Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Nettie Wiebe speaks out: Why Australian farmers and La Via Campesina?

The following presentation by Nettie Wiebe was published in July 2010.  It is as relevant today as it was 2 years ago, and so we publish it again here......

Professor Nettie Wiebe has emerged as one of Canada’s most articulate opponents of a globalization model that serves transnational agri-business corporations at the expense of small farmers.

Nettie Wiebe grew up farming in Saskatchewan. Today she and her husband are still farming. But Nettie’s commitment to learning and to activism, along with her love of farming, have combined to create one of Canada’s most prominent women change makers. Nettie is the past president of the National Farmer’s Union, a Professor of Church and Society at University of Saskatchewan’s St. Andrew’s College, and a federal candidate for the New Democratic Party. She is also a founding member of Via Campesina, Nettie was the first woman to serve on its governing body, the International Coordinating Committee (ICC).

Via a Skype connection, Nettie was able to be a guest presenter at the 2010 Food Connect Foundation ‘Food Sovereignty through Farmer Solidarity’ event that was co-ordinated as part of a visit to Australia by Via Campesina executive members.

This is her presentation……

This is so astonishing, speaking here from Saskatchewan, Canada and to think you are hearing me in Australia. This is amazing. I want to bring my warmest greetings to you and I do wish I was there in person because I’m sure I would learn a lot more from you than I could possibly impart to you over these next few minutes.

But let me just say if the technology is not too problematic, I always like the discussion a lot more than the monologue, so I would really welcome questions and discussion. But I’ll just launch in here and give you a bit of a background on who I am and why we in the Farmers Union in Canada have been so clear about our participation and the strengthening of La Via Campesina from our point of view.

I am an organic farmer in Saskatchewan, what we call a small scale family farm, and it is here as elsewhere in the world, a disappearing kind of farm. Peasant and small scale agriculture is, as you know, under tremendous stress and attack, almost in all parts of the world, and especially so in the so called developed countries, like Canada, US, European countries, Australia and New Zealand. We’ve sort of been at the cutting edge of the industrialization, the corporatization of agriculture, and that’s been tremendously hard on small scale farmers.

So I’m really excited that you’re working on the reconnecting of food to people, and to farming, and thinking about our food system in a more holistic way, and I think in a much healthier way.

We started with La Via Campesina because in the late 1980’s as you recall, we were in negotiations. Your country, our country and most of the nations of the world, were in negotiations on the GATT and for the first time, agriculture was being included in the GATT negotiations. So we were in a particular place here in Canada, because we had signed a few years previously into a trade agreement with the USA. And you must know that the USA is 10 times bigger than we are, in almost every way. We signed an agreement that had included agriculture and the removal of tariffs and the free flow of agricultural goods across our border into the USA.

We, as Canadian farmers already knew from our experience, that these kinds of agreements are tremendously beneficial to the trade, our trade numbers with the USA got a real boost. They are tremendously profitable for the corporate sector and they put a lot of stress on and try to destroy farmer marketing boards, and any kind of farmer power in these kind of arrangements.

So we already knew about this, even though our negotiators and our government were really enthusiastic and our trade numbers were a success, and our agricultural goods were going up even more rapidly than they had predicted. So from the official media and official government line it was a brilliant success.

Meanwhile we small scale farmers, we family farmers, were having a tougher time than ever and we were losing more farm families from the land than ever before. So for us on the farmer level it was anything but a success. It was very threatening. When they arrived with the GATT negotiations, we realized that ‘oops’, they are going to do to the whole world what we’ve just experienced.

We were part of that small group of progressive farm leaders that talked together and said, let’s just look at how this is working for farmers, not for the trade, not for the export numbers, not for the production, but for farmers and farm families, and have a critical look at how this is affecting us all.

And remarkably, it became quite clear quickly that no matter whether you were a half hectare farmer in Indonesia, or a 2,000 acre farmer in Saskatchewan, that trade agreements, that liberalization of agricultural trade, was going to have a very negative affect on all of us. Actually, we, as primary producers, small scale producers, are pretty much all in the same boat.

So that gave us a sense that we needed to be speaking for ourselves in these trade agreements, and we ought to have a voice, a global voice. Until then, we had been organised in Canada on a provincial level, and eventually on a national level, because that was where our agricultural policies were being formulated. Now it became clear that the way in which agriculture was going to be shaped for us, what we were going to be producing, who was producing, who would make any money on it and who would survive it, and in the end, who would eat and what they would eat, was going to be determined elsewhere in the world. It was going to be determined by key trade negotiators, the big countries, and even more importantly, by the corporate sector, the transnational traders who were actually going to be in control of that production and trade.

We realised that we recognized the need to work in solidarity with farmers from around the world, who in many ways are very unlike us but in the key component of what we are defending are very like us.

When we got together – our first big assembly was in 1996 in Tlaxcala, Mexico, we hammered out a series of positions on trade, on care of food, on culturally appropriate food, on protections of our culture, our land and our water. And importantly, and very importantly for me, on the recognition that if we were going to transform agriculture into a healthy and sustainable system, women would have a key role. This was because in many of our households, and many of our farms, the work of women was largely unrecognized but was essential to the life of our families and our communities and to the health of our people.

In La Via Campesina in the beginning, the role of women and the leadership of women was a valuable and a very unique component of this global movement. As you know, and I knew from my own experience in Canada, that the leadership of women in agriculture has been very tentative and often absent at the national and international levels. It’s been the role of women to make sure that there’s eggs in the fridge and that the family food system works well, but beyond that, once you get to the agribusiness corporate room, there are painfully few women making key decisions around food and agriculture.

In Via Campesina we decided early on that the role of women was going to be an important component of this movement because we needed solidarity in a way which farm organisations haven’t achieved or even imagined, before we were catapulted into this global context of defending our ground.

So in Tlaxcala in 1996, we took care that there would be at least one woman, and it turned out to be myself that time, on the international co-ordinating committee, that would work globally to try and solidify and build solidarity among very diverse and autonomous farm organisations. That part is important in Via Campesina because not only do we tolerate diversity, we cherish diversity, culturally and agriculturally.

It’s as important culturally as it is for our biodiversity, that we protect and honour differences and allow for and encourage that we move away from monocultures and one kind of a diet globally, and that’s what corporate agriculture offers us. McDonalds burger in Bangkok that tastes very much like the McDonalds burger in Saskatchewan. That’s where monoculture of food and monoculture of production is very destructive, environmentally and in terms of biodiversity, and it’s very destructive culturally.

So in Via Campesina, we embrace that kind of diversity, knowing that all of our futures depend on that sustainability, on those differences being there, and in the kind of food we produce. We know that we produce in different food environments, in different agronomic environments, in different political environments, and we need to make sure that that continues to be the case.

Question: How do you get on with Monsanto?

Answer: We have a very contentious relationship with Monsanto. Monsanto has, since 1996, had a commercial GMO canola which is now so widespread, and so contaminating, that we organic farmers are unable to grow any canola at all because we can no longer be assured that it’s not contaminated. All of the so called conventional canola in western Canada has GMO strains in it. So we have no more non GMO crop, and for this kind of mass biological contamination, we have no remedy. As a matter of fact, Monsanto takes no responsibility or has any liability for this kind of contamination. They own the technology, they sell it at a very high price to those growing canola, they have a corner on the market, and that’s the position we are in. Monsanto in some ways is the poster boy for what’s wrong with the global situation now.

Question: What were the sorts of challenges the NFU faced over the years in maintaining a focus on international farming issues when you’ve had so many issues locally and nationally, as we do in Australia?
Answer: My goodness, I feel like I’m back in my president’s chair because one of the things I faced repeatedly was exactly that question. We would be in a farmers meeting and farmers would say to me, look we have all this trouble here in Canada, what are you doing spending this time working internationally. Why don’t we work nationally. And I would walk everyone through it – we started with provincial, we went to national, and you know what, some of the main decisions that are affecting you, everything from the price of inputs to the export market to who sells what, to what you are being encouraged to grow, and certainly to the price you are getting, is in fact not being decided in our capital city. It’s being decided around the trade tables and the corporate board tables, and if we are going to get any control of this, we are going to have to work globally.

And then I would say, as an encouragement, by the end of my tenure, and I was President for 4 years, by the end of that tenure that question never came again, because it became more and more obvious a lot of what was happening in our food system is in fact controlled elsewhere.

And that’s what Food Sovereignty is all about, it’s taking control back home around food related issues. Water quality, who owns the land, what kind of seed we get to use, who grows food for us, we need to take those decisions back home.

Question: I was doing some research some years ago and couldn’t believe that there was no Via Campesina here in Australia, when it was in Canada, USA and Europe and the developing world. And I thought why haven’t Australian farmers risen up and taken part in this organisation. I’m absolutely thrilled to be here today and I’m just wanting to ask you, what are the steps we should take here in Australia to establish this wonderful organisation here.

Answer: Let me begin there by saying that I don’t feel like I’m in any position to give advice. Here are some ideas: It’s important that farmers have their own voice and that they delineate what’s important to them. Often that farmers voice, and that’s particularly true here in Canada, and probably in Australia, that the farmers voice is really manipulated and diverted by all of the experts and the agribusiness interests that want to ensure that farmers continue to produce what they need for their profits, and are completely unconcerned about the well being of farm families, rural communities, soils, waters etc.

It’s been hard for farmers to divest themselves of those manipulative forces that want to delink them, decouple them, from their own real interests in agriculture. So that’s been part of that struggle. The struggle has been close to home. How confident we feel about what we’re doing and how empowered we are to say what we need to say.

But if you’ve got strong organisations, even local organisations - within Via Campesina we’ve been very conscientious not to be insistent that an organisation has to already have all the farmers in that country as part of its membership, or anything like that. Small organisations can join the regional Via Campesina, and begin to work in solidarity with others in their regions for the international changes that we need to affect.

I know that one of the big areas for us in industrialized countries, is to actually consider ourselves to be peasants, and I know that in USA and Canada when I have addressed farmers, I begin by saying we are peasants, and you can just see them, there’s a sort of unease. In the English language, peasant has begun to be an insult, and then I clarify that peasant actually means, people of the land, and if we the people of the land want to ensure that the land remains productive and healthy and produces food for the all the people of the world, then we the people of the land need to be proud to be people of the land.

That’s why we should claim that culture of looking after our own soils, and being people of the land. That’s what industrial farmers find very hard to do because they have been distanced from their own places. We’ve been manipulated into thinking that somehow the more industrialized we are the further from the actual land we are, the more sophisticated our inputs, the more productive we are, bushels per acre, the better farmers we are.

It’s a crisis for us so it’s time for us to take back our position as those who care for the land, and those on whom the well being of our environment really depends. I always say that environmentalism in urban areas is extremely important, but you know what, the front line, the interface between us human beings and the land that feeds us is farmers. And that’s never been a more important role than now.

So it’s that encouragement for farmers and food activists to take that back, their own voice, to understand the issues and draw the places where we need to take back control of seed, of agriculture production, what kind of production and try to stand in the way of the major land grabbing, divestment of people that is going on in agriculture.

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