`To propose alternatives'

Published : Feb 13, 2004 00:00 IST

Interview with Jose Bove, French farm union leader.

In 1999, French farm union leader Jose Bove drove his tractor into a newly built McDonalds outlet in Millau in southern France and became an icon of the anti-globalisation movement. During his trial for this vandalism, supporters from all parts of the world descended on the small town of Millau. They turned the protest into a carnival, even organising an anti-globalisation music concert. The French Transport Ministry had to run additional trains to accommodate the visitors. Such is the magnetism of Jose Bove.

McDonalds is not his only target. His farm union, Confederation Paysanne has been destroying genetically modified (GM) crops relentlessly. He even led a demonstration that ransacked a GM seed plant run by the multinational company (MNC), Novartis. For 20 years, he has been fighting against the ruination of small farmers by multinationals that promote industrial agriculture.

Besides his agitational activities, Bove has also been trying to unite farmers organisations around the world. His union played a key role in building Via Campesina, a global federation of farmers organisations from 70 countries. As part of his efforts to bring together this global movement, Bove was at the World Social Forum in Mumbai. Excerpts from an interview he gave Dionne Bunsha:

What do you think will be achieved at the WSF?

It is important in this kind of forum to show the world that this movement is gathering more people not only in the European Union (E.U.) and the United States (U.S.), but in Asia and particularly in India. It is not a surprise for me to find so many people here. Indian people are also struggling against globalisation.

You don't change the world with the WSF. But the fact [is] that people gather and see that other people are fighting too. They can discuss common problems. That is important.

How can you use this mobilisation?

First, through meetings. By proposing concrete action - local and international. It's important that it's not a movement to say no, but to propose alternatives.

It's also important to tell governments: look at what is happening, it's impossible for you to go ahead with globalisation that is against your own people.

There are four representatives of the French government here. Politicians are coming here to see what is happening. They have come to listen. They are at school here. The French President has sent his staff to the WSF for the third time.

I am not sure whether there is any direct impact on their policies, but it has affected what they say. At the World Summit in Johannesburg last year, the French President said that the planet is burning. They have to understand that people don't accept the way they are running the world.

What are the common problems of farmers worldwide?

In 1986, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) was formed. It was crazy to put trade rules on all kinds of agriculture when trade relates to only 10 per cent of agricultural production. More than 90 per cent of agricultural production is consumed within 50 km of where it is produced. Yet, global trade corporations dominate not only trade but even the domestic markets. They are the only ones benefiting.

Open markets and world price make no sense. World prices don't have any connection with the cost of production. Farmers' cost of production is much higher. Less than 10 transnational corporations control agricultural trade and prices in any product.

It's also ridiculous to impose the rule that every country has to import 5 per cent of each product it consumes. Even if you produce enough to feed your population, you still have to import. But you import at a lower price, which pushes down domestic prices and destroys agriculture. Thailand was an exporter of rice. Then, they had to import. Now they don't export anymore but are importing 20 per cent.

Third, WTO wants to stop subsidies. This is dismantling agriculture all over the world. Small farmers in the West can't survive even with subsidies. Every three minutes, a farm is disappearing in France. In Europe, 200,000 farms are lost. Bigger farms buy the land. Industrial production is taking over. In China, already 100 million farmers have been displaced after it signed the WTO. It is estimated that 250-350 million farmers will disappear by 2005. The same is happening in India.

Where are all these people going to go? Around 15 years back, there were big industries. Now there are no jobs in the cities either. If we displace so many people from the countryside, it will lead to civil wars.

Your organisation Via Campesina was formed to unite farmers around the world. But isn't there a conflict of interest between Northern and Southern farmers over subsidies?

Our union very clearly says Europe has to stop the export of milk, wheat and cereals. We don't have to export. By exporting we kill farmers in other countries, which don't really need these products. We need to reduce our production by less than 10 per cent to stop the exploitation. We can easily do that. Then you can have subsidies that will not harm other farmers. Subsidies are not a problem for other countries as long as we don't export.

We have to break the link between world price and domestic price. The only people benefiting from low price are MNCs which export and sell food.

There are hundred of farmers committing suicide in India every year. Are there similar suicides of farmers in other countries?

This is something crazy happening all over the world. In France, farmers are only 4 per cent of the population, but most suicides are by farmers. They don't have money. There is too much work. They have to keep buying inputs and land. It's impossible to make ends meet. When prices go down, they sink.

I know that in India too indebted farmers are committing suicide and selling their kidneys.

How did you get involved in the farmers' movement?

Thirty years ago, when I was 21 years old, I began in a struggle of farmers against the military who wanted to capture our land for a military camp in my hometown Larzac in south France. I began as a squatter in a farm which was occupied. In 1981, we won and the Army had to get out. It was a good start. After that, we hate losing.

Then, we started having meetings with other farmers in France against industrialisation in agriculture. In 1981, we started a Farm Union against the European model of agriculture. Now we represent 30 per cent of farmers. Last year, 30 years after our first fight, our town hosted the biggest demonstration in France against the World Trade Organisation with 300,000 people.

Can you tell us about your fight against Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs)?

We began the fight against GMOs in 1997 when Europe said they would allow GMOs. We started a movement destroying GM seeds. In 1999, the E.U. decided to impose a moratorium on GMOs. After that we went on with demonstrations against GMO tests in fields all over France. We destroyed 20-30 crops each year. In June 1999, we destroyed GM rice with farmers from Karnataka.

The multinational corporations are under pressure, but they are still trying to push their technology. The fight is still going on.

In August 2004, we will start a new movement, a Gandhian movement. We will open an office where people can sign up to destroy GM crops. Now, we have thousands of people willing to go out and protest. A man who was a personal friend of Mahatma Gandhi has founded the secretariat.

Are you inspired by Gandhi?

Yes. I totally agree with Gandhi's thoughts on village republics.

We have always believed in non-violent action. We say what we are going to do and we do what we say. If you want to put us in jail, you can. We do it because we have no other solution. When we destroy the fields, we even write our names on chits of paper and give the paper to the police. If the police want to arrest us, they can.

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