See our Photo of the Week (and archive of more) books we recommend

Opinion Advertize Permission
To be notified of new articles Survey Store About Us

Interview with Paul Nicholson
Member of the Basque Country’s EHNE

Food Sovereignty and a New Way of Internal Democracy
Matola, Mozambique

Paul Nicholson at the 5th International Conference of La Via Campesina in Matola, Mozambique. All photos by Nic Paget-Clarke.
Paul Nicholson at the 5th International Conference of La Via Campesina in Matola, Mozambique. All photos by Nic Paget-Clarke.

Paul Nicholson speaking with another Via Campesina member on the stage at the conference.
Paul Nicholson speaking with another Via Campesina member on the stage at the conference.

A walking rally in support of President Evo Morales and the campesino movement in Bolivia, during the conference.
A walking rally including support of President Evo Morales and the campesino movement in Bolivia, during the conference.
Paul Nicholson speaks to the assembled delegates during the conference.
Paul Nicholson speaks to the assembled delegates during the conference.
Delegates sit below flags from around the world.
Delegates sit below flags from around the world.
At the end of the conference, delegates sang together around a fire.
At the end of the conference, delegates sang together around a fire.
Many delegates visited farmer cooperatives in Marracuene which are members of the Mozambique National Peasants Union (UNAC). Here, a cashew picked in a cooperative orchard.
Many delegates visited farmer cooperatives in Marracuene which are members of the Mozambique National Peasants Union (UNAC). Here, a cashew picked in a cooperative orchard.
An association member in Marracuene weeding a field of lettuce.
An association member in Marracuene weeding a field of lettuce.
Paul Nicholson is a member of EHNE (Euskal Herriko Nekazarien Elkartasuna), the Basque Farmers Union in the Basque Country, and a member of the International Coordinating Committee in Via Campesina. EHNE is part of the Spanish COAG (Coordinadora de Organizaciones de Agricultores y Ganaderos), which is part of the European Coordination-Via  Campesina, a Via Campesina organization in Europe. 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 17, 2008 during the 5th International Conference of La Via Campesina. The conference was held at the FRELIMO Party School in Matola, Mozambique.

Produce locally, transform locally, sell locally

Paul Nicholson: I’m Paul Nicholson. I’m from the Basque Country. I’m a farmer on the coast of the Cantabrian Sea, the Bay of Biscay. By profession, by training, I’m a dairy farmer, though I’m no longer a practicing dairy farmer. I no longer have a dairy farm. I have a small farm and am part of a cooperative where we make jams, cider, conserves, with our products. We are fourteen families.

In Motion Magazine: Can you tell me a bit more about the cooperative you are a member of?

Paul Nicholson: Yes, we are fourteen families and most of the members are full-time farmers, though we have some who are not. About half are organic farmers, although most of the products we sell don’t have organic certification. We sell our markets in local markets. We employ six people making the cider. We produce about 100,000 bottles of cider a year, and also different marmalades, and different conserves, with our own local product. We sell in a thirty-mile radius. We are now twelve years old. The first six years we didn’t make any money, but now we are beginning to be successful. Obviously, I think, especially in Europe, local product, sold locally, is one of the only ways that a small family farmer can survive. Produce locally, transform locally, and sell locally.

In Motion Magazine: How does the cooperative function within itself. How do people make decisions? What do they make decisions about?

Paul Nicholson: Our priority is to sell our produce fresh in our local markets -- we have good decent local markets -- and through small shops. We have a board of four people who take the big decisions and one of the farmers is also the coordinator, who coordinates the whole business, the kitchen work and the sales. We just have one coordinator. We have one salesman, who is also a part of the cooperative. Then, we have five staff producing the jams and the sauces.

Value added and a diverse commercial network

In Motion Magazine: How do you deal with the money side of it?

Paul Nicholson: We started off as just a group of local farmers seeing the impact of the competitive agriculture and the product share of the big firms, the big distribution, the big shops, and that we had to protect the local food production systems and local trade systems. We made, first, a campaign, “Produce local, eat local. That’s good for you, it’s good for us”.

That was the big statement. That generated a movement, and then we developed a whole strategy of working with restaurants, shops. We are not looking for the high-class market. Consumers are local people. It wasn’t just a question of price, it was a question of identity, food quality, of knowing who produces it, how it’s produced.

And, that finally made us fourteen farmers who decided that we needed to have value added to our products. We prefer to sell fresh but what we cannot sell fresh, we transform -- to cider, excellent bramble jams, very good tomato sauces. We do paprika sauces. And then all the vegetables and all the marmalades.

It’s a very hilly area. It’s very humid. It’s very Atlantic. It rains often. And we have a wide diversity of food. But its terrain is hilly, mountainous, it doesn’t make it possible for the big family farmers, the big farmer, the industrial farmer to come in. We are a small farm. My farm is six hectares. That will be the average size of the farm in the group.

We developed our products and today, to be honest, we have such a demand that we have to produce some of the products with not-local products, products which might come from a hundred miles away, or a hundred and fifty miles away. There we use a different label. But, it’s the same system of production.

We do not sell to the big stores. It’s not any political decision; it’s an economic decision. We support local small shops. We support local restaurants. And we support our consumers. We do not sell in the big stores because at the end you cannot compete. You cannot be protecting the small shops at the same time as protecting the big supermarkets. To the equivalent of the Wal-Mart in the United States, we have decided not to sell. Even if they say, “We want to buy all your products,” we don’t sell because we know we have to maintain a very diverse commercial network and that we are dependent on the local inhabitants. We have to maintain that identification of the cooperative. And, so far, it’s working.

One of our biggest problems, today, is not the economical viability, our biggest problem is lack of youth. Lack of youth who want to take over our effort. It’s a good business, in terms of economic viability, and we have many ideas for the future but we need new farmers.

In Motion Magazine: They prefer to go to the city or they just don’t want to be involved?

Paul Nicholson: Yes. Farming is a sacrifice and youth, our youth at least, are looking more to other responses in society because of the urban attraction of another type of living. It is a difficulty for us. Historically, we have been a fishing and farming community and now those are two sectors, not only in crisis but also in cultural crisis. Yes, the attraction of the big city is something. We lose many of our sons and daughters to that.


In Motion Magazine: Are there other cooperatives? Are you unique or is there a trend?

Paul Nicholson: In the Basque Country we have historically been very cooperative-minded, very small community-minded. In our small region, 35,000 people, there will be at least 50 cooperatives of different kinds: industrial, of services, of agriculture. We live near the Mondragon area. The Mondragon experience, for us it is very globalized. There is a culture, a tradition of working together. For example, EHNE, the farmers union, it has a big base. In our small county there are over 100 members of the organization. It is a big social concept, working together. But not on the farm, the tractors we don’t share (laughs).

In Motion Magazine: So, it’s more the value-added part that is the cooperative. Not the actual production.

Paul Nicholson: Yes. That’s right.

In Motion Magazine: And that is based on a traditional view?

Paul Nicholson: Yes. It is tradition.

In Motion Magazine: Back centuries-type tradition?

Paul Nicholson: Yes. For example, we have, in EHNE, as an organization, insurance for fire. We have a mutual insurance scheme whereby in solidarity we have 4,000 farmers. Mutual insurance against fire, theft, wind, and water.

In Motion Magazine: Do you see this cooperative movement as an alternative to the multinational corporate way of doing things?

Paul Nicholson: I think we have to work with our synergies. That is very clear. We certainly are very careful about, very critical of the big cooperatives. They’re very different.

In Motion Magazine: Are those really cooperatives?

Paul Nicholson: Cooperatives in name. They were originally small cooperatives which, with the argument of being competitive, of being efficient and surviving in a competitive market, have got bigger and bigger and bigger. In the end, you lose control of it and they become another company. For us, the synergies in small cooperatives, or small associations, is an important way out.

In Motion Magazine: To dwell on this a little bit, do you think it’s purely a matter of size and number that makes it politically different?

Paul Nicholson: No. It’s not only the size, but undoubtedly the bigger cooperative it is, the more difficult it is to maintain its origin, input -- its original spirit. The bigger you are, the more global you become, and the more competitive you become, and, suddenly, all the managing staff become the managers of the whole business, and its associates, or its farmers, lose control. We have that experience.

We have a local cooperative which was built by farmers for the inputs of the farmers, buying the fertilizers, buying all the farmer goods, including concentrates, including animal feed. We are small farmers so we use a lot the bag, the 80-pound concentrate bag, and this cooperative now wants to compete, and wants to sell more. To sell more they sell to bigger farms, the big industrial outfits. They don’t use bags. They use trucks. And the trucks don’t go to the small farmers. So, now, they don’t sell bags to the small farmers because those have to go in a small lorry and not a big truck. At the end of the day, that cooperative has now become dependent on the big farms. And the small farmer, who was the original owner of the cooperative, has lost out.

History has a cycle and it all comes back. Now this cooperative cannot compete because the big farmers are running out of business because of global competition. Now, they are beginning to see that it’s much better to have many small farmers than one or two big farmers.

In Motion Magazine: So, the awareness is coming through the experience?

Paul Nicholson: Yes. Farmers, we always learn through experience. That’s a universal thing.

To generate our local economy

In Motion Magazine: A friend of mine in Venezuela calls it a solidarity economy as opposed to a capitalist economy. Does that make sense to you? Is this a conscious thing?

Paul Nicholson: Yes, it’s a conscious thing. When we defend and protect our local economies, we understand that as farmers we are part of our local society and it is in our interest, for example, to have small butchers, or to have small shops, and that we need a small abattoir. We need the whole local agro-transformation. We cannot compete killing our cattle, sacrificing our cattle, a hundred miles away in the big abattoir. We have to sacrifice our animals by our butchers to be sold to our local inhabitants. We need a close-by place and that means farmers have to collaborate with small shopkeepers, with clients, and generate a common understanding that we have to defend our local economy. And the fisherfolk too; it’s the same with the fisherfolk.

In our local school, there is an agreement and that is our children at the school will only eat meat produced by a farmer who has a son or a daughter at school. That ensures that our kids eat good food. That the tomatoes and the fish are caught in the village. That we don’t buy cheap food brought in from outside. It might be more expensive, initially, but in the end, in terms of health, in terms of culture, in terms of understanding our local communities, it is good.

In Motion Magazine: Is there a connection between that way of doing things and the politics of the area, such as how you run the community?

Paul Nicholson: When you go down to politics in the villages, yes, it’s a big debate, obviously. Party politics very often make it difficult to find a common space. Party politics often generate small divisions. But there is a social sentiment which everybody understands. We have to generate our local economy. The political parties are being pushed to that. The temptations or dreams of bringing in a major industrial corporation, that is being resisted.

But yes, it’s a tough battle to maintain that strategy in the face of policies which come from outside, from other institutional governments which project towards us markets. For example, they are trying to project to us another kind of tourism, more commercial tourism. Another land use, in terms of building second houses. And, another important issue which is coming from the outside is infrastructure. They want us to build bigger roads to facilitate more incomers coming to the coast.

So, yes, from the outside we do get a lot of pressure to, as they say, globalize and not be so protective of our culture or our economy.


In Motion Magazine: Why do you use the word sacrifice in regard to the animals?

Paul Nicholson: We usually use sacrifice.

In Motion Magazine: That shows respect to the animal, I guess?

Paul Nicholson: Yes. In a small abattoir you can do that. For us it is very important that, say you are the butcher, I sell to you that cow which is called Blackie. And you are buying Blackie because you think that is going to be an excellent meat. There is a clear identification. I take Blackie to the abattoir and that day it will be sacrificed, or the next day it will be sacrificed, and the butcher will be there to take it back home. Obviously, in a big abattoir there is no way that there is any control by the butcher or by the farmer.

We are having a major battle to maintain open our local abattoir. We have 14 town councils which have supported opening a new abattoir with all the hygienic standards, all legal, for our little local region. It is very important to maintain that because, that way, not only will we maintain the quality of food and the identity of that food for our inhabitants, but also we will maintain work for about 200 small butchers, in the region, and 2,000 farmers, not full time but they might have eight or ten beasts each. And that is the chain we want to maintain. For us, that is very important.

Food sovereignty: a regulation of the market

In Motion Magazine: The idea of food sovereignty -- do people in Europe look at that literally nation by nation or do you see it more as a concept of localism? What does it mean to you?

Paul Nicholson: It has different understandings. I think very often people don’t even know that they are speaking about food sovereignty when it is food sovereignty. What I have been speaking about now, clearly, is food sovereignty. It is food sovereignty as a citizen concept, a farmer’s concept, a local economy whose sovereignty is a right. First of all, it is a right, a political right and an obligation for governments to develop food and agricultural policies for a sustainable agriculture.

It’s the right for governments to protect, to regulate markets, the import/export of food. To regulate prices. It’s the political capacity for governments to say what they need and what they don’t need. It’s a regulation of the market, in terms of the needs of society. In food policy and agricultural policy, everything is not compatible. You cannot have an agricultural policy, for example, which promotes a model of industrial, intensive agriculture or food production, at the same time defending local sustainable agriculture. They are incompatible. It is to prioritize a model of production related to what sustainability social and environmental systems need.

We are speaking, then, of not just food sufficiency, a self-sufficient concept, it is the political right to determine the policies. “I want this. I don’t want that.” It is the right to prioritize local food production. To import at what price. To export at what price.

Secondly, it’s the right to access. Access to land, water, seeds. It’s the right of access for future farmers, farmer sons or not farmer sons. The right of access.

And, thirdly, it is the right of the consumer to determine what we eat, how it’s produced, and who produces it. Right now, the consumer has no control, not of the prices, not of the qualities of food. And we don’t even know who produces it. It is a consumer right, no doubt. Food sovereignty is not just a farmer’s right, it is a citizen’s right to determine what we are eating, how it’s produced, who produces it.

A tractor to push neoliberal policies

In Motion Magazine: So, in Europe, it is based on nationality, area, or you just really mean local?

Paul Nicholson: Food sovereignty will be gained locally, but, at the end of the day, the policies are determined by governments. It is the alternative to the neoliberal, capitalist policies. It is the alternative to this model of society, and that we have to build on. We have to construct very slowly. There are a few countries in the world who are beginning to develop strategies of food sovereignty. It will take a long time, but it means policy changes, fundamental policy changes.

In Motion Magazine: The European Union, what do you think of it? Is it a good thing, a bad thing, or that’s not the way to look at it?

Paul Nicholson: Obviously, Europe exists and there’s a European common perspective, but very wide, very, very wide. Whether I justify a political union, I don’t know, that is another question. But it is very, very diverse. Europe is very diverse in history and culture and climate, in everything. To envisage that you can make a Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is difficult because such is the diversity. The role of European agricultural policy, as that of a (U.S.) Farm Bill, internationally, has been that of being a tractor to push neoliberal policies, to push the Free Trade agenda. The European agricultural policy, European agriculture, is the main agriculture on the planet -- the second exporter of food and first importer. It is a major question in Europe.

Historically, the main budget has been for food production. The European agricultural policy, then, is the main neoliberal policy in the world. And, in the free trade debates it has been Europe which has pushed for opening all the markets.

In Motion Magazine: Even more than the U.S.?

Paul Nicholson: Yes. The U.S. is much more protectionist. The U.S. has its military capacity to impose policies. European strategy has been through trade, the free trade agenda, at the WTO (World Trade Organization), for example. The European Union, in the WTO negotiations, has said specifically and publicly, they are able to sacrifice agriculture, in terms of liberalizing all economy, but before that I have to say that the European agriculture policy has been the culprit for destroying millions of family farms. We are losing about three family farms every minute in the European Union. There is a huge crisis in family farms. Many regions, especially mountainous or disadvantaged regions, are losing farmers and, practically, have lost their farmers. There is a very quick process towards a concentration on very few farmers. There is a continuous restructuring of the family farm structure and food farming is being reduced to a few regions and very few farmers. Europe is concentrating not only its production in industrial agricultural model of production, but also socially it is reducing the role of the small family farm.

A corporate-driven agricultural policy

But Europe is very diverse. In the United Kingdom, in Great Britain, you might have an average of farmers at one percent of the population, like in the United States. But, you have other areas of Europe where you might have, in Italy 8 percent, or in Spain 8 percent, in Rumania 25 percent. So, it is very diverse, but it is a policy which has expelled small family farmers from the land. It has put farming in the hands of the corporations. It is a corporate driven agricultural policy. The subsidies are the instruments, one of the main instruments to promote big farms. The more you produce, the more subsidy you get. That is the promoter of getting bigger and producing more.

In Europe, you have a specificity which is similar, probably, in the United States, and that is the role of the big food chains in controlling prices and distribution of food. That is a big threat in Europe. The big food chains, French, British, CarreFour, Tesco, are beginning to control not only what consumers eat and how they buy it, but also the farmers themselves, how much they earn. They are controlling, they are pulling down the prices, and the conditions in which food is presented to them. The contractual agriculture, whereby it is the big firms who are contracting food production directly to farmers, that is having a terrible impact, not only on farmers but on consumers.

The Spanish organization of Via Campesina, COAG, is making a monthly economical analysis and followup of the prices the farmers are getting and the prices the consumers are getting. They have a chart of about 40 basic products -- vegetables, fruits, meats, milk -- and there can be differences from 1,300 percent to 200 percent on the difference for the same product which is being paid to farmers and which the consumers are paying.

For example, the difference for potatoes, which has no transformation price, between origin, the farmer, and destination can be up to 800 percent, with no explanation. The only explanation is the monopoly control by these big shops, the big food chains, who are determining the conditions for the farmer and the consumer. Over the last ten years, this has been a major transformation.

To monopolize political processes

In Motion Magazine: This expansion of corporate farming and the destruction of the family farms is that what you mean when you talk about the destruction of the local culture? If so, what is that relationship and is that change inherently anti-democratic?

Paul Nicholson: Yes. Yes. First of all, the impact of loss of local economy is the loss of farmers in the local economy and then the loss of local culture. Spain, for example, over the last 30 years, you have thousands of villages which have been abandoned. People have left and gone to big cities. Since 1955. There is a movement which works on recovering the memory of these lost villages. And that has happened in many parts of, especially, south Europe. Migration, loss of local economy. In the end, people return for the month of August on their holidays, or because they retire. There have been villages bought up by Japanese and German conglomerates to make them into old people’s villages. They do up the old beautiful houses and have them for retirement villages.

That process is culturally very strong. Socially, it is very strong.

Here we have, on the one hand, the governments want to reduce food costs, the basic food basket, in its fight against inflation and maintaing monetarist strategies (, and that interest in lowering the food cost for the consumers coincides with the will, or the political capacity, of the corporations to monopolize political processes.

Clearly, the governments in Europe are promoting these big food chains for other interested reasons -- facilitation of construction permits, making infrastructure, roads to facilitate food/mile transport. There are many vested interests to put the control of food in the hands of the corporations. It is the corporations today which practically run agricultural policy, and obviously it is completely anti-democratic.

And anti-democratic even in the context of what we understand today as country governance. It is absolutely illegal what is happening. They are breaking all the given rules. Right now, all the policies are in support of that model of food consumption, food production in such terms that is the big transnationals which are screwing both the farmers and the consumers.

They are tightening, they are controlling what we eat, what we produce, how it is produced, the prices. It is all for the benefit of the big companies. There is no sensitivity from the governments, or no question from the governments that this system is damaging the social, cultural welfare of the people. It is not a priority.

And that is dramatic. It is dramatic because when you negotiate with governments you always come up against the economical and financial. We have the example in the financial crisis of the big bailout -- all the world; it is an immediate bailout; over the weekend; no problem. They did it quickly.

There’s a climatic crisis. Last year it was the big issue, everybody was worried. Clearly all society is worried. But there has been no response and now they say climatic change can wait. “We have to deal with the financial crisis.” The whole process of political decisions is more and more in the hands of the transnationals and that is something we have to face. It is one of the major issues facing the 5th assembly of Via Campesina. How to change these policy decisions and how to reduce, control the political power of the transnationals.

Expressions of resistance

In Motion Magazine: How would you assess, specifically in Europe, the progress of Via Campesina’s work?

Paul Nicholson: We are having a real difficult time because we aren’t many farmers. We are four or five percent, generally, in the European Union. We have lost political influence, cultural influence.

In Motion Magazine: How did you lose it?

Paul Nicholson: Because our numbers are so reduced and also because food, as an important issue, disappeared. Now, with the food crisis, I think there is a new sensitization. People are more sensitive, for example, with the issue of the mad cow disease. It is something which we are working with. In Europe, the Via Campesina organizations they shore up alliances. This is very important. We are making a huge effort in trying to build up alliances to change the agricultural policies because by ourselves we cannot. By ourselves, we cannot even influence public opinion.

We are developing the work of alliances and we are developing proposals with our allies. We are not asking money for the farmers, or more subsidies for the farmers. We are defending, in agriculture, a social perspective, which is an agriculture tied to society requirements. They are proposals which we try and build up with consumers, with environmental movements, to consolidate the message that food is not just something you eat but it is more. It is your health. It is your quality of life. It is a social perspective, employment, local identity, etc.

In Europe, it’s going to be a difficult fight for us. The support coming from Via Campesina is important because worldwide we are half the planet. Half the population of the world are farmers. In Europe, we are just four or five percent. The support we get from the outside is important.

In Motion Magazine: Is it important that your cooperative exists, in and of itself? I’m thinking about the ideas of autonomy.

Paul Nicholson: Yes, it is. And you have thousands of expressions of resistance like that. We will build up our proposals on those realities.

In Motion Magazine: As a method of organizing, does Via Campesina organize in communities to do what you are doing?

Paul Nicholson: Via Campesina is a new movement, fourteen, fifteen years. We are constructing Via Campesina as we go along. We are learning all the time and learning new ways of functioning. It’s a bottom-up organization. It’s a very horizontal organization. It is not top-bottom, in any way. For the whole global scenario, there are just four full-time persons working in Via Campesina. Four, for a movement where we might be 300 million farmers. It’s not a traditional federal organization. It is very much a bottom-up movement where we develop together our analysis and our proposals.

What does it mean that we are constructing our proposals together, a proposal of food sovereignty together? We are doing it each in his own way, in his own place, in his own condition. That is the way we are moving. The fight for land, for example. Access to land or to water, to seeds, farmer seeds. They are common positions but each one of us developed the strategies, the local strategies. The issue of GMOs.

Reaping the GMO maize

In Motion Magazine: Do you want to talk about that?

Paul Nicholson: Via Campesina is clearly positioned against GMOs, both in the northern hemisphere and the southern hemisphere. Each fighting its own battles with the support of others. For example, in France. In France today, all maize GMO has been forbidden. In Spain, which is just over the border, you have 60,000 hectares of GMO maize. They are different battles, obviously, but in France, through a combination of social mobilization and direct action, they have achieved a huge success. Today, the only GMOs produced in France are those for investigation in closed environments.

But in Spain, we have a lot to go, mobilizing farmers. We have an alliance between Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, COAG farmers, the Rural Platform, other alliances. We are trying to develop a strategy and plans of action which will make GMO expansion in Spain vastly reduced.

In Europe, there is another reality and that is local governments. Villages, towns, like in the United States, are declaring themselves free of GMOs. You have, for example, the Basque Country which is being declared free of GMOs. No GMO production of food. You have many regions of Europe like that. You have the regions of Poland, of Austria. Some in Romania. Some in Italy, like Tuscany. In Germany, too.

It’s a movement, not only of social movements, who fight against GMOs. By reaping the maze ... There’s a movement in France called Faucheurs and they reap the maize. They, in the months of July and August, they identified the fields of GMO maize, and they reaped them. It provoked such a reaction in the media. It was debated, a huge debate, and at the end now they have achieved that it is forbidden because it was proved by neutral scientists the GMO contamination was a hundred kilometers. If the GMO contamination is 100 kilometers, there’s no way you can have any GMO-free production.

No social atmosphere

In Motion Magazine: Are you working at all with any European Union farmers who live in formerly-socialist countries?

Paul Nicholson: Yes. But it is very difficult. There is no social movement, as such, and we are beginning from zero. We have some members but very few, very weak. Everything is on sale. It is the big corporations which are buying up prime agricultural land for agro-fuels.

In Motion Magazine: Were there any cooperatives left in eastern Europe or was it all state-owned?

Paul Nicholson: There were very, very few family farms. Very few in some parts of Poland, some parts of Slovenia. There is no social atmosphere to generate an associative movement. It’s a very individualized society.

In Motion Magazine: As a backlash?

Paul Nicholson: Yes.

The day of the land: Palestine

In Motion Magazine: You went to visit Yasser Arafat in March 2002?

Paul Nicholson: Yes.

In Motion Magazine: Was that in relation to Via Campesina or simply an act of solidarity?

Paul Nicholson: It was a decision made by the Via Campesina coordinating committee that we were going to send a delegation to visit Palestine on the day that the Palestinians celebrate the day of the land. We went there to visit the Palestinian farmer organizations and it just happened that when we were in Ramallah, going to have the meeting with the farmer organizations, the Israeli army occupied Palestine. It just happened that we were there. It just happened that our hotel was half a mile away from the hospital and that we went to the hospital. What we saw in the hospital was how the Israeli army forbade the ambulances from going and picking up the wounded and the dead. So, the international Via Campesina was with other international solidarity groups and we began to help move the dead and the wounded because they wouldn’t allow ... .

It was obvious then, in Ramallah, that they wanted to go and occupy and imprison Arafat. We decided that we would go to Mukata'a, which is the central palace of Yasser Arafat. We would be with them. It was the second day, and we managed to go in to Arafat, to the Mukata'a, and we were a delegation of five. We, very fortunately, went in with the CNN reporter who was our witness. He made it all possible because he was the witness, the media. We had a small meeting of Via Campesina and we decided that some would go back and report and some were going to stay. We decided to stay.

But it was a coincidence. La Via Campesina didn’t arrange that the Israeli army were going to invade. Didn’t arrange that we were going to be there that day. It was just a coincidence, as a farmers’ organization. But you have to take the decisions as they come. We are a movement between farmers and we have to defend the farmers in the world. It just happened. We had been in other delegations to other countries.

Filling the box with jewels

In Motion Magazine: Did you talk to him (Arafat)?

Paul Nicholson: Oh, yes. Every night. He was a very charming person. He was a shy man. A very pleasant person. He wasn’t in good health. We have many anecdotes.

We were about thirty international people and then he had the support of another 200 militants. There was no food. No water, so the toilets were disgusting. There was no light. And we were surrounded by the Israeli army. It was a difficult situation, but for us it was very interesting.

The relationship with Arafat was ... he was an incredible man, as a person, with no evaluation of him politically. Obviously, he was the leader of the Palestinian people and above all the political conflicts, which in Palestine are huge, he was the leader of the Palestinian people. In that sense, we went there to protect his life. We were there to shield him.

Every evening, he used to come down and we used to discuss. Not a very talkative person, but he was very charming. I remember the first week was a difficult week because we had very little water, no light, all darkness. Even at daytime, darkness, because all the army were there, outside. On the fifth of April, which is my birthday, “Arafat, we have to lift the morale here, it’s getting oppressive.” “OK”. Opened all the windows. Let the light in. Let the army see what was happening. And we had a big meeting and he gave me a present -- a big box, an oriental jewelry box, it is very beautiful, I have it -- he was a very ceremonial man -- he gave me the jewelry box and said, “Here, I give it to you. But I give to you the difficult obligation of filling this box with jewels.”

Then, he brought down sugared chestnuts, he had twelve, and we split them up into small pieces and, in a silver tray, that was the supper.

But as Via Campesina. It is part of our role. We have been in Columbia. We have been in India. We have been in Brazil, the Philippines. We have been in different countries in delegations getting, as witness, what was happening.

A new way of internal democracy -- a bottom-up process

In Motion Magazine: When you look at the history of Via Campesina, how do you see the significance of this conference?

Paul Nicholson: When we began, when we started off, we started off saying we had to be a voice of the farmers and that we had to be in control of our own future. That we wouldn’t allow any NGO, or anybody, to speak in the name of us or be us. That we are our future and we are our present. Today, fifteen years on, we are 200 million farmers all over the world, more than 200 organizations. And we represent the farmers’ organizations who are fighting against neoliberal agricultural policies; from the North and from the South with a common strategy.

That is a huge achievement, and we have done it with a new way of working, a new way of internal democracy -- a bottom-up process. Farmers, small, medium, landless farmers, indigenous peoples, women farmer organizations, farmworkers, are together understanding that we have to change the policies -- and to change these policies you have to change the world.

Agriculture is one of the main parts of our life and policy change requires society changed. So, it’s a big transformative movement and, so far, with a capacity of having a cohesive voice, a very clear voice. It’s a voice of hope, it generates hope (such that for) the struggles of me in the Basque Country with my experiences, the struggles in Brazil, or the struggles in India, they are my struggles too. And that idea to globalize the objectives, to make them in common, generates a huge amount of hope, of capacity, of belief that we can, and that we are, changing. We are influencing the process. That, I think, you will understand. We are very conscious that we are changing opinion, that we are changing situations.

The situation for us, as family farmers, will get worse -- that we understand too. But, we are winning other battles. We have made it very well known, for example, the crisis in family farms. I think one of the successes of Via Campesina is that we have put that clearly on the negotiating table. WTO failed. It failed principally because of food and agricultural policy. And it failed because we put on the table, through our struggles, alternatives -- and we denounced the situation that is happening today. It had never been recognized before ’93, what was happening in the farming world. It was a crisis which had the voice of NGOs. Today it is different, I think. We are clearly on the map. Institutions are beginning to be aware of us and we are gaining space.

In Motion Magazine: How significant is it that Via Campesina is a network at the grassroots?

Paul Nicholson: Fundamental. There is no other way. There is no other way of understanding how the diversity of the planet can be built up in such a way. It is a bottom-up movement of networks, of cohesion, of developing common understanding. It requires new ways of working together. I think that is extraordinary. I don’t know what is going to happen to Via Campesina in 10 years time, but what has happened until now is extraordinary.

Published in In Motion Magazine February 23, 2009

Also see: