A look at the history of the day and why we stand with peasants worldwide

International Day of Peasant Struggle 2021

The LandWorkers’ Alliance, 15 April 2021

25 years ago, on April 17th 1996, a group of landless peasants were killed by military police in Brazil’s state of Para. The peasants were members of the landless people movement, Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (MST), who were on their way to occupy unproductive land after being evicted from their land for the development of a major mining project. Hundreds of people marched together – including pregnant women and children – but they were eventually cornered by an equally large group of police officers, who attacked with tear gas and ammunition. 19 MST members were killed on the scene, two died later from fatal injuries, and over 60 others were badly wounded.

The event is known as the Eldorado dos Carajas Massacre, and its date, April 17th, is now widely recognised as the International Day of Peasant Struggle. The day has become symbolic of the violence and oppression against peasant farmers across the globe, highlighting the importance of peasants and landworkers organising to challenge such injustice.

Today, we hear from Paula Gioia and Morgan Ody, two members of La Via Campesina, who talk to us about what the day means to them, how they are currently organising for change, and the main challenges ahead for peasant farmers both in Europe and worldwide.

TELL US A LITTLE BIT ABOUT YOURSELVES, AND YOUR IDENTITY AS PEASANTS AND ACTIVISTS.

Paula:

I’m originally from Brazil and have been living in Germany for the last 20 years. I had the chance, through a friend, to get to know peasant agriculture, on the outskirts of Berlin, where I was living at the time. After a year supporting my friend in his small vegetable garden, I realised that’s what I wanted to do. I thought it would be a much bigger contribution to society – producing food and connecting through the political dimension, the social dimensions – and also doing an activity that is healthy for my body, for my mental health and so on. I was already engaged in several political topics before, so it was obvious that coming into agriculture would not be possible for me without also having this political dimension there.

At that time, we were creating a young farmers association in our area, because the region is very much impacted by land grabbing. So we created an association to stop land grabbing here and to allow an entrance for young farmers into agriculture. We got in touch with the AbL, which is the German member organisation of La Via Campesina. Later I moved to a community farm. The farm got member of AbL and I started to engage myself internationally for the AbL. Since 2015 I’m part of the coordination committee of the European Coordination Via Campesina (ECVC) and also representing ECVC in the international coordination committee of La Via Campesina for Europe.

Morgan:

I am a peasant, or farmer, or peasant farmer – whatever you want! – in Southern Brittany. I grow vegetables for the local market. I sell all my produce at the nearby open-air market as well as to a community support agriculture scheme and an association of consumers, of more or less 50 families.

For me coming back to the land and starting my farm, that was really a way to say, okay, I want to regain control over the material conditions of my life and to be able to do something that really has an impact, even just a small one. But then once you have your farm and you grow your vegetables, you become aware that this small impact is not enough because even if you feel better in your own life, that doesn’t change the world, it doesn’t change inequalities or climate change or biodiversity loss.

So I knew I needed to go back to more political peasant struggles, and to get organised. To be rooted in the daily work, on the farm with the animals – this gives us energy and coherence – but also to not forget that the world is only going to change if take part in the struggles, if we go to the streets, if we organise to be present in the international institutions that deal with agriculture. We really need to do both if we want to regain this power.

WHAT CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT THE INTERNATIONAL DAY OF PEASANT STRUGGLE, OF ITS HISTORY AND WHAT IT MEANS TO YOU TODAY?

Paula:

La Via Campesina is an international global peasant’s movement, and each of our organisations has its own forms of struggle. Some of these are used by different members, some of them are very particular to a single group. When it comes to the 17th of April, it’s very, very deeply connected with the struggles of the landless movement in Brazil, the MST (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Terra). One of their main ways of organising is to occupy unproductive land in Brazil. Brazil is a country where there is a huge amount of non-productive land in the hands of oligarchies. At the same time, it’s a country where the levels of poverty are immense.

The MST tries to organise the rural population to occupy these unproductive lands and use them for farming. They have a slogan – ‘the lands to the ones who work the land’. So if you have a piece of land and at some point don’t produce there anymore, you lose your right to be in that space.

In April 1996, there was a march in the state of Para, in the middle of the Amazon in Brazil. They were marching for a week or so, or at least that was the plan. But after a few days they were confronted by the police, on a highway near Eldorado dos Carajás, who stopped this march – and then there was a massacre. This was on the 17th of April 1996. The police ended up killing 19 of these hundreds of people who were marching, on the spot, and two others died in the hospital a few days later. Since then, we celebrate this day in the memory of our comrades who died there.

Morgan:

It’s the day that peasant farmers, agriculture workers, young people all act together across the world, to defend our rights, and our identity. Very often the governments try to oppose farmers against each other – to say, for instance, that European farmers should be competitive because otherwise, the Brazilian farmers will take over the markets. And this is bullsh*t. We – all the farmers in the world – have the same interest, and we are not opposing each other. We should fight the domination of the big transnational companies, which try to use the division among us to turn the prices of our products down and to make us work more, in their interest. So the idea of LVC is that we unite all over the world to fight the power of the Transnational Corporations (TNC) globally. There is a very strong sense of international solidarity, saying that all the small peasants have the same interest, all over the world, and we don’t want to be divided. We want to struggle together. And I think that this is what makes the 17th April very, very strong.

WHAT CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT THE UN DECLARATION ON THE RIGHTS OF PEASANTS (UNDROP), AND THE OTHER WAYS THAT LVC IS ORGANISING TO PROTECT PEASANT RIGHTS?

Paula:

So first of all, it’s the Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas. This is important because the idea is not only to protect the rights of landowner farmers, but also fisher folks, pastoralists, land workers, migrant workers, indigenous peoples, landless people and so on. I know it’s easier to say the Declaration on the Rights of Peasants, but I think it’s very important to highlight that the political subjects of this declaration go much beyond the peasantry itself.
This Declaration was a work of over 17 years to achieve – it was a very long process. But I would say it was only the beginning, and we have much more to do. Because as long as we don’t manage to get this declaration implemented at national legislations, it will only be a reference. There is much more work, maybe more than the previous 17 years, ahead of us.

A United Nations declaration is an instrument of reference – but as such it is not binding. So we, as organisations of La Via Campesina and also other allied movements and organisations, have the task to do quite a lot of advocacy work towards our governments, to see it reflected in national legislation. To achieve it alliance building is crucial.

Morgan:

I think on every level, we should use the declaration as a tool for our struggles. For example, we have this very strong struggle around seeds, and we see that there are different international laws around seeds, which are opposing the international treaty on genetic resources – article nine states that farmers have the right to exchange and control their seeds. But there are also intellectual property rights, which make this other right impossible. So I think that the UNDROP is one of the tools that we should use to demand that our seeds be protected. We want our rights, as farmers, for all seeds to be protected. And so I feel really, we should use it in a more practical manner.

Another topic could be on land – in the declaration, it is recognised that we should have access to land, including for young people. And we know that it’s not the case, it’s certainly not the case in the UK. So we can say, look, we have this UN declaration, and we want to move forward on the right to access land, including for young people who want to become farmers. I think it’s by using it in our daily life, in farmers’ organisations, that we will really bring it to life.

LET’S TALK IN MORE DEPTH ABOUT THE TERM ‘PEASANT’. WHAT CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT THE COMPLEXITY OF THE WORD? DO YOU THINK THERE’S A NEED FOR IT TO BE RECLAIMED OR PROTECTED IN ANY WAY?

Morgan:

I do think it’s important to reclaim the word peasant, but I think that we need to reflect on what it means to reclaim this word. A trap could be to reclaim it, but in a way that is exclusive of many farmers – that is somehow contemptuous and sanctimonious, towards farmers who use chemical products, for instance. And I feel that this is a trap. It’s not what we want to do by reclaiming the word peasant.

What we want to do is for the people who work the land, work with the animals, to regain trust and reconnect with this very long-term history of peasantry, which is based on autonomy, solidarity, community building… We do not want it to be exclusive. It’s not a case of ‘good’ small-scale, organic peasants vs ‘bad’ farmers who use chemical products, for example.

We have been having this discussion, over the last few days, on whether we should say Europe needs more farmers or Europe needs more peasants. This is not a debate in French, because in France, we have been reclaiming the word peasant (‘paysan’) for 40 years – it’s done. It’s not fully accepted, but now, even when the ministry of agriculture speaks on the TV, they will talk about peasants, and all the farmers, even the ones farming 200 acres of grain, will understand that they’re talking about them. But I don’t think that’s the case in the UK, or in English, when you use the term peasant. Most probably someone who has a farm with 80 dairy cows will think ‘That’s not me. I am a farmer, not a peasant’. It can be exclusive. And so I think it’s not easy, but we should find ways to reclaim the word. And this is a long-term process, but it’s also a case of saying to the guy who has 80 cows; ‘You are with us, and we recognise that you are really struggling, and trying to do your best. We are your allies and we want to work with you. Whether you are a farmer or peasant, doesn’t matter. Come with us and we’ll struggle together’.

LOOKING AHEAD, WHAT WOULD YOU CONSIDER TO BE THE MAIN CHALLENGES FOR THE PEASANT MOVEMENT?

Morgan:

The context is changing very quickly. Capitalism is changing very quickly with this pandemic. 10 years ago, oil companies were dominating the world. Now it’s the internet and biotech companies that are gaining enormous power. I think that in agriculture, this is the main issue. The issue is whether we will let these big biotech and internet companies take over all the power in our world. And we should be very clear that, we – peasants, farmers, peasant-farmers! – all together, are the keepers of life. And life is not for sale. We don’t want it to be for sale. I think we are the keepers of humanity and have a sense of relationship with so-called ‘nature’, connecting with animals and plants in a way which has nothing to do with the market or money.

It’s very clear now that big internet companies are trying to take over, for example, for the world economic forum, they are trying to take away the power of the UN institutions, through the UN Food Systems summit, for example. The power has been taken by these big companies. And that’s the reason why we’ll refuse this UN Food Systems summit. Not because we are not interested in discussing food systems, of course not, but because we don’t want to speak with the internet companies. We want the states and the people to keep the power, not them.

It’s not only for us that we do this. It’s for all the people, for the citizens. I don’t like talking about ‘the consumers’, because I think that the consumers are also all workers, and people – not just consumers. Biotech companies and the internet companies pretend that these are solutions against climate change and biodiversity loss, but we know these are false solutions, and we know that only peasant agroecology can really solve the problem. This is about everybody. Everybody’s involved.

And finally, if they take the power, it will massively increase inequalities, and we know that social inequities are already a strong problem. Our vision around peasant agroecology is about sharing resources, sharing revenue, and having a world where we are all equals, with less inequalities. I think this is also an important issue – the issue of access, for poor people to access good food, is a huge challenge.

Paula:

Alliance building is extremely important – with sectors in food production, but also with other sectors of society – consumer-citizens, researcher-citizens, NGOs and other progressive institutions. This is a way to strengthen our demands, to strengthen our argument, to strengthen our capacity to develop strategies, to strengthen our visions. Any transformation of the food systems needs not only the ones who produce the food, but a joint effort from the whole society.

A concrete example that I’ve been experiencing here in my region, for the past year and half, is the creation of a food council, which is a way to bring together all the different actors, all the different sectors of society, and to discuss the food strategy of our region together. This is very interesting because alone, we only have the vision of what the peasants need, but this dialogue is extremely important, to also understand the needs of others, in order to develop a strategy together. Instead of having environmentalists against farmers, or consumers against farmers, we want to come together and to develop together in a way that everybody gets what they need and jointly contributes to that transformation, which is for all of us – it’s for our planet, and for future generations.

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