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Spirituality is key to building solidarity: An interview with La Via Campesina’s Nettie Wiebe

By Priscilla Claeys, Jasber Singh, and Nettie Wiebe - Agroecology Now, March 1, 2022

Nettie Wiebe, you are one of the women leaders of La Via Campesina (LVC), a transnational peasant movement that defends food sovereignty and unites over 200 million small-scale farmers, agricultural workers and indigenous peoples working the land. Tell us a little bit about yourself, and how you got involved in LVC?

I have farmed all my life. I may have missed a few harvests when I was abroad studying, but otherwise I am committed to, and deeply rooted in, farming. That’s been my life along with academia. I have a PhD in philosophy and in ethics. I have always, in my mind, in my life, made the link between how we live, what we eat and how we think about ourselves. I see it as one package. My intellectual life is not separated from my lived, practical life. I’ve always integrated those two. People sometimes have asked me, what do you need a philosophy degree for? That seems so impractical. And I say no, it’s in fact very practical. I have lots of time to think when I’m driving around and around on fields, but more importantly, our ethical and our intellectual or academic lives need to be embedded in our practical lives. I don’t think we will make any progress on the serious climate and ecological issues unless we think collectively and individually about our positioning here. It’s not just an economic issue, it’s an ethical one.

I have been involved in La Via Campesina for many years. We are small scale farmers here in Saskatchewan (Canada) and when we started farming on our own, we immediately became members of the National Farmers’ Union (NFU, a LVC member organization). Because I am a woman and, because of how academia was then, and maybe still is, in terms of the role of women, I failed to get a permanent position teaching at the University of Saskatchewan. I then stepped away from the University and decided to use my qualifications in the movement, where my heart really was. I became active in the National Farmers’ Union and became the women’s president, for six years and then for the first time in the history of the NFU, actually in the history of any national farm organization in Canada, they elected a woman as their president. So I was the president of the NFU. This was the late 1980s, and the GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) negotiations were going on. At the NFU, we had already been resisting the US-Canada free trade agreements, which set the parameters for the neoliberal globalization of agriculture. So we had that experience here in Canada, and we knew this corporatization of agriculture was going to be devastating for small-scale farming. In 1993, we sent a delegate to Mons, Belgium where La Via Campesina was created, and we played a major role in organizing the second International Conference of La Via Campesina in Tlaxcala, Mexico in 1996. We already had good relations with peasant groups in the Central American region.

It was a success. We had no idea how large and how diverse and how lively that whole process would be. I mean, I was blown away when I got there. It was an amazing, 24-hour-a-day kind of experience. We also selected the representatives to our International Coordination Committee (ICC). There were seven regions and at first seven men were appointed which created considerable tension because about 40% of the delegates in the assembly were women. So there was some tense conversation and all the regional caucuses were sent back to try again. I was then elected as the representative by my region, and I accepted on the condition that we would do it together. When we got back into the plenary, there were six men and me, so that’s how I got to be in the ICC, where I served for eight years.

Thanks for taking us back to this foundational moment in the history of LVC. Do you remember if spirituality, or religion, played a role in the building of the food sovereignty movement?

Well it was clear to us from the beginning that this was not just an economic fight, that this was a struggle, not only for our livelihoods, but for who we are, how we live and for our neighborhoods, and our neighborhoods include the ground we walk on and the animals around us. It was about how we treat the living systems, the webs within which we are embedded. It was about who makes the decisions and on what grounds. It was about culture. It was very clear to us that our strength was our diversity, our cultural diversity, and that we would need to protect the autonomy of all the organizations. That we would need to not just tolerate diversity but cherish it, enhance it, and love it. It was about building solidarity, building unity without uniformity.

When it comes to spirituality, I have come to understand how important it is and how you have to make room for expressions other than verbal expressions and other than the meeting agenda: the ebb and flow of the conversations, the atmosphere, the visual, the expressions of the living things around you. In meetings, wherever we are, we bring not only flags and paraphernalia but we also create a kind of a center piece with seeds, plants, branches, flowers, something that reminds us that we are in, and part of, living systems. This is what we call the mistica. All of that was present at that first meeting in 1996.

When it comes to religion, I don’t recall that we ever specifically spoke of religious differences. I remember people being very critical of Hindu nationalism in India, even at the time. From the beginning it was clear that we were autonomous as organizations and as individuals. Religious tensions were not part of who we were. We all come from various religious backgrounds and have diverse practices. It might have come up within movements or in the national or local context but it’s not a defining characteristic of any kind. For me, that’s reassuring because I think that the deepest spirituality, I mean religions, are reaching to express the unknown. Organized religions are in some ways an ideology expressing something about the presence of god, or many gods, they are all symbolic of something that language isn’t actually able to explain. And the symbolism is often a symbolism of the unknown. It makes good sense that when we, as farming people, who live in natural contexts, reach to symbolize our deep connection to creative life forces in ways that words cannot express, that we do so through the beauty of other living systems. It makes sense that in a movement of people of the land, that their expressions of what’s mysterious, what’s wonderful, are expressions of seed and blossoms and trees and sky, that this is what symbolizes our relationship to the wondrous.

What are the origins of the mistica in LVC?

The mistica often includes some protocols that are not unlike organized Catholic religion. For example, distributing seeds or giving seeds to each person in the room. That’s not unlike communion. It has struck me how some of the symbolism and mistica protocols that we use are in fact informed by other places where spiritual connection is made by symbolism and protocol. That is not surprising. In South and Central America, the colonial Catholic presence has been long-term and is deeply embedded in the culture. Symbolism is not created out of thin air. It’s embedded in deep experiences, sometimes over generations. But the mistica materializes itself in different ways in other places. It could be through dancing, I remember beautiful dancing in Bangalore, in India. That was a beautiful reminder that the beauty and connection of our bodily movements are also part of the political movement. Those cannot be separated without pain, and part of being life giving, of understanding each other and respecting each other as diverse and living beings is to dance.

Can you tell us more about the role of spirituality and religion in your own life and how this has guided your work in the movement? What was the religious context of your upbringing?

I’m the 12th of 15 children in a Mennonite family, that grew up on a small, mixed farm. My people were an immigrant community that came from Eastern Europe, not as individuals but as a community. We migrated not as individual settlers, but as whole villages. You’re in community and your elders and your children and your aunties and your great aunties, everybody’s part of your identity. The settlers from other parts of Europe mostly came as individuals or as nuclear families, whereas we came as whole villages. Looking back at the way I work and how I think about movement, I believe this has shaped my view that solo flight is dangerous, we always fly in formation, you know?

It was a community of religiously conservative Mennonites who fled because the young men were called up to the army, and they believed that violence is never the answer so then whole communities migrated. They believed that you rather migrate than fight because you need to respect human life. That pacifism is less and less common, but that is my heritage. Nobody went to war, organized violence is not, and cannot ever be, the solution. The religious upbringing for me was very much a “you walk the talk”. If you think you have to convert somebody by proselytizing, by telling them, then you’ve already failed. People should come to your way of doing things by seeing how you do them. The work of living well was actually the expression of your religious commitment. I’m not very good at talking about religion because we didn’t actually talk religion in my household, we tried to walk it, and mostly failed (laugh).

How would you describe your own spiritual journey in the movement?

We like to do the analysis, bring data to the table, use persuasive arguments. What I have seen as my job as a philosopher is to appeal to the reason of other people, that this is the way to persuade them. But you actually don’t succeed in bringing whole people together by only persuading them intellectually, they also have to be invited in a way which is reassuring, invitational, life giving for them, to affirm them as people. Spirituality is a huge part of feeling the connection, and of building solidarity.

I’m very verbal. The spoken word, the written word, is my medium. My training and my culture are committed to reasoned arguments. For many people that’s not the case. What speaks for and to them is the rhythm, the dance, the dramas, the symbolism.In the mistica, we often do small dramas without words because there are so many languages in LVC. The symbolism is a deeply spiritual connection because there, we don’t need all the booths with the translators. We speak without the translation. If you can understand it, it is a more direct form of communication. It speaks to not just the intellect, but to the spirit more directly. One of the striking things about working with this diversity that exists within LVC is that instead of thinking “oh, well, if they want to bring some flowers, sure”, you try to understand that these seeds, flowers, branches remind us of and symbolize something.

It was never a problem for me to appreciate the beauty of the mistica that we always do at the beginning of the meeting, because that to me always seemed like such a wonderful gift that people from everywhere brought and bring. But understanding the spiritual practices in the movement was a steep learning curve for me and continues to be. We have a very industrialized mind, we are very efficiency oriented, we’re the people with the watches. I still have to keep reminding myself that not everybody works on those rhythms, that the rhythms of nature and the rhythms of other cultures are quite different. We need to sit on our impatience and allow others with other perspectives and other rhythms to express themselves too.

The Canadian/British/European way is that we set up the meeting very carefully, we have the structure and the agenda and we talk. It isn’t our culture to take care of, and be conscious of the fact that we’re sitting among the beautiful gifts of the earth. In Canada, our way of doing it is we have coffee together. We drink beer together. That’s our socializing way of doing that work but we don’t intentionally bring song and poetry and symbols or artwork into the space. As part of the meeting, we sing “Oh, Canada” at the beginning of our conferences, of course. And then when we end, we sing “Solidarity Forever” in our rousing, off-key way, mostly with a great deal of energy.

I’ve learned, and I’ve changed how I see myself, from being part of the movement. I mean, you can’t be alive and growing, unless you take into account the context in which you are growing. And the context changes you. We are, in some ways, sunflowers – we reach towards the sun where the light is. I mean, we are all like that.

In your view, what are some of the challenges around food sovereignty and spirituality in the future?

On religion, I’m hopeful that we’ll continue to respect, but step around that, not step into it. That’s how we’ve been so far. That seems to me the way a movement can thrive without splintering into religious factions. But spirituality is very much part of our movement. As I said earlier, it was never just an economic proposition. We’re building a different world here together, the physical, the environmental, the material world is of course where we live, but we’re also building a solidarity, an understanding of who we are as human beings and how we need to be. That’s been part of the struggle in La Via Campesina. A key challenge is how we see ourselves as gendered. None of us live in societies that are not patriarchal. The spiritual challenge around that has been of seeing each other first as humans and, then, understanding the differences in a way that don’t exploit, manipulate and oppress some parts of that human community, which is what patriarchy is built on. Rural communities are deeply patriarchal. The way land has been distributed and is owned or used, the way decisions are made.

That’s been a challenge that La Via Campesina has grappled with a lot. I told you that initial story of being the only woman there, I mean, that’s been one of the real challenges. The misticas are overwhelmingly organized and done by the women in the movement. And that’s been important because we need to continue to understand what women bring as the living gifts. And if you’re thinking about living systems, then that symbolism is very important. And that is also expressed through a lot of art. A lot of the cultural input is from women. I mean, you don’t see that when you look at the industry, the music industry or the publishing industry, you don’t see that. But as a matter of fact, in the household and at the community level, it’s very often the case we as women have a very important cultural and spiritual role.

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