What have been the most important campesino struggles in Latin America, given the shift in political climate to the right, the global crisis of capitalism and its impact on agriculture?
Capitalism is in crisis all over the world, and that directly affects agriculture and campesinos, because every time that capitalism enters in crisis in the central countries, they go to the peripheral countries, that are agrarian countries, and try to own and privatize the natural resources. Resources like water, land, minerals, oil, that have a distinct characteristic since they are from nature and they don’t have a value. They’re not made out of the work of humans. The value they acquire is the cost of packaging and transportation to the market, where they become commodities. And that stretch is an extraordinary gain for the capitalist.
So, during the crisis, all the capitalists that have financial capital come to the periphery to seize natural resources, and that is what directly affects the campesinos, Indigenous people, Afro-descendants, who are the ones living in the territory, and that let’s say, have control of the water, minerals, wood and the land. So, there is around the world a direct struggle between transnational companies and banks that arrive at the periphery, and the campesino communities and the native people that live there.
In Brazil, there is the added problem of a government installed by a parliamentary coup and state repression against movements such as yours. What is MST doing about this situation in the lead up to the next elections?
What happens during a general capitalist crisis in the world? That crisis also reached our countries, independent from which government, as part of the logic of the accumulation of capital. And when it reached our countries, what the native bourgeoisie tries to do is to accommodate to that subordinate new project of the general bourgeoisie. And then comes the political crisis. Why? Because the native bourgeoisie needs to have control of all the government. It needs to have control of the national states to be able to impose those programs, which are to subordinate the national economies to the interests of the international capitalists.
And that’s what's happening in most of our countries in Latin America. So, in some countries, they manage to overthrow through elections, like they did in Argentina like they tried to do now in Ecuador, and in other places, they try by judicial coups, like they did in Brazil, Paraguay, Honduras. And other countries where workers are very well organized and the government has a better political structure, there’s a conflict, of permanent tension, which is what is happening for example in Venezuela and is also happening in El Salvador. It is happening in other countries where the class struggle is stronger because the bourgeoisie doesn't recognize the consequences of taking power by force.
In many countries, the left has focused on problems faced by people in increasingly urbanized cities. Do you believe leftist movements need to put agrarian reform and food sovereignty on the agenda?
We live in the context of the crisis of capitalism. In the countryside, there is a permanent dispute between two projects: the project where capital dominates over nature which is that of agribusiness, transnationals; and the project of the campesinos which is to produce healthy food for the internal market. Of course, we keep defending our land, water, seeds but this rivalry can only be resolved politically. For us, the solution lies in a new popular political project which is elected to government. And that’s why we, like all other social movements in Brazil, are fighting to get rid of this government and bring about as soon as possible general elections for congress and the presidency.
In terms of general elections, here in Brazil, our principal popular leader is (Luiz Inacio da Silva ) Lula and he is already a candidate for the elections in 2018. But hopefully, with mass protests, we can bring the elections forward to this year. In complement to this political action, what we social movements are discussing is the need for a new political project of national development. It is not enough to simply elect Lula and believe he will apply the same model from eight years ago. What we need is a new project that is debated by social organizations, that reorganizes the national economy in order to resolve the problems of the working class and people generally. That’s why in Brazil we are putting a lot of effort into bringing together ideas, options, proposals in order to synthesize a new proposal for a political project of the people.
Today there is distrust of free trade, which comes from the extreme right (in Europe and North America at least). Do you believe this creates a space for campesino movements?
Firstly, given the crisis of capitalism and the anti-popular government which is working against the people, the problems of the people have multiplied — in housing, unemployment, the rising cost of food and public transport. This has generated lots of conflict and tension but the people have not yet risen up. What we are trying to do is encourage the people to organize and fight.
Of course, looking at the long-term dispute between the two projects over agriculture — the project of capital which is agribusiness, monoculture, the production of toxic commodities for exploitation — we are putting forward another project, one based on the needs of a food sovereign society where every region is able to produce their own food, which comes from the idea that it is necessary to produce healthy produce without toxins and this is only possibly by adapting the technology of agriculture. Campesino movements need to prepare themselves to master agriculture techniques in order to produce healthy produce.
In this new project, if you adopt agricultural technologies, if you reorientate agriculture so that it produces healthy food, this is going to generate an enormous need for manual labor. Agriculture can be a great space for employment, a great space to utilize manual labor, even a great space to work with the agri-industry.
This project is also based on utilizing the agri-industry to build value and create jobs for young people. They don’t want to live in the countryside but they will stay if there are better jobs and this the agri-industry can provide. In the agri-business model, you have for instance in the milk business, two, three big transnational companies, Nestle, Parmalat, Danone. Instead of that, in each community, in each municipality, you can have one milk cooperative that can produce a healthier milk product for that very community and then for the big cities. This way you create a lot of jobs in the industry but at a local level.
The concept of a free market is a lie. No country develops with commerce, countries develop utilizing manual labor which is what generates value in the industry and in agriculture. But what the capitalists try to do is dominate all the global markets at a national level. To control these national markets, they need freedom to sell their goods. We are fighting for the opposite. Each country needs to protect themselves and above all produce what the people need in their own country and only export excess that for whatever local reason you can generate a much larger surplus. But the development plan must first produce on a national level for the national market. This historically is the formula for how a society can progress economically and resolve its problems. In a free market, everything is managed by 50 transnational companies that control the world’s commerce.
After the election results in Ecuador, many spoke of an end of the progressive era in Latin America. Do you believe this is the case?
That is foolish. The class struggle comes in waves. There are moments when the people rise up, there are moments of conflict, moments of decline — you can’t talk about the end of an era, or of certain projects. Struggles continue across Latin America. The thing is we have not yet arrived at a process of popular uprising because it is true that the masses have settled themselves with the nature of the progressive governments. In some countries, like Argentina, these governments were thrown out. This is going to provoke a reaction from the masses which is what we hope.
Rather than what most defines this or that era, what we need to debate is what development project will resolve the problems of the people. In the end, what I am interested in are projects that are post-capitalist because capitalism is in crisis and we see that it no longer represents anything progressive for humanity or our people. We have to think of new projects that go beyond capitalism.
In the same way, in political regimes, we see that the bourgeois democracy created by the French Revolution doesn’t work anymore because business, the media, financial powers manipulate the will of the people. We have to think about and debate new forms of popular participation, new forms of voting so that the will of the people can be expressed in the control of the state and public institutions. Because what happens in many countries like Ecuador or Venezuela, is that you elect a progressive government but the machinery of the state continues to be conservative, bourgeois.
There are institutions that don’t want to change, institutions that are only for addressing the needs of the bourgeoisie. Even though the people elect a progressive government, these governments have difficulty with making sure the machinery of the state works for the people.
I think there is a big challenge ahead of us, even for governments which are democratically re-elected, like Lula in Brazil, or Lenin in Ecuador. It is the challenge of not just thinking of a new project of economic development, we also have to think of new ways of practicing popular participatory democracy. But this is a challenge the whole world is facing. Pope Francis recently met with social movements and everyone who was there, even (jose) Mujica and Pope Francis, agreed that the great challenge of our times is to develop a new political regime that is no longer taken hostage by capital as it is now.