International agricultural rights movement facing new challenges

19 October 2011

As Sunday 16 October marked World Food Day, Alana Mann from the Department of Media and Communications at the University of Sydney reflected on a global social movement struggling to assert rights over food.

Mann's recently completed PhD thesis looks at La Via Campesina (The Peasant Way) which claims to be the world's largest social movement, composed of 150 groups in 70 countries and representing 200 million people.

La Via Campesina began in 1993 when local farmers' movements from Europe and Latin America, facing the growing challenges of globalised and industrialised agriculture, found themselves poorly represented by NGOs and governments.

"They developed the concept of food sovereignty, which is essentially the right of communities to produce the food of their choice in sustainable ways that prioritise local needs," Mann said.

"They chose to speak for themselves in defence of small-scale sustainable agriculture as a means of maintaining their livelihoods and regaining social justice and dignity."

"The movement frames food sovereignty as a solution to the multiple world crises of hunger, poverty, energy and climate," Ms Mann said. "By definition it is in opposition to corporate-driven agriculture, the transnational companies that profit from it and governing bodies such as the World Trade Organisation.

"Escalating food prices and the subsequent food riots of 2007-8 provided a political opportunity to promote food sovereignty and it is now a commonplace term at the United Nations and in the constitutions of numerous countries.

"While the concept is now part of the international debate it is still far from a reality for most countries involved in La Via Campesina and still flies in the face of how agribusiness is structured throughout the world.

"I undertook my research because I was curious to know what the way forward could be for this organisation, which is becoming truly international, with new members across Africa and Asia."

To assess this challenge Mann's PhD research looked at how local members of La Via Campesina conduct their campaigns. Her fieldwork took her to a Chilean indigenous women's movement, a co-operative of Mexican grain-growers and a farmer's union in the Basque Country of Spain.

"Looking at these organisations demonstrated the diversity of issues the Campesina movement has to encompass. In Spain the concerns were over highways being built through agricultural land and the power of big supermarkets to distort pricing. In Chile one of the organisation's most pressing issues was the health impacts of pesticides on seasonal workers.

"The broad appeal of La Via Campesina is both a strength and a weakness. It is perhaps comparable to the current "Occupy" movement sweeping the world where people from very different circumstances want to be part of an international action and recognise enough common ground to identify themselves with the same movement.

Mann believes that to maintain cohesion and influence as a truly representative, global movement, Via Campesina needs to make critical decisions about how to more effectively address local issues through world bodies including the United Nations, the World Trade Organisation and established NGOs.

While engaging successfully with the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation, for example, the movement rejects dialogue with the WTO. This approach may need to be reviewed, Mann says, if demands for a just trade system are to remain viable and the imminent collapse of the Doha Round of trade talks will provide an opening for this dialogue.

"Networked social movements are going to play increasingly important roles in global governance but they must find a way to translate their broad appeal into effective action. Unless La Via Campesina can successfully promote the experiences of its members in formal political arenas, its relevance will become questionable."

Alana Mann's PhD is entitled Framing Food Sovereignty: A Study of Social Movement Communication.

Contact: Verity Leatherdale

Phone: 02 9351 4312

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