Via Campesina at the World Social Forum

Here’s a brief newsy post from the Via Campesina’s first day of activities at the World Social Forum – expect a tidied up version of this on the Via Campesina site soon…

The 2007 World Social Forum is a place where many of the world’s contradictions are writ small. A single plate of food from the vendors outside the gates costs the same as the average weekly wage here in Kenya. One group, the Via Campesina peasant movement, was reminding the world that everyone has to eat, and advancing its vision of ‘food sovereignty’, a programme that promises food for all, and a secure livelihood for those who grow it.

Rafael Alegria, coordinator of the Global Campaign for Agrarian Reform, and a former international operative secretary of the movement laid the blame for poverty among peasant producers, and exploitation of consumers, at the door of the international economic system. “For the last twenty years, financial capital has been “able to control the food production system of the world. They have been using the WTO which is the mother organization of capitalism for their benefit. Via Campesina, since its founding, has struggled for agrarian reform, food sovereignty and against the WTO.”

But things are changing. The epicentre of change today is Latin America, where a new kind of internationalism is being born, not one of capital, but of people. Countries like Venezuela and Bolivia, with presidents like Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales, have advanced the task of agrarian reform. But it isn’t just in heads of state that such changes are vested. In Brazil, the Landless Rural Workers Movement has been pushing change at a grassroots level, bringing land and security to millions. Its work extends beyond Brazil, strengthening movements in Latin America, and even shaping the direction of international policy at the UN-sponsored International Conference on Rural Reform and Agrarian Development.

Central to this struggle is the experience of women, and in Via Campesina’s presentations yesterday, women from South Africa, Sierre Leone, Malawi, and Cote D’Ivoire took to the stage, with testimony and analysis. “We have one case,” said Thobekile Radebe from South Africa’s Landless Peoples’ Movement, “where a woman died on the white farmer’s farm, where they had been working for generations. But when they wanted to bury her, the farmer said no. We had to take it to the high court and, finally, we won.”

The law lets women in Africa down, partly because of the co-existence of two kinds of legal environment – customary and constitutional law. Issues such as inheritance and matrimonial affairs are often governed by customary law. So, while women may in a constitution have rights to own property and to inherit land, under customary law they do not, and it is traditional law that governs. All the women were agreed that the challenge in future agrarian reform was to maintain women’s rights in the forefront, and, in the words of Via Campesina’s slogan, to “Globalize the struggle, globalize the hope”.