La Via Campesina: One Way Forward from Paris

In 2007, a man named Keno was killed with two bullets to the chest at point blank range near the Iguagu National Park in Brazil. He was one of many farmers peacefully occupying a GMO research plant to protest the imposition of an industrial agricultural system that had no place for them. The men who murdered him were part of a private militia working for the Syngenta biotech corporation. They perpetrated what the courts would later describe as an attempted ‘massacre’ to, in Syngenta’s chilling words: ‘propagate the idea that every action results in a reaction.’

As any physicist (or farmer) can tell you, this is a basic law of the universe. But it also applies the actions of big agribusiness, whose land grabs, pollution and exploitation have reaped their own reactions from peasant farmers across the world. They are organizing, across communities, sectors and borders, and now they made themselves heard here in Paris.

‘They are destroying our homes, our livelihoods and poisoning the food in people’s mouths.’ Maria, another Brazilian farmer and spokesperson for La Via Campesina, had tears in her eyes as she finished telling me about the relentless destruction of indigenous and farming communities back home. But she held her microphone tight like a weapon. ‘This pollution is worse than death. If we have to give our lives to fight these transnationals, then that is what we should do.’

The Peasant’s Way

The essence of ‘the peasant’s way’ is agro-ecology and food sovereignty: simply put, protecting our farms and our farmers. It was La Via Campesina that first coined the term ‘food sovereignty’. For frontline communities in the South, this idea deeply rooted not only in an ecological culture, but also a deep consciousness of colonial history; an unwillingness forged by history, to rely on this government or that trade treaty to keep feeding you.

As one African famer – and mother – explained: ‘We were told our way of farming, natural farming, was wrong. We have to use the machines. Now, we are starving.’ She raised her fist. ‘Food security is not enough. It only talks about the food on the table. It doesn’t care who produces that food and how. Food sovereignty and agro-ecology is the only way.

La Via Campesina means ‘the peasant’s way.’ Founded in 1993, this coalition of 150 organizations represents more than 200 million small-scale, indigenous and migrant farmers. Active in more than 70 countries, it campaigns to defend farmer’s rights and our food system.

For Via Campesina spokesperson Adam Payne, this means a constant struggle against industrial agriculture. Far from being a nation removed from the impact of a changing climate, he described how British farmers have been affected by hotter summers, wetter winters, droughts and floods.

‘The industrial food system’s failed us in every way,’ he said. ‘It’s brought more hunger, more obesity, land grabs forcing small farmers off the land, forcing us to compete in markets dominated by free trade agreements, and all while producing 50 per cent of global emissions.

Food Sovereignty

In a report produced with GRAIN, winner of the 2011 Right Livelihood Award (the ‘alternative Nobel Prize’), La Via Campesina break food sovereignty down into five steps. First, taking care of the soil. They estimate that in just 50 years, restoring the practices of small-scale organic farmers could regenerate soil nutrients to pre-industrial levels. This would offset as much as 30 per cent of global Co2 emissions. Second, farming without the agro-toxic chemicals. Instead, traditional farming methods such as crop integration and diversification would improve soil fertility and protect biodiversity without threatening our health and our ecosystems.

The global food trade accounts for most of agriculture’s excess emissions. So, step three is the localization of production and consumption. While strengthening local economies, this would take a big bite out of global emissions. Industrial agriculture’s drive to maximize profit by exploiting cheap labour has super-charged the food market. Crops may be grown in Argentina to feed chickens in Chile which are exported all the way to China for processing and then shipped all the way back to the US for sale. These practices account for up to 6 per cent of all greenhouse emissions and serve no rational purpose. Organic, local produce would also mean more fresh food and fewer preservatives, so it’s healthier for us as well as the planet, which would cool and renew itself.

Next is a radical and vital demand: give the land back to the people who farm it. Because small-scale farms work more efficiently and more ecologically, and because it is their inalienable human right, La Via Campesina calls for a worldwide redistribution of land to rural family and indigenous farmers. Along with policies to support local markets, this could half global greenhouse emissions ‘within a few decades.’

Peasants in Paris

The final step is one that must start now, in the wake of COP21, because every day we do not take it the restraints our farmers grow tighter and the precious resources left to us are squandered and destroyed. It is the rejection of false solutions, the free-market fixes championed by big agribusiness and the politicians whose interests they represent.

Indigenous and rural farming communities are on the frontline in this fight. Despite having lost 70 per cent their farmland to big agribusiness over the past 50 years or so, small-scale farmers still manage to grow 70 per cent of the world’s food. But for nearly five decades they have been under attack from big agribusiness. Water systems are polluted and land grabbed from beneath their feet as indigenous families are forced from their homes.

On Tuesday, La Via Campesina activists in Paris held a flash-action in defiance of the protest ban. They painted the entrance of Danone’s headquarters red to protest the lives lost by the corporation’s water privatization and land grabs in Asia, and the lives threatened by Danone’s promotion of so-called ‘climate smart agriculture’.

The following day, activists celebrated their Peasant Agriculture and Food Sovereignty day with a series of public events, welcoming speakers from across Europe, North America and the global South. The final forum, co-hosted with Confederation Paysanne, was flooded with hundreds of guests and had to spill out into the main space. The atmosphere was electric.

Farmers from across the world shared stories of exploitation and dispossession matched only by the solidarity they showed one another. A fisherman from South Africa re-counted their long fight against the criminalization of small-scale fisheries. For him, no law passed by a corrupt government in the interest of foreign corporations is legitimate. Yet even after an arduous and successful legal battle won over many years, his colleagues are still being arrested for trying to feed their families from their own ancestral waters.

‘We have decided we will be arrested again and again until they change the laws.’ His pledge was met with heartfelt applause. ‘When the government brings the army the women form a human chain around us and they protect us with their solidarity and their bodies.’

Listening to their stories, three things became very clear. First, a deep love for their way of life, their commitment to the fight for it and the great pride they took in this most essential of professions: feeding people. ‘It is noble,’ one said with dignity, ‘the first noble profession.’

Second, this is so much more than an environmental campaign or a section of the labour force organizing for its interests: it’s an independence movement, in the truest sense of the word. I was reminded of Mandela’s Freedom Charter. One of its most significant and indeed radical demands was that ‘land be given to all the landless people’. Really, it was the moral and economic heart of the anti-apartheid movement; one that was ultimately sacrificed by the African National Congress in exchange for a far less tangible and ultimately limited form of freedom for black South Africans.

In exchange for national independence they sacrificed economic autonomy: a contradiction in terms, as South Africa – with the rest of the global South – would come to learn. But in this movement, the reclamation of the land takes on such enormous significance, and the environmental case for it is made with such clarity, it is hard to imagine it being sacrificed a second time.

Finally, we all heard loud and clear the necessity – and an embryonic culture of – a very deep internationalism. You could see it on people’s faces as they listened to a farmer from Mali speak: ‘[The agribusiness corporations] destroyed billions of hectares that are being occupied. They chase people from the villages. We are victims of mass evictions. And the governments are accomplices to the global corporations, they are protected even by police we pay for with our taxes… People are beaten up, peasants are in jail in their thousands, how can we resist this? There is a strong movement of resistance but at all times we will be too small. So we need to converge and fight together.’

As one fisherwoman put it: ‘We need more than solidarity. We must put our anchors deep.’ This kind of sentiment is more than a political strategy; more than the assertion that the more of us unite, the more we can win. It’s an old and intuitive recognition of the absolutely scientific interconnectedness of all life. And that’s a very strong foundation for the building of a better world, as well as an excellent reason to fight for it.

IMG_7051.JPG

Written for New Internationalist

Democracy, Equality, and Survival: A Call to Action on March 28

fb cover (1)

Reading This Changes Everything, I started asking a lot of new questions. A number of us in the British student movement campaigning against war and austerity were increasingly perturbed by the lack of concern about climate change among some of our peers, even though we knew that extreme weather is displacing more people than war now, and that the destruction of the planet’s life-support systems would make it impossible for progressive politics to fulfill its promises. I was frustrated when activists cautioned: “The welfare of pandas and ice caps is a middle class concern. You just can’t mobilize around it.” Particularly maddening was a rather bleak sense that they had a point.

tce coverWhile the British Left may have been on the back foot since Thatcher, things had reached new lows for us twenty-somethings; we’d grown up with the relentless, televised War on Terror, and a Great Recession that should have discredited free-market fundamentalism but instead was being used as a battering ram to destroy what was left of the British welfare state. We had been reduced to defending the last of the gains made by our grandparents, things once taken for granted: universal rights “from the cradle to the grave.” Climate change seemed like one too many fronts to be fighting on.

My friend Francesca Martinez, the comedian and campaigner, often complained about this attitude: that there wasn’t any room in the Left’s agenda and anyway, climate change was too depressing and distant. For her, the problem was the lack of positive vision in a movement defined by what it opposed; speaking across the country, she encountered an appetite for an inspiring, justice-based alternative. And when a friend of mine (now my partner) showed me Naomi’s 2013 speech at the founding convention of the Canadian union UNIFOR, on why organized labor should join the climate fight, the implications of her message finally sank in: that this crisis was a historic opportunity, a planetary demand for system change.

Around the same time, some friends and I were launching a new project called Brick Lane Debates, to experiment with new ways to get people engaged with politics. Frustrated with both the passive lectures of the “Old Left” and horizontal forums too tied down in procedure to get much done, we wanted to synthesize good organization with meaningful participation. And we didn’t just want debate, we wanted music, comedy, culture; to build a vibrant, inclusive community animated by the ideas we thought could change the world.

Our first Brick Lane Debate was about climate change, and brought together a new constellation of campaigners with a growing group compelled to action by Naomi’s analysis. We had all joined the People’s Climate March, which provided beautiful, bold confirmation that you can mobilise around the climate. We were particularly inspired by the leading role played by organized labour in New York—but with honourable exceptions, it was largely absent in London. Unless we could join the dots between war, austerity, and climate catastrophe and quit leaving the environment to the environmentalists, we concluded, we would be giving up the single most powerful case for democratic system change we will ever see.

That’s the message that is striking a chord with growing numbers of young people. And that’s how This Changes Everything UK was born. March 28th will bring hundreds of people together with leading campaigners and climate scientists for a participatory gathering. At workshops taking inspiration from the Brick Lane Debates model, we’ll talk about the connections between the climate and economic crises, share visions for an alternative future, and discuss how to grow the social movements we need to get us there. From anti-poverty and environmental organizations like War on Want, Friends of the Earth, and the Young Greens, to radical campaigns like Fuel Poverty Action network, Occupy, and the newly launched Join The Dots, people are ready to stand up for all these ideas, together.

And the time is right, it seems to us, for such a symphony of radical voices to be heard. In the UK, the historic scale of the People’s Climate March was just the beginning. Vigorous grassroots campaigns against fracking have been erupting in sleepy rural communities. And the recent surge in Green Party membership here reflects not only concern for the climate, but also deep disillusionment with the narratives being regurgitated by our political establishment and their megaphones in the mainstream media. Public trust in government, the press, and the police has never been lower, while participation in political protest is at an all-time high. Meanwhile, we see progressive coalitions transforming the political landscape in Greece and Spain.

Old assumptions about what is impossible or inevitable, or what people have the capacity to care about, have no place in the new movements that are emerging. If there was ever a moment to change everything, it’s now.

tcepanaorama

***

Like us on Facebook and follow @TCEuk on Twitter. We’re still organizing the format and structure of the March 28th gathering, so if you’d like to get involved or think your organization could help lead one of our workshops, drop us an email at thischangeseverything2015@gmail.com.

Originally posted by thischangeseverything.org on 24th Febuary 2015fb cover (1)

Facing Up to the Climate Crisis Part II: The Great Green Wash

Nature may ‘not discriminate’, but capitalism does. It will be the social classes – and countries – with the least responsibility for climate change will be hit first, and hardest. In 2004 the British government’s Office of Science and Technology produced its report, Future Flooding, which predicted up to 3.6 million Britons at risk of severe flooding by 2080 thanks to rising sea levels and rainfall. ‘Socially disadvantaged people will be most adversely affected’ it admits, because ‘the poor are less able to take out insurance against floods or to pay for the damage.’

15292219060_7bee7bec9a_kThis logic applies far more drastically to the global South. Even a 2°C rise in temperatures will create a global refugee crisis and hit agriculture internationally – a food system centralised, standardised and rendered utterly inadequate by the profit motive. Our capacity to adapt is reduced every day the free market has the run of food production. This has already undermined biodiversity to the point where three quarters of all cultivated plants are now extinct and their inferior, genetically modified substitutes are locked up in highly profitable intellectual property rights and free trade deals. Food prices will skyrocket and people will starve.

There has been a tendency in this debate to lay climate change at the feet of humanity as a whole and ‘progress’ as a concept. ‘Anthropological climate change’, they call it. But most of human history has been shaped by a world of scarcity, not the hyper-consumerism and over-production that we see around us in rich industrial nations. And let’s not forget, for 3 billion people on this planet, scarcity and deprivation still define the world. The climate change narrative of the global North is not the only story; the under-development of the South and exploitation of the poor in every country are as much a part of the system as wasteful consumerism.

Capitalism is different from what came before. No previous society has accumulated and concentrated wealth on a comparable scale. The ecological crisis is a symptom, the most deadly symptom, of a social crisis in human beings’ relationship to our environment. It makes more sense to talk of capitalist, rather than anthropogenic climate change.

In contrast, the culture of general responsibility that’s been cultivated by environmentalists like Hans Jonas has undermined the green movement in some very significant ways. In zeroing in on ‘consumer culture’ it fails to strike a chord with many. Millions of us living in this wealthy, competitive, consumerist society are working hard and still have to choose between eating and heating our homes. In that context, ‘consume less!’ is not a rousing carrion call. Particularly not when the carnival of consumption at the top of society has just rolled right over its own global financial crisis and wastes resources at an industrial rate. It is an argument utterly insensitive to the realities of working class life. At its worst, it scapegoats the poor while protecting the sensibilities of wealthy benefactors like Coca-Cola and Unilever.

Whenever it is articulated as a matter of personal moderation or asceticism, the campaign against climate change draws a curtain over the very worst of the capitalist system. It obscures the starring role corruption, inequality and exploitation. It creates confusion, helplessness and guilt. The political culture of neoliberalism has a gift for that. You can see it in the shame people are made to feel when driven to food bank in their thousands, in a rich free market where anyone can succeed if they deserve to. The neoliberal art is the individualisation of social problems. And well it might be, because it has to answer for an 80% increase in global emissions since 1970.

This is not about whether small actions by individuals – recycling the rubbish, cycling to work – have value, they do. But the value is symbolic. In an act like that we can advocate transition, but we can’t achieve it. The systemic wastage of our entire economic system, from production and construction to energy and consumption, play the overwhelming and decisive role in destroying the planet. To be clear: system change will require everyone to accommodate changes in the way we live, travel and consume. But it’s not an annual Ryanair flight to Costa Rica that’s blowing holes in the ozone layer. The really inconvenient truth is that individual acts count for nothing unless the system changes too. And pretending otherwise has crippled the campaign to stop climate change.

As Howard Zinn said, “you can’t be neutral on a moving train.” No matter how small you make your carbon footprint, this train is still speeding over a cliff. We have to start talking about the system, or there is no hope for change. Already what use was ever made of renewable energy has been almost eradicated by standardising production for bigger profits. Yet that exact capacity of human beings to make conscious changes to the way we reproduce our existence is what makes change possible.

15292246928_3e532a1429_kOn the other hand, obfuscating the power of wealth and class not only divides the movement, it naturalises climate change. It is not natural law that productivity or population growth threatens the environment. Natural fertilisers that make farm land more productive without damaging the ecosystem were a historic discovery of the 15th century. Whether every ounce of profit is squeezed out of an innovation or it’s used to more efficiently meet the real needs of the population and minimise deforestation – that’s a choice we make collectively, as a society. The insanity lies in thinking that activity which harms our environment or our species can be classified as ‘growth’ of any kind.

Reactionary arguments from the likes of Jeffrey Sachs about population exceeding the ‘carrying capacity’ of the earth are a direct result of this refusal to look capitalism in the eye. Non-coercive population reduction strategies such as improving women’s living standards, education and access to contraception have proved successful and should be valued on many counts. But demographic change is slow, and the need to curb our carbon emissions is immediate.

Given that context, challenging the right to life for millions should not come before challenging capitalism. This is the tone of discussion in Washington memos that describe the US as a ‘fortress’ amongst the anarchy of a world consumed by flood, fire and war that re-balances the earth’s ‘carrying capacity’ through mass-extinction. Yes we live on a finite planet and no, it can’t support an infinite amount of life. But that capacity is determined first now by how many life, but how we live. At present we live in a society that produces far more than we need it to and still manages to deprive most of us of the basics.

‘Productivism’ – production for its own sake, for profit – prevails in this world because capitalism is a system based on accumulation. In such a system, innovation in productivity will only ever mean more production, market expansion and the manufacture of consumer demand to meet it. This is an inevitable consequence of the private ownership of the means of production. As the renowned economist Joseph Schumpeter observed: “A stationary capitalism is a contradiction in terms.” We cannot obtain meaningful environmental regulation within capitalism for the same reason we can’t achieve meaningful financial regulation. As Marx wrote in his Critique of Political Economy, “capital cannot abide a limit.” It will always seek to circumvent or transcend it in pursuit of greater profits.

Steady state theorists who argue for an end to population and economic growth, have been miles ahead of the Left in identifying the immediate significance of the planet’s natural limits. But the tradition has a frightening right-wing current. It has done since it began with Thomas Malthus in the 1700s. Thanks to this political lineage, too often those who focus on population and consumption ignore poverty and the ‘consumerist’ struggles for better pay and conditions that it breeds. There are honourable exceptions, like George Monbiot, Peter Victor and Caroline Lucas, who incorporate a respect for ecological limits within a relevant political perspective and broader concern with social justice. Still, not only would any movement that relied on the panacea of no-growth have little relevance for the global South, which demands its right to development; it excludes millions in the North blighted by poverty, unemployment and exclusion. We could build a growth-less system with a static population, at peace with the earth but characterised by all the inequality and oppression of today; but that’s not sufficient to inspire the mass-participation required to get us there.

At the end of the day the steady state is not a complete social project, or even a campaign – just a (vital and urgent) quantitative constraint. Capping growth is not enough; we need all sections of society drawn into a complete, collective re-definition of what we mean by ‘economic progress’. That means extending a critique of capitalism to its very heart: its law of value which makes money the aim and the measure of all life on earth.

I would put the case, as Naomi Klein, Daniel Tanuro and others have done, that climate change is the best illustration of where the capitalist system is heading and the most powerful case against it. Any kind of reconciliation with the climate would require the abandonment of $20 trillion existing fossil fuel infrastructure and 80% known fossil fuel reserves (all owned by corporations), de-centralisation, reduced production and working hours and a massive equalisation of wealth – all entAllirely opposed to the interests of the capitalist system. Only a society which puts the economy under democratic control and recognises equality as a pre-condition for such democracy, can move beyond the paradigm of commodity production and even identify – let alone protect – that which is priceless.

15478513492_6d2ac99a4f_kYou can read Part I here

Originally published by the Huffington Post

All photography my own

Facing Up to the Climate Crisis Part I: Capitalism vs. the World

The impossible is happening. The People’s Climate March was a global day of action of historic proportions. Over 30,000 people took to the streets in London. New York City hosted the biggest march climate march ever, with religious and labour leaders coming together with scientists, environmentalists and 400,000 Americans. People protested in 166 countries demanding system change. Even the Rockerfellers are divesting (sort of). In Paris just over a year from now, the UN will be holding its Climate Change Conference, widely considered by experts to be our last chance to reach a radical and binding agreement on carbon emissions before planetary catastrophe becomes unavoidable. So if there was ever a movement who’s moment had come, it’s this one and it’s now.

PCM 1

Yet much like the system it challenges, this is a movement filled with contradictions. Is it a movement against capitalism, or a movement within it? We live in a world where Coca-cola, a corporation which hires thugs to murder trade unionists in Latin America and systematically steals drinking water from India’s poor, can be considered a legitimate partner to ‘save the polar bears’ by WWF; where Unilever, one of the world’s most powerful corporations and leading food monopoly with an atrocious labour and environmental record, ends up sponsoring the People’s Climate March. Much depends on where we draw our lines.

The American Dream of pointless over-production, which offers thirty kinds of smartphone all designed to break down but can’t allocate the resources to keep our local libraries and hospitals open – that dream has been globalised, and they call it ‘economic growth’. Co2 emissions, driven by deforestation (at a rate of around 36 football fields per minute) and the burning of fossil fuels, have reached historic and deadly levels. By even the conservative estimates of the IPCC, this will flood major cities, destroy whole societies, create a global refugee and food production crisis – it will change the world forever, unless we start reducing emissions within the next year and leave 80% of known (and owned) fossil fuel reserves in the ground. But despite all the campaigns and the summits, to recover from the financial crash within the confines of capitalism, global emissions were allowed to shoot up in 2010 at a faster rate than at any time since the Industrial Revolution.

All solutions are viewed through the lens of, and ul15478612912_fb82c841d5_ktimately nullified by, the demands of commercial viability. We see this battle between cost efficiency and actual efficiency being played everywhere in the market’s warped attempts to tackle global warming by promoting the worst and most inadequate alternatives – from ecologically destructive, inefficient and expensive biofuels undermining food security in the South, to the dangers of nuclear power in a highly militarised capitalism which cuts corners whenever it can afford to. The result, to quote Ban Ki-Moon who seems to grasp the consequence if not the cause, is that “we have our feet glued to the accelerator and are hurtling towards the abyss.”

It’s been the same with carbon trading, a climate-saving measure reduced to a money-making slot machine. Total emissions keep rising while hospitals and universities are obliged to buy extra credit, big business is making money trading and gambling on the carbon market while energy companies pass the costs onto consumers. The price on emissions, by IPCC estimates, is five times too small to discourage the Big Polluters. But perhaps worst of all, current rates are big enough to create an apparent conflict of interest between the climate and the majority of working people who struggle to pay their energy bills.

PCM 3

The danger is real, immanent and almost too big to comprehend. For twenty years, the science has been ignored while campaigners work to wrestle concessions from a political system held hostage by big business – and with an annual profit of at least €1,325 billion per year (equivalent to the GDP of France), there’s no business bigger than the hydrocarbon business. Corporations have bought off scientists, journalists and politicians left right and centre. As leading climate scientist James Hansen put it to the US congress, “CEOs of fossil energy companies know what they are doing… [they] should be tried for high crimes against humanity and nature.”

But whether it is more ‘pragmatic’ to tackle capitalism explicitly or to ignore it, is a question of whether it’s possible for climate constraints to be respected following strategies determined by commercial potential. The answer, in short, is a resounding ‘no’. That is simply not possible in an economy dominated by corporate interests whose nature is to exploit catastrophe rather than prevent it. The UNDP estimates that genuinely ecological economic development of the South would require an $86 billion per year wealth transfer from North bypass reliance on fossil fuels – and capital flows are still moving in the opposite direction. That corporate monopolies of intellectual property rights have been allowed to obstruct this transition and save millions of lives is a supreme indictment of the free-market system. The Big Six agribusiness multinationals are already patenting ‘climate change crops’ at a rate of knots.

We saw when the poor were left to fend for themselves during Hurricane Katrina, how ill-equipped the market system is to protect even ‘the Western poor’. In fact New Orleans’ budget for sea wall maintenance was cut from 2003 to finance the War on Terror, during which they were receiving a sixth of the funds they requested. Separating the hurricane from its political context is impossible, and there is a lesson in that.

The 2009 Copenhagen Summit was a final straw for many. The world watched as the emphasis slid from stopping global warming to funding ‘adaptation’ – grants and loans extended mostly by the countries responsible for past and present global warming, to those most endangered by it. Funding is determined not by need, of course, but by their openness to ‘clean’ investments from Northern multinationals. Even though world’s oldest industrial powers are overwhelmingly responsible for historical and current climate change, Western leaders have the gall to offer IMF loans parcelled in exploitative conditionality agreements to help poorer countries pursue ‘sustainable development’. The delegate from Tuvalu famously equated the funds with Judas’ thirty pieces of silver. More than that, it’s the mass crime against humanity that will define our times and it will cost millions of lives. It’s time to make a change.

15291995739_5d2b65981b_kClick here to read Part II

Thanks go to the following authors, who’ve done excellent work on this subject on which this series of articles draws heavily: Naomi Klein, Daniel Tanuro, George Monbiot, Vandana Shiva & John Bellamy-Foster.

Originally published by the Huffington Post

All photography my own