Peasants and small farmers make up half of the world population and grow at least 70% of the world’s food (pdf). This group includes small-scale farmers, pastoralists, landless people, peasant fishers and indigenous people all around the world.
However, despite the importance of this group, its contribution is far from being recognised. Rural people have very little visibility on the public scene and “peasants”, in most places, are looked down on and often considered “ignorant”, “backward” or “underdeveloped”.
This contempt goes hand in hand with the free market policies in force for more than three decades that have banked (or placed a bet?) on the disappearance of peasants’ agriculture to be replaced by large agribusiness corporations and international trade.
The most recent session of the UN Human Rights Council once again showed that the word “peasant” remains politically sensitive. Under pressure from some European countries, the use of the expression “rights of peasants” was replaced by the less threatening “rights of people working in rural areas”. They seem to fear giving too much political weight to a large number of people whose trade has largely remained outside the capitalist economy.
However, over the last two decades, peasants, landless people and family farmers have organised themselves to reclaim their right to protect their livelihoods, to defend small-scale agriculture and to have their voices heard at international level. The international farmers movement La Via Campesina (pdf) was created in 1993, uniting at global level national organisations and unions that had been active for years in their own country or region.
“One of the most important things that we have learned while building of our movement has been our ability to rebuild our pride of being peasants,” explained Paul Nicholson, a Basque farmer, one of the founders of the movement. “Now we are proud to be recognised by major institutions such as the FAO and the human right councils.”
With the start of the food crisis in 2007 and the increasing number of hungry people in the world, the tide has started to turn. The blind promise that agribusiness would feed the world appeared to be a fiction, and more and more people, governments and institutions are recognising that there will be no solution to the current crisis without the participation of small-scale farmers.
The climate crisis also reveals the limitations of the agro-industrial mode of production, which is extremely fuel hungry and destroys soils and nature. Sustainable agriculture and local food markets, on the other hand, show a remarkably positive impact on climate (pdf).
It is in this context of food and climate crises that thousands of people in hundreds of local groups and organisations around the world celebrated the International Day of Peasants’ Struggles on 17 April. All kinds of activities were organised – land occupations and other direct actions, film screenings and cultural events, conferences, farmers’ markets and public debates.
The event marks the repression of a group of landless farmers in Brazil who were struggling for their right to land. On 17 April 1996, in the Amazonian state of Pará, at Eldorado dos Carajás, state military policemassacred peasants organised in the Movement of Landless Rural Workers (MST).
Thousands of peasants and those who advocate on their behalf are still oppressed, intimidated, arrested and killed as they struggle for land, food, economic opportunity and human rights – even though they are the very same men and women who are feeding the world.
• Henry Saragih has been the chairperson of the Indonesian Peasant Union since 1998 and was named general co-ordinator of La Via Campesina in 2004