In October, the ISC had the opportunity to meet with Korean farmers. We were welcomed into homes, fed fresh food and were given tours of both rural and urban farmland. Our hosts told us their stories and shared some of the struggles that Korean farmers are facing. It’s a side of Korea that is often shadowed by the country’s growing economic progress. This raises important questions about what and who is valued within societies: who is given support? Whose knowledge is considered valid?
Today Korea is known globally for its multinational tech companies, like Samsung and LG, but not long ago it was a country that survived almost solely on farming. In 1970, fifty percent of Koreans were farmers. It’s safe to assume that farming was a significant part of Korean identity and culture during that time.
The Korean War, food aid from the US, neoliberal policies and bilateral agreements led to the decline of farming in Korea, and the decline of rural communities and their indigenous traditions and cultures. The Korean government implemented The Green Revolution in the 1970s in response to economic pressures from the US. This ‘revolution’ stripped farmers of their right to land, seeds and farming methods. Farmers traded their traditions and small family farms for fertilizers and heavy machinery. The cost of these new technologies pushed farmers to grow cash crops to survive. Many farming communities were destroyed as the government focused its energy on increasing production and maximizing profit.
Near the end of the 1980s the government had directed most of its resources into neoliberal free trade policies and manufacturing. Korea’s large population and their lack of land led to less support for domestic farming. The Korean government discredited and devalued its farming communities and left them vulnerable to global markets where they stood no chance of competing. By 2010, farming in Korea had dramatically decreased to 7 percent of the population.
Life as a farmer is inherently unpredictable. Weather, bugs, disease and seeds are just some of factors that can affect harvests. Farmers have to be resourceful and resilient to survive. The political and economic forces they are up against are much bigger than the pests that eat their plants. Korean farmers are working hard to preserve their local knowledge and are using it as a powerful weapon against neoliberal driven policies.
Korean farmers are resisting the decline in local farming. The Korean Peasants League (KPL) and The Korean Women’s Peasant Association (KWPA) are fighting against neoliberal free trade agreements and are in solidarity with farmers around the world. They are initiating back to the land movements and are sharing their indigenous knowledge and traditions. They are reviving rural communities and are creating a new collective conscience within Korea. They are giving power and control back to the people. This has resulted in better tasting food and happier, healthier communities.
KWPA is helping empower women farmers; they are protecting indigenous seeds and building relationships with local consumers. Older women farmers are sharing their knowledge with the younger farming generation. The older generation is not educated in the way modern society appreciates. “Most of them are illiterate, but experts of indigenous agriculture” (Jeong Kim, 2013, p. 2). Their deep connection to the land is vital to the future of local, traditional farming methods. The KWPA is a progressive movement that recognizes the importance of the past. “The young generation makes it possible to reconsider the role and value of women peasants, who had been undervalued and excluded from the capitalized market economy system in the process of modernization” (Jeong Kim, 2013, p.3). The older generation of women farmers place in society and their knowledge is undervalued by Korean society. The KWPA is building a space where women peasants’ value can be realized and their knowledge can be used to improve the future of local communities.
The KWPA’s Sister’s Garden Plot slogan is, “An honest producer and a caring consumer: Together we can solve the problem”. Their pamphlet states that, “As consumers increase, rather than increase the scale of production, it is better to create a larger community in which producers and consumers meet.” They focus on local, seasonal farming – which is less costly – and better for the environment. The food they grow goes directly back to the community. Their freedom to grow food sustainably is attained by meeting the demands of their local market, not those of the global market.
Capitalism is limited; it only has the capacity to measure profit. Under modern capitalism, everything is disposable and replaceable. It’s unable to give value and meaning to the natural world we live in. Economic competition disrupts the simple cycle of growing, harvesting and producing food. Massive companies are protected by conflicting laws and trade agreements that limit access to local food and discourage localized, sustainable farming. Instead of power residing with farmers, it is hoarded by corporations. Food grown for mass profit is impossible to be grown ethically and in accordance with the natural environment. Food for profit is illogical and irrational. It causes farmers and communities worldwide to suffer, while big companies thrive.
We already have all of the tools needed to create more sustainable food sources. We have the farmers and their knowledge, but what we need is a structural shift within society that supports and encourages local farmers. Cooperative communities need to be valued over the convenience and the perceived choices capitalism offers. People need to look beyond their plates and see the damage caused by our current path. We need to stop giving credibility to multinational corporations and the governments who support them.
The battle facing farmers in Korea isn’t just a localized issue- it’s a global one. It is a collective struggle that affects all of us. Korean farmers have many roles. They are teachers, activists and protectors of their land and culture. Farmers, more than anyone, are aware of the grave dangers facing our plant. Farmers are a vital part of societies and their voices need to not just be heard, but truly listened to and valued.
Hyo Jeong Kim. (2013, September 14-15) Women’s Indigenous Knowledge and Food Sovereignty: Experiences from KWPA’s Movement in South Korea. Paper presented at Food Sovereignty: A Critical Dialogue, International Conference, Yale University (1-19).