20 months after the Tsunami: Looking back at La via Campesina relief operations

ImageOn December 2004, when a powerful earthquake and a huge tsunami destroyed Aceh in Indonesia and many other coastal areas on the Andaman sea, the international peasants movement La Via Campesina and its member organisations got immediately involved, joining the massive solidarity movement that swept the world. 

In Sri Lanka, India, Thailand and Indonesia, where La Via Campesina has member organisations, farmers launched relief operations to support the survivors of the catastrophe, they gave out rice and vegetables to feed the people affected, and several fund raising activities were organised to channel national and international contributions towards small peasants and fisherfolk’s organisations. La Via Campesina also immediately publicly raised important issues affecting small producers such as the origin of food aid (local or imported food), the type of reconstruction policies implemented (agribusiness or family based production) and people’s participation in the process.


For the first time in its history, La Via Campesina launched an international public fund raising campaign to support a humanitarian operation. Since then, the member  organisations in the countries affected by the disaster have been working at grass roots level to rebuild people’s organisations, houses, boats and livelihoods.


People to people solidarity


The very first wave of solidarity came from citizens within the countries directly

affected by the tsunami. In Sri Lanka, the fisherfolk organisation NAFSO organised the unaffected people to support the affected. In Thailand, social movements from the whole country organised a delegation to assess the needs and start helping the victims. In Indonesia, farmers of  the Indonesian Federation of Peasant’s Union (FSPI) immediately started to load cars and trucks with agricultural produce and clothes to be distributed in Aceh and North Sumatra where the federation has a member organisations called PERMATA (Acehnese Peasant Union) and North Sumatra Peasant Union (SPSU).


Very quickly too, social movements across the world started to express their emotion and their sympathy to their colleagues and friends around the Andaman sea. Many farmers, workers and activists from the extended international network of social movements, from Brazil to Mozambique, and from the US to Europe were willing to support other peoples’ organisations instead of donating to traditional relief NGOs. 


Only one week after the Tsunami, La Via Campesina formulated a first draft of the “La Via Campesina Tsunami Task force and Working Plan for Tsunami Catastrophe”, and started to organise other social movement and NGO to implement this plan.


La Via Campesina set up an on-line donation campaign, and its members organised decentralised grass-roots fund raising activities in various parts of the world, especially in Europe. More than 360 thousands dollars were raised through this extraordinary people to people solidarity initiative. Besides this, some NGOs supported the effort by donating 1,2 million dollars to the “La Via Campesina tsunami relief and reconstruction fund”.


At international and regional level, La Via Campesina raised more than 1,5 million dollars to support the victims of the tsunami. This does not include the fund raising activities organised separately by the member organisations according to the needs of their communities[i].


This global solidarity campaign was unprecedented; it also was unusual because it was being carried out by grass-roots community groups based in the regions affected by the disaster. Across oceans and cultures, through shock and grief, it gave the activists and their allies a powerful sense of unity that has strengthened the global movement.  


Reconstruction process led by the affected communities

Today, the “solidarity euphoria”, as it was described by an Indonesian leader, has faded away. But on the mud left by the destructive wave, local communities have now started to rebuild their lives.


The emergency relief activities as well as the rehabilitation and reconstruction programme set up by La Via Campesina mobilised very small amounts of money compared to the massive budgets of major aid organisations. However, the social movement has proven able to implement very low costs reconstruction activities with the active participation of  the affected people themselves. Thanks to the contributions from many activists around the world, hundreds of houses have now been built, fisherfolk have resumed fishing, peasants are growing rice again and kids can go to school.


As the needs were huge and the Via Campesina activities could only be limited, the movement clarified its priorities and relief philosophy during a international conference organised on February 2005 with its members and allied NGOs from France, India, Italy, United Kingdom, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Indonesia. This meeting allowed the peasants and fisherfolk groups to exchange their experiences, strategies and analysis. This gathering gave some strong foundations to the relief work that has been going on since then. The guiding principle of the relief operations is that the whole reconstruction process has to rely in the hands of the affected people’s organisations themselves. Local organisations have to decide what type of reconstruction they want and to be able to follow up the whole process (including budget management). The conference’s declaration[ii] also stated that La Via Campesina would work with the affected people not only from the angle of emergency aid but we also focus on helping to recover and strengthen local organizations. The movement also came out with a very strong rejections of neoliberal reconstruction policies (such as replacing traditional fisheries and agriculture by industrial production, tourism, large development projects…).  


Based on those principles, La Via Campesina selected its priorities in the devastated areas. 41% of the total fund was devoted to emergency operations,  42% to reconstruction and rehabilitation activities and 10% to campaigns, the rest being spent in staff and operational costs (7%).


The fund was shared by the following organisations: Assembly of the Poor in Thailand, which includes the Federation of Southern Fisherfolk; the Sri Lankan peasant federation and  the Movement for National Land and Agricultural Reform in Sri Lanka; and FSPI in Indonesia. The sister ally of the peasants movement, the World Forum of Fisher Peoples (WFFP), was also supported by this fund. It has a strong presence in the affected regions of India and Sri Lanka. 


The emergency relief activities mainly consisted of distributing food, clothes medicine and establishing temporary shelters. 417,438 dollars were used during this emergency phase, but this figure does not include the donations in kind and the services voluntarily offered. For example, in Indonesia, 13 voluntary doctors and 8 health promoters from Malaysia along with 10 doctors and health promoters from Indonesia were sent to Aceh and North Sumatra and distributed about 1.000 kg of medicine that had been collected. They gave treatment to more than 7,500 people all over Aceh and some effected areas in Nias Island, North Sumatra.  


Rebuilding sustainable livelihoods


About 429,494 dollars of the Via Campesina Tsunami Relief fund was devoted to long term rehabilitation and reconstruction activities. This amount went not only into rebuilding or repairing houses, but also into the production of tools for farmers and fisherfolk. Many reconstruction activities were implemented at local level. In Thailand, revolving funds were created in 16 villages to repair vessels and fishing gears. In India and Sri Lanka, boats and shelters were also rebuilt. In Indonesia, houses reconstruction and rehabilitation in still on going. So far, 98 new houses have been built, 204 are being rehabilitated and 103 boats have been built. Fisherfolk have resumed their economic activity.


Promoting food sovereignty and sustainable small scale production practices is one of the main goals of La Via Campesina. In the reconstruction work, it was put into practice by using local material and by rebuilding family production units and not taking part in large “modernisation” plans. In Aceh, where so many NGOs and donors are now implementing reconstruction projects, La Via Campesina (FSPI/PERMATA) is the only organisation who set up an organic agriculture training centre. This centre helps peasants to restart their activities without becoming dependent on chemical fertilisers and pesticides and expensive seeds produced by transnational companies. 


Destructing reconstruction policies: defending people’s rights!


Campaign and advocacy have been an important part of the relief operation implemented by La Via Campesina. The relief fund devoted more than 104,833 dollars to those activities. Some member organisations, mainly from Mexico and Central America, had been hit by natural disasters in the past. They warned the groups affected by the tsunami that natural catastrophes were often used to impose neoliberal policies such as privatisation and trade liberalisation. And this is what happened after the tsunami. In India, Thailand, Sri Lanka and in Indonesia, La Via Campesina members and allies have led strong campaigns against this process. 


In Sri Lanka, MONLAR challenged the credibility and legitimacy of the bodies appointed by the Government for planning and designing of the post Tsunami rehabilitation and rebuilding. Indeed, those bodies comprised only the top level representatives of private sector businesses and tourist companies, with no credible representation of the affected people such as the coastal fisher people. In Thailand, the social movements coalition has been struggling against large companies that took the opportunity to evict small fisherfolk from their land in order build large industrial complexes (shopping malls, tourist complexes). In India, WFFP launched a large campaign to defend traditional fisher people’s rights. They urged the Indian government not to reduce tariffs on imported fish as required by the WTO. The opening of the markets to cheap imported products promoted by the international institutions like the WTO is destroying small fishers’ livelihoods. In Indonesia, FSPI successfully campaigned against the lift on rice imports that was in vigour at that time. The peasant union had observed that Aceh had still a strong capacity to produce food for the survivors and that the whole country had enough stock to avoid importing rice.


The defence of food sovereignty, sustainable agriculture, small scale production units and agrarian reform is at the basis of La Via Campesina work. Those principles were implemented and maintained during the tsunami relief operations.


The strengthening of social movements

When the leaders, activists and friends of La Via Campesina look back at the tsunami and the relief operations that followed, grief and sorrow still prevail. At least 223,000 people died in the tragedy, and more than two million were left homeless. Many of them were small fisherfolk and farmers.

Yet the experience of setting up a large scale solidarity operation has been an important learning process for the international peasant movement. It has been extremely challenging, as grass roots organisations are not aid providers.


  1. This experience has showed the power of the social movements capacity to mobilise and to channel aid very quickly to grass roots organisations hit by the disaster. 
  2. It has also strengthened the ties within the national and international networks of people’s organisations. Workers, peasants, fisherfolk, and many organisations and activist from all over the world started working together: to raise funds, to evacuate dead bodies, to collect food, to rebuilt houses… Those networks have expanded through this experience, the groups are now bound with stronger solidarity links.
  3. The projects on the field have also showed the capacity of social movement to develop a different approach compared with main stream aid agencies: relief operations were carried out through community organising, at very low costs, using local resources and rejecting products from transnational companies. They could focus on remote area not covered by large relief agencies and accompany the victims on a very long term basis (while NGOs leave when the project is over).
  4. The involvement of La Via Campesina and other social movements in the relief operations has also proven important to defend people-oriented reconstruction policies and to ask for policies defending small producers instead of large companies.


“We have been linking up what we do with the founding principles of our organisations and our struggle: before the catastrophe, during the relief operations and when them, we have kept defending people’s food sovereignty and agrarian reform”, concluded Riduan Munthe, responsible of the tsunami relief operation in Indonesia.



By the International Secretariat of La Via Campesina, July 2006


[i] The Via Campesina Tsunami relief fund includes the funds raised by La Via Campesina at international and regional (Asia) level. It also includes the fund raised by FSPI in Indonesia, but not by the other Via Campesina members in Sri Lanka, Thailand and India. 

[ii] The Medan declaration is available on www.viacampesina.org