Broke but Unbroken in The CCPA Monitor

Broke But Unbroken
Grassroots Social Movements and Their Radical Solutions to Poverty

By Augusta Dwyer  

Solutions to poverty can look very different from the grassroots level than they do to well-meaning NGOs and charitable foundations, or to such international bodies as the IMF and the WTO with their heavy-handed imposition of fiscal policies on developing countries.

In this book, journalist Augusta Dwyer looks at local solutions to economic and land distribution problems in four very different countries – Brazil, Indonesia, India and Argentina - movements initiated by the poor themselves. It is a bottom-up rather than a top-down approach, one that focuses on participatory democracy and collective decision-making.

In Brazil, Dwyer examines the movement by the landless to occupy parts of large, unproductive estates, or fazendas. It developed by 2006 into the largest grassroots social movement in the Western hemisphere, the MST. Less than 1% of the population owns 43% of the land in Brazil, and land ownership is an important status symbol. Successive presidents have promised land reform, and the concept is enshrined in the country’s constitution, but even the former Workers’ Party president, Lula da Silva, failed to fulfill his promises.

The MST, however, has had many successes in its struggle for land redistribution, and hundreds of thousands of once landless peasants now plant and harvest their own crops. They run co-operatives, packing plants, and schools, and the MST has begun to set up land communes on the outskirts of mega-cities such as Sao Paulo as a way of producing cheaper, healthier foods for the urban poor.

In Indonesia, a major issue has been the denial to peasants of their traditional right to plant and harvest in state-owned forests. Instead, they have been forbidden even to enter the forest, and the right to develop its resources has been given instead to a state-owned company, Perhutani, which makes furniture and other forest products. In response, a popular movement has also sprung up in that country, the SPI. It is an agrarian movement to promote the rights of the peasant class.

The clearing of forests for palm oil plantations is a major problem in Indonesia. The 32-year-long Suharto regime ended Sukarno’s land redistribution program and opened the country up to foreign economic interests, but the end of that regime in 1998 did not bring a substantial change in government policies. The SPI has continued to grow in strength and now offers courses in how to farm organically. Using these methods, farmers have substantially increased yields and reclaimed a million hectares of land.

The author describes the situation of the landless inMumbai by discussing India’s National Slum Dwellers’ Federation, which originated in that city in the late 1960s when people living in a slum called the Janata Colony mobilized to resist eviction by the city. It eventually evolved into the Indian Alliance, which won some recognition of tenure rights for the landless. This has resulted in the building of housing projects for at least some of the slum dwellers.

The Indian Alliance was involved in conducting a census of the families to be resettled, which gave the poor crucial knowledge about themselves and reversed the usual planning process, wherein outside “experts” decide what is needed. While government-built housing is hardly an ideal solution, it shows how grassroots organization can work with elements of the state in a delicate balance sometimes referred to as “radical pragmatism.”

Another aspect of grassroots organizing in India that Dwyer looks at is a system of savings and loans organized by the poor. Small amounts of money are collected and pooled that can then be loaned out to members who have a project in mind. This is somewhat different from the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, in that the money is contributed by the poor themselves and they determine how it is to be used and repaid.

Finally, Dwyer looks at the workers’ factory recuperation movement in Argentina that started during an economic crisis in 2001. Factories closed and many thousands of workers were laid off. Gradually, the notion of workers taking over workplaces to save their jobs came to the fore. First a copper pipe plant, then a paper plant, then a ceramics factory, a shipyard, and even a hospital were taken over and put back into operation as worker co-operatives.

This movement was not aided by the unions, which had co-operated with the government in forcing workers to take wage cuts and accept layoffs, driving a wedge between unions and the workers’ co-operative movement. There was also a divide between the movement and the traditional leftist parties, which adhered to the notion of the state running enterprises on behalf of the workers instead of workers running their own businesses. These tensions remain, but the workers’ co-op movement appears to be thriving in Argentina despite ups and downs in the economy and changes in political leadership.

If one passage from the book sums up the problem with traditional top-down models of assistance to the developing world, it is the following: “Often, the very people who have proven either chronically unwilling and unable to deal with the plight of their nation’s poor, or are hopelessly inept at doing so, are the ones who get to disperse vast sums of money intended for them.” The movements Augusta Dwyer describes in this book turn that paradigm on its head and are signs of hope in an area that has seen more than its share of failures.

–reviewed by Frank Bayerl

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