Leonie Nimmo visits La Via Campesina in Zimbabwe to see how smallholders there are fighting for food sovereignty.
"Now I will pass you over to my wife, Vongai”, said Nelson Mudzingwa. “Since I have been working for La Via Campesina international co-ordination team, she has been responsible for running our farm. So she will show you what we are doing here”. This handover was more than a courtesy; it demonstrated two pivotal aspects of La Via Campesina movement: formal recognition of the importance of women as food producers, and its farmerled structure, with the natural requirement that farmers must speak for themselves.
A message for ethical consumers from Elizabeth
"We are trying to alert consumers to the dangers of buying things they don’t understand. It is necessary to build alliances between producers and consumers.
We need to work out how best we can come together to share experiences and come up with strategies to challenge corporations. We need to be united with one voiceto strengthen our capacity. We need to understand what we have to fight against."
Photo of Leonie Nimmo and Elizabeth Mpofu
Vongai points out the many and various measures taken to conserve water on her farm in the semi-arid Masvingo district of Zimbabwe. The ultimate objective is to prevent water runoff, keeping the ground as moist as possible whilst preventing erosion of the soil.
Vongai also explained why they don’t use chemical fertilisers: “Fertilisers just give a small amount of nutrients to the plants. Our mission is to feed the soil, which will then feed the plants.” The land on which we were walking, a group of farms now known as Shashe, was occupied fourteen years ago by a group of black Zimbabwean farmers who were not prepared to wait any longer for the country’s post-colonial land redistribution.
According to our hosts, it was taken as part of a spontaneous, grassroots and widespread wave of direct action which pre-dated Mugabe’s forced eviction of white farmers. “Mugabe was forced to get on the bandwagon”, they tell me. He had to support it or suffer the consequences politically.
Subsequently many large-scale, whiteowned commercial farms were broken up and the land given to smallholder farmers. We were on what had been a single cattle farm of 14,000 hectares and the property of one white farmer, which is now inhabited by 400 families.
Zimbabwe’s land reform programme has been vilified by the industrialised world and is commonly cited as the reason for the country’s economic collapse. However a picture is emerging of the reform programme that is not universally catastrophic.
Amongst those calling for analysis of empirical evidence over politically influenced criticism is Shashe farmer Blasio Mavedzenge, co-author of the book ‘Zimbabwe’s Land Reform: Myths and Realities’. Blasio and his colleagues state that the violence and chaos that accompanied Mugabe’s forced evictions of white farmers are only part of the story.
Their research assessed 400 households which were allocated land and found that, far from a total collapse in production, the impacts have been complex and varied. Blasio tells me that half are doing well and the nutritional levels of their families is improving.
Production in some areas is bouncing back to pre-land-reform levels, local employment is being generated and markets being created. “La Via Campesina is happy about the land reform programme in Zimbabwe,” says Elizabeth Mpofu, General Secretary of La Via Campesina. “The people are the beneficiaries of the land here.” She points out that Zimbabwe is one of the few countries in Africa that has not opened itself up to a huge land grab by foreign investors.
Photo: Leonie Nimmo
The international community responded to Zimbabwe’s land reform by imposing limited sanctions and halting donor funds for agricultural development. Consequently there has been limited penetration of aid organisations in the agricultural sector. In other parts of Africa, through initiatives such as the Alliance for Green Revolution Africa (AGRA), the activities of corporations are being ramped up, under the guise of supporting agricultural development.
Key AGRA donors are the British Government’s Department for International Development (DfID) and the Gates Foundation. “Some of our members are becoming attracted by AGRA,” Elizabeth tells me. “They are being given seed and fertilisers for free. But it won’t be free at the end of the day. It’s a form of contract farming – AGRA will come back and claim a share.And farmers will be left with no decisions. They will get told what to grow.”
Through aid programmes, African governments are being pressured to amend seed laws in ways which will benefit multinational corporations and criminalise age-old agricultural practices. With these elements combined, the foreseeable consequence is that smallscale African producers are to be fully integrated with the global economy, purchasing a set of chemical and seed inputs each harvest.
This is precisely the scenario that La Via Campesina resists. “These are critical issues for the sustainable livelihoods of peasants,” Elizabeth tells me. I ask whether she envisages a time when all agricultural aid will be channelled through AGRA. “Not if we succeed in stopping it,” Elizabeth replies. “I believe we can mobilise more people so that AGRA will shift its mindset. We need to build resistance; lots of work has to be done to educate people. But when we winover AGRA, most of the corporates will try to reverse their way of doing things.”
From Elizabeth’s husband Isaac, I learn why Zimbabwean farmers are acutely aware of the dangers of market dependency. “Chemical agriculture is like smoking, the land becomes addicted. But what happens when you can’t access those inputs? When the economy collapsed there were no seeds in the shops. Only those farmers that had saved their own had anything to plant.”
He tells me that if the same seeds are used for a number of seasons pests will become more of a problem, so farmers need to exchange seeds to avoid the need for pesticides.
The Shashe farmers participate in regular seed and food fairs. A couple of weeks earlier, I visited La Via Campesina’s International Secretariat in Harare. Media officer Nyoni Ndabezinhle told me that AGRA’s agenda is to find out how farmers in Zimbabwe are surviving in the absence of imports. It strikes me that seed exchanges must be a vital survival technique of agroecological smallholders.
“We fight for seeds,” said Nyoni. He explained that Zimbabwe’s seed heritage was a contributing factor to La Via Campesina’s decision to move its HQ here. “The situation in Zimbabwe during colonial times was such that black people’s agriculture was needed to subsidise the poor wages paid by white people. So a vibrant local agricultural system was maintained. In South Africa the opposite was the case: black people lived in Bantustans with no chance to grow their own food. “In Zimbabwe today we have seeds to defend; this is not the case in South Africa. Genetically modified crops are widespread there but in Zimbabwe it’s not permitted to import unprocessed GM seeds.”
What La Via Campesina and the farmers in Shashe are striving for, self-sufficiency, is the opposite of what transnational corporations want: a captive market of smallholder producers. “We are targeting those multinational corporations,” says Elizabeth. “We had been colonised for decades. We don’t want to be colonised again. They want to benefit from our natural resources. But people are suffering. There is no way that we can let this happen. What about future generations? We have to protect them.”
La Via Campesina
La Via Campesina, the worldwide movement of smallholder agricultural producers, counts its members at over 200 million. It spans four continents and many languages and cultures. 70% of the world’s population are fed by smallholder producers, a fact which has helped to force La Via Campesina’s agenda on to the table at the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).
The organisation is also becoming harder and harder for aid organisations and governments alike to ignore. La Via Campesina rejects corporate agribusiness and focuses on the right of farmers to determine the crops that they grow and how they grow them. Access to land, water and seeds is critical. Genetically modified crops, which prevent farmers controlling their genetic resources, are out. Food Sovereignty is the concept, La Via Campesina its global proponent.
That a common agenda has been democratically defined by a formal, global, movement, and one which represents perhaps some of the most marginalised people on earth, is what makes Via Campesina so remarkable. The International Secretariat Office moves every four years and in 2013 it was time for the helm to be relocated to Africa. Zimbabwe was selected through a process of consensus at the movement’s 6th international gathering in Jakarta in 2013.