Peasants speak out against food imports

by Mario Osava

Porto Alegre, Brazil, 30 Jan 2001 (IPS) -- Peasant farmers from around the world resolved at the World Social Forum - which draws to a close Tuesday in this southern Brazilian city - to take action against the international food trade, charging that food must not be treated like just any commodity.

In an effort against the tide of global trade liberalisation, the international group Via Campesina announced that Apr. 17 will be a worldwide day of protest against cheap food imports, especially those coming from the wealthy nations of the North.

That date is the International Day of Peasant Struggle, in remembrance of the massacre of 19 peasants five years ago in Eldorado de Carajas, in northern Brazil.

Using events around the world, in addition to demanding justice for the massacre, activists plan to denounce patents (property rights) for seeds and condemn global trade that destroys family farming, announced Egidio Brunetto, a leader of Brazil’s ‘Movimento dos Sem Terra’ (MST, landless movement).

Via Campesina is a global movement of landless workers, small farmers and indigenous communities, that has had a massive and active presence at the six-day World Social Forum, including presentations by France’s Jose Bove, a sheep farmer known for taking radical action, such as destroying a half-built McDonald’s fast-food restaurant.

The Peasant Confederation, a European group, will fight the export of subsidised foods from their home countries because “Europe does not have the vocation of an exporter of raw materials,” maintained Bove in statements Monday night about his ideals and actions.

Brazil’s federal police ordered Bove to leave the country after arresting him Monday, and charging him for participating last Friday, alongside MST activists, in tearing up an experimental plot of transgenic crops. The farm, located in Nao me Toque, 300 km from Porto Alegre, capital of Rio Grande do Sul state, belongs to the US-based transnational Monsanto.

The French farmer was ordered to leave Brazil within 24 hours, in other words, by Tuesday night, coinciding with the conclusion of the World Social Forum, which brought thousands of delegates and activists from more than 120 countries to discuss alternatives to the neoliberal model of globalization.

Joao Pedro Stedile, leader and ideologue of the MST, disagreed with fighting the European Union’s farm subsidies, which are widely blamed for distorting international trade to the detriment of developing countries.

The problem is not the subsidies in Europe, Stedile pointed out, but the lack of subsidies in Brazil and elsewhere. He condemned what he sees as the transformation of food products into a simple tool for business and profits.

“Each country should produce its own food” to the extent possible, preventing imports that take away the peasants’ “right to produce,” argued Rafael Alegria, a Honduran leader of Via Campesina, which focuses on matters of food sovereignty and security, and defends measures that protect national markets.

The objective, said Alegria, is to oppose multinational corporate domination of the world food markets, because it is eliminating small-farm production, expanding rural poverty, and causing an exodus from the countryside to the cities, adding to the problem of over-crowded marginalized neighbourhoods.

Henry Saragih, an Indonesian delegate to the World Social Forum, cited the example of low rice prices (the result of imports of the grain from the United States), which are devastating the rice farmers in his country.

The same dynamic affects European farmers, who face bankruptcy from a system that favours only the big farms, said the MST’s Brunetto, underscoring their common struggle worldwide.

Via Campesina also proposed at the Forum that seeds should belong to all humanity, without the monopolisation represented by patenting. The group stressed that the issue is deeply linked to the fight against transgenics, or genetically modified organisms.

The movement’s leaders defended the idea that agrarian reform must be accelerated, validating the actions of groups like the MST in Brazil, which is famed for taking over farms that have been left fallow and settling hundreds or thousands of landless peasants on the land.

In the larger picture, Via Campesina rejects the creation of the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) and announced that peasant activists would be taking part in the protests against the trade negotiations in April at the continental summit in Quebec, Canada.

Alegria called for an end to the violence against peasant farmers, such as “the extermination of leaders in the struggle for agrarian reform in Colombia” committed by right-wing paramilitaries, the massacres in Brazil and the suicides provoked among small farmers in India, who are overwhelmed by unpayable debt.

The MST’s Stedile stated that transgenic products must be abolished, because in addition to the risks they pose for human health and the environment, they consolidate the monopolisation of seeds in the hands of just six transnational corporations, which itself constitutes a serious threat to humanity.

The protest against Monsanto, which led to Bove’s expulsion from the country, was an attempt to highlight the problem and was a symbolic act, justified the MST leader.

The field they invaded should be expropriated by the government and used instead for improving seeds using traditional peasant methods, not genetic engineering, he said.

The action against the multinational demonstrates that the farmers, or at least the MST and Bove, have learnt to use attention-getting actions to obtain media coverage and raise public awareness about their struggle.

The landless peasant movement in Brazil owes a great deal of its success to “the mysticism, the symbolism” of using popular culture and music, Stedile acknowledged in his presentation before the World Social Forum.

The Porto Alegre event ran concurrently - as an alternative - to the World Economic Forum, held in the Swiss alpine resort of Davos, where political leaders, financiers and multinational executives discussed policies that seek to deepen the globalization process.