Breaking Down Harmful Structures Through Ecological Relationships

By Alexandra Acevedo

The foundations of Brazilian society are racist, anti-LGBTQ, patriarchal, and capitalistic. The same could be said about all the Americas and the United States. The colonizer European powers built these societal structures in Latin America. As a result, many indigenous and enslaved people (and their descendants) lost their relationship with the land and their ancestral communities. They partially lost the knowledge they held and their culture. Now, these belief systems of racism and so on are embedded in the way we view the world. However, we can repair these relationships through reconnection between people and the land. Through both the Landless Workers Movement (MST) in Brazil and Khalil Haywood’s essay “Paraíso Negro” we can see how reconnection to the land is crucial for the Afro-Latinx diaspora. We must unlearn these harmful belief systems and gain new knowledge to deconstruct these systems through reconnection to nature; in doing so, we can become closer to ourselves, our culture, and our families and communities.

Self-knowledge/Identity and Worth

Khalil Haywood, an Afro-Panamanian from New York, talks about his experiences and relationships with his hometown, Paraíso, in Panama, and how they shaped him and his identity. Growing up in Brooklyn, he was used to the other children of his class not knowing the existence of Panama nor that there were black people who spoke Spanish. During potlucks and holidays, the experience of having his culture’s food turned down was not foreign to him. These children were unaware of other Black cultures, but could you blame them? They only knew what they were taught. They grew up in a country where learning the difference between cultures was not a fundamental value. Haywood, though, did not experience the same negligence as the other children. Growing up, he frequented his hometown every summer, and in the rural countryside, he learned about a life he had never seen before. There was a tropical breeze, and arroz con pollo was eaten by every household on the block. His community was filled with Afro-Latinos. He learned about his cultural roots by returning to his homeland and reconnecting with it. He built his identity, whereas, in Brooklyn, he knew no one like himself. He was validated by his darker skin and his culture’s food and was beginning to see the structures built in the United States.

Cristina Sturmer’s presentation for Black Studies Colloquium’s “Black Futures” Symposium about the Landless Workers Movement also spoke on the cultural roots within the movement– quilombos and maroons. The Landless Workers Movement helped workers who had lost access to land through Brazil’s lack of agrarian reform following slavery and the modernization of Brazil, which forced people into cities. She speaks on the fight for the land rights of workers in Brazil, who these harmful structures of society have marginalized. MST fights against these structures by redistributing land and promoting education programs that center on women, black, and LGBTQ people, and their voices. In the same way, quilombos and maroons resisted slavery. They ran away and built their communities in the mountains of Brazil. By reconnecting these landless workers to the land, they can gain some parts of their ancestors’ lived experiences and knowledge, and by fighting for it, they can regain a sense of self-worth.

Black Culture

In this way, we can also see how workers and Haywood can connect back to their cultures through the land. Haywood feels validation of his culture and skin when he goes to Paraiso, where it is not an anomaly to be surrounded by black Spanish speakers. He learns the culture of his hometown through his new experiences with nature and becomes accustomed to feeding the alligators in his backyard mangos, the bats in the house, and the stray dogs running on the road. Brazil’s landless workers can rely on the land as their ancestors did. As the quilombos ran away from slavery, they never had to work the land for merchandise again and worked for sustenance instead. Sustainable agriculture goes against the capitalist structure taught in Latin American society today, where oligarchs use and destroy the land for monetary benefit.

In Sturmer’s presentation, she mentions a book called “Life is Not Useful” by Ailton Krenak, an indigenous leader who speaks on the importance of living to live rather than living to be “useful.” Indigenous peoples worldwide struggle with the same idea of the usefulness inherent in capitalism, which destroys land for profit. The documentary “The Rights of Nature” by Issac Goechkeritz explores this exact concept. In the documentary, Ecuadorian indigenous peoples explain their struggle with the idea of “owning” land. In their culture’s belief system, they are stewards of the Earth and live as a part of it. They fight for the rights of the environment as its legal entity and win a victory for the land and their people (Goechkeritz et al.). In reconnecting with the land, the landless workers of Brazil reconnect with the black culture and their ancestors.

Family and Community 
Families that reconnect with their land in Brazil grow stronger when they can sustain themselves. They build stability and connection to the land and understand the space as a part of their identity. These unions of strong families create a community, and workers finally feel like they are at home. In the same way, Haywood finally feels a sense of normalcy when he is in Paraiso. He is surrounded by people that look and speak like him, and he doesn’t need to defend his existence or be misunderstood constantly.

Broader Community

However, it’s important to note that these landless workers and the community of Paraiso also have to unlearn harmful structures embedded in the relationship between humans and nature. Haywood often saw locals who would kill frogs for fun, and Brazil’s landless workers worked the land in harmful ways for the ecosystem. MST combats this through ecological transition, where they teach the workers how to work the land more sustainably. They can also see these harmful structures permeated into rural workers’ belief systems in misogynistic and homophobic ways. MST combats this by prioritizing the social transformation of Brazilian society. Connecting with other groups that also suffer under the same structures is essential to collective action.

An example is the unity MST is trying to build between urban and rural populations; “If the countryside doesn’t plant, the city doesn’t dine.” The struggle and connection to the land are not just for landless workers. It affects the whole of Brazilian society. A community is built and fortified through this struggle to fight the structures that oppose them.

In conclusion, reconnection to the land is essential to the AfroLatinx community and serves as a way to reconnect to identity, culture, family, and communities. In doing so, we unlearn harmful structures that persisted due to slavery, colonialism, and capitalism. Cristina Sturmer demonstrated this through her work with MST, and Khalil Haywood explained it through his experience in his hometown in Panama.

Works Cited

Goechkeritz et al. The Rights of Nature: A Global Movement – Feature Documentary. DOK.fest, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kuFNmH7lVTA.

Fennell, Saraciea J., and Khalil Haywood. “Paraíso Negro.” Wild Tongues Can’t Be Tamed: 15 Voices from the Latinx Diaspora, Thorndike Press, a Part of Gale, a Cengage Company, Waterville, ME, 2022, pp. 111–133.

Sturmer, Cristina. “Brazil’s Landless Rural Workers Movement (MST).” Black Futures Symposium. Black Futures Symposium, Cristina Sturmer activist, Brazil’s Landless Rural Workers Movement (MST), New York, NY, Baruch College.

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