Now that PTI and PAT have harnessed the imagination of the urban majority, hopefully they’ll start thinking of the largest and most difficult to access segment of the population — the peasantry.
But liberating the peasant is more easily said than done, no matter how good the intentions are. The world has raced on by more foul means than fair, at the cost of the small cultivator of South countries. Within seven decades, the World Bank, IMF, and WTO were quickly created by the west to take up where the former colonizers left off. Within seven decades industrial chemical agriculture based on false science got backed by them.
The United Nations which was supposed to be the great equalizer and bastion of democracy, disappointed the South by the actions of one of its most important branches, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). For the past half-century, the FAO has been the unofficial supporter of large-scale industrial and corporate agriculture, paying scant attention to the global mass of small fry.
A few days before the UN Climate Summit where the PM made a poor and lacklustre show of himself, an ‘International Syposium on Agroecology for Food and Nutritional Security’ was held for the very first time at the FAO headquarters in Rome. They even invited delegates from Via Campesina, the global movement of peasants and smallholder family farmers, including from India, Brazil and Cuba. Pakistan didn’t figure because our peasants are yet to be mobilized into a movement of their own, while rulers tow the corporate agriculture line.
At the conclusion of the symposium, Jose Graziano da Silva, Director General of the FAO, admitted, inadvertently or not, “Today a window was opened in what for 50 years has been the Cathedral of the Green Revolution.” But his remark made many wonder: why so belatedly, and at this point in time? Was it because Mr. da Silva thinks very differently from his predecessors who always disregarded traditional agriculture by the world’s small cultivators, who feed domestic populations ignored by landlords and agro-businesses that only serve industry and export?
Or was it because the so-called ‘green revolution’ (now usually referred to as ‘brown’) and genetically-modified (GM) agriculture dependant on fuels and chemicals have produced excess emissions aggravating climate change and have also badly poisoned the world’s farm soils? – so much so, some have been rendered dead and unproductive, while others’ performance keep dwindling, leaving no choice but to revert to traditional methods to bring them back to life?
Via Campesina has a history of reasons to be suspicious of the FAO initiative. The UN has never spoken up for peasant and small family farmers who are the foundation of South agriculture, except by one spokesman recently. Many chemical and hybrid/GM seed corporations have long been secretly buying up organic farms and natural seed farms, not to convert them, but to adopt “large-scale organic farming” to offset the growing consumer rejection of industrial agriculture, especially of food.
But so-called ‘large-scale’ organic negates the principles of natural farming, or what is now known as agroecology. Large-scale agriculture means monoculture – single-crop farming. Yet, there’s no such thing as monoculture in organic or natural or traditional farming, or whatever one chooses to call it. It is based on mixed farming of many crops, the more the better. The pre-colonial peasant would cultivate at least two dozen different crops on a couple of acres to keep biodiversity alive and reproduction healthy.
Furthermore, the global corporate giants of hybrid/ GM seeds and agro-chemicals are tightening their stronghold on South agriculture to compensate for losses arising from rising rejection in Europe and America.
Comparative on-field demonstrations and research for decades the world over, have illustrated that climate change affected by excessive, unfiltered toxic emissions, mainly from western industry, transport and chemical agriculture, can be reversed by organic farming. Instead of accepting that reality, corporates continue to desperately look for strategies to stay in business. One of them is to co-opt partial organic methods to slow soil deterioration, and peddle them as industrial.
This makes Via Campesina wary. Eco-farming is an alternative that always existed, not something to pick and choose bits from to troubleshoot when industrial crops fail, or to suit corporate marketing.
It took the first thousand or so of 10,000 to 15,000 years to observe the workings of nature and develop settled agriculture adapted to local geographical and climatic conditions. The remaining time went on perfecting it and compiling the encyclopaedic localized knowledge of specialized peasant farmers. It maintained a rich and ever-productive green world and a fulfilling way of life to match.
It took only 500 years of colonialism to appropriate the naturally bountiful farmlands of the South countries and impose monoculture – the cultivation of selected, single crops that the colonizers sought to the exclusion of most others needed for food and other domestic needs. Monoculture catalyzed the destruction of plant and wildlife diversity.
But most appallingly, it took a mere 70 years for profiteers to invent a false agriculture based on incorrect conclusions to experiments, so as to market leftover, unsold chemicals of warfare as artificial ‘fertilizers’. Industrial chemical monoculture was thereby invented – large-scale farming using poisonous chemicals (instead of manure and plant compost) that killed off essential soil microorganisms, insect and bird pollinators and much else. It also drastically reduced the nutritive content of foodcrops which led to mass malnutrition and poverty, and accelerated the process of 75% loss of the world’s biodiversity.
So-called ‘scientific’ agriculture turned out to be the misuse of science, disregarding all the norms of nature to practice parasitism. It was based on monopolizing land, water and other inputs by dispossessing small producers, increasing quantity (yield) at the cost of quality, so as to corner the market and dictate the highest price that could be exacted from captive consumers.
Before the formerly colonized countries could recover their own culture and values to rebuild their economies to empower and employ their own citizens, governance was hijacked by local elites conditioned to believe that the South had no science and technology of its own despite it being liberally stolen from and dishonestly patented by the west, and that the South could never progress without western science and systems. Consequently, with a few exceptions, the former colonial countries find themselves balancing dual worlds within their own borders as the deprived majority fight for democratic rights, and most crucial of all, the rights of the tiller who constitutes the foundation of all agricultural economies.
Pakistan is among the worst cases of this dual world – a sophisticated, hi-tech, consumerist urban world living off the backs of dirt-poor, unlettered, oppressed peasants enslaved by poverty in mediaeval conditions.
The floods may have taken a terrible toll on lives, livelihoods, families. But it happened because our feudal and corporate-minded governments throughout denied shelter, the use of community lands, and social and economic rights to the rural poor who were pushed onto the floodplains. The calamity wasn’t just a man-made one, it was a government-made one.
The floods, as they always do, left behind a layer of silt – rich, natural fertilizer, meant to start off the peasant on his next planting without buying unnecessary artificial fertilizer. Governments have hardly mentioned the fact that the UN declared 2014 as the “Year for Family Farming.”
But families must first be rehabilitated. There are solutions, yes, including democratic land reform, but they won’t be carried out by crooks or feudals.
The writer is a former journalist and currently director of The Green Economic Initiative at Shirkat Gah, a rights and advocacy group.