The European peasant movement: the struggle to change the EU

Interview with Genevieve Savigny, representative for European Coordination of Via Campesina
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By Milenko Srećković and Irina Cerić, www.FreedomFight.net

Genevieve Savigny shares a farm with her companion in the South of France, in the Alps. Her companion grows about 60 hectares of wheat, lavender and fodder crops. She keeps chicken and other poultry to sell at a local market, a practice which remains common in France, where farmers have managed to keep the right to slaughter poultry on the farm, in spite of industrialization and growing constraints on sanitary regulations. Every Friday, Genevieve prepares chicken for the next day’s weekly market. The chickens take up two full days of work. The rest of the week, she shifts between farm work, domestic work, childcare and activist work which all together puts quite a lot of a strain on everyday life. When she is far away from the farm, neighbors help to feed the animals.

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At the local market.

Genevieve got involved in the La Confédération paysanne (The Peasant Confederation), the French section of the European Coordination of Via Campesina (ECVC) in 1996, three years after she started farming. She knew some militant organizers and shared their analysis of the situation facing local agriculture and the need to defend small farmers. She contributed to the creation of a local small farmers’ association for direct sales. Their collective actions literally rocketed in 1999 when Jose Bove was jailed after an action against a McDonald’s restaurant. The action was organized to challenge the WTO’s punishment of Roquefort cheese and other producers in retaliation for the European Union ban on the import of beef fattened with growth hormones, in response to consumers’ refusal. These actions brought the alter-globalization movement in France, a movement that is still active on international issues, at world social forums, and demonstrations against the G8 and G20, and free trade agreements. Local activists were swept up during this hectic period. Genevieve got more and more involved in the movement locally, then within four years, on the national board. She was later elected to the Coordination committee of the ECVC, where she tackles issues of policy, food sovereignty, and communication.

Please tell us more about the peasant movement European Coordination Via Campesina (ECVC) and about the main problems that ECVC is dealing with at this moment.

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ECVC activists.

The European coordination Via campesina was set up in 1986 (at that time it was called Coordination paysanne Européenne) by several farmers unions and organisations in Europe, sharing the same criticism about the evolution of agriculture towards unsustainable models, especially due to bad policies, designed to the benefit of big agri-food companies.

This profit-oriented agricultural production results in standardized and bad quality food, environmental damages, and most of all in the loss of thousands of farms in Europe. «Every 3 minutes a farm disappears» was our motto – and after the enlargement of EU to Eastern countries (Romania, Poland..) it was up to every single minute. We participated to built our international movement of peasants, landless and farm workers «La Via Campesina» and to launch Food sovereignty, a concept and a weapon against neoliberalism.

Fighting for Food sovereignty in Europes implies many struggles for farmers at local level. At the European level, we concentrate mostly on policies related to food and agriculture. Access to land for small and new farmers, keeping traditional seeds available, fighting against the dissemination of GMO, promoting sustainable ways of farming like agroecology, creating new markets and enabling access to markets for small holders or defending their income in food chains, farmers youth – women – migrants rights are the main issues that we deal with.

La Via Campesina is an international peasant movement. Could you describe the connections that you have today with Via Campesina member-organizations from other continents as well as the influence of La Via Campesina on developing ECVC? What are the main issues that La Via Campesina is dealing with in other parts of the world?

ECVC demo in Strasbourg.

After its creation in 1993, La Via Campesina grew up very quickly over the different continents with a combination of different aspects; there was a baseline of former or still marxist farmers’ organizations that met a growing resistance to globalization, and an ecological feeling that melted into our international peasant movement. It had to organize itself while keeping the strength and mobility of a sociability of a social movement. According to specific political and economic situations of each country, national or local movement can have strong specificity, but all share the same baseline, especially concerning the analysis of the situation on what and who oppresses peasants. That gives us great homogeneity and strength. You’re not just a small farmer from a Belgium or Danish organization, you’re one of two hundred millions. This is for me where the main contribution of LVC stands to our European movement. We can also better understand the damages caused by transnational corporations on farmers and can oppose them in Europe, where they usually behave more smoothly. Land grabbing, violations of human rights, and very often women rights, problems to keep traditional seeds, farmers’ obstacles to survive are very violent in some places. Resistance is strong too. In many countries, peasants organize to develop autonomy and alternative modes of production like agro ecology.

Many groups also organize short food chains between local farmers and consumers, a way to escape from the growing domination of supermarkets.

How would you describe EU policies with respect to the importance and needs of small farmers?

Basically, EU supports a «competitive» agriculture – oriented on the international market- to produce cheap commodities for agrifood business.

Small farmers are considered as problems, or not considered at all.

Whatever happens – enlargement, Free trade agreement – small farmers have to adapt or disappear. When Dacian Ciolos, the Commission for Agriculture was appointed, we were optimistic about his concern on small farming, since he comes from Romania. But although «small farmers» are mentioned for the first time in the new CAP project, the special scheme for small farms only attributes a small lump sum to small holders  and a (higher) subsidy if they quit their land!

I think that small farmers need to ask louder, to get better organized, and be proud of what they are. ECVC has got to grow bigger and stronger.

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ECVC raises question of small farmers in EU institutions.

There are European members of parliament interested in our proposals for Food sovereignty. We have regular contacts with the  Greens, and recently the GUE helped us to organize a conference on land access and land grabbing in Europe. We can have some good interest from other groups on specific issues, often based on local or national concerns, but globally, one must admit that  agriculture is not the favorite sector, and that within the comagri (agriculture commission) many Mps support mainstream farming and it’s «competitiveness».

We plan to launch a campaign with the European food sovereignty movement to put this topic in the campaigns to renew the Members of Parliament in spring 2014.

2014 will be marked by the UN as the year of family farming. Do you expect that this will improve conditions for the small farmers?

We don’t only expect but we’ll struggle for that. When we heard that the European Commission was planning activities on family farming in 2014, we reacted at once: we had to take a major part in this special year in Europe and clarify the debate. Many farms are run on a family basis, but can be quite big and based on the same logic of profit and growth than companies. So with «family farming» we’re talking about small farms, about peasant farming, about models of production, about agriculture for living. We’ll put on the table our needs and obstacles to keep farming and feeding our communities.

What is La Via Campesina’s attitude towards agricultural cooperatives and what do you think about EU policies in this field.

The question of food chains, farmers’ organizations for creating new or local food chains or other purposes is probably a question that ECVC should deepen. Each country has a specific approach and different laws. This is why the EU created a European status for some cooperative, but it doesn’t solve everything. Furthermore, there are all kinds of cooperatives. In France it was a very vivid movement in the early twenties century with wine cooperatives or in the seventies to counter dishonest cattle merchants or develop milk production. But many cooperatives go with the current on the global business, grow bigger and bigger, set up consortiums and have aggressive commercial policies. It’s a real challenge to keep the genuine spirit of solidarity and mutualism of cooperatives.

Freedom Fight Info (www.freedomfight.net) – Voice of the Resistance around the Globe

*Food sovereignty is the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food, produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods,  and the right to define their own food and agriculture systems (Nyeleni, 2007).