Romania has a large number of small-scale farmers and most advanced in the food sovereignty movement in postsocialist Europe. Eco Ruralis – the Romanian member of La Vía Campesina – is doing commendable work in promoting food sovereignty and peasant rights. Yet, the movement experiences difficulties in gaining visibility from both rural and urban Romanians.
Since the far-right Alliance for Romanian Unity (AUR) has entered the Romanian parliament, Eco Ruralis may face even more challenges.
A recent study by Anna Hajdu and Natalia Mamonova discusses obstacles and opportunities of the food sovereignty movement in Romania, pointing to additional hindrances that may arise through the rural and urban support of a new right-wing party.
by Anna H
Food sovereignty is often discussed as the sustainable solution to a contemporary paradigm crisis. The global food sovereignty movement has registered unparalleled growth, drawing renewed attention within the escalating climate crisis and global pandemic.
However, the progressive ideas of the international peasant movement La Vía Campesina – the main proponent of the food sovereignty movement – do not always find fertile ground in the post-socialist countryside. Why?
In the paper “Prospects of Agrarian Populism and Food Sovereignty Movement in Post‐Socialist Romania”, Hajdu and Mamonova aimed at understanding the obstacles and opportunities of the food sovereignty movement in a post-socialist setting at the example of Eco Ruralis.
Sowing the seeds of food sovereignty
Eco Ruralis is the association of peasant men and women in Romania, a member organisation of La Vía Campesina and one of the few Eastern European ones. Eco Ruralis unites various family farmers, organic producers, rural and urban gardeners, and agricultural activists. Together, they advocate and employ sustainable, peasant-like farming practices and lifestyles.
The organisation has successfully brought together approximately 12.000 members who engage in production with (among others) local seed varieties. Eco Ruralis calls itself a peasant organization, however it consists of rural people from economically, culturally, and ideologically diverse backgrounds. It promotes the concept of food sovereignty and acts as an exponent of small producers and their livelihoods.
The motivation of members to join the organisation is its propagation and distribution of local seed varieties. Upon registration to receive seeds, one automatically agrees to become a member of the organisation. Activities for the propagation and distribution of seeds are organised at local nested markets. The annual free distribution of local seeds, and the organisation of seed exchanges, have given thousands of people access to local seed varieties and have established Eco Ruralis’ reputation as a source of high-quality seeds. In the future, the association plans to set up five seed banks to preserve the genetic diversity of domestic seed varieties.
The role that the membership plays for Eco Ruralis members may be one of the most telling elements for the outreach of the food sovereignty movement in Romania. While for most of the members it may only represent a practical access to local seed varieties, a few members also associate local seeds with characteristics related to a national identity. Religious beliefs of the members, patriarchial positions and different ideological perspectives may all come more strongly to the fore with an understanding that the membership is tied to a political programme.
Eco Ruralis aims to mobilise diverse rural people for a global food system that is not driven by corporations and market institutions. It employs the progressive discourse of food sovereignty movements and stresses the importance of peasant farming for sustainable social, economic and environmental development. Eco Ruralis aims to create a socially inclusive and fair society based on peasant principles. However, this position does not always coincide with the perceptions of the largely conservative rural population in Romania.
Rural people in Romania are concerned with “bread-and-butter” issues rather than the progressive (somewhat abstract) ideas of the food sovereignty movement. Decline of infrastructure (living, health, education) and small wages in the rural areas, poverty, insufficient off‐farm employment opportunities, low quality of drinking water, tensions between villagers and Roma minorities are problems that cause disconcertment in the rural areas and have been long neglected by decision-makers.
It comes as no surprise that during the parliamentary elections of November 2020 a far-right populist party (Alliance for Romanian Unity – AUR) was voted into parliament with 9% of the votes. A study based on the exit polls however indicates no differences between percentages of voters from rural or urban areas. Similar numbers have chosen this party, while fewer votes from higher-educated individuals have been registered for AUR compared to the number of votes for other Romanian parties.
The Romanian diaspora (who is also represented by agricultural labourers in countries such as Spain, Italy, Germany and The Netherlands) supported this party at the background of feeling unsupported in their living and working conditions abroad.
The issues that have an immediate impact on peoples’ livelihoods in the rural areas make discourses as that of Eco Ruralis about the threat of large-scale agro-industrial projects, multinational corporations, supermarket chains and the associated increased commodification of nature and pressure on ecosystems and biodiversity a secondary concern for the majority of rural dwellers for the time being.
Legacy of communism
Additionally, the legacy of communism makes people wary of an anti-capitalist, pro-socialist discourse such as that the LVC is promoting. The communist legacies prevent the movement from adopting the socialist ideology of La Vía Campesina.
Eco Ruralis defines itself in opposition to communism and puts forward a progressive liberal agenda. At the same time, it follows La Vía Campesina’s critique of capitalism, globalised agriculture, and free trade agreements. Thus, Eco Ruralis grapples with finding a way between two ‘evils’ – communism and capitalism. This is something, which is not easy, as one of the movement’s leaders explains:
“This is a big discussion in Eco Ruralis […] in our essence we are anti-establishment, more than anti-capitalist. […] We recognize Capitalism’s contribution to our contemporary condition. […] We also recognize that Capitalism has done more harm to peasants than good and we recognize at the same time that Communism has done much more harm to peasants than good. […] Still Capitalism offered more than Communism […] but this area of Capitalism that is about corporate domination, about corporations and free trade agreements and markets and this globalism, this digital age, these are aspects that we look at critically as Eco Ruralis and indeed we have another vision.”
(interview committee member, 22 January 2019)
Recently coordinating members of Eco Ruralis launched Acces La Pamant Agroecologic (ALPA-Access to agroecological land) – an organisation that aims at collecting donations to purchase farmland. This provoked internal debates because ALPA is based in ‘capitalist principles’, contradicting Eco Ruralis’ ideology.
CAP payments for less than 1 hectare
A similar contradiction is visible in the movement’s approach towards the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). Despite La Vía Campesina’s critique of the CAP, Eco Ruralis has supported it, albeit whilst acknowledging its limitations. It advocates for inclusion of peasant rights into the CAP.
According to Eco Ruralis, the CAP can facilitate smallholders’ access to land and associated resources and it therefore contributes to the creation of a sustainable agri-food system, which is based on peasant principles. Thus, instead of rejecting the CAP, Eco Ruralis has tried to guide its configuration for it to represent the interests of farmers whose land parcels are smaller than 1 hectare (until recently, the CAP had a five-hectare payment threshold for agricultural subsidies).
While Eco Ruralis and LVC’s positions regarding the CAP are not fully divergent, a better understanding of the food sovereignty movement can be achieved if its interaction with local norms and domestic e.g. political-economic institutions are analysed.
Furthermore, one common theme among the Eco Ruralis movement and the new right-wing party is that of multinationals/supermarkets being vilified as peddlers of poisonous food.
Contrary to Ecoruralis the AUR party does not support LGBTQ rights but the ‘traditional family’, contrary to globalism and multiculturalism, they support patriotism and nationalism, contrary to secularization they support religious belief and when it comes to the free market they propose economic protectionism.
Eco Ruralis has distanced itself from any right-wing positions, however with topics such as local seed varieties, support of domestic local producers, land grabbing there is a thin line to the protectionism, patriotism and nationalism discourse that the far-right party undertakes.
Populist leaders – both in western and eastern Europe – employ food sovereignty ideas in their political discourses. Yet, they formulate those in a nationalist exclusionary manner.
For example, the Italia Lega party often uses the left-wing idea of ‘Made in Italy’ food, however, putting an emphasis on the word ‘Italy’ in its label (see the study of Iocco, Lo Cascio and Perotta, 2020). In Austria, the radical-right Freedom Party supports environmental sustainability goals at the national level and denies global environmental problems, such as climate change. In the case of post-socialist Europe, Ludovic Orbán expressed his support for small-scale “homeland” farming (see Balsa Lubarda, 2019) in Hungary. However, this support has never materialised.
Putin is not a populist, rather an authoritarian leader, but he inspired many populists around the world. In 2016 the Russian State Duma has passed a bill banning the import and production of GMOs, while the production and import to Russia of GMOs is rather low. This has been interpreted as a populist policy to gain support among urban consumers.
Such positions are similar to the illiberal conservative position of AUR. Some of the current AUR leaders have been identified as active protestors during the Rosia Montana environmental case, protesting against the approval of an open pit mine managed by a Canadian mining company side by side with Eco Ruralis members, however taking up exclusionary and nationalistic positions that left-wing members repeatedly distanced from and openly opposed.
Trying to co-opt the left-wing discourse has thus deeper roots and we may want to learn from those experiences to understand how the food sovereignty movement can overcome these obstacles. These frictions are here to stay and it remains a matter of scrutiny to understand in the near future how left-wing oriented Eco Ruralis will differentiate themselves from right-wing positions to common topics and what strategies they will attempt to communicate this within the movement and the wider society.
At this background the concept of food sovereignty is alien to the Romanian countryside and is difficult to apply or communicate. Instead – the seeds sovereignty may be culturally more appropriate and may motivate people for collective action.
Further research into these aspects could give us more insights into the principles of La Vía Campesina and how they fare with the norms and other formal and informal institutions (political, economic, cultural, moral values etc.) in a country.
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