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By Nic Pager-Clarke
Interview with Peter Rosset, specialist in agriculture and peasant movement, conducted by Nic Pager-Clarke for In Motion Magazine on April 15, 2005, in Venezuela, during a workshop on agrarian reform, held as part of a national conference called "The Third International Meeting of Solidarity with the Bolivian Revolution"
Agrarian Reform, Trade, Food Sovereignty, and Agroecology
Peter Rosset is a researcher at the Center for Studies for Change in the Mexican Countryside (CECCAM). CECCAM is a non-profit organization that supports the peasant movement in Mexico. He is also the co-coordinator of the Earth Action Research Network (LRAN) or http://www.acciontierra.org. This interview was conducted (and later edited) by Nic Pager-Clarke for In Motion Magazine on April 15, 2005, in San Felipe, Yaracuy, Venezuela, during a workshop on agrarian reform, conducted as part of a national conference called "The Third International Meeting of Solidarity with the Bolivian Revolution."
In Motion Magazine: More than by way of introduction, could you tell us why are you at this event in Venezuela (workshop on agrarian reform)?
Peter Rosset: I am here, in Venezuela, at this meeting, because Via Campesina (http://www.viacampesina.org) invited me to give technical support to a delegation of five people to represent the peasant movement during this event in Venezuela . More specifically, within the most extensive event we are following up on an agreement (Chávez, Los Tapes and Las Semillas) that President Hugo Chávez signed in the Tapes settlement in Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil, during the World Social Forum (2004) , a historic agreement between a government, that of Chávez, and a social movement, the movement of the landless, the MST, in Brazil, and with Via Campesina, which is the global alliance of peasant organizations, with a university and a state government in Brazil, to create a Latin American School of Agroecology for peasant movements. Also, the agreement promotes networks of farmers that will recover, gather and multiply local varieties of seeds in Latin America. To retrieve local seeds. To regain that kind of sovereignty over production that peasants lose when they depend on commercial seeds that come from private companies.
Recovering the seed
In Motion Magazine: That seems like one of the historic aspects of this deal — is this the way to get right into multinational companies like Monsanto?
Peter Rosset: Exactly. Multinationals, over the decades, have made inroads into every aspect of peasant activities, trying to appropriate their profit. If you look at what the peasants did a hundred years ago to maintain the fertility of the land - they rotated the crops and used manure; to control pests, they planted associated or polyculture crops; Whatever the peasant produced, the only input was his labor; and all they sold was their profit.
But private sector companies have gradually eroded all of that. Instead of using animal traction, the farmers have bought a tractor, so now the plowing of the field is the benefit of the company. Instead of fertilizing with organic matter and using crop rotation for soil fertility, a chemical fertilizer is used - which is another piece of what used to be a farmer's benefit and now ends up in the hands of the private company - another piece of the cake that ends up being one more benefit of the company.
Really, the only things they have left so far are the seeds but even the seeds, through hybrid seeds, are being appropriated by the private sector, now with the transgenic seeds and patents on life. This means privatizing the last bit of control over their production that farmers have, the last bit of their autonomy, the last bit of sovereignty, and the last bit of profit that remained from their agricultural activities.
I believe that the movement of peasants and family farmers is drawing a line and saying, "this far, no more" and "now our resistance begins," and "our defense begins with the seed, recovering the seed." The seed is the essence of life. " It is the essence of agriculture. And "we are going to conquer the system for the benefit of the people, instead of the companies," with good stewardship of the land and the environment. And that begins with the recovery of the seed.
Subsidies, public support for what?
In Motion Magazine: One of the big issues of divergence among rural communities is the issue of grants. There are many debates related to the issue of why to have them or not to have them, but it seems that the position of Via Campesina puts an end to the division.
Peter Rosset: The issue of subsidies is important to the Via Campesina peasant and family farmer movement because of its international relevance, and it is very different from the way it appears in the media. The way the issue is presented in the media is: the farmers in the north get subsidies, live well, and therefore harm the farmers in the south through dumping, cheap exports. The truth of the problem is another: all the peasants of the world need to have some type of public goods and services, either a road to access the market, or a guarantee price for their crops, or if it is a credit for their production, etc. . The position adopted by the peasant movement around the world is one that is based on the right of each country to have a public budget for rural areas, and if you want to call them that, like "subsidies," you can call it that, and if you want to call it a public sector budget, you can call it that too. What should not be allowed under any circumstances are subsidies that harm farmers in third countries.
So, that means public funding to support the transition to sustainable agriculture is fine, as is public support for land conservation, for direct sale from farmers to consumers, etc. — because none of These things harm others, and everyone contributes to a better life in the rural world, both in terms of the rural ecology and the rural economy.
The difference would be an export subsidy, such as one that makes it possible for Cargill, or Archer Daniels Midland, or Nestlé, or Parmalat, to take a product and place it in a market in another country below production costs , pushing local farmers out of business - that is a subsidy that hurts a third country.
The dividing line adopted by the peasant movement is between subsidies or budgets that harm third parties, and those that do not. Among the categories of those that do not harm third parties, they admit that each country and its people should have the right to design their own production and food system, including subsidies. If that system includes public support for agriculture, that's your right — as long as it doesn't harm people in other countries.
Export credits or subsidies
In Motion Magazine: And the negative subsidies you are talking about that are for farmers, or are they for companies?
Peter Rosset: Exactly. The way the subsidy system works is typically like this: money sometimes briefly passes through the hands of farmers, and sometimes it doesn't, and goes directly to companies as export credits or guarantees. Clearly, the current system has to change, but the peasant organizations, neither in the north nor in the south, are crying out for the end of all subsidies. What they say is, what kind of subsidies? How much? Paid to whom and for what? And then we will tell you if it is a good or bad thing ”.
In Motion Magazine: How does this relate to food sovereignty?
Peter Rosset: The philosophy that guides Via Campesina is food sovereignty. If we are able to feed ourselves, as a people or as a nation, it is equivalent to national sovereignty or national security. If you can't feed yourself, if your country lives at the expense of the global economy and the goodwill of the superpowers for your people to have their next meal, then you are not a sovereign state.
Sovereignty begins with the ability to feed yourself. But not only sovereignty at the national level, but sovereignty at all levels, even at the level of my body. What am I putting into my body? Am I eating poison or am I eating healthy food? That is almost a matter of personal sovereignty.
At the level of the peasant community, or the indigenous community, are they capable of producing enough food to feed themselves as well as having a life with dignity in the countryside? " Food sovereignty says that each nation and people should have the right to define their own type of agriculture, their own food system, in line with their own culinary history and agrarian traditions, and may include subsidies, and may not include subsidies, such and as they decide, as long as they do not harm, as I have already said, the farmers or inhabitants of another country.
People and countries have the right to sovereignty over what they eat - to define what they eat, how it is produced, who produces it. Health, environmental and local economic development issues are therefore critical in this concept of food sovereignty.
Real agrarian reform: a different path of development
In Motion Magazine: One of the specific issues of this event in San Felipe, is the agrarian reform, since you have studied the peasant and agrarian economies in many different countries ...
Peter Rosset: The Land Action Research Network (LRAN) is really a working team of activist researchers on land reform issues, and we work in solidarity with movements fighting for land reform in different countries.
In Motion Magazine: How do you see this movement here in Venezuela, and how does it compare to other movements for agrarian reform?
Peter Rosset: In general, land reform goes beyond simple land distribution, where you are basically distributing parcels. Agrarian reform also means creating the conditions necessary to guarantee the success of family farming. It is the first step towards a different model or a different path of development. Without access to land, it is impossible to reduce rural poverty anywhere in the world because when most people do not have access to productive resources, the rest of the possible policies are more or less irrelevant. It is the starting point of an alternative path of development.
There was a period of time after World War II when land reform was in vogue and some were carried out effectively. Effective considering the good quality of the land that was redistributed to most of the people who needed it. That proved to be a starting point or change in the economic development of countries that have currently been successful, from an economic point of view, but were very poor at that time - both socialist and capitalist. Countries like Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan in the capitalist bloc and countries like China, Vietnam and Cuba in the socialist bloc. The shift in its economic development towards a more inclusive model, towards an increase in the living standards of all people, began with a real agrarian reform.
But then land reform became a taboo subject. Under the Washington Consensus, if Third World people said words like "land reform" they would probably disappear the next day. This happened for several decades.
No government pushed for land reform, until in the last ten years or so, peasant movements have become stronger and have pushed the issue of land reform, putting it back into the development debate - especially rural development, but development in general.
At this moment, the only government in the world with at least a semi-serious commitment in the matter of agrarian reform is Venezuela, and that is because Via Campesina, as an international movement, and LRAN, as agrarian reform researchers , they worry a lot about what happens in Venezuela. This is one of the main reasons why we are here - to see what is happening with the distribution of land, or agrarian reform, in Venezuela.
Agrarian reform and citizen participation
In Motion Magazine: What is the relationship between the ideas of participatory democracy and agroecology? - do people really use the ideas of agroecology and agrarian reform?
Peter Rosset: Without any kind of citizen participation you will never have agrarian reform and you will never have a transformation from the production system intensive in the use of chemical products and the transgenic model, to an agroecological model. It is simply impossible, because the force of the institutions of the status quo is too powerful. If the system is defending the latifundia or if it is defending the agro-chemical industry, without a popular movement, a mass movement, you are not going to change it.
What we see as the key factor is the strength, cohesion, intelligence, maturity, and strategies of the peasant movements, in terms of being able to take control over their own reality and transform it. Part of that means fighting for access to land and agrarian reform. Part of this means breaking with the predominant technological model that makes peasants dependent, that makes them go bankrupt due to high production costs. It means developing indigenous models based on the recovery of local knowledge, local ecological processes, and more diversified ecological production systems.
In general terms, Via Campesina is a global movement of peasants committed to all of this. But it's one thing to be rhetorically engaged, it's another to actually make it happen. Just for it to happen requires a tremendous amount of organizational capacity at the base, in rural areas. We see the greatest expression of this in Brazil with the MST, which is the best organized peasant movement in the world, right now, and has actively transformed the reality of more than a million people occupying more than eight million hectares of land that previously they belonged to absentee owners of the upper bourgeoisie. The MST is now betting on a transition to organic farming in those areas where they have created settlements.
Brazil / Venezuela: two different situations
The situation in Venezuela is very different. In Brazil, the MST is carrying out land reform despite the fact that even the Lula government, much less previous governments, have shown no real commitment to carry out serious land reform. The MST have been swimming against the current. They have been able to do it only thanks to their organizing power. The situation in Venezuela is very different. It is almost the opposite.
Here, there is a very progressive president who has affirmed a very serious commitment to agrarian reform. It has passed a relatively progressive land law. However, the peasant movement here is much less organized and much younger than the Brazilian one. Chávez could have become president of Venezuela, but that does not automatically change institutions overnight, nor does it change the ownership structure. It does not change the fact that in rural areas in Venezuela it is still the landowners, and their private thugs, their hired security guards, who control what happens in rural life. Chávez as president does not change the employees of the ministries. He can change ministers, but there are not enough young people trained to fill each of the positions in the Ministry of Agriculture (for example), to change overnight. Therefore, despite the fact that there is an agrarian reform declared from above, it is still very difficult to achieve real progress.
In theory, peasants, under the land law in Venezuela, can identify a parcel of land that has been acquired illegally - typically most of the land in the hands of large landowners was acquired illegally, and this is generally true all over the world - and if they can prove it then there is a legal process to go through to request that the land be transferred to them. But that process has not worked very well precisely because Chávez as president does not transform all of Venezuela overnight. The latifundistas still have their thugs hired and when peasant groups request the land, very often their leaders are assassinated. One hundred and thirty peasant leaders have been assassinated in Venezuela since the approval of the land law and not a single person has been prosecuted for it. Not because Chávez did not want to bring them before the law, but precisely because the owners use the technique of hiring members of hitmen on special occasions to murder someone and the hitmen disappear, often to Colombia. There is no way to identify and locate them, much less to be arrested, much less to prove that there is a relationship of authorship of the events. The institutions do not move because the institutions are still the same as the previous government. Generally speaking, 95% of the employees are the same. You have a rather peculiar situation where there are many landless peasants who want an agrarian reform, being intimidated by the owners, with a revolutionary government demanding an agrarian distribution and having an agrarian reform law in hand.
Moments of transition
I believe that this will change for the better because the frustration on the part of the peasantry for not achieving their dream of agrarian reform, with the Chávez presidency, is forcing them to organize much better. We see how the agrarian reforms have been successful in the past… For example, the Cuban revolution - it wasn't just Fidel Castro saying, "Now there is an agrarian reform." In fact, doing a real agrarian reform in Cuba took many years in the 1960s. It was only because the peasants organized and pushed from below that the agrarian reform could become successful. It requires a commitment from above, but it also requires pushing from below - from both sides - for agrarian reform to really happen, for land distribution to really happen.
So I think this is a time of transition. There are these turning points in history - as has happened in other revolutions - discontent leads to a point where people really get organized enough to protect themselves from the thugs of landlords, and to force bureaucracies reluctant to truly enforce the law. I see this moment as a moment of transition in Venezuela. I am predicting the future, which is always dangerous, but I have the feeling that we are going to see a joint and rapid maturation of the process of formation of the peasant movement. I hope and believe that it is now that we finally get the necessary strength to push for the real application of the agrarian reform, which has been more theory than practice until now.
Via Campesina: responding to rural crises everywhere
In Motion Magazine: returning to Via Campesina. how it began? what does?
Peter Rosset: As I have mentioned before, La Via Campesina right now is a global coalition or an alliance of family farming and peasant movements in the world. By the world, I mean the countries of the north, south, east, west, and family farmers, peasant organizations, indigenous peoples organizations, the landless, rural women, rural youth, labor unions, some organizations of artisanal fishermen, etc. It probably broadly represents about 200 million people in the world, and it is growing very rapidly.
It was founded in 1992 as farmers' organizations began to realize that there is a rural crisis in all parts of the world. If it was the rural United States, in the Midwest with the farm crisis, or Europe where 4,000 family farms lose their land each week, or it is Latin America, or Africa, or Asia, they have all seen a mass exodus from the countryside. to the city - the rural crisis was the same and there was a conflict everywhere between two different models of agriculture.
Two models of agriculture
One, the agribusiness model: industrial agriculture, large-scale monoculture for export, high volumes, low prices, low quality, unhealthy food that moves in the global economy, driving local farmers out of their local markets anywhere place, and basically poisoning consumers with fats, sugar, salt, artificial colors and artificial flavors and other types of carcinogens.
Two, what we call in the US the family farming model, what people in southern countries call the peasant model, or agriculture based on the family system: more in line with the land. Rather than producing tasteless products for the global market, they produce real food for real people in local, regional and national economies, through more sustainable agricultural practices.
And while the dominant model has been pushing family farmers and peasants to extinction for several decades, it is finally reaching a point where family farmers and peasants are saying "Enough is enough!", "This far and no more ”,“ now we fight back ”.
We have seen that now this movement, La Via Campesina, has become the most dynamic among this broader movement that we call the anti-globalization movement - fighting against trade liberalization policies, against the WTO in Seattle and Cancun, against the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), against GMOs, in favor of agroecology, and agrarian reform. He is - I hate to use words like avant-garde - but he is really the leader among social movements on a global scale fighting corporate globalization. It is the people most excluded by the dominant model who are now the first to respond and who are showing the way to others, I believe, to many other sectors and movements.
I hope that soon consumers will have a global alliance like Via Campesina. The artisanal fisherman already has it. I hope that the movements of women, of indigenous peoples, the legitimate unions, can have the same kind of expression and leadership internationally. But now it is La Via Campesina that is showing the way in terms of global, national and local counterattack, in rural communities around the world.
Participatory democracy, community organization
In Motion Magazine: Is there a connection between participatory democracy and people producing food to survive?
Peter Rosset: People producing food for people, for their own subsistence, but also for others - that is - rather than producing for distant markets and corporations that turn it into low-quality junk food.
And a participatory democracy not in the sense that everyone goes to the polls and votes for one or more identical parties, but rather participatory democracy in the sense that people organize in their own communities, taking control of their own reality. and transforming it in a positive direction. For me that is real participatory democracy. It has practically nothing to do with the ballot box, which is almost like a mock democracy. It is a superficial process that only skims the surface of the real change that is needed to eliminate poverty and environmental degradation around the world. That real change only happens when people take responsibility for their own reality and transform it. That to me is participatory democracy, other people might call it a community organization, but whatever it is, that is what is really needed and that is the essence of what it is all about.
Changes in the food system
In Motion Magazine: In corporate terms, is it the food industry that has taken the hit - and outside of this, is this movement growing?
Peter Rosset: Exactly, it is a movement that responds to the global food industry. Whether we are talking about Monsanto and seeds, if it is Cargill and the world grain trade, if it is Nestlé, if it is Parmalat, or if it is a supermarket chain dictating to everyone the supply of the chain, the type of generic products without The tasteless, identically uniform quality they want is the system that is killing consumers with obesity and diabetes, as well as heart disease and cancer, and killing farmers by driving them out of the field.
It is precisely the Via Campesina that is fighting against all this, it is fighting back. Farmers are leading the way, but the rest of the people who eat this food must be willing to join the protest, because it is just as important for us, for consumers, for farmers, as for producers that we change. the food system.
* Translated for Rebellion by Elisa Botella - Rebellion -
Interview with Peter Rosset, specialist in agriculture and peasant movement - In Motion Magazine -