Time for Agrarian Reform

Opinion piece

Agrarian reform is one of the most crucial issues regarding the fate of rural areas and peoples. What agrarian reform means has been at the center of debate at the FAO International Conference on Agrarian Reform and Rural Development in Porto Alegre, Brazil, from 7 to 10 March 2006. 

Although many urban people may not be aware of it, cities and towns are heavily dependent on what happens in rural areas. Cities live on the resources from the countryside.  And everyone, rural and urban, depends on the land for their most basic human requirement: food. More over, in many parts of the world, agriculture provides jobs to more than half of the population.  

For social movements all around the world, access and control over natural resources, and specifically land, water and seeds, is at the heart of our struggle. However, the governements of the world do not give these issues much importance. Almost 30 years have passed since the first international agrarian reform conference that took place in 1979.  The long gap in returning to this topic and the failure of many governments to attend the conference indicates the low priority given to agrarian reform. Only 80 countries out of the 188 invited to the FAO conference sent delegations to Porto Alegre. No heads of state were present.

This lack of interest is a dangerous oversight for many reasons.  The deepening rural poverty in every part of the world is a humanitarian crisis.  The displacement of peasants, small-scale farmers and fishers from their traditional livelihoods creates untold suffering, hunger, loss of cultures, insecurity and conflicts. Meanwhile, many urban areas are becoming unsustainable. The ecological damage caused by the industrialization of food production is mounting daily – polluted waters, degraded soils, erosion, deforestation, an alarming loss of biodiversity and the spread of diseases among producers and consumers.

In the face of these trends, it is urgent to re-examine the dominant model of agrarian reform and rural development. Currently, market driven policies are imposing the industrialization and commodification of food production. They have delivered the food system into the hands of transnational corporations and international financial institutions such as the World Bank and IMF. The WTO and regional trade agreements reinforce these problems.

This is why thousands of peasants, fisher folks, indigenous people, women, pastoralists, landless agricultural workers and other civil society organizations mobilized massively during the conference. We demand a new vision of agrarian reform. The international peasants movement La Via Campesina believes that a genuine, integrated agrarian reform offers an important alternative model of development. It includes wrestling control over land, water, maritime resources, seeds and other natural resources from the clutches of those who use these assets to enhance their own profits and giving it to the people of the land. Public policies must be reoriented to ensure that social, ecological and cultural values are integrated into rural development. The market place must be reorganized to give priority to local ecologically and culturally appropriate food production for local consumption, i.e. food sovereignty.  

There are fundamental questions of justice, environmental sustainability and peace at stake in the debate over agrarian reform. The United Nations FAO conference opens the possibility of making progress on a global level. Given the urgency of the debate, the FAO can not wait another few decades to address these issues. The United Nation institution has to give agrarian reform high priority. It should actively promote agrarian reform in international arenas and set up a special program with the governments willing to implement or to fund it. Moreover, we also demand that the FAO explicitly recognize the positive contribution of social mobilizations in this field. La Via Campesina is committed to bringing agrarian reform and rural development back onto the global agenda. We are asking every responsible government to engage in the work. Our food supply, the dignity of our people and our planet are at stake.

Henry Saragih
International Coordinator of La Via Campesina
Porto Alegre, 9 March 2006

La Via Campesina is a global movement gathering peasants, small-scale farmers, indigenous people, landless, women’s and rural workers’ organizations from Asia, Europe, the Americas and Africa. (www.viacampesina.org)