A Fight for their Lives

Food and land struggles have brought together peasant movements from Latin America to Asia and dogged the WTO across the globe.

By Megyung Chung Jun 21, 2006

When Lee Kyung-Hae, a 56-year-old Korean farmer and former president of the Korean Advanced Farmers Federation, fatally stabbed himself at the WTO meeting in Cancun in 2003, "WTO Kills Farmers!" became not simply a rhetorical rallying cry but a wakeup call to the world about the reality of "free trade."

In just the last few decades, the number of Korean farmers–75 percent of whom derived their income from rice production–has dwindled from 10 million to 3.5 million. Since Lee Kyung-Hae, two more Korean farmers have committed suicide due to South Korean President Noh Moo-Hyun’s neoliberal reforms, opening up the rice market in November 2005 for the first time. Rice is not only a staple food but the life-blood of Korean culture and ancestry. South Korea is now the fourth largest importer of U.S. agricultural products. Its food self-sufficiency, at 80.5 percent in 1970, has now dropped to 25.3 percent. With 98 percent of farmers in heavy debt (65 percent do not own their land), growing poverty and lack of education access and healthcare, it is no surprise that these farmers believe their lives and the future of their children are at stake.

During the 1980s, at a time when most young South Korean women left the rural areas in search of better city jobs and more eligible husbands, Lee Yun-Oh stayed in the largest organized farming county of Naju and married a farmer. Now a farmer herself in her mid-30s and very much part of an international peasants’ movement, Lee raises her three young children with her love of farming–teaching them that "growing life on the land is something beautiful, lucky and worthy."

For Lee Yun-Oh and the 2.5 billion people around the world currently engaged in agricultural production in rural areas, this is not easy. What these farmers and peasants painstakingly grow is what they eat, their main source of income and community existence. With the rapacious development of transnational capital well oiled by institutions such as the WTO, the World Bank, the International Monetary Funds and the proliferation of multilateral and bilateral trade agreements world-wide, the global fight over food has resulted in dumping practices that leave small-scale subsistence farmers unable to compete with well-subsidized U.S. agribusiness. Furthermore, the militarization of the land, massive displacement, environmental destruction and the spread of genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) has led to loss of culture and even to death for thousands.

After more than 50 years, the Korean peninsula remains divided, and over 100 U.S. military bases dot the South Korean landscape. U.S. military expansion continues to creep further into rural farm lands, reducing one rural area of Pyeongtaek into rubble and injuring hundreds of local farmers and protesters who have staged a year-long blockade to stop the bulldozing and seizure of the land.

Today, 95 percent of U.S. agribusiness customers are outside of the U.S., making it the largest exporter of agricultural products ($50-60 billion annually) and meaning that 48 states are dedicated in whole or in part to agricultural use. According to the U.S.-based Center of Concern, a faith-based research group working to change domestic agricultural policy and international trade, nearly three-quarters of all human food is grain-based. Only four firms controlled approximately 73 percent of the global grain trade in 2003, and they are all U.S.-based: Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland, Louis Dreyfus and Bunge.

Still, the resistance movement against targets like the WTO has been so successful that countries like the U.S. that pushed for failed regional agreements like Latin America’s FTAA (a.ka. "NAFTA on steroids") have been forced to change foreign trade policies to divide-and-conquer tactics, pushing for bilateral agreements that attempt to pit Global South nations against each other.

Lee Young-Soc, a 36-year-old Naju farmer and lead policy analyst, attributes this momentum to the "people’s spirit." Global actions against the WTO provide an important forum for various movements and organizations to share each other’s tactics and strategies by working on developing direct actions and political education exchange sessions.

In December 2005, over 1,000 people, mostly from the Korean Peasants League (KPL), along with Thai peasants, workers and activists, were arrested and jailed during the last day of direct actions against the WTO 6th Ministerial Conference talks in Hong Kong–more than had been at WTO Cancun 2003 or Seattle in 1999. In Hong Kong, thousands from South Korea and Southeast Asia and Latin America engaged in more than a week of direct action–swimming, marching, singing, dancing and bowing their way towards the Hong Kong Convention Center, surrounded by Victoria Harbour water.

Currently, anxiety continues among the states represented in the WTO who have missed a number of negotiation deadlines, including failure to achieve an agreement on agriculture in WTO Hong Kong and the more recent failure of the April/May 2006 negotiations in Geneva. State representatives must broker a deal on agriculture and industrial tariffs, or, as many–including Pascal Lamy, the director-general of the WTO–fear, the four-year-old negotiations called the "Doha Rounds" may collapse.

Sang Wook Yu, a 45-year-old Naju farmer, was part of the five-person delegation of Korean farmers and workers to the 1999 WTO meeting in Seattle. At the time, the Korean Peasants League was unsure how to challenge WTO, which seemed then to be a behemoth.

Yu says that Seattle helped him understand the deep importance of international solidarity. Soon, the various farmers’ associations that made up the Korean Peasants League pushed for building solidarity with other Asian peasants and farmers, which naturally led to connecting with land and food struggles in Latin America. Because of Seattle, the Korean social justice movements were prepared for Cancun 2003 with a delegation of 300, and a nearly 3,000 delegation in Hong Kong.

In addition to struggling against U.S. agribusiness, the WTO and powerful tech industries represented by family-owned business conglomerates (known as chaebols) like Samsung, Korean peasants believe their struggle is equally about national liberation and sovereignty. Korean peasants are not alone. Hugo Chavez’s rise to power in Venezuela and the social revolution that brought him to the presidency were in large part due to the people’s resistance movements against the failure of neoliberal reforms. The election of Bolivia’s first indigenous leader, Evo Morales, a former coca grower who led the peasants’ struggle against U.S.-sponsored forced eradication of coca, typifies this development.

International organizations like Via Campesina (International Peasants’ Movements), formed in 1992 and initially representing peasant leaders from Central America, North America and Europe, now have grown to include Asia, Latin America and Africa. They merge multiple issues of land sovereignty, foreign occupation, environmental destruction and protection of local agriculture under the banner of "food sovereignty."

Sang Wook Yu, who began farming in the late ’80s, says, "This is my life’s work. Farming has taught me how precious life is and how sacred this land is, that it was given to everyone. I am in awe and amazement every day about the possibilities of our humanity by having to work with each other face-to-face."

Megyung Chung is a writer and activist in Los Angeles.