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'Food Should Be Left Off the Free Trade Table' - José Bové

French activist explains why his organization opposes WTO and genetically modified food

At the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization, Bové attended a workshop with prominent Yale scholars and others in the university community to discuss the status of the global peasant movement and the core issues in his work. A full transcript follows. -

YaleGlobal, 6 April 2005

Jonathan Schell:

José Bové is an internationally renowned leader of the movement - and here I'm not sure what phrase to use - the global movement against, I don't think globalization is the right term, but against neo-liberal globalization, perhaps. In fact, that's one of the questions I want to ask you is what name you prefer for this global movement. We'll get to that.

He is the leader, and founder, really, of the Peasants Confederation in France (La Confederation Paysanne), which then enlarged itself to become the peasants' coordinated confederation for all of Europe. Now it's gone global as the Via Campesina. I understand that your role is mainly as an activist and leader of that group, but you are here in the United States, so we might ask you about that.

He's known around the world, above all, for his activism, which has included the very notable event - the dismantling of the McDonald's in Millau - for destroying genetically modified food in a field in the village of Solomiac. Most recently, he joined with Greenpeace to intercept the cargo vessel of the Golden Lion, which was carrying 32 thousand tons of transgenic soya to the French port of Lorient. He has been jailed for these contributions to society four times so far, he says. He is also the author of a recent book which has just come out in France, and I hope it'll come out here soon. It's called or Pour La Désobéissance Civique, (In Defense of Civil Disobedience). So we are very thrilled and honored to have him here at the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization to tell us about what he's been up to.

José Bové:

First thing I want to say is that I'm very happy to be here. For more than one year, I knew I would come here to Yale. I'll try to talk in English, but I have quite poor English - so if I make too many mistakes, I'll ask for translation. The first thing I can say is that I'm a farmer in southern France in a special area which is called Larzac, which has an altitude of 800 meters. And I work with sheep; I milk sheep. I've milked sheep for 30 years. This is a special place because this was my first struggle. One of my first struggles against the government and the French army wanted to take our land to make a military base. We had been struggling for ten years, ending in 1981; we won, and the French army gave us our land. Since then, we've done a lot of things. It became a laboratory on how we can share our land and how young farmers can come and begin farming there. So this is a quite interesting laboratory.

And so, if we want young farmers to go on with farming, it's not the economic problem that is primary for us. The main issue is with the social movement here. People begin farming because they want to live in that area. It's the social issue which is the most important to them, instead of knowing if they have enough income to live. It is interesting to see the dynamics in the rural area.

Now I'm working with Via Campesina, which is our international movement of farmers all over the world. This movement began in 1993 during the Uruguay Round of GATT negotiations. Of course, we began fighting in 1986 when the GATT negotiation began and they decided to include agriculture. This was really, for us, something completely new. This is not just for us farmers in Europe or the United States, but for all the farmers of the world - something was really changing in 1986.

This was the beginning of the worldwide coalition, and we decided in 1992 to make an international coalition. It is quite young - only 10 years old - but now, about 190 organizations from all over the world are inside Via Campesina. We represent 200 million farmers all over the world: in Asia, South America, North America, Europe, Africa. And we are gathering more and more.

Of course, the first time people heard about us was in Seattle in 1999 for the big demonstration. Since then, Via Campesina has been quite well-known, especially in Rome, where the United Nations FAO [Food and Agricultural Organization] is based. So we are working a lot with them.

Via Campesina's main issue is about globalization - about the fact that we don't believe that free trade is good for agriculture and food all over the world. And that's why we decided to invent a new concept, which is "food sovereignty." It means that each population should be able to eat from its own agriculture. The main issue for the farmers is to feed the population where they live: first of all, their own families, also the local market, and then the national market.

Of course, that doesn't mean that we are against trade; trade is only a small part of agriculture - not the main part. We think that all the negotiations about the WTO since 1995 have lessened the possibility for the farmers to feed their own population. We are fighting very strongly. Since Seattle in 1999, we have said that we must take WTO out of agriculture and food. It makes no sense that agriculture and food are inside these negotiations. That doesn't mean that we are against the fact that we should organize the prices of the world, that we have to see how these markets are going. We believe that the most important thing is to protect local agriculture from dumping imports. So this is really the main issue for us.

In the past 15 years of the movement on globalization and agriculture with the WTO, only 10 percent of world agricultural production is in the open market. We understand that all the big transnational corporations want it now to be 20 or 30 percent, but of course, farmers all over the world are resisting this because it makes no sense for their own population. Over 90 percent of food is produced where people live. So we don't understand - and nobody can explain to us - why we need to have free trade for food; that is going exactly in the wrong direction. So this is roughly our principal fight.

After that, we talk within Via Campesina about agrarian reform, landless people, about what we call peasant agriculture.

We also talk about the problems of seeds - the possibility for farmers to use their own seeds - and also the WTO rules on patents. We are fighting also to have seeds free of patents; that's why we are fighting specially against GMOs. Even if GMO had no ecological problems or health problems, we would also be against GMOs on this specific issue: the fact that farmers can't use their own seeds. So these are some of the examples of the troubles of Via Campesina. This is getting bigger and bigger.

Last week with Jean Marc, we were in Sumatra, Indonesia. We had a meeting with all the farmers and fisher unions of all the countries that had been destroyed by the tsunami. The victims, many of them farmers and fishers, decided what they wanted to do and how they wanted to rebuild their houses, where they live and farm. This is very important because for the first time, Via Campesina showed that people are able to define their own issues in this type of situation. And the first thing they said, very clearly: "We don't don't want food importation; we have enough in our countries to feed our population. We don't want fishermen to come in from other countries to fish; we have to fish our own fish in our small boats. We don't need tourism." The Thai people were saying this very clearly: "Tourism is killing us."

We have very clear examples of fisherman whose houses had been destroyed by the tsunami. Their houses were destroyed and they were not allowed to come back, but new hotels were built in place of their village. So they were very angry about this. It was very interesting to see that when people get together they were able to find new solutions regarding their livelihood.

Jonathan Schell:

Perfect summary of what you're up to. Let me begin. Using agriculture as an example. You know, if you're opposed to the neo-liberal system, how big a bite do you think you have to take out of it to make it right? How large of a reform? Does it have to be a whole new system? Does it have to be a fundamental reform, a superficial reform? What do you think?

José Bové:

Well, you asked me before about the term "globalization." The problem is that in French and in English, we don't have the same words. I remember in Seattle, we were talking about corporate globalization. That's very clear to everyone. Who wants that? In France it is more complicated, because we're not just talking about corporate globalization, we're talking about "mondialisation." And this is a positive word. Because we don't know about what kind of globalization we're talking about. Mondialisation could be anything: It could be culture; it could be all kinds of things - positive and negative.

In France, we had to find a new word, and it should be a positive word. And the first time in the newspaper they called it "anti- mondialisation," against mondialisation. So we found a new word, and the Belgian people who came up the word "alter-mondialisation," which means another type of globalization. And when we talk about globalization now in France, it's very clear that it's corporate globalization. But when we talk about alter-mondialisation, it refers to different kind of issues. That's why the symbol of this is what we said at Porto Alegre at the World Social Forum: "Another world is possible."

I don't say another world is possible. I'm like Marcos, the Mexican writer, who says, "Other worlds are possible." I think it is very important not to say that only one other kind of globalization is possible, but that for a lot different reasons, we have to make a world with more than one solution. For different populations we have different ways of life, and it's very dangerous to consider everybody in the same way - either good or bad. So I think it is important, first, that there is not only one good way and one bad way. We need to find different kinds of solutions for different kinds of problems.

Second, it is dangerous for us to say that globalization is only economic globalization. And that all the international rules now are made only about this issue. It makes no sense that the international economic institutions - the Bretton Woods institutions - are more important now than the United Nations. This is getting to be a very big problem. The only international institution that can enforce justice is the WTO. Of course, it is not really democracy when you have an institution like the WTO, which is the executive, the legislative, and the judicial. We've learned a lot from Montesquieu in France about the separation of the powers in democracy. The WTO is the exact opposite of that.

We have to have a lot of reflection about this. What are the good institutions? How do they work? How is it possible that only the economic institutions have their own justice and bring sentences against countries, but at the same time, the United Nations is unable to enforce sanctions when there are problems with human rights, environmental problems, labor problems, and so on. This means that now, we must reflect about how these institutions work, which are the most important, how to make new regulations among the international laws, human rights, trade, environment, work, and so on. We have to say very clearly that trade has to be under the human rights, environmental, and so on. It's impossible to simply make rules to open the market and then see what happens after - and say, "We don't care about it. What is most important for us is to open the market. This is going to be the best way for people to live." At this moment this is not true - and mostly for the farmers.

We have more and more problems. The UN FAO reported the number of people dying from hunger as 852 million - it's still a very big problem. More than 60 percent of these people are farmers. This means that the more you open the doors of the countries, the more problems come in. So it's the wrong answer to the problem of hunger. When we talk about the problem of hunger, we have to change the rules and protect the people and the countries - especially the poor countries. I want to emphasize that at this moment, I think that Europe is worse than the United States with globalization. People, in general, think that Europe is not moving in the same direction as the United States; this is not true. During the last negotiation in Cancun, the European Trade Commissioner, Pascal Lemy, was, I think, worse than [US Trade Representative Robert B.] Zoellick regarding opening the markets. This is because in Europe, they want very strongly to open the markets for services. And they want to win this fight for services. And for this, they are willing to do very bad things. The European Union at this moment is very dangerous on these issues.

Gustav Ranis:

You say you're not against trade. I'm trying to understand how far you would take your argument. Historically, since the second World War, I think you're right in that poor people in poor countries haven't had much choice about who gets hurt. From my point of view, there's a gradual evolution towards greater voice in the WTO by countries like India and Brazil, who are being hurt in the negotiations - previously called G7 negotiations. What are the decisions that are being made? It's true that none of the early UN negotiations have been in keep, the only one is the WTO - they're in keep because they have money. But the UN doesn't have money. So everything goes to the WTO because they have money and are powerful - you say they have all powers, judicial powers as well as legislative powers and so on.

I'm trying to understand where you would start. We talked about food and fisheries, but what about textiles? Where do you draw the line between trade you find acceptable and trade that you find unacceptable? I don't want to put you in the same box as Mao. Mao also wanted self-sufficiency in China, including meat and rice and steel, he wanted to have steel in the backyard. Most people agree this was a mistake, a very expensive mistake. China now as a communist country is trying to take advantage of some parts but not all - it's being very selective - of global trade. I can understand that agriculture is especially sensitive because of the security issue - we want to make sure we have enough to eat. But when you say that we should all be self-sufficient, that could be another way of saying that no matter what the efficiency level is, we should be self-sufficient. Most economists would say that's a high price to pay for self-sufficiency.

I can see why you are worried about security: In case of war or crisis of some sort, you can't depend on imports, and you want to have some nest-egg to ensure that people can feed themselves. You went beyond that and said everybody should be self-sufficient with food, which means that if you take it to the extreme - You don't think Saudi Arabia should be self-sufficient with food, I'm sure? Or countries which have no capability of producing food. It's a gradation from Saudi Arabia to Nigeria, which used to be a very good food producer and now has spoiled it all and importing food - terrible catastrophe. I'm just trying to get a sense of where you would draw the line. I'm sure you don't want everybody to be self-sufficient at the expense of efficiency completely. And what about other things in agriculture?

José Bové:

So maybe first thing, which I think is important to know - generally people don't know this - is the fact that 55 percent of the people working now on the earth are farmers. That means that the main issue in the world is agriculture - more than 55 percent. Most of these people are working only with their hands. You can see that at this moment there are 1.6 billion farmers in the world. And with all these, there are only 28 million tractors in the whole world. And of course this means that we have different kinds of issues with different kinds of agriculture.

Very special countries can destroy all this. This is dangerous because it's not only political problems between the countries; it's also a very big social problem inside the countries. For example, this is the main problem with China - we know very clearly, and Chinese economists say this - between 300 and 400 million farmers are going to be put out of their farms in China. The second problem is we don't know what they are going to do. There is not going to be enough work in the factories because the factories are not as they were 50 years ago, so there is going to be a lot of unemployment. What are these people going to do and where are they going to go? And so on. This is really a very important problem.

When we say that we need food sovereignty, it of course does not mean that all the countries have to be able to grow all they need for their own people. But we are talking about groups of countries; for example, in Europe we are not going to talk about France, Italy, and Spain; rather we are going to talk about food sovereignty in Europe. United States is a country, of course. Very small countries may sometimes be difficult, so several countries can work together. The problem is to be able to feed their population or to decide at what level they want to protect their own agriculture. Maybe it could be 100 percent; it could also be 70 percent. Some countries have to import because it's impossible for them to grow their agriculture. So the countries should be able to decide themselves at what level they want to protect their agriculture.

And right now, it's not possible. We saw it in Asia and Africa, with the WTO rules, which impose importing at least 4 percent of their production. Even if they have enough, they have to open their doors to productions from outside - and we know that caused a lot of problems in a lot of countries, in Asia, for rice, for example. And this is still going on there. That's why they are having big fights in South Korea right now. That's why Indonesia is fighting after the Tsunami, saying, "We don't want to open our doors to food coming from outside. We because we have enough rice, and if we open our doors, all the prices will go down." So it's very important that countries or groups of countries be able to protect themselves from dumping.

Often when we talk about trade, it looks like trade is very good and rules are good. But we know clearly that, for example, for food and for agriculture, the world price makes no sense. It's only, in general, the surplus of the production of the big countries - Europe and US for example. So it's impossible for farmers from a country to live if they sell these products at a world price. This price makes no sense. So we need to have clear rules to make trade. If we had clear rules and a way to define the price of this production, it could be fair. But we have to do this before we open the doors of the countries. And afterward, the countries could decide what the level of importation would be - this is not a problem for me.

Gustav Ranis:

The second part of my question is where you draw the line? Do you want the same thing for textiles, for example, or for steel - where do you draw the line?

José Bové:

When I say agriculture, the main issue is that most of the people on earth are working with agriculture. The second problem about textile or other industries: Something quite new is happening - competition. A lot of factories in Europe and United States delocalize their production in southern countries only to have lower costs of production for labor. This doesn't change a lot about what comes back to the southern countries, because most of this money goes back to the big transnational corporations.

If we look at all the money which is going all over the earth with globalization, we see that more than two-thirds of this money goes only to the transnational corporations - or it's money from one transnational to another one. Only one-third is really going to the people or to the countries. This is a really big problem.

For the first time, we see this also with agriculture: delocalization, for example, of chicken production from France to Brazil - with the same company. It's a better situation for them because soya is cheaper; the workers are cheaper. And when they send the chicken back to Europe, Brazil doesn't have the same WTO conditions as France. So it's better for them. With this kind of delocalization, the company is growing more and more.

I don't think that we have to fight against delocalization. But what kind of rules should we have to give the profit to the people? For the moment, there is no benefit for the workers.

Law Student:

I have a slightly esoteric question. When I was younger, I read a book written back in the 40s or 50s by two American sociologists. It described the transformation of village life in the interwar years - between the first and second world wars. It was a study of the economic and social changes that were occurring in the mostly agricultural community.

One of the most important lessons from the book for me was that when you look at the impact of the social and economic forces on a community that was going through a lot of change, on the one hand, there was the imposition of external forces, which caused change that was not necessarily beneficial or desired at all. On the other hand, there was a real willingness - especially from young people in the village - to take advantage of these changes.

One of the ways they took advantage of these changes was by moving to cities - and away from the village. That's a process that seems against this process of delocalization that you describe. I'm curious: If we're so focused on preserving a certain way of life, a traditional agricultural way of life - particularly in developed countries - aren't we in some ways just helping a minority of these people living in these communities? A good number of people actually accept these economic changes and many of them take advantage of these economic forces by getting better educations or getting higher-paying jobs - taking advantage of opportunities in the cities which don't exist in rural communities.

José Bové:

Well, I think the situation that you are describing in France - that moment in at the beginning of the 50s after the second world war - was a special moment because we had a lot of people in very small farms. At the same time was the beginning of a new kind of industry for building cars and so on. The French industry needed a lot of arms to work. And there was very clearly a plan to move the people out of the farms to go to the cities. So of course, it was quite rare.

And at the same time, industry needed a lot of arms, so people went out, and people thought it would be better for them, and of course, it was a new kind of life. The social oppression of the villages was not so strong in the cities, so for a lot of people going to the city was a kind of liberation from the social oppression, oppression of the church, and so on.

In the little villages, it was not possible to live...everybody looks at you, of course.

So if you want to know to do. Of course, people are seeing TV and cinema, and they wanted to live differently. So this explains everything.

But in the same moment, now it's 20 or 30 years after. A lot of people want to come back. In a lot of villages, people want to build their houses and want to come back to live there.

It's very difficult to live in the cities; there's not a lot of employment in the cities, so people want to come back to the villages. People think it's better, if they don't have any income, to live in the villages rather than in the city. This is quite a new thing that is happening.

We have a new kind of farmers coming in, young farmers who never went to agricultural schools. Now, some French departments believe that.

At the same time, we have more and more problem with the villages; the trains don't stop anymore, the post offices are closing, the schools are also. The situation is getting worse and worse. The problem is that with all these people coming back when services are closed, it is very difficult to organize life in the villages. That's why in this moment, we have a lot of fights against the closing of public services: schools, post offices, and small hospitals. There is a movement saying to the people saying that these hospitals make no sense, they are too small, there's not enough people coming in every day, so we have to build bigger hospitals - maybe about 40 or 50 kilometers away. This is crazy, because when you close a hospital, when you close a maternity ward, we know that people leave. We have a lot of fights about this now because the people understand that if things keep thinning out it may become impossible to stay in the villages.

James Scott:

I guess I wanted to - and this will end in a question - support your line of argument in two ways. One, it seems to me that, with respect to efficiency, for any economic activity, one can also ask what kind of people is this economic activity producing? If you think of the product as people, then it seems to me that - and we link this to democracy. Then, the fact that a person or a household manages their own enterprise - whether they're an artisan or a small farmer or a small fisherman - who in a sense are independent operators who use their own skills, who have small property, who manage that property, who make these decisions. These are people who live relatively autonomous and independent lives. This is the Jeffersonian citizen who is capable of being a successful citizen in a democracy because they have to manage their farm, their property. They're independent, they're able to stand up against officials because they have the self-confidence that comes from managing their small property.

If we contrast that with the fact that most people spend their working lives, most of their waking day, in hierarchical institutions in which they take orders, in which they have relatively little say, and we ask what kinds of people those institutions are producing, then it seems to me we would want to maximize the number of people who are working in independent, small property ways - as long as they are reasonably efficient - because we would be encouraging the production of democratic citizens. And, that's another important reason to try to make more efficient and try to save the peasantry that exists in the third world.

We also know that if we think about the environment and the land, the fact is, we simply know as a matter of statistical fact, that farmers who can expect to pass their land on to their descendants take better care of that land than large corporations who are speculating in land and who have a bottom line to worry about. So if we're interested in environmental values over the long run, then we would also want to encourage small household farms - or maybe large-household farms - that we're at least passing on this land often within the family, not speculating on land.

On the other hand, I'm sympathetic to Gus's point about different kinds of commodities and trade. So it seems to me that because there was cheap land, all of the (what we call) "white settler colonies" - America, Argentina, to some extent Brazil, Australia, and so on - because they had land that they could throw the native peoples off and take over at no cost really, they specialized historically in the major grains: maize, wheat, and so on. They now control world trade in soybeans, maize, grain. I think it's possible to restore this world; one has to live with this fact.

However, for things that need to be produced closer to the point where they're consumed - lettuce, raspberries, all kinds of perishable goods that are a large part of people's diet - those are the best subjects, those are the best commodities in which local food sovereignty seem to me to make the most sense.

José Bové:

Maybe I doubt that you say the specialization of some countries on some kind of condition. I'm not sure if this can be changed. For example, what we see in Argentina with the soya bean. This is killing all agriculture in Argentina. And at the same time, in Europe, they are saying, "Why do we need to import all of these soybeans? This is a crazy thing." At this time in Europe, we import more than 80 percent of our vegetable proteins to feed the animals. This makes no sense. Why did this happen?

Because when Europe decided to make the CAP [Common Agricultural Policy] policy in 1958, the United States said ok, we'll let you do this, but all the soybeans have to come to Europe with zero percent tax. Soy is always going to be tax-free so we can sell our soya. This is still going on. That's a crazy thing. That's why we've made such industrial production of pigs and chicken all around the ports.

We can change this in Europe. We can make more vegetable proteins because we make too much corn, too much wheat. We have 5 million hectares of excess with cereals. With these 5 million hectares, we could make vegetable proteins. This could be a political decision in Europe.

Same thing in Brazil: Instead of making so much soya, we could use agriculture to feed the population. More than 60 million people now don't eat correctly in Brazil. So this is a change of the policy. Of course, with Australia or New Zealand, the population is so little, so they export most of their agriculture. Each time I come here, what is incredible in the United States is to see that there are more people in prison than in the farms. What kind of society is this? Maybe in one century, people say "Look at this. What was that moment? It was incredible!"

Laura Wexler:

You spoke about sufficiency in terms of the farmer, I'm interested in what your organization thinks about the migrant laborer, the workers - who are not farmers - who work on the farms. What do you think about their situation as you go forth in this campaign?

José Bové:

Of course, our organization works also with the workers that work on the big enterprises, especially for sugar and fruit. They work with us; we have the same problem also in Europe, because we see that most times in this kind of enterprise there are more and more migrants involved - and illegal migrants. And of course, their situation is getting worse and worse. And they have a lot of problems in the south of Europe, in Spain, for example, which is one the main places for production of vegetables in greenhouses (which are not green houses, they are plastic houses). Thousands and thousands of hectares of them.

This is really one of the biggest problems now. We have this, of course, in South America, Asia - so it's a difficult situation for them. That's why we are trying to work with the United Nations human rights commission to write the rights of the farmers and workers. And we want to impose the rights at the international level to be able to say "These rights exist, so now you have to go along with this." It's very long work. The people in Indonesia were the first to begin to do this.

The second step is agrarian reform: giving land to landless people. Because very often people who are in these work conditions are former farmers or small farmers who have put out of their land by big enterprise.

In Indonesia last week, we saw a very old occupation which was begun in the 60s, and during the military dictatorship. Now this place for 30 years has been liberated. There were 500 families on 500 hectares, and most of the production is organic production and rice production. It was very interesting to see how they put out the industrial way of agriculture because most of the place was for rubber production. We saw thousands and thousands of hectares of this kind of industrial production. But when enterprises are finished taking the oil palm, they don't plant new trees. In these kind of countries, hundreds of thousands of hectares can't be used anymore for people.

Jonathan Schell:

I want to thank you for a wonderful discussion. I know I learned 100 percent more than I knew before about this subject. It's been a great pleasure to have you.

© 2005 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization