Interview with Peter Rosset
of CECCAM and Land Research Action Network
Agrarian Reform, Land Reform, Food Sovereignty
San Felipe, Yaracuy, Venezuela
In Motion Magazine: As a further introduction could you say why you are at this event here in Venezuela (the workshop on land reform).
Peter Rosset: Im here in Venezuela at this meeting because I was invited by Via Campesina to be part of a technical team or delegation of five people to come here representing the international farmer and peasant movement during this event in Venezuela. Specifically, within the larger event we are doing followup on an agreement (Chavez, Los Tapes y Las Semillas) that President Hugo Chavez signed at the MST settlement of Tapas in Rio Grande Do Sul, Brazil during the (2004) World Social Forum which was an historic agreement between a government, the Chavez government, and a social movement, the Landless Social Movement, the MST, in Brazil, plus the Via Campesina, as the global alliance of peasant organizations, and a university and a state government in Brazil to create a Latin American School of Agroecology for peasant movements. Also, the agreement promotes networks of farmers who will recover, collect, and multiply local varieties, heirloom varieties, of seeds in Latin America. To recover local seeds. To recover that kind of sovereignty over production that farmers lose when they depend on commercial seeds that come from seed companies.
In Motion Magazine: That seems one of the historic aspects of this agreement -- that this a way of going around the multinational corporations like Monsanto?
Peter Rosset: Exactly. The multinationals, over the decades, have made incursions into every aspect of farming activity and appropriated it for profit. If you look at what farmers did a hundred years ago to maintain soil fertility -- they rotated crops and they manured; to control pests they did mixed plantings with companion crops; whatever the farmer produced the input was their labor; and what they sold was their profit.
But the private sector companies have bit by bit eroded that. Instead of using animal traction the farmers are sold a tractor, so that now plowing the field is a profit for a company. Instead of manuring and crop rotation for soil fertility, there is a chemical fertilizer -- that is another piece of the farmers profit that goes to a private company. Instead of controlling the pests with companion planting they now use pesticide -- another piece of the pie taken as profit for a private company.
Really, the only things that were left were seeds and even seeds, through hybrid seeds, are being appropriated by the private sector now with transgenic seeds and patents over life. This is privatizing the last sphere of control that farmers have, the last bit of autonomy, the last bit of sovereignty, and the last bit of profit that they have in their agricultural activities.
I think the peasant and farmer movement globally is drawing a line in the sand and saying, Up to here, and Now starts our resistance, and Our defense starts with the seed, recovering the seed. The seed is the essence of life. It is the essence of agriculture. And we are going to re-conquer the system for the benefit of people rather than corporations in terms of being good stewards of the land and the environment. And that starts with recovering the seed.
In Motion Magazine: One of the big dividing factors between rural communities is the issue of subsidies. There are multiple arguments as to why you should have them or you shouldnt have them, but it seems like this agreement completely does an end-run around that whole division?
Peter Rosset: The subsidy issue is important to the farmer and peasant movement of Via Campesina as its international expression and very different from the way it is reported in the media. The way it is reported in the media is: farmers in the North get subsidies, live well, and then hurt farmers in the South by dumping cheap exports. The truth of the subsidy matter is really different and that is that all farming peoples need to have some kind of public sector goods, whether it is the road to get the market, whether it is a price support system for their crop, or whether it is credit. The position of the farmer and peasant movement around the world is that every country should have the right to have a budget for rural areas and if you want to call it subsidies you can call it subsidies, and if you want to call it a public sector budget you can call it a public sector budget. What shouldnt be allowed is subsidies that damage farmers in other countries.
So, that means that public funds to support the transition to sustainable agriculture are fine -- public funds for soil conservation, for direct marketing between farmers and consumers -- because none of those things damage anyone else and they all contribute to a better rural life, rural ecology, and rural economy.
The difference would be a subsidy for export, for example, that enables Cargill, or Archer Daniels Midland, or Nestle, or Parmalat to take a product and place it in a market of another country below the cost of production and drive local farmers out of business -- thats a subsidy that damages a third party.
The line that the farmer movement wants to draw is between subsidies or budgets that damage third parties and those that dont. Among the category of those that dont they say that every country and people should have the right to design their own system. If that system includes public support for agriculture, thats their right -- as long as it doesnt damage people in other countries.
In Motion Magazine: And the negative subsidies you are talking about arent for farmers, they are for corporations?
Peter Rosset: Exactly. The way the subsidy system works, typically, is sometimes it passes briefly through the hands of farmers, and sometimes it doesnt and goes directly to corporations as export credits or guarantees. Clearly the current system has to be changed but farmer organizations, neither in the North or in the South join the cry for an end to all subsidies. What they say is, What kind of subsidies? How much? Paid to who and for what? And then well tell you if its a good thing or a bad thing.
In Motion Magazine: How does this relate to food sovereienty?
Peter Rosset: The guiding philosophy of Via Campesina is food sovereignty. Being able to feed yourself as a people or as a nation is something that is equivalent to national sovereignty or national security. If you cant feed yourself, if your country is at the whim of the global economy and superpower goodwill for your people to have their next meal, you are not a sovereign state.
Sovereignty starts with being able to feed yourself. But not just sovereignty at the national level, sovereignty at every level, even at the level of my body. What goes into my body? Am I eating poisons or am I eating healthy food. Thats almost an issue of personal sovereignty.
At the level of a peasant community, or an indigenous community, Are they able to produce enough food to feed themselves as well as to learn a living with dignity in the countryside? Food sovereignty says that every nation and people should have the right to define their own kind of agriculture, their own kind of food system in accordance with their own culinary and historic and agrarian traditions and can include subsidies, and cannot include subsidies, as they choose, as long as it doesnt damage, as I said, farmers or people in another country.
Peoples and countries have a sovereign right over what they eat -- to define what they eat, how its produced, who produces it. Issues of health, the environment, and local economic development are all critical therefore in this concept of food sovereignty.
In Motion Magazine: One of the specific topics of this event here in San Felipe is land reform and you have studied farmer and peasant economies in a lot of different countries
Peter Rosset: The Land Research Action Network is actually a network of activist researchers on land reform issues and we work in solidarity with movements that are fighting for land reform in different countries.
In Motion Magazine: How do you see this movement here in Venezuela and how does it compare to other land reform movements?
Peter Rosset: In general, agrarian reform goes beyond just land reform, where you are just giving out land. Agrarian reform means also creating the conditions for successful family farming. Agrarian reform is the first step towards a different model or a different track of development. Without land it is impossible to address rural poverty anywhere in the world because when you have the majority of the people cut off from access to productive resources the rest is almost irrelevant. Its the starting point for any alternative track of development.
There was a period of time after World War II when land reform was in vogue and there were some effective land reforms. Effective in the sense that good quality land was distributed to the majority of the people who needed it. That proved to be the turning point in the economic development of countries that are now very economically successful but were very poor at the time -- both socialist and capitalist. Countries like Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan in the capitalist bloc and countries like China, Vietnam, and Cuba in the socialist bloc. The turning point in their economic development towards a more inclusive model, towards raising living standards for everybody, was real agrarian reform.
But then that became taboo. Under the Washington Consensus, if people in Third World countries said the words land reform they would probably be disappeared the next day. That went on for several decades.
No governments were pushing land reform until, in the last ten years or so, peasant movements have become very strong and have forced the topic of agrarian reform back in to the debate over development -- especially rural development, but development in general.
At this point in time, the only government anywhere in the world with at least a semi-serious commitment to the issue of agrarian reform is Venezuela and thats why Via Campesina, as an international movement, and the Land Research Action Network, as researchers of land reform, care very much about what happens in Venezuela. Thats one of the main reasons why we are here -- to see what is going on with the land reform, or the agrarian reform, in Venezuela.
In Motion Magazine: What is the relationship between the ideas of participatory democracy and Agroecology -- people actually using the ideas of agroecology and land reform?
Peter Rosset: Without some kind of citizen participation you are never going to have agrarian reform and you are never going to have a transformation of production from a chemical intensive and GMO model to an agroecological model. Its just not possible because the strength of the institutions of the status quo is too powerful. Whether its defending land landed estates or whether its defending the agro-chemical industry, without a citizen movement you are not going to change it.
What we see as the key factor is the strength, cohesion, intelligence, maturity, strategy of peasant movements, in terms of being able to take control over their reality and transform it. Part of that means fighting for access to land and land reform. Part of it means breaking with the dominant technological model of chemicals which makes farmers dependent, which makes farmers go broke because of high production costs. It means developing autochthonous models based on recovering local knowledge, on local ecological processes, on more diversified ecological production systems.
In general, Via Campesina as a global peasant movement is committed to that. But it is one thing to be committed to it in rhetoric and it is another thing for it to really happen. For it to really happen requires a tremendous amount of organizational capacity at the base level in rural areas. We see the greatest expression of this in Brazil with the Landless Workers Movement - MST (click here to read an interview with Geraldo Fontes of the MST) which is the most organized peasant movement in the world, right now, and has actively transformed reality for more than a million people in occupying more than eight million hectares of land that previously belonged to the absentee landlord gentry. The MST is now pushing a transition towards ecological farming in those areas where they have created settlements.
In Venezuela it is a very different situation. In Brazil, the Landless Workers Movement, the MST, is doing it (land reform) despite the fact that even the Lula government, and much less the previous governments, have not expressed any interest in serious land reform. They have been swimming upstream. They have been able to do it only the on the strength of organization. Venezuela is a very different situation. Its almost the opposite.
Here, there is a very progressive president who has stated a very strong commitment to agrarian reform. He has passed a relatively progressive land law. However, the peasant movement here is much less organized and much younger than in Brazil. Chavez may have become president of Venezuela but that doesnt automatically overnight change the institution, change the structure of landholding. It doesnt change the fact that in rural areas in Venezuela its still the landlords, and their private thugs, hired guards, that control what goes on in rural life. Chavez becoming president doesnt change the staff in the ministries. He may change the ministers but there are not enough young people trained to occupy every position in the ministry of agriculture (for example) to change it overnight. So, despite the fact that there is agrarian reform from the top, its been very difficult for it to move forward on the ground.
In theory, peasants under the land reform law in Venezuela can identify a piece of land that has been acquired illegally -- typically most land owned by large landlords was acquired illegally, that is generally true around the world and if they can demonstrate that then there is a legal process they go through to solicit to have the land being transferred to them. (But) that process has not worked very well because just Chavez becoming president doesnt overnight transform Venezuela. The landlords still have hired thugs and when peasant groups solicit the land very often their leaders are assassinated. One hundred and thirty peasant leaders have been assassinated in Venezuela since the land reform law was passed and not one single person has been brought to justice for it. Not because Chavez wouldnt like to bring them to justice but because the landlords use the technique of hiring members of gangs on a one-off time to murder someone and the gang members disappear, often into Columbia. There is no way to track them down, let alone arrest them, let alone prove the relationship of intellectual authorship. The institutions dont move because the institutions are still the same as in the previous government. By and large, 95% of the staff is the same. You have an odd situation where theres lots of peasants without land who want land reform being intimidated by landlords, with a revolutionary government calling for land reform and having a land reform law.
I think its going to change for the better because the frustration on the part of the peasantry in not having the dream of land reform with the Chavez presidency is forcing them to organize themselves much better. And the way successful land reforms have happened in the past. For example, the Cuban revolution -- it wasnt just Fidel Castro saying, Now theres a land reform. In fact, it took many years in the 1960s for Cuba to do a real land reform. It was only because the peasants organized and pushed from below that a land reform law from above could become effective. It requires a commitment at the top, but it also requires the pushing at the bottom -- from both sides -- for land reform really to happen, for agrarian reform to really happen.
So, I think this is a moment of transition. There are these turning points in history -- the same thing has happened in other revolutions -- the discontent builds to the point where people do get organized enough to protect themselves against the thugs from the landlords to force reluctant bureaucracies to actually apply the law. I see this as a moment of transition in Venezuela. Im predicting the future, which is always dangerous, but I have the feeling we are about to see a coalescing and a rapid maturation process of the peasant movement. I hope and I believe that that is now going to finally get the strength to push through the actual application of the agrarian reform which has been more theory than practice until now.
In Motion Magazine: Back to Via Campesina. How did it get started? What does it do?
Peter Rosset: As I said before, Via Campesina right now is the global coalition or alliance of family farmer movements and peasant movements in the world. By the world I mean Northern countries, Southern countries, countries in the east, countries in the west, family farmers, peasant organizations, indigenous peoples organizations, some fisher folk organizations, landless people, rural woman, rural youth, farmworker unions. It probably represents well over 200 million people in the world and is growing very rapidly as more and more organizations.
It was founded in 1992 as peasant organizations began to realize that there is a rural crisis everywhere. Whether it was rural America, in the Midwest with the farm crisis, whether its Europe where 4,000 farm families lose their land every week, whether its Latin America, or Africa, or Asia that have all seen the massive exodus from the countryside to the city -- the rural crisis was the same and there was a conflict between two different models of agriculture on a global scale.
One, the agribusiness model: industrial agriculture, large-scale for export, high volume, low prices, low quality, unhealthy food being moved around the global economy driving local farmers out of business everywhere and basically poisoning consumers with fat and sugar and salt and artificial coloring and artificial flavoring and other kinds of carcinogenic products.
Versus (two) what we would call in the U.S. the family farm model, what people in Southern countries call the peasant model, of family-based agriculture: more in tune with the land. Instead of producing tasteless products for the global market, producing real food for real people in local and regional and national economies using more sustainable farming practices.
And, while the dominant model has been pushing family farmers and peasants to extinction for several decades, its finally come to the point where family farmers and peasants are saying Basta, Enough is enough, Up to here and no more, and Now we fight back.
Weve seen now that this movement, Via Campesina, has become the most dynamic movement among this larger movement which we call the anti-globalization movement -- fighting against free trade policies, against the World Trade Organization in Seattle and Cancún, against the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), against GMOs (genetically modified organisms), in favor of agroecology, in favor of agrarian reform. Its the -- I hate to use words like vanguard -- but its really in a leadership role among social movements on a global scale fighting against corporate globalization. Its the people who are most excluded by the dominant model who now are the ones who are the first to fight back and who are showing the way, I think, to a lot of other sectors and movements.
I hope soon that consumers will have a global alliance like the Via Campesina. The fisher folk already do. I hope that the womens movements, the indigenous peoples movements, the union movement, can have that same kind of expression and leadership role internationally. But right now its Via Campesina that is showing the way in terms of fighting back globally, nationally, and locally in rural communities around the world.
In Motion Magazine: Is there a connection between participative democracy and people producing food in order to live?
Peter Rosset: People producing food in order to live, but also people producing food for people -- rather than faraway markets and corporations that turn it into low quality junk food.
And participatory democracy not in a sense of everybody going to the ballot box and voting for one of two almost identical parties but participatory democracy in the sense of people organizing in their own communities, taking control over their own reality and transforming that reality in a positive direction. For me, that is real participatory democracy. It has almost nothing to do with the ballot box, which is almost like a simulacrum of democracy. It is a superficial process that just skims over the surface of the real change that is needed to address poverty and environmental degradation around the world. That real change only happens when people assume the responsibility for their own reality and transform it. That to me is participatory democracy, other people might call it community organizing, but whatever it is, thats what is really needed and that is the essence of what it is about.
In Motion Magazine: In corporate terms, it is the food industry that has taken the hit - and out of this, this movement is growing?
Peter Rosset: Right, it is a movement responding to the global food industry. Whether its Monsanto and seeds, whether its Cargill and the global grain trade, whether its Nestlé, whether its Parmalat, whether its supermarket chains dictating to everybody else along the supply chain what kind of generic faceless, tasteless, identical uniform product they want, its that system which is killing consumers with obesity and diabetes and heart disease and cancer and killing farmers by driving them off their land.
Its against that that Via Campesina is fighting back, we are all fighting back. Farmers are leading the way, but the rest of people who eat food are willing to join in the struggle with them because its just as important to us, as consumers, as it is to farmers, as producers, that we change the food system.
Published in In Motion Magazine July 4, 2005.
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