Henry Saragih: Farmers feed the world

JP/Prodita Sabarini
JP/Prodita Sabarini

“The Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s needs, but not every man’s greed,” said activist Henry Saragih, quoting Indian non-violent activist Mahatma Gandhi recently at his office in Jakarta.

The head of the Indonesian Farmers’ Union (SPI) and the secretary general of La Via Campesina, a global alliance of small-scale farmers and rural workers, lives by those words. He leads a global movement advocating a return to locally-produced food to address the global food crisis and environmental degradation.

UK-based weekly The Observer recently listed him as one of the 20 Green Giants, “activists, filmmakers, writers, politicians and celebrities who will be setting the global environmental agenda in the coming year”. In 2008, The Observer’s sister publication, The Guardian, listed him as one of the 50 people who could save the planet.

In his office in Mampang Prapatan, East Jakarta, he reminded The Jakarta Post that before international publications acknowledged his work, this paper had already taken notice of him in a 2003 profile.

“That helped our movement [the SPI] gain exposure internationally,” he said.

The UN Food and Agriculture organization (FAO) announced the world’s food price index had hit an all-time high in December, exceeding that of 2008 when a global food crisis caused riots in several countries, including Indonesia.

For Henry, the main drivers of the global food crisis are a global trade system that allows speculators rather than farmers to control food prices, the use of food for mechanical and animal farming, and climate change.

Henry said that other experts had cited population increase as another factor, as  world population was predicted to grow to 9.2 billion in 40 years time, one-third larger than it is now.

Henry, however, added that La Via Campesina believed the world could feed itself if every country controlled its food supply — what he calls “food sovereignty” — and empowered their own farmers to provide food for their local communities. Thus, he quoted Gandhi.

After years of advocating small-scale farmers’ and rural workers’ rights, fighting against big transnational corporations and the World Trade Organization (WTO), the organization succeeded last year in lobbying the UN to recognize the role and rights of small farmers in the world.

In Indonesia, Henry said his movement was pushing for a Law on Farmers’ Protection and Empowerment and an amendment of the Law on Food.

La Via Campesina strongly rejects the World Trade Organization and free trade agreements on agricultural products, he said.

“Ever since the Uruguay round, hunger problems have increased, and so has poverty, environmental degradation, forest destruction, the decreasing of biodiversity. And big corporations are taking land from farmers,” he said, referring to international meetings between 1986 to 1994 that resulted in the establishment of the WTO.

He explained that Indonesia imported soy, fruit, milk and rice at very low prices, which made it
hard for local farmers to compete in these markets. This phenomena is taking place in other countries as well, he went on. Japanese and Korean farmers also feel the burden of free trade.

“Farmlands are neglected there because, given the production costs in Japan and Korea, the farmers there cannot compete with products from other countries,” he said. In 2003, Korean farmer Lee Kyung-Hae killed himself in Cancun, Mexico, during a protest against the WTO.

Korean farmers cannot compete with imported products such as Australian beef or rice from Indonesia and Thailand, Henry added. And while local farmers and farms in Korea were neglected, in response to the 2008 global food crisis, big transnational companies — including Korean companies — started opening farms in developing countries, including Indonesia.

“Japanese and Korean farmers could actually feed their communities if the farmers there were given some support,” he said.

Henry argued the neo-liberalist system had created a chaotic world economy system. He pointed to the growing number of crops used to feed animals instead of humans.

“Soy from Latin America is exported to Copenhagen for the pig industry there to be exported all over the world,” he said. “The production of animal feed is energy-consuming — so is its transportation — and for this the Amazon forest is cleared,” he said.

La Via Campesina’s slogans include “Farmers feed the world” and “Small-scale sustainable farmers are cooling down the Earth”. Henry said La Via Campesina was advocating “food sovereignty” as a solution to the food crisis and global warming through agrarian reforms that would strengthen small-scale farming.

He added that access to food should be seen as a basic human right and not be treated as commodity.

Henry comes from a family of farmers. He was born and raised in Tarutung, in a small rural city in North Sumatra. After graduating from the School of Social Politics of North Sumatra University in Medan, he returned to his hometown and saw how farmers there struggled to survive, as they did not own their own land. Meanwhile, large swaths of land were given to pulp and paper companies that polluted the Asahan River.

In 1993, he secretly founded the North Sumatra Farmers Union, as farmers were not allowed to form unions under the Suharto regime. The military often raided their meetings, grabbing and interrogating him in the process.

“We had to have 1,000 minds to avoid getting caught,” he said.

When people were setting up new political parties on the eve of the reform era, he and other farmers set up the SPI.

In 2000, the SPI became the Southeast Asian representative for La Via Campesina. In 2004, Henry was elected general coordinator of the movement. He was re-elected for a second term in 2008.

Henry divides his time between Jakarta, Medan and the rest of the world. He practically lives in his Jakarta office when working in the capital, sleeping on a small bed tucked behind a cabinet.

He returns to Medan almost every three months to see his family.

“I’m very lucky my wife understands my struggle,” he said. “She’s also an activist. She helps out communities and sets up micro-financing for women.”

Henry said his position as general coordinator of La Via Campesina would end in 2012. The torch of leadership as well as the office will be passed on to farmers in Mozambique in Africa in 2013.

Prodita Sabarini, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta | People | Mon, January 31 2011

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