Building movements for transformation

Social movements are often portrayed to pursue narrow or oppositional concerns. The doctoral thesis recently defended by Leonardo van den Berg of Cultivate! challenges this view. Examining the dynamics of the agroecology movement in Brazil, Leonardo proposes a new way of understanding transformation by social movements.


Societal transformation is sought by new social movements, around concepts such as buen vivir, rights to nature, agroecology, commons, food sovereignty and environmental justice. This thesis focuses on one of the largest and most sophisticated agroecology movements in the world. The Brazilian agroecology movement supports the development of food production practices that are more inclusive of nature and citizens and facilitates the formation of territorial alignments. The movement is organised in state and national level networks to advocate for enabling policies and to systemically challenge agri-business’ control over land, markets and (policy) resources.

To capture how the Brazilian agroecology movement challenges the dominant order and advances alternatives in the domains of practice, territory and the wider institutional environment, Leonardo van den Berg combines insights from affect theory, political economy and political discourse theory. He shows that affects play a central role in mobilising people and building alternative, more caring ways of production, distribution and life. The thesis also shows how the agroecology movement combines diverse forms of resistance and politics to support and protect alternatives from hostile forces and co-optation by powerful agents, while building a broad, popular movement.

While the popularity of transition approaches to the development of agriculture and food systems has surged, evidence that these approaches serve rather than change the dominant institutional order, and thereby do little to address underlying causes of unsustainability, is mounting. Leonardo argues that the way transformation is pursued by social movements stands in contrast to the prescriptions by the dominant, transition approach to transformation. In contrast to transition theory, social movements show how to foster transformation that is bottom-up, equitable and democratic.


The thesis “Building movements for transformation: defending and advancing agroecology in Brazil” by Leonardo van den Berg is currently under embargo and not available online. You can request a copy by sending a message to leonardo [at] cultivatecollective.org. The recording of the defence on 18 November 2020 can be viewed here.