Baek Nam-gi: Agriculture and state violence

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A farmer dead at the hands of state violence: the Park Geun-hye administration killed Baek Nam-gi!On Nov. 14, 2015, Baek Nam-gi, a farmer and activist, was knocked to the ground by a water cannon fired by police. For 317 days afterward, he was unconscious and fought for his life in an intensive care unit, hovering between life and death. Baek ultimately passed away on Sept. 25.

Since last November, we have demanded punishment for those responsible for the violence imposed on Baek as well as an apology from the president and measures to prevent such an incident from happening again. So far, nothing has been done.

A nationwide committee led by farmers’ organizations was formed with workers, the poor and civic groups. Even though the committee along with Baek’s family did everything they could to get a response, the police, prosecution, court and president have continued to stay mum on the issue.

Even worse, after Baek’s death, the police and prosecution attempted to force an autopsy. It is anticipated that the purpose of the autopsy is to conceal and manipulate the truth about state violence.

But the truth cannot be concealed. There is enough clear evidence that what killed Baek was murderous violence by the police. There is no justifiable reason for an autopsy. A great number of people opposed to the autopsy have struggled to protect Baek's body.

Why did a farmer of life and peace die? Why did Baek travel to Seoul on Nov. 14, 2015, the day he was shot by a water cannon? Baek, a farmer of life and peace, went to Seoul to protect agriculture, the basis of life and peace. It was right after he had finished planting wheat seeds.

In 2014, the government announced it would open the country’s rice market to free trade, putting farmers into a struggle against the policy. It was obvious that opening the market would throw Korean rice farms into a crisis. The farmers argued that rice was our country’s staple food, the basis of our lives and sovereignty. Our 25% food self-sufficiency can be attributed to our almost 100 percent self-sufficiency in rice. When the world was suffering from a food crisis, Korea weathered the storm because rice farming had strong support.

Opening the rice market broke that strong support. As we can see in many cases in other countries, abandoning production of a staple food has had devastating effects. Food crises become national crises and affect politics and economics negatively.

Baek was a farmer of life and peace. What is the role of life in agriculture? The essence of agriculture is producing food for humans and sustaining lives. Agriculture is also a means of building communities, of maintaining the relationship between humans and nature, and among human beings. Studies have also shown that farming land has multifunctional and public value. Having that relationship with the land means there is a basis for sustainable and developed communities and ecosystems.  

What is the role of peace in agriculture? If we examine the Chinese characters for  “peace” (平和), we see the words “eating (口) rice (禾) together by sharing it fairly(平).” Regardless of one’s wealth, everyone can eat rice. That is an equal society. That’s why farmers continue to plant and produce rice despite accumulating debt every year under the harsh reality of neoliberal agricultural policies like the opening of the agricultural market. It is the value of the work that farmers do. The reason farmers farm is hope of creating a better society where people do not have to worry about food and to build a world worth living in.

State violence: The government showed how they see the people Prior to the People’s Uprising on Nov. 14, 2015, a nationwide farmers’ rally was held to demand the farmers’ right to live and secure proper agricultural product prices. During the rally, farmers called for fixed rice price since prices fell after the rice market opened.

The demand was related to President Park’s presidential election pledge. During her campaign in 2012, Park put up banners everywhere that promised “the rice price would be secured at 210,000 won per 80 kg.”

But since her election into office, there has been no further discussion about setting the rice price at 210,000 won ($185). If anything, the price has actually continued to fall as if bottomless. That’s because the government began to import rice for direct consumption at the table, an act without justification or reason.

Farmers demanded the government keep its pledge; instead, the government responded with water cannons. Knocked to the ground by a targeted and direct water cannon shot, the murderous violence of the state, Baek could not get back on his feet. With his just demands, he was trying to protect the country’s agriculture, and the state responded with a water cannon. Water is a necessary and precious element in farming, but the government used it to arm a cannon to shoot and kill a farmer..

The price of rice has now fallen to a level even lower than 20 years ago. Along with Baek’s death, it is as if all the farmers, who cultivate rice are being pushed towards the edge of a cliff. There has been no measure to deal with falling prices even though it is harvesting season. The government continues to use the same old policies: unnecessary rice imports continue, the amount of land for rice cultivation is cut, and direct subsidies for farmers are reduced.

There is no fundamental solution. As subsidies are reduced, rice farming land is cut and more foreign rice is imported, it is certain that there will not only be problems for farmers but also a food crisis for everyone. And the food crisis will have a direct impact on our lives.

written by Kim-Hwang Kyung-san (General Secretary, Korean Women's Peasants Association)