In the spotlight

The new global majority: Peasants in the city and countryside

Food sovereignty as a banner of joint struggle was put forth by the peasantry of the world, organized in La Via Campesina (LVC). But achieving real food sovereignty would require major structural change, passing through genuine agrarian reform, a reversal of free trade policies and agreements, getting the WTO (World Trade Organisation) out of agriculture, breaking monopolies over our food system of supermarkets and agribusiness, and promoting real agroecology, among other transformations. That means building political power in favor of those changes, not an easy feat in a world lurching toward the far Right.

While there may be something close to consensus, and the ability and willingness to engage in collective mass action, among the world’s peasant organizations, and those of other, rural small-scale producers of food like indigenous peoples, artisanal fisherfolk, nomadic pastoralists, etc., the sad truth is that population of planet Earth that still lives in rural areas has finally fallen below 50%. In some countries the figure is much lower. What that means is that rural people cannot change the food systems on their own. The good news is the exodus of peasants from the countryside has largely gone to one kind of place. That is the urban periphery of many if not most of the world’s cities, whether the favelas in Brazil, shacktowns in the Caribbean, burgeoning slums in Asia and Africa, latin neighborhoods in the USA, or the Banlieus in France. The urban poor are the single fastest-growing segment of the world’s population.

If one visits any of these areas of urban destitution, what one finds are displaced peasants who have migrated from the countryside, the sons and daughters of peasants who migrated, and the grandchildren of peasants. Many or most people still have extended family in the countryside. If the city where they now live is close to the rural areas where the extended family resides, they often visit peasant relatives on weekends and holidays, and even bring back farm fresh eggs, homemade cheese, vegetables and fruits to market informally in their neighborhoods. Typically they are still “peasant” in some real sense, raising chickens and vegetables and planting fruit trees in their urban backyards and patios. And they usually have a family “imaginary” of an idyllic life left behind when they came to the city, a life with fresh air, clean water, safe and healthy for raising kids, and good, honest work. Because of this both real and imaginary “peasantness,” we can almost count many of them as part of the global “peasantry.”

At same time, today’s peasantry still in the countryside is undergoing a generational shift. While a few years ago most thought that virtually all peasant youth would leave the countryside and move to the cities, this move has often not been permanent, but rather part of a circular, back-and-forth flow. They may spend a year or two in the city to finish school, living with an aunt or uncle, before returning to the farm, or maybe work in the city to earn and save money from time to time. What this means is that the new generation of peasants, in all countries, feels at home in both the country and the city. They know and relate well to their relatives in the city. And they have a lot of skills, like social networking, that come in handy when they market the produce of their farm or cooperative in the city, or when they help organize a march or protest.

Together, these two groups, the “rural peasantry” and the “urban peasantry,” now make up the vast majority of humanity. While there are virtually no useful census data to calculate their numbers, it might not be a stretch to say they make up 70 to 80% of humanity. That is a lot of people. Together, they are a potential constituency or “correlation of forces” capable of transforming the food system and many other aspects of society. Making that potential into a reality, of course, would mean a lot of political education and organizing work, and overcoming the forces that divide and confuse people, like Right-wing fundamentalist religions and politicians. Still, this potential should give us hope, and a possible strategy for long-term structural change for the better.