Thursday, March 25, 2010

Viva La Via Campesina

Today I received an email from La Via Campesina, an " international movement of peasants, small and medium-sized producers, landless, rural women, indigenous people, rural youth and agricultural workers". This communication declares that La Via Campesina characterizes this current moment as "one of arrogance and authoritarianism on the part of the United States, the European Union and transnational corporations". It goes on to state that:

The increase of military presence and military bases in various parts of the world, “humanitarian” invasions and occupations which indicate war, the occupation of markets and territories, and the military presence to control energy resources, water, and natural biodiversity are all tactics derived from civilization’s crisis of capitalism and the logics of exploitation, racism, and patriarchy. These tactics also work to disguise the climate crisis in illegitimate negotiations.

Mtandao wa Vikundi vya Wakulima Tanzania (MVIWATA, the Tanzanian Network of Farmers' Groups) is a member of La Via Campesina, so I hope they attend the movement's 'Assembly of Social Movements' in Bolivia in April. Perhaps they will also represent their neighbours, such as Kenya, Uganda and others. Only a handful of African countries are presently represented. Kenya is not. But they need to be.

It's hard to think of any strategy that could be worse for Tanzania and other developing countries than a concerted move towards large scale farming. Yet most members of a group of several hundred 'researchers' recently agreed that "the domination of the agricultural sector by small scale farmers is a serious problem".

A serious problem for whom? For wealthy politicians, who own much of the country's best land? For the multinationals, who want to control the country's ability to feed itself? For those who want to see more African land dedicated to the production of biofuels that will allow people in wealthy countries to continue their wasteful lifestyles? For those who see Tanzanian land and people as 'assets', to be bought up to enable them to produce food for people in wealthy countries?

These 'researchers', who must spend their time reading tabloid newspapers and the outputs of right-wing, imperialist think-tanks, rightly point out that small-scale farmers lack capital and skills. But they conclude that they should therefore become the de facto slaves for those unscrupulous enough to take over much of the country's land, natural resources and productive capacity.

If people lack skills, and it's not just Tanzanian small farmers who lack skills, this is because of the continuing failure of the education system. Many people don't attend school at all, many attend for a few years and many leave with very little practical knowledge of any kind. But this is not a reason to send in the large scale commercial farmers, ready to "inject capital and technology". People need better education, whether they are small scale farmers or from any other walk of life.

If the infrastructure is failing people, the infrastructure needs to be improved. Foreign land grabbers and multinationals are not going to do that. But in order to market goods even to Tanzanians, the country needs proper transport networks, reliable and widespread electricity supplies, communication networks and the like.

If, as these people suggest, Tanzanian agriculture is scaled up, what will happen to the subsistence farmers? They probably make up the largest economic group in Tanzania. The researchers' answer is the 'outgrower' system. Farmers become 'outgrowers' for some factory or exporter, producing a crop, usually a monoculture, usually not a food crop, to be exported. The farmer gets a very small price, they middle person gets a large price and the destination country converts the primary good into some high value product, often sold back to Tanzania at extortionate prices.

The country's Prime Minister Pinda uses the examples of tea, sugar and sisal to demonstrate how successful the outgrower system has been. Perhaps Pinda doesn't go out much but I think he will find that the majority of tea, sugar and sisal workers and outgrowers earn a pittance. And these crops are not essential food crops. People need to feed themselves and their dependents and they need to produce enough food to ensure the country's food sovereignty, the right of peoples "to define their own food, agriculture, livestock and fisheries systems, in contrast to having food largely subject to international market forces".

To avoid being tricked out of what's left of their natural resources and land, Tanzanians need to be aware of philosophies such as that of La Via Campesina. Most Tanzanians fit into one or other of the movement's categories. Because those Tanzanians who don't belong to any of those categories, rich businesspeople, politicians and the like, are ready to sell everything to the highest bidder. And, as usual, the money won't 'trickle down'.

La Via Campesina's objectives include the preservation of land (currently threatened by massive levels of land grabbing), water (threatened by all agricultural production for export, but especially biofuel and non-food crops), seeds (threatented by the attempts by genetically modified organism producers to control seed supplies) and other natural resources (threatened by natural resource exploitation which is almost entirely controlled by foreign multinationals). Other objectives include food sovereignty and sustainable agricultural production based on small and medium sized producers.

If Pinda and his colleagues are concerned about the country's low agricultural output, there are many initiatives that can be employed. As mentioned, improved education and infrastructure. But also, an improvement in the economic circumstances of the majority of people. The country is relatively rich in resources, but they are being effectively stolen by foreigners. There's (so far) no shortage of wealth in the country, distribution is the serious problem.

Most Tanzanians are just about getting by, right now. If agriculture is scaled up, by whatever means, the majority will lose the little access they have to food and other vital goods. Tanzanians need to feed Tanzanians. They don't need to be exploited by commercial and political interests. And the same applies to Kenyans and other Africans.

The final word must go to La Via Campesina:

The current industrialized agribusiness model has been deliberately planned for the complete vertical integration and to dominate all agriculture activities. This model exploits workers and concentrates economic and political power. La Via Campesina advocates a decentralized model where production, processing, distribution and consumption are controlled by the people the communities themselves and not by transnational corporations.



Andreas Exner said...

Thank you for your entry. I currently start to study the material on biofuel expansion in Tanzania. I read the recent FAO paper on the question of land grabbin in Africa, treating Tanzania as a case study (2009), as well as a study of Sulle/Nelson (2010). Furthermore, there is an extensive study financed by the German Ministry for Agriculture on a procedure to "harmonize" food production and biofuel up-scaling ("BEFS analysis"). In the report of the Oakland-Institute on land grabbing in Africa, Tanzania is also treated.

The picture that emerges is clearly a troubling one. Whereas the FAO report (which was done in cooperation with the World Bank speaks out about the dangers of biofuel expansion, yet trying to "give advice to investors"), the BEFS report is - as far as I see - written mostly from a top-down-perspective. In any case, the concern might be food security, but not food souveraignity.

Do you have contacts to Tanzanian farmers initiatives?

Thank you by the way for the link to Via Campesina in Tanzania.

PS: I am preparing a literature review on land grabbing in relation to biofuel expansion in Africa, and want to focus on Tanzania as a "case study" (based on literature)

Simon said...

Hi Andreas
Thanks for your comment. No, I don't have any contacts in TZ. My main concern is with development, retrogressive development and the part that landgrabbing, monoculture, biofuels, GMOs and other multinational interests play in impoverishing developing countries like Tanzania. I'm also interested in the role that movements like La Via Campesina could play. It's disappointing that there are few similar movements in Africa that I have heard of and I'm pleased to hear there is one in Tz. I'm based in Kenya right now and hope to work in Tz some time soon but nothing is certain yet!

I hope your literature review goes well, the issue really needs to be discussed from the point of view of the victims, rather than always from the point of view of the exploiters.