International forum on land grabbing propels a unified movement against the commodification of land and resources.

Movements Unite in Mali, Confronting Powerful Interests

 “We are decolonizing Africa here”

By Salena Tramel
November 23rd, 2011

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 by 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 on Land Grabs, 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 and customary 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 the 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 own lands is as a united movement.”
The Via Campesina has already seen victories of the sort. In the mid 90s, representatives of their base organizations demonstrated at the 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, the 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), an international network that is a Via ally. The 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 ancestral 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 woman farmer from Zimbabwe and president of the Zimbabwe Small Holder Organic Farmer’s Forum (ZIMSOFF, a Via member). “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, Ibrahima 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.”
photo by Philippe Revelli
Grassroots International supports both the National Confederation of Peasant Organization’s (CNOP) and the Via Campesina.


Salena Tramel is the former Program Coordinator for the Middle East and Haiti at Grassroots International. She holds a B.A. in Romance Languages from Point Loma Nazarene University and a M.A. in Sustainable Development with concentrations in Policy Analysis and Advocacy and Conflict Transformation from the School for International Training.





Footloose Farmers

The past few decades have witnessed changing agricultural labor dynamics in the Global South. Beginning in the 1980s, during an era of giddy faith in Reganomics, international lending agencies and western governments began pressuring and cajoling many African nations into structural adjustment programs. These programs, aimed to foster agricultural development and economic growth, were predicated on a certain model of agriculture, certain hallowed criteria: African agriculture must follow the path of the United States  and other developed nations; it must be rationalized, industrialized, and the state’s apron strings must be cut (shameless hypocrisy in the face of massive production and export subsidies for farmers in the U.S. and Europe).The result was the promotion of large-scale, market-oriented, chemical-dependent, and capital-intensive agriculture and the denigration of subsistence farming. In many areas this forced rural farming communities to adapt their livelihoods and become more ‘flexible’ with their labor.

Although the consequences of the first  Green Revolution  and structural adjustment have taken different forms in different parts of Africa, in general farmers and laborers have been uprooted and forced into labor mobility. No longer able to survive in one place, these people must migrate, traveling to cities during the off-season for additional income or hired temporarily by contractors to work on large farms just so that they can hold onto their own land, homes, and sense of place.

This phenomenon has been termed ‘footloose farming’ because, under the pressures mentioned above, farming—traditionally a livelihood intimately bound to a patch of earth, literally grounded in the soil—requires migration. For the most part it is men who migrate, unencumbered with child-care and ‘free’ to roam. It is a double-edged sword, for although migration can be relatively lucrative, it leaves whole villages without men and destabilizes rural communities. Furthermore, large, capitalist farming enterprises benefit from this situation as a migratory workforce faces greater obstacles in resisting exploitation; it lacks the time, social networks, and leadership required to muster the collective bargaining power to improve labor conditions.

One can argue that this socially destructive phenomenon of footloose farmers is not just an unfortunate side effect of western-imposed agricultural change in Africa (and indeed many other parts of the Global South), but a core piece of a dominant development ideology that devalues food sovereignty and community cohesion, tossing these aside for the sake of blind inequitable growth.

In several ways the approach of AGRA (Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa) to agricultural growth is likely to exacerbate the phenomenon of ‘footloose farming.’ Why is this so? AGRA, as its name suggests, operates within the same paradigm of the original Green Revolution. Its focus is on high-tech (and thus capital-intensive and market oriented) farming. If the historical effects of this approach are anything to go by, AGRA’s efforts will only continue this deleterious trend of dispossession. Although the Alliance’s public rhetoric purports to encourage small-holder farming and empower women farmers, internal conversations reveal a hidden ideology. One of AGRA’s primary patrons, the Gates Foundation, subscribes to a ‘theory of change’ that admits to promoting a type of agricultural development that will push ‘inefficient’ farmers who are not market-oriented off their land, a process the Foundation euphemistically describes as ‘land mobility:’

‘In order to transition agriculture from the current situation of low investment, low productivity and low returns to a market-oriented, highly-productive system, it is essential that supply (productivity) and demand (market access) expand together… [this] involves market-oriented farmers operating profitable farms that generate enough income to sustain their rise out of poverty. Over time, this will require some degree of land mobility and a lower percentage of total employment involved in direct agricultural production (Gates Foundation 2008).’

The forces that lead to footloose farming and land mobility are threats to the larger question of food sovereignty. Defined by La Via Campesina, a global movement of peasant farmers, as ‘the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through sustainable methods and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems,’ food sovereignty stands in opposition to AGRA and other high-tech, foreign-imposed approaches to farming. It stands in opposition to a form of inequitable and short-sighted ‘growth’ that cleaves farmers from fields, people from place.


By Find Your Feet
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