Protecting lives is not a dirty word

Opinion paper – La Via Campesina

(Jakarta, 2 May 2008) As hunger riots erupt across the globe, world leaders such as Pascal Lamy, WTO Director-General, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon are warning against the dangers of protectionism. According to Mr Ban, "More trade, not less, will get us out of the hole we're in."(1) Over the past decade, food has become a commodity on the world markets like any other good, such as motorcycles or cotton t-shirts.

Food has always been traded in the international markets, however the rules of the game changed dramatically in 1995 when the WTO agreement on agriculture (AoA) came into force. Many countries that were hitherto producing enough food to feed themselves were required to open their markets to agricultural products from abroad. Mexico started importing corn, Indonesia rice, Europe soya. At the same time, most state regulations concerning buffer stocks, prices, production, import and export controls have gradually been dismantled. As a result, small farms around the globe have not been able to compete on the world market. They collapsed. In Europe, one farm disappear every minute. In the developing world, being a farmer is not considered as a job; it is a state of poverty.

Protecting food has become a crime under free trade rules. Protectionism has become a dirty word.

Meanwhile, countries have become addicted to cheap food imports, and now that prices are shooting up, hunger is raising its ugly head.

On April 30, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan said that Africa could feed itself. « Africa cannot continue to live on imported food or on food subsidies », he told the BBC. The international peasant's movement La Via Campesina, with its hundreds of millions members in Africa and around the globe agree. We are convinced that countries can and must feed themselves. The movement has been advocating food sovereignty for more than a decade, strongly convinced that local markets and sustainable small scale farms are the most efficient and fair way to produce food.

Protecting national production is the right of any country to protect its own people from hunger and to allow its own farmers to live in dignity. Trade is, of course, a very useful tool when it allows women, men and children's needs to be fulfilled. But it has to be reigned in when the logic of profit starts devastating people's very survival. For example, when it becomes more economically profitable to use corn and soya to produce fuel instead of feeding humans.

Looking at the deadly consequences of the current addiction to food imports, it is obvious that food aid will not solve the current crisis; it will only increase dependency. Neither will GMOs and industrial agriculture be the solution, as they consume large quantities of fossil energy, they destroy the environment and leave farmers out of business.

In order to face the current challenge of feeding the world, the time has now come for governments to guarantee small farmer's access to land, seeds and water, to protect domestic food markets, and to support sustainable family farming. These practical policies will allow millions of farming families to live decently and with dignity, it will contribute to healing the earth's environmental wounds. And it will feed the world.

Protecting lives is a beautiful word.

Henry Saragih,
International coordinator of La Via Campesina