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Interview with Ibrahima Coulibaly of Mali’s CNOP
National Coordination of Peasant Organizations

To Gain Control of the Social Basis of the Economy

Matola, Mozambique

Ibrahima Coulibaly in Matola at the Via Campesina conference. All photos by Nic Paget-Clarke.
Ibrahima Coulibaly in Matola at the Via Campesina conference. All photos by Nic Paget-Clarke.
Ibrahima Coulibaly with other Via Campesina members at the conference.
Ibrahima Coulibaly with other Via Campesina members at the conference.
In the market in Lichinga, Niassa province, Mozambique.
In the market in Lichinga, Niassa province, Mozambique.
A member of the First of December farmers' association, which works with the national organization UNAC (Union Nacional de Camponeses / National Peasants' Union) in the Sanga district, near Lichinga, in the Niassa province of Mozambique.
A member of the First of December farmers' association, which works with the national organization UNAC (Union Nacional de Camponeses / National Peasants' Union) in the Sanga district, near Lichinga, in the Niassa province of Mozambique.
A cooperative member turning soil in Marracuene, near Maputo, the capital of Mozambique.

A cooperative member turning soil in Marracuene, near Maputo, the capital of Mozambique.

Interpreter Judith Hitchman.
Interpreter Judith Hitchman.
Ibrahima Coulibaly is president of the Mali organization CNOP (National Coordination of Peasant Organizations / Coordination Nationale des organizations Paysannes.) CNOP is a member organization of La Via Campesina. La Via Campesina is an organization of organizations, part of a global movement of peasants, family farmers, indigenous and landless people. The interview was conducted (and later edited) by Nic Paget-Clarke for In Motion Magazine on October 22, 2008 during the 5th International Conference of La Via Campesina. The conference was held at the FRELIMO Party School in Matola, Mozambique. French/English interpretation was by Judith Hitchman. The edited interview was translated from English to French by Audrey Mouysset.

From a peasant family

In Motion Magazine: Do you yourself come from a farming family?

Ibrahima Coulibaly: Absolutely. I am from a peasant family but I went to school, I studied agronomy, and when I finished studying, I set up as a farmer.

In Motion Magazine: Where in Mali are you from?

Ibrahima Coulibaly: I grew up in the region of Segou which is pretty much in the center of Mali. That’s where I grew up and went to school. I still live in the center of Mali, in the Koulikoro region. My farm is about a hundred kilometers from Bamako, which is the capital.

In Motion Magazine: What do you grow on your farm?

Ibrahima Coulibaly: I have a varied kind of farm; we do lots of different things. The reason is very simple because our strategy is not to specialize because we know very well that if things go wrong with one crop, or one kind of production, it’s another crop that is going to save us. I grow cereals, in particular corn, and sorghum. There’s also a specific cereal in West Africa called fonio that I grow as well. I don’t grow it every year. I have livestock. I have cattle, and goats, and I started bee-keeping this year. I have fruit trees, too, and I do market gardening. We are obliged to make the most of what we do to ensure our farms survive. It’s what allows all the people who are living on the farm to survive.

In Motion Magazine: Is it a family farm or a community farm?

Ibrahima Coulibaly: It’s a family farm, which is the reason that I am able to travel like this. It is my younger brother who is working the farm when I am not there. That is extremely important because the fact that the family is on the farm means that somebody like myself who carries a lot of responsibility within the peasants’ movement is free and able to take care of his business as well.

The autonomous peasant movement

In Motion Magazine: Can you talk a little about the history of CNOP? When did it start?

Ibrahima Coulibaly: The history of the peasants’ movement in Mali goes back to 1991. When I talk about the peasants’ movement, I mean the autonomous peasant movement, because there was a peasants’ movement during the dictatorship (General Moussa Traoré head of state/president from 1968-1991) but it was made up of cooperatives created and controlled by the state via specialized services -- these cooperatives had absolutely no freedom of action.

When the people of Mali rose up against the dictatorship, when we overthrew the dictator, which was in 1991, all society was able to freely become organized and all the state cooperatives disappeared, were overthrown. That’s when we started to become organized in a different way. The first free peasant organizations were born. Some of these took the form of trades unions, others had the status of NGOs. Within a few years, the country had developed many peasant movements of varying strength and size. In 1993, we took the initiative to organize a meeting and we invited the key movements to get together to see if they couldn’t work together to have an efficient influence on governmental policies.

It was during that meeting that we realized that we all were facing the same problems of access to agricultural machinery, of gaining access to bank loans for our farming activities, lack of guarantees of our property, or deeds to our land. Also, low prices were being paid for our agricultural produce, and we were vulnerable to the frequent climate extremes of the Sahel, etc.

We were having a lot of difficulty in selling our products, because the government of Mali had liberalized the food market in the 1980s, under pressure from the World Bank, which led to imported products being cheaper than local ones. Farmers weren’t selling their products successfully. The prices were very low.

This is why we decided to join together and change the situation.

We created what we called the Peasants’ Commission which was aimed at helping organizations to talk to each other -- to create a dynamic and to increase the dynamic. This commission worked from 1993 up until 1995.

In the beginning, we listed what we needed, the means we needed to get together, to work together, and to move forward together. We realized that we needed to find the money for doing this. So, we divided up the money that we needed between the different organizations in the form of subscriptions that were to be paid. We then worked independently using our own funds. That’s how we got up and running.

Not to take power

In 1995, the Peasant’s Commission prepared their general assembly, which provided us with the opportunity to create the first legally recognized federation. This was called the APPO (the Association of Professional Peasant Organizations). There were cotton, cereals, and livestock farmers, and those growing other crops on their farms. This was the first organization built on the basis of family farming.

This organization was supposed to enable us to position ourselves to talk to the government about our problems, and thereby to develop new policies adapted to our expectations and priorities as peasants. This was a very difficult task as the agents of the Ministry for Agriculture at that time were not used to seeing peasants and family farmers who were organized coming to talk about changes to agricultural policies. They made the beginning very hard for us because they thought, at that time, that peasants had no ideas to propose concerning their own future development and that that was a job that was theirs and theirs alone.

In the beginning, people laughed outright at us. Nobody from the state services wanted to talk seriously with us or take our proposals into account. But we kept on going. We persevered and we developed alliances. We also developed a strategy that worked.

Whenever we held meetings, we invited members of the Ministry for Agriculture staff. They accepted the invitation and took part in the discussion and understood that what we were talking about were real problems, real issues that we were facing. They understood that our ambition was not to take power, to be people who sat in offices, in government. That’s why it worked. It took a certain amount of time but it did work.

We were able to develop a network of sympathizers within the Ministry for Agriculture and it’s people like that who started supporting us, giving us information that was helpful for our organization.

At that point, we also got financial support from NGOs. That was helpful to us because obviously we didn’t have the means to do all the things we wanted to do. The French co-operation with the support of the AFDI (Agriculteurs Français et Développement International / French Farmers and International Development) provided us with a flexible fund for our activities, and for training in particular. We had a lot of exchange between peasants, between farmers. It meant that we could disseminate a lot of information at the local level.

Also, at the same time as APPO was moving forward, and a few years later, other federations were founded. In 1996, the APPO representatives accepted the obvious: “APPO is no longer the only farmers’ federation. Other federations are emerging”. And, very frequently, when the government was in difficulty on certain issues, the government preferred to instrumentalize the weakest structures of the peasant movement and in this way weaken the position of the peasant organizations. This was when APPO decided to organize a big meeting with all the different peasant organizations in order to find a solution to the dissipation of peasant energies.

National Coordination of Peasants’ Organizations

But, the meeting ended badly because there was a lot of friction between different leaders. Although we had said that if we wanted to get anywhere we had to manage to work together, the other federations thought that APPO wanted to be in the leadership chair, to dominate them. But APPO just wanted to be the organization that spoke on behalf of the other organizations. It took a lot of time to build trust between the different organizations. What was important is that during the meeting the idea was born of creating a platform for discussion between the different organizations. That was the basis for the organization that I chair today, which is the National Coordination of Peasants’ Organizations, which now includes eleven different federations and which was the source of the first real agricultural policy that was developed in Mali, and which recognized food sovereignty. This is called the law on agricultural orientation.

The idea of creating the CNOP was a good one because we were all together in the same structure, and the government couldn’t play one against the other. All the federations knew that there was an overall guideline, and that there was no point in building fortuitous alliances with the government to influence the position of the majority. It took us from 1996 to 2002 to achieve this.

It took us six years to create this discussion platform because there were too many leadership struggles. There wasn’t trust between the organizations. One group was scared of being dominated by another. All of that had to be clarified. We needed to find the organization that could be the locomotive to pull the rest of the train along. Everyone said that APPO was better placed to lead, but it still took us six years to achieve concrete results, in terms of formal organization.

In Motion Magazine: How many people does CNOP represent?

Ibrahima Coulibaly: Today, we think we represent the interests of approximately 2,500,000 family farmers and peasants through the different federations. We can’t say that we represent everybody, that would be a mistake because 80 percent of the Malian population are peasants, working on small family farms. But our basis for this calculation is the number of family farms that are registered within the different organizations. Again, we can’t say we represent all the family farmers and peasants, that would be pretentious, but we do speak on behalf of all the peasants because the government recognizes that we are the people to talk to, in terms of all the questions of agriculture and rural development.

Family farming -- the roots of our country’s riches

In Motion Magazine: What are the main issues you are concerned with?

Ibrahima Coulibaly: The most important question today is that of the future of family farming, and the place it should play in the national development strategies of our country. When I talk about family farming, I mean the lives of men, women and children who work on family farms and who are the source of our country’s wealth.

Let me give you a very simple illustration. In Mali, the agricultural sector represents more than 55 percent of the national wealth but the government, in the budgetary redistribution, allocates less than 7 percent of the budget to this sector. This explains why the sector is not developing more. This represents a great challenge for us. If we don’t manage to reverse the trend at this level, we will never achieve convincing results.

For us, the first struggle is to get the balance right between the interests of the peasant, the farmers and villages, and the people who are living in the cities - the urban communities. Everything is done so that people living in the cities have food at a reasonable price. But very few villages have sufficient infrastructure like electricity, water, or even telephone connections. This is why investments need to be made to develop the activities of peasant families, so as to create a better way of living in rural areas. This would ensure the future of our country, because it is impossible to develop any country leaving out 80% of its population.

This is a hot topic between us and the government. The government says, “We’ve invested a lot in rural areas. We’ve created schools, We’ve built health centers. We’ve made tracks and built roads.” But we say that isn’t investing in agriculture, that is necessary infrastructure development. What we need is investment in family farms because, according to us, the production, commercialization, and social protection of peasant families should be covered.

One of the main problems at present is that 55% of peasant families in Mali have no general equipment -- such as a plough, a pair of oxen to pull the plough, a donkey and cart to bring in their crops and carry organic manure. This is the minimum equipment that all families need to be able to live a dignified life. We need a strategy for investing in these areas.

Over and above that, the small farms are growing a lot of things but the local markets are destabilized. This is why we demand recognition of food sovereignty to protect our local products and to be able to sell our produce at profitable prices on the local market. Contrary to received ideas, countries such as Mali can be self-sufficient in food without great difficulty. But here are some years when there is good rainfall and small family farms produce over a million tonnes of cereals more than what is required to feed the country’s population. This means that there is a surplus production. We then run into serious difficulties trying to sell our surplus, because the prices drop drastically. All the problems come right back to the farmers. A public procurement system for buying up overproduction and at a price that allows farmers to go on working -- those are basic minimum strategies that we demand the government implement to allow us to start real development.

Those are our main priorities that we are bringing to the government.

The colonization syndrome

In Motion Magazine: Could you talk about the period of French colonialism?

Ibrahima Coulibaly: The question of colonization still exists and I don’t know if it will ever come to an end in Africa. That’s what explains underdevelopment. It is not because we are poor, because for us, mentally, in our minds, we aren’t poor. If you go to a village and you ask where are the poor people, nobody will come out and raise their hand. But, at the international level, our governments are fighting to be listed among the poorest countries in order to benefit from aid -- though this aid never trickles down to the poorest people. That’s a very serious incoherent attitude. No family that can grow their own food in rural areas feels themselves to be poor, because food is the basis of life and the beginning of all human and family dignity.

So, to come back to colonization, colonization formed an African elite and as long as any of that elite remains in power, I think we will continue to have problems. These people are the same as us physically, but they think and act like those who colonized us in the past.

That’s serious because these people are all originally from rural areas, but they don’t know anything about their roots. If your parents are farmers: they fed you, they sent you to school, you got a degree, you move to the city. Then you get a high-placed job, a high-placed political job in the civil service of the government. You spend ten years doing that without ever going back to the country to your village. It’s a betrayal. There’s no other word for it because you can’t represent the interests of those people any more. That’s 80 percent of the population that you’ve lost touch with.

This results in there being a small minority who take advantage of the majority to become a separate elite who oppress the peasants. This is the real problem of the syndrome of colonization. In Africa, colonization no longer exists legally, but on a daily level it still occurs. It’s just the actors who have changed. This is a serious problem, and it is an internal African one.

It’s an internal African problem and we need to understand that ourselves. There’s no point in saying the United States or Europe are responsible for it. We need to find who is responsible in our own countries. There’s certain things that we can’t forgive any more.

I am essentially and fundamentally nonviolent but I think that certain things push us towards violence in Africa because people just don’t understand. People don’t understand when there are serious conflicts that lead to excesses occurring. Television all over the world shows pictures of a primitive, even of a wild, Africa but many facts in the world show that we are just like other peoples. Excessive frustration and injustice can change people a lot and lead to unqualifiable acts taking place. This is all rooted in those Africans who are betraying other Africans on a daily basis. It is the African elite that is betraying us and importing totally inappropriate concepts which are destructive to our countries.

Sequels of colonization

Let me give you a very simple example. We have fought so that our West African governments recognize family agriculture as the basis for our development. The truth is that since the 1980s the World Bank, and the IMF, as well as the developed countries, have worked to convince the African elite that peasant agriculture is not profitable and should be replaced by agribusiness. It took us ten years of struggle to have some influence on this way of looking at things; yet family agriculture employs 80% of our population. What we are talking about would be simply to destroy that.

Can you imagine a country where 80% of the people are not asking the government to provide them with jobs? Every day, when I turn on the radio, the greatest preoccupation in the developed countries is to create jobs for the massive numbers of the unemployed. In our country, 80 percent of the population create their own jobs. And the government is listening to people who are suggesting that they destroy that. It’s crazy! If the project had succeeded, all the African countries that were tempted would be at war today. They would be destroyed because the peasants who would have been thrown off their land wouldn’t have let themselves die quietly. They would have gone to the capitals and demanded their right to life and, as there aren’t sufficient resources for everyone in the cities, that would only have led to civil wars. Neither the governments, nor the IMF, nor the World Bank could have created jobs for all the people who would have been excluded from family farming.

All this is the result of the sequels to colonization. Africa needs to get rid of this elite, in terms of decision-making, or at least to change their mentality -- and that’s complicated because it is they who have created the problems. The issue isn’t that Africans aren’t effective. With hardly any modern farm equipment we manage to produce a million tons of excess cereal crops in Mali, when it rains normally. Who says that we aren’t efficient ?

Some people continue to support the idea that peasants should be replaced by agribusiness companies. But the hard reality of Africa has shown again and again that they are inefficient. I have seen a lot of agribusiness companies, all supported by governmental grants, set up in Nigeria or in Morocco or in other North African countries. No small family farmers have been given any grants or subsidies by the governments, but they want to set up large agribusiness companies receiving considerable public grants of public funding to subsidize them so that a small minority of people can get rich and destroy the way of life of millions of other people. This is something we refuse to accept.

Our problem, the one we are facing, is that we do not have enough time or energy to fight along the lines that would really allow us to progress in a positive way -- for example, to sell our products collectively, to create cooperatives, or manage farm equipment collectively. All we are doing is fighting imported ideas that threaten our survival such as, “You aren’t efficient. We need to establish agribusinesses in Africa to replace the outdated peasant agriculture. GMOs should be introduced into African agriculture, that’s the way to progress. We need to liberalize the agricultural sector even more.”

We spend our time fighting these sorts of ideas which have no bearing on our realities and our real problems. They are pure creations of this elite that is removed from the reality on the ground and their allies in the countries of the North.

Military dictatorship / democracy

In Motion Magazine: So, the dictatorship, was that an example of this elite? And how did they fall?

Ibrahima Coulibaly: That’s a good question because that will allow me to explain something that people have a lot of difficulty understanding. When we won our independence, we had visionary leaders in most of our countries. They were people with a sense of dignity who understood what the sovereignty of the state was and who had projects for their countries, even if they made mistakes, for they were products of the colonial school as well. Well, all these leaders have been overthrown and the military leaders took power. They didn’t have much sense of dignity, no sense of state sovereignty, and the main preoccupation was personal enrichment. This has only aggravated the situation in our countries.

In the 1990s, the political situation became tense. People rose up not just in the cities but in the countryside. People were saying they wanted something different. The dictatorship was overthrown by popular mobilization and national conferences were organised to adopt the constitutions of legal, democratic states. The constitution of the Mali state, like that of many other African countries, is probably just as democratic as that of the USA, if not more so. But nothing has really changed in reality in most African countries.

Our problems have not been solved just because you are entitled to insult the president of your country on a free radio programme without any consequences. That is a mistake many people make nowadays. People confuse this with democracy. In reality there is no participation in governance by the most vulnerable layers of society.

For example, in Mali, there isn’t a single real peasant sitting in parliament, because unless someone has a lot of money, he can’t get elected. Our electoral system only works by buying people’s votes. Freedom of speech alone solves absolutely nothing if one continues to be totally ignored in the decision-making process. We have set up a political system that is accountable to nobody. I think in some ways the dictatorship may have been better. Everyone knew that there was a group of corrupt thieves who were amassing personal wealth in power, but nobody respected them. Today, you can criticize the government, you can mobilize, you can criticize, but things are still incoherent. You can’t change the basics.

The situation remains just as incoherent and this brings us straight back to the question of whether it is of any use to fight for this kind of “democracy on the cheap”. Democracy shouldn’t be just to elect a president or members of parliament. Democracy should be system where we build development on a day by day basis -- together. That’s what is missing in Africa and what is creating our frustration today.

I wonder what the point is of replacing one political system with another because they are all the same at the end of the day. All that democracy has done is to increase the number of corrupt people. It hasn’t solved Africa’s problems. People can become elected parliamentarians, ministers, but the fundamental system is still there. It is one of the reasons why today in the peasant movement there’s a fundamental question that is being discussed. If the peasants don’t seize power, can we ever change anything? Should we not go beyond just having a peasants’ movement and shouldn’t we be more political, perhaps?

We haven’t taken any decisions yet, but it’s something that is up for discussion right now. If we were to get power would things be any different, either? We just don’t have the answers. Things are pretty complicated. I can look at progressive regions today in Latin America, in Venezuela, in Bolivia. Yes, there’s a social grounding, a foundation, but there are still problems. It is a real question for me.

Local markets

In Motion Magazine: Among the ideas you are working on in your organization now, are there solutions that are improving people’s lives now? That point towards a solidarity economy, for example?

Ibrahima Coulibaly: What I need to say is that all our strategy for the next ten years within my organization is based on controlling local markets because we think that this is the future. Everything is being played out at this level. To tell you the truth, in the beginning, we had very few people actively involved in this within our organization. We won many victories in terms of agricultural policy, now we need to appropriate our markets to sell our products and live in dignity.

We are confronted by an interest group who do not want to let go of their advantages. All the rice importers, the powdered milk importers, flour and corn importers that finance the political parties. We need to remain an independent country in terms of our food. That’s our real difficulty. We have a law that states that we have rights but there are huge financial interests that are paired up with the political interests and this is what we are dealing with.

We think that we need to gain control of the social basis of the economy and lobby at a national level for the law to be implemented. That’s our ten-year plan at a strategic level.

Concerning the questions of concentration of the economy, I agree that the reality is what it is, but I think that sometimes social movements are often sadly lacking in operational strategy. We always tend to blame other people. We waste too much time on futile criticism. We need to act more often to change things. Our strategy in the Mali peasants’ movement now consists of saying that we are all jointly responsible for our fate. Internally, we need to overcome the obstacles that we are facing and exclude those people who are betraying our countries in taking decisions. That is something that is very clear to us.

I think that it is good to denounce the financial system, but I think what we need to do is to fight against the people who are giving our countries away within the system. A mining company can’t come in and mine gold and diamonds without signing a contract with the government first. A multinational seed company cannot sell GMOs unless they’ve got a contract with the government. A drinks company can’t come in and sell drinks on the local market if they don’t have a contract with the government. We need to identify our targets clearly and our real targets are internal ones, because we can never stop people from wanting to get rich. I think it is a natural inclination, it’s part of humankind’s character. I think that we need to realize where our problems are coming from.

We also need to know what we can achieve. As a Mali peasant, I can’t fight Monsanto at their headquarters in the USA, but I can fight my own Minister for Agriculture, the Minister for Environment, the president of the republic, because they are right there in my own country. If I have problems, it is they who let Monsanto into the country. That’s our strategy. That’s why we need to be mobilized to come and say to those people, “You should be protecting us and not selling us to the first person who comes along.” On that score we need to be prepared to not accept done deals and also we need to tell them that, “Even if you vote in laws that go against our interests, we shall not respect them, we shall not accept them”.

I think that is how we can change things. Governments are very manipulative. Sometimes they lead the grassroots and the masses to think that they are with them, that they are on their side and backing them up. You can realize very quickly how easily our interests diverge when you do certain things. We always need to be careful.

At the point of harvest / that is where poverty comes from

In Motion Magazine: Can you talk a bit about the cooperatives and collective markets and how they function?

Ibrahima Coulibaly: There are already collective groups selling produce within the Mali peasants movement.

In Motion Magazine: You mean traditionally?

Ibrahima Coulibaly: No, it is a process that has been introduced by the peasant movement. In the past, sales in the current sense of the word didn’t exist. Our grandparents didn’t often use money, they used cowrie shells, and they were almost certainly happier than us. Today, in order to make our living, we need to sell our crops together, collectively. The sales’ groups that the peasant movement has created show that the collective sales’ system works. One of the big problems that farmers face is managing the stock after the harvest. At the time when you harvest your fields, you have no financial reserves. If somebody falls ill in your family, if you want to send your kids to school, you need to sell your harvest quickly, and that’s the time when the prices are lowest.

The only means of coping with that is the people who have financial problems, at that point, they should be given cash to solve their problem and not have to sell all of their harvest, their stock, prematurely. That’s why the governmental systems of regulating, in terms of buying, are very important. At the moment, the speculators are the kings of the market. The speculators rule the roost at harvest time. They often buy things at 50 percent below the cost of production and sell them off two months later at three times the price.

Our strategy in this area is based on a fund in order to solve the urgent cases, the urgent problems, and to stock a certain quantity of cereal that’s equivalent to the quantity of money received according to the prices on the local markets. This means that products can be stocked and sold when the prices increase to above the production costs and allow us to make a small profit. You get the difference back between the two along with the profits. Part of the profits will reinforce the financial capacity of the cooperative.

The only factor that limits us today is to know how to help the cooperatives raise the money that they need to solve the urgent problems. Funds such as those currently supplied by the Bill Gates Foundation could prove useful for genuine needs of this kind, rather than squandering them on creating new varieties of GMOs that no African peasant ever asked for.

The real cause of the vulnerability of peasants is the fact that peasants are obliged to sell their produce at harvest time at such a low price. This is the primary cause of the problems that peasants and family farmers are facing. You grow enough to meet your needs. You have some surplus but you have to sell everything because you need money to cope with a situation that has come up. Six months later, you’re in trouble because you haven’t enough cash to buy food for your family. But you still have to buy the food, even though the cost of the food may be four times higher than what you sold your produce for at harvest time.

In Motion Magazine: Are these cooperatives and the collective selling leading to more local control?

Ibrahima Coulibaly: It’s a bit difficult to answer that because not everybody belongs to cooperatives. But the people who are members are very happy with the way things work out. Some people don’t need to belong to the cooperatives because they’ve got livestock, they’ve got a reserve that can allow them to be independent. But most of the poor farmers, the more vulnerable population, feel very comfortable in the cooperatives because that solves their financial difficulties.

Access to land: collective deeds or not

In Motion Magazine: I heard you yesterday talking about access to land in Côte d’Ivoire and Zimbabwe. What is the situation with land in Mali, or even Africa as whole?

Ibrahima Coulibaly: The problems linked to access to land in Africa, in general, outside of countries like Zimbabwe and South Africa, come from the fact that Africa was able to get rid of the colonists after independence of the various countries -- even if we had to chase them out -- and that was the time for introducing positive policies, but no government took a stand to recognize the rights of communities with written documents.

This is the heart of the problem. We have land but no land deeds to prove it’s ours. The state can confiscate the fields from their owners at any time. They can decide to run a high tension electric cable through a field without asking the owner’s permission. On this question of land our states can still do whatever they want, take away peasants’ land, because, simply, there are still laws that state that all land is state property.

In Motion Magazine: And in Mali, in particular?

Ibrahima Coulibaly: Yes, except for land for which there are deeds. Generally speaking, deeds exist in towns. Civil servants can afford to have deeds made for their land because it costs a lot to have written deeds to your land.

But now, in the new agricultural policy, the government has accepted the idea that they need to protect family farmers by securing their rights to their land. This is a huge step forward. Also, there is a genuine danger that a property market might emerge. The property market is developing around the cities and building is taking space away from the countryside. If we grant individuals rights and deeds to land at an individual level, people can sell their land legally, but, by granting collective deeds it is possible to stop speculation and make land secure for agriculture.

For example, I don’t agree with the so-called feminist theories that maintain that we should allow women special access to land as a priority, because they are the ones facing the greatest difficulties. This could open a real Pandora’s box because the majority of African men and women are in the same position. As far as we are concerned, it is the collective rights of peasant families that should be protected, and not individual rights. This is why we are struggling to define a fair share for all members of the peasant families, and to guarantee that women and men have the same rights in a collective framework in questions of land ownership. This is why we are developing a special status within our legislation for family farmers that gives all members of the family identical rights and obligations, women, men and children alike. We believe that this is the only way of avoiding problems in the future.

As far as we are concerned, either men or women can be in charge of the family farm. This is not the fundamental issue. The fact of saying that women should be considered as a special case, separate from that of the family, is something we consider very dangerous, in terms of the reality of our lives. We have held a lot of discussions with the women within our movements on this subject and we reached a consensus that involves the definition of a legal status for the peasant family farm that guarantees equal rights and duties to all (women, men, children). This is how we intend solving the thorny question of land rights.

Women should not depend on men for their income

In Motion Magazine: What is the significance of the Via Campesina campaign against violence against women?

Ibrahima Coulibaly: The question of violence corresponds to a reality everywhere in the world, including in Africa. This is a very serious issue. It’s something we cannot deny. Whatever we say, men have the power in this world. It doesn’t matter what we say, it is still men who have power, who are in power everywhere all over the world. It’s true in the United States, in France and in Mali. The stigmatization involves distinguishing developed countries from the underdeveloped -- this doesn’t hold water. The question of violence is much wider than the clichés that we are given. The clichés underline Africa, in general, that Africans practice polygamy, but this is far from being the most serious problem.

The most serious issue and this is true everywhere in the world, is that women need to have their own sources of income, the same as men do. Women should not depend on men for their income. The feminists in African cities who have never spent a night in a village have a very negative impact on women’s rights, and solve none of the problems, because they are not aware of the reality on the ground. These groups have objectives that only create greater resistance in the menfolk, in terms of the genuine needs for emancipation of women. This is why the question of women’s rights needs to become a strategic battle, at least in the years to come in Africa.

What we need to do is to work for women to be financially independent from men. Everything else will follow on by itself. Everything will fall into place -- polygamy will disappear. Excision will disappear. But it is not by defending a vision of a frontal combat between men and women that women will see their situation improve; this is sadly what is happening for the most part. I think it is exactly the same everywhere in the world.

For me, you know, the campaign is not about making a show of things. I am deeply convinced that women should have the same rights as men. The first person who said that to me was my own father, who had four wives. He said, “If you get married one day, you should remember that a woman leaves her family to come and live with you. That doesn’t mean that you are worth more than she is. That means that society wants things to be like that at a certain moment in the history of Humankind.”  I don’t think I have ever heard a more progressive speech in all my life. And that was said by someone who practiced polygamy.

When he said, “At a certain moment in history,” he was absolutely sure that things would move on. I think that that is what is important. There are stages that need to be followed, but the struggle should always target the fields where we really need to go.

Traditions of mutual support

In Motion Magazine: You said that the exchange of cowrie shells was a happier time. Is your movement learning from some of those traditional ways?

Ibrahima Coulibaly: We have many traditions in our culture that build solidarity and a collective mentality in our communities, but this is something that we are losing. It is not only in the developed countries that people are becoming individualistic.

One of the things that we consider very important to us are the youth organizations in our villages where all the young people get together to work in a family’s fields. In a single day, they do all the work, and with no equipment -- ploughing, weeding, harvesting. They get it all done in one day. This happened to me several times. I was able to take advantage of this.

I grow fonio. Why don’t I do it all the time? Because you have to harvest it and it is a very complicated harvest. Without collective support, you can’t manage it because the seeds fall out of the husks. It is the young people in the association who go from farm to farm, who come and help one family today, go and help another family tomorrow, and so on. That is something we have to keep.

It is going to be difficult to go back to barter, but barter does still exist. It exists naturally. It is not institutionalized in the organizations, but it is natural for a family to go and exchange one thing for another. To borrow a bag of cereal from a family who has got a good stock and to pay them back when you harvest with another sack. These are things that are completely normal in our society. We need to fight to stop them from disappearing because times are getting tough for everybody. It is when times get tough that people become individualistic.

Not to lose contact with the earth

In Motion Magazine: How important do you think the Youth Assembly here is?

Ibrahima Coulibaly: What I consider important is for the young people not to lose contact with the earth. I don’t think the issue is whether they go to big meetings or not, or if they are activists. They should be peasants, first and foremost. They should also work the land because if they fail to do that they have no hope for the future in many of our countries. Working the land is a tough job. A lot of young people don’t want to do such hard work today. That is the problem. These movements are useful because they do train them but we need to be careful to make sure that they get involved physically and that they do it alongside of their elders. This is the minimum basis of their usefulness.

It is not enough to be from a rural area. I think what we are talking about is preserving a life style, a way of living, doing things that showed how efficient it is. Even if nobody is buying the food off you, you have to have food to eat for yourselves. That’s the reality and this is man’s first and greatest need.

In Motion Magazine: Do you see a relationship between food and real democracy?

Ibrahima Coulibaly: Members of government, top civil servants, elected parliamentarians all show us that they eat imported products because they are supposedly better than local products. There is a lack of democracy. Building a nation or a country should be the result of everyone’s efforts and sacrifices.

They should be setting the example. They should be wearing local cloth to show what local culture is. I think that is something very important. But, today, in Africa, unfortunately, that is just not the case. Peasants are considered an underclass. People have often said to me, “You have a high level of education and you want to remain a farmer?” “You are the same as us, you really want to stay here in the village? Why are you doing the same as us? You have been to school. You are educated.” Many people still fail to understand and have trouble accepting that someone who is well-educated can want to work the land.

Our dignity is to feed ourselves

In Motion Magazine: What does food sovereignty mean to a regular farmer?

Ibrahima Coulibaly: I’ll start at the level of the family because it is the basis of our social and economic system. We say that the first dignity of the family is to feed itself. For me that is food sovereignty. The fact of not being dependent on anybody, that is what all families try to achieve. All families are ashamed of going to ask another person if they need to eat. If an African peasant family reaches that point, they are in real pain. Going to ask somebody else for something really hurts them. I feel that the concept is particularly crucial at the family level.

Food sovereignty should be a founding pillar in all the countries of our world. Why do governments refuse to take this into account in terms of development? We refuse food aid on principle because it destroys our local markets and often changes peoples’ food habits. We refuse to accept imported products. We are proud of our dignity and ability to feed ourselves in our countries with our own food.

Every time we break up a system that works to replace it with incoherent choices, we find ourselves in a situation similar to that of the global destabilization that we have today. Global markets are out of kilter. In the months to come, all governments are likely to find themselves destabilized because they have not implemented the right recipes, the things that really have worked for years. I believe that food sovereignty is the basis of everything that makes a country work properly. It is a coherent policy at all levels -- at the family level, the community level, the national level, and the global level.

Farmers are economic actors

In Motion Magazine: Africa seems on the verge of an assault with the U.N. (at least the two most recent secretary generals Kofi Annan and Ban Ki-moon) and Bill Gates launching a Green Revolution in Africa. What is your opinion?

Ibrahima Coulibaly: I’m not surprised. Kofi Annan is part of the old generation trained in colonial schools. Ban Ki-Moon is from Asia, a continent where liberalism exacerbates everything. That Kofi Annan buys into this doesn’t surprise me. He’s part of the generation that is creating problems for Africa because they don’t know the reality on the ground. They are brilliant career diplomats. They have been living in the international institutions. There are thousands like him from all over Africa who think that we should get rid of the peasant classes and put businessmen in their place. For them, setting up a company that will employ a hundred people is more profitable to countries than maintaining several villages that include thousands of people who work independently.

For them, companies are formal structures that can be evaluated by accountants, so that taxes can be paid into the state’s coffers, but very frequently these selfsame taxes are re-injected into the system as grants to support the same agribusiness companies that had paid the tax. What sense does that make?

The real problem is that they are totally incapable of seeing that the problem isn’t accounting because they can’t identify farmers as economic actors. They are not identifying them. Peasants and family farmers in the field of agriculture are economic actors that are more credible than formal companies.

Peasant agriculture in Africa doesn’t turn up its nose at progress, because we often reduce the problem to a question of progress, that is not the issue. Everything that can help us to move forward without destroying our means of production -- we are all for it. It is not a matter of turning it down. It is a question of not having access to progress. The problem is that we don’t have access to all the kinds of progress that we want.

If you can’t get bank loans to commercialize your products, or if you cannot buy a plow and a couple of oxen to draw it to till the fields, GMOs and chemical fertilizers will not solve your problems. We just don’t want that kind of “progress”. When your priority is to plough your fields, they offer to sell you hybrid seeds or GMOs, chemical fertilizers, and pesticides. Your priority is not to buy more or less seeds or chemical fertilizers. As peasants, if you go down that risky road, one thing is sure: you will never get your money back and you will destroy your land.

People who have moved on beyond the basic material needs might be interested in these questions, but what we tell these people is that everybody needs to be helped, in terms of development. Everyone can see what are the needs and priorities to take into account in national choices of development. This is just what good governance recommends. Development should not be a selective process where you take the needs of the few and leave the majority by the wayside.

What I told my government was, “55 percent of our population don’t have the basic wherewithal to plow their fields. If you agree with us, take public monies and let’s solve that problem and I will sign the document, I will give you my written guarantee that Mali will never lack food again.”

It’s simple. I am prepared to wager my life on it. People just can’t understand it because for them you need to buy a tractor and the tractor has got a huge cost attached and the costs can’t be met by the peasant farmers. You have to pay for the diesel. Our country does not produce oil. It costs a lot of money. You have to pay the driver and you have to maintain the tractor with spare parts. I know families that have been totally ruined, totally destroyed, because they bought a tractor.

But if you give a donkey, a plow, and a couple of oxen to the farmer, you build the family, you build the economy. You build a potential taxpayer who is reliable. Thousands of reliable taxpayers and families are a much more powerful basis than an agribusiness company that later receives government granting. That’s where the issue lies.

How to control local markets

In Motion Magazine: Via Campesina is pretty much a horizontal network and so is the economic situation you are talking about. Is this the way to get a proper democracy?

Ibrahima Coulibaly: Once again, let me be totally honest with you. Some members in Via Campesina do not attach enough importance to the question of markets and the way peasants can position themselves to control them. I feel that this is a tactical mistake and especially, also, an economic error. It isn’t possible to be a peasant and not sell anything, unless you are living in a totally self-sufficient way, which is easier said than done. I believe that we need to solve this issue of local and national markets. It is a subject that is not being given sufficient consideration, which worries me. If I produce something, I need to sell a part of it. If not, I can shut up shop. It isn’t possible to be a real peasant unless one sells what one grows. We are economic actors. I am not talking about economic actors like Merrill Lynch or other banks, but of peasants who feed and build their countries, that’s all. The horizontal economy that you talk about, really needs to be built at that level, at the local and national level, or else we shall remain weak. We are confronted by international capital all the time.

People need to understand that the peasants represent an economic force in their countries, and that they can become very powerful political actors, capable of bringing about change, once they manage to unite and sell together, and have a good income. In Africa we cannot just mobilize on the basis of slogans, because African peasants live in such difficult realities that they have to remain very concrete to survive. African peasants are down to earth people. They mobilize on the basis of real problems. The real problem is how to control local markets. We need to work on that. This is an essential question for the future of the Via Campesina movement.

Published in In Motion Magazine August 17, 2009