THE LATIN AMERICA SOLIDARITY ECONOMY: The Meek Want the Earth Now: the Solidarity Economies of Brazil & Mexico

Bob Stone
Betsy Bowman
The Center for Global Justice
Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Brazil and Mexico are the pioneers in solidarity economies. Solidarity economies are those in which local production for local needs employs democratic and often non-market forms of manufacture, distribution, savings, and investment. Is the current system nurturing its own replacement? One thing is sure: Brazil and Mexico have led Latin America both in resisting neo-liberal globalization and in creating such economic alternatives to it. After Argentina, topic of our first two articles in this 4-part series, our second stop in our tour of such alternatives was Sao Paulo, Brazil, where we visited a dear friend.

Pried open by the IMF, using as wedge the big debts run up by dictators, Brazil’s economy has been penetrated by transnational corporations. The agri-business ones, with their huge monocultures of soy, beef and corn, are land-hungry engines of rural unemployment which has spread to the cities. The world banker allies of these corporations have reigned in Brazil’s President “Lula” da Silva, elected on an anti-neoliberal platform. But cultivating such dependence on world markets may be vulnerable to a counter-strategy of grassroots economic autonomy. By meeting needs locally, Brazil’s new democratic economies short-circuit such manipulations. For economic undertakings controlled by ordinary people instead of by financiers are being widely emulated, undermining the power of world bankers who meet yearly at the Davos economic forum.

In 1992 the fraudulently “elected” Salinas government dismantled Article 27 of Mexico’s constitution. Land partly controlled by local communities or ejidos could henceforth be sold for individual profit, and corporations could now buy it. So far corporations prefer to rent, but legal obstacles to ending Mexico’s 1930s land reform have been removed. Yet Mexico is also where Zapata’s 1911 demand for land reform impelled a deep revolution that proceeded to nourish the 20 th century’s re-distributive upsurges — including Russia in 1917 and Cuba in 1959. So, after the Zapata-inspired land reform had been undone, and just as NAFTA took effect on the first day of 1994, new Zapatistas rose up in resistance to NAFTA privatization and marketization. The uprising signaled a need for economic autonomy. It also inadvertently launched the global justice movement. The 1999 Seattle anti-WTO protest grew from this movement, which has gone on to recently win presidencies in Venezuela and Bolivia.

Participatory Budgeting and the MST

Brazil has pioneered in solidarity economics with its “participatory budgeting” and its Landless Workers’ Movement, known as the MST (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra, see

Participatory budgeting, introduced in Porto Alegre in 1989, has since spread to over 100 cities in Brazil and beyond. The idea is simple: citizens, not just politicians, get to participate in allocating each year’s capital expenditures budget. Neighborhood associations and civic groups of all kinds send delegates to regular meetings, charged with prioritizing spending on streets, water, education or any city government matter. (See GEO, “Reclaiming Public Revenues: Brazil’s Participatory Budget” by Gainpolo Baiocchi and Len Krimerman.) This blurs the line between social property and public property, using the latter to strengthen the former. And it answers neo-liberalism which advocates privatizing and marketizing not just public but also social property. Marketizing inevitably introduces hierarchy by undemocratically and tacitly excluding and marginalizing all who lack the cash to start a business. When non-politicians and non-owners of businesses participate in neighborhood budget decisions, this marginalization is replaced with autonomy of a collective sort. And it works! Porto Alegre’s participatory budgeting has provoked: scores of successful worker cooperatives; regular budget surpluses; designation of Porto Alegre as a model city by UNESCO; and emulation as far away as Canada and Scotland.

Little wonder then that in February of 2000, when a Brazilian delegation met in Paris with leaders of France’s main alter-globalization group, Porto Alegre was chosen as site in 2001 for the first meeting opposite the World Economic Forum in Davos. It was the first World Social Forum. As of its sixth meeting, which we will tell of in our next piece, the WSF has almost eclipsed Davos and bids fair to become what George Monbiot calls “the world parliament in exil.”

Meanwhile, we arrived at our friend’s home in Sao Paulo’s relatively upscale Itaim Bibi district. Across town were the MST offices. Between them lay the sociological chasm in the world’s second most class-polarized country. Crossing it, we met Gerardo Fontes of MST’s international affairs section, a soft-spoken Mexican from Sonora. Gerardo’s fluency in Spanish is slightly weakened after 18 years with MST.

Brazil, with a population of 186 million, is the world’s 8 th largest economy

and Mexico, with a population of 106 million, is its 11 th. They are Latin America’s first and second biggest economies before Argentina. Experiencing neo-liberal globalization differently, their responses to it are converging, and even spreading to much of the global South, where similar policies are imposed.

As we’ve seen, Argentina’s recuperated factory movement took the slogan “Occupy, Resist, Produce” in 2002. But this had also been the MST’s land occupation cry since 1987. In 1984 MST started with the slogan “Without land reform we have no democracy.” Later, in 1995, it proclaimed “Agrarian reform — the struggle of all” — reaching out to the urban unemployed. So in shifting from Argentina to Brazil, we move from the movement’s flowers to its very roots.

Brazil’s wealth, especially in land, was intensively concentrated in the 10 years prior to Lula. Over 900,000 farms of less than 10 hectars went bankrupt and 2 million rural workers lost jobs. Intimately connected with this, transnationals acquired million-hectar latifundos and set up soy, corn and other monocultures for export. Prior to Lula MST had already said “basta” to this modern re-cycling of “coronelismo” — the system that had ruled Brazil for centuries. Based on huge land grants by Portugal’s king to a dozen of his favorites, “coronelismo” included a king-like hereditary power to make laws. Backed today by an estimated base constituency of over 4 million landless, the MST has demanded a cap of 1500 hectars on all landholdings. It speaks with authority. Since 1984, its 12,000 or so activists have resettled over 450,000 families on unused land. It invokes Article 184 of the 1988 constitution which says the government may expropriate “for purposes of agrarian reform, rural property which is not performing its social function.” Governments persist in shying away from land reform. But Peter Rosset of Food First notes, “with a well organized social movement finding land that meets those [constitutional] conditions and occupying it to force the government to act, [land reform] works quite well.”

As an act of civil disobedience, the MST secretly assembles groups of up to 10,000 who under cover of night proceed by foot or truck to a target site. The MST itself neither forbids nor encourages firearms. One leader, João Pedro Stedile, insists that a Gandhian strength in vast numbers is really what discourages repression. Still, paramilitaries and police have killed some 1000 occupiers since 1984. Thus as we speak, big ongoing occupations attest to the desperation in needs due to real poverty. After the occupiers arrive, they spend the night taking possession and raising shelters. Proprietors awaken to a functioning encampment. MST lawyers argue in ensuing legal battles that the land is large and unused hence in breach of the constitution. They win often but not always.

Each encampment is its own autonomous unit. Governance is by groupings of 30 or so families, formed beforehand. They nominate committees for health, security, or women’s issues, and send delegates to camp-wide assemblies. Decisions are made by construção, — construction in debate and consensus-building. Producer co-ops are quickly organized, but occupiers’ own needs may take a season or more to meet. (Knowing hunger deaths may result, some judges delay expropriation.) Surpluses go to secondary MST marketing co-ops. Networks of them are run by ex-landless farmers. It is expected that 2% of all sales go back to MST. Governance units usually assign a member as activist to plan more occupations, maintaining ongoing solidarity with those still landless.

Perhaps for such reasons Noam Chomsky, usually a crepe hanger, calls the MST “the most exciting popular movement in the world.”

MST participated in founding of Via Campesina in Nicaragua in 1992 (see ). This coalition of over 100 farmers’ groups on all continents represents millions of small and medium-sized farmers. They are committed to agrarian reform based on “food sovereignty.” As Stedile puts it: “We maintain that every people, no matter how small, has the right to produce their own food. Agricultural trade should be subordinated to this greater right.”

Zapatista economic autonomy

While Mexico’s Zapatistas no longer occupy land to stimulate land reform, they have plotted a complementary strategy. Novelist Carlos Fuentes explains that just prior to their 1994 uprising, traditional indigenous autonomy had been broken in Chiapas by “a succession of rapacious governors allied to equally rapacious land owners and cattle barons.” Made to work for pennies on land historically belonging to their villages — as in Zapata’s time — the indigenous people of Chiapas united to demand land, food and dignity.

Surrounded by military, survival was at first only due to outside donations of corn. This experience made clear the need for productive “communities in resistance.” The landmark 1996 San Andres Accords with the government extended a form of autonomy to 57 distinct indigenous peoples. Yet despite considerable popular support the Congress mutilated this agreement. Zapatistas asked ‘why must we ask government permission to establish autonomy?’ Having spent 22 months negotiating, they proceeded to enact the Accords, counting on support from progressive elements here and there throughout Mexico.

Zapatista economic autonomy consists first in producing for producers’ own needs, then for cash-free barter with nearby resistant communities, and only thirdly for sale of surpluses outside. “Spaces of dignity” are set up: community-run producer and consumer co-ops, schools and pharmacies. Producers and consumers — the two sides of economies that markets separate — are thereby reconnected. But while barter assures food self-sufficiency, some cash is also needed. Coffee is the main source. The Mut Vitz Coffee Cooperative, a network of 28 producer communities and 6 autonomous municipalities, markets about fifteen containers a year. Communities by roads benefit a bit more. NGO contributions, a second source of cash, are used to re-distribute wealth.

An autonomy possible only in collectives is thus created. In 2003 it took political form in self-governing “caracoles,” literally, snail shells. The snail’s inwardly turned shell signals both self-sufficiency and Zapatista rotation to everyone of leadership by “mandar obedeciendo,” obedient leading. The sheer survival of such communities establishes not only that a world outside corporate globalization is possible, but that one can live in it. Zapatista strategy has thus become essentially non-violent, with arms for defense only, since to overcome adversaries it suffices to outlast them, a peaceful endeavor.


Are Brazil ’s and Mexico ’s innovations merely parallel or do they converge?

The MST reverses industrial, export-based, neo-liberal monoculture. It aims first at a “vida digna”: meeting basic needs for health, education, housing, drinkable water, and nourishing food. Its own model is cooperative production with appropriate technologies, free of chemicals or seeds marketed by transnationals — hence “organic.” But meeting material needs is not enough, Gerardo Fontes emphasizes: “If it were, Sweden would be socialist paradise! But we know from Sweden ’s high rates of alcoholism and suicide that it is not. So the MST seeks not only a reversal of agricultural models but a reversal in values: solidarity comes before individualism and cooperation replaces competition as motor of social life.”

“Dignidad” and “una vida digna” are also among Zapatista goals. Where 1960s national liberation struggles had aimed at state power while postponing many social changes away from hierarchy, racism, and machismo, Zapatistas aim directly at them. The idea is “to change the world without taking power.” As Mexico’s electoral rhetoric heats up, the Zapatista “Other Campaign” aims not at any policy but at a new way of doing politics itself “from below.” By refusing vanguard roles, they bet their example will inspire others. “We came to release a demand that could unleash others,” spokesperson Marcos admits. Raising cash by kidnapping is rejected, Marcos says, since “We do not believe that the end justifies the means. Ultimately, we believe that the means are the end. We define our goal by the way we choose the means of struggling for it.”

A showdown may be ahead. Brazil’s and Mexico’s elites would like the MST and the Zapatistas to disappear. Their survival to now is due only to mass if quiet support. Will Brazil with no tradition of revolution and Mexico with one, lead us into the future? Contingencies block any foresight.

One of these is the land tenure and general property system settled upon. Modern nations recognize three kinds of property: private property of individuals; public property administered by governments; and social property held in common by couples, associations, co-ops and partnerships. But which mix of these will yield relations of production best suited to optimal satisfaction of the needs of all humans? For 20 years neo-liberals have pushed individual property, leaving the social good to the market’s “unseen hand.” This has patently failed. So has the attempt to meet individual needs wielding public property. The question then arises: Do experiments by the MST and the Zapatistas indicate it is time to try production relations in which social property predominates, with public and private property in subordinate roles? Would such a regime both allow full social participation of previously marginalized groups and de-legitimate counter-revolution by engaging the formerly rich — but now as equals in constructing “another world”?

Change is afoot, perhaps toward a post-capitalist mode of production. But merely formulating this possibility calls for a new Marx or Keynes. Our last article on the recent World Social Forum in Venezuela, will instead limit itself to drawing together our cases of survival under neo-liberalism and to sketching the future they indicate.