This article was first published in "Debate: Voices from the South African Left' no. 9, Sep 2003, where it looks MUCH MUCH prettier. You, dear reader, can email Caroline for subscription details or with your own offerings for consideration by the editorial collective - political/cultural/reports/theory/commentary/reviews/poems all welcome.
Beneath the neurotic jargon of business
management literature, there occasionally lurks a good idea. "Synergy", also
known as "The 2+2=5 effect", is one of them. Borrowed from evolutionary
biology, the big idea is not merely that "the whole is greater than the sum of
its parts", but that two parts in particular can be very well suited to each
other, each amplifying the strengths of the other. For those working in a more
progressive vein than management consulting, this can be useful. Consider:
The activists who work on land reform and the activists who work on stopping "free" trade know that they’re on the same team. But the very different histories, locations, classes, races and gendered traditions of the two struggles have often kept these activists apart. They have much in common, and it’s clear that each would be stronger for engaging with the other;
for neither the struggle for land nor the struggle for trade justice can
To prove the point, here are a couple of thought experiments. First, imagine a world in which the World Trade Organization were finally crushed. Not only that, but the rash of U.S.
bilateral trade agreements, like the one it currently being mooted between the
Southern African Customs Union and the U.S., were somehow halted. Trade
activists have left their last protest happy. The rules of the global economy
are, for the first time in history, under democratic control.
This would be a shallow victory.
For the rural poor, it would make
little difference that, say, communities were free to decide who grows what, if
they didn’t have land to till.
This is a flippant example, but the point is far from
trivial. There is a danger, in the urbanized world of trade activism, of
thinking the basic material conditions under which the poorest people on earth
currently labour, might be solved through the magic bullet of a perfect
Inequality cannot be solved by corollary. In South
Africa at least, a monomaniac obsession with trade would be desperately out of
joint with the reality of the people in whose name ‘anti-globalisation’
activism is often carried out. Measures for poverty rates, depth and gap are
significantly higher for rural areas than urban (while half of South Africans
fall below the poverty line, 72% are in rural areas). Predictably, the
statistics are desperately worse for landless rural people than the already low
rural average . And,
equally predictably, at the heart of this poverty, women are oppressed far more
than men – their exploitation for reproductive labour fuels Southern Africa’s
neoliberal passion. The capitalist market only works because it depends on women’s unpaid
labour. Talk of ‘incorporating women into the market’, is errant liberalism.
The market demands that reproductive labour remain outside it, if it is to
function properly. This is why women have title to
only 1 percent of the world's land, while producing more than half of the
world's food - in countries of food scarcity the percentage is even higher.
Women produce more than 60-80 percent of the basic foodstuffs for Sub-Saharan
Africa and the Caribbean, perform over 50 percent of the labor in rice
cultivation in Asia. Agriculture accounts for more than 70 percent of recorded
women's labor in Asia and their home gardens represent some of the most complex
agricultural systems in Southeast Asia and the Pacific and Latin America.
Without women’s effective control of land, the agrarian economy will continue
to be piped by corporate capital.
Thus, for the South African landless,
worrying about the World Trade Organization might seem like a wistful luxury.
Let’s come at the thought experiment the other way. Imagine that
every landless South African receives a tract of decent land. If both the
international trading regime and domestic policies favourable to export
agriculture persist, land reform may make slim difference. If the context for
South African farming demands that farmers produce exotic fruit for the rest of
the world, if land must be mortgaged instantly to the concerns of transnational
agricultural trade, then the command of land title remains command in name
alone. Reorganising tenure of land can make little difference to the lives of
the peasantry if the power structures which exploit them remain intact.
Consider that while Northern farmers enjoy $1 billion in subsidies every day,
the majority of farmers in the third world are taxed. This colonial hangover
serves elite coalitions in the third world well. Potentially troublesome urban
workers remain well fed, while their rural comrades are made to bear the cost.
And even within rural areas, these power asymmetries matter. Rural elites do
well by this arrangement. In his seminal and readable study, Rehman Sohban
notes that in no land reform that has worked in the long term interests of the
majority of the rural poor have the power structures in rural areas been left
Already, the points of convergence between the trade and land reform
agendas are becoming clearer. When we say ‘trade reform’ what we really mean is
a systematic overhaul of the international economy, together with a
redistribution of the means to participate fully in the economy at all. And by
‘land reform’, we don’t just mean having access to a chit that promises access
to land – we mean a systematic overhaul of the rural structures of power that
keep rural populations consistently poorer than urban ones the world over.
There are rich rewards to be
reaped from seeing these two struggles as linked. For instance, it’s possible
to counter the neoliberal propaganda that promotes both ‘free trade’ and
‘market based land reform’, of the kind experienced, to little effect, in South
(In South Africa, “only a few thousand cases have been settled, mainly through
financial compensation rather than actual land restitution, a far cry from the
63,455 claims received.” )
Market-based land reform has worked against the poorest, and it’s no
surprise why. The argument
put forward by the World Bank and its apologists is that the market is an
efficient way to redistribute land, to a willing buyer from a willing seller.
That works fine when there are many of both, and both are wealthy enough to be
able to engage in the transaction. Of course, this clearly isn’t the case in
any context where land reform is urgent. In fact, market-based land reform
cowers behind an argument of efficiency in order to avoid redressing systemic
imbalances of power. In South Africa, those imbalances are still fresh as
blood. Under the ‘black spot removal policy’, 475,000 blacks were relocated
between 1960 and 1983, to clear land and to create labour for white farming. Is
it likely that buyer and seller met each other on even terms in this market?
Clearly not. Do they now? No. The situation for the rural poor has
Yet, in microcosm, this is precisely the same interaction, the same
‘level playing field’ as we see in the international economy. When the World
Trade Organization talks of merely providing a framework for orderly
transactions between nations they, just as the World Bank does with land
reform, blot out an entire history of colonialism, making believe that the
present, with all its unpleasant inequalities, dropped fully formed from the
The sky has a history; new colonialisms continue to scar the
disenfranchised across the third world. Struggles for land and economic justice
fight the same rhetoric because they fight the same battle.
This is a recognition that lives large in the work of Vía Campesina (Peasant Life). Vía Campesina is the international farmer federation, founded in 1992 from a rich tradition of Sandinista radicalism, during the second congress of the Nicaraguan National Union of
Farmers and Ranchers. To date, there is only full African member - União Nacional de Camponeses (UNAC), based in Mozambique, though they have far many more members throughout the rest of the world, including the formidable Movimento dos Trabalhadores sem Terra (Landless Peasant Movement) in Brazil, and the twenty million strong Karnataka Rajya Ryota Sangha (Karnataka State
Farmer’s Association). For land and trade activists, Via Campesina point to a
synergy between land and global justice struggles that deserves attention.
Key to Vía Campesina’s political demands is "food sovereignty". It is an urgent idea, and one upon which a great deal of scorn has been poured by neoliberal economists. Conventional economics equates ‘food sovereignty’ to autarky, a situation in which every state has the ability to produce enough to feed its own. This, reason neoliberals, is silly.
If all that mattered were that food be extant, this logic would be sound. To
put it differently, if Country A were able to produce food, and Country B television
sets, each more efficiently than the other, and if Countries A and B decide
that they’d like more televisions and food than they currently have, then trade
would solve their problems. They would trade food for TVs and both would have
more than if each produced their own. This is why neoliberal economists don’t
like food sovereignty. For them, it is inefficient.
One person’s inefficiency is, however, another person's democracy. In
the process of deciding how and who is producing what to eat, the lives of
people in rural communities are played with. Via Campesina define food
sovereignty as “the right of countries and peoples to define their own agricultural
and food policies which are ecologically, socially, economically and culturally
appropriate for them.” [i] The difference between the approach of the World Bank, USAID and allied organizations, and that of the farmer-led Via Campesina, is the issue of who controls access to food, seed, land and the
market. In moving towards a neoliberal economy, control is sapped away from the
majority of rural people. This is a fundamental issue of justice, dignity and
democracy. The current world trading system militates against all three.
This is why Vía Campesina advocate both land reform, radical change in the
international trading system, and end to agricultural dumping (the US
agribusiness industry’s preferred method of income in Africa), and end to GM food,
increased state support of farmers’ rights to farm, consumers' rights to choose, and women farmers’ rights.
Central to this idea is that individuals, communities and countries need to be
effectively, and not merely nominally, in control of what they eat. Families in
the slums of Los Angeles and Johannesburg, farmers in the urban gardens of
London and the farms of Northern South Africa are equally violated, according
to this standard – they cannot choose what to grow, how far short of a decent wage
they will fall when prices crash, or what they can afford. These are all
decisions that are currently decided, and profited from, in the market. These
are no-one’s decisions to make. From Article 25 of the Universal declaration of
Human Rights we learn that "Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the
health and well-being of himself [sic] and of his [sic] family, including food". Even in this most liberal of documents,
the right to food is non-negotiable. To allow the market to decide is to tread
on the basic preconditions for social, political and economic participation in
life. In the powerful introduction to his work on land reform in Tanzania,
activist lawyer and academic Issa Shivji puts this well. In dedicating the book
to his daughters, he argues that the issue of control over the material
conditions of their lives is central to their rights as citizens. In the
absence of justice for land, the political situation, echoing Amilcar Cabral,
is ‘Not Yet Democracy’. Putting it another way, Yash Tandon over twenty years
ago argued "[d]emocracy is a
material question. It concerns the lives of people in their daily struggles for
material existence ". It is this
conception of democracy that unites the radical passions of economic and land
justice movements. Soon may we prevail.
This article springs from research currently being carried out at
Food First/ The Institute for Food and Development Policy, scheduled to be
completed August 2003. The views here represent those of the author alone,
however, and should not be attributed to Food First.