Jean Thévenot is a young farmer producing organic seedlings in the Basque Country, and belongs to Confédération Paysanne in France. He is an active member of the youth articulation of the European Coordination of Via Campesina, working on various issues from labour conditions in European agriculture to climate justice in farming, as well as the promotion of the UNDROP.
Here, he reflects on his time in Glasgow, organising with the Landworkers’ Alliance and other La Via Campesina member organisations at COP26.
Imagine a global ‘village-fête’, with this year’s imposed theme: The Climate Catastrophe. Well, welcome to the official ‘Blue Zone’ of COP26!
At the ‘duck-fishing’ stand we have the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) offering passers by the chance to win tantalising nuclear power plant prizes.
At the potato-sack race of ‘Nationally Determined Contributions’, the rich countries have purposely tied their legs to make sure they arrive last, while the poorer countries face blame for not being fast enough.
At the centre of the crowd stands the Magician of Deception: “Roll up! Roll up! Behold how I can make these emissions disappear with just the stroke of a Net Zero!”
Dotted amongst the fête, mime artists gesticulate a lot, but don’t really say anything, and fortune tellers promise riches to those who will invest in their shiny new technologies.
It’s all light-hearted games at the fair, everyone’s having fun. The only villains are the unwelcome civil society representatives and disruptive trade unions, plotting for justice on the other side of the fence…
I apologise for this farcical introduction, but I do find the comparison extremely effective. As well as preventing me from falling into the most morbid cynicism, it also allows me to relay the bizarre atmosphere of the Blue Zone at COP26 – where I was accredited by the Confédération Paysanne as a representative of the youth articulation of the European Coordination of Via Campesina.
After the discomfiture of the first day (when we wandered haggardly through the corridors of Glasgow’s Scottish Events Campus buildings, trying in vain to intervene in various events), that evening spent with the Via Campesina delegation – and in particular with our Landworkers’ Alliance (UK), the National Farmers Union (Canada) and Boricua (Puerto Rico) comrades who had been on the frontline since the beginning of the week – allowed us to reboot our spirits and to take back in hand our mission to promote our peasant messages.
In the corridors of the negotiations, we felt powerless, and I had the impression that most of the agreements and initiatives had already been decided well in advance. The hypocrisy of the heads of states was disgusting; with first prize undoubtedly going to Barack Obama who came to preach lessons to the rest of the world following eight years of inaction at the head of the most polluting state in the world.
The only spaces for ‘engagement’ – where what could still be modified at the margins was still being negotiated – were mostly inaccessible to us. I understand that we are not often respected as a stakeholder, but La Via Campesina represents over 200 million small farmers across the world. 200 million people who are on the frontline of the climate crisis. So yes I was hopeful, if not for full support, at least for an acknowledgement of our claims and our demands. Especially since agricultural issues had a strong presence at this year’s COP, with a certain general awareness of the damage caused by agribusiness in terms of climate.
Alas, many governments still believe that it is ‘technological solutionism’ that will save us: an intelligent, connected, robotised and digitised food production system. A food system which must be ’financially-compatible’ both in terms of direct investment opportunities but also as a way of producing precious carbon credits to be resold on the global market. In short, governments are pursuing a type of agriculture led by transnational corporations for transnational corporations. One which completely sidelines the voices and concerns of farmers.
The best example of this trend – one which gives us a glimpse of what tomorrow’s agriculture might look like in the well-meaning heads of our world leaders – is the Agriculture Innovation Mission for Climate (AIM4C) initiative spearheaded by the USA and… the United Arab Emirates. Yes, you know the one… the ‘great agricultural country’ (which imports almost all of its food) that is ‘totally committed to reducing CO2 emissions’ (but emits the highest per capita emissions in the world).
But let’s not make fun of them too much, because these people do possess the means to their madness. Launched with great emphasis at the COP26, the AIM4C initiative is already being supported by dozens of other countries, the usual philanthro-capitalist foundations like the Bill & Melinda gates Foundation, and even international institutions like the FAO – which has definitely been sliding down a slippery slope since the widely-criticised UN Food Systems Summit in New York earlier this year.
The AIM4C video presentation at the UAE launch event spoke for itself: drones, robots, pretty green plants in neat uniform rows, laboratories, scientists in lab coats, and a few farmers as token decor. The word ‘farmer’ does not even appear anywhere on their website. This is probably why the US Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack personally supports the initiative, as a sort of counter-offensive against the dangerous ‘utopian agroecology’ of the Europeans.
For the rest of the economy, the miracle solution being put forward EVERYWHERE is Net Zero and its derivatives (nature-based solutions, carbon offset schemes etc). This is a headlong rush for continued growth, without any consideration of the need to drastically reduce emissions at their source. In short, it means continuing to pollute while promising to be careful, consuming in the Global North while keeping the Global South in poverty, and buying a good conscience on the carbon market while above all not questioning the status quo of the global economic system.
So, is there any good that can be taken from COP26? Well, yes. But not from the official spaces. My inspiration comes from the intervening spaces occupied by the climate justice movement; disrupting, rumbling and roaring; exchanging and debating; proposing, strategizing and most importantly, acting!
The few days we spent in Glasgow – despite everything I have just written – have actually done us all a lot of good. The abundance of civil society events, in the Blue Zone as well as spread across spaces in the city, provided so many opportunities to exchange with others: with those who agree with us completely and who allow us to deepen our proposals, with those who contradict us and force us to sharpen our arguments, and with those who propose something else and who inspire us. Each of these exchanges only makes us stronger in our mission to represent the voice of peasant farmers across the world. It is in these spaces that our voices are listened to, and our presence counts.
On the outside is also where we inspire people to consider a change of life, a return to the land. Saturday’s demonstration was proof of this. Under a sky that had not been able to make up its mind that day, between spring and autumn, between rain and sun, we marched for a long time in the streets where the citizens gave a particularly favourable welcome to our colourful and musical ‘landworkers, farmers and foresters’ bloc. We had been reserved a special place in the organisation and in the order of speeches alongside prominent civil society organisations and climate and environmental NGOs: a strong symbol, and hopefully a testament to an awareness of our importance that is gradually growing among environmentalists on all sides.
And last but not least, it was an opportunity to meet again. After 2 years of Covid and online meetings, to put faces to names, to embrace, to dance, eat and sing together. It is this which grounds our international movement, and gives tangible meaning to the word solidarity.
To share news, to see where we live and work are on our respective continents, to exchange knowledge and wisdom and to learn from each other. The exemplary victory of our Indian brothers and sisters in their defense of their rights against neoliberalism must inspire us, as well as the determination of those who remain standing while disasters strike ever-stronger year upon year in Haiti, Indonesia, Mozambique and elsewhere.
While the Confédération Paysanne and the European region have just welcomed the international secretariat of La Via Campesina for the next few years, now more than ever it is crucial that we open ourselves to the world and to our comrades on all continents. During the handover ceremony a friend spoke about twinning: what if we launched concrete projects of peasant exchanges between ECVC members and other countries or regions in the world?
The ceremony of transition at the end of November in Bagnolet was a unique moment that proved once again that beyond borders and walls, differences and divergences, we peasants all share something in common: a relationship to the land and to the elements, to the living world. In the current context of uncertainty both nationally and globally, let us remember this all the more and strive to give heart to the Via’s maxim: Globalise the struggle, globalise the hope!
This blog post was originally written by Jean in French, and has since been translated into English. With editorial support from Yali Banton-Heath.