April 2006
Resisting Extinction: Small Farmers and Globalization
The Satya Interview with William Kramer


William Kramer is co-founder of the Agribusiness Research and Popular Education Project, which does research and popular education to help small farmers protect their way of life. He teaches a graduate class on agriculture and the campesino farmers movement at Rutgers University. Before working with farmers, Kramer worked extensively with unions on advocacy campaigns against various multinational companies.

William Kramer took some time to talk with Catherine Clyne, explaining some of the challenges facing small farmers in the growth of globalized agriculture and free trade, and how thousands are resisting the destruction of their way of life.

Can you tell us about the Agribusiness Research and Popular Education Project? What is its purpose and what’s your involvement with it?
The major change going on in Latin America right now—and around the world—is that the promotion of free trade is hurting farmers. Basically, large agribusinesses are benefiting and globally, small farmers are hurting. What’s less well-known are the big agribusinesses behind this free trade agenda.

Our goal is to research this in different regions and countries in a participatory way, with involvement from grassroots farmer and campesino peasant organizations. Then provide popular education so the message gets out, not only to political leaders, but to communities that are affected by agribusiness and free trade.

For those of us not in the know, can you describe the campesino farmer movement? How did it start and roughly how many farmers, in which countries, are involved?
Peasant farmers have been organizing for hundreds of years. But in recent years, there’s been a real boom in industrial agriculture, and in the market power of agribusinesses and the promotion of free trade agendas with the onset of neoliberal politics. As a result, farmers’ groups have gotten more organized to fight those kinds of policies and politics and promote alternatives. One of the most prominent and active militant farmers organizations, La Via Campesina, was formed in the early 1980s. It was formed when peasant farmer groups from Latin America, Asia, the United States and all around the world came together and tried to create international networks. Right now La Via Campesina has affiliate farmer organizations representing over 200 million peasant farmers around the world.

About half the world’s population is considered rural peasant farmers, whether they’re farmers themselves or their families. Farmer organizations not only represent a huge base of people, but have been the most vocal and active critics/opponents of free trade agenda. It was really the farmers that stopped the WTO deal from happening in Cancun in 2003, when roughly 5,000–10,000 farmers all protested, and when a Korean farmer committed political suicide in protest of the WTO. Similarly, in the recent WTO meetings in Hong Kong, farmers were the largest block—primarily Korean, Philippino, Thai and Indonesian farmers. Unfortunately an agreement on agriculture was signed, despite militant protests by farm organizations, although the final details need to be worked out in Geneva—hopefully there will be continued efforts to block that.

Can you describe some of the most pressing issues facing small farmers with these international trade agreements? In other words, what would drive someone like that Korean farmer to commit suicide?
Basically, peasant farming as a way of life is being destroyed. A whole class of people is being wiped out. If you take Korea as an example, the number of peasant farmers has dropped from six million to three million from 1990 to 2000, due to the liberalization of agricultural markets. Prices have dropped and you have a level of desperation due to the fact that you have no alternative but to leave farming.

Recently, the Korean government opened up the rice market to imports shortly before George Bush visited Busan, Korea, for the APEC meeting of Asian-Pacific world leaders. That’s going to have a tremendously damaging effect on Korean farmers, who are already indebted and facing declining rice prices.

In India, allegedly 40,000 farmers have committed suicide due to the massive displacement of folks from the land. People’s abilities to sustain themselves, based on self-sufficient farming, is being destroyed. It’s what the farmer movement calls “food sovereignty,” where you produce for local consumption and survive on local consumption, rather than having to trade and buy food on international markets. Most people are left with few alternatives but to migrate to the cities, live in slums, eke out jobs in garment or other factories—with all the problems associated with that. Entire communities are being uprooted. It’s the destruction of a whole way of life for people.

What are some of the specific corporations farmers are struggling against and what are the issues involved?
Monsanto has played a major role in commercializing seeds and commodifying seed production. Farmers, who for centuries have used their own seeds and promoted use of diverse types of seeds, are now encouraged to shift over to seeds which in some cases are sterile—you can only use them once and they don’t re-germinate. Clearly that corporation is trying to dominate the whole seed market, which not only makes farmers dependent on seeds, but also the inputs that go with that.

You also have a huge company like Nestlé, which sells products we’re familiar with like Nescafe and Perrier water. But there was a lawsuit filed against them for their involvement in child labor and child slavery in West Africa. They also drive down milk prices because they’re such a big company. They can set prices and hurt dairy farmers in Europe and coffee farmers around the world. They’ve also been implicated in murders of union activists in Colombia and the Philippines.

The other ones are the grain as well as meat companies—the most globalized parts of the food industry. Big companies like Archer Daniels Midland, ConAgra and Cargill, are all involved in major grain exports from the U.S. to Latin America and around the world in a heavily subsidized environment; these are major political contributors and they get major subsidies to sell corn at low prices in Latin America. ConAgra is also involved in exporting meat, one of the major U.S. exports. So you have major amounts of meat being sold into Latin America and that’s hurting—again—local production of meat.

Lately, I’ve been looking at Wal-Mart, the number one grocer in the U.S. As Wal-Mart expands into the food retail market, is this a corporation farmers and activists are watching?
Clearly. You have the more widely known situation where Wal-Mart is driving down wages and working conditions within the retail market. But in terms of its purchasing, it buys a lot of food and so its pricing policies are very aggressive. Not only do they drive prices down, but they force the industrialization and consolidation of agriculture because they don’t want lots of little batches of produce growing on small farms. They want 100,000 tomatoes, all the same size and shape, and so it’s driving small producers out of business.

Clearly in the retail sector, whether it’s Wal-Mart or Carrefour, a French supermarket chain, between the two of them and others, they’re having a huge impact on small farmers.

Can you talk about your port project in China?
We’re looking at the links between the growth of ports and workers in the logistics chain. Ports have been a critical piece of the whole industrialization/globalization of agriculture. As you globalize agriculture and food production, ‘supply chain management’ is a term they use to talk about how you get the goods from production to consumption, and it requires the massive growth of ports. Here in the New York/New Jersey area, you have ports growing at double-digit rates. It’s not only creating all sorts of problems in terms of how much we expand the port, but the nearby warehousing—New Jersey has turned from the ‘garden state’ to the ‘warehouse and distribution center state.’

Not only do you have a model of agriculture that puts small peasant farmers out of business, but it also creates this huge energy-intensive distribution system. For example, the predictions are that under the WTO agreement of agriculture that’s finalized this year, you’ll have major U.S. rice producers and exporters out of Arkansas and other parts of the country exporting rice to the Philippines—the Philippines already produces plenty of its own rice by small producers. Imagine all that rice on trucks burning diesel fuel, put onto ships burning more diesel fuel, and shipped to the Philippines. It’s kind of a crazy way to run the global economy. You create a lot more global warming, a lot more pollution, and meanwhile, Philippino folks displaced in the countryside go to the cities and they have no work.

It’s based on a corporate model of globalization, where these corporations don’t really care about their impact on the economy, on people’s jobs or on the environment. They just care that they can get a little profit. So if some company in Arkansas can make a profit margin off rice, they’re fine with it. And if that leads to more hurricanes and other environmental problems, it’s not their problem.

Switching gears, what are some of the direct action tactics farmers are using to raise awareness today (aside from publicly committing suicide)?
In Hong Kong, the creativity, energy and commitment of the farmers’ protests were extremely impressive. One day, the Korean farmers staged what is called the ‘monk’ march, where they would take two steps and then bow, two steps and bow as a way of showing their humility and their nonviolent tactics. They did this for several miles. About 1,200-1,500 Korean farmers all marched toward the convention center. This had a tremendous impact on the people of Hong Kong. At some points, local residents would bring food, bring water, clap, like it was a parade not a march.

In Europe, you’ve had a lot of direct action against genetically modified crops, where the Confédération Paysanne, which is the French farmers’ organization headed by the well-known José Bové, has built an activist group of like 5,000 farmer activists who, when notified that there’s some experiments with genetically modified crops, they’ll mobilize people and go tear up the crops.

La Via Campesina is going to have a big event in 2007, in Mali, a country that’s around 85 percent, I believe, peasant farmers. That will be like a social forum for campesino farmers and will demonstrate the kind of food sovereignty model of production.

There are many creative ways farmers have both taken direct action against corporate agriculture, and have taken matters into their own hands.

How can people connect these issues directly to their own plates to show solidarity and support?
It’s a good question. My personal philosophy is you can try to act responsibly in your eating, avoid corporate, industrial-produced food products and give preference to locally-produced. But to be honest, I think a lot of the change has to come through social movements and direct action. I personally don’t always eat organic food, although I think it’s a good idea. I think it’s a mix of trying to change your consumption, but also try to develop concrete links to producers and support their struggles and campaigns. Folks also need to get closer to producers—some of the community supported agriculture initiatives in this country are good. But also try to visit countries with high peasant populations to understand their struggles.

In terms of the global scope of this problem, if the number of farmers are displaced that people are predicting, you’re going to have massive growth of slums in the developing world and massive migration—including into the U.S. It’s a huge global labor problem. Where are these people going to work? If you look at a map of where mega-cities and mega-slums are growing, it’s in areas where peasant agriculture is being replaced by corporate agriculture. And what effect is that going to have on fundamentalist religious movements? On wars? And on unsustainable migration to this country of folks who really would rather be working the farms in their countries? I support people’s right to immigrate, but I think the way to fundamentally deal with these problems is keep people on the land and keep them working.

I think the scale of the crisis facing our society globally is massive. I encourage people to learn about these issues. People’s food choices have an impact, but in addition, a lot of it’s our political choices. So I encourage people to study up on these issues and try to have a voice in politics on this.

To learn more about the Agribusiness Research and Popular Education Project, visit