Agriculture and Climate Change: Via Campesina and the Challenge to the Corporate Food System

By Pablo Lapegna

“Together we can cool the planet.” With this phrase (explained in an accessible 15-minute clip), the global social movement Via Campesina launched a campaign in 2015 to draw attention to the role of industrial or corporate agriculture in global warming and to advocate for solutions that promote agroecology and social justice.

Agriculture and changes in land use have an important impact on global warming. In 2014, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimated that one-fourth of greenhouse gas emissions could be attributed to agricultural and forestry activities (IPCC 2014: 88). This figure doubles if we take into account the multiple ramifications of the current corporate food system and consider its “downward” and “forward” impacts, including deforestation and the greenhouse gases generated by transportation, processing and packaging, refrigeration, and food waste (GRAIN 2016). Intergovernmental summits and corporate actors have been addressing these impacts on global warming by proposing technological fixes, usually branded as “climate smart agriculture” (Pimbert 2015). In contrast, rural social movements have focused on addressing political issues and glaring global inequalities in order to tackle the impacts of agriculture on global warming.

Via Campesina (VC) is one of the global social movements leading these efforts. Since 1993, VC has been connecting national and local movements and organizations of peasants, small and medium farmers, the landless, rural women, indigenous peoples, fishers, and agricultural workers from around the world (Desmarais 2007). VC “defends peasant agriculture for food sov­ereignty as a way to promote social justice and dignity and strongly opposes corporate driven agriculture that destroys social relations and nature” (Via Campesina 2018). As a mobilizing idea, food sovereignty calls for a radical transformation of the current food system and seeks to grant more power to those who produce most of the food consumed in the world today. It aims “to build ecologically based production models, develop postcapitalist politics of exchange, democratize decision making in the food system, and reconnect food producers with food consumers” (Trauger 2017: 2).

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), more than 500 million family farmers and peasants around the globe provide 80% of the food that is consumed worldwide. VC, its affiliated organizations, and other allies compellingly argue that food sovereignty and climate justice are strongly connected to one another. The Global Convergence of Land and Water Struggles (a network formed at the Social Forums of Dakar 2011 and Tunis 2013) put it in these terms: “Indeed, the struggle against global warming and for climate justice is deeply intertwined with the struggle for people’s rights to natural resources and for food sovereignty. Without securing people’s and communities’ control over land, rivers, oceans, forests, seeds etc. we will not be able to stop global warming.”

VC is part of the many social movements that are skeptical about addressing global warming without taking a stance on capitalism, patriarchy, and other systems of inequality, and it joins forces with those who believe that climate justice should be front and center in any serious attempt to change the current state of affairs. VC argues that “while agribusiness is destroying biodiversity, local ecosystems, the global climate, livelihoods and life itself, peasant agroecology is a vital pathway forward as it already feeds the world’s people without risking the health of the planet” (Via Campesina 2018: 27). As Peter Rosset, Miguel Altieri, and many others have argued for decades, agroecology offers a path toward sustainable food production while also nurturing social justice, and addressing the agricultural dimensions of climate change. And, as Emma Siliprandi and others show, agroecology is underpinned by feminist struggles. Along these lines, the agro-ecological vision put forward by VC is not simply a set of agricultural techniques: “For us, agroecology is a form of resistance – a tool for organizing in opposition to corporate power. Agroecology cannot be defined exclusively in terms of sustain­able and healthy food production” (Via Campesina 2018: 26). In terms of the relationship to global warming and climate justice, VC underlines that peasant agroecology requires far less fossil fuels by avoiding the use of agrochemicals while also conserving biodiversity, which in turn makes ecosystems and communities more resilient to extreme weather conditions.

In terms of social mobilization, VC and its affiliated social movements and organizations have been actively addressing these issues in a twofold manner: on one hand, organizing local and national protests and grassroots efforts; on the other, engaging global institutions and actors to push for climate justice.

In a good example of the seasoned rallying cry of “think globally, act locally,” social movements and grassroots organizations have been taking part in a myriad of protests and collective actions that deal with the on-the-ground aspects of agriculture and climate change. These efforts include struggles against diverse but interconnected issues: the effects of deforestation and the all-too-often associated violation of human rights in the context of evictions and rural violence; the health problems linked to agrochemical exposure among workers and in rural communities due to corporate agriculture’s dependence on fossil fuels; an increase in floods owing to higher rates of deforestation; the expansion of genetically modified crops, and other technological expressions of agribusiness’ control of food systems; and disputes over the use of resources and the occupation of territories involved in large-scale mining and hydroelectric dams.

Complementing these territory-based struggles, VC and its allies have been participating in global arenas, taking part in social forums, engaging international agencies, and mobilizing during transnational meetings. In 2015, for example, VC was one of the movements that converged in Paris during COP 21, the United Nations climate change conference that resulted in the Paris agreement. In 2016, VC continued this struggle during COP 22 in Marrakech, organizing a movement-led seminar and training and participating in the numerous activities pushing for climate justice. In 2018, VC was one of the social movements that took a critical stance during FAO’s Second International Symposium on Agroecology. But perhaps one of the most important achievements of VC is the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas. Passed by the UN Human Rights Council in 2018 after more than a decade of pressure from civil society groups, this Declaration created an international resolution that recognizes the discrimination and marginalization of peasants. It also provides a legal instrument for grassroots organizations to advocate for their rights and act against threats to their livelihoods and, in so doing, contributes to achieving climate justice and addressing global warming.

While calls for including a food and agriculture platform in the Green New Deal gain traction in the United States, it is key to recognize the important role of organizations like Via Campesina, which brings the views and voices of the subordinate actors of agriculture from around the world to the constellation of social movements fighting for climate justice.

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I would like to thank Renata Motta and Monica Szczupider for their comments on a previous version of this essay.

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