My week with La Via Campesina


27 July 2017

It’s not every day you get the opportunity to spend a few days with one of the world’s largest social movements. La Via Campesina represents 200 million small-scale food producers, agricultural workers and farmers across the world. Last week, the movement gathered for their four-yearly international conference with 500 delegates representing over 70 countries in Bilbao, The Basque Country.  The plenary was filled with delegates from Africa, Asia, Australia, North and South America and the Middle East and each session was a vibrant mix of culture and political discussion.

The members of La Via Campesina are on the front-line of the struggle against agribusiness and corporate control of the food system. And so there was no shortage of passion and vision as I joined with their celebrations of solidarity and culutre, silences to honour those who have been killed for defending their land as well as hearing about the challenges they face as a movement and then finally marching with them in the centre of Bilboa.

The conference is an impressive feat – 500 people working through differences in language and culture in an exercise of mass democracy and participation to build a global movement that is committed to solidarity, peace and equality. La Via Campesina was formed 24 years ago and has been key to the development of the food sovereignty framework. This is the powerful idea and practice that healthy and culturally appropriate food is a right for all people and that food and the resources to grow food should be in the hands of local communities rather than controlled by global corporations. 

A key theme running through the conference was solidarity with a recognition of the political struggles across the world – whether its small-scale farmers in occupied Palestine or displaced peasant communities in Honduras. And the growing persecution, criminalisation and discrimination against them were told as painful first hand testimonies alongside the resolve to achieve a UN declaration of rights for small-scale food producers by the end of next year.  

The threats faced by members of La Via Campesina are not unfamiliar to us. With growing right wing rhetoric against migrants and refugees across different regions, there is a danger of the far right co-opting the message of food sovereignty and using it to spread hatred and xenophobia. Paul Nicholson, one of the original founders of the movement  said:  “Our idea of food sovereignty is based on  a framework of solidarity and support for each other – not hatred.. We cannot accept a food sovereignty that the far right propose –that is we should get everything and others get nothing.” The culmination of the conference is the political declaration which recognises the movement has been built on joining "peasants, rural workers and migrants, not as victims deserving of assistance, but as holders of rights, including our right to free movement."

Opposing the WTO’s vision of agriculture and free trade deals is also a common struggle. As we oppose the dangers of a possible free trade deal with the US built on privatising public services, lowering regulatory standards and shoring up corporate power, other countries are also facing dangerous trade deals built on a similar corporate-led vision. An Indian delegate told me that fighting trade deals is getting harder with the growth in bilateral trade deals, ‘when it was the WTO we had one target but fighting trade deals means fighting on multiple fronts.’ What we are all fighting is the same battle for two competing visions of who controls food: The agribusiness vision of an export driven, commodity based model where costs and standards are cut to the bone to increase returns to shareholders versus a people-centred vision of locally produced food that builds local economies and feeds local communities with nutritious food. 

In a world where the forces of division and hatred are being unleashed to create a hostile world, seeing so many people from such diverse cultures and ethnicities united by their common struggle for peace and justice is a powerful experience. And with our campaigns on migration and trade and our support to push for a UN declaration of rights for small-scale food prodcuers,  we continue to build the movement for global justice in solidarity with La Via Campesina.

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Photo credit: La Via Campesina

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