New Peasants Revolt
12 May, 2003
Everything in a supermarket
has a story to tell, if only we could find it out. The produce defies
seasons, geography, wars, distance, nature. It is winter outside, but
inside the supermarket golden-shell pineapples from Côte d'Ivoire,
still small and green, bathe in humming halogen light. There is civil
unrest in the Côte d'Ivoire, but it does not seem to have disrupted
the flow of tropical fruit to the cold North. Next to them are strange,
knobbly bits of ginger dug from Chinese soil. Gala apples from France,
bagged up and reduced to half price. Avocados from Israel and Chile.
Pale tomatoes from the Canary Islands, where it is always warm, but
the fruit must be picked green. 'Ready-to-go' meals fill the chiller
cabinets. Here, wrapped in plastic, are small clusters of perfect baby
corn and mange tout from plantations in Kenya. Here is cod, pulled up
by trawler from the over-fished, churning cold sea of the northeast
Though we can't hear their
stories, what we choose to put in our supermarket baskets writes its
own language upon our bodies and our moods, our families, our economies,
our landscapes. It can mean life or death in some distant country whose
name we can only vaguely discern printed on the packaging. We are, all
of us, affected by trends in the global economy, in the most intimate
and fundamental way possible - through our food.
Only rarely do these connections
become visible, when the people who produce the food remind us of them.
Those who work the countryside are a potent source of cultural identity,
whether it's the campesinos of Mexico, the gauchos of Argentina, the
paysannes of France, Australian conkies, or the flat-capped Yorkshire
farmer. Their images are used to market food to us, because we associate
them with rural life, nature and rude good health. But the real people
who produce our food are losing their livelihoods and leaving the land.
Over the past two years British
dairy farmers, in their grief and anger over plummeting prices, have
blockaded supermarkets up and down the country, spilled their milk,
Why blockade the supermarkets?
The average price British farmers receive for their milk is the lowest
for 30 years. The bargaining power of the supermarkets is so great that
prices for farmers are going ever downwards. In 2000, supermarket giant
Tesco introduced international 'reverse' auctions for its suppliers
all over the world. They were asked to bid against each other until
Tesco got the lowest price.
Supermarkets blame the consumer
for wanting 'cheap food' - yet 50 years ago farmers in Europe and North
America received between 45 and 60 per cent of the money that consumers
spent on food. Today that proportion has dropped to just 7 per cent
in Britain and 3.5 per cent in the US.1
Even that ultimate symbol
of rugged individualism, the cowboy, is an endangered species. Most
of the ranchers of the Great Plains of Nebraska are permanently broke,
mortgaging or selling off their land and cattle to survive. The cowboy
is riding into the final sunset as the Great Plains become steadily
The details are specific
to each country but the broad trends are international: the crisis in
farming is global.
The six founding countries
of Europe's Common Agricultural Policy had 22 million farmers in 1957;
today that number has fallen to 7 million. Just 20 per cent of the European
Union's wealthiest and largest farmers get 80 per cent of EU subsidies.
Canada lost three-quarters of its farmers between 1941 and 1996 and
the decline continues. In 1935 there were 6.8 million working farmers
in the US; today the number is under 1.9 million - less than the total
US prison population.
Suicide is now the leading
cause of death among US farmers, occurring at a rate three times higher
than in the general population. In Britain farmers are taking their
own lives at a rate of one a week.2
In poorer countries the situation
is even worse. Half of the world's people still make their living from
the land - and it is they who feed the majority of the world's poorest
people. In South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa more than 70 per cent of
the population makes a living from the land. Agriculture counts, on
average, for half of total economic activity.
In the Philippines the number
of farm households in the corn-producing region of Mindanao is set to
fall by half. Between 1985 and 1995 the number of people employed in
agriculture in Brazil fell from 23 million to 18 million. In China an
estimated 400 million farmers are in danger of losing their livelihoods
entirely. Everywhere small-scale farmers are being 'disappeared'.
All eaten up Why is this
happening? Somebody, somewhere, must be benefiting. The answer is not
hard to discover. It lies not in the soil, but inside the corporations
which have become known collectively as 'agribusiness'. They traverse
the planet buying at the lowest possible price, putting every farmer
in direct competition with every other farmer. While the price of crops
has been pushed down - often even below the cost of production - the
prices of inputs such as seed, fertilizers and pesticides have gone
Control of the 'food-chain'
is being concentrated in ever-fewer hands. According to Bill Hefferman,
rural sociologist at the University of Missouri, in some cases there
is 'seamless and fully integrated control of the food system from gene
to supermarket shelf'.3 When the two giant corporations Monsanto and
Cargill went into partnership they controlled seed, fertilizer, pesticides,
farm finance, grain collection, grain processing, livestock-feed processing,
livestock production and slaughtering, as well as several processed-food
brands. This system, developed in the US, is being exported to other
countries in the name of globalization.
This level of control is
one of the reasons why genetically modified (GM) seeds are of such concern.
They give agribusiness yet more weapons with which to enforce total
dependency on their patented seeds. Some of them require own-brand herbicides
and even own-brand 'trigger' chemicals (known as 'traitor' technology)
that the farmer has to apply for before the seed will germinate.
This is the secret of the
disappearance of the family farmer in the North - and the peasantry
in the South. To disappear them, aside from killing them, you must turn
them into vulnerable workers on an assembly line, without control over
their own operations, and obliged to corporations.
Agribusiness writes the rules
of international trade. Cargill was largely responsible for the Agreement
on Agriculture at the World Trade Organization (WTO), which liberalizes
the global market in agricultural goods. Farmers, particularly in poor
countries, find it impossible to compete with cheap imports. One James
Enyart of Monsanto said of the WTO's 'intellectual property' agreement
(known as 'TRIPs') which makes its ownership of seeds and genetic material
possible worldwide: 'Industry has identified a major problem in international
trade. It crafted a solution, reduced it to a concrete proposal and
sold it to our own and other governments.'
Why does it matter that small,
'inefficient' producers are being eradicated by globalized, corporate
agriculture? Free-trade theory is based on the idea that countries should
specialize, produce the things that they make best and buy in everything
else. But, as Kevan Bundell from Christian Aid says: 'It makes little
sense for poor countries or poor farmers to put themselves at more risk
if they have to rely on the efficient functioning of markets which all
too often fail or don't exist.'4
How 'efficient' is a system
of agriculture that ignores ('externalizes') the huge costs of removing
chemical contamination from water or losing genetic diversity? How 'wholesome'
is it to create new diseases in animals and antibiotic resistance in
people? How 'cheap' is the expense of public subsidies to private agribusiness,
of global transport or social breakdown in rural areas?
Prevailing free-market thinking
asks why we should provide support just to keep people in a state of
'backwardness' and rural poverty. But experience shows us that when
these people lose their rural livelihoods, only a few will find better
jobs in the city. Many will end up in enormous and growing urban slums.
'The future for peasant incomes
and employment is grim,' says Chen Xiwen, deputy director of the Chinese
State Council's research centre. According to Chen, in 2001 over 88
million workers migrated from rural to urban areas in China, most of
them employed in 'dirty, hard, dangerous and unsafe conditions'.5
The question is not whether
we have any right to condemn people to the difficult life of a poor
farmer - an accusation often thrown at those who oppose the global-trade
regime and the food cartel that runs it. The real question is whether
vulnerable farmers themselves have meaningful choices. They need an
international voice for their own priorities.
Let them eat trade Nettie
Webb, a Canadian farmer explains: 'The difficulty for us, as farming
people, is that we are rooted in the places where we live and grow our
food. The other side, the corporate world, is globally mobile.'
To put it another way, global-
trade rules might be fundamentally transforming agriculture, but as
one sceptic asked: 'can one envision a coalition of Belgian, Dutch,
French, Italian, Uruguayan, Brazilian and New Zealand farmers marching
on a GATT (WTO) meeting in Punta del Este? And what could they demand
to benefit them all, since they are all in competition with one another?'
In fact Via Campesina has
been marching on every WTO meeting from 1994 onwards. 'We will not be
intimidated. We will not be "disappeared",' they have declared.
This global alliance of small and family farmers, peasants, landless
and indigenous people, women and rural labourers, has a membership of
millions - the vast majority from poor countries - and they're putting
an alternative agricultural paradigm on the map.
It's based on the idea of
'food sovereignty'. It is, they say, 'the RIGHT of peoples, communities
and countries to define their own agricultural, labour, fishing, food
and land policies which are ecologically, socially, economically and
culturally appropriate to their unique circumstances.'
They believe food is a human
right, not a commodity, and that their job - the production of food
- is fundamental to all human existence. This attitude is summed up
by a food co-op member's retort to Brazilian President Cardoso when
he said that agriculture had to submit to the law of the market: 'Very
well, Mr President. When Brazil no longer needs food, then you can let
agriculture go bankrupt.' 7
The farmers of Via Campesina
argue that nothing as important as food should be ruled by the WTO.
They've been leading the campaign to take agriculture out of its remit
entirely. This does not mean that they are 'anti-trade'. They believe
in trading goods which a country cannot produce itself. Once a country
has supported its own food needs and production it should be free to
trade the surplus.
I spent time with Via Campesina
at the 2002 World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil, where they explained
their vision in more depth. I'm in the courtyard of the Convent del
Capuchino. There are mango and papaya trees hung with unripe green fruit.
Via Campesina delegates - people of few words - sit on benches, sip
sweet coffee and contemplate.
José Bocquisso Jr
explains the views of the National Peasants' Union in Mozambique. 'Mozambique
was one of the largest cashew-nut processors in the world,' he says.
'But because of the IMF the industry was privatized and the processing
plants were closed... People should concentrate on producing food for
themselves, not products for export... If we produce a lot of cotton
the price ends up being below the cost of production, and people are
stranded with piles of cotton, but with no food and no money. In our
organization we concentrate on producing food, we encourage our members
first to provide for their daily needs. Then it doesn't matter so much
if they don't have money, because they are secure in food and have guaranteed
the ability to feed their families.' His group is part of the expanding
African contingent in Via Campesina. 'It is very strengthening to feel
part of a global movement. World powers have to be fought globally.'
Via Campesina is not anti-technology.
Its vision is, however, based on a model of agriculture built from the
ground up, in which farmers' knowledge has a significant place. Indeed,
all Via Campesina's arguments about food and farming - whether GMOs,
access to land or markets - come down to one central issue: control.
Indra Lubis, part of a coalition
of 13 Indonesian peasant unions with 900,000 members, explains that
rejection of genetically modified seed and pesticides is about self-determination:
'With Monsanto, who have planted GM cotton in south Sulawesi, we'll
have to depend on them for seed. They want to control cotton and food
production. As peasants, we'll be made dependent on multinational corporations.
But we are independent when we develop our own agriculture. We use our
own productive system, with no chemical fertilizer or herbicides. We
use local seeds and local fertilizer. In Indonesia we have so many varieties
of seed. It is a deep part of our culture.'
Seventy per cent of the world's
farmers are women - most of the people in this courtyard are men. Rosalva
Gutierrez, from the Belize Association of Producer Organizations, tells
me: 'It is always the women who take the hardest part as farmers, mothers,
wives. We have many strong women but they have been abused for so many
years, women's self-esteem is very low. So we give workshops and training...
I'm co-ordinator of the women's project and on the international co-ordination
of Via Campesina - I try to ensure that what Via Campesina says on paper
about gender equality becomes reality!'
And she tells me: 'We don't
see farmers as being from different countries. Farmers everywhere understand
the same point.'
Via Campesina argues that
food production has a unique role to play in rural livelihoods, health,
ecology and culture.
Kanya Pankiti, a peasant
from the south of Thailand - on her first trip out of the country -
says the way her people grow food preserves the forest, the watershed
and the soil. She thinks the Brazilians aren't growing enough trees.
'The way Brazilians do agriculture now will cause soil erosion,' she
worries, picking and nibbling leaves she recognizes from home - it has
never occurred to Brazilians to cook with them.
Kanya knows a lot about trees.
She says: 'The Thai forest department doesn't believe that people can
live in the forest and preserve it. The reality is, we have lived in
the forest for a hundred years. It is not the villagers who are destroying
the forest, but the loggers clear-cutting. When the forest is clear-cut
the land becomes less fertile.' Her house is outside a new National
Park zone, her land inside it, and they want to clear her out. 'When
they declare a National Park,' she says, 'they sit in an air-conditioned
office and look at a map.'
What does she think of the
World Social Forum? She's going back to tell her village 'that they
are not alone in the world, struggling for land, and we can link up
with those in other countries'.
For anyone who eats, the
question of who controls the food chain - farmers, or an ever-more powerful
cartel of food corporations - is no less pertinent than it is for Indra,
Kanya or José. At the very same time as consumers in the rich
world are objecting more than ever to factory farming, to the use of
antibiotics in livestock, to pesticide residues in food, to the loss
of biodiversity and to food scares such as BSE, this very same model
is being set up for replication around the world, often disguised as
Mario Pizano, a member of
the Confederación Campesino del Suerto in Chile, joins the conversation.
'The big companies are buying up all the land,' he complains. 'With
contract farming, they tell us: "We'll buy your food only if you
buy the chemicals you need from us." They give us chemicals that
are forbidden in the US. Then we have to give them a section of our
crop. If we can't, then they take our land.'
But he, and millions like
him, refuse to become serfs on their own land. As we part, he takes
off his green cap, emblazoned with the name of his organization, and
gives it to me. 'This organization is part of me,' he says.
1 'What's Wrong with Supermarkets', Corporate Watch, 2002.
2 Bringing the Food Economy
Home, Norberg-Hodge, Merrifield, Gorelick, Zed Books 2002.
3 'Where have all the farmers
gone?', Brian Halweil, WorldWatch 2000.
4 'Forgotten Farmers: Small
farmers, trade, and sustainable agriculture', Kevan Bundell, Christian
5 'The Forgotten 800 Million:
How Rural Life is Dying in the New China', Guardian Newspapers, 18/10/2002.
6 'The Via Campesina: Consolidating
an International Peasant and Farm Movement', Annette Aurelie Desmarais,
Journal of Peasant Studies, January 2002.
7 Cutting the Wire, Branford,
Rocha, Latin America Bureau 2002.