If the Doha Round of negotiations of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) is stalemated, a great part of it is because of the resistance of small farmers, including those in Asia. One of the terrible truths of the 20th century is that it was a blight on small farmers or peasants everywhere. Before looking at whether it needs protection from free trade, it is necessary to consider the historical background of Asia’s peasantry, one that is shared by farmers in other parts of the South and in the North.
In both wealthy capitalist economies and in socialist countries, farmers have paid a heavy price. Asian industrialisation also was carried out largely on the backs of the rural population as farm policies were manipulated in favour of industry. In advanced capitalist countries like the United States, a deadly combination of economies of scale, capital-intensive technology and the market led to large corporations cornering agricultural production and processing, thus reducing small and medium farms to a marginal role in production and a minuscule portion of the workforce.
The dynamics of the market in capitalist societies with its bias for big business has eliminated farmers as a class. In the Soviet Union, they were transformed into workers on collective farms. Expropriation of the peasants’ surplus production was meant not only to feed the cities but also to serve as the source of `primitive accumulation’ of capital for industrialisation.
In Asia, government policies placed the burden of industrialisation on the peasantry during the phase of so-called `developmentalist’ industry-first policies. In Taiwan and South Korea, land reform first triggered prosperity in the countryside in the 1950s, stimulating industrialisation. But with the shift to export-led industrialisation in 1965, there was demand for low-wage industrial labour, so government policies deliberately depressed prices of agricultural goods. In this way, peasants subsidised the emergence of `Newly Industrialising Economies’. Peasant incomes declined relative to urban incomes, and the resulting stagnation of a once vibrant countryside led to massive migration to the cities and a steady supply of cheap labour for factories; this left farmers poor, ageing, and an increasingly small part of the national workforce.
In the Philippines and Thailand, industry-first strategies led to similar policies. In Thailand, for instance, a tax on rice exports insulated the domestic market from price movements in the international market, depressing the price of rice and reducing the wage costs of non-agricultural employers. A transfer of real wealth from the countryside to the city took place every year between 1962 and 1981, except for 1970. Not surprisingly, despite the image of Thailand as an agricultural superpower, a large percentage of the rural population remains poor.
In China, peasants died of starvation during the Great Leap Forward as the grain surplus was requisitioned to finance Mao Zedong’s industrialisation drive. The chaos of the Cultural Revolution allowed peasants to regain a degree of control over production because the government was in crisis and following the death of Mao in 1976, Deng Xiaoping introduced the `household contract responsibility system’. Each family was given a piece of land to farm, along with the right to sell what was left over after a fixed proportion of the produce was sold to the government at a state-determined price. This led to peasant prosperity that, as in Taiwan, stimulated industrial production to fulfil rural demand.
But, as in Taiwan, this golden age of the peasantry came to an end, and the cause was identical: the adoption of urban-centred, export-oriented industrialisation. Primitive capital accumulation for industry took the form of requisitioning peasant surpluses via heavy taxation. Currently, the various tiers of the Chinese government foist a total of 269 different taxes on farmers, along with often arbitrary administrative charges. Not surprisingly, in many places, taxes now eat up 15 per cent of farmers’ income, three times the official national limit of 5 per cent. Not surprisingly, too, while the economy has been growing at 8-10 per cent a year, peasant income has stagnated, so that urban dwellers now have, on average, six times the income of peasants.
While policies that made peasants subsidise industrialisation were harsh, they were at least mitigated by trade policies that barred agricultural imports that were cheaper than local commodities. In practically all Asian countries with agricultural sectors, imports were tightly controlled via quotas and high tariffs. This protective shield, however, was severely eroded when countries signed the Agreement on Agriculture (AOA) and began joining the WTO in 1995.
The AOA forced open agricultural markets by banning quotas, converting these to tariffs and requiring governments to import a minimum volume of each agricultural commodity at a low tariff. At the same time, under the pretext of controlling the heavy subsidisation of agriculture in developed countries, the AOA institutionalised the various channels through which subsidies flowed, such as export subsidies and direct cash payments to farming interests in the northern hemisphere.
The result was that in the first decade of the WTO, the level of subsidisation of agriculture actually increased in developed countries. The total amount of agricultural subsidies provided by member-governments of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) rose from $182 billion in 1995 to $280 billion in 1997, $315 billion in 2001, $318 billion in 2002, and almost $300 billion in 2005. The US and the EU were spending $9-10 billion more on subsidies in the early 2000s than they were a decade earlier. For every $100 of agro-exports from the US, government subsidies accounted for $20-30. In the case of the EU, the figure was $40-50. While unsubsidised smallholders in the developing world had to survive on less than $400 a year, American and European farmers were receiving, respectively, an average of $21,000 and $16,000 a year in subsidies.
With massive American and European subsidies distorting global prices in a downward direction, agriculture in developing countries became `non-competitive’ under the conditions of the WTO-mandated trade liberalisation. As the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) notes, instantaneous import surges following the adoption of the AOA in a number of developing countries led to `consequential difficulties’ for `import-competing industries’ and `without adequate market protection, accompanied by development programmes, many more domestic products would be displaced, or undermined sharply, leading to a transformation of domestic diets and to increased dependence on imported foods.
This historic shift to dependence on food imports was, needless to say, accompanied by the displacement of millions of peasants. Even before the AOA took effect, the World Bank was predicting that Indonesian farmers would be losers under the AOA regime. Indeed, since 1995, the marginalisation of farmers `in rice and other basic commodities’ has occurred while competitive pressures induced by trade liberalisation led to the expansion of commercial plantations at the expense of smallholders.
In the Philippines, corn farmers, chicken farmers, cattle raisers and vegetable growers were driven to bankruptcy in huge numbers. In Mindanao, where corn is a staple crop, many were wiped out. `It is not an uncommon sight to see farmers there leaving their corn to rot in the fields as the domestic corn prices have dropped to levels [at which] they have not been able to compete.’ With production stagnant, land devoted to corn across the country contracted from 3,149,300 hectares in 1995 to 2,150,300 ha in 2000.
In China, tens of thousands of farmers, including those growing soybeans and cotton, have been marginalised with China’s entry into the WTO. Indeed, to maintain and increase access for its manufacturers to developed countries, the government has chosen to sacrifice its farmers. According to the Institute of International Economics, the challenge of managing the farm sector has grown with China’s WTO commitments in agriculture, which are more far reaching than those of other developing countries and in certain respects exceed those of high-income countries. The Chinese government agreed to reduce tariffs and institute other policies that meaningfully increase market access; accepted tight restrictions on the use of agricultural subsidies; and pledged to eliminate all commitments on agricultural export subsidies that go far beyond those made by other participants in the Uruguay Round negotiations that led to the WTO’s creation.
In Sri Lanka, thousands of small farmers staged street demonstrations against the import of chicken parts and eggs, claiming they were being driven out of business. The FAO concurred, noting that import surges on major food items like chillies, onions and potatoes made local production precarious, as reflected in the significant drop in areas of production.
In India, tariff liberalisation, even ahead of the WTO commitments, has translated into a profound crisis in the countryside. Economist Utsa Patnaik has described the calamity as `a collapse in rural livelihoods and incomes’ owing to the steep fall in the prices of farm products. Along with this has come a rapid decline in the consumption of food grain, with the average Indian family of four consuming 76 kg less in 2003 compared to 1998 and 88 kg less than a decade earlier. Andhra Pradesh, which has become a byword for agrarian distress owing to trade liberalisation, saw a catastrophic rise in farmers’ suicides from 233 in 1998 to over 2,600 in 2002. One estimate is that some 100,000 farmers in India have taken their lives owing to collapsing prices stemming from rising imports.
In 2004, a rural backlash against agrarian distress led to the unexpected defeat of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led ruling coalition that had campaigned on the vision of `India Shining’. India’s rural electoral revolt was part of a global phenomenon that put governments on notice that the countryside would no longer accept policies that sacrifice farmer interests. In Asia, protests in the form of land occupations, hunger strikes, violent demonstrations, and symbolic suicides made rural distress a pressing issue.
In China, what the Ministry of Public Security calls `mass group incidents’, or in other words, protest actions, increased from 8,700 in 1993 to 87,000 in 2005, most of them in the countryside. Moreover, the incidents are growing in average size, from 10 or fewer persons in the mid-1990s to 52 people per incident in 2004. Not surprisingly, the current leadership increasingly sees the countryside as a powder keg that needs to be defused.
The political consequences of what trade liberalisation and other anti-agriculture policies brought to the countryside led to the formation of the Group of 20 and the Group of 33. The G-20 put the developed countries on notice that there would be no more concessions in terms of market access if no significant reductions were made in unfair domestic support for agriculture. The G-33 demanded that certain products considered vital to agricultural production and employment - special products (SP) - be exempted from tariff liberalisation. They also wanted the right to raise tariffs and resort to other measures - special safeguard mechanisms (SSM) - to protect their products from surges of agricultural imports. When the EU and the US refused to compromise on these issues, the WTO’s Fifth Ministerial Meeting in Cancun in 2003 collapsed.
The Ministerial Declaration of the Sixth Ministerial Meeting of the WTO in Hong Kong in December 2005 recognised the right of developing countries to designate SPs and institute SSMs. However, the US backtracking on this commitment and refusing to significantly reduce its domestic subsidies led to the collapse of the Doha Round of negotiations in July 2006. Developing countries simply could not provoke more discontent among their peasant populations by opening their markets even more in exchange for cosmetic reductions in the massive subsidies provided by the EU and the US to their agricultural sectors.
The suicide of the Korean farmer, Lee Kyung Hae, at the barricades in Cancun in September 2003 was a milestone in the development of farmers’ resistance globally. Committed under a banner that read `WTO Kills Farmers’, Lee’s aim was to draw international attention to the number of suicides by farmers in countries subjected to liberalisation. He succeeded only too well. The event shocked the WTO delegates, who observed a minute of silence in Lee’s memory. By adding to what was already a charged atmosphere, it was certainly a key factor in the unravelling of the talks.
In December 2005, invoking Lee’s sacrifice, hundreds of Korean farmers tried to break through police lines in an effort to storm the Hong Kong Convention Centre. Some 900 protesters were arrested.
Lee and the Korean farmers protesting in Hong Kong were members of Via Campesina, an international federation of farmers that was established in the mid-1990s. Since its founding, Via Campesina, literally translated as the Peasants’ Path, has become known as one of the most militant opponents of the WTO and bilateral and multilateral free trade agreements.
While there are other international farmers’ networks, Via is distinguished by its position that small farmers must not only fight to survive in the current global system of corporate-dominated industrial farming, but also should lead the process to transform or replace the current system. Commenting on the vision of Jose Bove, the famous French activist who dismantled a MacDonald’s restaurant in his hometown of Millau, France, and other Via leaders, one progressive journal has described the aim of the organisation as the creation of a `Farmers’ Internationale’ in much the same way that communist and social democratic groups sought to establish the Communist International and Socialist International to unite workers in the 20th century.
The main battle cry of Via Campesina, whose coordinating centre is located in Indonesia, is `WTO Out of Agriculture’ and its alternative programme is `Food Sovereignty’. Food Sovereignty means first and foremost the immediate adoption of policies that favour small producers. This would include, according to Indonesian farmer Henry Saragih, Via’s coordinator, and Ahmad Ya’kub, deputy for Policy Studies of the Indonesian Peasant Union Federation (FSPI), `the protection of the domestic market from low-priced imports, remunerative prices for all farmers and fishers, abolition of all direct and indirect export subsidies, and the phasing out of domestic subsidies that promote unsustainable agriculture’.
Via’s programme, however, goes beyond the adoption of pro-smallholder trade policies. It also calls for an end to the Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights regime, which allows corporations to patent plant seeds, thus appropriating for private profit what has evolved through the creative interaction of the natural world with human communities over eons. Seeds and all other plant genetic resources should be considered part of the common heritage of humanity, the group believes, and not subject to privatisation.
Agrarian reform, long avoided by landed elites in countries like the Philippines, is a central element in Via’s platform, as is sustainable, ecologically sensitive, organic or biodynamic farming by small peasant producers. The organisation has set itself apart from both the `First Green Revolution’, which was based on chemical-intensive agriculture, and the `Second Green Revolution’, which is driven by genetic engineering (GE). The disastrous environmental side-effects of the first are well known, says Via, which means all the more that the precautionary principle must be rigorously applied to the second, to avoid negative health and environmental outcomes.
The opposition to GE-based agriculture has created a powerful link between farmers and consumers who are angry at corporations for marketing genetically modified commodities without proper labelling, thus denying consumers a choice. In the European Union, a solid alliance of farmers, consumers and environmentalists prevented the import of GE-modified products from the US for several years. Although the EU has cautiously allowed in a few GE imports since 2004, 54 per cent of European consumers continue to think GE food is `dangerous’. Opposition to other harmful processes such as food irradiation has also contributed to the tightening of ties between farmers and consumers, large numbers of whom now think that public health and environmental impact should be more important determinants of consumer behaviour than price. More and more people are beginning to realise that local production and culinary traditions are intimately related, and that this relationship is threatened by corporate control of food production, processing, marketing and consumption.
This is why Jose Bove’s justification for dismantling a MacDonald’s resonated widely in Asia: "When we said we would protest by dismantling the half-built McDonald’s in our town, everybody understood why the symbolism was so strong. It was for proper food against malbouffe [awful standardised food], agricultural workers against multinationals. The extreme right and other nationalists tried to make out it was anti-Americanism, but the vast majority knew it was no such thing. It was a protest against a form of production that wants to dominate the world."
A class for itself
Small farmers have long been viewed as a doomed class by many economists, technocrats, policymakers and urban intellectuals. Once regarded as passive objects to be manipulated by elites, they are now resisting the `developmentalist’ paradigms that would consign them to ruin. They have become what Karl Marx described as a politically conscious `class-for-itself’. And even as peasants refuse to `go gently into that good night’, to borrow a line from Dylan Thomas, developments in the 21st century are revealing traditional pro-development visions to be deeply flawed. The escalating protests of peasant groups such as Via Campesina are not a return to the past. As environmental crises multiply and the social dysfunctions of urban-industrial life pile up, we realise that the farmers’ movement has relevance not only to peasants, but to everyone who is threatened by the catastrophic consequences of obsolete modernist paradigms for organising production, community and life.
Walden Bello is Executive Director of Focus on the Global South, a Bangkok-based research and advocacy institute, and a Professor of Sociology at the University of the Philippines at Diliman.