The Peasant as Activist
La Via Campesina
A global activist movement linking together rural organisations from many countries under a unified umbrella.
La Via Campesina: its goal is to bring about change in the rural sector – real changes that improve livelihoods, enhance local food production, and open up democratic spaces for food-land-people issues. It promotes changes that empower the people working on the land with more rights on issues that impact their everyday working lives.
The movement believes that real change can occur only when local communities have greater control over local productive resources, and more social and political power. Whenever international institutions like the World Trade Organisation (WTO), World Bank (WB), and the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) meet to discuss agricultural and food issues La Vía Campesina (LVC) aims to have a presence. LVC is also active in local communities whenever peasants and farming families in places – such as Honduras, Mexico, Brazil, Guatemala, Indonesia, Europe or Canada – are resisting the spread of genetically‐modified seeds, or are being evicted from their land to facilitate urban sprawl, golf course development, intensive shrimp or pig farming, or oil-palm plantations.
This uprising of the peasantry is surprising to many westerners. It was always assumed that modern intensive agriculture would eventually supplant the old ways of farming. Surely by now that should all be gone! Instead, peasants are turning up everywhere1, a troublesome and discordant voice to those extolling the praises of economic globalisation. La Vía Campesina has become an outspoken radical opposition to the globalised corporate model of agriculture.
Politically, the (neo)-liberalisation of agriculture is a war on peasants: it decimates rural
communities and farming families. Environmentally, it causes a degradation of the rural
ecology and biodiversity, causing superbugs, superweeds and toxified soils.
La Via Campesina is strongly rooted in local communities, at the same time being increasingly engaged on the international stage. Its growing visibility as a key social actor has attracted the attention of many rural organisations. It now includes 164 organisations from 73 countries. Much of its success is due to the fact that it is represents the diverse interests of its membership, balancing potentially divisive issues such as gender, race, class, culture and North/South relations2. According to La Via Campesina the conflict is not between farmers of the North and peasants of the South. Rather, the struggle is over two competing models of land-use, social and economic development. On the one hand the neoliberal corporate-driven model of input/output agriculture; on the other hand the socialised model of ecologically-based sustainable agriculture geared to localised resources and markets.
Peasants and small-holders comprise about 40% of the world’s population, and the percentage is growing.
The rise of La Via Campesina indicates that small-holder families have not been passive victims in the face of the global economic restructuring, with its increasing poverty and marginalisation. Instead they are resisting the corporate model of agriculture, using the typical methods of the oppressed; organisation, cooperation and community to build an alternative model of agriculture based on the principles of social justice, ecological sustainability and respect for peasant cultures and peasant economies. This involves creating small agricultural cooperatives, local seed banks, fair trade ventures and reclaiming traditional farming practices. It also means linking these efforts beyond the local by working at the national, regional and international levels.
In forming La Via Campesina, peasant organisations effectively internationalised and succeeded in carving out a space in the international arena. La Via Campesina provides an international space for the peasant voice, its demands and efforts to resist the imposition of a corporate model of agriculture. The solidarity and unity experienced within this organisation yields perhaps the most precious gift of all, hope. Hope that ‘another’ agriculture is possible. Indeed, La Via Campesina enables us to imagine that change is possible and that an alternative way is being created.
Areas of activism: Food sovereignty, seed sovereignty, land grabbing, biopiracy, land use, women’s rights.