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"Free trade agreements are an engine of poverty and inequality." Interview with José María Oviedo

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28 November 2023

"Free trade agreements are an engine of poverty and inequality." Interview with José María Oviedo


Every year, 10 September marks the International Day of Action against the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and Free Trade Agreements (FTAs). Twenty years ago, Lee Kyung Hae, a small Korean farmer, sacrificed his life to protest against the devastating free trade policies of the WTO. His legacy lives on in the International Day of Action against the WTO. This year, the day has a special significance. In a context where free trade policies have had a significant impact on peasant and farming communities around the world, La Via Campesina (LVC) has declared that it is time to take strong action.

We talked to José María Oviedo of the National Confederation of Agricultural Producers (Via Campesina Costa Rica) about the impact of free trade agreements and La Via Campesina’s demands for fairer and more sustainable agricultural trade. José explains that 10 September is a date "to draw attention to what free trade agreements have meant for most countries. FTAs are like a factory that produces poor people, generating great inequalities and poverty."

La Via Campesina says that after three decades of existence, the WTO has failed to deliver on any of its promises. "The WTO has shown the world how neoliberalism, privatisation, deregulation and a free-market capitalist economy can marginalise, exploit and dispossess the world’s most vulnerable communities - including peasants, indigenous peoples and rural and urban workers.” (La Via Campesina press release)

The rules of the FTAs have been a constant source of hardship for peasants, as it is impossible to compete with the massive exports and subsidies of the countries of the North. According to Oviedo, the representative for Central America, "as the FTAs are negotiated, it becomes impossible for farmers to export because of the obstacles these agreements create. This has serious consequences for cooperatives and all those involved in agriculture."

"What we have is a huge flood of products competing with our goods on the domestic market because they come in duty free and the legislation practically says that these food imports cannot be stopped. This phenomenon not only affects the economic viability of those involved in local agriculture, but also leads to a massive displacement of families in agricultural production, causing a cascade of effects on rural communities.”

The seed situation and UPOV

The imposition of regulations such as UPOV (International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants) in many free trade agreements has had a profound impact on seed diversity and traditional agriculture. Launched in 1961 with six European countries as founding members, UPOV sought to establish a system similar to patents but applied to plants, with the idea of issuing ’breeders’ certificates’ to protect plant varieties developed in laboratories. These certificates make it possible to claim ’protection’ for a plant variety and prevent others from using it without paying royalties.

In the context of free trade agreements, the imposition of UPOV membership poses a serious threat to biodiversity and the wealth of traditional seeds that have been cultivated for thousands of years. José explains that although indigenous and creole seeds still exist in the region, the threat of restrictive seed legislation is constant. In countries that have joined UPOV, "many farmers have been the subject of complaints, heavy fines and even imprisonment for using these seeds of varieties registered by large companies." Indigenous and creole seeds are a precious part of the history of agriculture, handed down from generation to generation for thousands of years. These seeds, adapted to local conditions and climate change, are fundamental to food sovereignty and the response to the climate crisis. "Our happiness lies in sharing seeds, these indigenous seeds. We know that transnational corporations are here to make a profit, that they are responsible for much of the world’s hunger, that they generate a lot of waste, and that they contribute to increasing the ecological footprint. At La Via Campesina, we have been saying for many years that we are the only ones who can refresh the planet.”

A new trade framework

Twenty years after Lee’s tragic protest, La Via Campesina says it is time for a profound change in agricultural trade. La Via Campesina’s 8th Conference in Colombia, scheduled for December, is a crucial opportunity to move forward in creating a new trade paradigm. Mr Oviedo explains that within La Via Campesina, "We say very clearly that the WTO should not exist. Nobody can be against free trade; it is free trade that has allowed the development of peoples and civilisations throughout history. What is wrong is the way free trade agreements are being implemented today. They are simply a space to favour multinationals, and free trade has absolutely nothing to do with that."

The proposal to build a new framework is not limited to superficial changes or an illusory "reform" of the WTO, but calls for a complete overhaul and the construction of a new world trade framework. According to LVC, this framework must prioritise national food sovereignty, the protection of biodiversity and the rights of farmers and rural and urban workers. It must be rooted in the values of solidarity, cooperation and social justice, with the capacity to dismantle the economic, political and social structures and cultural domination of certain countries of the North. It is essential that this new approach is anti-imperialist, anti-colonial, anti-patriarchal and promotes social justice and gender equality. "We have been saying for a long time that we need fair trade between countries where there is no discrimination, where there is no inequality, and it is possible to achieve this.”

La Via Campesina, founded in 1993, is an international movement that brings together millions of peasants, landless workers, indigenous peoples, livestock farmers, fisherfolk, migrant farm workers, small and medium-sized farmers, rural women and young people from all over the world.
Built on a strong sense of unity and solidarity, LVC defends peasant agriculture in the name of food sovereignty.

To achieve food sovereignty, La Via Campesina mobilises and campaigns for agrarian reform in peasant territories, provides training in agroecological production methods, and is a platform for its members around the world to communicate and carry out solidarity actions, mobilisations and joint campaigns in defence of land, water, seeds and forests.

La Via Campesina currently brings together 182 local and national organisations in 81 countries in Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas.In total, it represents some 200 million small-scale food producers.

Source: La Vía Campesina

For further information please visit
La Via Campesina website:
Stop UPOV Campaign website:

Pour plus d’informations :
Site web de La Via Campesina :
Site web de la campagne Stop UPOV :