'Because the river told me'

Agriculture
Technology
Development (Aid)
Poverty
Mexican peasant farmers

Women of the Nicolás Bravo community demonstrate their methods of selecting corn plants for seeds during an agroecology training course, Chiapas, Mexico. © Nils McCune

In the pre-dawn hours of 3 March, assassins burst into the home of Berta Cáceres in La Esperanza, Honduras, and shot dead the indigenous Lenca leader. A founder of the National Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations (COPINH) of Honduras, Berta was the 2015 winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize, the world’s leading environmental award, for her work organizing opposition to a hydro-electric dam project on the sacred Gualcarque River.

The Agua Zarca dam project is located on land that the Honduran de facto government conceded to foreign interests in the months after the 2009 military coup that deposed reformist President Manuel Zelaya. FMO, the Dutch development bank financing the project, expressed its regret first for the ‘passing away’ of Cáceres in a carefully worded online statement, a term which it later amended to ‘violent death’. It maintained that the dam project was necessary for guaranteeing electricity to Hondurans, while promising to compensate local communities and even ‘train a group of farmers to improve their farming techniques’. However, on 16 March it was forced to suspend its funding following the murder of another COPINH member, Nelson García.1

The ‘right’ to technology is a troublesome concept, because technologies contain all the flaws of the culture that creates them. Technology that we insist must reach people through markets will bear the blood of capitalist accumulation on a militarized planet. Conversely, the diverse kinds of knowledge that help family farmers continue to provide most of the world’s food cannot be easily reduced to ‘technologies’ to be bought and sold. Indigenous, peasant and rural producers’ intricate empirical knowledge, oral traditions, rituals and relationships of harmony with nature, like their cyclical, integrated view of life and the cosmos, go far beyond development buzzwords such as ‘technology’ or ‘innovation’.

‘We are people of the land, who live with the land,’ said Lola Esquivel, a Nicaraguan peasant at a recent seed-sharing meeting of the Rural Workers’ Association (ATC). ‘Our struggle is in part to defend our identity, to teach our children how to plant with the moon’s cycles… But more than anything, it is about defending our right to live with and on the land.’

The wrong revolution

The accumulation of knowledge in traditional farming systems, which have demonstrated a remarkable capacity to sustain communities, cities and ecosystems down the ages, was threatened and often lost in the decades after the Second World War, as Green Revolution technologies proliferated. The reductionist vision of the Green Revolution made invisible the complex knowledge systems of traditional farmers, fisherfolk, herders and forest dwellers, as well as the diverse goods and services provided by traditional land use. Under the banner of development, transnational corporations have used technologies for half a century to destroy tens of thousands of years’ worth of indigenous seeds by replacing them with a few ‘high-yield’ commercial varieties, substitute living soil fertility cycles with poisonous synthetic inputs, replace human labour with chemicals and machinery, and remake the world’s many agricultures in a single, simplified, profit-focused image.

‘Seeds are our life and our livelihood – the heritage of peasants at the service of humanity’

Here’s one example of the fallout, in the words of a member of Mali’s National Confederation of Peasant Organizations (CNOP): ‘In Mali, 85 per cent of the population works the land. Peasants and small producers have collective rights, common ownership of the land through recognition of customary law. People can work in the fields. Women can pick fruit and nuts. However, World Bank-backed land titling programmes have led to unprecedented land sales. The problem is that multinationals wanted to work on land that was being cultivated and send the peasants elsewhere. It is cheaper for these companies to work on land that is already being cultivated. This simple fact has led to repression, violence and death.’2

The technologies pushed by transnational agribusiness corporations are part of the neo-colonial and capitalist processes of accumulating and concentrating power. The world food system suffers from a bipolar condition in which, on one hand, industrial junk food makes millions of people susceptible to chronic diseases; while on the other, the number of malnourished has remained steady, at around a billion people, for over 25 years.

Around the world, water sources have been degraded and lost in the push for irrigated agriculture, since the Green Revolution’s hybrid and modified seeds tend only to perform well under ‘ideal’ water and fertilizer conditions. Meanwhile, the Earth has felt the heat, as input-intensive factory farms, energy-expensive fertilizers and long-distance value chains have caused food-related activities to contribute about half of current global CO2 emissions.3

Industrial agriculture, developed in the Global North where salaries comprise the major part of production costs, is based on technologies that ‘save labour’. In the Global South these technologies re-route the destination of production costs, from local economies to corporate coffers. When an Ethiopian farmer switches to a conventional, labour-saving technology – say, from paying for a farm labourer’s use of a hoe to purchasing glyphosate herbicide – less value circulates in the local economy, and more goes to Monsanto’s shareholders. This effectively makes peasant populations redundant and forces hundreds of millions of rural people into over-crowded cities to look for work.

Growing public awareness of environmental destruction and a gradually falling bottom line for agribusiness have led to talk of ‘green’ solutions, which integrate some part of the environmental critique into the design of capitalist farming. An alliance of foundations, international NGOs and agricultural corporations has introduced ‘climate-smart’ agriculture, which proposes a mix of locally available sustainable technologies with ‘improved’ seeds and agro-chemicals, essentially an updated version of the classic ‘technical packages’ sold to farmers since the advent of the Green Revolution. Such ‘easy’ technological solutions to global crises have given agribusiness cause to think of itself as the solution to the problems it has caused; even Monsanto now proudly calls itself ‘a sustainable agriculture company’.

A different paradigm

The need for real solutions has pushed social movements to frame the debate in new ways. The dominant concept of food security, which is understood as the guarantee of year-round access to adequate, safe, nutritious and culturally appropriate food, makes no mention of where food comes from or how it is produced. This lends itself well to the corporate vision of commodified foods being sold globally through liberalized trade regimes.

In 1996, the transnational alliance of rural social movements, La Vía Campesina, coined the concept of food sovereignty, which has come to signify the right of peoples and nations to define and create their own food systems, using their own methods. Food sovereignty challenges the corporate food regime and demands political, rather than merely technical, fixes to hunger and environmental destruction.

La Vía Campesina is made up of roughly 200 million families, in several hundred grassroots rural social movements from 79 countries, who advocate agroecology as the paradigm for replacing industrial agriculture. Agroecology uses the complex, place-based knowledge of rural peoples to grow food sustainably and take care of Mother Earth. Whereas much ‘organic’ agriculture in the North can maintain the structures of monocultures just with different inputs, agroecology is based on ecological principles – such as nutrient cycling, energy efficiency and biological diversity – applied differently in every productive context. Agroecological producers depend on – and regenerate – the biodiversity that feeds us. However, many laws pushed by capital interests effectively ban redistributive land reform, collective landholding, seed exchanges, and common-use resource management, all of which are necessary tools for agroecological producers.

Seed privatizations and legal restrictions on peasant and indigenous biodiversity management are being fought by popular movements in all continents. Producers actively resist in their daily use of heirloom seeds, community management of fisheries and forests, return to indigenous, drought-resistant animal breeds, and small-scale irrigation technologies. In their declarations, meetings and daily practice, rural social movements reject the corporate version of agroecology, in which terms like ‘climate-smart agriculture’ and ‘sustainable intensification’ become smokescreens for integrating some sustainable techniques with monoculture, privatized seeds and continued dependence on external inputs sold by transnationals. Gilberto Schneider, Brazilian peasant leader from the Movement of Small Farmers (MPA), puts the issue in the following terms: ‘Agrobusiness and peasant farming are fundamentally different models currently in dispute. Seeds are our life and our livelihood – the heritage of peasants at the service of humanity. Peasants have a duty to conserve seeds at several levels: individual and family, the community, and the territorial level.’

Equal exchange

Social movements emphasize technologies that facilitate the horizontal exchange and construction of knowledge using the concepts of popular education, participatory public control over research agendas and methods, as well as generational renewal in the countryside and the passing on of wisdom. It is necessary to find technologies that do not mimic or reinforce the Western consumerist lifestyle, but rather those that enrich people’s lives without erasing their cultural heritage. The development of such technology requires government support for networks that facilitate peasant and indigenous innovation, invention and identity.

It is necessary to find technologies that do not mimic or reinforce the Western consumerist lifestyle, but rather those that enrich people’s lives without erasing their cultural heritage

This means bringing together producers and consumers through farmers’ markets, worker-owned co-operatives and other means; public policy to protect indigenous and peasant territories from land- and resource-grabbing; and broadened access for women and youth to technical and political training in agroecology. With supportive public policies, technologies could be used to strengthen and revitalize historical processes of co-operative farming, food processing and distribution – sustainably.

Through history, peasants have shared knowledge horizontally and developed it based on what works at small scales. Precautionary agroecological principles of land stewardship can be ‘scaled-up’ and ‘scaled-out’ through collective action. Social movements have the political capacity to educate and organize people for change. As Saloua Kennou ep Sebei of the World March of Women in Tunisia argues: ‘We cannot make agroecology the global solution it has the potential to be, unless we can get out of colonized thinking and start creating solutions outside the framework of capitalism.’ Sound too hard? Remind yourself of the words of Honduran martyr Berta Cáceres: ‘I knew the struggle was going to be difficult. But I also knew we were going to triumph, because the river told me so.’

Nils McCune is a member of La Vía Campesina’s technical team for the Latin American Agroecological Institute, a popular peasant university being constructed in Nicaragua by and for social movement youth.

Only GM-friendly guests welcome at FAO’s corporate-fest

In February this year, without much fanfare, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) held a conference on biotechnology. Unnoticed by the media, the symposium on ‘The Role of Agricultural Biotechnologies in Sustainable Food Systems and Nutrition’ was condemned by over 100 civil-society groupings.4

Why? Because it was seen as one more step towards promoting a false corporate agenda for the future of food that has already polluted Western development discourse on agriculture. The rosy vision of biotech for the Majority World is that it will offer climate-resistant crops, and plentiful and nutritionally improved food.

What proponents leave out is that seeds for biotech crops are completely in the hands of a few large transnational corporations who are further concentrating their power through mergers. That it is a model that requires industrialized agriculture and heavy pesticide use, unsuitable to the reality of the world’s peasant farmers. That it eventually narrows biodiversity through monocultures rather than extending it.

Philanthrocapitalists like Bill Gates, whose Foundation is the world’s largest funder for research into GM crops and is the fifth largest donor to agriculture in the Global South, are fond of such corporate ‘solutions’.5 But the FAO?

Well, it has form – a previous conference it ran on biotechnology in Mexico in 2010 blocked farmers from the organizing committee, and even tried to prevent them attending.

This time around it only invited one panel member who was critical of GMOs. One of the two keynote speakers was a fervent supporter of controversial Terminator seeds, which are manipulated to die at harvest time so that farmers must purchase them afresh each time they plant.

Henk Hobbelink, the co-ordinator of GRAIN, an organization that supports community-controlled food systems, believes the FAO needs to get its priorities right. ‘Why does the FAO limit itself to corporate biotechnology and deny the existence of peasant technologies?’ he asks. ‘Rather than allowing corporations to push their biotechnology agendas, the FAO should pursue agroecology and food sovereignty as the path to feed the world and cool the planet.’

  1. nin.tl/joint-statement.

  2. Global Justice Now, Gated Development, January 2016; nin.tl/Gated-Development .

  1. FMO, FAQ Agua Zarca Project Honduras, 5 March, 2016, nin.tl/FMO-AguaZarca and 16 March 2016 statement, nin.tl/FMO-suspend.

  2. International Forum for Agroecology, Mali, 24-27 February, 2015.

  3. Vía Campesina Views, 2009; nin.tl/cool-the-Earth .

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