What is an integral and popular agrarian reform?

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Farmers called on ASEAN Summit leaders to adopt the UN  Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in the Rural Areas on November 12, 2017. Photo: @via_campesina/Twitter

Over the past few decades, I have had the opportunity to study a few different land-reform models in developing countries. While interesting, and very, very important, most of those models have faltered in one way or another because they have not been able to address the needs of small landholders, or because they have not been sincere in efforts to ensure that those who work the land have a say in how it is used. In fact, some land-reform models have come full circle from state farms, to cooperative farmers, to individual small farms — or some combination thereof.

Recently, I happened upon new publication published in mid-October by La Via Campesina, a global peasant and small farmers movement, entitled Struggles of La Via Campesina for Agrarian Reform and the Defense of Life, Land, and Territories.  The 29-page report analyzes the issues faced around the world in the context of food sovereignty and food production, and explains the need for an integrated’ agrarian reform within a global context. The document recognizes that models of reform cannot be "static," must go beyond issues of land tenure and include fishers and the marine environment, and must include comprehensive policies that control profit-making related to food.

La Via Campesina is an international agrarian movement of small landholders and landless farmers or peasants living in rural areas around the world. Founded in the 1993 during the Uruguay round of GATT negotiations, La Via Campesina is based on promoting food sovereignty complete with all of the dimensions that the phrase entails. Food sovereignty includes the redistribution of land to those who farm it, but also the democratic control of that land for the benefit of wider community. That means orderly marketing and supply management, environmental sustainability, access to clean water, seed, credit and much more, are all included. Essentially, all of these aspects are included in an ‘integral’ agrarian reform — the term coined by La Via Campesina to underscore the scope of what is required.

This type of Agrarian Reform is much more than the redistribution of land to peasants and small farmers, it is also very much about who controls the tools or inputs that form the basis of food production. For example — who controls the right to seed?

With landgrabbing a disheartening fact in both developing nations as well as in Canada (see my Sept. 2016 column "Gold with Yield”), it is important to know and support international organizations such as La Via Campesina. This document is a comprehensive look at food issues, providing historical context, political analysis, as well as identification of policies that are used to control food production. It is from the basis of landgrabbing that this document analyzes the control over food production.

Here is the definition included in the report:

"Land grabbing is the control (whether through ownership, lease, concession, contracts, quotas, or general power) of larger than locally-typical amounts of land by any persons or entities (public or private, foreign or domestic) via any means (‘legal’ or ‘illegal’) for purposes of speculation, extraction, resource control or commodification at the expense of agroecology, land stewardship, food sovereignty and human rights."

The report takes a detailed look at policies that support land commercialization, the prlvatization of seed, the grabbing of continental and marine waters, the signing of free trade agreements, and agricultural policies that favour large tracts of land or plantations and agro-industry. It also analyzes urban-rural alliances and how important these are to addressing hunger and poverty through agrarian reform.

"Very often we hear the argument that large-scale industrial agricultural production is necessary because it’s efficient and without it we wouldn’t be able to feed the world. The truth is in fact the opposite: while peasants, fishers and gatherers own only a minority of the land and have increasingly reduced access to forests, mangroves and seas, they are the ones who produce the vast majority of the food that we eat. The effects of the expulsion of peasants and the dispossession of their land are very serious, not just for local economies, but also for the food eaten by the whole of society. In this respect, the struggle for an integral and popular agrarian reform and food sovereignty is a struggle that’s crucial to survival, to the fulfilment of the right to food, the conservation of cultures and social structures and women’s rights."

The report goes on to recognize that any kind of land reform needs to be informed by local conditions and driven by the needs of small land holders.

"…the forms of tenure, whether they be collective, held in private property, community, co-operative, or whether the State holds the tenure and the communities have the right to use the land, are all different, depending on each culture, history and territory. As part of everyone’s right to decide their own path of development, La Via Campesina does not have one viewpoint on this issue, but reinforces discussion and exchange of experiences regarding agrarian reform. Furthermore, no agrarian reform can be static, but instead needs to be a process of continual development, change and adaptation according to the experiences and decision-making processes in the territories.”

In other words, we need to begin reforming agriculture in whichever way we can, given local conditions. In Canada, I believe that means policy changes that encourage intergenerational transfer of land to small farmers, encouraging cooperatives, and limiting the amount of land that corporations can own.

"Struggles of La Via Campesina for Agrarian Reform, and the Defense of Life, Land, and Territories" is a must-read for anyone wanting to learn more about the fight for global food sovereignty. It addresses the past three decades of events, the history of La Via Campesina and country-based peasant movements, as well as the analysis and policies that will drive the change toward a food production system that helps reduce hunger, maintain the environment and health of the planet and its peoples.

Lois Ross is a communications specialist, writer, and editor, living in Ottawa. Her column "At the farm gate" discusses issues that are key to food production here in Canada as well as internationally.

Photo: @via_campesina/Twitter

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