Global Peasant Movement Assesses and Responds to a Heated Political Moment

28 July: Four years ago, La Vía Campesina brought its peasant activists from around the world to Jakarta for its VI International Conference. The gathering was held in a padepokan, a Javanese center reserved for the teaching and exchanging of knowledge and skills. Activists filed in and out of classrooms where martial arts were otherwise taught in the sweltering Southeast Asian heat over the course of the week that would end in the release of the Jakarta Call.

Since then, the global movement has faced significant political challenges, among them upswings of land grabbing, the worsening climate crisis, a migration disaster, and a surge of right-wing authoritarian regimes.

Today, the peasant movement is leaving Derio, a sleepy town in the Basque Country, having just closed out its VII International Conference where it responded to those interconnected problems through political projects that tackle them at the root. Breathing life into the sprawling halls of a crumbling building that was once one of Franco’s seminaries, this massive gathering was simply known as ‘Seven’.

The significance of Europe as the host of ‘Seven’ was not lost on La Vía Campesina’s organizers. Agricultural intensification throughout the continent has squeezed communities out of once vibrant family farms—every three minutes a European farm disappears. In the Basque Country, the longstanding peasant struggle for political and cultural autonomy has suffered from state-sponsored repression, industrialization, and fascism.

La Vía Campesina’s Basque member organization that hosted the event, EHNE-Bizkaia, has been at the forefront of the fight for land, water, and territory since the 70s. “It is clear what our objectives are,” an EHNE-Bizkaia leader stated firmly during the opening plenary session, “We are feeding our people because we are the producers of food. For this, we need access to seeds, land, and ocean, all of which are being grabbed from us by transnational corporations and governments.” The pushback against this trend can be witnessed in peasant struggles around the world, all of which were well represented in Derio.

To gain access to and control over natural resources that are progressively grabbed around the world, La Vía Campesina promotes peasant agroecology and seeds as the very foundation of its political vision. Peasant agroecology is based on biodiversity and ever-evolving indigenous and ancestral knowledge—and that starts with seeds.

In Africa the outright attack on this model, small-scale producers, and their seeds is telling, as capitalism reaches its final frontier. Peasants there find themselves wedged between policies and actors, among them states, corporations, and intergovernmental organizations that jockey for power on the fertile continent. Since La Vía Campesina last met in Jakarta, natural resources have been increasingly folded into the architecture of speculative carbon markets—as spotlighted by a push for climate-smart agriculture, a makeover of the Green Revolution, that was neither green nor revolutionary.

But peasant organizers are fighting back in their own local movements in a move to dismantle corporate power and build a better future on their own terms. “Peasant agroecology is a clear answer to the climate crisis,” affirmed a leader from the region. In 2015, the Confederation of Peasant Organizations of Mali (CNOP) and La Vía Campesina held an International Agroecology Forum at the Nyéléni organizing center in Mali where they had previously outlined the food sovereignty political project and their opposition to land grabbing.

Meanwhile in North America, peasant and indigenous movements are caught between the pillaging of natural resources and a hardline nationalist government that criminalizes their resistance. This was evidenced at the showdown at Standing Rock Sioux territory in the northern prairies of the U.S. over the Dakota Access Pipeline that brought together some 280 tribes in the largest act of indigenous resistance since the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876.

The convergences that took place at Standing Rock were woven together with a strong commitment to climate and environmental justice, an area of work to which La Vía Campesina has devoted much energy in recent years. At COP21 in Paris, the peasant movement and activists from North American indigenous movements led a mass march to the Eiffel Tower, denouncing false solutions to the climate crisis and demanding a just transition for people and the planet.

A masterframe shared by these movements has been ‘system change’, recognizing that crises do not occur in isolation, but are rather consequential to capital and dispossession. To transcend and heal such crises, La Vía Campesina remains committed to changing the system through the overarching concept of food sovereignty.

In Latin America, the food sovereignty political project continues to gain steam. It has been incorporated into legislation and/or constitutions in Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Nicaragua, although admittedly its implementation remains flawed and activists work continuously to make sure its meaning is not coopted by the state.

While Venezuela is in the throes of violent political transitions that threaten to undo years of grassroots organizing, food sovereignty activists work throughout the food system to achieve broader forms of sovereignty. Since 2015, La Vía Campesina has been involved in the drafting of a progressive Venezuelan seed law that grassroots movements are now pushing forward.

Indeed, current threats to sovereignty in Latin America and elsewhere are inextricably linked with threats to food sovereignty. In turn, food sovereignty can be used as a political tool to confront such menaces head on.

At the global governance level, the peasant movement has been equally active. Following the lead of indigenous movements who were instrumental in getting the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People passed through the Human Rights Council a decade ago, La Vía Campesina spearheaded legislation around the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas. The Indonesian Peasant Union (SPI) ignited this process, having experienced a rapid transformation of their forests into sprawling oil palm plantations that would yield profits for foreign corporations and the domestic elite while displacing rural working people across the island archipelago.

That declaration has gained traction in Asia and internationally and is expected to be approved by the Human Rights Council next year. Now in its fifth round of negotiations, it has grown to incorporate measures—that were written in by peasants themselves—against land grabbing, gender discrimination, absence of agrarian reform and rural development policies, and criminalization of social movements.

Of course, rights on paper must be coupled with actions at the grassroots level. One of the greatest threats that peasants and rural workers face today is the migrant crisis that is most pronounced in the Middle East and North Africa. Wars and political transitions, from Syria to Libya, have forced people to risk their lives crossing the Mediterranean, a body of water that according to an activist from the region “has become a huge cemetery”. Those who do reach European soil are often confronted with racism, xenophobia, police brutality, a lack of social services, and inhumane living conditions in refugee camps.

At the same time, displaced people within the region often take up poorly paid jobs as agricultural workers where conditions go unchecked and maintaining a livelihood is nearly impossible. For this reason, La Vía Campesina has poured much recent effort into demanding dignity for migrants and waged workers, while at the same time developing its regional work in the Middle East and North Africa. At ‘Seven’, a Moroccan and a Tunisian organization joined La Vía Campesina’s membership. In Jakarta four years earlier, a Palestinian organization became the first member in that region.

The case of Palestine is one with which peasants and indigenous people from elsewhere identify, with their own experiences of colonization fresh in the collective memory. International solidarity between movements in support of the Palestinian popular struggle has strengthened in recent years, while Palestinian presence in La Vía Campesina offers cutting edge political tools from the frontlines of resistance that can be used elsewhere.

Solidarity, of course, is not only about Palestine. It is the act of joining forces and mobilizing across borders whenever, and wherever, that need should arise. A Basque peasant leader pointed out that ‘solidarity’ is the first word that comes to mind when describing La Vía Campesina.

Here at the seminary in Derio, drained but inspired peasant leaders are packing their bags and squeezing into a succession of airport shuttles. As they return to their farms, both practical and political challenges await.

But the global movement is ready, with a new action plan, the Euskal Herria Declaration, hot off the press. ‘Seven’, building on decades of organizing, offered insight and response to contemporary resource grabs, authoritarian power grabs, violence against women, and the climate and migration crises. By going home to work the land, peasants know they are engaging in one of the most political acts of all: agriculture.

This article by Salena Tramel originally appeared in The Huffington Post on 28 July 2017