Grassroots Anti-Poverty Movements in the South

“Today, about half of the world population – almost three billion people – live in poverty:  in refugee camps, in city slums, and in an increasingly unforgiving countryside.”

In a thought-provoking and highly readable book about grassroots anti-poverty movements, Augusta Dwyer examines four social movements:  the Landless Rural Workers Movement in Brazil (MST), the Peasant Union of Indonesia (SPI), the National Movement of Factories Recovered by Workers (MNFRT) in Argentina, and the Indian Alliance, an alliance of slum and pavement dwellers in India.  Augusta Dwyer is an award-winning independent journalist whose previous books include Amazon: Chico Mendes and the Struggle for the Rainforest and On the Line: Life on the US-Mexico BorderBroke But Unbroken is beautifully written, easy to read, and manages to raise and discuss complex organizing issues.

Significantly, the author chooses to focus on “movements that had been initiated essentially by the poor themselves and that promote participatory democracy within their structures.” The book also looks at the relationship between grassroots movements to NGOS, unions, governments and political parties and concludes that “The four social movements studied here have all derived strength from their autonomy precisely from those organizations long considered traditional allies of the poor, such as organized labour and progressive political parties.”  Dwyer also addresses how these movements are funded, without the support of traditional allies.  In each example Dwyer introduces the context, challenges, and unique successes of each social movement.

Occupy!  Resist!  Produce! – the Landless Rural Workers Movement (MST)

Dwyer chronicles the remarkable success of the MST in Brazil: “in 2006, there were 12 million landless peasants in Brazil, and 23 million rural workers living below the poverty line.”  Rural peasant and worker were historically without land which was concentrated in the hands of wealthy land owners.  The situation worsened though, in the 1970s and 1980s, as thousands of small landholding peasants were evicted to make way for biofuel sugar cane fields.

The MST organized its first land occupation in 1989, and since then over 300 000 families in Brazil have gained land through their participation in the MST, and 90 000 more are organizing to acquire land.  As well, by 2010 the MST had set up 2250 primary and middle schools based on popular education methods developed by Paulo Friere, 300 MST members have received university degrees, and 150 000 adults have achieved basic literacy.

According to Dwyer, key features of the MST’s success include “independence from the church, non-governmental and unions.” MST activists have “set up elected collective bodies” so as to create “a structure that would avoid the possibility of a small clique of leaders ever dominating the movement.” The elected bodies are “each in charge of specific functions, such as recruitment, training or financial matters.”

The Peasant Union of Indonesia (SPI)

Largely made up of peasants and forest dwellers, members of the SPI have managed to win or reclaim a million hectares of land.  Forest dwellers and peasants have been displaced due to logging and mining, plantations, dam construction, and environmental campaigns that call for protection of forest lands without recognition of the people that live there.  This chapter chronicles the history of the SPI and the key challenges it faces, including the role of big conservation organizations (such as the World Wildlife fund) in evictions of communities from forests where they have lived sustainably for centuries.

The National Slum Dwellers Federation and the Indian Alliance

The Indian Alliance is a social movement of about two million urban poor that focuses on improving the lives of slum dwellers throughout India.  Victories include securing housing for 70 000 families, and building more than 500 clean public toilets managed by the communities.  In this chapter, Dwyer criticizes the international development industry and its lack of accountability to those it claims to serve.  She notes that “for the disbursers of overseas development aid, the poor by and large remain ‘target groups,’ grateful recipients rather than discerning participants.”  This chapter also discusses the combination of direct action strategies alongside engagement with the state as a strategy to secure concrete gains for communities.

National Movement of Factories Recovered by Workers

The final chapter looks at the National Movement of Factories Recovered by Workers in Argentina (MNFRT).  The first factory reclamations took place in 2001, after the economy collapsed and Argentina defaulted on public-sector debt payments and money owed to private bondholders.  Since 2001, over 122 workplaces have been reclaimed.  Some of the elements that Dwyer reports  include horizontal decision making in the cooperatives – in every member cooperative, decisions are taken through workers’ assemblies and elected factory councils that can be recalled at any time.  Profits are also divided equally amongst co-op members.  As well, there is a system of solidarity among co-ops – all co-ops contribute to the growth of new co-ops and provide solidarity funds to help new recuperated factories get on their feet.

I think this book is relevant for grassroots organizers, but also for potential allies in labour and NGOs who are seeking to learn from mistakes of the past and develop relationships with grassroots movements based on solidarity and respect.  It also challenges the reader to think about how organizations can be maintained without support from traditional allies, and how organizations can be structured without resorting to bureaucratic hierarchies.

The book, however, does not fully address the connection of these movements to previous social movements, or how these movements have evolved from struggles of the past.  Although in some cases, Dwyer notes that left political parties and labour unions attempted to hinder the development of these movements, it would also be interesting to know more about connections to historical social movement organizing.

The book leaves us with questions such as “what is our ability to replicate these movements elsewhere?” and “what is the role of allies such as labour and progressive political parties?”  These questions challenge the reader to learn from the examples in the book, and to apply lessons in their own communities and social movements.

Maryann Abbs is a educator, community organizer and herbalist in Vancouver, Coast Salish Territory