The global struggle of the local peasant

Free trade agreements scripted by powerful governments and corporations destroy rural areas. Peasants will resist them!

Peasants revolt article
Geumsoon Yoon stands next to an offering of flowers and candles in memory of the late Lee Hyung-hae at the Ninth WTO Ministerial Conference in Nusa Dua, Bali in December 2013 [Reuters]

Put together, Asia, Africa and Latin America accommodate more than 88 percent of the world’s population. A predominantly high number of people in these regions depend on farms, forests and fishing for their livelihoods.

Peasants of these regions are the inheritors of an agricultural system that was developed over the last 20,000 years. It is a system that has stood the test of times, continues to feed the world’s population and is hinged on a philosophy that puts mother nature right at the centre of it.

Today, peasants (and for the ease of argument I include indigenous people, migrant workers, rural workers, pastoralists and fishing communities in this term), feed approximately 70 percent of the world’s population (pdf). The food that you will find on your plates is the results of hard work put in by several million farming families, including mine, tilling on small tracts of land year round. It is tough work. For peasant women like me, it is even harder, given that we are also struggling against a patriarchal system that persistently fails to recognise women’s contribution in the farms and families. Yet, despite the challenges, we work the land and produce the food that all of us eat, every day.

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In an ideal world where the rational should thrive, peasants would, therefore, feature at the centre of every decision that is taken for our welfare and of the planet. But is that so?

The advent of a financial system that pitched material wealth as a measure of human progress gradually took control of the world away from the majority of its people and gave it into the hands of a few. Ideas such as “free market”, “free trade”, “globalisation” and so forth – invaded our heads and minds, possibly more so in the last three decades, when food became an instrument to make and maximise profit.

We insist that decisions that affect our lives must be taken with the approval from our communities.


The World Trade Organisation (WTO) encouraged this idea of producing food as a “commodity, rather than a common good”. Borders opened up, import tariffs were brought down and big industries that promoted high-yielding monoculture practices were soon able to dump cheap food onto our local markets.

Social movements across the world resisted. La Via Campesina, the largest peasant movement worldwide, also featured at the forefront of this resistance. In 2003, in Cancun, Mexico, outside the venue of the Fifth WTO Ministerial Conference, one of our dear comrades, Korean farmer Lee Kyung Hae, took his life in protest. He was holding a banner that read “WTO Kills Farmers”. In every ministerial thereafter, we ensured that his sacrifice would not be forgotten as we pledged to fight “WTO Out of Agriculture”. In many ways, this resistance exposed the ills and dented the influence of WTO and several of its ministerial rounds have floundered since then.

But then, those in power always had a “Plan B”, called Free Trade Agreements (FTAs). Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) are all striking examples of these new, mega-trade agreements that dictate what we eat and how. They ensure that rich countries always have a consuming population in poor and “developing” countries. Provisions such as the Investor State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) – where private firms are allowed to sue national governments – are clearly stepping on our sovereignty and national laws.

Ironically enough, all these decisions that have led to the devastation of rural peasant communities were taken by people who never held a plough in their hands and the results are here to be seen.

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Rural farms have perished and large industrial farms are taking over. Rural self-sufficiency, in all the regions of the world, is broken. South Korea, where I come from, has traded its food-sufficiency for cheap imports. Farm input costs have spiralled while the prices have remained stagnant. Seeds are privatised, patented and free exchange in peasant communities is deemed illegal. Farm lands are being forcefully grabbed, forests are being cleared for mining projects, coasts are being taken over by industrial fishing.

Green revolution technologies have spoiled our soil and killed our biodiversity.

Young people are not interested in the farms anymore. Consider this: the average age of South Korean farmers and fishers who head households is 65 years. I hear the same tales in farming families of Europe, South and Central America, Africa, everywhere. In a world, where greed is packaged as need, farming is no more a way of life but a business model!

In early June, I received an alert from my friends in India that five farmers were shot dead by the police during a protest. They were demanding better prices for their produce. In 2016, I lost a dear friend and a rice farmer Baek Namgi, who was hit by a police water cannon while protesting in Seoul against FTAs. In Tanzania, in Brazil, in Mozambique, rural economies are staging revolts against their own governments for failing to keep promises and for destroying their farms.

Time has come for my people to take charge.

In 1993, several small farmers organisations of the world, in their attempt to counter the threat of globalisation, created a global movement called La Via Campesina. We insist that decisions that affect our lives must be taken with the approval from our communities. Twenty-four years after we founded this movement, we are gathering again in the Basque Country, for our seventh international conference (pdf), to reflect on our struggles and craft our future.

We have had several achievements so far: being heard directly at the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation; being able to negotiate for our rights in the UN Human Rights Council and so forth. We have lost a lot of our comrades, too – to repression and violence. But our resolve is stronger than ever. If this planet, which is heating up fast is to be saved, peasant communities have to be recognised as a central player in this process and need to be protected by their governments, so that they can fulfil their leading role.

Geumsoon Yoon is a South Korean small-scale farmer, leader of the Korean Women Peasant Association and a member of the International Coordination Committee of La Via Campesina.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.