Book Review: Defending Food Sovereignty

Matt Kopka

Since 1995, the World Trade Organization has vigorously facilitated the expansion of corporate control over global food production. In what David Harvey has called “the greatest period of dispossession” in history, millions of poor workers have been driven from their traditional lands into the world’s exploding cities and “rurban” ghettos, while poor governments’ power to protect their citizens from hunger has been severely limited.

Under this food regime, hunger has grown rather than diminished: Between 2001 and 2002 alone, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the number of undernourished people worldwide increased by 10 million. Moreover, rural dwellers are the ones most likely to go hungry—even though about half of humankind lives in the rural sector, where most food is produced, rural people make up two thirds of those in extreme poverty.

La Vía Campesina: Globalization and the Power of Peasants by Annette Aurélie Desmarais, Fernwood Publishing and Pluto Press (distributed by the University of Michigan Press), 2007, $24.95 paperback.

La Vía Campesina, this book’s remarkable protagonist, has risen in response to the growing food calamity facing rural dwellers. Both an organization and a movement, the umbrella group represents millions of peasants, small farmers, fisherfolk, pastoralists, and landless workers. The 15-year-old organization has become a powerful presence in Asia, Latin America, Europe, and more recently Africa. Its members have marched against the WTO, dismantled a French McDonald’s, and occupied lands left idle by wealthy landowners, establishing cooperative farms, seed banks, and classrooms.

In March 2006, a group of Vía Campesina women destroyed millions of bioengineered eucalyptus seedlings on a Brazilian plantation run by the Aracruz cellulose company, demanding an end to such facilities, which exhaust precious water while failing to address the food needs of the poor. “We are strong and determined, and we are the majority of the world,” says the group’s 2000 Bangalore declaration. “The future belongs to us.”

Annette Aurélie Desmarais, a geographer and former farmer from Saskatchewan, has long worked with the organization and provides a critical introduction to the Vía Campesina and its demand for “food sovereignty,” subjects about which too little information has been available. The view is global, but much of the book’s emphasis lies in Latin America, the “epicentre of change,” as the group’s Web site proclaims, “where a new kind of internationalism is being born, not one of capital, but of people” (www.Viacampesina.org).

The organization’s beginnings may be traced to a series of exchanges in the 1970s between South and Central American small farmers, and between those farmers and some of their first-world counterparts. Through such encounters, Desmarais writes, “farm leaders came to understand each other’s realities” and to “define the nature of solidarity.” (Distinguishing solidarity from paternalistic charity, especially as implied in relationships with first-world governments and NGOs, has been a crucial challenge for the organization.) Simultaneously, many saw how world developments, including WTO negotiations and free trade agreements, would have “a profound effect on the everyday lives of the world’s population,” threatening the existence of peasant communities.

While establishing a presence on the world stage at events like the 1999 mass demonstrations against the WTO in Seattle, the Vía Campesina still faced colossal challenges in creating a worldwide organizational infrastructure. It “desperately needed time for farmers from around the world to meet,” establish policy positions, and devise protocols for engaging with NGOs, the FAO, and governments.

In exciting passages, Desmarais describes meetings of the organization’s international Women’s Commission, in which Latin American representatives took the lead. These meetings increased the women’s “understanding of the root causes and validity” of the issues that peasant and farm women confront, often alone, every day. The realization that they had “voice, experience . . . expertise, and the ability to share,” helped end “a pervasive sense of isolation and powerlessness among participants.”

Initiatives born of these meetings expanded membership of the Vía Campesina’s coordinating committee to balance its gender representation. If rural women are the very poorest of rural dwellers across the world, the Women’s Commission argued, fighting gender discrimination must occupy the heart of the organization’s demand for change.

Desmarais grounds her analysis in the landscape of 20th- and early-21st-century agriculture and the worldwide peasantry’s stubborn refusal to be disappeared from it. She shows how agricultural processes rooted in family and community developed unevenly with capitalism, as subsidies to first-world farmers underwrote national projects of industrialization and the rise of consumer culture. Such policies, now denied to third-world governments in the name of free trade, shielded wealthy nations’ farmers from the market’s ravages.

But after World War II, food production began to yield to specialization, profit pressures, and the pursuit of global markets. Farmers, increasingly separated from control over their production, lost their knowledge of the natural mechanisms underlying it as well. (Such knowledge, the Vía Campesina argues, is part of the human patrimony, not the property of fertilizer manufacturers or the makers of genetically modified seed.) As agribusiness has pursued cheap land, labor, and markets in the world’s poorest regions, wages and prices have fallen. Meanwhile, a wave of farmer suicides has swept the planet. Since 1997, Desmarais reports, 25,000 farmers in India alone have killed themselves, many drinking “one of the tools of agricultural modernization,” chemical pesticides.

The food sovereignty framework, first proclaimed by the Vía Campesina at the 1996 Rome Forum on Food Security, constitutes both a politics of resistance and an emerging mode of development. Instead of simply demanding that people have enough to eat, as the conventional concept of “food security” would have it, proponents of food sovereignty insist that communities must produce food first to meet the needs of their own reproduction, according to their own cultural dictates rather than for export. Food is “a source of nutrition, only secondarily an item of trade.” Advocates demand the resources—seed, water, and above all genuine land reform—to effect such changes. Together these are asserted as human rights.

The demand for food sovereignty is, in the end, incompatible with agribusiness models, in which “all resources necessary for sustenance are entrapped by the market,” as Vandana Shiva has written. Its logic helps us understand that food produced for profit alone spreads misery, and indeed threatens our existence: Corporate livestock create more greenhouse gases than automobiles, monocrop farming produces deserts. The global environmental crisis is, in fact, the crisis of capitalism. Corporate approaches to agriculture are at or near maximum productive levels, but the world’s millions of small farms have only begun to exploit their productive potential, and can save jobs, community, whole cultures—as well as nature—as they feed millions now going hungry.

Food sovereignty’s radical insistence on community, on the development of a “defensible life space” against neoliberalism’s enclosure of the commons, is particularly suggestive, and dovetails with our growing understanding of the ecology of food production and the amount of energy wasted as food is processed, transported, packaged, and stored. Poor people’s ability to create such spaces, Desmarais suggests, may be the true measure of social progress in our time. The words peasant and campesino, employed in such contexts, do not imply a folkloric preservation of culture or feudal relations, but the ineradicable relationship between the soil, its local particularities, and those who work it.

Such notions of community and of a revitalized peasantry pose exciting challenges to received thought on the left, especially regarding the scale and role of planning. What are the appropriate levels and modes of governance if community is the basis for production yet (presumably national) governments are required to redistribute resources and protect the peoples’ gains from hostile forces, both inside and outside of national borders? What is the role of markets in such a scheme? Would they mean an inevitable reassertion of exploitative relations down the road?

These questions are matters of urgent debate in the Vía Campesina. The answers will be found, Desmarais makes clear, in the crucible of struggle. This book prepares us to join the debate at the highest level, and to join the work as well.


Matt Kopka recently finished doctoral coursework in interdisciplinary ecology at the University of Florida, and is researching the implementation of food sovereignty concepts by the Vía Campesina’s Caribbean organizations.
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