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Crazy Gang


May 26, 1999 / The Guardian

They¬†arrived via Uzbekistan in green shawls, chanting slogans of friendship and carrying Indian flags in their trolleys. The first contingent of 150 Indian farmers streamed into Fortress Europe past startled immigration officials at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport last Saturday on their way to join the Intercontinental Caravan, a month-long tour to protest about everything from debt to unfair terms of trade, economic globalisation, GM foods and the “neo-coloniaslism” they say is taking place all over the South.

Some 400 farmers and grassroots activists are now in Europe. They include Zapatistas, several Colombians, two women from the landless movement in Bangladesh, and five Nepalis from a human rights group based in Kathmandu. All have paid for themselves out of savings or been sponsored by farmers’ groups. Eleven buses will now take them around 12 European countries to meet and exchange experiences with local environmental and social activists and to take part in non-violent direct action. Tomorrow a splinter group should arrive in Dover for a three-day visit to Britain.

The European activists – loosely linked through the People’s Global Action network – were jubilant and emotional as they welcomed the farmers. It has taken 10 months’ planning, and right up to the last minute getting the visas for such a huge number of smallholder farmers from India looked impossible. When the caravan was first proposed it was known for a long time simply as the Totally Crazy Project.

The caravaners’ first stop was at Dambeck, an 800-year-old monastery near Salzwedel in Germany, where they arrived early on Sunday. Their hosts were monks who look after Ukrainian children affected by the fallout from Chernobyl. The sight of the paraphernalia of an Indian village transplanted into the German countryside drew curious locals.

From now on, the tour is non-stop. It includes an action at Nato headquarters in Belgium, protests at Monsanto and Cargill’s European headquarters, seminars on the development of agriculture with immigrant women, a sit-in at the HQ of the World Trade Organisation in Geneva, and meetings with Polish ecological farmers.

Two truck loads of soil are to be “delivered” on to a Spanish highway for a symbolic sowing of seeds; demonstrations against genetic manipulation are planned in front of the European Office of Patents and the Food and Agriculture Organisation; and the caravan will culminate at a “laugh parade” on June 18 to mock the globalisation agenda of the G8 summit in Cologne.

Vijay Jawandhia, coconut and silkworm farmer from Karnataka, central India, is clear: “We want to say to the G8 leaders: ‘We do not want your charity, we do not want your loans.’ Those in the North have to understand our struggle and to realise it is also part of their own. Everywhere the rich are getting richer, the poor poorer, and the environment is being plundered. Whether in the North or South, we face the same future. We see the European farmers also being affected by free trade policies. Just as Europe exported its development model to the rest of the world, now it is our turn to bring an alternative development model to you.”

Jawandhia, with the dignity of an elder statesman, says he is in Europe because he wants to tell people that “the economy must be geared towards the needs of living systems”, as Gandhi taught. “Globalisation should mean we want to globalise human society, not business. Life is not business.”