A Farmer for Our Time

by Alexander Cockburn And Jeffrey St. Clair

The crowded courtroom in the southern French town of Montpellier listened on February 9 to prosecutor Olivier Decout sweep through his peroration: “One cannot systematically use violence against scientific progress!” Outside, the police held back a thousand French farmers who poured into the university town to rally for their leader, Jose Bove, charged with fomenting an attack on a nearby biotech research station belonging to a corporation called CIRAD.

The farmers, belonging to the Confederation Paysanne, had taken crowbars and sledgehammers to a CIRAD greenhouse, then pulled up and burned a thousand genetically modified rice plants, simultaneously destroying computer files holding the company’s research data.

The action, led by Bove, was one more in a series of attacks by French farmers on genetically modified crops and fast food restaurants. In answer to the prosecutor’s accusation in Montpellier that he and his companions were mere Luddites, Bove replied, “Why refuse something which is presented as ‘progress’? It’s not because of old-fashionedness, or regrets for the good old days. It’s because of concern for the future, and because of a will to have a say in future developments. I’m not opposed to fundamental research. I think it would be illusory and detrimental to want to curb it. On the other hand, I don’t think that every application of research is necessarily desirable, at the human, social or environmental level. And the only regret that I have now is that I wasn’t able to destroy more of it.”

Bove now awaits sentencing and three other actions in France alone. If there’s one organizer symbolizing the worldwide counterattack of peasants and family farmers against corporate agriculture, copyrighted bio-tech crops and global trading blocs organized by the big capitalist powers, it’s surely Bove.

Now 47, he cut his teeth on insurgency in the famous student/worker uprisings in France in 1968. In the 1970s he and his wife Alice led a successful campaign to keep the French military from building missile silos on the Larzac plateau where they had just moved to raise sheep for milk for the area’s famous Roquefort cheese. Bove speaks fluent English. In fact, he spent four years of his youth in Berkeley, where his parents, both biochemists, did research at the University of California.

In 1987 the Boves founded the Confederation of French Farmers, and in one of the first of many brilliantly conceived publicity coups, the farmers ploughed up a few acres of ground under the Eiffel tower to protest an initiative of the EEC favoring corporate agriculture.

Later, while many French radicals were patriotically defending French nuclear tests in the South Pacific, Bove travelled in 1995 on Greenpeace’s Rainbow Warrior II to protest the tests, an act of some courage, considering that back in 1985 the French secret service had exploded a bomb on Rainbow Warrior I, killing a Portuguese photographer called Fernando Pereira.

Bove didn’t gain international attention until August of 1999, when he and three of his compatriots, armed with a tractor, pick axes and chainsaws, attacked and destroyed a McDonald’s under construction in his hometown of Millau. Bove denounced McDonald’s as purveyors of la malbouffe (bad beef). He said that McDonald’s was merely a symptom of a larger problem, global corporations forcing genetically engineered or processed foods down the throats of unwilling farmers and consumers. “The WTO and the corporations are telling us what to eat.” Bove said. “In France, no one agrees with this.”


Bove at a biotech protest against Safeway in Washington, DC.

Almost overnight Bove became a French hero, praised even by French president Lionel Jospin, and touted in Le Monde as the new Vercingetorix, who had repelled the alien invaders. In the US, the Wall Street Journal, roused by this attack on one of the nation’s leading exports, lashed out at Bove as “a food terrorist”. After knocking down the McDonald’s outlet Bove was arrested and refused to pay his bail, which was then raised by American midwesterners in the National Family Farm Coalition. The Coalition’s president, Bill Christison, flew to Millau to stand in solidarity with Bove and two others on trial.

Quoting Lincoln, Christison told the French court that “We testify on behalf of our fellow farmers as they seek economic and social justice. Corporate globalization, flawed agriculture and trade policy are the real problems. These farmers made an effort to abide by the law when looking for a solution but found there was no other recourse.”

There is a question of how much cheese Bove has time to make. For the past two years he’s been on the road, in Seattle for the WTO protests where he protested US tariffs on French Roquefort by smuggling in rounds of the cheese, dispensing chunks to cops and demonstrators alike in front on a downtown outlet of McDonalds. This last month he was with an international coalition of peasant farmers called Via Campesina, demonstrating at an anti-globalization forum in Brazil, timed to coincide with the annual moot of the rich and powerful in Davos, Switzerland.

While in Brazil Bove and Christison were asked by the Landless Workers Movement to accompany them in an attack on a test facility belonging to Monsanto, where 1,300 farmers duly destroyed a thousand acres of genetically engineered corn and soybeans. The peasants had earlier forced the local governor to declare the province of Rio Grande do Sul a biotech free zone but Monsanto secured an exemption. If Monsanto returns, the peasants say, they’ll put the company’s directors on a plane and send them back to the United States.

The United States is home turf to the world’s mightiest corporate agribusiness, as family farmers know all too well, having seen their average income decline by 62 per cent since 1978, and have seen themselves become little more than share croppers for the four or five companies that now dominate US agriculture. Hence the support of Bove by the National Family Farm Coalition.

“Our fight is against globalization,”, said Christison. “This means domestic policies that support international deals that are in the interests of corporate agribusiness. These policies are created in board rooms of companies motivated by profit and not the economic health of the farmer, the health of the consumer or the vitality of the rural community. Globalization means policies in the US that force our prices as low as possible by removing an effective commodity loan rate or reserve. These policies force the world price to levels that are unsustainable for farmers around the globe.”

After coming back to France from Brazil (where he is now banned from returning), Bove went right back to work – his political work, that is. He traveled to Lille, in northern France, where he and four colleagues broke into the local headquarters of the ruling party to protest lack of support for small farmers. With them they brought a sow and 10 piglets, which they left behind in the party head’s office along with 20 bales of hay.

In the Montpellier courtroom Bove wound up his speech from the dock thus: “Yes, the action was illegal; but I lay claim to it because it was legitimate. I don’t demand clemency, but justice. Either we have acted in everyone’s interests and you will acquit us, or we have shaken the establishment and in that case you will punish us. There is no other issue.”

[On March 16, the French court found Bove guilty and then suspended his sentence. Bove remained undaunted, calling the ruling ominous and vowing to continue his crusade against industrial agriculture, biotech and trade pacts that favor transnational corporations at the expense of small farmers.] CP

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