Posted on 18-6-13
La Via Campesina 20 Years On Largest Social Group On Globe
guardian.co.uk, 17 June 2013
Photo shows Secretary General of La
Via Campesina Henry Saragih who heads what may be the largest single
political movement on Earth
Awa Djigal is not a professional lobbyist, nor a political analyst, though
she talks with ease about the intricacies of the new free trade agreements
the EU is negotiating with her government and others in Africa, the
Caribbean and the Pacific.
Djigal, 55, is a small-scale fish producer from Senegal, where she dries,
smokes and ferments a variety of fish, mostly sardines. She is also one of
the estimated 200 million small-scale growers, fisherfolk, farm and
landworkers worldwide who, over the past 20 years, have come together under
the banner of La Via Campesina, the international peasant movement.
"It is a struggle for peasants and the poor. But a movement like this allows
us to globalise this struggle. Individually, we would never get anywhere,"
says Djigal, who first heard of the proposed Economic Partnership Agreements
(EPAs) through La Via Campesina. "For a long time peasants didn't know what
was at stake in these negotiations. But through this movement we've become
more educated. Now we can speak for ourselves."
Founded in 1993 in Mons, Belgium, at a meeting of small-scale producers from
four continents, La Via Campesina - which translates literally as "the
peasants' way" - is today arguably the world's largest social movement.
Thousands have demonstrated with La Via Campesina in the streets of Cancun,
Seattle, Quebec City, and wherever else institutions such as the World Trade
Organisation, World Bank, and UN meet to discuss food and agriculture.
Meanwhile, the movement's concept of food sovereignty, launched at the
1996 World Food Summit in Rome, has been picked up by organisations and
institutions globally. Unlike food security, often defined as ensuring
people have enough to eat, food sovereignty zeroes in on questions of power
"Food sovereignty is the right of peoples to healthy and culturally
appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable
methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems.
It puts those who produce, distribute and consume food at the heart of food
systems and policies rather than the demands of markets and corporations,"
reads the final declaration of the Forum for Food Sovereignty, held in 2007
in Selingue, Mali. "Food sovereignty implies new social relations free of
oppression and inequality between men and women, peoples, racial groups,
social classes and generations."
In 2008, Ecuador enshrined the concept in its constitution. Venezuela, Mali,
Bolivia, Nepal and Senegal have also made food sovereignty part of national
policy. Now, after heavy lobbying by La Via Campesina, negotiations are set
to begin on a draft UN declaration on the rights of peasants.
This high-profile lobbying is one of the most noticeable ways in which La
Via Campesina has evolved, says Annette Aurelie Desmarais, a small-scale
farmer from Saskatchewan, Canada. "They're working at a level where they
weren't before, sitting in official boardrooms, talking with experts about
the global food crisis. There's been a real jump in the level where La Via
Campesina works," she says.
In a 2007 book documenting La Via Campesina's first 10 years, Desmarais
remarked that one of the most striking things about the movement is the
simple fact that it exists: for years, everyone from the theorists of
classical socialism to the proponents of industrial capitalism had predicted
that peasants would eventually disappear.
But La Via Campesina has not only survived - it has exploded, worldwide,
into a formidable, farmer-led movement of organised opposition to "land
grabs," the influence of corporations on food systems and agricultural
policies, the rise of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and free-trade
While political and business leaders met in London for a pre-G8 event on
nutrition, which saw new aid pledges and the expansion of the G8's flagship
hunger initiative, the controversial new alliance for food security and
nutrition, hundreds of La Via Campesina members gathered in Jakarta,
Indonesia, for the movement's sixth global congress.
"Today, more than ever, another world is necessary. The destruction of our
world, through over-exploitation and dispossession of people and the
appropriation of natural resources, is resulting in the current climate
crisis and deep inequalities which endanger humankind and life itself. La
Via Campesina says a resounding NO to this corporate-driven destruction,"
said peasant activists from 183 organisations and 88 countries in a
statement released in Jakarta.
How has this movement grown to become such a force? How do you organise
200 million peasants around the world? Members point to the movement's
structure, and how regional groupings co-ordinate action locally and
Regional meetings give members the space to discuss different government
policies to see whether there are opportunities for producers from different
countries to band together, says Nadini Jayaram, a small farmer in
"We must educate peasants to be independent, so they have freedom over their
seeds, land, water, and a market of their own," says Jayaram, 53, who also
puts a premium on La Via Campesina's focus on training, education and
communication, exchanging generations of accumulated knowledge.
The UN has declared 2014 the year of family farms and now more international
institutions and development agencies are talking about smallholder
Desmarais is cautious about declaring this a victory for small farmers,
however. "The problem is that what they're often proposing is --- that they
just need to be integrated in the global economy. That would be what I call
adverse inclusion because it's the [industrial production] model itself
that's the problem. If we want to deal with the food crisis, and climate
change, we have to look at alternative models."
The demand of food sovereignty, she argues, goes far beyond recognising the
role of small-scale agriculture. "It's about putting the decisions around
food systems in the hands of local communities, and really changing the way
people think about food, their relationship with food, and their
relationship with other people. It's much bigger than how we produce food -
it's also about how we live and how we are."