Koreans from the US, protesting WTO meetings in Hong Kong with Korean farmers... And writing about the experience.

Monday, December 26, 2005

beyond money money money

I have been reading US and British media coverage on the WTO protests by Korean farmers, and it's clear that journalists, along with most citizens of industrialized nations, have swallowed the mythical language of GDP (국내 충생산) and comparative advantage (비교 우위).

Basically, they critique Korean farmers' resistance to rice liberalization as being nonsensical because 1) South Korea as a nation experienced overall economic growth in the last few years and 2) because it is 'inevitable' that as nations industrialize, their farming sector shrinks. The logic is: South Korea's making money at the tech stuff, why bother with 'uncompetitive' rice?

In terms of the US movement, if our struggle is first to translate the struggle of farmers all over the world into clear terms, then maybe the first step is the most difficult: challenging the way EVERYTHING is reduced to being a commodity, a 상품. At the other end, the media seems to be saying that protection of rice is based on sentimental nostalgia.

Between commodity and sentimental nostalgia, two gross simplifications of what rice is to Korea and most of Asia, lies the world of farmers and rural communities -- little understood, reduced to blurry green backdrops, and now painted as a threat to global trade conferences -- But in what i glimpsed in Naju and in Hong Kong, farming, and the farmers' movement, is based on a sense of collectivity, creativity, strategic thinking, that we city bumpkins actually have a lot to learn from.

For Koreans from the US, what's the connection? Last year, my mother asked in a total panic, "You're not thinking of going to live in the dirt, are you?" This year she gave me parasite medicine, thinking I've contracted something after going for just a few days to try my hand at farming exposure (농활). Of course, I keep saying, "엄마, 걱정하지 마라!"

But as we shared on our first day in Hong Kong, sitting in a circle in the dust of Victoria Park, we struggle alongside our Korean farmer 동지들 because we know from our lives what commodification and comparative advantage looks like here in the US, because our parents and grandparents have been torn from the land through war, division, and industrialization, and because farming is a way of life, a way of being, not an economic occupation, that must be fought for in this day and age.

I asked one farmer a general question about the farmers' movement (using the word 농민 운동). He responded: Don't use that phrase, farmers' movement. If we are going to keep talking, then first, we have to begin here: I am a farmer. Before anything, I am a farmer. Farming is what I do, everything comes out of the fact that I am a farmer. Can you understand that?

And it takes time to sink in, but yes, in fact, in South Korea and all over the world, being a farmer is resistance, this sense of being is at the heart of the movement. And for many of the farmers we met, being a farmer wasn't about being part of a landed class, about receiving an inheritance of land; it meant leaving the city and 'returning' to the country (귀농), a self-transformation of all the relationships one has, withdrawing from the consumerist lifestyle and easy convenience of city living, in order to mobilize a broad national base of politically conscious farmers, to strengthen the power of farmers against a ruthless industrialization and now globalization drive a la Samsung, Hyundai, and Japanese and US multinationals.

So I think that many of us came back from our dialogues with this conviction: the need to transform ourselves and our movement strategies and our communities, to deepen our understanding of the global connections made via trade and commerce, to go beyond wages, timeclocks, lunch breaks, vacation time. Farming as a starting point: can we understand that?

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