By Raj Patel*

Chauvinism seldom makes you wince more than when it appears in the work of people whom you respect. We’re used, for example, to Washington’s superiority complexes laying waste to the economic and social systems of developing countries, particularly in rural areas. This is a logic of “but if we don’t charge, they won’t understand that it costs something”, a curriculum of a School of Hard Knocks for those already broken by poverty. And when we see this kind of lunacy, we get angry, we criticise, we organise, we amplify the alternatives. What are we to do, though, when we read that the peasantry is “a sack of potatoes” (according to Karl Marx), “not possessed of a liberated consciousness,” (Ranajit Guha) with knowledge that is “not worth knowing” (Barrington Moore)?


Well, we do the same thing, albeit under a cloud of disappointment.

Theorists and historians of social change, progressive o­nes, have often been blind to the potent organising happening in rural areas. Part of the reason is that a largely urban media, academy and government has managed to get away with a great deal sloppy thinking, and through this misrepresentation of the rural has unleashed furies o­n agriculture that would never have been tolerated in urban areas.


Take “the peasantry”, for example, a term that seems to point to a definable group of people but, o­n closer scrutiny and without additional detail, ends up pointing to nothing at all. Talk of “the peasantry” is talk of a body of rural people who are assumed to be connected by some fundamental unifying factor. But it’s not really clear what this magic essential ingredient is. The people who fall under the banner are both employers and labourers, subsistence and market producers, rich and poor, men and women, in the Global South and the North. There’s no o­ne inherent feature that brings people living in rural areas together, no essential peasant romance, just as there isn’t an essence to living in a city, or living in Asia, or any other accident looking for substance.

This isn’t to deny that there are peasants, but to observe that those looking for an already unified global peasant class, chewing straw and waiting for the city kids to show them how to foment revolution, are likely to be disappointed. This doesn’t negate the possibility of solidarity, to be sure. In fact, in the absence of peasant essentialism, o­ne can think of little else that might bind the struggles borne of so many disparate experiences. And solidarity there can be: witness Vía Campesina, the world-wide organization of rural women, peasants, small farmers, rural workers, indigenous people and Afro-descendants, from Asia, Europe, America and Africa. Via Campesina is the foremost international peasant movement and its rise is a direct result of the systemic capitalist transformation of agriculture. It began with a meeting in 1992 in response to the simultaneous crises of agriculture in Central and South America. Since then it has grown to cover every continent, with an international politics that cedes nothing to mystical ideas of ‘the peasantry’ but is based in a shared and articulated experience of the global crisis of agriculture.

Of the trends that have led to the current state of agriculture in North and South, the Cold War is perhaps the most important. The ‘security’ concerns of the last century explain the vast internal subsidies given to domestic producers in the global north, the subsequent overproduction, agro-exporting and dumping of crops, and temporary support for potentially rebellious third world rural populations through commodity price intervention schemes. These trends wrought havoc o­n those whose livelihood was dependent o­n agriculture. As Phil McMichael — a sensitive and thoughtful interpreter of these trends — puts it:

“Agro-export dumping undermined the postwar food regime’s system of stable prices and managed disposal of food surpluses. World agricultural prices fell from a mean of 100 in 1975 to 61 by 1989 – a 39 percent decline. Bearing no relation to the cost of production, these world prices expressed an emerging corporate food regime that would institutionalize ‘green power’ through the WTO. The trajectory was o­ne in which agro-exporting states (the EU and the US) were forced through competitive relations to synchronize farm policy as a precondition of the WTO’s corporate regime.” (McMichael, Philip. “Global development and the corporate food regime, “ July 2004.)

Third world debt has also been a nail in the coffin of sustainable agriculture. Rather than moving towards robust and productive agro-ecological systems, indebtedness demands that the fields of the third world be turned into engines for the repayment of World Bank and IMF loans. Local food needs come second to the demand for the foreign exchange in which these loans are denominated, and which can o­nly be secured through export-agriculture.

Export agriculture is, as it happens, exactly what the WTO is in the business of promoting and regulating, under cover of ‘free trade’ rhetoric. And it does this to the benefit of a small bloc of powerful people in the North and South. These include the functionaries and ideologues of the WTO, World Bank, US ExImBank, and USAID, but also agriculture companies such as ADM, pesticide companies such as Monsanto, retailers such as WalMart, the oil industry, financiers and ministries of finance, and the cluster of consultants, lawyers, large landholders and government officials in developing countries that support, promote, and pimp for the WTO at home.

While this bloc wins, a broader base of rural poor people loses. Take India, for example. In the most aggressive period of Indian globalization during the 1990s, the period that we’re told is responsible for the outsourcing of US jobs today, levels of hunger among the poorest increased, reversing decades of progress in feeding the hungry. Today, 233 million Indians are undernourished, suffering from inadequate intake of calories and micro-nutrients. Net availability of food grains per person has plummeted to levels unheard of since the 1930s economic depression under British colonial rule, even as India produces more millionaires than ever before.


What’s important here is that the critique is not about the evil North against the hapless South. The food system is far more complex. o­nly by training our eyes to see the specific predations of agricultural export capitalism can we come to understand the musculature of international agrarian hegemony, the lie of its bones, the flow of its marrow. And we can learn, thereby, how to grab its tail.

The trends of export agriculture are repeated, with regional differences, across the world. Those differences are important, mind. Despite the talk of a ‘one-size-fits-all’ policy coming from the Bank, and however much the economists there would like to see the real world matching their simplifying assumptions more neatly, the fact remains that Bank policy doesn’t play well with history and society. The contingencies of place, history, geography and society invariably shape the experience of Bank policy in very specific ways. But although the specifics are different, and we must respect those differences, there are general trends in the synchronisations of post-War agrarian policy. These are: deterioration in the conditions of the poorest of the rural poor, concentration of ownership and control of the food system, a deskilling of agriculture and a devaluation of rural culture, corporate welfare, dispossession, exploitation of women’s labour, and mobilization against rural social movements. And it is these that motivate the slogan “The WTO Kills Farmers” a slogan made most famous by Lee Kyung Hae, who died a year ago today.

On the leaflet he handed out o­n the day he climbed the walls around the WTO and took his penknife to his heart, were these words:

“… o­nce I went to a house where a farmer abandoned his life by drinking a toxic chemical because of his uncontrollable debts. I could do nothing but listen to the howling of his wife. If you were me, how would you feel?

“Widely paved roads lead to large apartments, buildings, and factories in Korea. Those lands paved now were mostly rice paddies built by generations over thousands of years. They provided the daily food and materials in the past. Now the ecological and hydrological functions of paddies are even more crucial. Who will protect our rural vitality, community traditions, amenities, and environment?

“I believe that farmers’ situation in many other developing countries is similar. We have in common the problem of dumping, import surges, lack of government budgets, and too many people. Tariff protection would be the practical solution.”

It’s all here. The recognition of the contours of a common problem (though we might want to take issue with the “too many people” diagnosis), of the pain of the betrayal of agriculture by the market, and of the beginnings of an alternative to the crisis. Tariff protection of agriculture is certainly part of the solution, and o­ne that was dear to Lee – he lost his farm when lower barriers to trade in cattle meant that Australian meat could flood the Korean market. o­n the day Lee lost his farm, his family found him crying in a cinema, ashamed to show his tears to the sky.


But the solution requires more than just higher tariffs. Via Campesina has developed the idea of ‘food sovereignty’ as a comprehensive alternative strategy to agro-export capitalism. It’s a strategy that asserts the right to autonomy in setting food policy, in defining how we get to eat free of the suffocations of agro-export capital. It asserts that safe, healthy food is a right for all peoples, and furthermore, that decisions o­n how these rights are realised ought to be made not at some international venue, but by the communities closest to where the food is grown and consumed. It is an internationalist solution that acknowledges the differences, contingencies and politics of place in different areas. It’s a politics without guarantees, to be sure: there’s no promise that under food sovereignty, widespread progressive policies will sweep the world. But it is a policy that, at its very worst, can be shown demonstrably to be better than the autocracies of export-agriculture under which the poorest live today.

An end to the WTO, hope for diverse local agricultures unified by the experience of agro-export capitalism. This is why September 10 has been declared a day of “Global Action Against Free Trade and for Food Sovereignty” by Vía Campesina. Within days of Lee’s death, marches around the world linked their local calls for change with the memory of Lee, with chances of “We Are Lee”. This was a demonstration not of some spurious peasant unity, but of a unity that had been organised and found purchase in the imaginations of peasant movements around the world. o­ne year o­n, Lee’s commemoration is precisely that – an attempt to remember conjointly, in solidarity an attempt to articulate the varied experiences of activism and resistance to agro-export politics, a moment that speaks the irreducible histories of agrarian struggle. Lee’s death is not merely an expression, but a conduit for a new agrarian internationalism around food sovereignty. Vía Campesina calls for this death not to be forgotten. We would do well today to heed, take pause and then, in memoriam, take action. What kind of action? Contact your local Via Campesina member organisations to find out.

* Raj Patel is a co-editor of The Voice of the Turtle and works at the Centre for Civil Society, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, South Africa.

For more information:

Annette Desmarais o­n Via Campesina and the WTO:

Some Effects of the Agricultural Export Model in different countries:

Peoples’ Food Sovereignty: