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date: 28 May 2020

Peasant Movements in Latin America

Summary and Keywords

The peasantry has always acted in the production of food as a condition of maintaining its existence. Threatened continuously by large landowners, governments, national and multinational corporations, peasants organize themselves in movements or other institutions to resist the expropriation processes. The peasant movements of Latin America are the most active in the world. One of the reasons for their high level of organization is their history. Formed in territories dominated by colonizers, enslaved and subordinates, they fought for independence and freedom. Since the 1960s, agribusiness has become territorialized on the ruins of peasant communities; again, the perseverance of the peasantry promotes persistent resistance in the continuous struggle for land and agrarian reform.

Knowing the realities of the peasant movements in Latin America makes it possible to understand the reason for their existence—not for the development of capitalist agriculture but by the continuous process the formation of family agriculture that distinguishes more and more conventional agriculture. Since the 1970s, the peasantry has built an agroecological path against agribusiness that increasingly develops commodities with pesticides for the production of ultraprocessed foods. These realities are permanently in people’s daily lives and make them pay attention to the types of food that are on their tables for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Few people understand the importance of the peasantry in their daily lives.

Keywords: peasant movements, Latin America, Latin American politics, agrarian reform, agribusiness, agrarian question, agroecology, food sovereignty, public policies, territorial development

The Formation of Peasant Movements in Latin America

Concept and Formation of Movements

Peasant movements have changed a lot since the classic studies of Wolf (1955), Hobsbawm (1959), and Shanin (1966). These changes are related to the persistent resistance of the peasantry in the struggle against capitalism, the emancipation of movements, the hegemony of agribusiness, and the globalization process of the economy. Recent forms of peasant organization maintain some of the peculiarities of the past but have updated their political repertoires and created new perspectives. Changes, permanence, and perseverance are among the main characteristics of the continuous formation of the peasant movements.

The peasantry is a social class that organizes itself in movements to produce and defend its conditions of existence. The peasant organizational structure is based on land, family, work, community, food production and quality, diverse knowledge about cultivation methods, seed reproduction, and markets that define their ways of life, their cultures, and their landscapes. It is impossible to understand the peasantry separated from the land, and it is for this reason that the peasant movements are socioterritorial: the territory is a condition of existence. The territory is not only the geographic space of a country, but it is also the fractions of that country, and one of these units is the land where the peasants produce their living spaces. The sense of this understanding of the territory at multiple scales lies in the fact that an agricultural policy that reaches the country also affects the farmer and vice versa. In Latin America,1 as in other regions of the world, peasant movements have become the political form of defending sustainable agriculture to guarantee their conditions of existence. The struggle for land, and therefore for territory, is present throughout the history of the peasantry. This is one of its main struggles and is associated with the fight against wage labor because the peasantry can only exist for family and community work, associative, cooperative in food production, processing, industrialization, and so on.

A movement begins when a group of people comes together to claim a cause and/or defend themselves against a threat. The permanent organization is a way of survival because the peasantry is continuously threatened by social relations that subordinate and expropriate it. Fights against their destruction and conditions worthy of existence have been the political agenda of the peasant movements (Welch & Fernandes, 2009).

The Spanish and Portuguese settlements dominated much of America from the 16th to the 18th centuries. The exploitation of natural resources was the economic policy used and began with the slave labor of the native populations, who were generically denominated of Indians by the settlers. Extraction of minerals, trees, and agricultural and livestock production were the first activities practiced by different categories of labor relations: slave, servant, and wage workers. Indigenous peoples resisted slavery, and Portuguese colonizers brought slaves from Africa to work on sugar monoculture, called plantations. Spanish colonizers adopted African slave labor to a lesser extent, mainly in Peru, Colombia, and Venezuela, associated with bondage and free labor on large estates, where the Indians were forced to live. Within the sugar plantations in Brazil, the work of the African slaves living in the slave quarters prevailed, and there was free labor, to a lesser extent, that used a small portion of land to plant in exchange for the maintenance of the latifundia infrastructure (Chonchol, 1994; Fernandes, 2000).

Confined to large estates (latifundia, haciendas) indigenous and African slaves and free laborers resisted the exploitation of colonizers. The escapes of slaves, serfs, and free workers were constant, creating communities in regions not yet controlled by the exploiters. Leaks and searches for free lands, such as the insurgencies in Mexico, Peru, and Paraguay, the lands without the evil (Terras sem mal) of the Guarani peoples (Clastes, 1975), the African slave’s quilombos, and the peasants’ possessions were the first resistance movements (Fernandes, 2000). These struggles are references to understand the origin of the peasant movements because it was the relationship and the miscegenation of the American Indian, the African slave, and the European colonizer who formed the peasants of Latin America.

In the 19th century, the Spanish and Portuguese colonies became independent, and this process of emancipation also resulted in the liberation of the slaves. The expansion of capitalism in Latin America since the mid-19th century appropriated land structure concentrated on large estates to maintain plantations with the production of large-scale monoculture for export. With this model, Latin America continued to be a region of mineral and agricultural extractivism, which persists until the 21st century. It is in this context that peasant movements appeared to claim land for labor and agrarian reform policies that led to the first peasant wars, such as the Canudos War in 1896 in Brazil (Fernandes, 2000) and the Mexican Revolution in 1910 (Wolf, 1969).

From the late 19th century and early 20th century, large corporations from the United States and Europe deployed huge plantation areas in Latin America and began to create the “commodity republics” that began with the production of bananas for export and continued with the orange, sugar cane, and soybean. In the mid-20th century the “green revolution” began that determined the structure of the capitalist model of agricultural development with the intensive use of pesticides and mechanization. This model had a high impact on the peasant communities, provoking expropriation and migration to the cities.

Because of the massive use of pesticides, the field was no longer a place to live, forcing the rural population to migrate. The green revolution disconnected the countryside from the city and food from nature. The peasantry watched the ruin of their territories. Food production depended less and less on farmers and was increasingly controlled by large corporations. This meant increasing the concentration of land ownership. These changes did not happen without resistance.

The peasant movements began struggles for agrarian reform in several countries: Mexico, El Salvador, Bolivia, Venezuela, Colombia, Chile, Peru, Nicaragua, and Brazil. Local, regional, and national peasant movements fought for land and the development of family agriculture. Peasants began to dispute the territory of their countries with the multinational corporations, fighting for a piece of land to work and produce food. The extractive power had captured the young Latin American republics, transforming colonial extractivism into neocolonial extractivism (Burbach & Flynn, 1980). The long trajectory of the peasant movements that fought against the colonizers continued in the fight against the corporations that control most of the territories of the Latin American countries.

The military dictatorships implanted in the 1960s and 1970s severely repressed peasant movements in most of the continent. Pursued by totalitarian governments, the movements continued to fight for agrarian reform with the support of communist parties and various Christian churches. After almost five centuries of struggle and resistance, indigenous and peasant populations still do not have their territories regularized by national governments. They remain subordinated to the capitalist model of agricultural development and dependent on markets controlled by large corporations.

Peasant Movements and the Agrarian Question

The increasing subordination and expropriation of the peasantry by capitalism produces a structural problem called the agrarian question. The essence of the agrarian question is the capitalized income of the land, which happens through the control of agricultural prices by the corporations, who own most of the land rent, expressed in the value of peasant agricultural production. This problem creates low-income communities with the continued impoverishment of peasant families who are forced to sell their land. But it also generates resistance from families who occupy the land, claim agrarian reform, and seek to break away from corporations, creating popular markets on a local scale and selling their products directly to consumers.

In the mid-20th century, capitalism integrated several productive systems and created agribusiness as a hegemonic model of development (Davis & Goldberg, 1957). Controlling the agricultural, livestock, industrial, commercial, financial, and technological systems, agribusiness is a complex of systems organized in a network that involves companies from all sectors of the economy, political parties, and governments. With this structure, the capitalist corporations began to control seeds and technologies, in addition to land, labor, and production. Thus the participation of the peasantry in the agribusiness development model is always marginal and subordinated to the interests of corporations. The use of wage labor is predominant, although it is decreasing because of the intensification of mechanization and robotization.

It is not enough for capitalism to control the complex of systems if it does not have easy access to land. This is not a problem for corporations, because the colonial heritage left a highly concentrated landfill structure of traditional families that control large land properties known as landowners (Chonchol, 1994) and who live on renting land to corporations. Although large landowners and corporations have control over land, peasants have also defended and maintained their estates and carried out new land occupations. The Colombian, Ecuadorian, Peruvian, Bolivian, Chilean, Brazilian, Argentinean, and Mexican peasants are examples of those with the most significant relative participation in the control of agricultural land (Fernandes, 2014). The lands of peasants and large landowners are permanently contested by national and multinational corporations for the expansion of the production of commodities for export.

For large landowners who are not farmers, leasing land for agribusiness is an excellent business. Large farmers produce commodities, such as soybeans, sugarcane, and corn, according to corporate technology packages; they are known as suppliers. It is important to remember that these farmers are part of the agricultural system of agribusiness. This system also includes family farmers or peasants who participate in the production of commodities such as bananas, oranges, tomatoes, potatoes, onions, lettuce, cucumbers, peppers, and other crops. However, they are at a disadvantage: they cannot compete with the big producers because they do not have the know-how of the technology packages because of the scale of production.

The modernization of agriculture in capitalism is paradoxical because it uses old social relations that have already been banished from history. For example, in Brazil, modernization did not prevent large landowners and corporations from using forced labor (Théry, Mello, Hato, & Girardi, 2012). Many workers are regimented by companies and large landowners to work on farms far from the places they live. The cost of displacement produces an unpayable debt, and workers are forbidden to leave the property and therefore sleep in unhealthy places, characterizing what has become known as “modern slave labor.”

The Neoliberal Agrarian Question

At the beginning of the 21st century, the advance of neoliberalism created new elements in the agrarian question. The financialization of agriculture promoted a new wave of land purchase, known as land grabbing. These investments were aimed at gradually changing the energy matrix from fossil fuels to biofuel that triggered a major food crisis in 2008. This is a recent process of land concentration by buying or leasing vast tracts of land in low-income and middle-income countries through megaprojects.

This process creates enclaves of commodity production in several countries, affecting the environment and expropriating communities of peasants. The advance of neoliberal policies has expanded the participation of financial capital represented by pension funds, sovereign funds, and private funds, which invest in corporations to produce flex commodities (fuel and food), through the acquisition of vast tracts of land and controlling portions of the territories of the Latin American countries. The financialization of agriculture has brought investment from other countries besides the United States and Europe to the financialization of Latin American agriculture, especially Brazil, including China, India, Saudi Arabia, and others (Girardi, 2017; Rincón & Fernandes, 2018). There are also “trans-Latin” corporations with Brazilian and Argentine capital that have acquired land in Paraguay, Brazil, Argentina, and Bolivia.

The extraction of natural resources for the production of commodities through territorial control and expropriation of peasant populations are strategies of the hegemonic model of agribusiness that in Latin America is predominantly agroextractivist. This means that it is based on the extraction of natural resources in a country and industrialization in another country; for example, the coffee produced in Brazil and Colombia is industrialized in Germany, which sells coffee capsules to several countries in the world. Agroextractivism is a producer and product of neocolonialism based on the economy of dependence and inequality (Petras & Veltmeyer, 2015).

Paraguay is one of the examples of land grabbing with much of its agricultural territory under the control of Brazilian and Argentine investors. “Trans-Latin” corporations are also present in Chile, controlling areas of more than 1 million hectares in the production of monoculture trees and wine. In Colombia, corporations from the United States, Japan, Israel, Chile, and Spain are present in the production of monocultures of trees, coffee, soybeans, cacao, and corn. Recent studies by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) analyzed the types of investments and their origins, identifying several countries and the set of commodities, but did not capture the conflicts between corporations and peasant movements (Franco, Kay, & Spoor, 2011; Gomez, 2011).

The fact is that the land-grabbing process has impacted several countries with strong expropriation of peasant communities. This is the agroextractivism that does not need peasants for the agricultural or livestock work, because it acts with high technology, practicing intensive agriculture and using technical informational systems, with the purpose of appropriating the land rent. This is the new challenge of peasant movements and their communities, which have low negotiating power and need to face large global corporations with a lot of power to impose their interests. It should also be noted that all political parties and governments in Latin America, without exception, support the model of agroextractivism, because it represents a considerable portion of the gross domestic product that maintains these subaltern countries.

In this context, peasant movements resist, are persecuted, cease, disappear, and begin again. There are movements organized at various scales—local, regional, and national—and some bring together dozens of people, whereas others bring tens of thousands. They collectively organize their territories, where they work in a community way, for example, most Mexican ejidos, or individual, where they work in a family way, as an example, most of the Brazilian agrarian reform settlements, maintain common areas and preserve areas according to their cultures and ethnicities. Some keep a simple form of the organization without formal structure, and others become unions, associations, cooperatives, co-ordinations, committees, fronts, federations, or confederations. Some are themed as the youth movements, peasant women, agroecology, and so on. They also form coalitions and network to broaden their negotiating powers. From the most diverse forms of ethnicities, cultures, and social classes, the peasants inhabit all territories, from the forests of the international Amazon with portions of the territories of Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, and Venezuela, to the savannah of the Brazilian plateau, the Argentine pampas, the Chilean, Argentine, Bolivian, and Peruvian Andes, Colombia and Venezuela, the marshes of Brazil and Paraguay, the Yucatán plain and the Lacandon jungle in Mexico and Guatemala, to the semi-arid regions of Brazil and Argentina and the coasts of the whole continent (Fernandes, Rincón, & Kretschmer, 2018).

Agribusiness corporations and mining corporations are also present across the continent and with the support of governments and political parties implement megaprojects to exploit agricultural commodities and minerals. To optimize the flow of commodities, they create logistics projects to integrate production regions that include railroads, highways, ports, airports, terminals, warehouses, and so on. It is clear that these megaprojects impact the peasant communities. Peasants represent almost half of humanity, and their territories are always under threat. In 2012, peasant movements around the world called on the United Nations (UN) to draft a declaration of peasants’ rights. The UN Human Rights Council set up an intergovernmental commission to propose the manifesto. Presided over by the Bolivian government, the commission held multiple consultations with the governments of the signatory countries and in 2018 presented a proposal, which was voted on, and most of the member countries of the UN Human Rights Council approved the resolution that concluded the Declaration of Nations the Rights of Peasants and rural populations in general. The resolution adopted had 3 votes against (United Kingdom, Australia, and Hungary), 11 abstentions, and 33 votes in favor. Brazil was the only country in Latin America that abstained.

La Via Campesina, a worldwide articulation of peasant movements, created in 1992 (Desmarais, 2007), was one of the main protagonists of this process. The peasant movements in Latin America, linked to La Via Campesina, have evaluated the declaration2 and have stated that this document contributes to the resistance against expropriations, the main cause of the loss of their territories, and against the stigmatization, arrests, and assassinations of activists fighting against megaprojects that affect their territories. The document is also a reference to address the devaluation of peasant agricultural production prices and defend fair trade. It recognizes seed rights and will be an essential tool for governments to reduce agrarian conflicts.

Resistances and Alternatives of Peasant Movements

From Tierra del Fuego (Argentina) to Juarez (Mexico), there are thousands of peasant movements of various sizes and forms of organization. Most of these movements operate on a local scale and can be articulated with organizations that operate on a national or continental scale. One example is the Latin American Coordinator of Field Organizations (CLOC), founded in 1994, which represents the 63 peasant movements linked to La Via Campesina in Latin America (see Table 1).

Table 1. Peasant Movements in Latin America



Asociación de Pequeños Productores del Noreste de Córdoba (APENOC)


Consejo Asesor Indígena (CAI)


Coordinadora de Organizaciones campesinas, indígenas y de Trabajadores Rurales (COCITRA)


Movimiento Campesino de Santiago del Estero (MOCASE)


Movimiento Nacional Campesino Indigena (MNCI)


Confederación Nacional de Mujeres Campesinas de Bolivia “Bartolina Sisa” (FNMCB)


Confederación sindical de comunidades interculturales de Bolivia (CSCIB)


Confederación Sindical Única de Trabajadores Campesinos de Bolivia (CSUTCB)


Movimiento de Trabajadores Sin Tierra (MST)


Coordenaçao Nacional das Comunidades Quilombolas (CONAQ)


Movimento de Atingidos por Barragens (MAB)


Movimento de Mulheres Camponesas (MMC)


Movimento de Pescadores e Pescadoras Artesanais (MPP)


Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (MST)


Movimento dos Pequenos Agricultores (MPA)


Pastoral da Juventude Rural (PJR)


Asamblea Nacional Mapuches de Izquierda


Asociación Nacional de Mujeres Rurales e Indígenas (ANAMURI)


Confederacion Ranquil


Consejo Nacional de Productores de Chile (CONAPROCH)


Coordinador Nacional Agrario (CNA)


Federación Nacional Sindical Unitaria Agropecuaria (FENSUAGRO-CUT)


Federación Nacional de Cooperativas Agropecuarias (FENACOA)


Mesa Nacional Campesina de Costa Rica (MNC-CR)

Costa Rica

Unión Nacional de Productores Agropecuarios Costarricense (UNAG)

Costa Rica

Unión de Pequeños Agricultores y Ganaderos (UPA Nacional)

Costa Rica

Asociación Nacional de Trabajadores Agropecuarios (ANTA)

El Salvador

Asociación de Veteranos de la Guerrilla Salvadoreña (AVEGSAL)

El Salvador

Asociacion y agropecuaria y Pesquera de la Cuencia del Lago Ilogango (APRIL)

El Salvador

Federación de Cooperativas de la Reforma Agraria Región Central (FECORACEN de R.L.)

El Salvador

Federación Nacional de Asociaciones de Cooperativas de Producción Agropecuarias (FENACOPAZ)

El Salvador

Fundación de Promotora de Cooperativas (FUNPROCOP)

El Salvador

Movimiento Vida y Equipad Campesina (MVEC)

El Salvador

Unión Nacional de Trabajadores Agropecuarios (UNATA)

El Salvador

Confederación Única de Afiliados al Seguro Social Campesino de Ecuador (CONFEUNASSCE)


Confederación Nacional de Organizaciones Campesinas, Indígenas y Negras (FENOCIN)


Confederación de Pueblos, Organizaciones indígenas Campesinas del Ecuador (FEI)


Federación Nacional de Trabajadores Agroindustriales, Campesinos e Indígenas Libres del Ecuador (FENACLE)


Coordinadora Nacional Campesina Eloy Alfaro (CNC)


Comité de unidad campesina (CUC)


Coordinadora Nacional Indígena y Campesina (CONIC)


Asociación para el Desarrollo Rural de Honduras (ADROH)


Central Nacional de Trabajadores del Campo (CNTC)


Consejo para el Desarrollo Integral de la Mujer Campesina (CODIMCA)


Unión Campesina e Indigena de Honduras (UCIH)


Union Nacional de Organizaciones Regionales Campesinas Autonomas (UNORCA)


Asociación de Trabajadores del Campo (ATC)


Mesa Agropecuaria y Forestal (MAF)


Organización Campesina CIOCESANA 15 de Mayo (EMBALSES)


Union Indigena y Campesina (UIC)


Unión Campesina Panameña (UCP)


Coordinadora Nacional de Organizaciones de Mujeres Trabajadoras Rurales e Indígenas (CONAMURI)


Mesa Coordinadora de Organizaciones Campesinas (MCNOC)


Movimiento Agrario y Popular (MAP)


Movimiento Campesino Paraguayo (MCP)


Organizacion Nacional de Aborigenes e Indigenas de Paraguay (ONAI)


Organización de Lucha por la Tierra (OLT)


Confederación Nacional Agraria (CNA)


Confederación Campesina del Perú (CCP)


Federación Nacional de Mujeres Campesinas, Indigenas, Nativas y Asalariadas de Peru (FENMUCARINAP)


Red de Mujeres Rurales de Uruguay (RMRU)


Coordinadora Agraria Nacional Ezequiel Zamora (CANEZ)


Frente Nacional Campesina Ezequiel Zamora (FNCEZ)


Source: La Via Campesina, About Us: South America, Central America, and North America.

This set of peasant movements in Latin America is a representation of the peasantry in its constant struggle for existence that gathers various struggles from the land and for those fighting for healthy food and popular markets for education, health, and housing. Unlike the various other institutions, peasant movements are most threatened by one of the greatest forces of capitalism: agribusiness. La Via Campesina has built several international experiences among its members and created new perspectives through food sovereignty and agroecology. CLOC is the largest network of peasant movements in Latin America, but there are many others not linked, such as the Zapatista National Liberation Army in Mexico (Fernandes et al., 2018).

The Reconceptualization of Agrarian Reform and the Agroecological Transition

The struggle for land is the most effective form of resistance in the constant process of expropriation of peasants. From the beginning of colonization to the recent neoliberal policies, agricultural and mineral extraction has been the main cause of this expropriation. For centuries, peasants and other peoples have been expropriated through the various stages of the development of commodity production through exploitation of the territories of Latin American countries. This is a problem that persists because it is a structural issue of capitalism that develops by expropriating the peasantry (Bartra, 2011; Burbach & Flynn, 1980; Chonchol, 1994).

The land concentration inherited from colonization benefitted the capitalist development in the agriculture that maintains it. The Latin American land structure is the most concentrated in the world (Gomez, 2011, p. 9). The Gini index3 applied to land distribution in the region reached 0.79, surpassing Europe (0.57), Africa (0.56), and Asia (0.55).4 According to the few data available, the countries with the most concentrated land structure are Chile, Venezuela, Brazil, Colombia, and Ecuador. See Table 2.

Table 2. Gini Index of Latin American Countries




























Source: FAO Stat.

Because of the historical concentration of land and the expropriation of capitalism, agrarian reform is a public policy that remains current to redistribute land. It has been on the political agenda of countries throughout the 20th century and continues in the 21st, for example, from the Mexican Revolution in 1910 to the project of Brazilian agrarian reform in the 1990s and 2000s. During this period there were several other experiences in Latin America.

At the beginning of the 21st century, agrarian reform began to be reconceptualized. It ceased to be a distributive policy aimed at meeting capitalist interests and instead started to be a territorial development policy to serve the interests of the peasantry. This change happened because Latin American governments abandoned land reform policies because of the failures to achieve the objectives of the capitalist model of agricultural development and because of the new stance of the peasant movements in assuming the proposition of a policy of popular agrarian reform, such as the Landless Rural Workers’ Movement (2014).

With the distributive agrarian reform, the government expropriated a large estate and divided it into small farms, distributing them among the peasant families, with the aim of creating conditions for peasants to capitalize and become new capitalist producers (Chonchol, 1994; Fernandes, 2000). Aiming to be a policy for the development of capitalism, this type of agrarian reform deconcentrates and concentrates the land structure again.

Deconcentration occurs when the government expropriates large amount of property and divides it into small family units. Concentration happens when few households capitalize and buy most other property, increasing the size and decreasing the number of properties, or when corporations purchase multiple family units to create a large property intended to produce commodities. These processes can last for decades.

The capitalist model of agrarian reform was implanted in all Latin American countries and resulted in the formation of few capitalist farmers, resulting in a small portion of peasants who achieved a middle income and a large proportion of peasants who were impoverished because of the capitalized land income (Bartra, 2011; Fernandes, 2014). The inefficiency of the distributive agrarian reform to create capitalist producers has made most of the Latin American governments abandon this policy. At the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st, even the World Bank advocated agrarian reform, not as an expropriation policy but as a land purchase and sale policy, which it termed agrarian land reform. In Latin America, Brazil and Colombia were laboratories of this failed experiment (Pereira & Fajardo, 2015).

For neoliberal interests, agrarian reform is not a viable policy. For this reason, neoliberal governments have abandoned it. Peasant agriculture has also been discontinued and survives through compensatory public policies, which aim to address the demands of the peasant movements partially. From this point of view, peasant agriculture is secondary in the countries of Latin America, which prioritize investments in agribusiness.

Convinced by history and their own experience, the peasant movements persist in the creation of a new agrarian reform policy focused on the development of their territories and not as a step toward capitalism. Among the strategies to resist their land, peasant families avoid producing commodities. The greatest challenge of the peasant movements has been the creation of a development model to counteract agribusiness. This means defending a sustainable model of agricultural development.

A first initiative was the Peasant-to-Peasant Movement, which encouraged the exchange of experiences from peasant knowledge on agriculture (Holt-Giménez, 2006). This emancipatory attitude removed the subaltern position of peasants who depended on technological packages from multinational corporations. This initiative also reversed the tendency that knowledge on soil care and with different cultures should be taught by extension technicians. Peasants took the lead and promoted an intense exchange of knowledge that quickly became very popular.

This peasant pedagogy began to think of a model of territorial development and a peasant political economy, aiming at sustainable agriculture, which means not using pesticides or other products that made them dependent on the agribusiness model. In this way, they strengthened organic production and agroecological production. This initiative emerged as an immediate resistance to the model of the green revolution, implemented in the 1950s and 1960s worldwide, with the intensive use of agrochemicals, eliminating diversity to favor the production of large-scale monocultures.

Carson (1962) was among the people who fought against this model. She published one of the earliest books chronicling the problems of human health and environmental health in the United States. In Brazil, Ana Maria Primavesi was also a pioneer in the ecological management of soils in tropical regions (Knabben, 2016). In the 1970s, in many Latin American countries, such as Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Uruguay, and Venezuela, there were many experiences of organic and agroecological production (Holt-Giménez, 2006). The green revolution activated by agribusiness separated the food from the culture and linked it to the business. The agroecological experiences reconnected the culture, the food, nature, and the community. In addition to fighting for land, peasants battle against the food empires in building their model of development from emancipatory public policies to ensure the production of healthy food. Agribusiness had globalized its hegemonic model, and La Via Campesina had globalized struggle and hope (La Via Campesina, 2016; Ploeg, 2008).

The peasant movement is increasingly becoming a food movement, which is concerned with care for nature, guaranteeing quality food that promotes the health of the land and people. The main idea is to transform food systems into sustainable systems, without the increased use of synthetic inputs but through biodiversity. The participation of peasant women has been fundamental in organic and agroecological production, which also includes young people. Through this movement, in 1996 La Via Campesina presented the concept of food sovereignty at the World Food Summit held in Rome by the FAO, which means:

a fundamental right of all peoples, nations and states to control their food and their systems and to decide their policies by ensuring that they provide adequate, accessible, nutritious and culturally appropriate quality food. This includes the right of peoples to define their forms of production, use and exchange both at local and international level.

(Zanotto, 2017, p. 69)

This concept regains the sovereign authority of governments in the strategic management of food production, which has been captured by large corporations. It advocates small-scale agroecological output and local trade against large-scale commodity production with products that travel thousands of miles, with a primary focus on the international market. The principles of food sovereignty advocate that peasants avoid commodity production primarily for the food industry and promote the agroecological transition by using organic inputs to replace the chemical inputs that are components of technological packages of large multinational corporations that farmers depend on for their products and markets. The construction of knowledge about organic inputs is participatory, organized by peasant movements and public institutions in several communities, and their results are considered patrimony of peasant communities. This process also happens with the production of seeds, with the techniques of agricultural, livestock, and forestry production.

Unlike agribusiness, where everything is turned into commodities, agroecology is a communal sharing of cultures and diversity. For decades, through peasant movements in Latin America and the peasant method, the peasant has promoted the exchange of agroecological knowledge, building new scientific knowledge. Agroecological approaches bring together the experience of various types of the peasantry—farmers, collectors, fishers, pastoralists—providing new insights to improve agroecological systems in the continent’s many biomes. Agroecology has become an extensive science that includes studies of soils and plant and animal diversity, but also cultures and peoples, surpassing the market view. The continuous recording and publication of these experiences multiply the transition processes in the production of food and energy.

The project Alimergia (food and energy) is part of a new paradigm of peasant production systems. Inspired by the idea of food sovereignty, this project also advocates energy sovereignty through community work linking food production and energy production. Through the mapping of the natural resources of the peasant territories, it tries to preserve the native vegetation and use part of the forest for consorted production of vegetables and breeding of loose animals. Residues of plant and animal products are used for the production of energy. Some crops can also be used to produce energy, such as oil palm and sugar cane. This type of project requires a high level of organization of the community and the peasant movements because it relates several productive systems such as agriculture, livestock, and industry. This is the great challenge of the peasant movements: to constitute a development plan for the production of food and energy, the market, and the family industry for the production of minimally processed foods (Görgen, 2017). Scientific knowledge is also fundamental in the construction of this new paradigm. In Latin America, there are many ongoing experiments, for example on seeds in Brazil, markets in Colombia, biodiversity in Mexico, and coexistence with the semiarid regions of Brazil and Argentina (Fernandes et al., 2018).

Agroecological transition projects receive little or no funding from Latin American governments, which support the use of agrochemicals through subsidies and financing of technological packages from multinational corporations. However, several universities have invested in research to study the experiences of the agroecological transition to a healthy diet and the human and environmental health problems caused by pesticides and the production of ultraprocessed foods. The use of poison in food production and its ultraprocessing correspond to an essential part of the food products consumed by the global market. This is the strength and weakness of agribusiness.

The agroecological transition and increased commodity production for ultraprocessed industrialization are unequal representations of emerging sustainable agriculture and the intense commodification of commodities, which increasingly separate the gap between agribusiness and peasant agriculture. Also, in Latin American cities, agroecological production, through growing urban agriculture, has become a good option for consumers who do not want to eat ultraprocessed food and agrochemicals.

The agroecological transition requires public policies at the national level with structures that strengthen agricultural and livestock production, the production of fresh and processed foods, and alternative markets to the capitalist market. Popular markets, such as free trade shows, are ancient experiences across the continent, and civil society and governments have recently created new markets. The experiences of the various consumer initiatives that support farmers are happening almost everywhere in the world. At the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st, public policies for financing peasant agriculture, peasant education, family industry, and cooperatives and the creation of quotas for institutional markets through laws happened for the first time in Latin America. Brazil was the main reference of these policies, which inspired governments of Argentina, Costa Rica, Bolivia, Colombia, and others.

The great challenge for the future of the peasant movements is the association of the public policies with the traditional knowledge of the peasantry for the technological renovation necessary for the development of agroecology (Swiergiel, 2007). Another future challenge is the relationship with the state, which needs to be more attentive to the proposals of food sovereignty in the production of sustainable agriculture. The hegemonic model of agribusiness is already at its limit, which opens new perspectives for peasant agriculture. The 19th century was marked by the struggles of independence and liberation, and the 20th century saw agribusiness monopolize agriculture through the artificialization of food. In the 21s century, people should rethink what food they want to eat. This attitude could completely change the current food system.


Although peasants represent almost half the world’s population, few people know the realities of peasant movements in their own countries. There is strong discrimination against this population, which is generated by a profound ignorance. For this reason, it is fundamental that the urban population knows more about the rural population and vice-versa. The presence of the peasantry may be in the fruit individuals consume every day, in the vegetables that are in the salads people eat, and in several other foods. But it will hardly be in the burger and other processed foods that most people consume at fast-food outlets. In a snack at a sandwich shop, the presence of the peasantry may be in the cucumber and tomato, but this presence will always be a presence of exploitation, of subordination. It may also be in the bananas that people consume in several countries of the world, which come from Latin American countries, where the peasant receives the equivalent of one banana for each box of bananas sold.

In recent centuries, capitalism has separated the countryside from the city, the food from the culture, and the food from nature. For the last 50 years, the peasantry has tried to recoup the backwardness that capitalism has promoted through the artificialization of food. The peasantry reinvented food with the concept of food sovereignty and agroecology and the struggle to resume the path of sustainable agriculture. The peasantry has been seen as a form of social organization of the past, but it is one of the major social groups that is building the future, because the future is not in the production of food produced with poison but in the production of healthy food.

Further Reading

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Fernandes, Bernardo M. (2008). Campesinato e agronegócio na América Latina. São Paulo, Brazil: Expressão Popular.Find this resource:

Holt-Giménez, Eric. (2013). Movimientos alimentarios uníos. Bogotá, Colombia: ILSA.Find this resource:

Ioris, Antonio. (2018). Agribusiness and the neoliberal food system in Brazil: Frontiers and fissures of agro-neoliberaism. New York, NY: Routledge.Find this resource:

Kay, Cristóbal, & Vergara-Camus, Luis. (2018). La cuestión agraria y los gobiernos de izquierda en América Latina: campesinos, agronegocio y neodesarrollismo. Buenos Aires, Argentina: CLACSO.Find this resource:

Mann, Alana. (2014). Global activism in food politics: Power shift. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.Find this resource:

Stahler-Sholk, Richard, Vanden, Harry E., & Becker, Marc. (Eds.). (2014). Rethinking Latin American social movements: Radical action from below. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.Find this resource:

Richard Stahler-Sholk, Vanden, Harry E., & Kuecker, Glen. (Eds.). (2008). Latin American social movements in the twenty-first century, Resistance, power, and democracy. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield..Find this resource:

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(1) Here Latin America is considered as the countries of South America and Central America, with the exception of Belize, Guyana, and Suriname.

(3) It is an indicator between 0 and 1, where 1 represents the maximum concentration.