1963-2013 - 50 years of Research for Social Change

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Back | Programme Area: Civil Society and Social Movements

Peasant Associations in Theory and Practice



A decade after Eric Hobsbawm’s obituary to the “end of the peasantry”, in his book The Age of Extremes, rural producers’ organizations are at the forefront of mobilization against globalization —the so-called anti-globalization “movement of movements”. From the formation of the Zapatistas in southern Mexico to the suicide of a South Korean farmer at the 2003 World Trade Organization meeting in Cancun, peasants and rural workers’ organizations have taken the lead in denouncing the deepening of the global market system.

International Monetary Fund–sponsored structural adjustment programmes have radically restructured local rural economies and oriented production toward an international commodity market historically dominated by large-scale modern (and often heavily subsidized) North American and Western European producers. This paper considers the ways in which liberalization and global market dependence have affected poverty, hunger and what Amartya Sen has called “entitlements”: the political, social and economic resources that condition an individual’s access to food and basic needs. The paper builds on Sen’s work by considering the ways in which peasant communities and organizations can be central actors in resisting or negotiating the effects (and character) of the marketplace. The authors present two case studies of rural producers’ organizations in Brazil and Senegal to illustrate how they can shed light on both development as entitlement provision and what Sen himself has called “development as freedom”.

The attempts of groups and communities to form associations and increase the political visibil-ity of rural producers can be seen as a first step toward addressing broader issues of distribution, alternative approaches to production, long-term economic stability and citizenship. The two organizations presented, the Conseil national de concertation et de coopération des ruraux (CNCR) in Senegal and the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (MST) in Brazil do not represent the great variety of associations, organizations and social movements found in rural areas, but their comparison allows for an in-depth look at the ways in which rural producers might mobilize participants, develop a methodology and ideology for action, and affect political and economic agendas considered hegemonic at home and abroad.

The CNCR emerged in 1993 in response to the failure of state-sponsored agricultural policies and rural cooperatives, and the liberalization of the economy under structural adjustment. Over a decade it succeeded in building a powerful national platform, winning government recogni-tion for peasant farmers and a place at the negotiating table, which it has used successfully to defend the interests of small producers.

The MST emerged in 1985 after an authoritarian agricultural modernization programme expelled millions of small farmers from the land. As the military government began to withdraw from power, rural producers throughout Brazil seized the political opening and organized under the discursively coherent umbrella of agrarian reform. Nearly 20 years later, the MST is an important actor in national politics, having scaled up the battle for agrarian reform into a battle for effective democracy, equality and social justice.

The experiences of these organizations raise a number of important questions about the dy-namics of peasant associations, trajectories of change (and their relations to democratic questions), the connection between civil society and state, and, not least, the fiscal foundations (including the role of foreign assistance) in associational forms of development. One of the key lessons from this paper is that entitlements are often grounded in the organizational and political capacities of communities and associations, not in individuals or households, and the ways in which entitlements are mobilized and negotiated depend on the local histories of relationships between the state, civil society and the market. In different contexts, the mode of relation with the state can be an essentially conflictual one (as in the Brazilian case) or one of negotiation and confrontation (as in the Senegalese case). For policy makers and practitioners in multilateral and bilateral development agencies, increasingly committed to promoting what is currently termed “good governance”, these cases raise issues of the uncomfortable interface between social movements and development cooperation programmes.
  • Publication and ordering details
  • Pub. Date: 3 May 2004
    Pub. Place: Geneva
    ISSN: 1020-8178
    From: UNRISD