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Sydney the stage for human rights activists' defence of small farmers

By Alana Mann - posted Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Appeals for solidarity in struggles against climate chaos, bio-piracy and political oppression rang out this week when Sydney welcomed Dr Vandana Shiva, recipient of the 2010 City of Sydney Peace Prize, and Parmenio Poveda Salazar, representative of FENSUAGRO, the National Unitarian Federation of Agrarian Unions of Columbia.

Eco-feminist Shiva and trade unionist Salazar share a common goal - the recognition of the rights of smallholder farmers and rural communities in the context of unjust government policies and international trade regimes that privilege the economic success of the few over social values, nature and even human life.

They are united in this struggle as members of La Via Campesina ("the peasant way"), the world's largest social movement - a network of 148 farmers' organisations in 69 countries.


Shiva, a lifelong environmentalist who campaigns to protect biodiversity through saving seed varieties, was recognised by the Peace Prize jury for her "courageous leadership of movements for social justice - the empowerment of women in developing countries, advocacy of the human rights of small farming communities and for her scientific analysis of environmental sustainability".

With a CV including training as a nuclear physicist, directorship of her own research foundation and a PhD in quantum physics, Shiva brings empirical evidence to warm and fuzzy concepts such as "ecological citizenship". Her lecture at the Sydney Opera House on Wednesday night last week ranged from a quantitative assessment of the impacts of bauxite mining to the human cost of corporate seed monopolies, which have contributed to the suicides of 200,000 Indian farmers in the last decade.

Salazar is visiting Australia with much less fanfare to raise awareness of the violence committed against Columbian farmers, including murders, disappearances and false imprisonment. In 2009 over 80% of unionists killed worldwide were Columbian. More than 1,500 members of FENSURAGRO have been assassinated since it began in 1976.

The crisis of Columbia's "banana republic" continues with economic trade policies that favour export crops such as palm oil, sugar and fresh flowers to the disadvantage of local farmers. The uncompromising security measures of Presidents Alvaro Uribe and current leader Juan Manuel Santos have brought an uneasy peace that masks a dark underside of oppression.

Land is concentrating into fewer hands daily, the homes of union members are raided by the military and miscarriages of justice, such as the 2-year imprisonment of Liliany Obando without a fair trial, continue.

Shiva and Salazar share a struggle for democratic land reform and an end to the persecution of civil society organisations that mobilise against unjust economic policies that continue to oppress the displaced, the landless and the marginalised.


Many affected are small to medium scale food producers. Their struggle is replicated, on a different but no less significant scale, in Australia. Land grabbing by foreign investors and the destruction of farmer livelihoods through short-sighted water policies are the latest challenges that face our rural communities. Yet protecting farmer livelihoods is labelled "protectionism" while transnational interests that seek to control the global food system are encouraged.

The Sydney Peace Prize provides an excellent platform for Shiva's call to "make peace with the earth". More that just a hippie sentiment, this is a message she backs with scientific and economic arguments in defence of viable alternatives to the current food system. Salazar's appeal for solidarity is no less important. It reflects a reality we readily choose to ignore - people are still dying for the right to produce their own food and make a living doing it.

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About the Author

Alana Mann is a lecturer in the Department of Media and Communications at the University of Sydney. Her research currently focuses on the politics surrounding global food production and consumption, and the communication campaigns waged by farmers' movements. She worked for Fairfax Media from 1999-2006. Her most recent publication is Communicating the right to food sovereignty: The voice of the Campesino in the Global Campaign for Agrarian Reform.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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