By Rafael V. Mariano
Chairperson, Peasant Movement of the Philippines (KMP)
Keynote address in the workshop
“Agrarian reform and freedom of peasants and farm workers from feudal, semi-feudal and capitalist exploitation”
ILPS First International Assembly
At the onset of the 21st century, the gap between the exalted few, who are amassing formidable wealth and the majority poor, has reached staggering proportions. The income gap between the richest fifth of the world’s people and the poorest fifth, measured by average national income per head, increased from 30 to one in 1960 to 74 to one in 1997.[i] The richest one fifth of the people eat 45 percent of all meat and fish; the poorest one fifth get just 5 percent.[ii]
These are the symptoms of a world in crisis. Global capitalism has reached a stage where it becomes more decadent and parasitic than ever, concentrating the world’s wealth and resources in the hands of a few while depriving the vast masses of the people of even the most basic necessities. At the same time, however, the internal contradictions of monopoly capitalism are preparing it for its inevitable downfall.
The world’s peasantry is all too familiar with these ignominious trends. On a global scale, agriculture is definitely big business. In 1998, US$ 456 billion-worth of agricultural goods was traded across borders, three times more than 20 years earlier. World output of food per head has gone up by some 25% over the past 40 years even as world population has almost doubled.[iii] Yet more than 826 million people in the world are chronically hungry.[iv]
Ironically, almost four fifths of the hungry are the very producers of food – those who depend on agriculture to make a living.[v] To top it all, almost all of them live in countries that are actually producing food surpluses.[vi] The world’s farmers, farm workers and fisherfolk, the majority of the population, are increasingly bled dry by the rapacity of monopoly capital.
Global agriculture in the time of imperialism
Since the time of colonization, Third World countries have been a source of cheap labor and raw materials while providing a captive market for the surplus goods from the imperialist powers. In agriculture, feudal exploitation was carefully complemented with more modern methods wherever these were more advantageous for the colonizers. The plantation system, for example, proved to be very convenient to provide the markets in the North with cheap sugar, tea, coffee, rubber, “exotic” fruit and other export crops.
For the imperialist powers, agriculture has always played an important role, not only for their economic but also for their geopolitical agenda. The importance of food for any human being makes it a very effective tool in political domination. This realization made a US Senator exclaim ecstatically: “If you are looking for a way to get people to lean on you and to be dependent on you, in terms of their cooperation with you, it seems to me that food dependence would be terrific.”[vii]
As the colonies and neocolonies were prohibited from developing significant national industries, the poor countries’ economies are overly dependent on agriculture. In some of the poorest countries, agriculture generates as much as 30 to 50 percent of gross domestic output, employs 70 to 80 percent of the labor force and contributes 40 to 70 percent of the export earnings.[viii]
Never, even after direct colonial rule made place for indirect domination, was there any attempt of the imperialist powers to bring genuine modernization to the countryside of the Third World. Wherever modern technology was introduced, for instance to increase production, it was done in such a way that the class relations were not disturbed and the profits flowed back to the imperialist powers. Therefore, up to this day the agriculture of the poor countries is predominantly backward, relying on obsolete methods of production while feudal and semi-feudal exploitation and landlessness are still prevalent.
The rich countries’ agribusiness Transnational Corporations (TNCs) easily strengthened their foothold in these economies after formal independence was granted. Taking advantage of the backward characteristics of local agriculture, they linked up with local landlords and the comprador faction of the bourgeoisie to dominate the agricultural sector. Monopolizing the markets of farm implements, tools and machines as well as the whole food chain, they built their business empires at the expense of the poor peasants.
With the so-called “Green Revolution,” these companies have increased their influence on world agriculture tremendously. Through the connivance with the local elite and research institutions like the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), agriculture in poor countries was transformed to suit their needs. Poor farmers got trapped in obnoxious debt packages and many of them were driven from their lands, leaving them no other choice but to sell their labor power as farm workers on plantations and big farms or to join the ranks of the urban poor in the slums of megacities where they serve as a reserve army of unskilled laborers for the sweatshops of the TNCs.
Nelson Rockefeller described the motives behind the “Green Revolution” aptly in a 1951 article in Foreign Affairs: “The biggest problem was underdevelopment. The correct response should be a widening of the boundaries of US’ national interests and the first objective of US policy should be a drive to increase food production. This drive was to be followed by raw material development and extraction and, finally, by increased export of manufactured goods from the US and Europe to those areas to be developed. These are the only ways to increase private investments in frontier areas.”[ix]
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank were eager to make loans available for productivity-oriented technology packages that benefited the production of raw materials and cheap food for export. For these multilateral institutions, it was also a way to draw the Third World countries away from investments in industrialization and hook them on foreign borrowing.
The United States (US) and the European Union (EU) for their part, were competing with one another in escalating protectionist measures. They actively encouraged an ever-increasing overproduction of agricultural products through excessive subsidies and trade barriers to defend their domestic agricultural sectors. Consequently, they became overly dependent on export dumping on the poor countries to get rid of their oversupply.
The WTO to the rescue
In the 1980s, when the global crisis deepened, increasing competition and overproduction was leading to intensifying trade conflicts among the industrialized nations while world prices were plunging. Moreover, the high cost of subsidized programs to support their agricultural sectors became a heavy burden on the industrialized countries’ budgets.
The US and the EU therefore agreed to include agriculture in the Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) that started in 1986. Temporarily, they set their differences aside in a bid to break the markets of the Third World open for their surplus products while maintaining most of their protectionist barriers intact. At the same time, the negotiations were to consolidate and strengthen the monopoly control of their TNCs on the food and agricultural sectors.
As a result of the Uruguay Round’s completion in 1994, the World Trade Organization (WTO) was established as a permanent international body to implement and enforce further trade liberalization. Moreover, the Uruguay Round also forged the Agreement on Agriculture (AoA) that drastically liberalized agricultural trade.
After several years of arduous negotiations, the AoA prohibited any border protection except fixed tariffs that have to be reduced over time. It also set rules on internal support and the reduction of export subsidies. In addition, the AoA requires all countries to allow a certain minimum market access for each individual agricultural product.
These measures obviously favor the imperialist countries and their TNCs as they were able to pry open the markets of the Third World while avoiding any significant reduction of the level of subsidies to their domestic agriculture. In 1998 for example, the rich countries paid out US$ 360 billion in agricultural support.[x] Most Third World countries, who have never used subsidies, are prohibited from stimulating their agricultural sectors at all.
After the implementation of the AoA, the EU was able to raise its exports of agricultural products (excluding fish) from 44.7 billion euro (about US$ 46.7 billion) in 1995 to 52.3 billion euro (about US$ 54.6 billion) in 1997. The US agricultural exports ballooned from US$ 43 billion in 1994 to US$ 59.8 billion in 1996 – a 39 percent increase in only two years.
The poor countries, on the other hand, were at the losing end. They had to allow the importation of increasing amounts of agricultural products while their exports were dwindling. An assessment of the impact of the AoA on 16 Third World countries by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) confirms how hard their agriculture and poor peasants were hit. The most alarming finding was the general trend toward the concentration of land, marginalizing small farmers and increasing landlessness, unemployment and poverty.[xi]
And still, the AoA brought only a temporary relief to the agricultural sector of the rich countries. By 1998, the commodity prices in the world market collapsed again due to the continuing crisis of overproduction. In a knee-jerk reaction, the US and the EU jacked up their domestic farm support again to unprecedented levels and started a new offensive to increase their export dumping on the Third World.
The importance of increasing exports for the US and the EU can hardly be underestimated. In the run-up to the 1999 WTO ministerial meeting in Seattle, US Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky told the US House Committee on Agriculture: “We produce far more than we can ever eat; and we therefore must have the ability to export to the 96% of humanity that lives beyond our borders if farm families are to prosper. That is already clear today, as one in three American farm acres now produces for foreign markets.”[xii]
Although the US was hell-bent on rushing another round liberalization in agriculture at the Seattle meeting, this plan was thwarted by the resistance of many poor countries who feared the ire of their citizens. Besides, the massive street protests in Seattle proved that resistance to imperialist globalization is mounting, even in the belly of the beast.
Pressure for another round of devastating liberalization remains unabated. At the 26th G7 Summit last July in Okinawa, the club of rich nations pledged allegiance to continuing trade liberalization. The US used its power during the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting in Brunei last February to insert a statement in the APEC leaders’ declaration calling for a new WTO round in 2001. A new round of WTO negotiations would have to include many new trade issues and thus expand the WTO system, which has already proved to be very efficient in destroying poor countries’ economies.
In March, the WTO members agreed to a “phase II” work plan that will guide the coming year of agriculture negotiations. US trade officials observed jubilantly that with the new work plan the discussions shifted from mere technicalities to the modalities of a new round and are confident that a new agriculture agreement could be concluded by the end of 2003.
Only last month, the US scored another victory at the Third Summit of the Americas in Quebec where heads of state representing 34 North American, South American and Caribbean countries reaffirmed their political commitment to the finalization of a Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) by January 2005. The FTAA will remove trade barriers and hence give free rein to the biggest monopolies in an area with 800 million people, accounting for a third of world economic output – an area that has always been considered by the US as its own backyard.
In the environment of increasingly liberalized trade, TNCs have grown into colossal mammoths that are competing for monopoly positions on the markets. The agrochemical and seed business is a case in point. Just five companies (Syngenta, Aventis, Monsanto, BASF and DuPont) have built their strategic monopolies incorporating dominant positions in the seed, agrochemicals, pharmaceuticals and related markets. They account for over 70% of the global pesticide market, almost one-quarter of the commercial seed market, and virtually 100 percent of the transgenic seed market. Moreover, the 5 “Gene Giants” hold more than 50 percent of all plant biotechnology patents.[xiii]
Currently, they are taking advantage of recent developments in biotechnology to drive their monopoly control on global agriculture to the limits. Especially the US wants to cash in on its lead in the field of genetic engineering. Because of the European reluctance to the GMO offensive of the US, the Third World has become the main target.
Many developments in biotechnology are explicitly aimed at increasing farmers’ dependence on seeds and other farm inputs. The first generation of high-tech, proprietary seeds focused on herbicide tolerance and insect resistance. That traps the farmers in a package deal, even more compelling than with “Green Revolution” technology. Farmers have no other choice but to buy the proprietary pesticides from the same company that sold them the seeds.
“Terminator” technology goes one step further in creating dependence. “Terminator” seeds are engineered to lose their germinating capacity thereby disabling farmers to save seeds for replanting and forcing them to purchase new seeds every planting season. With “Traitor” or “Junkie” seeds, the “Gene Giants” want to hook the farmers on their obnoxious products without any choice at all. These seeds are physically dependent on repeated applications of the companies’ proprietary chemical junk.
Under pressure of the US, recent scientific developments are complemented with attacks on farmers’ freedom on other fronts. For example, the 1991 Act of the International Union for the Protection of New Plant Varieties (UPOV) significantly strengthened the rights of corporate plant breeders, at the expense of the farmers. More recently, farmers’ rights are shoved aside by the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) and the World WTO, under which living materials come under regimes similar to those controlling industrial property.
Genetically altered seeds seriously threaten the livelihoods of 1.4 billion people who depend on farm-saved seeds and who produce almost 20 percent of the world’s food. They have to drive the farmers’ dependence to the limit. The little freedom that was left after the “Green Revolution” disaster will be taken away by the “Gene Giants.” The monopoly position of the giants will ensure that there is no escape. While their crops are hooked on expensive chemicals, farmers will be forced into addiction to credit — at the expense of their freedom and the survival of their families.
Jahanara Begum, a women farmer from Bangladesh, said during last year’s “People’s Caravan – Land and Food without Poisons,” an international protest caravan for land reform and safe food: “We have so many varieties of rice seeds, but instead we are going for the varieties from IRRI and the seed companies. These seeds need a chemical package. So we are doing deals with scientists and transnational companies. Transnational companies, they come, they go. They don’t care about our health or our environment. No more, we’ve had enough! For our survival we have to commit ourselves to land and food without poisons!”
The same phenomenon of intensifying monopolization also affects other aspects of agriculture like food processing, trade in agricultural products, and the consolidation of small farms into plantations or industrial mega-farms under the control of landlords and corporations. Moreover, also farmers in the industrialized countries are victimized as big corporations, fed with government subsidies, are monopolizing agriculture.
While the corporations are amassing super profits, small farmers find it increasingly hard to make ends meet. According to the Canadian National Farmers Union, the big three cereal companies – Kellogg’s, Quaker Oats, and General Mills – were 500 times more profitable than farmers; they made an average return on equity of 147% compared to 0.3% for farmers.[xiv] In the United States, the share of the consumer’s food dollar actually going to the farmer has declined from more than 40 cents before 1950 to about 7 cents today. Consequently, about a quarter of the remaining farmers in the breadbasket states of Nebraska and Iowa, where the farm population has plummeted in recent years, are expected to be driven out in the next two years[xv] and in France 1 farmer has to close shop every 10 minutes.[xvi]
Due to the policies of liberalization and increasing monopoly control of TNCs on agriculture, farmers are driven out of their lands. Especially in the Third World, where safety nets or alternative job opportunities are virtually non-existent, the ranks of the landless farmers are growing by the day.
Santi Gangadharan, a pesticide activist from Tamil Nadu, told the “People’s Caravan 2000” participants: “In our country most of the farmers have been forced to grow cash crops instead of food crops due to the process of globalization and liberalization and because the government wants more export earnings. Now there is no paddy. The fields have been converted into flower gardens for export. Due to globalization many people in the villages have been forced to leave. They have left their traditional homes, entered urban areas and many of them are without even food.”
Ironically, renewed interest in land reform is spurred by the World Bank, one of the motors of imperialist globalization and as such responsible for many of the world’s poor and landless farmers’ woes. It is not surprising therefore that the land reform the Bank advocates is a far cry from the rural justice the peasantry is pursuing.
The World Bank advocates “market-assisted land reform” which degrades land reform to a mere sales transaction between peasants and landlords instead of the distribution of lands that it is supposed to be. The Bank explicitly mentions that “this approach aims to replace the confrontational atmosphere that has characterized land reforms with a more collaborative attitude.”[xvii] Its objective is thus nothing less than the undermining of the peasant movement through the promotion of a distorted concept of land reform that is devoid of any reference to rural justice. In addition it liberalizes land sales markets, enabling the further accumulation in the hands of the landed elite.
Traditionally, imperialism tolerated land reform because of two reasons. Modest or temporary reforms can be justified in order to thwart peasant protest. Besides, feudal relations of production have the advantage of a cheap labor force but are also a hindrance to increasing productivity. Therefore, feudal exploitation has been complemented with semi-feudal arrangements where this was more advantageous to the TNCs.
Since the 1970s, imperialism — through the World Bank — promoted the privatization of communal and public lands. Through the privatization of traditional communal tenure systems in the Third World, that are oriented on food crop production, the Bank made more land available for cash crops. As a matter of course, this only benefited the rich farmers and especially the landlords while poor farmers were displaced and landlessness actually increased. Obviously, the Bank’s “market assisted land reform” is just another variation on the same theme.
For farmers, fisherfolk and farm workers in poor and rich countries alike the rapacity of monopoly capitalism has reached unbearable proportions. While a few colossal corporations are monopolizing land, trade and resources, they are facing intensifying domination and exploitation.
Increasingly, they are linking arms and raising the flag of resistance. In recent years, mass protests against imperialist globalization have mounted both in the underdeveloped as in the industrialized countries. The world’s peasantry can be found in the frontline of the opposition against further impoverishment and enslavement while they are liberating themselves from feudal, semi-feudal and capitalist exploitation.
They are organizing themselves at the local level in order to analyze the situation, educate themselves, learn about alternatives and launch concerted struggles. In Honduras, landless farmers have reclaimed the notorious military reservations where the US military used to train their mercenaries against anybody who challenged their domination. More than 250,000 Brazilian peasant families have occupied 15 million acres of idle lands. In Ecuador the peasant and Indian movements spearheaded the movement that forced the resignation of President Bucaram, on corruption charges and attempts to impose an IMF free market agenda on the people. Land struggles have also rocked African countries like Zimbabwe, where poor black farmers are reclaiming their lands, and are zealously pursued by militant peasant movements in Asian countries like Indonesia, India and Thailand among others.
In the Philippines, the KMP is spearheading the struggle for genuine agrarian reform. Through the militant campaigns of the peasants in so many places, land rent and interest rates are reduced while landlords and traders are compelled to increase the wages of farm workers and to grant more favorable farm-gate prices.
Women are often among the most courageous. At the 1997 Latin American Assembly of Peasant Women, one of the delegates testified: “This year they have already assassinated several of our members and one of our leaders. We have resisted and will continue to resist. I am supporting my elderly mother and my only son on my four acres. We negotiated with the government a pact in exchange for the eradication of 7,000 acres of coca production. The government promised to finance alternative economic activity, including a factory to employ the displaced farmers. We have reduced coca production by 3,000 acres but they have not even started to build the factory. They have tricked us again. Now they are threatening to send the military to massacre us and eradicate all our sacred lands and leave us in misery. I want to learn how to use a gun. Because I want to be able to be part of the armed resistance when the Army invades.”[xviii]
In many countries, including the Philippines, peasants have taken the struggle to a higher level by joining the armed revolution. Through armed struggle for national liberation and democracy, they are able to take back what is due them. Wherever they are able to establish organs of political power, they are implementing the agrarian revolution, effectively satisfying the democratic demands of the peasantry.
“There is no peace with hunger, and there won’t be peace without land,” states the declaration of the International Meeting of Landless Peasants that was held in Honduras in July 2000. For the majority of the peasants, especially in the Third World, land is their principal and most urgent demand. They are calling for genuine land reform, or the free distribution of land to the landless and poor peasants. This drastic, but just and democratic measure, will end feudal ownership of land and semi-feudal forms of exploitation and bring about the economic and political emancipation of the peasantry.
The provision of support services like credit, technical assistance, irrigation, equipment etc. should be an integral part of the land reform program. To raise efficiency in production and marketing cooperativization and other forms of cooperation between farmers should be encouraged.
Land reform will also spur the process of national industrialization as it increases the peasants’ purchasing power and hence expands the domestic market. The national industries, free from imperialist control, will provide the rural economy with the tools, equipment and farm inputs that are necessary for genuine modernization of agricultural production. Genuine land reform and national industrialization are therefore complementary and interactive.
In order to eliminate class oppression and exploitation of the peasantry thoroughly, this national and democratic program has to be carried out with the perspective of socialist construction. For only the consolidation of the gains of the people’s struggle within a system where each contributes according to his ability and is compensated according to his work will be able to wipe out the vestiges of feudal and capitalist exploitation.
The tasks ahead are indeed momentous. It is encouraging, however, that the militant farmers’ movements are increasingly coordinating their struggle at the international level. In 1996, peasant organizations from the Philippines, Bangladesh and Brazil convened the Anti-Imperialist World Peasant Summit in the Philippines. Delegates from 16 peasant organizations and 33 solidarity movements from 24 countries of Asia, Latin America, Africa, Europe, North America and Australia analyzed the detrimental effects of imperialist globalization on the lives and livelihoods of the peasant masses and shared their different experiences in the struggle.
During the heroic people’s resistance against the 1999 Third Ministerial Meeting of the WTO in Seattle, peasant representatives from North and South joined ranks with the thousands of demonstrating workers from American trade unions. They were also manifestly present in last year’s street protests against imperialism’s instruments like the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Melbourne and the IMF and World Bank in Washington and Prague.
However, there is a need for further integration and coordination of the struggles of the different sectors along a clear-cut anti-imperialist line. The First International Assembly of the International League of People’s Struggle is therefore a very welcome and timely event as it will enable us to integrate the peasant struggle with the broader people’s movement against imperialism.
Indeed, we have always maintained that the peasant struggle is a struggle for genuine agrarian reform as a means of fulfilling the basic needs of the farmers. Yet, under monopoly capitalism, the struggle for land is inevitably also a struggle against imperialism. That is where the peasant struggle meets the struggle of the working class and other progressive and democratic forces.
A representative of the Movimento Dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (MST) told us in 1996 how they were able to explain their slogan ‘Agrarian reform is everybody’s struggle’ to the Brazilian workers and other sectors: “Our strategy is to conscienticize the workers in the cities, the general populace specially the poor, to the fact that agrarian reform has nothing to do with corporations; that it is not only for the interest of the poor in the farm. Agrarian reform is a fundamental way to resolve almost all the problems of the poor in the cities such as hunger, unemployment, violence, marginalization and lack of education, transportation and housing. Slowly the urban workers understood us. Now we can advance further and explain that agrarian reform is possible not through the will of a pressured government, but through the struggle against neoliberalism, imperialism, dependency on and domination of finance capital.”[xix]
Eventually, the militant people’s struggle will bring down the hegemony of monopoly capital while laying the foundation for socialism as the only viable alternative that can provide the masses with decent and humane living conditions. This has been proven in China and the Soviet Union where the swift and decisive delivery of rural justice through genuine land reform was able to improve the conditions of the peasant masses while providing the basis for the comprehensive development of society.
Therefore, we are linking arms with peasants, workers and all exploited and oppressed peoples the world over. Let us strengthen international solidarity and advance the people’s struggle against imperialism! Let us fight for land and the democratic demands of the people!
[xi] “Experience With The Implementation Of The Uruguay Round Agreement On Agriculture–Developing Country Experiences (Based On Case Studies)” presented at the FAO Symposium On Agriculture, Trade And Food Security: Issues And Options In The Forthcoming WTO Negotiations From The Perspective Of Developing Countries, Geneva, 23-24 September 1999
[xvi] “Family-Based Farming in Capitalist Agriculture” Paper delivered by Nicolas Jacquet, secretary general of the Coordination Rurale de France, at the Anti-Imperialist World Peasant Summit, Quezon City, Philippines, 10-13 November
[xix] “The Agrarian Problem in Latin America” Paper delivered by Edgar Kolling, head of MST’s education department, at the Anti-Imperialist World Peasant Summit, Quezon City, Philippines, 10-13 November.