North meets south on a Missouri farm

Rural Latin American representatives and U.S. family farmers discover similarities

November 1, 2002

By Alonso Soto Joya

Adelante staff writer

In the middle of a warehouse in Chillicothe, Mo., the curious looks and courteous smiles interconnected in what became a friendly and informal conversation among three representatives of Latin American rural movements and a group of local family farmers.

Seated in a circle among the tractors and harvesters, a group of 14 exchanged ideas, anecdotes and similar experiences. But these similarities weren’t about cultivation techniques or rural traditions, but about the very survival of these tenders of the land -- a concern that doesn’t seem to respect borders, according to those present.

The Rural Justice Tour, coordinated by Agricultural Missions Inc., focused on the problems that small producers are confronting in different parts of the world as they face the rapid expansion of free trade policies.

Three farm activists from Brazil, Venezuela and Mexico found much in common with their counterparts in the U.S.

“Our objective was to discuss what we have in common, which in this tour we have realized is much more than we had expected,” said Venezuelan Santiago Obispo of the Amazon Cooperation Network.

The three activists have visited more than 11 states making presentations and meeting with U.S. farmers.

Just as Obispo had been surprised with the similarities, Bill Christison, one of the Chillicothe farmers and president of the National Family Farm Coalition, was also amazed but ready to collaborate.

“They come from far away, and of course we have differences, but now we live in very similar circumstances,” Christison said. “We need to build a relationship that will benefit the family farmers of the world.”

During the Chillicothe meeting, local farmers criticized the new Farm Bill and the current U.S. trade policy. Pressures from the free trade agreements promoted by the United States will expand to the rest of the continent, they said, handing over control of the agricultural economy to the big corporations.

Salete Carollo, representative of the Movimento Sim Terra (Landless Movement) of Brazil, said her organization supports North American family farmers. Her country is experiencing the same problems, she said, and now finds itself approaching an agricultural corporate takeover.

“We need an agricultural model that gets rid of the use of agricultural toxins, promotes an agriculture that is more organic, and production that takes into account the subsistence of the family and the local and internal market,” said Carollo.

Another subject that arose was the consequences of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) between Mexico, the U.S. and Canada and the recent negotiations for the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA), which seeks the economic integration of the Western Hemisphere under a free-market policy.

Antonio Valenzuela, founder of the National Indigenous Congress in Mexico, criticized the abuses of the Mexican government over the indigenous communities.

“This treaty doesn’t favor us, it only favors one small percentage of the population. The poor get poorer and the rich richer,” said Valenzuela.

Obispo presented another form of corporate abuse in Latin America. Venezuela, along with the other countries that share the Amazon rain forest, have been victims of “biopiracy,” or what activists see as the robbery of native species that are then patented and sold to the pharmaceutical or agricultural industry.

“How would you feel if someone came to your country and took this tomato that we ate today to Venezuela and patented it as their own, and then others would have to ask permission to use the seeds?” Obispo asked the Chillicothe farmers.

The Missouri Botanical Garden is the biggest repository of tropical genetic material outside the Amazons. The botanical garden has a tight relationship with Monsanto, one of the leading companies in the world in the genetic engineering business.