Collective adrenaline ran high as the World Social Forum opened on March 24 in Tunis. It had not yet been five years since a peaceful revolution brought a dictatorship long backed by Western political superpowers to its knees and ignited the fire of the Arab Spring that burns to this day. And it had not yet been a week since shooters stormed the Bardo Museum, killing 22, and retesting the resolve of a delicately budding democracy.
Tens of thousands of delegates from across the globe converged in Tunis not only to show support for Tunisian sovereignty, but also to share their own local struggles and solutions while advocating change in the face of interlinked systemic injustices. The opening march easily demonstrated the diversity of the constituency—bands of Tunisian students in perfect stride with Latin American labor organizers and Sub-Saharan African small-scale food producers, knit together by the unraveling food, climate, energy, and financial crises.
Amidst this vibrant mix of social actors, it was no coincidence that Via Campesina, the world’s largest—and arguably best organized—movement showed up in full force with a delegation from five continents. “It is on us to do something,” said Elizabeth Mpofu, the Zimbabwean farmer and organizational powerhouse who leads Via Campesina’s 250+ million peasant, pastoralist, fisher and indigenous members. “We know we are poor, but we are also very intelligent, and we know what we want,” she added.
Via Campesina has shown repeated political sophistication in articulating exactly what it wants as a movement, especially in direct confrontation to the present tetrad crisis. In 1996, the movement spotlighted the term “food sovereignty”, challenging corporate control of agriculture and putting access to food precisely where it belongs—in the hands of rural peasant producers. Although it remained in relative obscurity in its nascent days, the concept of food sovereignty has now entered a wide variety of transnational, as well as national and local, policy spaces.
Representatives from and allies of Via Campesina have always been careful to connect hunger and power in the global food system to governance of natural resources, principally land and water. A variety of mainstream development trends threaten smallholder land tenure, from special economic zones to extractive industries to monocrop agricultural production for export. Critics point to these large-scale resource transactions as land grabs contributing to a global land rush that dispossesses marginalized people from their territories en masse.
“In Mali, we have seen a frontal attack on our land,” said Massa Kone, a leader from the Malian Convergence Against Land Grabbing (CMAT), a growing alliance that includes prominent Via Campesina member organizations. Kone explained that in his native West African agro-pastoralist country par excellence, 87 percent of the population is engaged in food production. Land grabs for big agriculture routinely menace that livelihood, where the insolvent Malian government offers land leases of up to 99 years and other alluring incentives to multinational corporations.
But CMAT is fighting back. “We have forced the government to listen to us, and we are now regarded as a key actor on all land issues in Mali,” said Kone. “Our convergence is leading toward a new land law with peasants leading that process,” he elaborated excitedly.
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In fact, CMAT is part of a broader alliance of African social movements that penned the Dakar Declaration Against Land and Water Grabbing at the October 2014 African Social Forum in Senegal. That statement, firmly denouncing corporate and state takeovers of land and water, opened the way for an urgently needed global convergence of struggles—one that would subsequently be debated at the World Social Forum.
Delivering on that promise, Via Campesina and a cluster of its strategic allies organized a three-day global convergence of land and water struggles in Tunis—providing firsthand accounts of resource rights violations across multiple geographical spaces, and introducing tools ranging from grassroots organizing practices to international governance and human rights mechanisms to address those interrelated land and water grievances. It also offered a vital space from where to strategize on how to build unity and coordinated action in the face of adversity.
This participatory and organic process culminated in a new declaration that underscores the urgency of land and water grabs as well as community pledges for action and specific policy asks. Perhaps even more importantly, in the early stages of broadening the convergence, authors of the Dakar declaration brought the initiative to Tunis as an invitation to global allies to debate and add to the ideas and claims outlined in the original document—and in so doing, build the power needed to stop land and water grabs.
Adding to the energy in Tunis, strong political connections were also forged between varied convergences—including, but not limited to, the land and water process. Seasoned activists organized a climate convergence to accentuate the disproportionate approaches to the climate crisis that sideline marginalized communities in the Global South while wealthy governments and corporations accelerate their pollution. Additionally, delegations to Tunis coordinated a global convergence of resistances to corporate power that featured a series of campaign strategy workshops to build alternatives to free trade, squarely placing people and the planet before profits. Via Campesina co-convened each of these processes.
A new resolve emanated across these spaces with a final convergence of convergences, where activist organizers from the land and water, climate, and resistance to corporate power meetings were able to identify systemic faults underpinning the food, climate, energy, and financial crises. It also opened windows for concerted action in relevant global political gatherings such as the upcoming COP 21 in Paris. “In order to maintain order in this world, we need these conversations,” reflected Carlos Marentes, a Via Campesina leader and farmworkers’ organizer from the U.S.-Mexico border.
As the World Social Forum closed on March 28 with yet another march through downtown Tunis, many voiced one of its founding slogans: another world is possible. And echoing the spirit of the revolution that rocked the small North African nation not so long ago, frontline activists showed determination in building their own future—however trying that process might be.