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Peasant farmers’ markets in Colombia

(This article appears in the latest edition of the Nyéléni newsletter)

Since the late 1940s Colombia has had a long string of what may arguably be the most anti-peasant governments in the world. Between the army, paramilitary death squads, armed drug traffickers, and the cross-fire between the various guerilla movements and government forces, several hundred thousand peasant farmers have been killed and many times more are now internally displaced peoples. Decades of anti-communist government propaganda have led city dwellers to virtually equate the word “campesino” (peasant farmer) with “subversive,” in a climate where the extra-judicial killing of subversives is “normal.”

How then did Colombian peasant organizations – some of whom are members of La Via Campesina, and others that are allies – together with nuns who promote ecological farming, and academic researchers in the city, win a very good public policy in the capital of Bogotá to promote peasant farmers’ markets?

In the mid-2000s, the mayor’s office wanted to restructure the distribution of fresh produce in the capital by creating a series “inter-nodal” transfer point markets between rural agribusiness and giant super-markets chains. It looked like the peasants who had traditionally supplied Bogotá’s wholesale markets with produce were about to be squeezed out of business. But the rural-urban coalition alluded to above put forth a counter-proposal, by which the city government should open and support ten new peasant farmers’ markets. The mayor’s office balked, saying that the peasants would turn the city’s beautiful plazas into “shanty towns.” But pressure tactics got them to accept one trial market. Much to their shock, the peasants were orderly and well organized, and urban consumers, starved for quality fresh produce, loved it. Between these good results and new mayoral elections, the city government reversed its position and agreed to open various markets. By 2010, some 2,500 peasant families were doing more than USD 2 million in annual business.

Building Food Sovereignty under difficult conditions

The most interesting aspects have to do with the goals, organization, and other achievements of the peasant movement.

One goal was to have markets in neighborhoods of all social classes, and to always have agreed upon prices that are lower than supermarket prices, yet still very profitable for farmers because of the lack of middlemen. They have achieved that.

Another goal was to change the stigmatization of peasants in eyes of city dwellers as subversives to be eliminated to that of valued and trusted producers of healthy and affordable food. Surveys have shown that this change of image is indeed taking root. They wanted to use the markets to organize peasants and give them political training. So when they come to sell in Bogota they receive seminars on the public policy process, and have returned to their rural townships to demand farmers’ markets there as well, and they have organized themselves in associations to share the cost of transport, which have in many cases successfully pressured rural municipalities to provide trucks to bring produce to market.

Finally, the markets helped promote the transition to ecological farming. This has been done in a very clever way. All ecological farmers sell under a big green tent, with an agreement that their prices will be no higher than those of the conventional farmers in the other tents. Not surprisingly, the consumers flock first to the green tent, and only begin to buy in the other tents when everything “green” is sold. The other farmers get curious pretty fast. When they finally express interest in agroecology and ecological farming (which nobody pressures them to do), they are directed to the nuns who set them up with other peasants who become their agroecology mentors.

Today the peasant markets in Bogotá are contributing mightily to food sovereignty, providing peasants from four provinces with a very profitable market option, have given political training that is dynamizing the struggle for food sovereignty policies in home municipalities, are changing Society’s perception of peasants in a very positive way, and are using a gentle touch to promote the transition to agroecology.

In many of our own countries we feel a sense of hopelessness with regard to ever achieving policies to promote food sovereignty. Our governments just seem too hostile to peasants and too much in bed with agribusiness and supermarket chains like Walmart and Carrefour. When we feel that way, we should reflect on the experience of Bogotá. Surely if that’s possible in Colombia, of all places, we should be able to do something anywhere.

More information on the Bogotá peasant farmers’ markets is available in Spanish at www.ilsa.org.co

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