Strengthening Maghreb’s Peasant Participation

Salim A. Bourras

No doubt Nyéléni 2007, the World Forum for Food Sovereignty, is the largest gathering of peasant movements in the beginning of this year. Focused on peasant issues linked to food sovereignty, this forum had a strong participation of peasant, social and citizen movements from around the world. However, by lacking representation, the countries of the Maghreb find themselves in a peculiar situation. It is true that the NGOs often incorporate peasant demands, but here it is about giving birth to a real peasant coalition in the region, similar to those in Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and Asia. There is an Arab Farmers Association based in Libya, and Maghreb countries are members, but because there is a lack of representation it has just a status of observer in Via Campesina. Also, its influence on national and regional agricultural policies remains to be seen. That shows also the need for a detailed assessment of peasant movements in Maghrebin and Arab societies, taking into consideration the social, economic and political context in which they evolve.

The Arab Farmers Association is the only regional peasant organization that is present at the Nyéléni Forum for Food Sovereignty. According to its secretary-general, Mansour Hussein Atbika, the Association shares the forum’s demands but its action focuses mostly on information, awareness, experience sharing activities, and education. However, it does not seem easy to integrate the political dimensions of peasant struggles in the region; that is still truer in the case of national and regional farming development and orientation policies.

The enlightenment of João Pedro Stédile

João Pedro Stédile is the main leader of the Brazilian Landless Workers Movement (MST in Portuguese). This peasant movement has a peculiar history, and rose considerably just a year after its creation in 1985. MST is a social, popular, and political movement whose main activity is to demand and occupy unproductive lands in order to better the life conditions of the excluded. Twenty-two years after its creation, MST is present in 23 of 26 Brazilian states. According to Stédile, Brazilian society is among the most unequal in the world. This reality is still more remarkable in the peasant world, where 1% of landowners concentrate most fertile lands. It is estimated that around 100,000 families (or 500,000 people, approximately) participate in the land occupation movement.

“In the beginning, we promoted meetings among local peasant organizations,” explained Stédile. “This way we could analyze the problems faced by each one of them, and we started to think about concrete actions. In the Maghreb and the Arab world, peasant organizations have a hard time existing independently from States, as they financially depend on them, directly or indirectly. Organizations fostering peasant causes often find themselves, knowingly or unknowingly, as vectors of the political powers in place.” This situation makes it very difficult to build a citizen movement beyond political cleavages, and the result is a disparity of peasant movements in the region.

Nonetheless, there are initiatives like the January 2006 creation of the Maghreb Biosecurity Network, a platform of civil society organizations in the region that conducts a citizen vigil action, including information and awareness about biosecurity issues. “There are attempts to bring different peasant movements closer to each other, as is the case with the Arab Farmers Association,” Stédile says. “But it is difficult to organize a citizen initiative to bring together peasant organizations independently of political considerations and powers. For us (MST), it is difficult to reach peasant organizations in the region in order to exchange seeds, agriculture techniques, and struggle experiences with them.”

In a region where farm products are similar, one could wonder if competition would not block the formation of coalitions. To the MST leader, the answer is clear: “It is not a problem for the peasants, but a problem for the governments. Peasants ought to worry firstly about producing food needed by the population, and their production is meant for the local market. The idea that agricultural production must be directed to the international market is promoted by agribusiness multinationals, precisely because then they could control it. The link with food sovereignty is exactly there, because peasants have the illusion of having to produce for the world market when they actually must produce for the local national market.” This globalization and standardization culture cause the slipping of the States in the region toward a market economy, which translates into an expansion of the private sector and the privatization of many sectors previously seen as a State responsibility.

“The international market exists for production surpluses and it is controlled by large multinationals, large groups, and large landowners,” added Stédile. “In this power relations, the latter are favored in detriment of the local economy, the small farmers and the peasants.” This situation distorts farmers’ vision of the market and the exchanges. Stédile cites the example of Libya: it imports chicken from Brazil, although Libyan peasants could very well produce it locally. Thus, the local market exists, but it cannot be valued because of the unequal power ratio in the international market, and because of the agriculture subventions of rich countries.

To act, it is necessary, first, to identify local problems, and this is precisely where the “art of politics” comes in to help gather people behind a common cause. “It is about gathering the peasants around problems that are critical for their survival, such as access to land and water, and seed conservation,” ponders Stédile. Next, it is necessary to identify the causes and “who is responsible” in order to be able to fight against them. Finally, it is necessary to find good answers, because “the people will not sustain struggle methods that do not result, and do not solve anything.”