International Day of Peasants’ Struggles and Peasant Seeds in Resistance

Campesina(o), camponês(a), paysan, peasant…

 
In rural areas throughout the world, peasants are people who know about the land, who know how to grow food, who feel at home interacting with nature. Many peasants are indigenous and have been living on their land for thousands of years; other peasants came from other lands and brought with them their own particular knowledge and practices.
 
The use of the term peasant in the English language often refers to an earlier traditionally poor European “underclass” – it might evoke an image of people who existed in the times of fairytales, or relatives who immigrated from the old country over a hundred years ago. For the majority of the world, though, the term peasant is one that is relevant in present-day society. “A person who lives or works in the country” is how a Portuguese dictionary defines peasant. In French, the definition is a “Person who lives in the countryside, working off of the land and in animal husbandry.” Essentially, peasants are farm workers and small farmers.

April 17, 2014 is International Day of Peasants’ Struggles and Peasant Seeds in Resistance, a day called by La Via Campesina International to recognize the struggle of peasant farmers. April 17 every year is International Day of Peasants’ Struggle, but this year there is a specific focus on the rights of peasant seeds. La Via Campesina, a Grassroots International partner, is an international movement that brings together some 250 million peasant farmers and small producers from all over the world to defend small-scale sustainable agriculture as a way to promote social justice and dignity.

Over the past few decades peasant seeds have come increasingly under attack. Seeds represent life, birth, nourishment and history. For thousands of years farmers have been the guardians of seeds – collecting, saving and exchanging them with one another. Saving and preserving seeds is a way of staying connected one’s heritage. Seeds are integral to indigenous spiritual practices all over the world.
 
For peasant farmers having a wide diversity of seed varieties puts them in a stronger position to grow a more bountiful crop. It is a safeguard against the unpredictability of nature and the growing impact of climate change. “In the face of climate change, diverse seeds systems are what we need to have resilient agriculture, but most of all, peasant seeds are part of a system of production which promotes justice instead of inequality and hunger.” says Elizabeth Mpofu, of Via Campesina Zimbabwe.
Having diversity in seeds means that if one crop variety doesn’t do well one year others still have a chance of thriving. Furthermore, in saving seeds and cultivating the strongest ones, more resistant and better quality varieties can evolve. With climate disruptions becoming more extreme and frequent, having a diverse variety of seeds that can adapt to changes in the environment is more important than ever.
 
Large corporations such as Monsanto are seeking to take control of seeds away from peasants by pressuring governments all over the world to pass laws that take control of seeds out of the hands of small farmers. These laws – called UPOV 91, or Monsanto laws – give companies the power to patent genetically modified (GM) or hybrid seeds and then collect royalties from farmers who save and use the seeds that came from the origin seed. Some countries, including the US, have already passed laws prohibiting farmers from saving or exchanging patented seeds, bringing lawsuits against those who refuse to comply. There have been cases where farmers’ crops have been contaminated by neighboring fields of GM patented crops without their knowledge and then have been charged with patent infringement. These laws are meant to centralize and control food production with the purpose of raking in huge profits for the large companies.

Despite the forces of global corporatism working to take power away from so many, all over the world peasants, indigenous peoples, women, young people and others are doing amazing things to resist these unjust policies. They are taking actions to stop the concentration of power over food and they are creating new alternatives to transform society.

The Creole Seeds Program of the Popular Peasants Movement (MCP – Movimento Camponês Popular), a Grassroots partner in Brazil, works to connect peasant farmers with each other and to train them in strategically recovering, producing, saving, and sharing creole seeds. In just last years’ growing season, the
Creole Seeds Program produced over 600 tons of corn, rice, beans and cassava seeds. Small farmers can trade these seeds and can use them in their own food production. In order to further promote seed saving and to share information about the importance of creole seeds, MCP organizes statewide seed fairs where peasant farmers come together to exchange seeds, farming techniques, and information about agroecology.

Mexico is the center of origin for thousands of varieties of maize. For many years Mexico has experienced heavy pressure to allow GM maize into the country. At this point it is not legal to plant GM corn commercially, but for a number of years Monsanto was given permission to plant “field trials” of GM corn, which has resulted on the contamination of local maize. Late last year a federal judge ruled that all field trials of GM corn in Mexico must end.
For the indigenous communities of Purépecha, maize is an essential part of culture and heritage. In resistance to the threats facing maize, festivals have been organized as a way to recover traditional maize rituals and to promote the many ways that maize is part of Purépecha food and culture.

Before colonization, the seeds used by Mozambican farmers were native and produced within the community. With the invasion of the Portuguese in the 16th century came the introductions of plantation crops such as sisal (agave) and cotton. The enslavement of people to work the plantations led to a drop in the number of autonomous farmers and the disappearance of many varieties of native seeds.

In 2012 the
National Farmers Union of Mozambique (UNAC) and Movement of Small Farmers (MPA) from Brazil, both members La Via Campesina, started an exchange program aimed at sharing knowledge around seed recovery, reproduction and saving, as well as training peasant leaders and technicians so that they can continue passing on these skills.

In the Americas, Asia, Africa, Europe and beyond peasant farmers are organizing, building power, and struggling in the defense of the rights of seeds, land, people and the planet. Their experience, understanding and wisdom are essential to creating a sustainable future where all people can thrive.