Food Sovereignty and Organization: The Core Themes of the International Conference of La Via Campesina

First published By Agencia Tierra Viva

30 November 2023

Let’s go, people, let’s go back to the countryside,” is one of the slogans of the international peasant movement for its 8th Conference, a space that brings together delegates from all over the world to think and coordinate global actions for access to land and water, agroecology and seeds. The advance of right-wing governments will also be analyzed.

By Nahuel Lag

La Via Campesina (LVC) is a global peasant movement that includes 182 organizations of food producers in 81 countries across Africa, Asia, Europe, the Middle East and the Americas. Food sovereignty, peasant rights, access to land and water, agroecology and peasant seed systems, the fight against climate change, feminisms and diversities are some of the flags raised in their 30 years of history since the 1st International Conference held in Mons (Belgium). The three decades will be celebrated as of 4 December during the 8th International Conference in Bogotá (Colombia). “Let’s go, people, let’s go back to the countryside,” says the call.

“We have a historic Conference, together with our 30 years of struggle, of resistance. We believe that we will have greater challenges that will also allow us to find more allies coming from different sectors of the social movement to build food sovereignty. They will also help us analyze how we can stop this climate change, which is rooted, among other things, in the current agri-food system and industrial development. We can, all together, build a better world,” points out Nury Martínez, a representative of FENSUAGRO, the oldest peasant organization in Colombia with 52 member unions and 23 associations representing more than 80 000 families.

LVC International Conferences are held every four years. There are regional meetings and mid-term conferences in between, but the last international conference was held in the Basque Country six years ago, in 2017. In between, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic took place, which exacerbated the global food crisis and revealed the importance of local food production and the role of small-scale producers around the world. The international peasant movement also scored victories during these years: the UN General Assembly adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas (UNDROP) in December 2018 and, recently, the Human Rights Council approved the creation of the Working Group that will launch its follow-up.

Photo: La Via Campesina

Peasant movements are facing two challenges, exacerbated by economic crises and the COVID‑19 pandemic, as well as the takeover by multinational companies —clustered in the World Economic Forum— and international organizations such as FAO (UN Food and Agriculture Organization), and the rise of fascist and far-right governments, such as the recent victory of Javier Milei in Argentina.

In these times of financial capitalism, peasants respond with more organization. More than 500 peasant delegates will gather in Bogotá —marking the return of the conference to Latin America since Mexico (1996) and Brazil (2004)— to devise, update and improve the strategic points of action for the global peasant movement for the upcoming four years. In the run-up to the opening of the International Conference, the following meetings will be held: the Women’s and Youth’s Assemblies, the “Meeting of Diversities” and the Assembly of “Men against Patriarchy.”

“The 30th Anniversary represents a moment of celebration and reflection, a new era of generational change. The pandemic made it clear that the struggles of La Via Campesina are part of the solution to the dilemmas that capitalism does not solve but deepens. In the meantime, global governance institutions on food systems, far from reality, only prioritize the discussion of policies based on prices and corporate profits without taking into account the other social and environmental dimensions”, reflects Diego Montón, from the Movimiento Nacional Campesino-Indígena Somos Tierra (MNCI-ST), who will be one of the delegates representing Argentina.

For this reason, strengthening the presence of diversities and youth in leadership roles will be one of the objectives of the international conference to be held in Bogotá. Additionally, the conference will reaffirm the ongoing efforts of the Latin American Agroecological Institutes (IALAs), serving as hubs for political and technical training for the peasant movement. There are twelve IALAs already established in Latin America, alongside various schools on agroecology worldwide.

Themes of the International Conference of La Via Campesina 

“The pandemic, far from strengthening solidarity and access to information, reinforced individualism and deepened land grabbing and the control of food systems in the hands of corporations. The impact on the quality of food, on the environment, as well as the food, climate and migration crises, are clearly a direct consequence of that process,” analyzes Montón on the core themes that will be debated during the 8th International Conference of La Via Campesina.

The UN Food Systems Summit, held in 2021 during the pandemic, witnessed how the global peasant movement denounced corporate capture. This situation is still present in the Committee on Food Security and in other moves of corporations over the FAO governance system. “There was a setback and an opening to corporations, which will be another topic of discussion to assess the points of action, at least, on the methods with which La Via Campesina interacts with FAO,” says Diego Montón, leader of MNCI-ST.

Nury Martínez, a member of FENSUAGRO, pinpoints that debates are deep and that LVC is bringing them to FAO and the International Planning Committee for Food Sovereignty (IPC) to put an end to the alignment with the World Trade Organization (WTO), which proposes a corporate system and agriculture 4.0. Martínez warns that “peasant movements, together with allies, are determined to mobilize the world in defense of peasant agriculture, as the growing expansion of agribusiness and the industrial agricultural system are a threat to humanity. They are not only destroying nature but also endangering human health and the future of peasant communities,” Martínez warns.

“Technology permeates all areas and ecosystems, but the issue is how to think about it so that it is complementary and functional to the needs of the people and not a tool for exclusion. The challenge lies in participation, in the construction of politics, and in the unity of global and local blocs that can challenge the hegemony of these policies and the flow of financial capital, which when unleashed has a voracious capacity for transformation in the territories,” Montón adds.

One of the tools built by LVC to ratify the historical action plans of peasants as subjects of rights is the Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas (UNDROP), which in its 28 articles supports the strategic lines that the movement has defined. “An integral and popular agrarian reform is gaining more strength. The debates that are taking place at the United Nations must be included on the agenda, to revive the social function of the land so that it is not only considered for privatization for the corporate system,” highlights the Colombian leader.

In October last year, the UN Human Rights Council created the Working Group, with the opposition of only two countries: the United States and Great Britain. The group will appoint five experts in February to monitor the declaration at the international level. “This results in a new stage that, surely, the LVC action plan will have to see how to universalize, take concrete actions in countries and regions, and discuss with States,” says the MNCI-ST representative.

What changes and potentialities can the implementation of the Declaration on the Rights of Peasants bring?

Montón: — The working group will have the power to engage in dialogue with states and to make reports, both to denounce violations of peasant rights and to highlight good practices, which allow the sector to have greater visibility and systematize successful public policies. The group will provide this information to the UN Human Rights Council and will be another tool, which perhaps in some countries will serve to create round tables between organizations and states, while in others it will help stop repression or bad practices, and in other countries, it will give visibility to good practices. It will require that organizations accompany and continue to mobilize permanently.”

The launch of this mechanism takes place in parallel with the rise of right-wing or far-right governments in various countries. In the region, Brazil went through the experience of Jair Bolsonaro. El Salvador is undergoing the administration of Nayib Bukele, and in Argentina, Javier Milei will begin his government. “Financial capitalism had been making it clear that far from solving the problems of humanity, it was worsening them. The pandemic added a burden, a feeling that there is no way out, and has caused and fueled the rise of different groups and fascist ideas around the world. Surely this will be another central point to be addressed at the Conference in Bogotá, including the role that the links between organizations will have in order to bring back the spirit of international solidarity,” adds the MNCI-ST leader.

Martínez adds a case in point regarding the policies of the far right against the rights to food and access to water, which LVC is denouncing at the international level: the genocide of the Palestinian people in the Gaza Strip. “The issue of peace, the issue of using hunger as a weapon of war is something that is happening right now, for example, with Palestine. There, the right to food, as a human right, and everything that has to do with feeding the peoples around the world is displayed as something important, that has to do with the challenges that we want to raise.”

Colombia as a Case Study of Peasant Struggles 

As LVC enters its fourth decade of global activity, it returns to Latin America to celebrate its International Conference, a symbol of the contribution of peasant struggles to peace processes. A clear example of this is the Colombian Peace Agreement, signed in 2016. This treaty would not have been possible without the crucial contribution of grassroots organizations such as FENSUAGRO, the National Coordination of Indigenous Peoples, Organizations and Leaders, the National Association of Peasant Reserve Zones, and the National Agrarian Coordinator, among others. Peasant groups, affected by forced displacement due to extractive projects and drug trafficking, played a key role in resisting the government of Iván Duque in the run-up to the victory of Gustavo Petro in the presidential elections.

The arrival of progressive President Petro into government opened up dialogue with peasant sectors and the hope of implementing peace agreements in rural areas and advancing agrarian reform in a country with high rates of violence against environmental defenders. “It is a unique opportunity to witness a wide range of initiatives in the field of peasant agroecology and a diversity of food production models,” LVC hopes.

Latin America continues to fight against its enforced role as a region exporting raw materials and natural resources. Gustavo Petro began to question this model by talking about decarbonization, protecting nature, and even proposing a model of “degrowth”. How are the talks with peasant organizations and the expectations of a change of model?

Martínez: —In Colombia, President Gustavo Petro does indeed have a discourse and proposes a government program that would allow the world to decarbonize. He wants to see other options, other alternatives, for producing energy, and he wants to address the speeding-up process that developmentalism proposes, by coming up with other alternatives for production in the countryside. We believe that the dialogue that the president has with social organizations is important, but one thing is what the president thinks, and another is the institutionality and the prevailing model, which does not allow for real progress in terms of transformation and changes that would lead to a really different model. Petro has been trying to carry out his government program through the National Development Plan, but it is not so easy, as the structure of the state is designed to go against the peasantry and against what he proposes. We have to look at many things, we have to look at the issue of free trade agreements, of renegotiating them to stop the exploitation of the goods of nature. Petro has stopped mining leases and this type of agreement, but that has caused a lot of discontent on the part of the right wing, which has increased the plots for a soft coup in Colombia since the beginning of his mandate. 

Can we expect integral agrarian reform in Colombia? What characteristics would it have? 

—The president talks about food sovereignty and agrarian reform, but as we have said, the Colombian Congress is not strong enough in favor of this government to pass an integral agrarian reform law like the one we propose. At this time, the instruments in force are the National Agrarian Reform System, which is related to Law No. 160, adopted in 1994; and the Peace Agreement, signed in 2016. That is what is being done. Previous governments have not taken peasants into account to implement this law. They have only considered the laws that support agribusiness, agroindustry, landowners, monocultures, and everything that the agribusiness model entails. 

Do those first steps raise hope of advancing toward reform?

—The path is being paved for us to access land, to have productive projects that allow us to equip ourselves, that allow us to improve our markets, that allow the public purchase of peasant food, and the recognition of the sector as a political and social subject. The recognition was achieved in the Constitution. After so many years, peasants are finally recognized as subjects of special constitutional protection and from every dimension: political-organizational, cultural, territorial, environmental, and, of course, the productive dimension. The organizations are preparing proposals and have initiatives to defend the territory, move forward towards agroecology, produce healthy food, and participate in fair trade peasant markets. These are new opportunities, but many things regarding regulations have to change for the peasantry to really be able to carry out all the reforms. Transnational corporations are still present in the country, especially due to free trade agreements. Drug trafficking persists, there are still paramilitary groups in the territories, other armed groups, and dissidents, and, although peace talks are taking place, the murdering of peasant leaders, indigenous peoples, and black communities has not ceased. It is not easy, but we will continue to resist. We know that if extractive megaprojects remain, then it will be very difficult to build peace.