The word ‘peasant’ doesn’t immediately conjure up images of romantic revolution. To be honest, it doesn’t even come close. In this country the term is more closely associated with the muddied underclasses toiling the fields of medieval Europe than with any memories of our own 14th-century pitchfork rebellion.
Fortunately, vernacular is only cultural, and so too are stereotypes. While the enduring image of revolting peasants is now all but lost from our own countryside, theirs is a struggle still embodied by staggering majority of the world’s rural poor. It seems appropriate, then, that La Via Campesina (‘The peasant Way’) should be the title claimed by an unprecedented grassroots movement emerging from the fields, paddies and plantations of the global south to reclaim not only its rightful name, but also its right to exist.
Via Campesina is a rapidly growing mobilisation of small and medium-scale farmers, landless workers, indigenous peoples and rural youth drawn from more than 60 countries on five continents. While collectively the movement represents a diversity of campaigns, ranging from deep ecology to micro-finance and Fairtrade, it is passionately united in a single struggle: for the right of peasant farmers everywhere in the world to resist the globalisation of their way of life.
Launched in 1993, it has remained relatively unknown to western observers, spending much of the past 15 years mobilising its membership, an estimated 800 million rural workers worldwide. following the 2008 global food crisis, however, Via Campesina has justifiably emerged as one of the most progressive and authoritative voices on solutions to the crisis.
The Via Campesina story is really a story of the 21st-century peasantry. The image of the traditional country farmhand concerned only with his single acre and his cow is now largely redundant in a world where the poorest two-thirds of humanity feed the richest third.Today’s peasant has instead seen his livelihood increasingly subjected to a series of shocks and stresses over which he has little or no control.
Taranjit Kaur, a middle-aged peasant farmer from the central Indian state of Vidarbha, has been farming all his life; it is the only profession he knows. We met last October at Via Campesina’s fifth international conference, held in Mozambique. When I ask what has brought him, at considerable expense, from his rural home in India to an ex-colonial capital more than 5,000 miles away, his reply is direct and uncompromising: ‘Resistance’.
The region Taranjit farms is recognised as one of India’s most impoverished. Home to more than 300,000 chronically malnourished individuals, Vidarbha is also attributed with the highest rates of farmer suicides in the world, currently estimated at eight per day. ‘It hasn’t always been this way,’ Taranjit explains to me with a determined fluency. ‘Our farmers have lived through three generations in the past half-century alone: industrialisation, liberalisation and now the age of globalisation.’
Until recently Taranjit farmed cotton on the small six-acre farm his father had been proud to pass on to him more than 30 years ago, a commercial cotton plantation painstakingly converted from a mixed farm during the golden years of the Green Revolution.
The thin end of the wedge
Promoted as the magic-bullet that would fast-track India’s transition from an agrarian to an industrial economy, the Green Revolution was in reality introduced to India in 1965 on the back of one of the worst droughts in living memory. Having recently invested heavily in its fledgling manufacturing industry, India was
in no position to refuse the conditions imposed on the food aid it desperately needed to avert famine. In return for importing five million tonnes of wheat and three million tonnes of maize, the US demanded that India expose its farmers to direct marketing and trials of fertilisers, pesticides and high-yielding seed varieties (HYVs) by US agribusiness.
‘Understandably,’ Taranjit tells me, ‘my father’s generation could not refuse magic seeds and chemicals that promised not only better farming, but an income that would pay for education for their children, healthcare and a better standard of living for their families.’ In addition, US conditionalities extended to include control over domestic agriculture policy, guaranteed crop prices to stimulate supply and subsidising the cost of fertilisers to stimulate demand.
By 1978, HYVs accounted for more than 70 per cent of India’s wheat crop, 35 per cent of rice, and 20 per cent of millet and corn crops respectively. An enthusiastic uptake of free fertiliser trials temporarily boosted yields by an average of 30 per cent, resulting in a record grain output of 131 million tonnes in 1979.
In much the same way as the British had prolonged colonialism in the 19th century by offering free tea bushes to India’s small farmers, US agribusiness had taken less than a decade to foster a dependence on its products in some of the most vulnerable producers on the planet. By the time Taranjit inherited the farm from his father, his family was already in debt to local moneylenders for the fertilisers needed to grow the high-yielding cotton.
All too soon, Taranjit’s country was forced to surrender to a new wave of intervention. As India sought financial support in its drive for modernisation during the 1980s, it inevitably turned to the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, for balance of payment support and public sector investment. What it received was a series of Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs), whereby financial support was only offered in return for a commitment to neo-liberal reforms of its agriculture sector.
As Taranjit explains, ‘There was never any question over the transparency of SAPs. The US and EU provide the greatest funding for these institutions, so the SAPs were naturally designed to open foreign markets for their companies and corporations.’ Throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s India’s farmers looked on helplessly as control over their country’s seed suppliers, grain stores, processors and marketing boards fell into the hands of foreign-owned private companies.
The scene was then set in 1994 when the newly established World Trade Organization approached shining India with the promise of free-market growth. It was, says Taranjit, the final nail in the coffin: ‘When we joined the WTO we automatically lost any remaining right we had over what we grew and how we farmed it. In Vidarbha, everyone had become dependent on cotton as a cash crop.’
In 1994, 1lb of cotton cost $1.10 on the international market. Within two years, the WTO’s Agreement on Agriculture had forced the Indian government to remove subsidies for cotton producers and open its domestic market to subsidised imports from the southern US. By 1997, the cost of 1lb of cotton had fallen to $0.40 on the international market, the net result being that a fertile and prosperous agrarian country, once the cotton cradle of the east, had become the third largest cotton importer in the world.
Taranjit’s story is by no means exceptional; it is one repeated throughout countless rural communities from Latin America to Africa and Southeast Asia. Although it is a story of despair, however, it is also one of hope. In the process of claiming lives and livelihoods, globalisation has inadvertently galvanised support for what is now arguably emerging as the largest social movement of our time.
In April 2008, the long-awaited UN- and World Bank-sponsored IAASTD report on the current state of agricultural development was released, to international acclaim. A threeyear comprehensive evaluation of more than 110 countries by more than 400 independent scientists, the IAASTD report was welcomed by many NGOs as a milestone in recognising the failings of more than three decades of misguided international development.
Set against the backdrop of a mounting global food crisis, the IAASTD report called for an immediate move away from chemically intensive industrial agriculture towards localised agro-ecological solutions, the protection of rural livelihoods and natural resources, and a rejection of genetic engineering as a wholesale technological solution to the feeding the world. Predictably, the only countries that refused to endorse the report were the US, Canada and Australia.
As well as promoting the role of sustainable agricultural science and appropriate technology, IAASTD emphasised that local and traditional agricultural knowledge was key in developing solutions. Unsuprisingly, Via Campesina, born out of the very communities appraised by the report, anticipated these findings by more than a decade.
Honduran peasant leader Rafael Alegría, Via Campesina’s international co-ordinator for more than 10 years, sees the IAASTD report as international recognition of the movement’s longstanding ideology. ‘Even institutions such as the World Bank, the IMF and the FAO [UN Food and Agriculture Organization] have recognised that this neoliberal model of world development has been a failure. It has generated more problems than solutions. Their own experts have confirmed what we have suspected all along – that we, the small farmers of the world, are not the cause but the solution to the food crises.
‘When we first mobilised in the early 1990s, we vocalised the millions saying “no” into a single voice saying “yes” to peasant struggle. Our network has shared experiences from around the world to build a vision for agricultural development based on local knowledge, ecology and respect for our way of life.’
Indeed, drawing from shared experiences has been central to Via Campesina’s strategy in building resistance from the ground up. From the impacts of the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement on Mexico’s peasantry, which taught the need to prioritise national food economies, to the land occupations and agrarian reform shown by Brazil’s 1.5-millionstrong Landless Peasant Movement, for an organisation supported by limited funding from western NGOs, it has been astonishingly effective at co-ordinating its global struggle at local, regional and national levels.
Key to the movement’s success at the grassroots has been the revolutionary Campesino a Campesino (‘Farmer to Farmer’) model of agricultural development. Pioneered in Central America in the 1980s, the scheme initially focused on promoting agro-ecological skills between farmers from one region or
country and another. By sharing local knowledge in this way, Campesino a Campesino immediately overcomes many of the limitations and suspicions encountered by traditional top-down development initiatives.
The model has since been adopted by Via Campesina as a way of rapidly sharing not only farming skills, but also analysis and understanding of developments in national and international agricultural policies. When South Korea was forced to open its borders to cheap rice imports in 2004, for example, it was the country’s farmer-to-farmer network that distributed pamphlets outlining the impacts of the trade policy directly to the farmers working in the paddy fields.
At the national and regional levels, member organisations co-ordinate demonstrations and practical actions, on an almost weekly basis, in response to the most pressing issues affecting their members. International and regional conferences are held every four years, while a central co-ordinating committee liaises between the regions and maintains the organisation’s website as a central resource for campaign literature, videos and press releases.
Globalise the struggle
In recent years, international campaigns have largely polarised around the issue of ‘food sovereignty’, a term coined in the mid-90s to describe Via Campesina’s founding principle: the fundamental right of agricultural communities to define their own food, livestock and fisheries systems.
‘Food sovereignty,’ explains Peter Rosset of the California-based Food First Institute, ‘goes far beyond what we associate with the term “food security”, the certainty of having enough food to eat each day. Feeding a nation’s people is an issue of national security – of sovereignty. If the people of a country must depend for their next meal on the vagaries of the global economy, on the goodwill of a superpower not to use food as a weapon, or on the unpredictability and high cost of longdistance
shipping, that country is not secure in the sense of either national or food security.’
The food sovereignty concept was debated at a specially convened conference in Sélingué, Mali, in February 2007. The resulting Nyéléni Declaration outlines the seven principles that must be respected if food sovereignty is to be achieved (see box, left). In 2007, Via Campesina called on the UN to enshrine food sovereignty in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Although Via Campesina has its roots firmly established in the developing countries from which it draws its core membership, small family farmers throughout both Europe and the US have understandably found solidarity in their cause. It was, after all, the architecture of the EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and the US Farm bill, which provided the model of agricultural industrialisation that was exported to the global south.
Paul Nicholson represents EHNE, a small farmers’ union from the Basque country and one of 24 official Via Campesina member organisations active within Europe. Although social security measures have traditionally buffered European farmers from the impacts of a globalising marketplace, he believes Via Campesina’s struggle is becoming increasingly relevant to Europe’s remaining peasantry.
‘Although small farmers no longer represent the majority here in Europe as they do in Latin America, Africa and Asia, we remain resilient in the face of the current crisis,’ he says. ‘It is essential we share our struggles and experiences of the CAP with southern producers, policymakers and governments, to demonstrate that the globalised western model of agriculture does not and will not work for the benefit of the majority.
‘I would like to see an agriculture based on local needs, on local production adapted to local food-producing conditions. Europe is a diverse continent, and I think we have the climate, the farmers, the knowledge and the capacity of feeding ourselves in a way that is environmentally and socially responsible.’
Importantly it isn’t just experience and ideology that can be shared, but the tactics required to achieve change. Via Campesina’s southern allies are passionately empowered by their struggle, largely because it is the only livelihood they know. Theirs is a world where political regimes and governments have been toppled at the will of the people. Such an environment breeds a strong sense of optimism and experience in how the majority can overturn the policies made by the few.
Europe can learn much from their struggle. As Rafael Alegría says, ‘We are now facing a new historical moment, different in any way from what has come before. The issues we represent are not just important for peasants but for humanity as a whole. What first began as a grassroots struggle for peasant rights has evolved to carry the food sovereignty of the world on its shoulders. They embrace globalisation; we embrace the globalisation of La Via Campesina. Globalise the struggle.
La Via Campesina
Ed Hamer is UK programmes co-ordinator for the International Society for Ecology & Culture (ISEC)
This article first appeared in the Ecologist April 2009