At the turn of the new millennium a group of activists and scholars came together at the Dag Hammarskjöld Centre in Sweden. They began by asking: what is a likely scenario for the next 30 years – and what are the alternatives?
To deal with the complexity and unpredictability of the task, the artifice of a fictional account was adopted. It was developed in discussions – face-to-face, by email and conference calls – in a four-year process that took them from Mexico City (Mexico) to Dehra Dun (India), Porto Alegre (Brazil), Miami (US), Ottawa (Canada) and Uppsala (Sweden).
They concluded that if the world continues along the current ‘trendline’ then a bleak future, increasingly dominated by technological and corporate power, is an unnervingly reasonable prospect.
How might things unfold differently? What are the possibilities for social change and creative organizing that could really make a difference? Three alternative ‘takes’ were developed, avoiding recourse to miracle solutions.
What follows is an edited extract, giving a flavour of one of them.
The Report was written by Pat Mooney for the ETC Group and the What Next Project, and is published by the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation.
2010 – Rosario, Bolivia
Marta watched him coming, almost from the bottom of the mountain. With his broad white cap protecting his pink skin, and his ridiculous safari jacket with its countless pockets, he stood head and shoulders above the peasants around him. His walk was laboured. He wasn’t used to the altitude and was uncomfortable on the rocky terrain. Another reporter, the woman wondered – eyeing the camera slung across his chest – or maybe an anthropologist?
‘Good day,’ the man said in awkward Aymara, ‘I’m looking for Ignacio Flores. Maybe he’s your husband? I’m a photographer and... sort of... an agronomist.’
Marta, cross-legged on the stony earth in front of her home, inspecting potatoes spread out on her ample skirts, couldn’t help warming to the man. As bad as his Aymara was, it was at least the equal of most of the provincial bureaucrats. He fiddled instinctively with his camera, but decided to leave it in its case.
‘I am his wife,’ she replied.
The man, who said he was a Dutch photo-journalist by the name of Jaap Vissar, set himself gingerly on the proffered stoop and attempted to engage in conversation. His wife was Bolivian, he said. They were in La Paz visiting her family when he had noticed the bright purple quinoa variety (see box) in the market and brought it to his wife’s sister for dinner. The seeds were spectacular. Never had he tasted a better variety. His relatives served it up in salads and soups and mixed it with potatoes.
‘I asked around,’ he said to Marta, ‘and people told me this variety only comes from here. The people down there said to talk to you folks about how your husband found it.’
‘Found?’ she replied, offended by the notion that her community might somehow have tripped over it. ‘First, it’s not a single, uniform variety: it’s a breeding line we are constantly adapting. Second, it’s far from a discovery. Third, I’m in charge of the breeding around here – whether it’s kids or quinoa.’
The crop originated in the Andean region of South America, where it has been an important food for 6,000 years. Its name is the Spanish spelling of the Quechua name. Generally undemanding and altitude-hardy, it can be cultivated easily in the Andes up to about 4,000 metres. Thriving in well-drained soils, it requires a relatively long growing season.
The Incas, who held the crop to be sacred, referred to it as _chisaya mama_ or ‘mother of all grains’, and it was the Inca Emperor who would traditionally sow the first seeds of the season. It was scorned by the Spanish colonists as ‘food for Indians’ and even actively suppressed, due to its status within indigenous non-Christian ceremonies.
Quinoa was of great nutritional importance to pre-Columbian Andean civilizations, secondary only to the potato. The United Nations has classified it as a ‘super crop’ because of its very high protein content. Unlike wheat or rice (which are low in lysine), quinoa contains a balanced set of essential amino acids, making it an unusually complete foodstuff for humans. It takes less quinoa protein to meet human needs than wheat protein. Quinoa is a good source of dietary fibre and phosphorus and is high in magnesium and iron. Gluten-free, it is considered easy to digest. Because of all these characteristics, quinoa is being considered in NASA’s Controlled Ecological Life Support System for staff on long-duration spaceflights.
She told Vissar about the seed fairs, from Cuzco to La Paz; the quinoa exchanges, so far away she only knew that she would have to leave her beloved mountains and even cross oceans.
Her own role was as convener of the women’s quinoa assessment committee. It had taken them years of intricate breeding to put together the genetic combination. She knew that the purple quinoa had genes not just from the Andes but from as far away as Ethiopia and Tibet. The result was a hardy, succulent and protein-rich variety that women used for bringing down their milk after childbirth and as a weaning food later on. Just as important, it flourished under the increasingly adverse soil and climate conditions of the High Plain – the Altiplano.
Vissar was incredulous. ‘Are you part of a church project?’ he asked.
‘You mean, is there some kind of NGO involved?’ She explained how her family, as members of the regional municipality and part of the farmers’ trade union, was linked to the entire Aymara nation, connected through Via Campesina (see box on p.24) to other farmer-researchers around the world. These were not, she emphasized, NGOs.
She answered his persistent questions. Yes, most of the quinoa breeders were women, but that was not true of all crops. No, they did not go through government-sponsored research trials because these were hostage to the transnational companies that only wanted quinoa for the upscale breakfast-cereal market in Germany or Japan – the companies generally dictated regulations to governments. Yes, that meant the farmers did sidestep phytosanitary controls, not because they wanted to but because the risks of disease were fewer than the likelihood of contamination by genetically modified organisms that came with the global corporate marketplace. (Ten years ago some of these organisms had shown up on the Altiplano and it had taken her committee the better part of a decade to eradicate the contamination.) Yes, that did mean Wal-Mart would probably never buy from them. But no, their goal was not to sell to Wal-Mart but to feed their families, barter with their neighbours and trade with the towns around them.
Vissar was feeling light-headed – and not just from the altitude. He had abandoned agronomy for his camera, and now he found the story counter-intuitive, delivered in staccato bursts of Aymara laced with Spanish by a storyteller who took the Andean vision and farm culture for granted. It was only when he returned to La Paz the next afternoon, exhausted by hours in the back of an open potato truck, that he was able to piece together what he had learned.
The NGOs had talked of ‘mainstreaming’ or ‘scaling-up’. The debate with Via Campesina had gone on for more than 20 years as some of the Latin Americans pressed to take their underground food-sovereignty movement into municipalities and agricultural schools. Local institutions could be transformed into allies, they insisted. If municipal governments and educational bodies were not transformed, the long-term struggle for food sovereignty would be jeopardized.
However, farmers’ organizations in Africa didn’t share the same kind of municipal history. Asian farmers’ organizations felt the heavy pressure of urban sprawl and wondered if it were not too late to seek allies in local government.
The impoverished town of Rosario, on the other hand, supported an old agricultural college, a new medical training facility and an almost grandiose town hall – which, in more orthodox times, had been a convent.
The September meeting of heads of government attending the UN General Assembly went almost unnoticed on the Altiplano. The North’s failure to meet the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) had been taken for granted. The Venezuelan President used the summit to press for a Latin American peso bank. The MDG failure made it harder for the US and its supporters to oppose the move. What really upset the US was that the peso bank would hold its foreign reserves in euros, not dollars. US hegemony in the region was threatened.
Via Campesina and rural municipalities throughout Latin America threw their support behind the peso bank. The blossoming ‘food sovereignty’ axis of food, health, education and cultural networks used their collective influence to build wider bridges to political parties and urban union or consumer movements. The coalition came together just in time to confront the Technology Transfer Treaty (TTT).
The global debate over the TTT brought matters to a head and played into the hands of the nascent global coalition of alternative movements. The TTT was one step too far. Under the pretence of facilitating technology transfer, it endorsed exclusionary cartels. As if the World Trade Organization (WTO) hadn’t been bad enough...
In the name of public health and safety, transnational agribusiness aimed to wipe out any seeds or foods that could not meet protocols for distinctiveness, uniformity and long-term stability. Farmers would not be allowed to save or grow non-registered plant varieties, which could not be registered unless they were maintained or patented by an enterprise with inspected facilities and liability insurance. Legal standards for size, shape and colour would be prerequisites for registration.
Via Campesina is an international movement which co-ordinates peasant organizations of small- and medium-sized producers, agricultural workers, rural women and indigenous communities from Asia, America and Europe. It is an autonomous, pluralistic movement, independent from all political, economic or other denomination.
Its origin dates back to April 1992 when peasant leaders got together in Managua, Nicaragua. In May 1993 the First International Conference was held in Mons, Belgium. In April 1996 the Second International Conference in Tlaxcala, Mexico, was attended by 69 organizations from 37 countries. It is now one of the most representative organizations for small- and medium-scale producers worldwide.
The principal objectives of Via Campesina are to promote:
• solidarity and unity in the diversity of small-farmer organizations
• economic relations of equality and social justice
• the preservation of land
• food sovereignty
• sustainable agricultural production
Among its strategic priorities are the strengthening of women’s participation and proposals on such issues as agrarian reform, production, trade, research, genetic resources, biodiversity and the environment.
Marta had just returned from a hastily called Via Campesina meeting in La Paz and she demanded a night-meeting with her committee. Certification would be impossible without the use of specific pesticides and herbicides. Labelling would be impossible without proof of purchase of specific seed-drilling, cleaning and harvesting equipment.
From the hills above Aksum in Ethiopia to the prairies of Saskatchewan in Canada, revolution was in the wind.
For the farmers around Rosario, resistance was relatively easy. Ever since the so-called ‘agricultural agreement’ struck during the Hong Kong meeting of the WTO in 2005, Marta and the rest of the leadership in the Bolivian farm movement had worked hard cultivating relations with municipal government and the agricultural school. They had occupied the Mayor’s chair and usually dominated the council chamber. Using resources provided by naïve but enthusiastic European NGOs, they had supported classroom materials, seminars and speakers at the agricultural school. The farmers proposed joint research initiatives with the school’s teachers and were able to come up with the money that made the school’s participation possible.
When things came to a head in the mid-2020s, it was not hard to convince the municipality to side with the farmers. Deliberately obstructive bylaws were passed that confounded agribusiness and supported local production. When the farmers organized highway blockades the Mayor refused to call out the police or request army intervention. Long-forgotten transport and sanitation laws were creatively interpreted to support the farmers against the companies. When La Paz sent troops to Rosario to clear the roads, the Mayor rushed to the blockade and informed an irate colonel that the farmers were a road-repair crew hired by the municipality.
And Rosario was connected to the world. Before dawn one Saturday morning, the Mayor got out of bed to participate in a video conference-call with cities throughout the world that were supporting the farmers. The mayors and farm leaders answered questions from the international media. Huddled in the pre-dawn light of the Mayor’s office lamp – and interrupting regularly in explosive half-Spanish, half-Aymara – was Marta.
Six months of demonstrations, road blockades and joint farmer/consumer boycotts, on every continent, forced the TTT to back down and make exemptions for farmers’ rights and food sovereignty. The farmers enjoyed unexpected support from urban consumers. Alarmed by the co-ordinated opposition, national governments – more usually under the control of their local élites – agreed to hold referenda on the TTT.
This spelled the beginning of the end. Despite a ‘gagging order’ from the global media corporations, the ‘indy’ (independent) movement of musicians, poets and writers joined forces with artists and actors to create an astonishing demonstration of resistance, diversity and artistry. On every plaza, mall and street corner, in every village, the marginalized cultural spirit of a dismissed generation inspired the protests and led the marches – first of tens of thousands, then of tens of millions.
The notion that small rural communities on the periphery of the metropolitan powers could actually weave a network of grassroots strategies to challenge the powers-that-be might seem absurd to those who have lived their lives in urban centres.
It doesn’t seem absurd, however, to farmers or indigenous peoples. Neither does it seem absurd to those struggling with health or education issues in local municipalities. Rural communities on the periphery already have high levels of organization. They already are more self-sustaining than urban communities. There already is a huge potential for farmers, organic growers, urban gardeners, Community Shared Agriculture and even the Slow Food Movement to unite with concerned consumers to challenge the industrial system.
The first referendum results from Africa, Latin America and Asia were an overwhelming rejection of the treaty. With breathtaking speed, the revolt spread to Europe and North America. Governments everywhere were in retreat. By the end of the year the TTT was dead.
Opposition to the TTT coalesced the energies of a number of social movements that had always known of one another but had rarely seen themselves as a common force for change. At least as far back as the mid-1970s, farmers on the periphery of urban centres had struck up associations with households, food co-ops and restaurants. Over time these loose arrangements morphed into regional, national and then global partnerships – Seikatsu clubs in Japan, Pergoa in Holland, AMAP in France, Community-Shared Agriculture in North America. These made a natural link with the Slow Food Movement which, by then, had spread from its Italian roots into a worldwide – if sometimes snobbish – network of restaurants and food activists.
The North’s web of interlocking interests spread from food and agriculture to health and urban planning. Alarmed by the explosion of obesity, diabetes, allergies and asthma – as well as by their financial cost – municipal and regional health systems reached out to co-ordinate a sea-change in social thinking. Social movements pushed hard for backyard and boulevard gardens and to turn the barren landscape of school grounds into orchards and gardens.
What for the North was a change of lifestyle, for the South was a matter of life and death. Latin America embraced agro-ecology. Tens of thousands of farms were sown to organic crops or pasture in Argentina, Uruguay and Costa Rica, with Brazil, Bolivia and Peru not far behind. Latin America’s political energy was contagious: the number of organic farms in Europe jumped from 167,000 in 2005 to over 300,000 at the time of the TTT.
North and South were bound together as climate change spurred everyone towards innovation and experimentation. The natural link was the seed. The genetic diversity of food crops was almost entirely in the South. As global warming shifted crop territories and created new pest and disease challenges, the demand for genetic diversity grew. Exchanges that had previously taken place only within countries or continents suddenly became global. Though they never met, the farmers of Rosario found themselves working with their counterparts in Ethiopia, Switzerland, Canada and Nepal.
Rosario became used to visitors clambering through the hills and valleys in search of farmers and farm diversity. The high-altitude crops of the Andes, the Himalayas and Ethiopia became the best hope for a good dinner in Europe.
The right-wing bioethicist, Deter Panger, warned Wall Street that the greatest threat to capitalism would not be found in the cities or in governments but among the small, renegade farms of the Global South. For once, he was spot on.
2035 – postscript
From the slopes of the Andes to the savannas of East Africa and the paddies on Mindanao, farming communities and farmers’ organizations had quietly strengthened their expertise. For the most part, governments had wisely steered clear. Although corporations occasionally pushed politicians to intercede, they usually avoided direct confrontation.