Agrarian Trust

La Via Campesina

La Via Campesina Celebrates 30 Years of Collective Struggle

On April 17, 1996 a group of around 1,500 protesters marched on the regional capital of Para, a state located in north Brazil. The protesters aimed to secure paperwork to legitimize the presence of 3,500 landless families who had settled on Macaxeira Farm. They were met with brutal violence. By the end of the day, twenty-one rural workers had died at the hands of over 155 state officers. 

Today, this unspeakable tragedy, now known as the Massacre at Eldorado do Carajás, serves as a catalyst for peasants and Indigenous workers around the world fighting for a just food system. The sacrifices of the twenty-one workers are commemorated yearly by the international peasant organization La Via Campesina on April 17 as the International Day of Peasant Struggles. La Via Campesina, a global movement representing over 200 million peasants around the world, is a leading force in this struggle. This year, along with the International Day of Peasant Struggles, La Via Campesina celebrated its thirty-year anniversary. The actions of La Via Campesina and the peasant movement for food sovereignty demonstrate that the roots of a revitalized and just food system lay not in the hands of global corporations, but in the day-to-day practice and organizing of Indigenous and peasant farmers around the world.

Food Sovereignty, Peasant Rights, and La Via Campesina

In the early nineties, as with today, free trade and corporate-friendly policy favor international conglomerates over small-scale peasant farmers, despite the fact that these farmers produce 70 percent of the global food supply. La Via Campesina was founded in 1993 by smallholders and farmers who sought to create a shared vision to counter the growing force of agribusiness, and to found a platform where the voices of peasant and Indigenous food producers would be heard. 

To this end, peasant organizers structured La Via Campesina to be decentralized and highly democratic. Every four years, La Via Campesina’s highest decision-making body, the International Conference, meets to determine the shared objectives of the peasants and Indigenous farmers it represents. The platform that has emerged from these meetings includes, but is not limited to, agroecological growing practices, climate justice, and food sovereignty. Above all, La Via Campesina champions the rights of peasants and Indigenous people, placing their voice at the lead of the global food sovereignty movement.

La Via Campesina coined the term food sovereignty in 1996, against the background of an increasingly globalized food system, which heavily favored large agribusinesses over small-scale farmers. The World Trade Organization (WTO) pressured countries to dismantle their local agricultural system, to lower prices, and become competitive on the global market. In order to drive labor costs down, farming became increasingly centralized, driving peasants and Indigenous people off their land at unprecedented rates. Aggressive copyright law and genetic engineering by large agribusinesses robbed peasants of their seeds, rendering them reliant on a volatile global market of pesticides and genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Cheap produce flooded local economies, destroying the livelihoods of farmers who were unable or unwilling to compete.

La Via Campesina coined the term food sovereignty in 1996, against the background of an increasingly globalized food system, which heavily favored large agribusinesses over small-scale farmers.

The concept and practice of food sovereignty is a direct response to the WTO’s destructive approach. It takes into account the role of food production in supporting regional sovereignty, local culture, thriving ecologies, and human rights, among numerous other factors. For La Via Campesina and the food sovereignty movement, cheap food is not enough; a just food system involves local control of food production, the valorization of Indigenous knowledge, and respect for the land.

Food sovereignty is rooted in and inspired by the experience of Indigenous and peasant farmers. “For thousands of years,” writes the European branch of La Via Campesina in a 2018 report, “peasant farmers, pastoralists and other peoples who live from the land and sea have developed and refined resilient food and water systems, plant and animal breeds and cultivated plant varieties to ensure their continuation and long term sustainability.” The knowledge generated by these small-scale food producers plays a critical role in developing a biodiverse, locally controlled, and resilient alternative to globalized industrial agriculture. La Via Campesina leads an array of efforts to advance the right of peasants to generate knowledge, including agroecology schools based on the model of popular education, and a campaign to defend the rights of peasants to breed and keep their own seeds.

In its thirty years of existence, La Via Campesina has made major gains in its efforts to defend the rights of peasant food producers around the world. In 2018, under pressure from La Via Campesina and the global food sovereignty movement, the United Nations passed the Declaration on the Rights of Peasants (UNDROP). The declaration recognizes the right of peasants to seeds, land, and food sovereignty. According to Article 15, Section 4 of the document, “Peasants and other people working in rural areas have the right to determine their own food and agriculture systems, recognized by many States and regions as the right to food sovereignty.” The fact that the United Nations directly incorporated the language of food sovereignty into a critical human rights document speaks to the tireless organizing of La Via Campesina and the power of global, democratic, and decentralized movements.

As the organization celebrates its thirty-year anniversary, organizations around the world are engaging in collective actions, including Indigenous tree plantings, educational events, and film screenings. In addition to these events, La Via Campesina has released training modules on the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Peasants, the campaign for peasant seeds, and peasant feminism. If you are interested in learning more about the food sovereignty movement, you can also check out La Via Campesina’s Vimeo account for in-depth documentary features on the movement. On April 17, 2022, La Via Campesina premiered a new animated film on its official Facebook page, on the topic of food sovereignty. As Agrarian Trust is an active participant in the global movement for food sovereignty, and a member of La VIa Campesina, we encourage our readers and partners to review this material as an act of solidarity with our global partners in struggle.