On April 17th the Landworkers’ Alliance will stand in solidarity with peasants, fisherpeople, food and agricultural workers through the #StayHomeButNotSilent campaign.
Before the Covid-19 crisis, we had originally intended to mark this day with an action about animal feeds and the livestock sector. Why? In this blog post, our Mobilisation Coordinator Humphrey Lloyd explains why this is important.
Exactly 24 years ago, on April 17th 1996, 19 members of the Brazilian landless farmers movement Movimiento Sin Tierra (MST) were shot dead in Eldorado dos Carajas as they attempted to defend their farms from the Brazilian state. The date has been enshrined as ‘International Day of Peasant Struggle’ ever since, and has become a day for farming communities to assert their solidarity with each other, and seek independence from state policies, foreign investors, land grabbers and others who threaten their way of life.
The 19 MST members were part of a much larger access to land project in Brazil that squatted the farms of absentee landlords, in order to set up farms to feed themselves and their communities using agro-ecological techniques. 35 million acres of land, an area bigger than the nation of Uruguay has been redistributed by the MST in this way! As such, what happened on April 17th 1996, was not the defence of one farm – rather, it represents a stand for self determination of farming communities in the face of state violence and the incursions of the global industrial food system through patented seeds, foreign investment, free markets and chemical inputs.
24 years later, the Landworkers’ Alliance are standing against imports of South America soy that destroy the land and livelihoods of peasant and indigenous communities in the Amazon and beyond. Soy and other commodity animal feeds are mainly made from genetically modified crops, and so owned and controlled by a small handful of large scale corporations at the level of the gene. They are the property of the seed firms and are systematically undermining the self-sufficiency of livestock systems in which the cows, pigs and chickens are fattened on good old fashioned fare.
Livestock farming is defined by what the animals eat. The long human relationship with the cow is based on its miraculous ability to convert pasture, (inedible to humans), into milk and meat on suboptimal land land. Likewise the pig has been a back-yard scrap eater for 9,000 years, transforming daily scraps into an annual horde of delicious meat, and giving us the image of the piggy-bank, that takes in daily trash and gives out intermittent gold. In agroecological farming systems, livestock, (pigs and chickens in particular) often find a productive niche amongst trees and woodlands.
In contrast, since the global over-production of grains and pulses began in earnest with the Green Revolution in the 1950s, commodity animal feeds have replaced their local and regional forebears. This is the result of the new technology of synthetic fertilisers growing too many calories for global markets to consume, hence the emergence of a vastly over inflated global livestock sector, fed on pulses, fed on grains. Of all these ‘feeds’ soy has emerged as the biggest player, the area under its cultivation growing from 42 million acres in 1990 to 114 million acres in 2010. Upwards of 75% of it is destined for the industrial feedlots as animal feeds.
Production of soy and other commodity animal feeds has become the biggest driver of deforestation at the global level. Whilst the Amazon holds a particularly iconic status in the minds of conservationists, other ecosystems such as the Cerrado, (the vast Brazilian savannah), and the Gran Chaca forest are equally under threat. These ecosystems are among the most bio-diverse on earth, and the habitats of iconic species such as the Jaguar and maned wolf. The Cerrado alone contains 18 species of armadillo! The Amazonian biome is the earth’s biggest terrestrial carbon store.
The Amazon is not just a habitat but also a home. Displacement of indigenous peoples, who total over a million across the Amazon, and the loss of their ancestral territories is also heavily enmeshed in the growth of industrial farming and commodity animal feeds. The current Brazilian government of Jair Bolsanaro and his environment minister Salles have had few qualms about this however, seeing the indigenous territories and their forests as lucrative development opportunities for products like soya. During his campaign Bolsanaro vowed; ‘not one centimetre will be demarcated for indigenous reserves or quilombolas.’ He has remained true to his word, as after only hours of taking office he closed down the indigenous affairs agency, and moved its powers to the ministry of agriculture, that have an interest in driving industrial farming into the Amazon and beyond.
The Amazonian fires, visible from space last summer, saw the clearance rate rise about 2 football pitches worth of ground per minute, a massive increase from the previous year. At stake is not pristine jungle, in an abstract or romantic sense, but rather indigenous sovereignty over its forest territories, control over their own small-scale sustainable agricultural practices, and humanity’s right to biodiversity and a stable climate. Thankfully, the onslaught has not been taken lying down, with 45 tribes gathered this January under the leadership of Chief Raoni to coordinate their resistance to the Bolsonaro regime and the forest fires. This is the most unified reaction of amazonian tribal people since the 1980s.
The environmental and political ramifications of the global soy industry are both severe and complex. What are we to do? Whilst the go-to conclusion might be to boycott the animal feeds industry by switching to a vegan diet, this solution falls down when you consider that the palm oil industry, unconnected with the livestock sector, is also a driver of deforestation and human displacement in the tropics of south-east Asia. Those from livestock farming communities might also add that they, like the people of the Amazon, have the right to continue an ancient way of life. Probably a more astute, though more nuanced response, would be to work proactively towards creating and celebrating a self-sufficient livestock sector, independent of commodity feed imports. A pasture-fed cattle herd, will not only deepen the soils and bring back the meadow flowers, but also give autonomy back to the farmer. Food waste as a replacement for pig feed, not only massively reduces the animals land-take, but it is also so cheap and widely available as to constitute a common resource.
Whilst the seeds of soy are owned by the corporations, no one has yet patented the grass! And whilst a grass-fed cattle sector will fatten slower, this is easily dealt with by a general dietary shift to less and better meat, whilst giving over some grazing ground to vegetables that fatten quicker than any animal. Removing our reliance on the Amazon’s commodities is an act of solidarity with its people. Our increasing integration with the food system over time, makes this more, rather than less relevant than it was 24 years ago, when those 19 farmers died in Eldorado dos Carajas. Whilst Bolsanaro has used the rhetoric of state ‘sovereignty’ to invade the forest territories of 45 tribal nations, the deeper meaning of the word is about self reliance and resilience for a meaningful, rather than imagined community.
This is as true for the graziers of Britain as for the hunters of the Amazon.