INVISIBLE to the frenzied world of urban dwellers, and anchored in the rural hinterlands of Africa, Asia, the Americas and Europe, live communities of peasants — small farmers, tenants, sharecroppers — joined together in their tumultuous fight against forces bent upon usurping their rights to land, to produce and to continue their way of life. La Via Campesina (literally ‘the peasant way’) is a unique international labour movement representing 200 million rural workers in 73 countries.
Today, April 17, is the International Day of Peasants Struggles celebrated by La Via Campesina the world over to honour the 19 members of Brazil’s Landless Workers Movement who were shot dead by the military police on this day in 1996 in the village of Eldorado Los Carajás during a demonstration against federal appropriation of land cultivated by 3,000 rural families.
The peasants’ story also reverberates with the 17-year struggle of the Okara Military Farms’ workers represented by Anjuman-i-Mazareen Punjab (AMP), who lost several of their members to state brutality in the initial years of the movement that began in 2000. During the military regime of Pervez Musharraf, the peasant movement went through a cycle of state violence, tenants’ resistance and perseverance, followed by dialogue and promises by the state that ownership rights would soon be conferred upon the tenants. The same tactics — state abuse and false promises — were adopted by the democratic governments. Both Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif had assured the tenants that they would be granted land ownership rights.
The AMP has celebrated this day off and on. Last year, the authorities in Punjab denied it permission to hold the convention, imposed Section 144, registered cases against 4,000 tenants and arrested the AMP’s general secretary, Mehr Abdul Sattar on April 16. One year on, Sattar is still in jail, with about 42 cases registered against him, many under anti-terrorism laws.
This day honours landless workers’ struggles.
Human rights organisations have warned the government not to use anti-terrorism laws against workers’ groups. The Human Rights Watch international delegation that visited Okara in April last year advised the authorities to “…drop all charges brought against those exercising their rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly….” The National Commission of Human Rights observed in its fact-finding mission report that the “restrictions imposed on the peaceful gatherings of the AMP by the local authorities in Okara since mid-April 2016 appear to be arbitrary and not constitutional.”
The Anjuman represents 100,000 registered tenants of the farms administered by the military and the government institutions (Military Farms, Army Welfare Trust and Punjab Seed Corporation) spread over 70,000 acres (28,328 hectares) in Okara, Khanewal, Faisalabad, Sargodha, Rahim Yar Khan, Multan, Pakpattan, Vehari, Shorkot, Renala, Sahiwal and Lahore.
The tenants have resisted the cash-rent and yearly lease system the authorities tried to introduce in July 2000. Their fierce resistance, led by their resolve for ‘maliki ya maut’ (ownership or death), spread to other districts. Earlier, the tenants paid half the share of the produce under the batai system.
Since the movement started, the tenants have refused to pay any share to the military authorities. They keep the full crop for household expenditure, and have reported an improvement in their living conditions: better food intake and improved access to basic facilities. Enrolment rate in schools has increased and dwellings are properly constructed. Several of the tenants now own one or two assets — tractors, trolleys or motorbikes. By exercising their right to self-determination, their trust in their own capacity has grown.
Capitalist accumulation by dispossessing the marginalised, particularly the peasantry, has been on the rise since the 1980s. But so has resistance by more than 50 per cent of the world’s population — the rural workers who produce 70pc of the food that we all eat.
La Via Campesina, founded in 1993 by a group of farmers’ representatives from the four continents, has forged collective identities and unity among the world’s largest yet most marginalised group of workers, and brought the issues of rural workers to international institutions and national agendas.
A significant achievement of the movement, soon to be realised, is a UN Declaration on the Rights of Peasants. Initiated in 2000, the process is nearing its conclusion, with the UN Working Group meeting for the fourth time in May this year to finalise the declaration. When approved, the declaration will serve as an international legal instrument to protect the rights of peasants and other people working in rural areas.
It is time Pakistan’s government revisited its strategy of dispossessing peasants of the land they have tilled for four generations and who hold occupancy rights under the Punjab Tenancy Act, 1887.
The writer is a researcher in the development sector.
Published in Dawn, April 17th, 2017