Our story is from the wild north of Mozambique, a poor country in Africa of roughly 20 million people where 70% of the population are small-scale farmers. Mozambique's post independence history has been a rollercoaster ride of civil war and changing economic models.
Mr. Júlio dos Santos Pêssego, from the province of Niassa, is a survivor. He grew up in a family of small farmers on the banks of a river far from the nearest town, and he describes his childhood as “difficult”. Today, he is one of the principal leaders of the “peasant movement” in Niassa province, working to defend land rights, increase food production and bring prosperity to farming families.
A long journey
Pêssego remembers seeing independence in 1975 as a boy in 2nd grade, after having worked for an agricultural company spraying pesticides. In the first years of Mozambican independence, he was forced to abandon his studies and never completed middle school. Later, he says [pt]:
Devido a guerra de resistência, abandonei o meu emprego no ex-complexo agro pecuário e refugie me no distrito de Cuamba onde aparentemente era seguro. Dediquei me na produção de hortícolas para a minha sustentabilidade. Com o fim da guerra, circundei as montanhas para uma zona denominada Mutaco.
In Mutaco, he joined an agricultural association in 1999 with the goal of raising goats. Pêssego landed on his feet and prospered, but had the vision to help other farmers rise with him, encouraging people to face great challenges and yearn for more than just to scrape by.
With his dedicated team, he has partnered with major international NGOs, administered grants from European donors, and liaised with government officials on behalf of farmers. He learned to drive for his work, criss-crossing the province which is four times the size of England. He says [pt]:
Mas sublinhar que todo este tempo nunca abandonei a produção de alimentos. Principalmente hortícolas.
Building a national movement
The peasant movement formally emerged from state-sponsored cooperatives after the Mozambican government distanced itself from socialism in the late 1980s. It has been challenging to convince farmers that working together can be something empowering when not imposed from above.
The national umbrella organization is called UNAC, the National Union of Peasant Farmers, and is comprised of small self-help groups from the village level up.
Pêssego, a physically imposing father of seven and a man of strong conviction, speaks in soft tones and uses aphorisms, folk tales and jokes when he speaks to communities. His name means “peach” in Portuguese.
One of his favorite adages comes from a regional folk tale about a rabbit and a leopard: “If you would like something, you must ask for it.” He takes this to mean that the powerful use cleverness over brute strength to maintain privilege, and that the weak must outwit them to get what they need.