition of slavery, the transition of enslaved people into citizens, Black and Indigenous communities have a centuries-long history of struggle for land. And to this day the plantation model of the colonial period persists: exploited labor on usurped lands, producing monoculture for export in order to generate profit for northern countries’ industries and economies. This model assumes free land and other people’s labor, extirpated to supply Europe with “raw materials.” Upon their transformation in products (e.g. chocolate), these return to the south as commodities, which generate further external profit.

The cocoa region of Bahia is a notorious case: the cultivation of the “golden fruit” took Brazil to the position of largest producer in the world in the 1970s and 1980s, through that dynamic of dependent development. Brazil produces cacao—the basis of what will systematically enrich industrialized European countries where chocolate was made. Since precapitalist formations, the national and global unequal economic systems are based on an acute concentration of land in the hands of few white proprietors, and the exploitation of labor. This historical foundation remains in contemporary structures of exploitation. Below I summarize this history.

Cacao production was structured and strengthened decades before the abolition of slavery in Brazil, in 1888, and mechanisms were set in place to ensure that the event didn’t provoke losses to white landowners. For example, the Land Law of 1850 transformed land into private property, so that farmers could cautiously purchase it before “freeing” their slaves. In addition to being deprived of access to land, the formerly enslaved people did not have access to any financial resources or institutional support when slavery was abolished, remaining at the mercy of the colonels.

A “cacao bourgeoisie” formed throughout the twentieth century as the interests of a wealthy elite of landowners to aligned with exporting merchants. Despite a massive decline in production and profit in the 1980, caused by the spread of a fungus, landowners connected with the global market of cacao still domineer the crop’s production, extracting and exploiting Brazil’s land and peasants, and determining the price of “cacao commodity.”

Echoing Marx, “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.” Upon the large-scale loss of cacao production in the 1980s, many landowners abandoned their farms, leaving properties unproductive and worsening ecological problems by logging. That crisis meant the dismissal of about 250,000 workers—left with no employment, no land, and nowhere to go. Several organized peasant movements began occupying the degraded and unproductive lands. In the period that followed, from 1990 to 2010, 113 settlements were established in the region through direct occupations, guaranteeing access to land and housing for over 5 thousand families (INCRA, 2010).

Brazil’s Landless Workers' Movement (MST) was formed in the 1984 in response to these historical injustices, with a clear project to reterritorialize peasants onto the vast, abundant country’s land. Their struggle unfolds to this day, and so do the problems surrounding land and labor. The cacao production chain in Brazil, mainly in Pará and Bahia, is marked by precarious work, especially among cultivation workers who survive on unhealthy farms, often subjected to the classic model of debt slavery. The presence of child labor is also not uncommon. Terra Vista settlement is an ecological and social oasis in the region, committed to just relationships.

Today, three multinational companies—Cargill, Olam and Barry Callebaut—retain between 94 and 97% of the profit while conveniently ignoring working conditions on the farms. To those unknown workers they leave between 3 and 6% of the commodity’s value. In contrast, Terra Vista rebel chocolate is produced with organic cocoa, within the settlement, by the same people who cultivate the fruits, and who thus become progressively autonomous and sovereign in their territory. With their own chocolate, they add value to the product and retain 100% of the income.

* Noa Cykman is a Fulbright scholar, a Ph.D. candidate in Sociology at the University of California (Santa Barbara) and a "Education for Nature" (WWF) recipient. Her research seeks to understand how struggles for ecological restoration, human liberation and community sovereignty are integrated in Terra Vista, settled by the Landless Workers' Movement (MST) in Bahia state, Brazil.


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