Syracuse University Magazine


Melinda Gurr

Agrarian Understanding

Two beautiful places have a hold on Melinda Gurr’s heart: the red rock country of southern Utah where she grew up, and the countryside of Brazil where she conducts her research. A doctoral student in anthropology at the Maxwell School, she is spending 18 months in Paraná, Brazil, researching the role of youth cultural politics within Latin America’s largest social movement—the Landless Workers Movement. “Southern Brazil is an important place for young leaders in the movement,” says Gurr, whose work is supported by a prestigious National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship of $30,000 a year for three years.

The movement, or Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (MST) in Portuguese, seeks land reform and social justice in a country where roughly 75 percent of arable land is owned by an estimated 3 percent of the population. For nearly 30 years, the MST has organized and supported rural workers and families—by means of social activism and education—principally in the occupation of land that is considered “socially unproductive,” obtaining legal titles, and establishing farmer’s cooperatives and self-sustaining communities. “The people I work with are wonderful,” Gurr says. “Their farms are gorgeous and there is plenty of food. But at the same time, many young people leave the settlements and move to the cities, which is a concern for the movement. The puzzle I want to understand is the movement of young people in and out of rural places, and the MST.”

Having grown up in rural Utah in a family that was hard hit by the family farming crisis in the ’80s, Gurr feels closely connected to the people she works with in the MST, sharing the value they place on subsistence farming and rural culture. “For rural families, being able to keep the integrity of the farm intact is very important,” says Gurr, who earned bachelor’s degrees in economics and anthropology at the University of Utah and worked as a community organizer and low-income advocate for the Salt Lake Community Action Program, serving people in manufactured home communities. “In the desert of southern Utah, it is really beautiful. But because the federal government has possession of most of the land and water, it is impossible to produce much food, or for young people to have the option to remain in agriculture. This situation occurs throughout the world, but in Brazil, there is a significant movement of young people back to rural areas. This is what I find interesting about my project.”

As with any passionate pursuit, Gurr’s work in Brazil is rich with rewards, but also contains challenges—from the hellish sight and noxious smell of flaming sugarcane fields and the threat of parasites, to her growing awareness of the complex nature and potentially destructive effects of international economic policies and agribusiness. In spite of these difficulties, she feels privileged for the opportunities this work has allowed. “It is a story of hope, what the people in the MST are doing. They are struggling for a more just, sustainable agrarian future, and are doing impressive, concrete things to help combat rural poverty,” she says. “I feel like I’ve been absolutely changed by my time here, and when I come back, I’ll be a different person—hopefully, one with a lot to share.”     —Amy Speach

Photo by John Dowling