The World Social Forum in Tunisia was a gathering of around 30-50,000 activists from across the globe getting together to share their movements for social, environmental and political change. La Via Campesina international was strongly represented with at least 50 farmers from Latin America, Africa, Asia, the Arab world and Europe marching together and running workshops on land grabbing, seeds, the New Alliance and planning joint actions against the WTO.
The Social Forum was held in Tunisia to celebrate the recent revolution that took place in their country to overthrow the dictatorship. This revolution sparked off the Arab Spring- a chain of uprisings demanding dignity across North Africa. The country seemed fresh and almost innocently proud of their hard won revolution of freedom.
Thousands of students, housewives, agricultural workers, workers, like mechanics and vendors joined enthusiastically into marches and the Forum where a whole section of the campus was dedicated to workshops sharing information among Arab activists. I was touched by the number of Tunisians who welcomed the Forum so enthusiastically saying that their country needed international support to maintain their democracy. They fought so hard together and held a sense of togetherness and pride. On one public bus a woman started singing a song from the revolution and the whole bus joined in until the end of the line. Afterwards all the people got off, hugging each other and exchanged numbers.
The revolution was based on modern networking, facebook and mobiles, but mostly on a strong sense of solidarity. About three years ago a street vendor set himself on fire to protest against the dictatorship which then set off a chain of riots and demonstrations in the capitol. People were determined to have their freedom and wouldn’t stop demonstrating until the dictator ran away. At the march hundreds of women held photos of their sons who “disappeared” during the revolution and are still demanding to know where they are. There were farmers from Morrocco and Egypt, food growers from refugee camps on the Algerian border and Tunisia growers fighting against the pollution from phosphorus mining. They spoke about the farmers movements that are beginning to take hold now that the Arab world is developing social movements.
Of course it is difficult to be a small farmer in many countries, but was particularly struck by the difficulties of farming in countries like Syria in the midst of a war zone. One farmer told us what it was like to be planting in a field and then hear the airplane ahead, ready to bomb the field, and then describing how they would run to a cave with their animals and family for shelter, never knowing if the crops would survive. Often if the crops didn’t make it, they would be entirely dependent on their animals. Stories like this made me realize the importance of the Forum in getting the word out about what is happening face to face. There are things we can do if we find out what is going on. I met some very brave people from Europe who go to Syria into the fields with the farmers and let their embassies know they are there so that the foreign embassies will “protect” them and by default the farmers. Beyond that we need to find out how to stop the bombs, because the bombs don’t just destroy lives they destroy agricultural diversity (recently an important ancient seed bank was destroyed) and the basis of their food security for the future. I am going to try to see if there is any way we as an organisation can help.
There were thousands and thousands of issues at the Forum, but as one person you can never get to them all or do anything about them all. As a farmer, I naturally spent most of my time with the Via Campesina delegation. The LVC delegates were easy to recognize with little green scarves. I instantly spotted Nandini from the KRRS in Karnataka delegates from Moviemento Sem Terra in Brazil and Confederation Paysanne. The hottest issue was landgrabbing with testimony from farmers in Africa about land that they are being pushed off of. It literally sounded like just that. They are on their land and then on day a company turns up and tells them they need to go.
Different workshops set strategies for fighting landgrabs and African free trade agreements. There was also a massive strategy session planning out a global action against the WTO at their meeting in Jakarta this October.
It was obvious at the Forum how popular Via Campesina as a social movement is. I spent about an hour at the info table where a constant stream of people wanted the Via Campesina green scarves- which were tightly held onto by the members “for farmers only”. As a representative movement of the farmers themselves, the organisation to be careful about not letting the image of LVC be co-opted. I felt pretty proud when they finally presented me with my very own green scarf for the march. Later in town a lady offered me £50 for my scarf- NO WAY- I spent the last 16 years of my life earning my right on my land to wear this scarf in solidarity with my new family of peasant farmers! Yeah, I am pretty proud that we have started our Landworkers Alliance and are joining up with this vast international movement, boasting a membership of 200 million farmers- well now 200 million plus 12… Viva la revolucion!