The new peasants' revolt
by Katharine Ainger
New Internationalist magazine,
January / February 2003
Corporate agriculture is turning family
and peasant farmers from stewards of the land into servants, or
eradicating their livelihoods completely - [some] farmers [are]
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 Cote d'Ivoire, still
small and green, bathe in humming halogen light. There is civil
unrest in the Cote 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 overfished,
churning cold sea of the northeast Atlantic.
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, boycotted suppliers.
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.
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
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.
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
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 up.
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'. 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 n own-brand 'trigger' chemicals ' (known as
'traitor' technology) that I 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.'
How 'efficient' is a system of agriculture
that ignores ('externalizes') the huge costs of removing chemical
contamination from water or losing generic 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
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'.
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 "disappeard", they haave 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'
(see page 13). 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.'
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
l 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.
Jose 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
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 coordination 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
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 clearcutting. 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 Jose. 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 'development'.
Mario Pizano, a member of the Confederacion
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.