Keeping people on the land

Annette Aurélie Desmarais

“Through La Vía Campesina we learned that we were not the only ones struggling. Globalisation has meant the impoverishment of the majority of communities, [but] we need to globalise this struggle for justice, for the survival of communities, for the development of communities. We need to globalise this struggle in the poorest of communities everywhere.”

Servando Olivarria Saavedra

These words, spoken by a peasant leader from Mexico, provide glimpses into what La Vía Campesina is all about. This is an international peasant movement that brings together 149 organisations of peasants, rural women, indigenous agrarian communities, small and medium-scale farmers and farm workers from 56 countries in Asia, the Americas, Africa and Europe. It is the largest and most significant rural movement to have emerged in recent times. Since 1993, La Vía Campesina has worked hard to put in place a radically different model of rural development, one that keeps farming families on the land, builds vibrant rural communities that produce healthy and safe food, respects diversity, and is based on social justice. La Vía Campesina works at the local, national and international levels to change agricultural and rural policies to help improve the well-being of people living in the countryside. It focuses on eight issues of great concern to farming families everywhere: food sovereignty and agricultural trade, biodiversity and genetic resources, rights of migrant farm workers, sustainable peasant agriculture, gender equality, agrarian reform, human rights in rural areas, and peasant-based sustainable agriculture.

Considering that food is a basic human right, “food sovereignty” is at the heart of La Vía Campesina’s peasant-led model of development. La Vía Campesina believes that food sovereignty is only possible through a genuine agrarian reform that guarantees peasants, small-scale farmers, indigenous peoples and rural women greater access to and control of productive resources. Food sovereignty does not go against agricultural trade, but it prioritises local production for local consumption.

Mexico’s UNORCA
The Unión Nacional de Organizaciones Regionales Campesinas Autónomas (UNORCA) is a national federation that brings together 2700 organisations from 23 states in Mexico. These rural organisations represent a total membership of more that 400 000 farmer families. UNORCA’s main goal is to represent the demands of its broad membership at the national level to help ensure that national policies keep people on the land and contribute to the well-being of those living in the Mexican countryside. This is a difficult and desperate struggle, especially in light of the dramatic changes that have taken place in Mexican agriculture since UNORCA was formed in 1985.

In brief, since the 1980s, the Mexican government has made significant steps in integrating the country into the global marketplace. Today, Mexico boasts eight free trade agreements encompassing 24 countries on three continents, the most famous of which is the North American Free Trade Agreement. This treaty promised the creation of employment opportunities and a reduction in rural poverty, but farmers and people in the rural areas have seen few benefits. “Liberalisation” in agriculture opened the borders to food imports, accompanied by the dismantling of guaranteed prices for producers and a substantial reduction in subsidised inputs.

Faced with this situation, UNORCA began to participate in exchanges with farmer organisations in Central America, the United States and South America to find out what was happening in the rural areas in other countries. Seeing similar situations elsewhere, UNORCA quickly realised the need to join forces with other rural organisations that opposed the globalisation of agriculture. UNORCA joined La Vía Campesina as it hosted its second International Conference in Tlaxcala, Mexico in April 1996, and since then it has played a key leadership role, being responsible for La Vía Campesina’s International Working Commission on Biodiversity and Genetic Resources and it is also one of the Regional Coordinators for the North American Region. Its work, however, focuses mostly on exerting pressure on the Mexican government and in providing services to its member organisations. As one leader puts it: “UNORCA serves us in many ways: it keeps us informed, it provides training, we learn of other experiences from around the country, and it gives us representation at the national level.”

Effective strategies
UNORCA represents a great diversity of organisations from across the country and to work effectively it must balance the various interests of its membership. To do this, it developed a democratic structure that distributes decision-making power equally among its membership. UNORCA has also adopted numerous strategies to support its members, depending on the region and the organisations involved. In Chiapas, the organisations are working primarily on issues of agrarian reform, indigenous self-government, management of natural resources, and human rights. In contrast, in Michoacán, the local organisation has created a commercial business organisation that pools fruit for export to the United States. UNORCA emphasises the formation of new leaders through leadership capacity-building at the local and regional levels. It trains its youth to analyse what is happening around the world and on how to be a community leader, aiming at a constant rotation in leadership positions.

Union leaders are convinced that mobilisation is one of the most important strategies to effecting change in the countryside. According to one leader: “resistance must be transformed into constant mobilisation. We need all types of political pressure and the public mobilisation of people.” In other words, mobilisation must be massive and include the participation of different sectors of society. Consequently, when the new phase of the North American Free Trade Agreement began in 2003, UNORCA organised major demonstrations over a period of two months which drove the Mexican government to start negotiations with farm leaders. Similar demonstrations are taking place today against the sharp increase in the prices of food.

UNORCA, as all other members of La Vía Campesina, argue that the agricultural crisis is intolerable and that a new model of rural development is desperately needed. They believe that change is only possible by organising themselves into action.

Annette Aurélie Desmarais. Assistant Professor, Department of Justice Studies, University of Regina, Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada.

Published in LEISA Magazine • 23.1 • March 2007