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“Peasant Farming Can Cool Down the Earth”

While in Durban for COP17, I interviewed several members of La Via Campesina; following is the third of the three interviews published on Climate Connections, this one with Chavannes Jean-Baptiste, a peasant leader from Haiti. – Jeff Conant, for GJEP

Made up of 150 organizations in seventy countries, and with more than 200 million members, La Via Campesina holds the claim to being the largest movement of peasant farmers and artisanal food producers in the world. La Via Campesina brought an international delegation to United Nations COP17 in Durban, South Africa, that included a caravan of some 200 African farmers, and regional representation from Mexico, Haiti, and elsewhere.

As a grassroots movement, La Via does not participate directly in the United Nations climate summits. But, like a peasant army stationed outside the gates of a walled city, they tend to establish a presence nearby, to monitor the negotiations, to build alliances, and to make their presence known.

La Via Campesina was born as a movement in 1993, but traces its roots much further back. Alberto Gomez, the national director of UNORCA makes it clear in this interview that the movement’s roots are entwined with the long history of agriculture, land reform, and social movements throughout the ages.

In keeping with its struggle to maintain what Gomez calls “a permanent agriculture” – the diverse forms of peasant farming that continue to resist “the industrial, agrotoxic agriculture that turns the entire world into a supermarket” – La Via Campesina gives voice to a theme that has been fundamental to societies throughout the ages, but which has become a site of struggle over centuries of enclosures of land and entire peoples: food sovereignty, the ability of a people to feed themselves.

Ricado Jacobs, with the Food Sovereignty Campaign in South Africa, points out in this interview that the most recent threat to food sovereignty – which in many ways is also the most ancient threat to food sovereignty – is land grabbing. But, Jacobs points out, land grabbing now takes a different form: “It’s no longer one colonial power coming over on ships. Now it’s China, it’s the Arab states, it’s Goldman Sachs. So we need to take a different approach to address the challenge.”

One such approach, Jacobs says, is direct action: occupying land and reclaiming it for peasant agriculture. “You cannot talk about climate justice without addressing this kind of redistributive justice. Where are we going to practice agro-ecology if we don’t take land?”

As Chavannes Jean-Baptiste points out in the interview that follows, climate justice and the proliferation of false solutions to the climate crisis, such as “Climate Smart agriculture,” carbon markets, and REDD, are a primary concern for La Via Campesina. La Via promotes food sovereignty, Chavannes says, not only to resolve the food crisis, but also the climate crisis.

Chavannes Jean-Baptiste is the Executive Director of Mouvement Paysan de Papaye (MPP), the oldest peasant organization in Haiti, and, in Chavannes’ words, “possibly the oldest in the world.” MPP is the Haitian member of La Via Campesina. I interviewed Chavannes in Durban, South Africa, in English – not his native language – on December 11, just after the closing of COP17.

Jeff Conant: What are you doing here Durban during United Nations COP17?

Chavannes Jean-Baptiste: I am here with the Via Campesina delegation in Durban. La Via Campesina is promoting food sovereignty as the way not only to resolve the food crisis, but also the climate crisis. There are a lot of studies to show that peasant agriculture, agro-ecological production, can cool down the earth. Around the world, La Via Campesina is fighting against industrial food production, which is responsible for more than 50 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. We are fighting against agrofuel production, and agribusiness consortiums like Monsanto that are destroying the soil, and the biodiversity with pesticides and GMOs, and killing native seeds in developing countries. A lot of peasant organizations and NGOs came to Durban to say no to REDD, no to agriculture in the negotiations, and no to the carbon market.

JC: What is the struggle of peasant farmers in Haiti?

CJB: In Haiti we are fighting against agrofuel production, jatropha plantations, and GMO seeds. It’s a big struggle because industrial agriculture wants to kill peasant agriculture, to kill our native forests with REDD, REDD+, the carbon market, and other false solutions. Now a Brazilian company is planting jatropha to produce agrodiesel. We see this as a big land grab, and we’re fighting it.

Haiti is a very small country, and about eighty percent of Haitians are peasants. After independence we had about thirty percent of our native forests left, and now we have less than two percent. Climate change in Haiti is a major problem – the environment is in very bad shape. We can go six months without rain, and then we have flash floods, where we lose crops, animals, houses… We have between one and three hurricanes every year; in 2008 we had three hurricanes in three months, destroying everything.

Haiti used to be sovereign in food production. Now we produce only 40 percent of our food. Every day we depend on food from the Dominican Republic, and from the USA, where farmers receive a lot of subsidies, and are dumping a lot of their cheap food on us. Haiti was self-sufficient in rice, and now we import eighty percent of our rice. With rice flooding in from the U.S., small farmers in Haiti can’t afford to produce.

Right now our big fight is to defend native seeds. For more than 200 years, peasants in Haiti have produced seeds to plant; now we are working to select and preserve seeds. We are using natural pesticides, we have seed banks, we use organic methods to produce food. We are doing a lot of work with soil conservation, water management, reforestation, and now we have a program to help families produce enough food around the home, to have food for the family and put the rest into the local market.

But the problem now is that the government, after the earthquake, has a plan to give a lot of land to a big corporation from Asia, to make an Export Processing Zone, to produce goods for export. The point is to use the labor of our workers; the Export Zone agreement pays very low wages, and the workers can’t defend themselves, because no laws apply.

JC: Here in Durban the Clinton Foundation held a high-profile to promote REDD carbon forestry projects. We know that Clinton is deeply involved in Haiti, and has been for a long time. If you could speak to Mr. Clinton, what would you say?

CJB: Bill Clinton has this project, he’s trying to take our land and to give it to this big corporation from Asia. So the message we would send to Mr. Clinton is, we don’t want your project promoting REDD, we don’t want your agribusiness projects. We need our land to produce food, we need our land to rebuild native forest. So we would ask Mr. Clinton to keep his money. We don’t want him to kill our country. The Haitian people know what the Haitian people need.

JC: How do you see the relationship of La Via Campesina to the United Nations Conference of Parties?

CJB:La Via Campesina always goes to all the places where the UN, the G8, or the WTO, or anyone else are making decisions about our lives. Because it is a question about our lives, and it’s a question of the destruction of the planet. We are very concerned because small farmers represent about three billion people, producing about seventy percent of the food for all of the world’s seven billion people. The United Nations process is not about the climate crisis, it is about big business, because the rich countries with their big corporations want to put all the world’s resources into the market. This is why it is very important for La Via Campesina to be spokespeople for the peasant sector – to be the peasant voice.

So we are here to say NO to the false solutions: industrial agriculture, land-grabbing, carbon markets, REDD, REDD+. We are here to say we don’t want agriculture on the table of the negotiations because agriculture is too important for life for it to be a business. We can’t put agriculture on the table where the big corporations are discussing how they can continue to pollute the planet and get more money. We are here to say agro-ecology can cool down the planet, to say that food sovereignty is the way to resolve the climate crisis. The biggest problem for the climate is industrial agriculture. With agro-ecology we can produce food for the world, develop local markets, and cut off the industrial process. The studies are very clear: industrial agriculture and the industrial food system are responsible for 57 percent of greenhouse gas emissions.

JC: We have just heard this term “Climate smart agriculture” – a new approach being pushed here in Durban. What can you tell me about this?

CJB: This is a new term that we have heard here, where the President of South Africa was very forceful about the need to put agriculture on the negotiating table. But we know this did not come from Jacob Zuma [the President of South Africa]. It came from the World Bank. They call it smart agriculture, where they want to use GMO seeds, to plant tree plantations, to use soils in the carbon market, to put agriculture in the carbon market. All of this is very, very bad news. This is why we say here in Durban that this is not a conference to resolve the climate crisis; it is a conference to see that the companies make more money.

JC: So, what is the point of coming to the COP?

CJB: When we see the situation in the world we could say it’s impossible to do anything. But here in Durban I saw a lot of people coming, from the US, from the EU, from all over the world, to say, the planet is not for sale. Nature is not for sale. A lot of organizations from around the world give me hope that we can resolve not only the climate situation, but that we can change the capitalist system that is fighting everyday to make more money. It is a very long struggle – the next meeting is the Rio+20, and the same companies will be there to promote green capitalism, and what they are calling “the green economy.” We know this is just the next project to help transnational capital to make more money, so we will be there. Why? Because they are making decisions about our lives.

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