Peasant Sovereignty?

by Jonathan Latham

By Evaggelos Vallianatos

In May 2014, the Spain-based international agrarian organization, Grain, reported that small farmers not only “feed the world with less than a quarter of all farmland,” but they are also the most productive farmers on Earth. For example, small farmers and peasants in nine European countries outproduce large farmers. The “productivity of small farms [in Europe] is at least twice that of big farms.” This remarkable achievement is not limited to Europe. Grain says: “if all farms in Kenya had the current productivity of the country’s small [peasant] farms, Kenya’s agricultural production would double. In Central America and Ukraine, it would almost triple. In Russia, it would be increased by a factor of six.”

The European invasion of the tropics in the fifteenth century, the industrialization of agriculture in the nineteenth century, and the triumph of communism in the twentieth century proved catastrophic for peasant societies.

China village
China village

These major events remade the world in the image of Europe. The European colonizers carried with them their mechanized agriculture and their distaste for things agrarian.

The British ruling class, for example, confiscated the land of British and Irish peasants, expelling many of them to Australia and to the Americas. This stealing of peasant land is what historians now call enclosure.

When the Europeans conquered the tropics, they put into practice enclosures. They confiscated the best land for themselves. They taxed and enslaved the native people by forcing them to grow cash crops for export.

The rise of communism had equally devastating effects on peasants in Russia, Eastern Europe, China and Southeast Asia. Communism lasted for most of the twentieth century.

This massive violence against peasant life and rural culture shaped our industrialized agriculture. Its failure today is therefore much more than the poisoning of our food and drinking water and the ecological devastation it sows. The blood of peasants and small family farmers is on the hands of industrialized agriculture. Its failure is thus moral and political as well.

Resistance and struggle

Despite the war against them, peasants continue to resist. Along with the organic or biological family farmers of the Western world, they offer the only hope for raising food without the deleterious consequences of industrialized agriculture.

In the mid-1970s, I tasted the bitter reality of the peasants. In 1976, I wrote my first book about them. I called it Fear in the Countryside because I sensed that fear in the country of Colombia where I did some of my research. Colombia in the 1970s, like almost everyone else, was enclosing land in a war against its peasants. America was on the side of landowners.

In the book I wrote that peasants are productive small family farmers feeding most of the world’s population. It is still true today. According to the February 2015 Berlin Memorandum on Sustainable Livelihoods for Smallholders, peasants “produce the bulk of all food in developing countries, including 70% of all the millets, tubers, fruits and vegetables.” Experts from Bolivia, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Germany and India wrote the Berlin Memorandum.

The pro-peasant message of my book infuriated the Charles Kettering Foundation, which funded my research. Like the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations, it was in the thick of private-public partnerships, funding and encouraging the industrialization of the tropics.

I refused to change my book so the Kettering Foundation wanted it buried. My publisher, Ballinger Publishing Company, warned the Kettering Foundation of bad publicity, if it suppressed my book. They resolved the controversy by having me not mention Kettering Foundation support. But the Foundation nevertheless insisted it had to have the book royalties. It got them.

Many things have happened since the 1970s. The World Bank and the US Agency for International Development and private foundations have created in the tropics the equivalent of US land grant universities. These international agricultural research institutes are the brain of agricultural industrialization worldwide.

My life also changed. Fear in the Countryside challenged my Greek metaphysics with the reality of our industrialized world. As a result, neither the American academic community nor the government treated me fairly. My colleagues at several universities did not feel comfortable with my critique of industrialization, especially my shedding light on the dreadful ecological and undemocratic effects of giant agriculture. My philosophy blocked any chance for academic tenure. At the US Environmental Protection Agency, where I worked for several years, my commitment to good science got me into trouble.

The rise of food sovereignty

But my personal costs pale into insignificance compared to the violence against peasants. Nevertheless, many have survived. Recently, international scholars have been focusing more attention on them. These social scientists publish their research primarily in the Journal of Peasant Studies, now edited in Holland by a scholar named Saturnino Borras.

The JPS is important. It monitors and studies the most despised but most important people on Earth. It keeps documenting the science, wisdom, and perseverance of peasants, their ecological farming and culture.

For the last two decades, JPS contributors and other rural academic experts have been talking about peasants using the concept of “food sovereignty.” This is a slogan, process, struggle, and battle cry designed to put the value of the peasants as well as their other assets in historical context. But, above all, food sovereignty is an inspiration to both peasants and those who study them. Some academics go further. They see food sovereignty as an alternative to the market economy (Edelman et al 2014).

In a recent volume of the JPS (41, Nos. 5-6 , Routledge, November 2014), food sovereignty academics examine why food sovereignty has become fashionable, indeed indispensable, in our understanding of the peasants. In fact, an international peasant movement, La Via Campesina, has adopted food sovereignty as its political agenda and philosophy.

Even the UN is taking the peasants seriously. In late January 2015, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a draft declaration on the rights of peasants. The UN declared, “Peasants and other people working in rural areas have the right to food sovereignty. Food sovereignty is the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through socially just and ecologically sensitive methods. It entails peoples’ right to participate in decision-making, and to define their own food and agriculture systems.”

This may be rhetorical hyperbole but it may also reflect a subtle change in the international system previously fully behind the violent landlords. Food sovereignty, for once, got its day in court.

In the academic world, the expert who captured the essence of the food sovereignty debate is the Dutch academic Jan Douwe van der Ploeg. He speaks of “peasant-driven agricultural growth and food sovereignty.” He says that in the absence of oppression peasants are the world’s best farmers. Their agricultural productivity, ingenuity, and resilience give them the potential “capacity to establish and secure food sovereignty.” In other words, peasants may be on the verge of getting power. They produce, he says, “(more than) sufficient good food for the growing world population.” They also grow all that food “in a way that is sustainable.”

Time has come for recognizing and rewarding the talents and hard work of peasants. Give them room to breathe.

The international community ought to support peasants rather than industrialized farmers who cause so much damage to our health, democracy, and the natural world. The international community should stop talking about “green revolution,” a code word for more agricultural industrialization of the tropics. Instead, they should talk about agrarian reform or how do we get land to the landless and more land to those who have little.

Support the ecological and productive peasants. Support their organic farm brothers and sisters in the West.

Edelman et al. (2014) Introduction: Critical Perspectives on Food Sovereignty. Journal of Peasant Studies 41: 911-931.

Evaggelos Vallianatos is the author of several books, including “Poison Spring: The Secret History of Pollution and the EPA” (with McKay Jenkins, Bloomsbury Press, 2014).

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