“This is not the democracy that we fought for:” An Interview with Ricado Jacobs, South African member of La Via Campesina

This is the second of three interviews I conducted with members of the Via Campesina delegation during United Nations COP17 in Durban, South Africa recently. The first interview, with Alberto Gomez of UNORCA, Mexico, is here.

— Jeff Conant, for GJEP

Ricado Jacobs is with the Food Sovereignty Campaign of La Via Campesina in South Africa. Ricado was in Durban for the UN Conference of Parties, and for the activities that La Via Campesina organized in and around the COP. I had the chance to speak with him about La Via Campesina and its views on the UN Climate Summit, and the issues of food sovereignty and climate justice more broadly.

Jeff Conant: What is the significance of La Via Campesina as a global movement?

Ricado Jacobs: If you look at the impact of the transnational corporations, they are on a global scale, they cross borders. So, we need to respond on a global scale. La Via Campesina is an important vehicle for organizing on a world scale.

But it’s not just that the impacts we’re facing happen at a world scale, it’s that they transcend the power of the nation state to control. For example: Water-Efficient Maize for Africa is an effort by Monsanto, together with the Gates Foundation and others, that uses state research councils. Monsanto provides the resources and produces the outputs, but uses state research councils, in South Africa and Mozambique, to implement the program. Farmers didn’t know what this was all about, but through support organizations and La Via, we engaged in a process of learning, and the farmers raised an objection to the project. This was the first time that farmers, themselves – not NGOs – had raised an objection to a program like this.

Well, after our objection, we got a response directly from Monsanto; not from the state, but from the corporation. So you can see who has the power. This is why we cannot restrict our struggle to the state.

We see food sovereignty as a means through which to unite diverse issues and to define a field of struggle. In this sense, La Via Campesina is one of the few movements in the world that can unite on a common platform, that resonates in a very similar way across national borders.

JC: What is the importance of La Via specifically here in Africa?

RJ: Historically in Africa, the NGOs have taken a lot of political space. Where you have these big NGOs taking space, this actually inhibits movements from organizing in their own way. So, this is one thing: La Via Campesina, as a movement, is showing how social movements can take back this space, and is showing farmers how to organize, without the intermediaries of NGOs.

Also, now the question of food sovereignty is becoming more important – it’s not just about agrarian reform, or about taking land, but about transforming the whole food system. So, it’s an exciting period of growth for us.

In Zimbabwe, we analyze the situation in two ways. When the so-called land reform happened in Zimbabwe, the poor and landless saw Mugabe as a hero, while the middle class saw him as a villain. We have to ask why that is. We don’t want to make the same mistakes here that have been made in Zimbabwe. There’s no way we can condone the eviction of people from their land in urban areas, for example. But as far as rural land takeovers go, we support it – so our support is limited to that element. The land occupations are a spontaneous movement, but in Zimbabwe, the state used the movement for its own ends. In a sense, this was good, because it prevented bloodshed. By the same token, Mugabe was one of the few national leaders who rejected GMOs. That’s good, and we need to support that. Recent research is emerging about the benefits of land occupations, particularly related to food sovereignty. But it shows, again, that the contradictions are huge.

Peasant movements have taken up the torch of land sovereignty. You cannot talk about climate justice without addressing this kind of redistributive justice. Where are we going to practice agro-ecology if we don’t take land? But we have to do this without making a hero out of the state. Participatory democracy and self-management should be central in our struggle.

Now, the nature of imperialism and land grabbing has taken a different form – it’s no longer one colonial power coming over on ships. Now it’s China, it’s the Arab states, it’s Goldman Sachs. So we need to take a different approach, and a more nuanced approach, to how we address the challenge. So, again, this is the importance of La Via Campesina in Africa – it gives us a basis to struggle against the state, but not only against the state. The struggle is against many things, and we need to articulate these things.

What makes La Via Campesina unique in Africa is that it is completely horizontal in its politics and in its structure – there’s no messiah, no one doing the thinking for you. It’s important for us to learn from this, to break from the past where we always have some big leader. Always, in South Africa, in all of Africa, historically, you have one figure; when the Leader speaks, everyone goes crazy, and when the Leader sells out or is killed, the movement is over. You look at someone like Gaddafi, who wanted to be King of Africa, and you say, this is crazy. But this is not an anomaly – this is how Africa works. This is what happened with Mandela – he orchestrated the neoliberal entry into South Africa, and this has left South Africa crippled.

With la Via, even the Secretariat rotates – every few years, it moves to a new place, with a new team, new leadership. Obviously, we have historic leaders, like Rafael Alegria – but that doesn’t mean that he always has to lead. In this sense the movement growing in Africa has been greatly influenced by other movements, like the Zapatistas.

This doesn’t mean we repeat what’s been done elsewhere – La Via Campesina in Africa has to confront African realities. I think, if there is any key difference between the African movements and the Latin Americans, it is that they are very rooted in their history. So we have to ground our movements in our history of resistance and lessons of other struggles.

JC: How does the United Nations COP process relate, or not, to the process of social movement organizing for climate justice?

RJ: If you look at this Conference of Polluters, none of them have a mandate. It’s a few hundred or a few thousand people who decide on the fate of humanity. Where does this power emanate from? Do we live under democracies, or is this democracy? Or is this something else? As the Egyptians said when their uprising was taken over by the military, no this is not the democracy that we fought for. So they went back to the streets to fight more and complete the task of the revolution.

I call it the North African Spring, not the Arab Spring, to not cut it off from the rest of the African continent. And even the Occupy Movement in the U.S., there’s hope there. We need to build strong movements, to convince large sectors of the population that we need to bring change – but not merely in democratic terms. It’s almost like you can use the language of climate change to talk about movement building – we need resilient movements in order to mitigate and adapt to the evils we are facing.

By resilient I mean, we have to have a clear vision about the different solutions that will respond to the crisis in different places. In Europe they have seventeen percent unemployment, and that’s a crisis. In South Africa, we have forty percent unemployment, but it’s completely normalized here – we don’t even have a discourse about it. Imagine, forty percent of your population is food insecure. You go to Cape Town, and you see this stark inequality – the super-rich and the super poor. How is this reflected in our discourse about food, about agriculture?

On a global scale, we’re talking about a crisis of civilization. Not in the apocalyptic sense, but that we need a new humanity. For this, we can turn to the Cochabamba Peoples Accord as a sound basis for what people, en masse, have decided.

JC: How does La Via Campesina propose to move beyond the confining logic of the COP?

RJ: On December 5, Food Sovereignty Day, we held a march and an Assembly of the Oppressed. It was a space where peasants and movements could organize their own program – no big names, just ordinary people, ordinary men and women. We had about three hundred people gathered under a big tent at the gate of the University [of Kazulu-Natal], and people came to the assembly with the energy of the march. It was a space for farmers and the landless, for people from the Rural Women’s Assembly.

One of the key messages that came from the Assembly was that the movements need to organize on an autonomous level, like this. There is a lot of exhibitionism in the COP, not just by state parties, but by the NGOs. La Via’s efforts to hold a march and an assembly, these are important because it was our own space. In these spaces there was a clear articulation that food sovereignty and agro-ecology is the solution we propose. This is powerful in part because no one could come with their big flag and appear to take over.

In the COP, even the civil society space was organized by NGOs, not movements. We could have had something more militant – we could have highlighted the US Embassy in relation to the COP, for example. If we pose the question in dramatic terms – the crisis of civilization, not in an apocalyptic sense, again, but in the sense that the crisis we are confronting runs through every aspect of our societies – than this compels us to move beyond ordinary tactics.

Another key message that came out is that we need to look at women’s oppression, and patriarchy. Women’s issues are central, because women, particularly African women, bear the brunt of the impacts from the food system. So, the Assembly of the Oppressed is against all forms of oppression. This is why, our most recent formulation of how we define food sovereignty, we say that food sovereignty is an end to violence against women. This is rarely brought out in its full dimension.

The other dimensions that came out in the themes of the Assembly were seed sovereignty and the crisis of capitalism. We begin from the standpoint of seed sovereignty, because, once they take away seed sovereignty, we’re all, I don’t know how else to say it, fucked. So far, they haven’t been able to successfully replace our seeds with some other technology, like they’ve done in other areas – you get super-weeds, you have no scientific evidence showing that their GMO seeds produce higher yields, you have nothing showing that corporate control of seeds has any advantages whatsoever, to anyone. So, peasant movements continue to hold this vital resource.

And then you have the crisis of capitalism. In Africa, this is expressing itself as a new wave of colonization and land grabbing. This isn’t the old “primitive accumulation” of Marx – this is what the geographer David Harvey calls “accumulation by dispossession.” The question is, how do we respond. We’re dealing with a different enemy now: not with an enemy that emerges from the center to the periphery, as they used to say, but with an enemy that comes at us from all sides.

One of capitalism’s key crises is the provision of food. Now you have commodity food prices skyrocketing, you have the finance industry central to the food system, you have landgrabs taking different forms, you have all of these threats. How do you respond to them?

The uprisings in Egypt and everywhere remind us that direct action is an important pillar for the poor and the oppressed all over the world. Direct action needs to be combined with a radical emancipatory politics to free humanity and mother earth. Otherwise, this whole thing becomes an exercise in impacting the media, and then we go away and the corporations and the state continue to run the show.


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Filed under Climate Justice, Food Sovereignty, Green Economy, Land Grabs, UNFCCC