La Vía Campesina
Globalization and the Power of Peasants
Karl Marx once described the French peasantry as ‘a sack of potatoes’, existing in isolation from one another. Marx’s more general argument was that peasants lack community feeling and are politically unorganized, and for that very reason are ‘incapable of enforcing their class interest in their own name’ (1975, p. 180). Via Campesina, founded in May 1993, challenges Marx’s ideas on peasants as it has become one of the largest organized transnational peasant movements in the world. Not only has Via Campesina politically organized the scattered masses of peasants around the world; it has also been able to challenge capitalism effectively through its demonstrations ‘at the various World Trade Organization’s ministerial conferences held in Geneva (1998), Seattle (1999), Cancun (2003), and Hong Kong (2005)’ (p. 8). La Via Campesina: Globalization and the Power of Peasants by Professor Annette Aurelie Desmarais is a vivid portrayal of the dynamics, strategies and actions of this movement.
Desmarais writes the book from the ‘privileged’ position of an ‘insider’ who sought to highlight the ‘experiences, voices, and visions of the peasants, rural women, and farmers themselves’ (p. 9). The book is the result of Desmarais’s decade long encounter with Via Campesina: first as a technical support to the organization, then as a doctoral researcher.The trust Desmarais earned from the individual members and leaders of the movement,and the unhindered access she enjoyed to the meetings, conferences, discussions and documents of the organization validates the authenticity of the anecdotes, facts, accounts and debates she presents in this work. The objective of the book, as Desmarais describes, is ‘to better understand rural development in the context of globalization’ (p. 18), and to explore ‘the social and political significance of the Via Campesina’ (p. 9). However, the volume offers more than just an understanding of rural development in a globalized world as it has turned out to be an invaluable account of the birth and development of a transnational peasant movement. Desmarais traces the roots of Via Campesina’s emergence in its negation of the World Trade Organization’s attempt to liberalize agriculture in line with neo-liberal policies. She gives us an elaborate account of the context in which Via Campesina emerged. The author informs us that the peasants and farm organizations from around the world seriously felt the absence of a unified international forum to speak against the discriminatory effect of the international trade agreements when the Uruguay Round Agreement of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade came to conclusion. This realization prompted eight farm organizations from Central America, the Caribbean, Europe, Canada and the United States to engage in discussions on how to counter neo-liberal invasion in agriculture. The result of these discussions was the Managua Declaration (May 1992), which laid the foundation of Via Campesina. It is not coincidental that the core principle driving the movement is food sovereignty, claims the author. By adopting food sovereignty as its motto, Via Campesina effectively differentiates itself from reformist movements and boldly asserts its identity as a radical anti-capitalist and anti-corporate agency seeking positive social change. Another important aspect of Via Campesina, as the author points out, is that it has been able to build solidarity between the peasants of the North and the South.
One of the highlights of the book is the discussion on Via Campesina’s strategic position on the issue of gender inequality. Although women are at the heart of agricultural production, often their participation in the decision-making process is very limited. Even Via Campesina, in the beginning, had no specific strategies dealing with the question of gender inequality within as well as outside the organization. However, it did not take long for the movement to recognize that it needed to take concrete actions in order to ensure gender parity. Desmarais claims that the first step the organization took towards addressing the gender issue was to form a Women’s Commission. Among other strategies, the Women’s Commission encouraged more women to participate in the delegations to international events in order to achieve gender equality. Moreover, the Commission also sensitized women towards their own ‘cultural biases’ and internal ‘power struggles’ (p. 178). The work is divided into seven chapters highlighting Via Campesina’s internal dynamics as well as external relations with corporations, world trade bodies, other peasant organizations and its own participatory members. Each chapter highlights a different aspect of Via Campesina’s struggle for existence, the challenges that it faces in its quest for justice for peasants in an ever-expanding capitalist social structure, and its fight against the gigantic corporations. The book iswritten in a very clear, simple, and jargon-free language making it readable for anyone who is interested in the current trend of liberalization of agriculture, and its counter trends. It is a must read for the students of social movements, global food systems and globalization, as well as for the anti-capitalist and anti-neo-liberal activists.Besides providing a detailed analysis of Via Campesina’s struggle, actions and strategies against neo-liberalism, it offers a better understanding of the implications of the international agreements for the peasants. The section of the book analysing the differences between Via Campesina and internationalNGOs and global civil society is especially insightful. The work offers a definite note of optimism in this reader’s mind that resistance against neo-liberalism is possible.
Marx, Karl (1975) Karl Marx on Society and Social Change with Selections by Friedrich Engels. Edited and with an Introduction by Neil Smelser (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press).
–Reviewed by Manoj Misra
–Social Movement Studies, 9:3 353-354, 2010