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Land Occupation as a Strategy for Agrarian Reform and Climate Justice

May 2012

In South Africa, land occupation is expanding as a strategy for achieving genuine agrarian reform, food sovereignty and climate justice.  Since these are all critical issues for people living in cities, land occupations in both urban and rural areas are an important, and often unrecognized, part of global movements.

In December 2011, the “Conference of Polluters,” otherwise known as the 17th Conference of the Parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP-17), dragged on for nearly two weeks in Durban, South Africa. The outcome of the meeting was to again delay addressing the real causes of climate change. Meanwhile, social movements of peasants, indigenous peoples and urban communities also gathered in Durban, as well as in cities and towns around the world, to counter the corporate-dominated U.N. meeting and to propose real solutions.

Members of social movements who had accreditation to enter the U.N. space (which involves an application pro­cess that takes place months before the meeting) worked to raise awareness about the dangers of false solutions, such as those which commodify forests and agricul­tural lands. While U.N. regulations make it extremely difficult to conduct any kind of public demonstration inside the U.N. space, movement groups were able to pull a few demonstrations together, including a press conference calling for a moratorium on the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) program. A Kyoto Protocol carbon offset mechanism, REDD allows corporations (such as oil companies) and governments to keep polluting in the Global North, while supposedly “offsetting” their pol­lution by buying rights to forest lands in the Global South (and often displacing indigenous peoples from their lands).While the U.N. still appears to be paying more attention to the corporations promoting these kinds of carbon market mechanisms, the growing re­sistance both within and outside the U.N. process is an important step forward. The Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN) describes REDD as a “gentrification of the forests,” and many groups have become part of the struggle to stop it because of its impacts on in­digenous territorial rights, its perpetuation of environ­mental injustices at the sources of pollution (such as oil refineries in communities of color in the U.S.) and its ineffectiveness in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

While corporate interests pushed false solutions to cli­mate change and governments delayed any further com­mitments to cut emissions years into the future, social movements came together at an alternative civil society space to expose the root causes of climate change and to lift up real solutions coming from the experts—the communities experiencing frontline impacts of climate disruption, and the climate scientists and policy ana­lysts that have been sounding the alarm for decades.

“Small Farmers Cool the Planet”

Among multiple climate change impacts, the effect of increased temperature on food production and water resources in Africa is projected to be one of the most immediate and severe. Indeed, the Stern Review indicates a probable beginning of “severe impacts [on food production] in the marginal Sahel region” as a result of less than 1°C increase in global tem­perature, relative to pre-industrial levels; increasing numbers of people “at risk from hunger,” especially in Africa and West Asia beginning with a 1.5°C increase; and “sig­nificant” water shortages (which also have direct impact on food production) in Africa beginning with a 2°C increase. Indeed, with a global surface temperature increase already having reached 0.8°C, these impacts are well underway.

At the same time that climate dis­ruption impacts food production, there is now a clear scientific con­sensus on the fact that industrial agriculture contributes significantly to climate change. While an analy­sis of farming alone may lead to a conclusion that agriculture’s contri­bution is no more than 15 percent, an examination of the whole food and agricultural system—includ­ing agricultural production, land use change, processing, transporta­tion and waste—leads to a much higher calculation. The international agricultural research organiza­tion GRAIN reports, “There is compelling case that the current global food system, propelled by an increasingly powerful transna­tional food industry, is responsible for around half of all human-pro­duced greenhouse gas emissions: anywhere between a low of 44 percent to a high of 57 percent.”

For both of these reasons, some of the most inspiring and potentially far-reaching climate justice solutions coming from impacted communities are the concepts of food sovereignty and agrarian reform. Food sover­eignty was first described in 1996 by La Vía Campesina, an international social movement made up of more than 200 million families of peas­ants, family farmers, fishers and other small producers in over sev­enty countries around the world. In 2007, delegates from eighty coun­tries came together in Mali to fur­ther promote the idea of food sov­ereignty, creating the Declaration of Nyéléni to elaborate on a collective vision. The declaration defines food sovereignty as “the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems.”

What’s the connection to the cli­mate? Studies confirm that small-scale farmers can actually reduce greenhouse gas emissions while building more resilient food systems by using agroecology—a practice that combines ecologically sound science with local knowledge to conserve water and nourish the soil, while protecting the health of both ecosystems and local communities.

In Durban, movements for food sovereignty continued to take im­portant leadership roles in overall climate justice efforts. Peasant farmer and ecological justice groups from across the continent decided to launch the new Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA)—an alternative to the Gates Foundation-supported Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA)—at the civil society space. AFSA mem­bers explained their decision to hold the launch in Durban during U.N. negotiations as a way to emphasize food sovereignty as a strategy to “feed the world, regenerate eco­systems, rebuild local economies and cool the planet—all at the same time.” Likewise, the Southern African Rural Women’s Assembly chose the Durban civil society space as its meeting place for several days. La Vía Campesina organized a demonstration through the streets of downtown on December 5th, an International Day of Action for Food Sovereignty and Agroecology.

Throughout all these activities and more, thousands of small farm­ers and landless workers came together to share experiences and strategies for promoting food sov­ereignty as a solution to climate disruption. Johan Jantjies, convener of the Agrarian Reform for Food Sovereignty Campaign (a South African organization of emerging farmers, farmworkers and landless peoples from both urban and rural areas of the Western and Northern Cape provinces), explained why he and sixty other members of the campaign traveled twenty-four hours by bus to attend the climate negotiations in Durban. “It’s a must for us to go to Durban so that the world can hear our voice, telling the government that we, as small-scale farmers, have got the solution to cool down the earth. That solution is the agroecological way of farming.”

Agrarian Reform through Land Occupation

In order for communities to achieve real food sovereignty, La Vía Campesina articulates the impor­tance of agrarian reform, including land redistribution that can make it possible for communities to grow the food they need. According to the VíA’s seven principles of food sovereignty, “A genuine agrarian reform is necessary which gives landless and farming people—es­pecially women—ownership and control of the land they work and returns territories to indigenous peoples. The right to land must be free of discrimination on the basis of gender, religion, race, social class or ideology; the land belongs to those who work it.”

As part of the civil society space in Durban, the Agrarian Reform for Food Sovereignty Campaign organized a day-long summit on land occupation as a strategy to advance agrarian reform. This summit brought together small farmers and landless farmworkers from South Africa, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Zambia and the United States in order to discuss lessons learned from decades of struggle for land reform, as well as to de­velop common approaches to advance this vision.

When a new post-Apartheid government was elected in South Africa in 1994, the government agreed to a plan for agrarian reform, including a commitment to redistribute at least 30 percent of the land back to land­less black South Africans from whom the land had been stolen during colonization and Apartheid. Since that time, only 7 percent of the land has actually been redistributed. Johan explained, “Land reform has failed our people. I don’t think the state has any solution for how they will get the land out of the hands of the capi­talists, the greedy and the rich. And that’s why for us, land occupation is the new form of land reform… We will go on and we will promote it as far as we go.”

Johan joined the campaign as part of the Ithemba (Hope) Farmers Association , a group of families liv­ing and farming on government-owned land in Cape Town. The occupation by urban landless families started twenty-seven years ago with one person, and today has over 300 families growing vegetables and raising livestock to sustain their families and local communities. Marina Witbooi has been a member of the association for four years, and she is now head of plots and a member of the executive committee. She also made the twenty-four-hour bus trip to Durban. Marina explained, “Growing up, my father had pigs, chickens, and I think it’s in my blood, that’s why I came here [to Ithemba]. When I was a kid, we came here to pick firewood, and after we got the wood, we played there in the river. So I can’t understand when the minister says I’m not from here . . . I don’t think it’s right because most people who stay here were born here. . . .When I was growing up, my family had land, and the government took it.You understand? They don’t ask for it, they take it. So I take this land back.”

Marina’s reference to government ministers reflects the reality that the Ithemba farmers’ struggle has not been easy. Over the last three years, they have had to defend their land against attempted evictions by three government departments and a mining com­pany. Marina described a variety of tactics that the association has used to hold onto their land amidst these threats of displacement, from negotiations to legal strategies to direct actions in the streets to liter­ally prevent the mining trucks from coming through. With the combination of tight communication and coordination among the Ithemba families, as well as support from the other associations within the Agrarian Reform for Food Sovereignty Campaign, the Ithemba farmers have succeeded in staying on their land.

During the summit in Durban, Johan put out a chal­lenge to members of this growing movement: “Were we afraid to fight the Apartheid regime? No. We weren’t afraid. Some of us or some of our families are dying! Why are we now afraid to challenge our government? We must organize and mobilize ourselves. When there’s a land occupation in Cape Town, there must be a land occupation in KwaZulu Natal, at the same time. When there’s a land occupation in KwaZulu Natal, there must be a land occupation in JoBurg. We must force the government to give back our land.” To Johan and others in the room, this level of joint struggle is key to building the power it will take to create the scale of agrarian reform necessary to both achieve food sover­eignty and address the crises of hunger and climate.

Ricado Jacobs, an agrarian studies scholar and mem­ber of the Agrarian Reform for Food Sovereignty Campaign, situates this call to action within an historical context. “We see we have to transform the entire system in order to have climate justice. And we have to create a society based on solidarity and cooperation….This is what history teaches us—that land occupation has done more for agrarian reform than any other government has ever done before in history. So we are just calling up history and taking the struggle for land forward.”

From large-scale alliance-building to local associations of farmers, the growing movement for food sovereignty and agrarian reform in Africa is perhaps one of the brightest rays of hope for a continent struggling to deal with the impacts of a climate crisis it did not create. Those of us in the United States have a valuable opportunity to learn from the courageous energy, clarity of vision and bold action embedded in these movements, to seek ways to apply their lessons to local contexts and to build solidarity and connections between our respective struggles.

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