The Vía Campesina movement’s roots reach back to the North-North, South-South, and North-South exchanges among farm organizations that occurred throughout the 1980s and early 1990s. Since then, the movement has grown rapidly: Initially bringing together 45 international farm organizations, it now comprises 149, representing peasants, rural women, small-scale farmers, indigenous agrarian communities, and rural workers from 69 countries in Asia, the Americas, Europe, and Africa.
Two examples of the movement’s many early transnational links among many others, were those established by the youth of the National Farmers Union of Canada (NFU) with the Windward Islands Farmers’ Association (WINFA) and the women’s linkage between the NFU and the Unión Nacional de Agricultores y Ganaderos (UNAG) of Nicaragua. At the same time, the Confédération Nationale des Syndicat de Travailleurs Paysans in France (the precursor to the Confédération Paysanne) established bilateral relations with the Unión Nacional de Organizaciones Regionales Campesinas Autónomas (UNORCA) in Mexico, the UNAG in Nicaragua, and the Confederación Campesina del Perú. Meanwhile, South-South exchanges and dialogue, especially among organizations in Latin America, led to the formation of strong regional peasant movements.
These linkages and exchanges involved delegation visits, during which delegates would learn about the local agricultural situation, develop a collective analysis about the forces affecting changes in their host nation, and discuss organizing strategies. They were often supported by progressive international non-governmental organizations.
As a result of the exchanges, farm leaders found much common ground when they gathered at the congress of Nicaragua’s UNAG, held in 1992, and articulated the need to work together to counter the global offensive on peasant agriculture represented in structurally adjusted agriculture and free trade agreements. One year later, as the Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT, which became the World Trade Organization in 1994) negotiations were drawing to a close, farm leaders formally constituted La Vía Campesina in a gathering held in April 1993 in Mons, Belgium.
There, farm leaders developed a plan of action and elected a five-person Coordinating Commission made up of representatives from five regions: Brazil’s Movimento Sem Terra for South America; the Asociación de Organizaciones Campesinas Centroamericanas para la Cooperación y el Desarrollo (ASOCODE) for Central America, the Caribbean, and North America; Peasant Solidarnosc for Eastern Europe; the Peasant Movement of the Philippines (KMP) for Asia; and the Coordination of European Peasant Organizations (CPE) for Western Europe.
From the beginning, the movement was intent on carving out a new space in the international arena, one that would be filled with peasant voices and demands. Latin American organizations played a critical role in consolidating La Vía Campesina, for example, by creating the Coordinadora Latinoamericana de Organizaciones del Campo (CLOC) and running the movement’s Operational Secretariat, based in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, from 1996 to 2004.
Many national organizations are attracted to the transnational movement because it has consistently and strongly resisted the globalization of a neoliberal and industrial model of agriculture. By “building unity within diversity,” the movement creates political spaces in which men, women, and youth from the Global North and South consolidate a shared identity as “people of the land,” develop collective analyses, and struggle against the violence and disempowerment they experience daily as the dominant model’s processes of accumulation are unleashed in the countryside everywhere.
La Vía Campesina is notable for its commitment to inclusion, participation, and consensus building. Its International Coordinating Commission includes one man and one woman from each of its nine regions: North America, South America, Central America, the Caribbean, two regions in Africa, Europe, South Asia, and Southeast/East Asia. The ICC meets twice a year and is responsible for ensuring that decisions that are made at La Vía Campesina’s international conference (held every four years) are carried out.
Latin American organizations continue to play an important leadership role in La Vía Campesina. But after the Fourth International Conference held in Brazil in 2004, the Operational Secretariat was moved to Jakarta and is now under the leadership of the Indonesian Peasant Union. Consequently, the movement has made significant inroads in Asia, where the majority of the world’s rural peoples live.
As ICC member Paul Nicholson pointed out, the Maputo-based Fifth International Conference successfully consolidated a strong presence in Africa. “The participatory process for the conference was truly amazing,” Nicholson added, “because it led to strong cohesion among so many different organizations, cultures, and political standpoints.” Yet a key challenge for La Vía Campesina going forward will be how to integrate so many new organizations and cultures while also ensuring “unity within diversity.”
Annette Aurélie Desmarais teaches in the Department of Justice Studies at the University of Regina in Canada. She was a farmer for years and is the author of La Vía Campesina: Globalization and the Power of Peasants (Fernwood Publishing and Pluto Press, 2007).