The Guardian, Thursday May 27, 1999

Peasants to deliver a message from the soil

John Vidal

Tomorrow a group of peasant farmers and human rights activists who earn less in a year between them than a successful trader might make in a day, will march through the City of London to the Bank of England.

Wearing green shawls and the hand-made khadi cloth which was a symbol of Gandhian resistance to British rule in the subcontinent, their symbolic protest intends to embarrass and bring home to the British financial community the effect that the global trading system is having on the poorest.

"We need fair trade, not free trade," said Vijay Jawandhia, a coconut farmer from Karnataka state in central India. "We do not want your charity or loans. Everywhere the rich are getting richer, the poor poorer."

The farmers and activists are in Britain for three days, part of the intercontinental caravan which arrived in Holland at the weekend for a month long tour of 11 countries, leading to what is expected to be a stormy G8 meeting in Cologne on June 18.

More than 500 people, including farmers from Mexico, Colombia, Bangladesh and Nepal, are holding public meetings, giving "witness statements" and intend ing to take non-violent "direct action" against global corporations and City institutions. Many from India have been refused entry to Britain.

Free trade, the opening of markets, world debt and westernisation has been cruel to the grassroots in developing countries, they argue. The price of many commodities such as cotton, peanuts, palm oil and onions have fallen dramatically. Farmers who are increasingly being locked into the world market are finding their crops unsaleable, prices rising, and cheap heavily subsidised imports undermining their traditional markets.

"We cannot compete. The poor are the worst hit by liberalisation," said one farmer yesterday. Raja Reddy is a cotton farmer from Andrah Pradesh in central India. Many in his village, he says, have been forced into crippling debt, others have had to sell up, head to the city slums or become landless labourers on less than $1 a day.

"Many farmers in the state have committed suicide," he said. "Everyone here is in debt. We are coming to Europe because the G8 countries must understand what is happening because of their policies."

The farmers are supporting themselves, where possible, bringing their own doctors and cooks. Their airfares have been mostly paid by powerful farmers' organisations. It is thought to be the first time that grassroots protesters have taken their protest to the rich countries.

They are part of a growing and increasingly co-ordinated movement of grassroots groups calling for self-determination and objecting to what they call the "neo-colonialism" of world financial institutions.

They are being forced, they say, into civil disobedience and mass demonstrations against policymakers and transnational corporations, who they say are distorting the market, buying national seed companies and being given unfair economic and political advantage.

In the past few years there have been massive demonstrations against the World Trade Organisation, many genetically modified test crops have been burned down and US-owned seed companies offices and factories have been occupied.

The activists plan to protest outside the HQs of Nato, the World Trade Organisation and bio-tech companies such as Monsanto.

"The global economic system is crippling the poorest," says Professor Najundaswamy, leader of the Karnataka State Farmers, a 10 million-strong group which fights for farmers' rights.

He argues that economic liberalisation is now threatening the sovereignty of many developing countries and is leading to increasing tension in the developing world.

In Holland yesterday he and many others were refused a visa to enter Britain. "Why?" he asks. "We have been allowed into every other European country. The British have all the details they need about us. After all, they stole our land."

© Copyright Guardian Media Group plc. 1999