Solidarity the Peasant Way

by Denise O'Brien

One-hundred advocates of rural and farm organizations gathered from 37 countries around the world to Tlaxcala, in central Mexico, this past April to discuss ways to develop solidarity and unity among rural organizations. The Via Campesina, as the international group is called, promotes: The Via Campesina (literally translated "Peasant Road") coordinates organizations of peasants, small and medium-sized producers, agricultural workers and indigenous communities. It is independent of any political, economic or other type of attribution and is composed of national, representative organizations, whose autonomy is fervently respected.

As one of the few North Americans participating in this second triennial conference, I came away with a feeling of awe and responsibility. The awe comes from my days of participation with people from all over the world who are rising to meet the challenge of the globalized economy. Some had to struggle just to get there: 14 participants could not get their visas on time. One man from Pakistan arrived a day later than others because of visa complications. A man from the Philippines had to find a route that did not stop in the United States, because he is not allowed here.

My responsibility is to convince small and medium-sized producers in the United States that we must join with our brothers and sisters to counteract the devastation of the globalized economy. We all know that the same transnational corporations are affecting all of us in adverse ways. What are we going to do about it?

The four-day meeting was a lesson in consensus building and democracy in action. There was translation in three languages: Spanish, English and French as people from around the world reported on the social, political and economic situations in their respective regions.

The regional reports had some common threads: the same transnational corporations are subjecting farmers around the world to marginalization, as the farmers lose their land, access to credit and markets. Meanwhile, privatization takes away government programs designed to help low-income farmers and those with limited resources. And trade agreements place farmers in competition with each other to produce commodities at the lowest cost, which usually comes at great cost to the environment.

Joe Luis Lisbbey from Belize stated, "I begin to feel the problems are the same -- agribusiness - and the only alternative we have left is to develop our own responses to the problems with productive strategies."

Nettie Weibe, President of National Farmers Union Canada, urged people to "look past terms such as rich/poor, developed/developing, north/south and see the battle for what it is - farmers against global agro-industry interests."

The conference's Tlaxcala Declaration blamed "the prevailing neo-liberal economic system" as the main cause for the increasing impoverishment of farmers and rural peoples in general. "This economic system treats both nature and people as a means to an end, with the sole aim of generating profits. The concentration of all this wealth in the hands of a small minority has created dramatic constraints on farmers throughout the world, pushing them to the brink of irredeemable extinction."

The declaration expressed determination "to create a rural economy which is based on respect for ourselves and the earth, on food sovereignty, and on fair trade."

It expressed a commitment to rural development that recognizes the contribution of women, it demanded agrarian reform that returns territories to indigenous peoples and gives landless farmers ownership and control of the land they work.

The challenge ahead is implementation of strategies.

It is hoped that the presence of Via Campesina at the World Food Summit in Rome, Italy, this November will help raise the issues of concern to peasants and farmers to the attention of world leaders. Many world leaders have the mentality of "charity" or "helping" poor countries, but fewer leaders seem to recognize that producers and rural communities should have a say in determining their future.

Denise O'Brien is a farmer from southwestern Iowa, former president of the National Family Farm Coalition and is forming a new organization, Women, Food and Agriculture. Contact her at RR#2 Box 79, Atlantic, IA 50022 or call 712-243-5752.

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