Preparing the forum: discussion and action in Belgium

food sovereignty Belgium

On July 23 and 24, the farm “Bufflardenne” in the village Semel hosted the gathering of the year for Belgian peasant farmers and their solidarity movement. For the 6th time now, LeMAP (the movement for peasant action), a Belgian Via Campesina member, organized the Petite Foire, or the little fair, at this marvelous farm. The event brought together peasants, food transformers, artisans, neighbors, NGOs and collectives working on food and farming. During the two days, participants discussed, exchanged ideas, danced, laughed and cried on their way to autonomy in order to reduce dependency upon markets for seeds, fertilizers and speculatory demand. The choice of the location and the dates for the gathering are no coincidence.  The same weekend and less then 10km away along the same road, up to two hundred thousand people gather every year at the Foire de Libramont, Europe's biggest agrifood outdoor showroom.

For our group of Brussels-based food sovereignty activists, the first meeting point on our little road trip to the South of Belgian is Marche-en-Famenne. It is Friday, 6 am when we meet up with farmers from the MIG and the European Milk Board. The scene just before dawn is impressive. Tractors taking over the roads in an outcry of anger against the injustices directed at the milk farmers. With our van we join the tractor caravan. Some of the farmers have been on the road since 3 am. The caravan’s destination is Libramont where the milk farmers plan to occupy the four main entrance roads to the Libramont farmers fair. Cars have to slalom tractors as they are left through the barricade one by one. We distribute tracts and talk to the people in the queuing cars. Most of them are farmers and show solidarity with the farmer blockade and their demands for dairy supply management and regulation of the milk market.

Milk farmers Belgium

                                        Milk farmers protest to demand regulation of milk production

It is important to be there in support of the milk farmers. The same farmers that have been crucial in initiating movement building for the Belgian alliance (D19-20) of unions, farmers and citizens against the ongoing free trade negotiations between the EU and the US (TTIP), and between the EU and Canada (CETA). It is also heartbreaking to hear the despair of ever more indebted farmers. One farmer says he has taken up a job as a truck driver to make ends meet, while another young man reluctantly confesses the losses he is making on a daily basis. The slogans and signs on the tractors read “citizens, know that politicians exterminate family farming, respectful of the environment, animal well-being and jobs”, “we refuse to be the slaves of speculators! Food and agriculture has to be excluded from the World Trade Organization!”, “We don’t want a Europe which policies serve the financial powers and steal the commons from people and farmers by adopting ultraliberal laws and trade agreements (TTIP, CETA,...)”, “European politics have found the way to starve those that feed the world. Support us”. The farmers take the streets, not as a choice, but out of necessity. A more powerful reminder of the enduring violation of the second principle of the Nyeleni declaration, “valorize those that produce your food” is hard to imagine.

Chatting with some of the young farmers in the shade of their tractors, we tell them that we will be heading to the Little Fair afterwards. A young man, he could be hardly more then a teenager, picks up on the conversation. Yes they know about the gathering, but the big Fair is where they will be heading. It is there where their fathers and grandfathers have been gathering for almost a century.

Soon after, the blockade dissolves. Under loud horning the tractor caravan makes it way, back to the fields or the spectacle of the big fair. On our way to Semel, huge machines at the fair tower the fields. There they are, the companies that make direct profit from a corrupted food system. With their machines, standardized seeds and chemicals, salesmen make farmers dream of a better future while stabbing them in the back. With glossy promises of better yields they expropriate farmers from the little that is left. 

Belgium farmers protest

                                        Farmers blocking the entrance to Belgians biggest farm fair.

Tired and with mixed feelings we arrive at the farm. We are welcomed warmly. The food sovereignty declaration’s first principle comes to mind: people not profit. Over the next two days, around two thousand people are expected to visit the little fair. Good food, skill sharing activities ranging from DYI mushroom growing to animal traction, screenings, discussions on access to land, to seeds, … and music create a convivial atmosphere and show that alternatives exist. New and old peasants find a moment to meet colleagues.

For just one weekend in late July, a village is transformed into a miniature of the food system.

An agro-industry showroom at the big fair, farmers on a crossroad blocking roundabouts, and a celebration of peasant farming. Putting together a workshop to prepare the Nyéleni forum here and now couldn’t make more sense. People that participated in the Krems forum share their stories. A good warm up to discuss the experiences we want the local delegation to bring to Romania, to start imagining what we would like to learn and to identify burning issues to be discussed at the upcoming forum. 

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                                     Preparing the upcoming Nyeleni forum at a farm in Semel (BE)

Just when we finish our discussion, images come in from the big fair. In solidarity with the milk farmers, the collective “crève l’écran” has pirated the giant official screen at the entrance of the Libramont farm fair. The screen now reads :”No to European money. Yes to regulation of the milk production. No to free trade agreements. Yes to peasant farming. It’s time for action. Reboot democracy. TTIP GAME OVER.” It all comes together. If ever we had lost sense of what the struggle for food sovereignty was about, the experience of the weekend reminds our bodies and minds of the importance of collective identity, to create a vision and strategy, to share skills and knowledge, to meet people, to better understand the realities we are fighting and to support food systems where we are.

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                  Pirated giant screen at the big Ag fair : YES to PEASANT FARMING – reboot democracy