Peasants Rise Up (Pakistan): The oppression of small milk farmers

PAN Asia Pacific’s No Land, No Life! Campaign, together with the Asian Peasant Coalition (APC), has launched the Peasants Rise Up broadcast series. The series, hosted by Bobby Ramakant of Citizen News Service and Christina Sayson, tackles landlessness, corporate control of agriculture, human rights, and other issues currently faced by the peasantry across Asia. The Peasant Rise Up series is part of the Global People’s Summit for a Just, Equitable, Healthy and Sustainable Food Systems. It celebrates the success stories of the peasant movement and highlights the call for land to the tillers as necessary for a truly radical food systems transformation

In the third episode, Dr. Azra Talat Sayeed (executive director) and Ayman Babar (researcher) from Roots for Equity, as well as Mohammad Aslam, a farmer from Sahiwal, Punjab and a member of the peasant organisation Pakistan Kissan Mazdoor Tehreek (PKMT), tackle the pasteurization law that would make the selling of fresh and raw milk a criminal offence. The new policy is the latest attempt of multinational corporations to control the livestock sector at the expense of small and landless farmers.

Pakistan is one of the leading milk producers in the world. In 2019, at least 34 million tonnes of milk from buffaloes, the major milk producing livestock in the country, were contributed to the global production of milk. Meanwhile, only six percent are being sold as packaged milk in Pakistan; most consumers are still buying fresh and raw milk.

With this, big dairy companies have taken the opportunity to dominate the dairy market. According to peasant groups, the pasteurization law would make it easier for companies to control milk productions—even if it means preventing small farmers from selling raw milk and making an income.

In 2019, the Punjab Food Authority (PFA) and livestock department finalised the planning for the implementation of the Minimum Pasteurization Law scheduled to take effect by 2022. The PFA intended to adopt the Turkish model on milk production by enacting its own pasteurization law. Aside from criminalising the selling of loose milk, the law would give incentives for private sector investment and increase the export of pasteurized milk by 90%–a clear indication that the law would greatly benefit dairy corporations.

According to Mohammed Aslam, rural communities have been buying from farmers who mostly own just a few livestock for fresh milk and other household dairy needs. But dairy corporations are opposing this local trade of milk. “Why is it suddenly the corporations are telling everybody that the milk that the farmers produced is bad for the health? Doctors on televisions are saying that milk sold by farmers are bad for the health. We have survived for so many years, consuming this milk, and suddenly it’s bad?” he said.

He said that multinational dairy companies like Swiss-owned Nestlé and Engro Pakistan, a local subsidiary of the Dutch company FrieslandCampina, oppose the informal fresh milk sector. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s food authority already prohibited the sale of unpacked or loose milk in 2019, citing health concerns that adulterated milk lacks the required nutrition that leads to health problems such as malnutrition and stunted growth in children.

However, according to Aslam, the concerns towards providing consumers with safe milk is just a ploy to advance big dairy companies’ interests, which robs small producers of the little income they make from livestock.

The PFA has been cracking down on factories and confiscating adulterated milk that are found to be contaminated with powder, chemicals and banaspati ghee (hydrogenated vegetable oil) — raw materials that increase the thickness and quantity of milk. Testing drives also emerged across Punjab to control the sale of loose milk.

But Aslam shared that that dairy companies and the food authority have been using the milk contamination issue to justify the pasteurization law. “Middlemen who come and take the milk from farmers are actually the ones putting all the chemicals to increase the quantity of milk and their earnings,” he said.

Discussion with farmers from the district of Sahiwal in Punjab about dairy companies and their products. (Photo credit: APC)

Another concern by peasant groups is how landless farmers are being left out of the decision-making process in legislation that concern the agriculture and livestock sector.

Meanwhile, Dr. Azra Talat Sayeed blames the imminent criminalisation of selling raw milk to the World Trade Organization (WTO). “We cannot talk about the corporate monopoly of the sector without the anti-farmer intellectual property rights policies the WTO is forcing on its member countries,” Sayeed said.

Aside from the pasteurisation law, the government has already introduced the Plant Breeders’ Rights Act in 2016 and the Seed (Amendment) Act in 2015. Pakistan, as a member of the WTO, is bound by the agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) and is compelled to pass legislation that would protect the interests of intellectual property rights holders, which are mostly transnational corporations.

“Even the farmers who owns small plots of land rarely reap profits because the laws have been restrictive. The Seed (Amendment) Act and the Plant Breeder’s Rights Act basically prohibits the use of unregistered and unbranded seed varieties,” said Ayman Babar. He added that these laws prevent small and landless farmers from practicing traditional agriculture methods like saving their seeds for the next cultivation season.

“Our domestic policies actually conform to international frameworks. And so, we cannot address one without addressing the other. We need to reject WTO mechanisms that undermine food sovereignty,” Sayeed added.

Furthermore, landlords, who are also corporate investors, use their political power to control land, evicting farmers from their lands or reducing their status to daily wage earners. “With the absence of land ownership among small farmers, it is very difficult for them to sustain livestock,” Babar said.

The PFA’s ban on selling loose milk was challenged in court in 2019, with petitioners arguing that the role of the authorities is to regulate the sale of milk and not prohibit such sales. Meanwhile, peasant organisations like PKMT are raising awareness across the country on the issues in the dairy sector, knowing that  building solidarity among farmers and workers is the most effective way to push back.

“We need to unite across all sectors of the working class, especially the peasants and the workers to create a very huge mobilisation to demand that the control over resources and food sovereignty is in their hands,” Sayeed emphasised. She mentioned that mobilising women continues to be a daunting task due to patriarchal norms in Pakistan, but peasant organisations like PKMT are at the same time tackling the issue of patriarchy among its members.

“Workers and peasants have to be united because only by standing up against these greedy corporations and oppressive policies that farmers and oppressed people’s voices will be heard,” Aslam ended.