La Vía Campesina
Globalization and the Power of Peasants
The neoliberal assault that has driven labour into retreat over the last two decades has also sparked the emergence of a peasants’ international, La Vía Campesina. Rooted in 56 countries across five continents, this alliance has mounted a sustained and spirited defense of peasant cultivation, community, and control of food production.
Annette Desmarais’s book on La Vía Campesina has given us a probing and perceptive account of the world peasant movement’s origins, outlook, and activities. (“La Vía Campesina” means “Peasant Path” or “Peasant Way.” See “Peasants or Farmers?” at the end of this article.)
The movement began as a response to globalization, which Mexican peasant leader Alberto Gomez has defined as “a global offensive against the countryside … against small producers and family farmers” whose existence poses a barrier to “an industrialized countryside.”
Such coercive industrialization involves “delinking” food production from consumption through the intrusion of agribusiness corporations that usurp different stages of production: provision of inputs, food processing, transportation, and marketing, Desmarais says. Industrial products replace farmer inputs: chemicals in place of manure, hybrid seeds in place of farmers’ seed stocks. Many peasants are shackled to corporate production contracts, which, Desmarais notes, now control about 90% of U.S. poultry farms.
“Farmers are no longer considered producers of knowledge,” Desmarais says, but rather as consumers of the marketed wisdom of agribusiness, mere cogs in the gears of corporate industry.
Meanwhile, neoliberal trade policies have destroyed institutions and tariff barriers that provided farmers with market leverage, leaving them isolated victims of profiteering by gigantic worldwide agribusiness concerns. The entire process recalls capitalism’s “de-skilling” of industrial workers, which replaced independent skilled craftsmen by assembly-line labourers. The logical end point would be replacement of the family farm with factory-style capitalist estate farming.
But this has not happened.
Family farming, Desmarais reports, has remained a prominent form of cultivation, in rich and poor countries alike. She cites data from the U.S., where farm technology is most advanced. There, family-owned farms made up 85% of all units in 1990s, although a significant proportion of them are dependent on wage labour. There is growing evidence, she says, “that small farms are more ‘efficient’ than large corporate farms” and are more “sustainable.” Indeed, ” ‘re-peasantization’ is going on as the absolute number of peasants grows.”
Farmers have survived - but have been subjected to extreme levels of corporate exploitation. Indeed agribusiness has learned to take maximum advantage of small-scale farmers, who carry the costs and risks of farm production but are robbed of almost all the proceeds. Added to that is predation by the banks, whose mortgages suck the lifeblood from farms before ultimately destroying them. Even harsher exploitation is imposed on agricultural workers, concentrated in labour-intensive fruit and vegetable farms.
Desmarais reports National Farmers Union (NFU) findings that farmers in Canada earned just 0.3% return on equity in 1998, while “agribusiness corporations earned 5%, 20%, 50%, and even higher rates.” Since then, the situation has worsened. In 2004, the NFU reports, farmers in Canada could not even cover basic costs from their product sales.
In this context, peasants have both motivation and means for concerted resistance. The neoliberal era has in fact seen a revival of peasant activism, much of it coordinated by La Vía Campesina. Desmarais chronicles the dramatic intervention of Vía Campesina contingents in protests at successive World Trade Organization (WTO) gatherings. Among their achievements: “After having all but disappeared … over the past 25 years, agrarian reform is now back on the agenda.” Moreover, Vía Campesina has succeeded in maintaining unity of member organizations in both the richest and poorest countries of the world.
The Vía Campesina website reports member organizations’ activities in the first four months of this year in no less than 17 countries, nine of them in the Global South. Among these were a series of initiatives on behalf of the farmers and other citizens of Gaza under assault by Israel.
The peasants’ alliance has gone beyond defense of members’ immediate economic interests. It advocates the “right of peoples to define their agricultural and food policy,” which it terms “food sovereignty.” This program defends the interests of peoples of the Global South under pressure from the world’s richest states, while providing some key elements of a platform to unite working people and the oppressed both as producers and as consumers of food.
Food sovereignty embraces the principle that food is a basic human right, demands sustainable management of natural resources by those who work the land, and asserts the need for genuine agrarian reform.
In addition to calling for food self-sufficiency and strengthening family farms, La Vía Campesina’s original call for food sovereignty in 1996 included these points: • Guarantee everyone access to safe, nutritious and culturally appropriate food in sufficient quantity and quality to sustain a healthy life with full human dignity. • Give landless and farming people - especially women - ownership and control of the land they work and return territories to indigenous peoples. • Ensure the care and use of natural resources, especially land, water and seeds. End dependence on chemical inputs, on cash-crop monocultures and intensive, industrialized production. • Oppose WTO, World Bank and IMF policies that facilitate the control of multinational corporations over agriculture. Regulate and tax speculative capital and enforce a strict Code of Conduct on transnational corporations. • End the use of food as a weapon. Stop the displacement, forced urbanization and repression of peasants. • Guarantee peasants and small farmers, and rural women in particular, direct input into formulating agricultural policies at all levels.
The end result of such policies, Desmarais believes, will be to build and strengthen rural communities, which she views as “sites of diversity, differences, conflicts, and divisions” among people “engaged in the same argument” about “the common things in their everyday lives.” The Vía Campesina model, she states, “does not entail a rejection of modernity, or of technology and trade,” but insists that they must be inserted in a model “based on certain ethics and values in which culture and social justice count for something.”
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