three women playing drums and singing in front of colourfully painted building

Porto Alegre’s CaSanAT community centre is fighting hunger, the COVID-19 pandemic and repression by the Bolsonaro government — all at the same time.

Just past Porto Alegre’s Redenção park, two blocks towards the river, sits the CaSanAT building.  A colorful single story house on a quiet residential street, it is a focal point for community activists, and plays host to a vibrant market once per month. People come from all over the city to buy fruits, vegetables, snacks, handicrafts and more. Live music, even a live radio broadcast, adds to the atmosphere. CaSanAT is a point of connection between the city and countryside.

“Our stand is beautiful. We have a rich thrift store, pepper jelly and bergamot jelly,” says Vania Pierozan, who first brought produce to the Fruits of Resistance market in 2016 and has been coming ever since. “There is a selection of cereals, bread, and more jelly! And we have artisanal items.”

But there is more to this market than meets the eye. Pierozan comes from a collective called Somos Soma (“We are sum”), based in the Quilombo do Sopapo, a cultural community centre co-run by several groups, which has existed since 2008 with the vision of working to guarantee social inclusion. Today, Quilombo do Sopapo sits on land coveted by real estate developers. Working through Somos Soma, the residents have resisted eviction for some 13 years.

Sopapo is “where we find the support to take our fruits of resistance,” Pierozan says.

“In these exchange and commercialisation networks, we discuss many things about the solidarity economy. It is a very recent movement for us, but it is constantly moving forward.”

CaSanAT (“Centro de Arquitetura Sócio-Ambiental para o núcleo Amigos da Terra”, “Socio-Environmental Architecture Center for the Friends of the Earth core”) overseen by Friends of the Earth Brazil (NAT/Brasil), it also hosts community discussions on socio-environmental issues. While Pierzon comes to sell her goods, she is also drawn to the venue for bigger reasons.

“I believe in these markets as I believe in seeds,” she says. “Every small market is a fertile site where we spread our ideas.”

organic seeds and products on a table for seed exchange
Exchange of native seeds at the 12th Fruits of Resistance market in October 2017. Photo: Douglas Freitas/Friends of the Earth Brazil.

CaSanAT was reconstructed using technologies like an evapotranspiration bed for water drainage — just one sink in the entire building is connected to the city water supply. “It’s like it is a part of my own skin. It is our collective skin,” says Fernando Campos, an architect focused on bio-construction who worked on the project.

The walls are plastered with lime rather than cement, strategic window placements allow air to flow throughout, almost all the bricks were recycled and the frames and doors recovered. The plants in the backyard provide food and shelter on hot days, whilst bananas, passion fruit, herbs and avocado grow on the patio all year round. There is even a pizza oven for socialising.

“Wellbeing and living well within the city, that’s our goal,” Campos says.

“But, all of that is in danger”, he continues. Since president Jair Bolsonaro was elected, in 2018, Campos says he has observed a growing “wave of fanatics” attacking social institutions. “The collision was imminent.”

Clashing with Bolsonaro

In early 2020, just as the COVID-19 pandemic was hitting Brazil, one CaSanAT collaborator was on her way to open the facility when she was stopped by a court officer with the notification that they had 90 days to vacate the premises.

“We were very confused at the beginning. The reasons justifying it didn’t seem real”, says Letícia de Oliveira, coordinator of the Economic Justice and Resistance to Neoliberalism program at NAT/Brasil.

Just three days after taking office, Bolsonaro reorganised the national government’s administrative apparatus. The Ministry of Planning, which had allowed NAT/Brasil to use the CaSanAT building, became the Special Secretariat for Privatisation, Divestment, and Markets. Officially, the state planned to seize the building and sell it on the private market, claiming it was necessary to combat national debt. But CaSanAT leaders say the measures fit the Bolsonaro government’s pattern of targeting anybody they believe is a potential political opponent.

The timing could not have been worse: CaSanAT was in the midst of adjusting their operations to help people struggling through the COVID-19 pandemic. By distributing food and hygiene products to thousands of families, they were plugging gaps left by Bolsonaro’s inadequate handling of the pandemic. By February 2021, more than 250,000 people had died from COVID-19 in Brazil — the second highest national total after the United States.

NAT/Brasil had little choice but fight the eviction notice in court, winning a temporary reprieve after a judge ruled the eviction was not an urgent matter. “We have gained time, at least,” says Lúcia Ortiz, vice-president of the board that oversees CaSanAT. As the case works its way through the courts, CaSanAT has activated an online campaign to drum up grassroots support.

Volunteers and members of the organisation have changed the routes they travel to get to CaSanAT and have been advised against coming and going alone for fear of being physically attacked by Bolsonaro allies.

“We believe that we can win this and persevere based on all the values we’ve always shared and the solidarity among the working class,” de Oliveira says.

The Advocacia Geral da União (the Federal Attorney General’s office, an institution linked to the Bolsonaro government that went to court to remove the building ceded to NAT/Brazil)  made sure that the request for repossession of CaSaNat was denied in August 2020, in view of the context of COVID-19 pandemic. The process is still pending in court and the hearing that will decide the future of CaSanAT is awaited.

group of men and women standing in front of a building painted with plants
Members of the Friends of the Earth Brazil team in front of their headquarters in Porto Alegre. Photo: Luiza Dornelles/Friends of the Earth Brazil.

How it works

Bolsonaro’s hostility comes as a shock, as CaSanAT previously had support from Brasilia. The building belongs to Brazil’s Federal Government, and is believed to have once been a school. In the early 2000s, the government decided to cede the 170.50m2 main building to social use. After learning that a civil society organisation, Friends of the Earth Brazil, was seeking a headquarters in Porto Alegre, the Ministry of Planning agreed to let them use the building.

The CaSanAT project began taking form in 2004.

“The building was falling apart when we got there,” Ortiz recalls. “It was months of learning and doing, with many exchanges of knowledge between the volunteers”.

From the system that captures the water, to the organic waste used to fertilise the garden, and the diverse groups benefiting from the space and contributing their own knowledge, “we strive to develop and pursue innovative sustainable techniques,” Ortiz says. “All without counting on a penny or materials from big companies.”

The roll out of the CaSanAT project occurred in four phases: reconstruction of the house, creating the market, building a documentation center and, finally, spreading the word to the wider community. CaSanAT houses the Magda Renner Environmental Documentation Center, named after the president of NAT/Brasil from 1974 to 1998. It includes a collection of more than 3,000 cataloged publications about the environment and documents containing the history of the gaúcho people and Brazilian environmental movements.

Meanwhile, the CaSanAT team has shared their project with various quilombola (areas occupied by descendants of African communities that were historically rebels against the colonial regime) and indigenous communities, in hopes that it might serve as an example elsewhere. The organisation claimed the space as a political act, Ortiz says, allowing people to reclaim their right to the city. “Our presence here made us claim public policies and show that it is possible to multiply sustainability and culture for thousands of people”, she adds.

The Fruits of Resistance farmers market was part of phase two, and before the pandemic it used to happen every other week. “The fair trade model means lower prices for consumers and higher income for the farmers,” de Olivera says.

“But it is so much more than only a space to shop for products,” she continues. “It is also a space to learn. From perceiving the women farmers’ worries, we also entertain and educate their children while they are working at the market.”

In 2020, CaSanAT was crowned a winner of the Transformative Cities Peoples’ Choice Award. Isadora Hasting, from the evaluation committee, commented: “From a change in power relations through the advancement of local control and participatory democracy, the participants in this project have already generated an economy to promote sustainable societies, without exploitation of the working class or livelihoods, and they seek to develop based on environmental, social, economic and gender justice and on the sovereignty and self-determination of the peoples.”

The sooner CaSanAT is up and running the better.

Text by Giovana Fleck. Main photo: The Sementes de Baobá group present an artistic musical show at the 15th Fruits of Resistance market in October 2019. Photo: Carol Ferraz, Friends of the Earth Brazil.