The peasantry has been portrayed historically as a backward sector, rooted in traditional productive practices and embedded in obsolete cultures. Peasants' deep ties to natural cycles are often considered limitations to human transcendence—defined as the conquest of nature and the progress of technology. Their diversity is seen as an impediment to an efficient, homogenized society.
Who would have thought that in the age of globalization, small farmers' weaknesses would prove to be their strengths?
The international forum of Via Campesina in Mexico City last August 1-2 proved just that. The largest peasant organization in the world, Via Campesina was formed in 1993 and now groups 149 organizations from 56 countries. Representatives from peasant and family farm organizations from Thailand, Brazil, the Dominican Republic, Spain, Mexico, and other countries gathered to discuss "Trade Treaties and Food Sovereignty: a Farmers' Agenda." As the stories and statistics unfolded, they revealed common experiences that bridged borders and language barriers.
For most peasant farmers in Mexico, Asia has always seemed literally and figuratively a world apart. But when Uthai Sa Artchop of Thailand described how transnational corporations sought to patent and control their varieties of rice seed, Mexican peasants realized that the Thais' rice was their corn. When Indonesian farmer Tejo Pramono spoke of how remittances from sons and daughters working in Hong Kong and the Middle East subsidize a dying countryside, Mexican farmers thought of their own relatives forced to migrate to the United States.
Both sides nodded knowingly at the other's descriptions of the loss of markets to imports, the drop in producer prices due to unfair competition, and government cutbacks to producers except the large exporters. The January tortilla crisis in Mexico found its counterpart in the May palm oil crisis in Indonesia, when the price of both staple foods soared due to diversion to agrofuels and transnational control of markets.
But the organizations didn't gather only to commiserate. The strengths of the peasantry also came to light, and these strengths show why Via Campesina has become an effective and influential actor in international movements for global justice. As globalization erodes community, threatens the quality and accessibility of our food supply, and destroys ecosystems, small farmers are the ones defending these values. In doing so, they hold important keys to the future survival of the planet and rebuilding the kind of society we want for our children.
Via Campesina members are deeply involved in building alternatives. The Landless Movement in Brazil is consolidating its cooperatives, increasing state-level organization and, in the words of MST representative Soraia Soriano, "building spaces that are autonomous from the government" since, as she explained, the current center-left government has divided organizations.
Other proposals include building global alliances, designing new forms of professional training, advocating alternative models of consumption and of relations between producers and consumers, and building a new agro-ecological model.
In complex times, the messages from Via's farmers were strikingly simple: to remain farmers, to provide a healthy and sustainable food supply, to market their product fairly. Some are surprising—the representative from the Union Paysanne of Quebec issued this plea: "We want neighbors." In Canada, as in most developed and developing countries, the concentration of land ownership has forced farmers off the land and dissolved rural communities. The surviving family farmers find themselves more and more isolated.
Paul Nicholson of the European Farmers Coalition noted that in the United States less than 1% of the working population farms for a living and there are more prisoners than farmers. Not only do large corporations control use of land through contracting, they are also rushing to purchase land. Nicholson said that in Europe 80% of agricultural land is no longer in the hands of the farmers and as land speculation increases, fertile regions across the globe have attracted the attention of investors. This agricultural model expels small farmers from the land with negative consequences for the entire nation. In France the slogan is "Three small farmers are better than one big one."
Future actions supported by Via Campesina include the campaign of the National Union of Autonomous Regional Peasant Organization (UNORCA) to oppose the January 2008 lifting of all tariffs on corn, beans, sugar, and milk under the agricultural chapter of NAFTA. The National Campaign for Peasant and Indigenous Dignity begins on August 9 with an encampment at Mexico City's Monument to the Revolution and will continue with demonstrations throughout the country. Also in Mexico, the Sin maíz no hay país campaign (Without Corn there is no Country), began distributing Mexican corn seed to urbanites as a message to defend native maize varieties and oppose the cultivation and importation of genetically modified corn.
Via Campesina has made a strategic decision that to advance the alternatives they propose, it's necessary to break down the power of the large transnational corporations. The organization called for an international day of protest on January 26, 2008. The corporations targeted include Monsanto, Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland, and Wal-Mart.
As globalization dictates that Big is Powerful and cultural monotony is imposed from above, small farmers are leaping borders to become the leaders of an international movement to resist the imperatives of the economic model. In their diversity they are achieving unity, in their traditions they find answers to contemporary problems, and in their determination they provide an example of their slogan—globalize hope.
Laura Carlsen is the director of the Americas Program at www.americaspolicy.org in Mexico City and co-editor of Confronting Globalization: Economic Integration and Popular Resistance in Mexico.