African Peasants Protect Indigenous Seed Rights

Elizabeth Mpofu of Zimbabwe

Elizabeth Mpofu of Zimbabwe is General Coordinator of the international peasant movement, La Via Campesina.

We need to go back to indigenous knowledge-based farming systems, what is now called agroecology, because we know that these systems work peacefully with nature and don’t damage the environment.

Elizabeth Mpofu of Zimbabwe, General Coordinator of La Via Campesina, speaks out about the need for seed sovereignty in Africa.

Via Campesina members organise seed exchanges and fairs which allow farmers to learn how others are producing and mobilise them to join to peasant movement. We also prioritise building relationships and working hands-on with policy-makers. We lobby governments to incorporate and protect our indigenous, local seeds as they develop policies, while asking that GMO seeds are not promoted. Of course, this is a big challenge because the commercial industrial seed companies have a lot of money to give our governments.

The biggest challenges to peasant farmers in Africa are threats to our agriculture and native, local seeds. Transnational corporations and the green revolution for Africa have introduced contract farming whereby a farmer commits to producing a product in a certain manner and the company commits to purchasing it – and GMO seeds without being transparent about the implications. Usually farmers provide both the land, the cheap labour, and carry most of the risk

Peasant farmers without the resources to produce enough food are pressured to accept these contracts and new means of production. They are forced to pay corporations back for what they’ve received [GMO seeds or loans]. If a season doesn’t go well, they are left to suffer, selling their livestock or being jailed for not being able to pay.

Harmonised seed laws, which require that seeds be ‘officially registered’ in order to be traded pose another challenge across Africa, as this introduces the slippery slope of intellectual property rights over seeds. Regional bodies like the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) are developing rules that will increase the availability of commercial seeds, only benefiting corporations like Syngenta and Monsanto. Indigenous seeds are not recognised. Meanwhile, peasant farmers are not provided with adequate information about these laws and are not invited to participate in the policy formulation process. Because of this, we are forced to take action and put our concerns on the table.

In Zimbabwe, a member-state of the regional bodies COMESA and SADC, we are most focused on the harmonised seed laws. We’ve organized dialogues with relevant ministers and members of parliament about the policies and how we can work together to develop our country’s agricultural sector. The Via Campesina member group Zimbabwe Organic Smallholder Farmers Forum has been leading the process, together with women farmers. We’ve had success in rural areas, where we had a minister-facilitated workshop on seeds and cooperative African agriculture development.

Peasant farmers push for a Universal Declaration of Rights

Many people and organizations beyond Via Campesina now support the Declaration of the Rights of Peasants and are campaigning for it to be accepted by the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) and the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO). Support for the peasant rights declaration has been growing in the UNHCR, since drafting the declaration began in 2012. This comprehensive declaration includes issues from agricultural policies that recognise peasants: privatisation of water, seeds, and energy, and respect for gender in agriculture.

“We are organised and we know what we want. If the money syndrome continues to rule the world, the struggle won’t come to an end. We are fighting this fight together and we must strengthen our resilience together.” ~ Elizabeth Mpofu