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Twenty years of peasant organising

Adam Payne of the newly-formed Landworkers’ Alliance in the UK reports from La Via Campesina's global conference

July 24, 2013
10 min read

La Via Campesina's 6th conference

Between the 5 and 14 of June, La Via Campesina, the global peasants union, held its 6th international conference in Jakarta, Indonesia. Alongside 500 delegates from member organisations around the world, two representatives from the recently affiliated ‘Landworkers’ Alliance’ in the UK joined the gathering.

La Via Campesina (literally ‘the peasants’ way’) is an international union of peasants and small farmers representing 188 member organisations in 88 counties. The total membership is in excess of 200 million and growing constantly as new organisations join. The international conferences are held every four years and are the highest forum for decision making within the organisation. This conference also marked the 20th birthday of the movement and was a place for the membership to celebrate as well as strategise.

The past 20 years have seen La Via Campesina grow to become the largest and most internationally respected farmers organisation in the world. Not only is it seen as the representative voice of peasant farmers in civil society and inter-governmental forums; it is also considered by many as offering the most legitimate critique of neoliberalism and the most convincing vision of alternatives. Its power in international forums is derived from its strict ‘producers only’ membership policy, and its democratic functioning which give it a grassroots and representative voice.

La Via Campesina was established in 1993 to unite the opposition of peasants movements to the World Trade Organisation’s agreement on agriculture, a free market trade agreement that has had disastrous implications for the livelihoods of small-scale producers. Since then they have been extremely successful in giving international visibility to the peasant movement. As Julia, a farmer from Germany said: ‘we have the dexterity of an organisation combined with the courage of a social movement’. They take every opportunity to remind the world that 75 per cent of our food is produced by peasants, but that rural areas are often the most deprived and exploited. La Via Campesina argues that peasants and peasant-led solutions must be seen and heard as protagonists in food and agricultural policy.

A primary aim of the conference was to build consensus in the organisation about the focus for the coming four years. Unlike the last conference, which focused on improving internal functioning, in Jakarta a lot of space was given to formulating strategy. A number of topics emerged and were passionately articulated but there was a remarkable consensus on the main challenges that peasants farmers face worldwide and the most effective ways to challenge these forces of oppression.

Land grabbing and agrarian reform emerged as a significant issue at the conference. It is clear that in the five years since the 2008 food crisis the enclosure and privatisation of land and common resources has increased significantly worldwide. Both state led and private sector land acquisitions are leading to higher and higher concentrations of ownership, taking previously common resources away from peasants and driving up the cost of land. The issue of land grabbing is set firmly in a wider critique of the corporate ‘green’ economy and the commodification of nature.

In response to the increase in land grabbing, La Via Campesina has amplified its discourse on agrarian reform. Redistribution of productive land to producers and public legislation to prevent land grabs are high on it’s agenda. This is happening at national levels through lobbying and direct actions and internationally through the UN’s Comittee on Food Security (CFS) where ‘voluntary guidelines for the responsible tenure of farms, fisheries and forests’ have recently been agreed, and ‘guidelines for responsible agricultural investment’ are being discussed. As always, these international forums have yielded vague results, with no binding mechanisms for implementation, but represent important steps in the slow path to public policy on tenure, land grabs and investment.

Closely linked to the opposition to land grabbing are increasing campaigns against public-private partnerships that use development rhetoric to open markets and create space for international investment in agriculture. The G8’s new alliance on food security and nutrition is one such example of a ‘development programme’ that seeks to facilitate access to land and markets for agribusiness at the expense of peasant livelihoods and traditions.

GM and the commodification of seed remained high on the agenda with a recent proposal from the European commission on the regulation of plant health and marketing taking up a lot of energy in the European regional meetings. The proposal seeks to streamline the European seed industry, creating better incentives for companies to invest in seeds. However the proposal would place fees and registration requirements on small scale seed breeders and growers that would threaten livelihoods and the development of peasant seeds. Internationally the anti GMO campaign has been growing in strength with large scale direct actions against GM in Spain, France, Mexico, India and Haiti. La Via Campesina’s position on GM is that it is an unnecessary technology that damages peasant livelihoods and food security by concentrating power in the food chain in the hands of a few companies and commodified crops. They argue that to end hunger we need to address the situations of those who already produce food, and those who want to. Seeking to build a diverse and resilient local food system rather than the export-focused business-led model that GM is designed for.

La Via Campesina’s struggle against agribusiness spreads far beyond the issue of GM. The conference saw the adoption of a global ‘campaign against agrotoxics’ (genres of chemical known in the UK as pesticides which includes herbicides, fungicides and insecticides) that was initiated by Latin American organisations in 2011. The campaign highlights that monopolies in the agrochemical market (just 6 control 67.9% of the market) force farmers into debt and dependence, but also that agrotoxics are dangerous to people and ecology and are responsible for a lot of death and disease among agricultural workers.

Repression of social movements was also high on the agenda and space was made in the conference to honour the hundreds of peasants who have been threatened, persecuted, imprisoned and murdered in their struggles. In a number of the regions where members are active state and paramilitary violence against peasant movements is extreme. A member of the delegation from Honduras described how many of his colleagues had been killed for speaking and organising to defend the rights of agricultural workers. The issue is linked closely to the campaign against violence against women which seeks to build the strength and solidarity in the movement by challenging prejudices. In recognition of the intense repression faced by many members, La Via Campesina works hard to build inclusion and solidarity within the movement. As practical steps towards this they set quotas on the participation of men, women and youth, ensuring equal space for different voices.

Food sovereignty and agroecology

To develop their proposals for an alternative agricultural policy framework, La Via Campesina came up with the concept of food sovereignty in 1996. Set upon the recognition that food and agriculture are a key element of struggles for social justice in both rural and urban areas, food sovereignty is the fundamental right for all peoples, nations and states to control food and agricultural systems and policies, ensuring everyone has adequate, affordable, nutritious and culturally appropriate food. This requires the right to define and control methods of production, transformation, and distribution at local, national and international levels. Most significantly it encompasses as socio-economic and political transformation. Food sovereignty was a huge part of the discourse at the conference and is used by all kinds of organisations to describe the alternatives that the La Via Campesina offers. While it sounds complicated when dressed in the language of policy, the fundamentals of food sovereignty are the basic demands of farmers around the world: fair prices for food and agricultural products, prioritisation to local and sustainable production and support for new entrants to agriculture alongside a curbing of the power of transnational corporations.

As the failures of the import dependant food security model become clearer, food sovereignty is getting a broader recognition in public policy. Some counties, including Ecuador, Bolivia, Venezuela, Senegal, Mali and Nepal have written food sovereignty into their policy frameworks, and it is gaining recognition in the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and Committee on Food Security (CFS). The sharing of victories and strategies for taking food sovereignty to public policy was a big component of the conference and something that will be happening more in the coming years.

In the institutions

The work of La Via Campesina was described to me by an Italian farmer as 1 per cent institutional, 99 per cent mobilisation and mutual aid. At the institutional level, La Via Campesina have been working to create and hold a space for social movements in the UN’s intergovernmental forums for agricultural policy. They are actively lobbying in the FAO, the CFS and the European Union. The main focus here at the moment is twofold, first, following a successful attack on the World Bank’s attempts to write an ‘initiative on responsible investment’, La Via Campesina has been active in taking the issue to the more democratic forum of the CFS where it is working to build the ‘guidelines on responsible agricultural investment’ into an instrument that can be used to defend communities against land grabbing.

In addition La Via Campesina have drafted a bill for the rights of peasants that has been accepted by the UN human rights commission and is now being pushed for ratification by the general assembly.

In the institutions, La Via Campesina’s main aim is often just to give visibility to peasant issues and hold a channel open for farmers voices. As a farmer from Canada said at the conference, ‘often a victory in the institutions is just preventing a bad thing from happening’. Nevertheless, both the bill on the rights of peasants, and the guidelines for responsible agricultural investments hold huge potential for supporting la via campesinas work on the ground with internationally recognised frameworks.

Don’t forget you are a farmer

In the achievements of the organisation it is easy to forget that really this is a farmers movement, focussed on supporting the livelihoods of peasants around the world. It is in this realm that the movement is having its biggest impacts and it came through clearly in the feeling at the conference. The last 20 years have seen a huge quantity of visits and exchanges with innumerable ideas translated between producers in different contexts. The cumulative effect of all this is to build confidence and capacity among farmers organisations to take active and political roles in directing their futures.

In a time when protest seems to come and go it is inspiring to see an organisation build to this size without compromising its vision, its voice or its demographics. It is amazing that the organisation remains such a united, democratic and honest representation of the issues producers face.

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