This 17 April was the 20th annual International Day of Peasants’ and Farmers’ Struggle. It was also a solemn reminder of the risks that millions of farmers face in their seemingly innocuous ambition to simply grow and sell food. Twenty years ago, on 17th April 1996, 19 farmers, members of the country’s Landless Workers Movement, were killed in the Brazilian state of Pará as they tried to occupy an unproductive ranch near Eldorado dos Carajás. Military police opened fire on the protesters, resulting in one of the worst massacres of modern Brazilian history. Two more farmers died from their injuries in the following days, and hundreds were seriously injured.
Twenty years later, there are no signs that the front line of food production and peasant rights is getting any safer. Just this month, with poignant timing, two rural workers were killed when Brazilian state military police again ambushed families of the Landless Workers’ Movement. Last month, a member of the Colombian Peasant Association of Arauca was killed and three other peasant farmers were taken prisoner. A week earlier, Berta Cáceres, the Honduran indigenous and environmental rights campaigner was murdered in her home. Berta was a leader of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organisations of Honduras (COPINH), and led the successful grassroots resistance to the Agua Zarca dam that threatened the Lenca community of Rio Blanco
In January this year, Pakistani forces arrested Saeed Baloch, an activist and campaigner for the rights of fishermen and women. After his arrest, the international peasant movement La Via Campesina reported that no information had been provided about Saeed’s charges.
In December, an International Fact Finding Mission led by the Global Network for the Right to Food and Nutrition found evidence of high levels of abuse and human rights violations against tea plantation workers in the Assam and West Bengal regions of India. Two months earlier, in October 2015, three activists were arrested in Ethiopia on terrorism charges. According to La Via Campesina, their crime was simply attempting to attend a workshop on food security.
These events are part of a worrying trend of violence and aggression against farmers and indigenous communities. Far from isolated incidents, they are symptoms of the war being waged between small-scale farmers and corporations for the control of global food production. Worldwide around 2.5 billion people live off the land and sea: cultivating crops, rearing livestock, and catching fish. Yet millions have been evicted and displaced since the 1970s to make way for large-scale agri-business and industrial fishing.
Land is at the heart of this struggle. In northern Mozambique, for example UNAC (the National Union of Farmers in Mozambique) is currently campaigning against plans to develop an ‘agricultural corridor’ which could see hundreds of thousands of people lose their homes and land. According to international NGO GRAIN, the ProSavana project (a partnership between the Government of Mozambique and foreign governments and donors) would transform up to 14 million hectares of land into a mass-scale, export-oriented agricultural zone. A second project in the region seeks to occupy an area of more than 240 thousand hectares and could affect up to 500,000 local people including mass displacement.
Similarly, in Ethiopia, until early 2015 the UK Department for International Development was the main funder in a £3.2bn programme which has been accused by farmers of the violent and forced eviction of thousands of rural families from their land. The funds allegedly contributed to the Ethiopian government’s attempts to relocate up to 1.5 million people.
Apparently mass grief is a price worth paying to redesign our food system. Curiously, in the process we are asked to stand by and witness the slow and painful death of a long-serving human logic: that food is first and foremost a fundamental human right, rather than a commodity for profit.
But it is a logic that dies hard. As human beings we know that everyone has the right, and the need, to access food. This is a right enshrined with the United Nations. The commodification of food, treating it not as a necessity but as a privilege which should be controlled purely by the market and exploited for profit, defies this logic. Realising our fundamental right to food necessarily requires that the control of the global food system should be in the hands of the people.
It is for this reason that we must support the international call for food sovereignty, a concept which embraces the premise that democracy should be at the heart of food production, and that farmers should have ownership and control over the land that they work.
As we sit down to eat our meal, let’s remember the real sacrifice that so many farmers have made – and make – in order to grow our food.