October 2008

Meet Our Featured Guest Columnist:
Dan Baron Cohen

was formerly a drama education specialist at the University of Glamorgan in South Wales. He left his job in 1999 to work with Brazil’s Landless Workers Movement, (Movimento Sem Terra or MST).

Q: What does "health and human rights" mean to you?

A: "Health rights" include all dimensions of health (mental, physical, emotional and sexual), and are inseparable from social, cultural and economic "human rights". The latter include the right to live in one's own home, the right to a full human education, the right to earn a dignified and just wage (protected by worker's rights), the right to participate in all political and social decisions that affect one's life, the right to participate in democratic elections, and the right to live free from any kind of persecution.

Q: How/why did you get involved in MST?

A: Following a lifetime of involvement in civil and human rights campaigns and the development of projects for cultural and political self-determination in the North of Ireland, post-industrial England, apartheid South Africa and neocolonial Kenya, an unsympathetic article about the MST in the Latin American edition of Time magazine (in early 1998) attracted my attention, principally for the Movement's praxis which links cultivating non-productive land, learning democracy and the building of new communities. During my first visit to an MST settlement in 1998, I witnessed a 'mística' (a silent ideological community theatre form) which dramatized the struggle for agrarian reform, performed by teenagers and parents from the community. The mística ended with each visitor receiving corn seeds as a gift and invitation to collaborate. At that time, the humanity, courage and vision of the Movement--building a new world within and out of the destructive exclusion and inequality of the existing world--seemed to be more advanced than any other Movement I had lived with and known. I was particularly inspired by meeting MST farmers and their families who had transformed themselves by democratizing and caring for the land, and who were committed to developing a Freirian education (based on principles laid out by Brazilian educator Paolo Friere) for sustainable social transformation based on solidarity and cooperation. Following my second major collaboration with the MST in the northern state of Pará (1999), creating a national monument to 19 Sem Terra who had been massacred for implementing this vision, I decided to give up my post as a tenured university professor of popular education through theatre to learn with the MST in educational and cultural collaborations.

Q: Describe some of the successes you have seen MST achieve.

A: MST has developed an impressive ability to organize the rural poor, an effective and innovative pedagogy for occupying unproductive fertile land, for building disciplined and unified acampamentos (camps) in preparation for developing agro-ecological communities. The Movement has also established inspirational international networks of solidarity--'Friends of MST'--and, most recently, new courses for its activists and community leaders, in the areas of literature, pedagogy and agricultural sciences, in partnerships with universities throughout
Brazil. This seems to be generating a significant socio-cultural, educational and motivational impact on universities and the MST alike. MST's most distinctive achievements arise from a commitment to the permanent education and 'formation' of all its activists (symbolized in its national school), so that today, the 'land question' is understood to embrace all socio-cultural, economic, political and ecological questions. This also generates a process of constant reflection and capacity for cautious experimentation.

During its twenty-two years of national struggle and campaigning through 'long marches,' occupations of the political institution for agrarian reform, and themed conferences, these achievements have gradually dissolved media-inspired prejudices and enlarged the respect of civil society for MST's national project. Despite the global respect MST has earned, the movement's leadership retains its humility and humanity, unusual qualities among political activists.

Q: What are some of the challenges?

A: The Movement is still struggling to build a pedagogy of cooperative, sustainable production for its assentamentos (settlements), in part because its culture of resistance (based on necessity) is far more developed than its culture of transformation and cooperation (based on choice). MST is also a centralized organization, structurally and ideologically, a feature which has been effective in maintaining unity across the continental scale and cultural diversity of Brazil, but problematic in nurturing a culture of decentralization, institutional cooperation or intercultural collaboration. This centralization may have been effective during decades of media misrepresentation and political-military repression, and even be necessary in the first phase of organizing the landless poor, whose health and self-confidence have been mutilated by poverty, exclusion and sustained violation of human rights. But it has inhibited the affirmation of experimentation and diversity, necessary to the development of autonomous and sustainable collectives, and tended to prioritize the political over the cultural or psychological, necessary for processes of personal and community healing or chosen, collective action and transformation.

MST also recognizes that its older settlements are aging as young people look to build their own identity within a more pluralistic culture, and are attracted to the promises of the city. The Movement has experimented with different courses, workshops and initiatives, but this remains a challenge, not least because young people's sense of politics and its place in life is very different from activists'. One of MST's greatest challenges has been and remains being able to afford an agro-ecological politics in practice. Though the Movement is outspoken against GM agricultural production, its settlements can only practice agro-ecological farming if they receive substantial governmental financial and technical investment, and find a space for their products in urban markets. Assentamento cooperatives cannot sustain themselves through the tiny income generated by MST's shops that are developing in some capitals, more as a space of dialogue and sensitization, and though these challenges are stimulating economic exchanges based on solidarity between assentamentos and rural communities, the continuing dependency and poverty of the assentamentos strains the motivation of MST's older farmers and questions the viability of the Movement's project in the minds of their young. In some Brazilian States, government investment is emerging, helping to overcome the painful contradiction of being forced to plant GM seeds. But the profound question remains: how to build economically viable and autonomous agricultural communities in the age of the transnational companies, globalization and the hypermarket.

Q: How can young people make a difference in the global campaign for equality?

A: The cliché that young people are more optimistic and proactive certainly seems less convincing in these times of global warming, community fragmentation and anxiety about employment. The predominant perspective of young people is pessimistic and indifferent to social responsibility or social projects. MST's youth share much of the disillusion that characterizes many urban youth. However, MST's young activists stand out for their political will, analytical confidence, understanding of disciplined organization, and grasp of the larger global picture and how human rights link directly to care for the land, the environment and economic cooperation. As MST's confidence grows in cultural education through the human languages of the arts, the confidence of its young activists in their capacity to communicate beyond their rural culture to build democratic pluralistic campaigns will grow too, generating a new generation of respected and effective campaigners. Young MST activists are now forging alliances with urban youth organizations which are inspiring innovative land-aware pluralistic campaigns for human rights.

In general, informed and politicized young people are clearly essential to any real campaign for equality, for their desire for human rights is both a subjective need (to form their own identity) and an economic need, both of which generate motivation and action. Inequalities of most kinds seem to provoke an empathetic indignation in young people which, harnessed to new media and the passionate need for communication and community could make a significant difference in the global campaign for equality. The apparent lack of a sustainable future, increasing micro-surveillance and militarization of society, and disillusion with the increasingly evident exclusive and unsatisfying nature of consumerism, most provocatively affect the young. Though the micro-technologies of media seduction are extraordinarily effective for a time, if the experience of despair and exclusion can be sensitized towards ethical life-style choices, local actions and alliances with progressive people in positions of influence and power, I believe young people are well-placed to make a difference.