Put together, Asia, Africa and Latin America accommodate more than 88 percent of the world’s population.
Peasants of these regions are the inheritors of an agricultural system that was developed over the last 20,000 years. It is a system that has stood the test of times, continues to feed the world’s population and is hinged on a philosophy that puts mother nature right at the centre of it.
Today, peasants (and for the ease of argument I include indigenous people, migrant workers, rural workers, pastoralists and fishing communities in this term), feed approximately 70 percent of the world’s population. The food that you will find on your plates is the results of hard work put in by several million farming families, including mine, tilling on small tracts of land year round. It is tough work. For peasant women like me, it is even harder, given that we are also struggling against a patriarchal system that persistently fails to recognise women’s contribution in the farms and families. Yet, despite the challenges, we work the land and produce the food that all of us eat, every day.
In an ideal world where the rational should thrive, peasants would, therefore, feature at the centre of every decision that is taken for our welfare and of the planet. But is that so?
The advent of a financial system that pitched material wealth as a measure of human progress gradually took control of the world away from the majority of its people and gave it into the hands of a few. Ideas such as ‘free market’, ‘free trade’, ‘globalisation’ and so forth - invaded our heads and minds, possibly more so in the last three decades, when food became an instrument to make and maximise profit.
The World Trade Organisation (WTO) encouraged this idea of producing food as a ‘commodity, rather than a common good’. Borders opened up, import tariffs were brought down and big industries that promoted high-yielding monoculture practices were soon able to dump cheap food onto our local markets.
Social movements across the world resisted. La Via Campesina, the largest peasant movement worldwide, also featured at the forefront of this resistance. In 2003, in Cancun, Mexico, outside the venue of the Fifth WTO Ministerial Conference, one of our dear comrades, Korean farmer Lee Kyung Hae, took his life in protest. He was holding a banner that read ‘WTO Kills Farmers’. In every ministerial thereafter, we ensured that his sacrifice would not be forgotten as we pledged to fight ‘WTO Out of Agriculture’. In many ways, this resistance exposed the ills and dented the influence of WTO and several of its ministerial rounds have floundered since then.
But then, those in power always had a ‘Plan B’, called Free Trade Agreements (FTAs).Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) are all striking examples of these new, mega-trade agreements that dictate what we eat and how. They ensure that rich countries always have a consuming population in poor and ‘developing’ countries. Provisions such as the Investor State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) - where private firms are allowed to sue national governments - are clearly stepping on our sovereignty and national laws.
Ironically enough, all these decisions that have led to the devastation of rural peasant communities were taken by people who never held a plough in their hands and the results are here to be seen.
This article has been excerpted from: ‘The global struggle of the local peasant’.