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The lives of peasants are strongly interconnected with their territories, economies, and local institutions. At the same time, they have been historically defined by international processes and decisions that are taken elsewhere and affect their autonomy and identity. This is clearly the case when smallholders (that is, farmers who work small plots of land, mostly less than two hectares) are part of transnational food chains, but it is also true when their market is the local community: even when peasants do not grow global food commodities, they can be affected by the dynamics and continuous expansion of the transnational food system. Given the local impacts of international processes and regulatory frameworks, peasant organizations have increasingly organized translocally to participate in the international policy spaces, and try to subvert the legal structures that are shaping their lives and territories. This essay discusses those attempts by peasants to organize beyond their local realities to increase their political power and promote their vision of international economic law as a central piece in their long term strategy for recognition, food sovereignty, and consolidation of territorial and agroecological food systems. The essay provides a diagnosis of farmers’ silencing and exclusion by international economic law, presents the movement La Vía Campesina as a platform for translocal solidarity and multi-scalar engagement, and elaborates on peasants’ “cosmopolitan insurgence” and their promotion of food sovereignty as an alternative project for international economic law.
The relationship between trade, investment, and environmental protection is complex, and environmental activists have engaged with international economic law in a wide variety of ways. Some environmental activists have sought to use trade systems as leverage to advance environmental protections aims, while others have been concerned about how international economic law constrains unilateral national environmental action. The dominant account of the harmonization of economic and environmental norms and the promotion of sustainable development through trade and investment is challenged by sobering statistics of ecological decline. In the face of intersecting ecological, economic, and social crises facing the global community, the often-marginalized critique developed by environmental justice activists of neoliberal globalization and the legal regimes that enable it is more urgent than ever. These perspectives and voices—which sometimes align with other environmental activists and sometimes directly oppose market-orientated environmental agendas—have been marginalized in the scholarship on international economic law, but offer an indispensable resource for imagining more equitable and ecologically just forms of global economic cooperation. This essay shows how environmental justice activists have enacted a powerful politics of refusal, resisting international economic law as well as articulating visions of how to achieve systemic change and sustainable societies based on environmental, social, economic, and gender justice and peoples’ sovereignty.
In the parable, The Emperor Has No Clothes, an emperor walks naked through a public procession, assured by his own pride and vain advisors that he was wearing a magnificent robe visible only to the smart and worthy. Like the emperor, governments imagine that they have cloaked international economic law in a new “worker-centered” trade policy. This essay explains how their efforts have merely exposed the deficits in international economic law. They have failed to account for asymmetries between capital and labor and hierarchies between sectors of workers. They also exclude the voices of the world's most vulnerable workers—particularly those who do not benefit from union representation or job formality. The essay proposes that if policymakers intend to give workers an authentic voice and bargaining power, they must critically examine international economic law's very corpus.
This essay seeks to show how racialized histories of global political economy have shaped core issues in international economic law. The essay begins by noting challenges to framing the topic of racialized “others,” and then turns to the case study of cotton, showing how U.S. domestic production subsidies—long a focal point of international trade law in both formal dispute settlement and agreement negotiations—have affected persons of African heritage in the United States and internationally. The essay concludes by considering the U.S. and international contexts more generally, both to demonstrate where integral structural biases are at play, and to locate areas of contingency and change.
Most trade scholars treat agriculture as a commodity, and in a sense, agriculture workers and their technological replacements as commodities as well. From a food sovereignty perspective, however, agriculture is part of a food system and what is at stake in trade law is people's way of life. Peasants' and Indigenous peoples’ (and workers’) resistance against the World Trade Organization (WTO) has been an existential struggle. Most trade law scholars, with notable exceptions, have ignored social movements’ demands, including their call to end the WTO. By in effect disregarding the costs and violence of the existing trade system against food producers, trade scholarship makes social movements’ language and political demands less cognizable in international law. In this essay, I provide some context and language that may encourage trade law scholars to engage with the food sovereignty movement. I first explain what is at stake in trade law for the food sovereignty movements. I then briefly describe the underlying three pillars supporting the Agreement on Agriculture, and highlight the limits of trade law. I conclude by offering three principles—dignity, self-sufficiency, and solidarity—that could open trade law to wider perspectives. These principles blur the line between trade and the right to food in order to ensure that neither one is dominant nor an “other.”