Interview with Han Young Me, Korean Women Peasants Association
Dae-gu, South Korea, 4 December 2008
Most people in Korea are not informed of the Daewoo/Madagascar deal because the Korean media haven't paid much attention to it. I myself didn’t know what happened until GRAIN asked us about it. Since then, I realised what was happening in the country.
About the Korean people’s reaction, almost all people have an attitude of acceptance toward the Lee Myung-Bak administration’s policy to secure the food base of Korea in foreign countries. They already know that there are food security issues in other countries because of the reports of riots in the streets in Africa and elsewhere. The idea is to have access to cheap food, especially animal feed for livestock, in other countries. Almost all people accept it. The reason for this is that the media spin the issue this way.
The Korean government has an active policy of supporting Korean corportations like LG, Hanwa and others to go farming abroad to provide for domestic needs. How do Korean farmers assess this kind of strategy to achieve "food security"?
The food self-sufficiency rate in Korea, including rice, is about 25%. If you exclude rice, we import 95% of our food. So, it’s true, the self-sufficiency rate is very low, and the farmers and farmers’ organizations argue that we need to raise the self-sufficiency rate.
This food self-sufficiency rate is what the government uses to justify its policy on farming abroad. And instead of developing good quality land for farming in Korea, the government is giving what land we have to industrial development: for buildings and for industrial complexes. It is also reclaiming coastal lands for industrial use. So the government's argument is contradictory. We have low food self-sufficiency but instead of developing land for farming, they give the land to industrial use.
"The Korean government's argument is contradictory. We have low food self-sufficiency but instead of developing land for farming, they give the land to industrial use."
To overcome this contradiction, the government should think of how to secure self-sufficiency in Korea instead of overseas farming and the Korean government has to work together with farmers side-by-side. But the Korean government has not done this. Even this year, 2008, our food self-sufficiency rate went down. But if you went out to the farms, you would see that farmers stopped harvesting and left produce rotting in the field because they could not make ends meet and failed to find a market to sell to. So the farmers' organisations argue that farming abroad is not the answer to food insecurity. The answer is raising the food self-sufficiency rate domestically. It’s a strong issue right now.
How does this struggle around "food self-sufficiency" and "food security" relate to the broader struggle for "food sovereignty" that groups like KWPA and the Korean Peasant League are engaged in?
Before Via Campesina started advocating for food sovereignty, the Korean farmers organisations were focused on national food security. We thought we needed to prepare for a time when food could be used as a weapon. That is what we argued during the struggle against the GATT Uruguay Round. And that is what we saw this year, when we experienced the food crisis: countries cut off their food exports. Even though we had money, we could not buy food, and this kind of situation could get worse. That's why the international institutions tried to stop the export restrictions.
In fact, it's really important that people can access safe food. That's real food security, that's people's right to food. We depend on overseas, not only for food but for farm equipment, oil supplies and seeds. How to cut this overseas dependence and how to maintain the people's right to food: the government has to deal with this. Otherwise, farmers cannot produce safe food. So the government has to protect the farmers' right to produce. That's food sovereignty. And the first step is to increase our self-sufficiency rate.
For example, KWPA is conducting a campaign to recover native seeds, which have been lost throughout Korea. Traditional varieties are a good method to raise the self-sufficiency rate and preserving them is a way to cut off GM food and reduce overseas dependency. The campaign on native seeds increases biodiversity at the local level and provides the basis for self-sufficiency and it increases women farmers' rights.
Do you think that through the Daewoo deal, and others, Korea will be pushing a bad agricultural production model on other countries? What impact will it have on farmers there, for example in Madagascar?
Since the 1960s and the green revolution, for less than 40 years, Korean farmers have had to adapt their farms or leave the land. Since then, Korean farmers entered into capitalized agriculture and produced for commodity chains, and we went into debt. And even though most Korean farmers farm their land, it is used as collateral for loans. Or some farm on the land of absentee landlords. It is like being an agricultural worker. And farmers cannot live with only incomes from farming, so they have to do two or three side jobs.
That is our situation. Probably the same will be true of people in Madagascar with the Daewoo deal. But while we were subjected to hybrid seeds, in Madagascar they probably have to face GMOs. And they will have monoculture plantations. And there is no way that the Daewoo/Madagascar deal will increase jobs. Daewoo has already said that it would hire people from other countries to work the land to take advantage of lower wages. So this deal will not create employment in Madagascar.
We, the farmers, did not create this situation, but it looks like we are passing our problems to others. So we feel guilty for the farmers in Madagascar as we can expect that it will have a bad impact on them. I want them to stop, so that people don't face this situation any more and suffer from TNCs. We cannot live with our rights violated like this. We should deny and resist. But in Korea, farmers are used to targetting the government. Like when we struggled against the Korea-Chile FTA, we targetted the two governments, not the private capitalists. We are not used to targetting the corporations, as industrial workers are. So now, the farmers movement has to change and target transnational capital.
"We, the farmers, did not create this situation, but it looks like we are passing our problems to others. So we feel guilty for the farmers in Madagascar as we can expect that it will have a bad impact on them. "
The Daewoo/Madagascar deal is just one of many that Korean firms, and the government, are involved in. And many other countries and investors are doing the same. Given that it's a bigger problem, what do you think should be done? What would you say to Daewoo if you could tell them something?
It’s a really tough question. The answer depends on our level of preparation.
Actually, the background of Daewoo's investment is Lee Myung-Bak's policy. This policy for farming abroad was considered and abolished in the past, but Lee Myung-Bak restored this policy to support overseas farm investment. It's now national policy. So right now, not only Daewoo but many other Korean TNCs are going around trying to find appropriate land for food production in foreign countries. I would ask the Lee Myung-Bak government and the TNCs whether growing food overseas is really a good way to provide for Korean people's right to food! As we saw this year, with the candlelight vigil protest against US beef and the melamine scandal, importing food is not always safe. So we oppose overseas production and have to make our own production systems in the rural area, for sustainable agriculture. Also, we are asking companies not to transport food all over the world. In the 1970s, the Korean government tried to find candidate lands for food production abroad. But they were really remote and this posed a problem of transportation. That’s why this policy was abolished in the past. But right now, the Lee Myung Bak government is trying to revitalise it. The reason that they now develop overseas production is not for food security but for their own self-interest. They make an excuse of food security; it's not the real reason.
What we can do now is inform the people and the government that this kind of farming abroad is not for people, it's for the TNCs. We have to help people see this real picture.
"They make an excuse of food security; it's not the real reason."
Is this boom in overseas farm acquisitions something that KWPA and other farmers' groups will be getting more active on?
It is really bad for Korean companies like Daewoo to occupy the land of foreign peoples like neocolonialists. Daewoo is bound to earn the same reputation as Monsanto or Cargill from such practices.
The first thing we can do right now is develop an internal position between KWPA and the Korean Peasant League about the Lee Myung-Bak government's overseas farming policy. We also have to make a statement on that.
Secondly, since Daewoo and other Korean companies are expanding such investments in Africa, Southeast Asia and Central Asia, we have to prepare a joint statement with farmers from Asia and Africa who are suffering from these kinds of deals.
"It is really bad for Korean companies like Daewoo to occupy the land of foreign peoples like neocolonialists. Daewoo is bound to earn the same reputation as Monsanto or Cargill from such practices."