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Farmers Mobilise to Find Solutions
Against Land Grabbings

by La Vía Campesina
Sélingué, Mali

17 November 2011 – Today, more than 250 participants, mainly representatives of farmers’ organisations, from thirty different countries gathered in Nyéléni Village, a centre for agro-ecology training built in a rural area near Sélingué, in Mali, to participate into the first International farmers’ conference to stop land grabbing. The Nyéléni village is a symbolic place, where the first international conference on Food Sovereignty was held in 2007. For three days, from the 17 to the 20 of November, participants are exchanging their experiences and creating alliances to stop the global land grab.

Land grabbing is happening everywhere, making the daily struggle of rural communities worldwide for survival even more difficult. Rights of family farmers, as well as pastoralists, artisanal fishers and indigenous communities, are violated constantly and their territories are being increasingly militarised. Small scale food production is replaced by large monoculture plantations for export and local farmers are left without land, without jobs, without food. This is why peasant organisations decided to mobilise together against this problem and create a space for exchanging experiences and finding common solutions.

At the opening ceremony Ibrahima Coulibaly, president of the CNOP (National Confederation of Peasant Organisations) of Mali, said: “The land belongs to local communities and it has been like that for generations. Now, governments are pushing farmers off their lands. This is not acceptable. It is a denial of historic rights, rights that exist since hundreds of years, while many states exist only since the 1960s. This shows how politicians are not connected to the people. The situation is very serious, and that is why we are here. We have the possibility in these three days to sit together, find a common understanding and find the solutions.”

Since the global food and financial crises broke out in 2008, governments and private firms have been increas­ingly acquiring large areas of fertile land in foreign countries all around the world. More then 60 countries have been targeted by hundreds of private corporations and dozens of governments. This international “land rush” affects as least 30 million hectares in Africa alone.

During the initial debates, participants shared their experiences and presented a multifaceted image of land-grabbing. On the one hand, they agreed that land grabbing is not a completely new phenomenon, as most countries have suffered it through colonisation and in some places colonial legal systems persist until now. On the other hand, they noted that land grabbing can have different shapes and forms as well. There is state-led land grabbing and there are land grabs by transnational corporations. There are land grabs to produce food for export, to produce agrofuels, land grabs for mining or other large infrastructural projects, periurban land grabs and so on. But even at the local level, leaders and community chiefs grab land. There are also mechanisms within families and communities that result in land grabbing, such as men denying women access to land, the widespread discrimination against young and women farmers, and land grabs by local elites.

In Africa, 80% of the population are small-scale family farmers and even though their means of production may be rudimentary, as many of them do not own even a plough, they are still able to feed the majority of the people. As land grabs push small farmers and pastoralists off their lands, they directly undermine food sovereignty.

“When we lose the land we lose our culture, communities and knowledge. The land for us is everything,” said a farmer from Senegal. Other farmers shared testimonies of local struggles and expropriation of communities across Africa and worldwide. “Farmers are being criminalised. Many of us are thrown into jail, only because we are trying to save our land and our way of life,” added a farmer from Indonesia. “More than fifty compañeros and compañeras have died in the last year while defending their land. Today, our territories are completely militarised,” said a farmer from Honduras, talking about the struggle of local communities in Bajo Aguán.

Here in Mali, around 800,000 hectares of land have been leased or are under negotiation for lease. One farmer from Kolongo, in the Ségou region, where two investors have grabbed peoples’ land, Malibya and Tomota, explained his experience: “We have been living in our villages for hundreds of years, yet nobody came and told us about these projects. Then one day, this machine came and started to dig. They gave us a paper which we could not read. So we had to show it to somebody who could tell us what it said. The paper said that we had to leave our land and our farms. Then they started to build a canal. They dug up a cemetery, they robbed us of our harvest and ruined our land. We organised a forum in Kolongo one year ago and we are still struggling for our rights, but we are really suffering.”

A woman farmer from the Office du Niger, where many different foreign investors have been grabbing lands, stood up and said: “We are really glad to be here today. In our villages, we are in real difficulty. The projects took away our lands, so we cannot produce food anymore. Due to the struggle, some of us are in jail and I myself had a miscarriage after I was beaten. We even had to send our children away, as there is no food. Now, we have no happiness but we are fighting for our future and for the coming generations. We came to this conference as we hope to struggle together.”

Every day, farmer and pastoralist communities are being expelled from their land. At the same time everywhere, resistance and new solutions are being developed to stop this massive land grabbing. In Senegal, since the recent conflict in Fanaye, which led to several deaths, farmers organisations, social movements, NGOs and human rights groups have set up a monitoring and alert committe to warn all civil society actors, journalists and decision makers whenever new land grabbing cases arise on the ground.

Participants agreed that this struggle to stop land grabbing is also a struggle to stop the ongoing commodification of seeds, water and knowledge and to support small-scale family farmers. Paul Nicholson, one of the leaders of La Via Campesina said: “Some people say that land grabbing is modernizing agriculture, and that it is the only solution to alleviating hunger. This is not true, what we need is food sovereignty. We must fight for our agroecological model, and we need policies that support family farmers everywhere. It is urgent to implement an agrarian reform all over the world.”


Nyéléni, Mali -- 19 November 2011 -- The National Confederation of Peasant Organization’s (CNOP) agroecological training center stands at the crossroads of the West African countryside. Surrounded with rich Malian farmland and dotted with white thatched-roof huts, the Niger River snakes into the horizon on one side, and a dusty road connects the property to the sleepy town of Sélingué. Today, well into the first International Peasant’s Conference, the center was buzzing with activity as peasants from across Africa and around the world worked together to envision communities where land is more than a commodity.

“This is the kind of awareness-raising that has the potential to change policy,” said Ibrahima Coulibaly, CNOP’s president and a Via Campesina leader. “As local and national movements, we need to fight together against the global structures that threaten our communities,” he added.

Over the course of the day, peasants outlined the enormity of their struggle against those international structures -- ranging from misguided pension funds to the innermost workings of financial institutions like the World Bank and the World Trade Organization. Following the financial crisis, pension and other investment funds have increasingly put their money toward natural resources and food -- commodifying historical rights to land and water.

“It’s the international institutions that deny us access to the common good, and threaten our ability to plant diverse crops that feed world,” offered Rafael Alegria, a Honduran Via Campesina leader. “And the only way that we can work against them and avoid becoming refugees on our lands is as a united movement.”

Via Campesina has already seen victories of the sort. In the mid 90s, representatives of their base organizations demonstrated at World Food Summit. Later, they were allowed inside once-closed doors where they observed decision-making processes, while still mounting pressure from the outside. After years of counter summits, Via Campesina has been given a voice that allows them to be a part of framing the debate and defining a global agenda.

“We hope that by the powerful participation of social movements, we will bring the food sovereignty agenda to the UN,” said Sofia Monsalve, a human rights expert with Food First Information and Action Network (FIAN). Via Campesina -- credited with coining the term “food sovereignty” -- has been determined to rethink the global notion of food security from its very origin.

But peasant movements concur that in the absence of control over their lands, real food sovereignty is impossible.

The cash-strapped Malian government, for example, has already allocated at least 750,000 hectares to multinational corporations for large-scale agricultural projects -- much of which is reserved for export. And more than 40% of those deals involve crops like Jatropha for agrofuels, feeding foreign machines instead of local people. Investors are offered attractive fiscal incentives and in some cases, first access to water from the Niger River. Entire communities are displaced while water resources and food supplies become increasingly vulnerable.

Delegates from dozens of countries shared similar statistics, and personal stories, from their own countries—where their indigenous lands have become magnets for foreign investors. By first shedding light on these David vs. Goliath struggles, their forum provides a space to come up with unified solutions to put an end to the new form of colonization that is land grabbing.
“We are decolonizing Africa here,” said Elizabeth Mpofu, a peasant woman from Zimbabwe. “Our job is to come up with democratic declarations at the grassroots level. It’s up to us to make sure that they reach our governments, and that they can be shared with all stakeholders -- including at the international level.” She recognized the enormity of that task, but at the same time felt empowered by her counterparts from five continents.

At CNOP’s open-air training center in Nyéléni, Ibrahim Coulibaly stood in the coarse sand, bright green Via Campesina flags hanging behind him. “Let’s start,” he said, opening yet another session, “We have a lot of hard work to do.” But for a brief moment, he paused, looking out over the diverse crowd of peasant leaders. Then he raised his voice and smiled. “There is so much energy here,” he beamed, “What an atmosphere.”

Published in In Motion Magazine November 19, 2011
Originally released: 17 and 19 November 2011

La Via Campesina -- An "international movement of peasants, small- and medium-sized producers, landless, rural women, indigenous people, rural youth and agricultural workers. ... We are an autonomous, pluralist and multicultural movement, independent of any political, economic, or other type of affiliation. Our 148 members are from 69 countries from Asia, Africa, urope, and the Americas."

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