The 4th Southeast and East Asia Youth Assembly: We are the Youth, Food Sovereignty is Our Only Option

From 4-7 September 2011, 26 youth delegations from Korea, Japan, Thailand, Indonesia, Cambodia, the Philippines, Taiwan, Timor Leste and Australia gathered in Sang Joo City, North Kyeongsang, South Korea for the 4th regional youth assembly. The assembly first started in Chiang Mai in 2007 and the aim of the assembly is to increase and strengthen the role and involvement of youth both in farming and in farmers’ organizations.

In almost every country, young people are disappearing from rural areas. In some countries like Japan and South Korea, the average ages of farmers are above 65 years old. Meanwhile, in other countries like Indonesia, Thailand or Cambodia, even if the number of young people who farm still remains significant, it is decreasing rapidly. Young people find it difficult to stay in agriculture for various reasons such as a lack of land to farm, land grabbing and cheap imported food due to free trade agreements that means that local farmers cannot receive a fair price for their products. The situation forces young people to leave rural areas to work in the city or become migrant workers.

Yoon Geum Sun, an ICC member from the Southeast and East Asia region, stated the importance of this youth assembly. Daring to dream for a better future for agriculture in this region as well as in the world is in the hands of the youth. Young people have a great spirit that enables them to bring about change and create a way out of the global multiple crises.

In this 4th youth assembly, one of the important achievements is now that all of the organizations in the region already have, or are in the process of establishing, a youth department within the organization that is responsible for organizing and improving the role of rural and urban youth in agriculture as well as in farmers’ organizations. It is very important to guarantee the continuation of farming and farmers’ organizations in each country.

The assembly this year also decided who shall be the new regional youth coordinators for the next two-year period. Achmad Ya’kub from Indonesian Peasant Union (SPI) and one person from Korean Women Peasant Association (KWPA) are the newly appointed regional youth coordinators, replacing previous coordinators Ayumi Kinezuka from Nouminren and Arsenio Pereira from Mokatil.

During this assembly, the participants also shared opinions and discussed how to protect food sovereignty after the nuclear power plant disaster that happened in Japan, following the biggest earthquake ever to hit Japan last March. The earthquake caused the huge tsunami that destroyed almost all the coastal towns and cities of northeastern Japan and also damaged 24,000 hectares of farmland. Moreover, the tsunami destroyed the cooling systems of Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plants leading to the explosion of three reactors.

Many of the farmers in Fukushima were forced to give up farming due to the high level of radioactive contamination. This accident dispersed radioactive substances not just in Fukushima but all over Japan making producers anxious about growing crops outside and consumers anxious about purchasing domestically grown crops: the people in Fukushima barely buy their locally grown crops. This accident reversed the food sovereignty movement in Japan.

Since an accident in one country’s nuclear power plant knows no borders and can affect the future of the whole of humankind, we concluded that we must work on this discussion with every single young person at every level: national, regional and international level.

Therefore, the committed role of Nouminren youth with other organizations in the 4th regional youth assembly was also to tell Via Campesina youth, who are going to lead the social movement in our region, what the impact of the nuclear power plant accident will be on our food sovereignty. This was also an important opportunity to discuss what kind of energy society we, the youth, want to realize in our region.

The host organization KPL and KWPA also took the participants on a field trip to help understand the challenges that farmers in Korea have to face. The participants visited three sites. The first one was to the location of the hottest issue in Korea at the moment, the village where Camp Carol, a US military base, is located. It was made known recently that this military base kept Agent Orange, a very toxic chemical produced by Monsanto that was once used as a chemical weapon during the Vietnam War. This chemical has polluted the soil and water in the area, and many people have suffered from cancer in the neighboring villages. Korean farmers, along with other communities, are calling on the US government to openly admit that they bury the toxic chemical there and to apologize to the Korean people and immediately restore the soil and water conditions in that area.

The second place that the participants visited was the site of the Nakdong mega-dam river construction. The government claims that this river construction will reduce flooding and serve as water reservoir, but on the contrary it is actually creating more damage for people. The construction has made the soil more fragile leading to an increase in landslides. This destroys the farmland along the river banks and endangers the people there.

The last place that youth participants visited was an organic farm. Here we learnt that it was not easy to become an organic farmer in Korea 10-20 years ago. The Korean government even stated that organic farming is related to communism and there are many farmers who practiced it who were tortured and detained. Nevertheless, this has not stopped many farmers who want to stop their dependency on external input and today we see more farmers switching to organic farming. This is also supported by consumers’ awareness of healthy and fresh local food. In Korea now, there is a growing trend among the urban youth to spend their vacation working at a farm like the one we saw. It is a positive sign for the future of agriculture; hopefully there will be more and more young people not only in Korea but also in other countries who will become more interested in agriculture. It is not easy, but the spirit during the assembly was very positive and we have committed ourselves to continuing our work to achieve food sovereignty.