People’s Expo in Milan puts focus on farmers’ rights not corporate concerns

(First published by The Guardian)

Alternative Expo event challenges the city’s flashy global extravaganza, promoting food sovereignty and highlighting flawed trade agreements

Rosie Scammell in Milan

Monday 8 June 2015

A restored warehouse in Italy’s financial capital might seem an unlikely place for a recent meeting of more than 180 grassroots activists, gathering in Milan to challenge the way the international food market is managed.

But the location of the People’s Expo forum last week had been carefully chosen to coincide with the city’s official Expo 2015, a world fair that gathers 140 countries together under a theme of “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life”.

The motto is emblazoned throughout the site of the six-month Expo 2015, an architectural extravaganza where visitors are invited to each nation’s pavilion to collect a stamp in their theme park-style passport.

While the fair is likely to increase tourism to the participating countries and boost the profile of its sponsors, including Coca-Cola, critics argue that the multimillion-euro event will do little to tackle global hunger.

Giosuè De Salvo, one of the organisers behind the People’s Expo, said the alternative event aimed to fill the gaps left by the official one.

“It [Expo 2015] fails to promote the small food producers, the peasants, the fishermen; those who are the first investors in agriculture. They’re the principal actors in the work, but paradoxically they’re also those who suffer first from hunger and malnutrition,” De Salvo said.

There was little sign of corporate chic at the alternative Expo, where delegates spent their time sharing ideas in working groups and listening to multilingual speeches about everything from biodiversity to free trade agreements.

One of the participants was Elizabeth Mpofu, a Zimbabwean farmer and general coordinator of peasant movement La Via Campesina. Wearing a bright green neckerchief and cap to match, Mpofu spoke for around 200 million members who she said were underrepresented in current plans to manage agricultural trade.

“Land is being grabbed away and the peasants are being left with no land to produce food,” she said. “They are introducing new farming technologies, neglecting the indigenous knowledge and farming systems which have been exercised by our ancestors for generations.”

Her criticism was aimed principally at the creators of the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition, a G8 initiative launched in 2012 that has seen 10 African states give foreign corporations greater access to agriculture.

In a report published last month, the UK’s Independent Commission for Aid Impact (Icai) warned that schemes such as the New Alliance “can serve as little more than a means of promotion for the companies involved and a chance to increase their influence in policy debates”.

A Guardian analysis last year found that some companies planned to use the initiative for non-food crops, including cotton and rubber. La Via Campesina is concerned that farming on such an industrial scale will not only squeeze out local farmers, but threaten the environment.

Mpofu said that seeds introduced under the New Alliance are GMOs [genetically modified organisms], which demand too much water and are over-reliant on fertilisers. “We have our own indigenous seeds which we think, if supported, will be able to feed the world,” she said.

Josette Combes, at the People’s Expo on behalf of Ripess Europe, says people in wealthy countries should be equally concerned about the current approach to agriculture.

“In European countries, we think we are well fed but actually we are not. We are fed products that are completely artificially made, full of pesticides and which are very bad for our health,” she said. “The whole problem of agriculture is not only one for developing countries.”

In producer countries, the negative impact of excluding small-scale farmers from decision-making is already starting to show, said Mpofu. She cited the displacement of farmers in Mozambique, a signatory of the New Alliance, and deforestation in Uganda for sugarcane plantations, as just two harmful consequences of a misplaced agenda.

Deborah James, director of international programmes at thinktank the Center for Economic and Policy Research, said for decades wealthy countries have skewed the global marketplace to work in their favour.

“Developing countries always wanted agriculture to be part of the global free trade system, because if the EU and US were to reduce their protections for their farmers and reduce their tariffs, the developing countries had a better comparative advantage,” she said.

James pointed to India’s decision in 2013 to guarantee the right to food of its citizens, through a nationwide programme of subsidised goods, as one way countries can help both producers and consumers without signing corporate deals.

But the wealthiest countries still hold a significant advantage, she said, owing to the World Trade Organisation’s (WTO) outdated rules. “What they’ve done is use a rubric that trade is an accelerator for development and growth, never going back to check whether trade is harming or promoting development.”

A significant change to the system could come with the sustainable development goals (SDGs), a set of principles to be decided upon in September, aimed at determining UN member states’ actions between 2016 and 2030.

One of the 17 proposed goals aims to “end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture”, but it generated little optimism in Milan. De Salvo dismissed the goals as being badly formed, because “states really struggle to think of the common good for humanity”.

He and fellow activists at the People’s Expo have outlined their own set of proposals, including the suspension of trade agreements and the creation of a stable market that prioritises local traders.

Mpofu predicted that the UN’s plans will fail without a marked shift in approach – “unless they come to the people, they support the peasants, they follow our ideas. Then, from there we can start seeing some changes.”