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News & Events Keynote Speech from Morgan Ody at the IoS Fair Transitions - LANDac Conference & Summit
Keynote Speech from Morgan Ody at the IoS Fair Transitions - LANDac Conference & Summit
Keynote Speech from Morgan Ody at the IoS Fair Transitions - LANDac Conference & Summit
Morgan Ody La Via Campesina
Morgan Ody
Morgan Ody La Via Campesina

In her keynote speech during the opening plenary session of the the IOS Fair Transitions - LANDac Conference & Summit: Land governance and the politics of fair transitions: Deepening the search for social justice on 3 July, 2024, Morgan Ody, General Coordinator of La Via Campesina and a small-scale vegetable farmer in Brittany, France, describes how power has always been disputed for the last five centuries, and how peasants and indigenous peoples all over the world challenge the powerful. 


I'm a peasant from Brittany. I grow vegetables. I've been doing this for just over 12 years. I am a member of the French peasant organization Confederation Paysanne, which is a member of La Via Campesina and its European Coordination Center. La Via Campesina is an alliance of peasant organizations, agricultural workers organizations, and very often including indigenous people and fishermen.

Controlling land means power

I will follow-up on Bram’s presentation and also talk about power. 

Land is power. Throughout most of history, the basis of power has been the control of labor. But when people have access to land, when people can gather, harvest or produce what they need, they will never accept to become laborers and obey a landlord or the boss of a factory. A key change in recent times is that the control of labor is no longer at the center of what makes power, because with mechanization, robotization, and biotechnology it's possible to work 10,000 hectares with very few people. What now allows the control over people is food, and it is also very much related to land.

Power has always been disputed, and not just between a few powerful kings or empires. It's not like Game of Thrones. People are disputing the power. Over the last millennials and centuries, peasants and indigenous peoples all over the world have been challenging the powerful.


500 years of capitalist modernity

Just before I came here, I was in Germany and I visited Bad Frankenhausen where the last battle of the great peasant war took place 500 years ago, in May 1525. 500 years ago, in a large part of Central Europe, in countries that are now Switzerland, eastern France, Germany, Austria and Belgium, when these countries did not exist yet, 300,000 peasants made a huge uprising. 

In the late 15th century and in the 16th century, a new system of power was being built by the European elite. This system of domination has four main pillars:

  1. Colonization, especially with the invasion of the Americas in 1492. Colonialism and imperialism are a key part of this new system of domination. 
  2. A new economic system that we know as capitalism, through the development of new monetary techniques, a massive militarization of society, which in Europe and in other places around the world was key to taking power over the peasants, over the indigenous people, over women, and forcing them to leave their land and work for the powerful people. 
  3. Patriarchy. We know that in Europe the place of women in the Middle Ages was much stronger than what happened afterwards, and a key moment was in the 16th century when we had the witch hunts. The witch hunts went from Europe to the Americas and to Asia by the European colonizers and back to Europe. It was a way of breaking people’s power and to ensure the power of the oligarchy. 
  4. A new ideology based on positive science and a new understanding of life and nature not as organic, but as a machine.  The European man of the elite presented himself as the “master and owner of nature”. This ideology is what opens the door to mass extractivism and massive destruction of territories. 


The great peasant war of 1525

This is what we call modernity, or capitalist modernity (but we could also say patriarchal or colonial modernity). As princes, bankers, scientists, the pope, and conquistadors built this new framework of domination, people deeply resisted. Of course people resisted colonialism in Africa, in the Americas, in Asia, but also in Europe. This was a very important historical moment. At the moment when the system of domination was built for the sake of a very small elite presence in Europe, hundreds of thousands of peasants and workers got organized to resist. They burnt castles and convents, in particular the land titles through which landlords were controlling the land.They wrote their political program in what they called the Twelve Articles. They declared in one of the first manifestos of a popular uprising that “we don't want to be in serfdom, that we are free and want to stay free”. They demanded that the commons be returned to the village communities, and they demanded the right to elect and dismiss their leaders, especially priests. 


A system of domination responsible for today’s disasters

You might ask, what is she talking about? What is the connection with climate and social justice? I would like to propose a hypothesis that this capitalist modernity, which started 500 years ago, which has met with strong resistance from people all over the world, is responsible for the disaster that we are experiencing today: the climate crisis, the mass extinction, the incredible increase in inequalities around the world and within each society, as well as the wars and genocide that we are experiencing right now, not to mention the rise of far-right ideology and political programs everywhere, are all a result of the advent of capitalist modernity 500 years ago. But that model is in the midst of a huge crisis. Right now we are in a moment where there is a huge conflict arising out of this system of domination. 

It is striking that at this moment the issue of agriculture is at the center of the dispute, because peasants are the link between the territories, what we call “nature”, and society. In the 20th century, most intellectuals believed that agriculture was not a major issue because there were so few people working in agriculture in Europe. A lot of people believed that the big issue was industrial labor. But now, with the water crisis, with the environmental crises, it has become very clear that you can't just say the peasants are over. Disputes over agriculture and peasantry are coming back to the forefront. For most people, it's a matter of life and death. It's whether we're going to be able to eat tomorrow, or drink water, or have access to those very basic things. There are massive peasant uprisings around the world because it's very clear to most of us that this is a matter of life and death, and not in the long term. 


This system has reached its limits and is highly contested

Concretely, what is being disputed? Of course, the issue of extractivism is being disputed. In my country, France, one of the main peasant struggles of the last few years is on water grabbing. There are villages where you don't have potable water anymore in summer so that big agro industry can continue to water their industrial corn production. There are people being killed in demonstrations against this water grabbing for this big agro industry. A demonstrator, Remi Fraisse, was killed by the police 10 years ago in Sivens. Last year in Sainte Soline we experienced a huge level of police violence: the police were ready to kill people to ensure the possibility of continuing to grab water for industrial agriculture and two people ended up in coma. This level of violence to defend land or water grabbing is quite new in Europe, but in many Southern countries, it has been on-going for a long time. In Indonesia, Sukarno implemented an agrarian reform in the 60s. Suharto, supported by the CIA, did a coup d'etat in order to stop this agrarian reform and the sharing of land, and as a result of the repression 600,000 to 1 million people died, mainly in rural areas. A few years later, the CIA supported a coup to oust Salvador Allende as well in Chile, and it was also about agrarian reform. How we share the land is a huge conflict between transnational companies and the peasants. It leads to massive struggles, and in these struggles, the transnational companies and the powerful are ready to kill hundreds of thousands of us.

Secondly, what is being disputed is the centrality of European oligarchy and Western Powers. They are trying through desperate attempts to maintain Western supremacy, or hegemony. We may soon have Trump in power again in a few months, and there is a rise of the extreme right in France and around Europe. As Europeans we have a huge responsibility to move away from hegemony and to be just normal. This is a huge responsibility. We see it also in how academic conferences are organized: I really hope that in 10 years, we can hold this kind of conference in Bamako with overwhelmingly scholars from the Global South and a few European scholars, talking about how to fix the Dutch land governance system which is so broken! 

Last but not least, capitalist accumulation is reaching its limits, both the material limit of Earth, but also with the social limits. Economic growth can’t continue. And if we can’t have growth anymore, then it's about how we share what we have. This situation is leading to massive conflicts between the wealthy, who want to maintain their privileges and wealth and continue to grow even richer, and the people, for whom it’s about life or death. 

There are still institutions that pretend that we can all continue business as usual, and  that techno fixes like carbon credits will solve everything. There was a conference of the World Bank a few months ago, in March, on land. They are highly interested in this land issue again, as they see it as a way to save capitalism. They are pushing for false solutions like carbon markets, pretending that peasants are not efficient enough in using the land and that only engineers and the upper class can be efficient. It's a massive program against the people. Some organizations pretend that they are apolitical, for example the International Land Coalition. They say “we are apolitical and we welcome everybody, please you're welcome”. But they work with the World Bank. They work with the people who are making the carbon credit system. They deny that there is a big conflict. I will always be very polite with them, but if I need to tell them the reality, I will say “you are not with us, you are with the oligarchy, with the elite, with those who are grabbing the land, who are killing people. When you grab land and when you grab water, it is about killing people, so I cannot pretend they are friends”. 


What to do in this context?

As social movements, we have a great responsibility to hold on to our values. It's about a single principle: “Every person is a person”. Whatever your religion, whatever your nationality, every human being is a human being. That is the basis of what the Haitian Revolution is telling us. Every person is a person. How do we change this world  so that the oppression is over. How do we end up with the domination of some people over others, of white people over others, of rich over the poor? How do we ensure that the dignity of every person is respected?

This is the key value of La Via Campesina, and it means a very courageous social change. It means that we have to share the land. It means that some people who are very rich have to come down. It means that we also need a bold ecology. It's a massive shift in how we imagine our relationship with nature, from extractivism to a new vision inspired in particular by indigenous peoples. 

I'm standing here with you who are mostly people in the academy and I'm asking you to decide which side you're on. Because the academy has been on the side of the powerful for a very long time, for the last 500 years. Now we're at a pivotal moment where it really matters whether humanity lives or dies, so where do you stand? Do you stand for massive social change, knowing that there will be strong conflicts? Or do you stand with the powerful who give you the money?