Crisis what crisis? Responses to the food and other crises by organised farmers

After the ceremony comemorating the Korean farmer Lee Kyung Hae, who in defiance and despair killed himself at the manifestations, which helped to derail the WTO negotiations in Cancun, we have dinner. I am sitting next to an American farmer discussing cattle and milk production with an Indian farmer.

The conversation unfolds as a question and answer game, where maximum surprise is the premium. “How many heads of cattle do you have” (Indian famer 5, US farmer 38, “but”, he adds, “in the US we have industrial farms of 10.000 heads), or “what percentage of the retail price do you get”, or “what fat percentage does your milk have?”

The answer is followed by an effort to explain the differences. Despite the huge differences, starting with the way they speak english, they seem to learn a lot from each other and at the same time enjoy themselves enormously.

This is the 5th International Conference of La Via Campesina.

Over 400 farmers gathered on the outskirts of Maputo in Mozambique for the general assembly of their global organisation and analyse how the present world situation, struck with a quadrupple whammy of Food Crisis, Energy Crisis, Climate Crisis and Financial Crisis, is affecting their way of life.

When at the conference, the first thing which strikes, and which is essential for its credibility and success, are the efforts the movement makes to be coherent in its political, organisational and practical work.

So processes are in place to try to ensure maximum women’s representation and overall participation. Another example is the effort made to feed the participants local food from the Mozambican farmers organisations (which unfortunately fell through as the manager of the location at the last moment didn’t allow for it) in accordance with policies promoting local production and consumption. Sustainable farming is thus part of an approach and not just something on its own.

Equally striking is, that this is a gathering dominated not by formally trained specialists and technicians with a token farmer at the fringe of the meeting. This is a meeting of real farmers, specialists in their own right, as they know quite well what they are talking about.

In this context I meet Alphonsine N’guba member of a producers organisation near Kinshasa. Her organisation has 40 members and is member of the Confederation Paysanne du Congo (COPACO- PRP). COPACO-PRP unites animal farmers, fisherfolk, horticulturist and fishraisers in 452 producer organisations. Alphonsine was just elected to the International Coordinating Comite of La Via Campesina representing the African Region. She is quite happy with the conference especially with the importance given to women, as she puts it :”you cannot talk about agriculture without talking about women”.

When she is not in the conference or busy organising, she works three pieces of land, where she produces a wide range of products (amaranth, okra, sweeet potatoe, pepper, tomato, celeri, aubergine, cucumber, cassave, maize etc).

Most of her produce is marketed through her cooperative, but not after setting aside the food needed for her family. As she puts it “where we are, we have plenty to eat!”

She doesn’t use chemical fertislisers anymore, as they found that this was destroying the soil and costing a lot of money, so now she only uses natural fertiliser. She has been observing that the weather seems to be hotter and rains seem to be coming later, but falling with greater intensity, causing evermore heavy floodings.

While she is struggeling to “read” the new weather patterns in order to adapt her farming, she considers the situation as quite unfair as these changes, directly affecting her production, are caused by pollution she has nothing to do with. Her main problem however is not so much in production but in marketing, as Kinshasa is swamped with cheap imports driving down prices, while the farmers incurr high cost, because of poor infrastructure and harrassement by all kinds of people extorting “taxes”.

Irène Anex from an organic cooperative in Geneva is new to Via Campesina. But what she noticed during the conference is that despite all the differences “the problems are the same everywhere”. Irène farms with 2 collegues one ha. of rented land. 130 people are member of her cooperative “Uniterre”, who besides volunteering on the farm, pay Irène and her collegues as well as the other production costs. The entry point for most members to become interested in organic farming are health concerns, however when working the land “we talk about practical things, how and why to do certain tasks, but from there often wander into ecology or agricultural policy”.

The way the cooperative is set up seems is a very practical answer to the triple crisis and reflects the policies promoted by Via Campesina. “The way we produce, the members have a relation to their food and at the same time their food costs didn’t increase that much (all the produced food is equally distributed among the 130 members). Our way of producing is also less capital intensive than conventional farming”. At the same time the energy needed for food production and distribution is kept low “we don’t use chemical inputs, which require a lot of energy for producing and members just live nearby, keeping fuel costs low”. One of her particular interests is seed. Although the situation in Switzerland is not that bad, she observes the evermore bizarre regulation in the rest of Europe patently favouring big business and undermining mechanisms to maintain local varieties and diversity at farm level.

Sago Indra is an organic farmer and organiser in West Sumatra, Indonesia. “Well the first issue is to actually reclaim the land”, he says. Although Sago himself has 1 ha of paddy land and 1 ha, where he grows a wide variety of vegetables, a lot of farmers don’t have land. Half of the harvest of his paddy land he gives to his friends, who are helping him to work the land as he spends so much time in community organising. Ever larger swaths of land are ceded by the government to multinational companies, pushing farmers out of their communal lands and driving up the prices of land. With the hype of agrofuels, government policies are evermore accomodating big companies, e.g. recently a 200.000 ha lease was given to a palmoil plantation, while the provincial government extended the lease periods from 30 years to 95 years.

We do feel the impact of the crises, for example kerosene (used in candles) is much more expensive now. Still, we organic farmers are better off than conventional farmers, who are becoming quite desperate. First we produce food for the family, keeping our costs of food low. Then we don’t use agrochemicals, which prices have hiked by 50 – 150% last year and we use local seeds, so we don’t depend on buying seeds from the transnationals”. However the changing weather apttern is a problem making it difficult to predict the rains: “If we have to rely on irrigation our production costs will go further up”.

Alphonsine, Irène and Sago all stress the importance of the conference, not only on a political level, but also to learn about experiences, in mobilisation for example, which might be tried and adapted to their own situation. According to Sago, it is clear that Via Campesina has become stronger over the years, both its member organisations and its structure. Alphonsine stresses the need to analyse well proposals coming their way, to not loose ones independency: once she was wooed to produce Aloe Vera for some company, but, after careful reflection, found that she would only be loosing out if she were to give up her way of farming for a plantation. For these and other reflections the conference served well, being it over dinner or during the many meetings.


Box: What is Via Campesina?

Via Campesina is a member based movement of independent family farmer organisations. Its members are member based farmer organisations all over the world.

For practical purposes these organisations are organised in 9 regions (Europe, North Amercia, Caraibes, Central America, South America, South and Central Africa, West and Northern Africa, South Asia and South East Asia)

Via Campesina was founded in 1993 in Mons, Belgium and at the moment has about 150 members in 75 countries, The central objective of Via Campesina is to develop solidarity and unity among small farmer organizations in order to promote gender parity and social justice in fair economic relations; the preservation of all natural resources (eg land water seeds) and sustainable agricultural production based on small and medium-sized producers.

In this context Via Campesina introduced the concept of Food Sovereignty, meaning the right of farmers, communities and national governments to determine how and what they produce to feed themselves and their communities and the right to put in place adequate policies to this end, without necessarily succumbing to short term profit maximisation and commoditisation which are the mainstay of neo-liberal policies.

Thus it is crucial that the neo-liberal project of the last 20 or so years and main culprit of the four coinciding global crises (Energy, Climate, Food and Finance) and so much in vogue for shaping agricultural policies all over the world, is fought.

Albeit being described as too radical, dreamland fantasies and irrational, the policies proposed by Via Campesina proove to be not only visionary, but quite necessary in a world struck with food, energy, climate and financial crises, as even Bill Clinton now admits: “we all blew it, including me,” by treating food crops “like color TVs" instead of as a vital commodity for the world's poor.”1

Nico Bakker
23rd of October addressing a high-level event marking Oct. 16's World Food Day