Our colleagues, Priscilla Claeys and Jasber Singh, are launching a new series as part of the Agroecology in Motion column to shed light on an underexplored aspect of food system transformation: the role of spirituality and religion in social movement struggles for food sovereignty. In order to deepen their inquiry, they will speak with various food sovereignty activists across the globe. In this first article, they interviewed Paul Nicholson from La Via Campesina.

Food Sovereignty and Spirituality Series

In traditional leftist organising, especially in Europe, religion and spirituality are often viewed as oppressive forces. Karl Marx’s infamous quote, “religion is the opium for the masses”, for example, springs to mind. In many instances, both in the Global South and Global North, organising in the left is ostensibly framed as secular to discourage religious identity from fostering any form of division or distraction from broader political goals. Within this leftist political context, religion is seen as potentially dividing one group from another, and mirroring the historical tactics of imperialism of divide and rule.  As such, religion is often kept separate from social movement building.

Yet, religion, and/or spirituality is a key part of rural peoples’ lives across the world. The 2007 Nyeleni Declaration that is seen as a key foundational document for the global food sovereigny movement recognizes the importance of fighting for a world “where peoples’ power to make decisions about their material, natural and spiritual heritage is defended”. If much has been written about the political and legal dimensions of the right to food sovereignty, its spiritual aspects have received less attention. What roles does spirituality play in food sovereignty struggles? To what extent do spirituality and religion support or impede movement building? How do food sovereignty activists navigate their own spiritual and religious lives and place-based practices in the transnational movement? To explore these questions, we decided to speak with various food sovereignty activists across the globe. In this first conversation, we turn to Paul Nicholson from La Via Campesina.

Mistica organized by La Via Campesina for April 17, date of commemoration of peasants who passed away during past struggles. A traditional Korean ritual called “Gosa (고사)”, was conducted, which consists of praying to the spirits of Earth, Sky, and Universe for the wellness of all participants (La Via Campesina).


“Spirituality has been a common glue”: An interview with La Via Campesina’s Paul Nicholson

Paul Nicholson, you are one of the co-founders of La Via Campesina (LVC), a transnational peasant movement that defends food sovereignty and unites over 200 million small-scale farmers, agricultural workers and indigenous peoples working the land. Tell us a little bit about yourself, and how you got involved in LVC?

I’ve been a dairy farmer all my life. I had some responsibilities in the dairy farmers’ organization EHNE Bizkaia, and I became involved in the whole issue of trade liberalisation when Spain entered the European Common Market in 1986. We began to visit fellow farmers in many other European countries, to study the impacts of the new agriculture policy. We discovered we were facing a shared problem. That it wasn’t a struggle between farmers or between countries. It was a struggle against the policies that were decimating small farmers. We connected with other peasant organisations across Europe and joined forces in the European Coordination of Via Campesina (ECVC) which was then called the Coordination Paysanne Européenne (CPE). We then coordinated our efforts at the international level, with peasants from all over the world. La Via Campesina was formed in 1993. We began in a very intuitive way. We didn’t know where we were going or how we were going to do it, but we did know what we were. We were peasant farmers, and our struggle was changing agriculture policies and generating a new society, a new just society. La Via Campesina was a transformative movement, right from the beginning.

We rejected the more vertical, traditional way of organization. We learned how to function in different ways. We developed more horizontal strategies, and women and youth began to play a more important role. We’re speaking about 1993, a very machistic society. At the time, there was no international peasant organization. It was the big farmers who spoke in name of everybody. And that was impossible in our view because the big farmers defend the agro industry. They defend a model of agriculture that is export-oriented. And so we had to fight for our space as small peasants. Our proposal was the “peasant way”. We developed the idea of food sovereignty, a political vision grounded in the right of people to define their food policies and have a say in who produces food, and food is produced. Food sovereignty became the main driving force of La Via Campesina. And eventually one of the main proposals for an alternative vision for society in general.

A lot has been written about the political and legal dimensions of food sovereignty, but less has been said about the spiritual aspects of food sovereignty. What would you say is the role of spirituality, or religion, in the food sovereignty movement?

Religion has never been an issue in La Via Campesina. It has never been a divisive issue. Spirituality has been a common cement, a common glue. In La Via Campesina, obviously, you have coordinators and members from all religions. We have a huge diversity and it’s never been a problem because what unites us is love for the land. In most languages you have an expression to designate Mother Earth, or Pacha Mama.

I would say spirituality is one of the main principles of the movement. In every La Via Campesina gathering, we begin the day with what we call a mistica. It’s a spiritual, 10 minute “performance” relating to the commonalities of all the persons who are present. The mistica very often begins with music or poetry, and it focuses on a specific issue that we want to highlight. It might be seeds. The value of the seeds, the struggle against the TNCs who want to take the seeds from us. And then we end up handing out seeds. That is a typical performance. Or it’s about our relationship with land, which is our land, which has been taken over from us. Another theme that is very common is violence against women, the relationship between women and men, the issue of domestic or gender-based violence. Those are very common themes. The mistica doesn’t require any translation but communicates very strong emotions. Often the mistica makes you cry or it makes you understand very clearly. You need an open mind, and you need to understand our relationship with the land. It’s a Cosmovision, not an anthropocentric understanding. The planet is the center. In my opinion, the mistica is one of the principles uniting La Via Campesina. We are not an intellectual movement. We are an emotional movement. The mistica helps us work on our commonalities, not on our differences.

What are the origins of the mistica in LVC?

The mistica is originally linked to the Theology of Liberation movement in Latin America, it has Christian origins. In most radical movements in Brazil, for example, the mistica is fundamental. It was picked up by LVC member organizations in Latin America, and then later in different forms in India and in South East Asia, each one with its own character. African member organizations do it now and they have their own way of expressing their spirituality in the mistica. In Europe, it has been more difficult. I think in Europe we’re very rational. We’re very down to earth and we like to go to the concrete, to the issue directly. At international gatherings, we usually have a mistica at the start of every day and every day a particular region does it.

Closing mistica for the IV Women’s Assembly of La Via Campesina

Do you remember the first mystica that you participated in?

I didn’t understand it. Because I come from Europe, and I went to an agricultural school. It’s been a learning process for me. It was difficult for me at the beginning but now I regard this as one of the fundamental aspects of our movement. Misticas are spiritual but they are very political too.

What are some of the gender dimensions of spirituality in the movement?

We men, we drive tractors, we like machines. That’s what we learned in agrarian schools: how to produce more and not how to produce better, how to produce more machines. All the technology, all the science, the conventional science is geared towards that objective. It is the women who have another understanding of the relationship with food production, the issue of land and the issue of food sovereignty. Women are the drivers of food sovereignty, because it’s a concept which grows from the home upwards. In the mistica, clearly the women play the major part in the preparation. We have two important commissions to begin the day. One is the mistica commission, which is preparing this spiritual performance. And the second one is the methodology group, which works on how to facilitate the meeting, its methodology and pedagogy. And women play a major part in both commissions. It’s a new way of organizing. In La Via Campesina, there’s never been a major split and that’s because we manage our debates and we always look for the glue, look for the consensus. We have to become stronger. We have to accumulate the ideas, stick people together. Many people say we are inefficient, because we’re very slow, but we’ve got to go slowly and at pace with our agreements. If there’s no agreement, we have to leave the issue aside and take it up another day.

Can you tell us more about the role of spirituality and religion in your own life and how this has guided your work in the movement? What was the religious context of your upbringing?

I am something between an atheist and an agnostic. It depends. I went to a Catholic boarding school. My experience as a youth has not been a positive one in regard to religion and especially the institution of religion. But my spiritual construction has been different. I regained a lot of spirituality, my spirituality, my sense of being, in La Via Campesina. Through understanding the lives of many other people who like me, have a relationship with the land and with water and with sustainability. Therefore I can say that I’ve gained spirituality in the movement.

I have learned especially from the Indigenous Peoples. They have a different understanding of the relationship with the cosmos. I think we need this Cosmovision. This has been a debate internally too. I remember in one of the summits on climate change, we were working on our political declaration late at night, and one of indigenous persons in our delegation said: “we need to defend a Cosmovision, our relationship with the planet”. And the European delegates did not understand this at all. For them, the climate emergency was the issue, and spirituality was a waste of time, it was not relevant to the discussion. It was an intense debate. It forced us to think about our role and our relationship with the land. It helped us see that we need to go beyond the technology or technocratic fixes, we need more than just a policy change. We have to develop our alternatives to neoliberalism and we need new ethics. La Via Campesina in that sense is transformative.

How would you describe your own spiritual journey?

I had to deconstruct my training, my ideological training, the priorities I have been taught. Deconstruction is very, very potent. That is why training schools run by peasants are so important. Not just for agroecological questions, but with an ideological understanding. We’re trying to build a new society with another foundation. Over the last 10 years, peasant organizations have generated peasant universities with their own curriculum, their own training systems, working for the development of a new person. I think this is one of the most impressive achievements of La Via Campesina. You see these schools blooming not only in Latin America, but also in Africa, in India or in Indonesia with different needs. In Europe, it has been more difficult. Because in Europe we think we know. We really are still colonial. We think that we’re teaching the world how to live, how to work and how to earn money. We still go into our relationships with other countries, thinking that we know, but we don’t. The failure of our farming model is part of that. The farming model in Europe is a medium or big size farmer, in bed with the agroindustry. We are obsessed with producing more, it’s a crazy, suicidal model, it does not embody love for farming. And in fact, today in the big farms you have no capacity for transmission from father to daughter or son. Farmers today are farm managers. They are losing a sense, a spiritual connection. And to be able to survive as a farmer, in this harsh economic environment, you need more than just an efficient production model. But there is no talk of that in the agricutlural schools.

Are you suggesting you need an active spiritual life to survive as a small farmer or peasant activist?

Yes, I think so. I don’t mean spirituality as a ritual, but as an understanding, as a way of life. It’s how you relate to society. How you build alliances, your relationship with the local, with social movements that are based on, on another understanding. It’s a non-tangible understanding, it’s about our values.

In your view, what are some of the challenges around food sovereignty and spirituality in the future?

I don’t think religion is going to be discussed in the future, it’s not an issue. Nobody doubts that each one of us can have a religion. I don’t think it will be a divisive issue and it won’t be a unifying issue either. But spirituality, yes. And our relationship with land, with the environment. I believe spirituality will be key to sustain our struggles against the commodification of our commons, of land and water. Take the issue of mining, for example. For us it is a violation of the land in the spiritual sense.

One challenge I see for the future is around the transmission of knowledge and the transmission of spirituality. Having examples and role models is very important. I think the role of women as references will be fundamental. We live in a very materialistic, commodified, consumerist society. If I look at my grandchildren, who are growing on the farm around me, I’m surprised that they pick it up very quickly. But then, the consumer attraction is huge, leisure, modern, urban leisure. And the cities have many promises. They’ll have to discover for themselves too. What is a lie? What is real? I guess they will leave and then come back.


This interview was designed, conducted, recorded, transcribed and edited by Priscilla Claeys and Jasber Singh. The final version was revised and validated by Paul Nicholson.