“Our Struggle is for the Permanence of Agriculture”: Interview with Alberto Gomez of La Via Campesina, Durban South Africa

Made up of 150 organizations in seventy countries, and with more than 200 million members, La Via Campesina holds the claim to being the largest movement of peasant farmers and artisanal food producers in the world. La Via Campesina was born in 1993, but traces its roots much further back – indeed, as Alberto Gomez hints in this interview, the movement’s roots are entwined with the history of agriculture, land reform, and social movements throughout the ages.

Alberto Gomez is the national director of UNORCA (Unión Nacional de Organizaciones Regionales Campesinas Autónomas) in Mexico. UNORCA is one of thirteen organizations – twelve of family farmers in Canada, five in the U.S., including three migrant farmworkers’ organizations, and five campesino (peasant farmer) groups in Mexico – that make up the North American coordination of La Via Campesina.

La Via Campesina brought an international delegation to United Nations COP17 in Durban, South Africa, that included a caravan of some 200 African farmers, and regional representation from Mexico, Haiti, and elsewhere. As a grassroots movement, La Via does not participate directly in the United Nations climate summits. But, like a peasant army stationed outside the gates of a walled city, La Via tends to establish a presence nearby, to monitor the negotiations, to build alliances, and to make its presence known.

Jeff Conant: We last talked a year ago, in your own country, at COP16 in Cancún, Mexico. What was the experience of La Via Campesina at COP16, and what has come of that experience?

Alberto Gomez: In the COP in Mexico, the first question was, how to build power, given the extreme security and control there. This question led us to build alliances that weren’t, let’s say, the typical ones – principally with the Asemblea de Afectados Ambientales, which brings together a variety of struggles of people affected by mines, dams, toxic contamination, in rural areas, but also in the cities. We also built together with another network, made up largely of Indigenous Peoples’ groups, called la Rede en Defensa del Maiz, (The Network in Defense of Corn), and also with urban sectors through coordinating with the struggle of the electricity workers who had lost their jobs, and who due to the liquidation of their union earlier in 2010, were in a moment of open struggle.

We decided to arrive in Cancún in a way that would make visible the realities of Mexico. So we organized international caravans to raise awareness of the local struggles…to raise their visibility. This allowed us to come to Cancún with power and visibility. In Cancún the question was how to project these struggles – these kinds of struggles exist on all regions of La Via Campesina – and to draw clear lines between these local struggles.

In Cancún, we were faced with excessive vigilance, including Federal Security agents, who were told that La Via Campesina was a violent organization, an armed and dangerous organization. Due to this, we were provoked, and we were immediately displaced from our camp, by the army. But we didn’t want confrontation – that wasn’t our intention.

What helped was presswork, working the media, as well as two big marches and several actions. This allowed us to project our intentions, to project the understandings of La Via in the face of the government’s decisions, and the exclusion we were faced with.

All our work in the popular neighborhoods of Cancun also brought a lot of support; and it built toward an event that was important and extremely successful, which was the visit of President Evo Morales to our encampment. This also helped to give us visibility, and certainly that was a moment that remains strong in our memory.

I think that the work of getting daily information about the progress of the negotiations, the work of building alliances, the work of seeking out and finding other people and other organizations that share our positions, and the work of maintaining strong positions, all of these are important aspects of what La Via Campesina does at the COPs that makes these moments useful to us as expressions of our strength.

JC: La Via Campesina had a strong presence in Cochabamba in April, 2010, at the People’s Summit on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth, and has continued to carry the banner of Cochabamba. What is the significance of that?

AG: We were in Cochabamba with the intention of building a common base, which was the Cochabamba People’s Accord. A good part of the Cochabamba Agreement are in our own demands – in this century, the temperature must not rise more than 1.5 degrees; the industrialized countries have to reduce emissions by fifty percent without conditions; the rich countries need to accept their historic debt, and also bring an end to the impunity of transnational corporations that has caused the global economic crisis and the climate crisis.

We continue demanding, in concordance with the Cochabamba Agreements, that there is an urgent need for a climate justice tribunal to try the polluters, and a declaration, an official United Nations Declaration, for the Rights of Mother Earth. All of this is to say that, if the Cochabamba Agreements appeared at one time, before COP16, in the UN negotiating text, and were then conveniently forgotten by the United Nations, these demands continue being valid today.

JC: What is La Via Campesina’s perspective on the UN COP process? What does the UN process have to do with the lives of peasant farmers?

AG: Our perspective on the negotiations is that it is better to have no agreement than a bad agreement. Agriculture shouldn’t be in the negotiations in any form. We see that, in the diplomatic language of the UN, there is a series of interests that signify the possibility that there won’t be any global agreement – that’s good. But the danger is that a series of small agreements will be made here that are fatal for humanity. This is why it’s more important than ever that we have popular consultas, consultations about what the world’s people actually think about the climate crisis.

Now it’s become so dramatic, each year more disasters… For example, right now we are experiencing terrible drought in Mexico – this year there won’t be enough corn, there won’t be enough wheat. We’re already importing fifty percent of our food, and with the climate crisis we can expect to become increasingly dependent on imports. Hurricanes, floods, all of this, is increasing the number of climate-related deaths, poverty, hunger.

This is a historic moment of profound gravity that demands that we let our governments know that they aren’t elected to ignore us – they are not elected to be administrators for the rich countries, or for the multinationals. They are supposed to serve the people, with dignity, because this is about the future of humanity. So we have to have great imagination to bring a halt to this process, to build popular consciousness toward becoming a force strong enough to put the brakes on the way these negotiations are turned into a business for the wealthiest part of humanity.

JC: From the standpoint of being here in Africa, how do you see the differences, or similarities, between La Via Campesina in Africa and in the Americas?

AG: Our African comrades have a great way of expressing their struggle. If they had had the economic capacity, the African delegation that has come to Durban, which is already quite large, would be twenty, thirty times bigger… Without claiming that I know much about the history of Africa, I believe that African movements are in a process of emerging from the control of the big NGOs that have historically managed their struggle. La Via Campesina in Africa shows that this process will be as powerful as it has been in Latin America, or even more powerful, because this is an awakening that allows them to say, maybe for the first time, ‘we can speak for ourselves, nobody can speak for us’. This is well-timed for la Via, because in 2013, we will hold our Sixth International Conference, and the Secretariat will move to Africa. This signals a moment when we can expect rapid growth and strengthening of the movement in Africa. We’re convinced of this.

JC: La Via Campesina will be twenty-years old in 2013. What are the movement’s most significant gains its almost twenty years of existence?

AG: One important victory is in simply being La Via Campesina, and existing for twenty years. To exist and to keep growing is itself a victory. Second, La Via Campesina has become a reference point – now our positions are taken up by other organizations. This is another important gain. The contribution of La Via Campesina to have frozen the World Trade Organization (WTO) is a gain, and this comes from La Via being organized in each of its regions, not only to oppose the WTO, but to propose alternatives.

In the rural areas, there has been a great learning process, that men and women are equal, that men’s participation and women’s go together. Thinking of the future, us old guys don’t see much possibility of big changes in our countries – but the decision to bring in the youth, to engage them in capacity building. The youth are now our hope for building food sovereignty, and for creating a permanent agriculture.

Another important victory is in recognizing who our enemies are – that is, that our enemies are the multinational corporations – and that they are not just the enemies of us, the peasant farmers, but of all of humanity. We have identified ourselves as anti-capitalist, and this has helped us to bring in some of the Northern organizations.

Not to be presumptuous, but La Via Campesina is the strongest international movement, and is expanding very quickly. For this reason, we understand well that we need many more movements with the same strength. We are a big movement, but we are humble, and we know that we can’t do it alone.

JC: Here in Durban they are talking about “Climate Smart Agriculture,” – a new way of putting soil and agriculture into the carbon market. It seems there are always new technologies, new threats. How is La Via Campesina confronting these threats?

AG: Geoengineering, nanotechnology, Synthetic biology – this all comes together in one package. We are in a moment of great threat toward peasant agriculture, as against nature itself. In this moment of multiple crises, economic, climatic, we realize that when we say there is a crisis of capitalism, this doesn’t mean capitalism is going to collapse. What it means is that capitalism is looking for new ways to sustain itself, to create new forms of accumulation. With all these forms of new technology, agriculture, nature, everything goes into this package. This is the threat facing us in the next global summit, at Rio+ 20. This is what they call the Green Economy.

The Green Economy signifies a global set of policies, a scheme that can adapt itself to any country, any region; in essence it implies a new form of governance. This is an aggression, on one hand, to the very existence of campesinos, peasant farmers, and on the other hand, to nature itself.

The biggest business in the world is the food business. Peasant farmers make up a little less than half the world’s population, and we produce more than seventy percent of the world’s food. Urban farmers, fisher people, they contribute another significant amount. This shows, on the one hand, that we have continued to exist, and on the other, that we continue to pose a threat.

All of nature has to be merchandized, given value, given a price, and it has to have an owner in order to be sold on the market – this is the Green Economy, green capitalism – that is the shell they’ve developed to get through their crisis. But it comes at the cost of the future, not just of peasant farmers, but of all of humanity.

JC: You used the phrase ‘permanent agriculture,’ as if it were possible that agriculture could come to an end. What does this mean?

AG: Our peasant agriculture is the accumulated knowledge of centuries. We are the accumulation of centuries of knowledge. This is the agriculture that exists and has always existed and continues to exist, and they want to wipe it off the map. Ours is a struggle for the permanence of our agriculture, versus the industrial, agrotoxic agriculture that turns the entire world into a supermarket. This supermarket itself is causing the greatest part of the emissions that have brought on the climate crisis – in this sense, industrial agriculture is a threat to the entire world. Our agriculture, on the other hand, is permanent. As long as humanity exists, peasant agriculture must exist. This is why we call it ‘permanent agriculture.’

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