He took his own life just a few yards from where we stood amongst the other protesters near the barricades. I stepped aside as they carried him past me on a stretcher, but had no idea what happened till I heard that night he had died in protest.
Many people have and will continue to discredit his act, write him off as a crazy or some sort of fool. While I didn't know him personally, I have spent lots of time with peasant farmers like Lee Kyung Hae and the one thing I have learned from them; farming is about much more than making money, it is life. They are ready to do anything, to protect their farms, their families, their way of life.
Most farmers I know here at home, (myself included) have a strong attachment to our farms, the land, our heritage, but it is a life or death attachment to very few of us. These peasant farmers are different, they have the passion, they will die for what they believe.
Those who would write Lee Kyung Hae off do not understand the commitment, the connection, the interdependence these farmers have with each other and their communities. Back in the 60's during Vietnam, every so often we heard about a US soldier who threw himself on a live hand grenade to save the lives of his comrades, his brothers; it's like that.
Peasant farmers told me of those who stood in front of bulldozers in their attempt to stop Plan Puebla-Panama, the giant transportation project linking Central and South America to the North, another part of the corporate effort to extract the wealth of the South.
These peasant farmers are willing to sacrifice their lives for what they feel is the greater good. Perhaps there is no thought given to a spontaneous act of sacrifice, perhaps there is, I don't know. I do know that in order for a human to overcome the strongest instinct we have, self preservation, there needs to be an extremely urgent life altering issue at stake.
Food, ones farm, ones heritage, ones family, these are the issues Lee Kyung Hae gave his life for. He, like all the peasant farmers in Cancun, was determined that the World Trade Organization, the WTO, would not sell out Korea's farms, families and their right to produce food to a parasitic group of multinational corporations intent only on making a profit. They knew if the trade provisions of the WTO were enacted they would loose their right to feed themselves and their families, their right to grow the food their ancestors had grown; the food that maintained their heritage as well as their lives.
Lee Kyung Hae's sacrifice was a very visible and selfless act, yet every day peasant farmers around the world are forced to give up something, their land, their rights their ability to feed themselves, their food sovereignty.
How could we have let our world slip so far? Why do people need to die for their right to feed themselves? At what point did the profits of multinational corporations become more important than the lives of people?
Food is different, we need to understand that people are willing to die for their right to farm, to grow what they want to feed their families and communities. While few are inclined to make the ultimate sacrifice, we need to think about how important food really is. It is life and death for many. Good food, local food, food that supports the farmer, nourishes the eater and supports the community, that is what Lee Kyung Hae died for.
Hae's last words were, “Don't worry about me, just struggle your hardest”. So how can we in his honor, or for our own good, struggle our hardest? First of all, his focus, getting agriculture out of the WTO was spot on. As Rosset stated, food is “ not a typical commodity because it affects so many people and the environment in such intimate ways”. “Food is both personal, as it affects our bodies, and political as it affects the world”.
We must continue Hae's struggle, we must put pressure the Obama administration to re-think international trade pacts and re-negotiate them. Trade should work for the benefit of farmers and those who eat, multi-national corporations can no longer be the sole beneficiaries. Government feeding programs must have the option of using local and organic food, which in season and in bulk is lower cost and much healthier.
Closer to home we can eat more locally and more seasonally. Not only will this support our farmers, but it will let farmers in the rest of the world feed their communities while fairly trading their excess specialty crops on the world market.
Eating locally can be accomplished by shopping at a farmers market, planting your own garden, getting involved in inner-city community gardening projects and most simply, by avoiding processed packaged foods and learning to buy in bulk and cook again.
The world can feed itself, if we let it, we can feed ourselves locally, safely and to the benefit of our good health if we have the will to struggle our hardest.