Peasant Struggles: The African Reality

Leonida Odongo
Posted April 18, 2021 from Kenya

The International Day of Peasant Struggles is celebrated every year across the world. This day commemorates the day 1996 massacres of landless farmer’s members of the movement of Landless Rural Workers (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Terra-MST) at Eldorado dos Carajas in Para state located in Northern Brazil[1].

On this day, peasants and activists commemorate through a variety of activities, the struggles of peasants which have continued unabated to date. Peasant be they in Uganda, Bolivian, Kenya, South Africa, Guatemala or Palestine, the suffering is more often the same, the only difference is the geographic region.

Peasants contribute 70%[2] of global food. Despite the important role that they play,there is deliberate onslaught by governments, seed and agrochemicals producing companies to push smallholder farmers out of the way. Legislations are used across Africa for example to criminalise age old smallholder farmer’s practices of seed saving and seed exchange. Through an array of punitive clauses, farmer’s rights and freedom to produce what they want it being choked.Sometimes these clauses have penalties in  millions of shillings and prison terms or both.

At production, smallholder farmers are  often bombarded with adverts of seeds and agro-chemicals to buy and sadly no agrovet dealer ever tells a farmer that the more chemicals you put on your land, the more the soil becomes toxic and the less nutrients the soil will have. When you talk to any farmer across Africa, even the most remote part of the continent, they will tell you of an agrovet that exists  in their village where farmers buy seeds and chemicals.

In policy making processes, peasants voices are muted. Decisions are made on behalf of smallholder farmers but in the presence of a deafening silence and absence of the farmers themselves for whom the policies are being made. Ask rural farmers of  the African continent the implications of Seeds and Crop Related Act of their respective countries many will tell you they are unaware.And sadly , it is often said that ignorance of the law is no defence.Even at regional policy platforms such as Regional Economic Community (RECs) smallholder farmers’ voices continue to be muted.

Agricultural extension service ought to be a right to every farmer. This is also echoed in the United Nation’s Declaration on Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas.[3]However, agricultural extension services is clearly missing in many countries across Africa and this gap has provided agro chemical and seed companies an opportunity to market their products to unsuspecting farmers, many who may lack alternative sources of information on food production and end up relying on what agrovets tell them.

Peasants and small farmers make up half of the world population and grow at least 70% of global food that we eat. This group comprises of smallholder farmers, pastoralists, landless people, indigenous communities and fisherfolk. However, despite the importance of peasants, their contribution  to life itself and the  economies of  hundreds  of nations is far from being recognised. Rural people have very little visibility on the public scene. Peasants are often ignored and made invisible, their voices are never heard and their land is being grabbed daily especially with the discovery of new natural resources and the push to grow what we don’t consume.Farmers are also pressured into consolidating their farms and contract farming

Article 2 of UNDROP[4] obligates states to respect, protect and fulfil the rights of peasants and other people working in rural areas through legislative, administrative and other appropriate steps to enable realisation of rights. Sadly, it is governments peasants. Government representatives sign trade deals with multinational corporations leading to the loss of land of peasants .For example as reported by Africa Faith and Justice Network, a Norwegian biofuel company  claimed land and caused deforestation in land  Northern Ghana with the intention of creating ‘the largest jatropha plantation in the world.' expense of environmental implications of deforestation to this community[5] .The Norwegian company Scanfuel AS through its Ghanaian based daughter company ScanFuel Africa ltd. leased vast amounts of land (400 000 hectares), for a period of 50 years in Ghana[6].A 50 year lease? Where are the locals supposed to farm, where are their livestock supposed to graze? What happens to the communities who were living on this land  prior to the land lease?.The grabbing of peasant land has been criticised by Olivier de Shutter – former UN Special Rapporteur of the Right to Food who said that ”land grabbing” is one of new trends that grew out of the 2008 food crisis which has not been properly addressed by the international community”

Some African governments and communities have leased off land to transnational corporations with promises of job creation for the local citizenry and corporate social responsibility towards a local community. What normally happens is that when these companies come to takeover community land, there is mass forced eviction of local communities, the interest of the multinationals are given priority to the interest of local food producers. In some instances, the land grabs are done in a militarised way. For example, the case of Uganda’s 30,000 people who violently lost their land to three multinational companies Agilis Partners, Kiryandongo Sugar Limited and Great Season SMC Limited in Kiryandongo district.

When multinationals take over land, they often fence off the place, making locals walk for longer distances to either get to the main road or even access basic necessities such as water. In some cases, when local peasant’s cattle get into the plantations owned by mutilations who have taken over local land, the animals get confiscated.

When multinationals come to a community, the community is often left worse off than before the multinational company set food in a region. For example, farmers in Siaya-Kenya  tell tales of Dominion[7] farms and how negatively they have been impacted on. The exploitation is further cemented through lengthy contracts, try to imagine a company in a local community for a period of 25 years and when the lease is near expiry the multinationals renew ensuring that the land will never go back to the locals.

Peasants further suffer through corporate takeover of seeds. There is a dominant narrative that is being pushed that indigenous seeds are not good; they don’t thrive well in order to push industrial seeds into the market. Agro and seed companies are well aware that food is a multi-billion-dollar profit making venture and that the best way to tap into this huge market is through building a narrative that will make farmers abandon their indigenous varieties for seeds that must be produced by chemicals at every food production proses from the farm to the fork.

Discrimination of peasants and persons working in rural areas is outlawed by Article 4 of UNDROP, which stipulates that states shall take appropriate measures to eliminate all forms of discrimination against peasant women and other women working in rural areas, promoting their empowerment equally with men. Sadly, statistics show that rural women are poorer compared to men, they carry out the bulk of the worked but hardly control productive resources such as land. First, they have more limited access than men to land, productive and financial resources, education, health care, rural extension, markets, climate adaptation initiatives and employment opportunities. Women are also subjected to social exclusion from decision‐making and labor markets, as well as to sexual exploitation, domestic violence and reduced food intake (SOFI 2019).

Article 3 and Article 10 of UNDROP recognise the right to full enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms as contained in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, these include right to life, right to participate, freedom of expression and right to information among others, additionally, Article 10 of UNDROP recognises the right to participation. Sadly, there are incidences where peasants have been killed in the process of forceful evictions, there are incidences where peasants get murdered for fighting for their land, there are cases where pastoralist land is taken away under the guise of conservation. This in essence is endangering the very existence of a people and is tantamount to cultural genocide.

In many instances peasant voices are muted, in policy processes they are never heard and their concerns are never given a priority. Imagine if the world listened to farmers for just one day, how different will the situation be? If the world listened to farmers on the question of biodiversity and loss of species, how many seeds can be saved? If policies supported natural food production as opposed to quick fixes of industrial agriculture, how much flora and fauna can be preserved?.

New natural resources continue to be discovered in territories of indigenous people such as oil and gas. This places them at continued risk of eviction because the natural resource in the current International Political Economy (IPE) architecture, is deemed to have more value than a community that has preserved forests, mountains and rivers for centuries. Extractive industries have been responsible for eviction of millions of indigenous people from their land, many environmental human rights defenders have been killed, arrested, maimed and have had to seek asylum because of persecution.

Research, a very important element in food production is also under siege and  a component  of peasant struggle. Public research gives priority to industrial systems of food production and demonises smallholder farming practices as ‘unscientific’ and archaic, while in reality these are who were and  still continue to feed the world population.

Agriculture is the backbone of many African countries if not all. For example in Uganda in Tanzania in 2019, 65% of the population was employed in agriculture[8] ,in Zambia , 48.5% of the population was employed in agriculture in 2020[9] .In Kenya, the agricultural sector employs over 80% of Kenya’s rural work force and provides more than 18% of formal employment. The crops, livestock and fisheries sub-sectors are the main components of the Agricultural sector contributing 72%, 18% and 3% of the Agricultural GDP respectively.

On international trade arena, Africa continues to be the producer of raw materials while importing finished products.Four countries all based in sub-Saharan Africa produce 70 percent of the world’s cocoa .These countries are Ivory Coast, Ghana, Nigeria and Cameroon[10] Ivory Coast and Ghana produce 2/3 of the world’s cocoa supply.In 2017/2018 for example, Africa’s cocoa bean production amounted to 3.5 million tons[11].As reported by New York Times ,on  the main ingredient in a chocolate industry worth more than $100 billion a year in sales[12]. On Christmas Eve, nearly all the chocolate treats hidden inside stockings by the tree will almost certainly contain cocoa from one of those countries[13].The question then that begs an answer is how many peasants who  produce cocoa in Ghana and Ivory Coast can afford to buy chocolate?.The three best chocolates in Switzerland are Lindt , Toblerone, Max Chocolatier , how many cocoa bushes does Switzerland have?.

Aptly put by Yash Tandon in his book Trade is War, Africa is the source of cheap commodities and a market for manufactured products.Yash further says that Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) is the commodification of knowledge and  turning it into    the private property of  global corporations.This intellectual property is being extended to seeds  through breeders and this will in the long run inhibit farmers freedom to save their own indigenous seeds.Additionally, there is the push for Genetically Modified  organisms trials in some African countries  with trials being done on cassava , Bt Cotton and Bt Maize.The justification for GM trial is often given as  food security.

Trade liberalisation is another factor used in oppressing peasants.With trade liberalisation , countries are expected to open their borders.Opening of borders brings about an influx of cheap goods  , whose producers  are heavily subsidised.In Africa , farmers spend their own money producing food , they are not subsidised because the  casualties of Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) were key sectors such as agriculture and healthcare.As such even if a farmer suffers from production related losses they bear the loss on their own.Dumping of cheap manufactured goods and products has the impacts of flooding local markets and can result into the death of infant industries.

Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) are the vehicles being used to continue to dump cheap products in Africa.This has led to many countries lowering their trade barriers ,leaving their industries non protected and incapable of competing with farmers and other producers from Europe in terms of prices.Dumping of cheap products have detrimental effects on African people .For example floods of imports resulted into closure of 70% of broiler operations in Senegal , loss of jobs for 120,000 people in Cameroon and in Ghana according FAO, poultry processing plants were reduced to operating at 25% capacity and feed mills were reduced to 42% operational capacity[14]. Dumping chicken parts  in Africa for example means that  people’s taste for entire chicken is altered and buyers can decide to eat drumstick , or gizzards or wings and not the entire chicken.What does this do to the smallholder farmer rearing chicken? They have to stop operations because this  smallholder farmer cannot   sell the drumsticks of the chicken and leave the wings nor can he sell the gizzards without the chicken legs , he or she has to sell the whole chicken.

Fisherfolk as a peasant community are not safe from the tentacles of multinationals and the inherent  oppression.Illegal trawling takes away more fish from the  water bodies , leaving fisherfolk who fish using boats and canoes  with no catch .Fishefolk are also affected by climate change which drives the fish deeper into the lakes making the fisherfolk spend more time in search of fish.RIsing temperatures on water bodies such as lakes and  oceans is responsible for the death of fish.Furthermore , sometimes chemicals are redirected into water bodies by hotels and in other instances fish choke because of this pollution leading to death in the long run.Fisherfolk sometimes get  arrested and have to pay hefty fines .

Micro-credit is another  strategy used to lure farmers .In rural parts of Western Kenya , farmers  are given loans  and supplied with solar lamps , seeds and chemicals .These loans are supposed to be paid back by the farmers .The unfortunate thing is that smallholder farmers depend on rain-fed agriculture .What happens to the farmer's loan when  there is prolonged drought and the seeds have wilted on the farm ?.Many farmers default on loan repayment.What farmers who get seeds and chemicals on credit need to know is that fellow farmers in committed suicide over the same loans given  to them  during the 1st Green Revolution in the state of Punjab in India.

Peasant continue to lead a bleak life full of oppression and invisibility.Without peasants there  is no food, without food there is no life .It is very important to accord the relevant respect to peasants, they are the  very reason why the world exists.

Cover photo Credit @https://www.123rf.com/photo_30070619_hand-injecting-chemical-into-gmo-co...

[1] https://www.zinnedproject.org/news/tdih/landless-workers-movement-protes...

[2] https://afsafrica.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/annual-report-2016-ampl...

[3] https://www.geneva-academy.ch/joomlatools-files/docman-files/UN%20Declar...

[4] United Nations Declaration on Rights of Peasants

[5] https://intercontinentalcry.org/lessons-learned-from-a-land-grab-in-ghana/

[6] https://www.spireorg.no/uploads/1/2/7/6/127694377/land_grabbing_-_the_ca...

[7] https://www.business-humanrights.org/en/latest-news/leader-says-dominion...

[8] https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SL.AGR.EMPL.ZS?locations=TZ

[9] https://tradingeconomics.com/zambia/employment-in-agriculture-percent-of...

[10] https://www.statista.com/statistics/263855/cocoa-bean-production-worldwi...

[11] ibid

[12] https://www.latimes.com/business/story/2019-12-17/africa-big-chocolate

[13] ibid

[14] https://mg.co.za/article/2017-11-10-00-eu-chicken-dumping-starves-africa/

This story was submitted in response to Human Rights for All.

Comments 7

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Olutosin
Apr 18
Apr 18

Stupid government. God will punish all of them, from India to Brazil to Kenya. Many times these farmers would commit suicide because of these baits and failure to meet up with their Shylocks.

May the earth yield to them.....

The best support that these peasant farmers can rely on are good NGOs. Government and big corporations are same same. They are out to destroy poop people. All o er the world.

I don't trust any government. I trust God Almighty and I trust good people.

Thank you very much for this write up. It wakes us up.

Praying for peasant farmers all over the world.

Leonida Odongo
Apr 18
Apr 18

Dear Olotusin,

I agree with you African governments learn from each other , they keep repeating the same mistakes.But we have to fight back.

Best

Leonida

Beth Lacey
Apr 20
Apr 20

This is terrible. These people do need our prayers and hopes for a better life for them

Leonida Odongo
Apr 21
Apr 21

Dear Beth,

It is a very sad reality .

Best

Leonida

Nini Mappo
Apr 21
Apr 21

You create such a clear understanding of the farm life I had, the gradual switch to 'packaged' seeds, and the unseen motives for gain behind these. It is a grim picture, and so sad that it persists under the watch of manipulative governments in bed with big corporations to deprive their own people.

Leonida Odongo
Apr 21
Apr 21

Dear Nini,

It is sad and that is why we share these stories and empower farmers to appreciate their own seeds.It is part of reclaiming their power.

Best

Leonida

Stacie Dickson
Apr 24
Apr 24

Thank you for providing awareness for this heartbreaking issue. Hoping that justice will come soon