Via Campesina

Food sovereignty and climate change

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Industrial agriculture is grounded in the use of fossil fuel and high energy consumption. Campesino agriculture with an agro-ecological basis is the only force capable of achieving food sovereignty and responding to climate change.

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Industrial agriculture is grounded in the use of fossil fuel and high energy consumption. Campesino agriculture with an agro-ecological basis is the only force capable of achieving food sovereignty and responding to climate change.

This article was published in the April issue of América Latina en Movimiento, and translated by Jordan Bishop. The authors are members of the Latin American Coordination of Rural Organizations (CLOC) and La Via Campesina

Food Sovereignty banner

by Valter Israel da Silva and Facundo Martín

Climate change has become, in a short time, one of the “global affairs” of critical importance in our times. It has now penetrated every sphere of our social and political life to the point of acquiring a centrality that dangerously makes it seem natural.

In 1958, Charles David Keeling began to measure the concentration of Carbon Dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere of the Earth in the Mauna Loa Observatory (Hawaii). His project gave rise to half a century of investigation that expanded our knowledge of climate change. Nevertheless, with over fifty years of study, global society has not encountered real solutions to the problem of global warming. Why is that?

The politics of climate change, both at the national and international levels, are characterized by a high degree of de-politicization of the crisis through a non-political interpretation of the causes and effects. Instead of political debate, what has gained importance is expert knowledge, the mediation of interests and the management of change. While in the official policies of adaptation, technological strategies predominate alongside measures to improve the databases on future environmental transformations, the real political content of the vulnerability of the processes of adaptation disappears. But the processes of adaptation are inherently conflictual processes, in which there are disputes over who has access to water, to land, to forests, and who regulates it, etc., and who determine the forms and practices of the use of these resources.

Contrary to the group of those who are “skeptical” [1], we believe that this is not a question of mere speculation or of an eventual future threat. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) establishes that global warming is “unequivocal” [2]. Nor is there any doubt that its patent effects — progressive increases in temperature and sea-level, accentuated climate phenomena that batter communities and ecosystems, accelerated environmental degradation that threatens water and food supplies, among others — represents a global threat not only for the economy but for human subsistence itself on the planet. Hence climate change implies a clear threat for the food sovereignty of peoples.

Meanwhile, the green economy is presented as the grand solution while in reality, with its different mechanisms, it represents a de-politicization of the debate on the causes and consequences of global warming and hence becomes pure propaganda on the “opportunities” for change while big business thrives on climate deals.

But the problem of hunger is as old as humanity. Over the centuries, food shortage, malnutrition and famine have ravaged and exhausted numerous peoples across the whole world, triggering diverse conflicts, wars and forced migrations. In some cases, the causes were due to climate factors, in others they are the product of political or economic decisions [3]. Among these, the famine in Ireland in 1846 stands out, which was due to the monoculture of one variety of potato that was susceptible to a plague called “late blight”. Potatoes were the basis of subsistence of the whole population, and the plague affected practically all of the potato crops in the country, provoking deaths and massive migration of survivors, particularly to America.

At the present time industrial agriculture is the principal cause of the emission of greenhouse gases. The growing use of synthetic fertilizers and agro-toxins, the heavy machinery required to plough great expanses of monocultures, together with deforestation and the high energy consumption of the system of distribution and trade in food products on a large-scale (refrigeration, residuals and transport), mean that these corporations are responsible for the greater part of emissions. Industrial agriculture is grounded in the use of fossil fuel and high energy consumption. In this way it is clearly positioned, alongside the interests of the biotechnology and energy industries, against farmers and citizens in general.

Campesino agriculture: a response to climate change

The notion of Food Sovereignty, as is well-known, was launched by Via Campesina in 1996 in Rome, during a World Forum for Food Security that was organized parallel to the World Food Summit organized by FAO. At the time of its launching, Food Sovereignty was defined by Via Campesina as “the right of each nation to maintain and develop their own capacity to produce foods that are crucial for national and community food security, respecting cultural diversity and the diversity of means of production”. There they declared: “We, the Via Campesina, a growing movement of agricultural workers, farmer organizations, small and medium producers, and indigenous people from all regions of the world, know that food security cannot be achieved without taking fully into account those who produce food. Any discussion that ignores our contribution will fail in the eradication of poverty and hunger. Food is a basic human right. This right can only be assured in a system where Food Sovereignty is guaranteed” (Via Campesina, 1996).

In the document “Food Sovereignty: a future without hunger” (Via Campesina, 1996), this international peasant organization highlighted the seven principles needed to achieve Food Sovereignty:

  1. Food, as a Basic Human Right
  2. Land Reform
  3. Protection of Natural Resources
  4. Reorganization of Trade in Foods
  5. Eliminate the Globalization of Hunger
  6. Social Peace
  7. Democratic Control

Since its official presentation, the concept of Food Sovereignty has been enriched with reference to the recognition of an agriculture based on campesinos, indigenous peoples and fishing communities, linked to territory: primarily directed to the satisfaction of the needs of local and national markets; an agriculture that takes the human being as its central preoccupation; that preserves, values and stimulates the multifunctionality of campesino and indigenous means of production and management of rural territory. This implies, in addition, the recognition of the local/autonomous control of territories, natural assets, systems of production and management of rural space, seeds, knowledge and organizational forms.

There are innumerable situations that demand change: in mining, major infrastructure works, in agriculture among others. Beginning with agriculture, a possible route to confront and reverse climate change is campesino agro-ecological farming that preserves biodiversity, produces foods, preserves and generates water, produces culture, inhabits and defends territories and generates many jobs.

Campesino agriculture is a way of being, of living and producing in the countryside. It is based on family work, on the basis of resources under farmer control (land, water, energy and biodiversity), and is carried out in close relationship with nature (co-production), searches incessantly for relative autonomy in the production process and focuses on the needs of the campesino family (improvement of living conditions and alleviation of heavy work).

According to a study made by GRAIN, 92.3% of the total agricultural units in the world are campesino or indigenous and occupy only 24.7% of the total land. Probably 90% of campesino and indigenous families survive with less than 2 hectares and at least half of them with less than one hectare per family! In Latin America, 80.1% of agricultural units are campesino or indigenous and occupy only 19.3 % of the land. In addition, the study by GRAIN indicates that almost half of the world population, some three billion people, are campesinos or indigenous and produce nearly 70% of our food; so this is not a marginal sector.

Campesino agriculture, with an agro-ecological basis, that is biodiverse, with little dependency, adapted to the local conditions of soil and climate, producer of food, water and culture, protector of biodiversity and of territories, is the only force capable of achieving food sovereignty and responding to climate change.


[1] The “skeptics” are a group of scientists who believe that the recent growing trajectory of the carbon curve is not due to human action but that it rather obeys much longer natural cycles, that far exceed any possibility of recent human incidence.

[2] The IPPC, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was established in 1988 by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), to provide impartial information on climate change (it does not undertake any investigation or monitor the climate). Taking into account the quantity of scientists and experts involved and the number of countries that intervene, their documents mark a tendency in the world discussion on climate change. And although it is true that these are not accepted unanimously, the reports express the principal currents of thought and the concrete approach to the issue of climate change. The way that the IPCC functions has relevance beyond formal aspects, since it synthesizes a good deal of the world governance of climate change, and constitutes the arena in which different areas of knowledge are awarded distinct valuations, the preeminence of some disciplines over others and the international and sectoral power games in the building of hegemonies over a disputed theme.

[3] An eloquent expression of this aspect is the great work of Mike Davis: Late Victorian Holocausts. El Niño famines and the making of the third world (London, Verso, 2002).