Today’s peasant movement – sophisticated, threatened, and our best hope for survival
By Carol Schachet
January 23rd, 2014
The term peasant often conjures up images of medieval serfs out of touch with the ways of the world around them. Such thinking is out of date. Today, peasants proudly and powerfully put forward effective strategies to feed the planet and limit the damages wrought by industrial agriculture. What’s more, they understand the connections between complex trade and economic systems, champion the rights of women, and even stand up for the rights of gay men and lesbians.
These are not your great ancestors’ peasants.
“A peasant is a scientist. The amount and quality of knowledge we have been developing and practicing for centuries is highly useful and appropriate,” said Maxwell Munetsi, a farmer from Zimbabwe and a member of the Via Campesina.
“Peasant organizations today – from Haiti to Brazil to Mali to Indonesia – are tremendously sophisticated in their political analysis, not just their impressive knowledge of seeds, natural pesticides and fertilizers and sustainable agricultural practices,” says Nikhil Aziz, Executive Director of Grassroots International.
A global assessment spearheaded by the United Nations and including the World Bank and the United Nations Environment Program agree. Their 2008 report (the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development, or IAASTD for short) concludes that small-scale agriculture produces more food at less cost to the farmer and the environment than does industrial agriculture.
The change in Carlos’ life is profound. Now he and his family have healthy food to eat and to sell at local farmers’ markets, they can afford to send all their children to school, and he is eager to share his expertise with others.
Carlos and other peasant farmers are part of a movement for food sovereignty – the right of peoples and communities to control the seeds they plant and the food they grow and consume in an ecologically sustainable and culturally appropriate way. This is the central concept of peasant agriculture, and it offers the potential to boost our global food system and protect the planet from climate disruption.
“Not only do peasant farmers feed communities, they also cool the planet and protect Mother Nature,” explains Via Campesina a statement on International Peasant Day last year saying. “Unlike agribusiness, peasants do not treat food as a commodity for speculation profiting out of hunger. They do not patent nature for profit, keeping it out of the hands of the common man and woman. They share their knowledge and seeds, so everyone can have food to eat.”
Food is central to our culture and our civilization, which is precisely the analysis that the small producers – farmers, fishers and foresters – of the Via Campesina bring. As long as corporations control the food system in order to produce short-term profit, our collective lives are in danger. Systems of injustice that uphold the corporate food system include trade agreements, water privatization schemes, land grabs and gender inequality. These are the connections that peasants like Carlos see every day.
For instance, more than 60 percent of the world’s farmers are women, yet women cannot own land in many nations. To confront this institutional violence against women, as well as domestic violence, the Via launched the Global Campaign to End Violence Against Women in 2008. The movement conducted trainings at the grassroots and also required co-gender leadership at all levels, including the highest level. Farmers are also calling for a dismantling of the World Trade Organization and its manipulation of food commodity structures.
The success of peasants means success for all of us, because they are leading the way in feeding the world, counteracting greenhouse gas emissions and other environmentally toxic poisons, conserving water and biodiversity and expanding social and economic justice. The peasant movement chant of "Globalize the struggle, globalize the hope" is a roadmap toward a sustainable, dignified future.