Today is the International Day of Peasant Struggle. We dedicate this article to the many agrarian movements we work with and are inspired by, in their fight for food sovereignty around the world.
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When we refer to “the global food system”, we tend to picture an elaborate and complex supply chain that spans across continents, transporting millions of tons of foodstuff through ships, planes, trucks and trains, to deliver each meal to our plates. But this is just one of many food systems – the dominant, industrial food chain – and contrary to the stories that are fed to us, the “food chain” doesn’t actually feed the majority of the world.
As food systems have become increasingly globalized, they’ve taken on far more than just production (growing food). Today, the industrial food chain is a long sequence of interconnected components ranging from production, processing, retailing, transportation, and distribution, underpinned by a long and violent history of colonialism, resource extraction, and exploitation. All these parts are owned and controlled by just a handful of corporations. There’s no questioning the sheer scale and size of this system – it operates on over 75 percent of the world’s agricultural land, using 90 percent of the fossil fuel energy, and 80 percent of the water – but it only feeds 30 percent of the world’s population.
In both material and ideological opposition to this singular overarching industrial system, there exist countless smaller systems – intricate webs comprising over 2.5 billion small-scale farmers, peasants, fisherfolk, pastoralists, and Indigenous peoples. Today, these communities operate on small patches of just 25 percent of the world’s agricultural land, to feed 70 percent of its population. These communities, and the food systems they collectively steward, are what many movements around the world refer to as the “peasant food web”.
The myriad food systems that make up the food web, although diverse and unique to their respective local cultures and environments, coexist with each other in an imperfect synchrony, to sustain themselves, feed the majority of us, and preserve the world’s biodiversity. However, the industrial food chain often exists in conflict with these traditional systems, as it tends to impose its monocultural and uniform value system motivated to maximize profits and efficiency, at the expense of the rich diversity of cultural practices and knowledge systems of communities in the food web.
The food web and the industrial food chain are antithetical to one another. They represent two opposing visions for the future of our food systems. Where the food web localizes and democratizes control over food systems, the industrial food chain aims to centralize and consolidate it. While the food web sustains and nourishes people and the environment, the food chain seeks to extract from them in order to amass profits. While the food web centers the sovereignty of communities, the food chain seeks their subjugation.
As things currently stand, the communities that make up the food web, along with their cultural practices, languages, knowledge systems, and the biodiversity they protect, are at risk of going extinct. Today, a handful of corporations control nearly every aspect of the industrial food chain. Four corporations control over 49 percent of the private seed market, and over 75 percent of the agrochemical market. Four corporations control over 75 percent of global grain trade. With their overwhelming control, they effectively dictate the ways in which communities access the food and resources they need to survive.
The communities hardest hit by this consolidation are the same communities that grow the majority of our food. It seems almost like a cruel joke, that over 75 percent of the world’s hungry are involved in agriculture. But this is by design. Previously, these communities grew food first and foremost for self-subsistence, then to serve their locality, and only then, if there was a surplus, to exchange in the market. Today, that dynamic has been reversed. The purpose of farming has shifted to feeding the market’s insatiable appetite for profits.
But when and how exactly did this shift take place? How did communities that were once self-sufficient suddenly become so market dependent? When did the purpose of food shift away from feeding people toward feeding the market? It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact moment, because this has been a gradual process spanning centuries of feudalism, colonization, industrialization, and most recently, neoliberalism.
One way to understand this history and its implications for our future is by unpacking the word “peasant”.
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The term “peasant” is loaded with a heavy history. When you hear the word “peasant”, what do you feel? Pride? Discomfort? Guilt? Sadness? Anger? Superiority? Inferiority? Something else?
The term still makes many of us uncomfortable because we’ve most often heard it used in a derogatory way. But what does it actually mean? Why are more and more movements struggling for food sovereignty worldwide reclaiming it and self-identifying as peasants?
According to anthropologist Marc Edelman, the word “peasant” first appeared in English during the late medieval period, used to refer to “the rural poor, rural residents, serfs, agricultural laborers, and the “common” or “simple” people. It was also used as a verb, where to “peasant” someone meant to subjugate that person. “Peasant” additionally substituted other derogatory terms like “stupid,” “ignorant,” and “crass,” and even indicated criminality. There was an explicit political purpose behind the dehumanizing use of the word.
In order to amass wealth, large land- and business-owners needed workers from rural areas to work for low wages. But most rural peoples at the time didn’t have the incentive or desire to do so, as these populations often relied on subsistence farming, pastoralism, fishing, hunting, and gathering to survive. They shared access to forests, lakes, and pastures through a “commons” model, where they collectively managed – and no one person exclusively owned – land and resources. While they might not have had particularly easy lives, they were largely self-sufficient, with free access to the land that provided their basic needs. In other words, the commons enabled rural communities to maintain a level of security and autonomy that allowed them to resist the need to work for wages.
But this self-sufficiency was a threat to the state and landowners, because it meant they couldn’t easily exert control over rural communities. To employ the labor of self-sufficient peasants, landowners had to offer wages higher than mere subsistence levels, as rural communities already enjoyed a relatively secure lifestyle with better means for living in rural areas. The rise of the word “peasant” was strategic – it was a way for wealthy nobles to unify society against subsistence-based communities. As Edelman says, peasants were othered by the noble classes, blamed for not using land “efficiently” and “standing in the way of progress”; for “having too many children”; for being “dangerous” and unsuitable for citizenship. And so, elites worked to shift the cultural consciousness regarding rural agricultural communities “in order to promote policies aimed at pushing peasants off the land and turning them into laborers”.
One such historical policy that played (and continues to play) a crucial role in “de-peasantising” rural communities and forcing them into wage labor, involved the Enclosure Acts. Enforced by the British parliament in the 1700s, these acts enabled wealthy elites to privatize or enclose common lands that had been used by peasants for centuries. The Enclosure Movement spread rapidly across Britain, and eventually the rest of Europe. In the following centuries, the doctrine of the enclosure was replicated and imposed on the colonies in the Majority World as well, in the form of private property rights and laws. Elites purchased or seized nearly all common lands, violently dispossessing millions of peasants and small-scale farmers the world over.
Enclosures facilitated the expansion of industrialization and the de-peasantisation of agriculture across the world in two major ways: First, the communities displaced from their lands were forced to migrate to the cities and work in the industry for bare minimum wages. The seemingly unlimited supply of migrant laborers ensured that the wages were constantly capped at “subsistence” levels.
Second, early industrialists took control of a significant portion of commons that were previously managed by peasant communities and started exploiting them. As Jason Hickel explains, following this process of displacement, wealthy landlords created a lease system for their now-privately-held land, called “improvement.” They offered leases to the most agriculturally productive peasants. In other words, in order to be afforded the privilege to access land they once used freely, peasants had to begin to adopt industrial farming techniques to increase their output. All that extra agricultural yield went straight to the landlords as profits.
Through enclosures, peasant communities were not only removed from their lands but also alienated from their cultures and means of self-sustenance, meaning that they were forced to rely on the market to survive.
In pre-capitalist societies, peasant communities largely functioned as interconnected webs of small-scale farmers, fisherfolk, pastoralists, craftspeople, artisans, and others that relied on communal support and exchange to subsist and thrive. However, as the forces of industrialization began to commodify and privatize land and labor, peasant communities were fragmented into distinct classes. One class included the small population of peasants who continued to subsist on what little remained of the world’s commons. Another included the sizable population of small-scale peasant farmers who were successfully integrated into the industrial system, operating on small plots of private land to cater to market demands rather than their own subsistence. The third made up the massive influx of displaced/landless peasant workers who were forced to migrate from their homes to industrial centers in search of wage labor.
Through de-peasantisation, communities were alienated from their lands, their cultures, and their communal ways of living. They were stripped of their autonomy and segregated into “farmers” (those who have legal rights to land) and “farmworkers” (those who work land). They were pitted against each other, forced to compete and rely on the market for survival. The intricate web of interconnected and pluralistic systems that sustained the peasant food web were picked apart and forcibly chained together to serve a singular system.
The dehumanization of the term “peasant” reflects the broader devaluation of subsistence living, traditional knowledge, and communal practices that accompanied the rise of industrial capitalism. But most peasant communities did not sit idly by while their cultures and practices were being erased.
Against the backdrop of this gruesome and violent history is also an alternative, lesser-known history of peasant resistance. Following uprisings like the Mexican Revolution, campesino (“peasant”, in Spanish) took on a new meaning. It became a rallying cry for rural communities who had long been oppressed and disenfranchised, providing a term to reclaim their dignity and pride. Taking back the word peasant allowed people to recognize what wealthy elites had continued to try to force them to forget: that connection to land is not shameful, but powerful. The term peasant started to become connected with land-based struggles, and struggles for self-determination, around the world.
La Vía Campesina, the largest social movement in the world, has been at the center of this reclamation. They have redefined “peasant” as “a person of the land, who has a direct and special relationship with the land”, once again unifying the fragmented food web of over 2.5 billion landless workers, Indigenous peoples, pastoralists, fisherfolk, migrant farmworkers, and farmers around the world under a common banner.
And it’s not just La Vía Campesina. Countless agrarian movements across the globe, including Asociación Nacional de Agricultores Pequeños (ANAP)or the National Association of Small Farmers, Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (MST) or the Landless Workers Movement, Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (KMP) or the Peasant Movement of the Philippines, and many others, have joined this rallying call and are fighting under the banner of peasant in their respective landscapes. But make no mistake: this is not merely a semantic battle over the reclamation of the word itself; it represents a radical, material, and ideological resistance against the industrial food chain and the very forces of global capitalism. The use of the word “peasant” symbolizes the revival of a whole way of living and knowing, of relating to land and to each other. What these movements are really calling for is re-peasantisation – reviving sacred cultures, knowledge systems, and practices. By asserting their identity as peasants and taking back their means of self-sufficiency, these groups are challenging the very foundations of the dominant industrial system.
Their struggles are ever more relevant today, given the fact that the enclosure movement is still ongoing and rapidly expanding, and corporations, foundations, and governments are grabbing land from peoples around the world at a staggering rate. It’s the resistance of peasant communities – Indigenous peoples, land defenders, seed savers, and activists – in the face of innumerable threats, that has led them to be labeled as “terrorists”, unlawfully arrested, and even in many cases killed by state-sponsored brutality. Still, they continue to struggle to break free of the chains of the industry and reclaim sovereignty.
The widespread polarization, segregation, and alienation so present in our current reality is deeply tied to our collective history and our fractured relationship with land. Our collective liberation, cultural heritage, and the survival of the environment, are dependent on mending this relationship and reclaiming and revitalizing the world’s commons. If we continue to shy away from our history by giving in to our discomfort with words like “peasant” – especially when so many movements are wearing the label with pride to assert their rights to the commons – then we’ll never be able to heal and co-create alternative systems that sustain and nourish all of us.
Today, on the International Day of Peasant Struggle, we stand with those who are proudly claiming peasanthood – those who are committing the radical act of remaining rooted as hostile forces try to pry them away from their way of life. We honor their power. Their pride. Their pain. And we stand alongside them, collectively resisting the forces that wish to uproot us all.
Photo: John Page
This post originally appeared in Offshoot, the newsletter of A Growing Culture.