Korean Farmers: The Value of Local Knowledge

By Erica Sweett

In October the ISC met with Korean farmers. We were welcomed into their homes, fed fresh food and given tours of rural and urban farmlands. They shared their stories and shared the struggles Korean farmers are facing. We experienced a side of Korea often shadowed by economic progress raising questions about what and who is valued within societies. Who is supported?  Whose knowledge is valid?

Today, Korea is known globally for its multinational tech companies, like Samsung and LG, but not long ago it was a country that survived almost solely on farming. In 1970, fifty percent of the populations were farmers. It’s safe to assume that farming was a significant part of Korean identity and culture during that time.

The Korean War, US food aid, along with neoliberal policies and bilateral agreements led not only to a decline in agriculture but also to one in rural communities and indigenous traditions and cultures. In the 1970s, in response to US economic pressure, the Korean government implemented Green Revolution agricultural practices. The Green Revolution modernized farming in Korea and educated farmers on technological advances in farming. It also increased the use of fertilizers and introduced new seeds.

The Green Revolution proved to be unsustainable. This “revolution” stripped farmers of their right to land, seeds and farming methods. Farmers traded their traditions and small family farms to buy fertilizers and heavy machinery.  The increased cost of these new technologies forced many farmers to switch from growing a diversity of crops for domestic consumption to growing cash crops. As a result Korea has become more reliant on global food corporations. Today over 60 percent of their food comes from imports. (Jeong Kim, 2013, p.1)

Near the end of the 1980s, the government was dedicated to manufacturing and neoliberal free trade policies. Many farming communities were further destroyed as the government focused its energy and resources on increasing production and maximizing profit. The Korean government discredited and devalued its farming communities and left them vulnerable to global markets where they stood no chance of competing. By 2010, farmers were only 7 percent of the population.

Life as a farmer is unpredictable. Weather, bugs, disease and seeds are some factors that affect harvests.  Farmers have to be resourceful and resilient. Yet, the politico- economic forces they confront are more powerful than any natural disaster or pest. Korean farmers are working hard to preserve their local knowledge and wielding it against neoliberal driven policies.

Korean farmers are resisting the decline in local farming. The Korean Peasants’ League (KPL) and The Korean Women’s Peasant Association (KWPA) are fighting against neoliberal free trade agreements in solidarity with farmers around the world. They are initiating back to the land movements and are sharing their indigenous knowledge and traditions; they are reviving rural communities and creating a new collective conscience that emphasizes local self-sufficient agriculture within Korea; they are giving power and control back to the people. The results are tastier food and happier, healthier communities.

KWPA is helping empower women farmers; they are protecting indigenous seeds and building relationships with local consumers. Older women farmers are sharing their knowledge with the younger farming generation. The older generation is not educated in the way modern society appreciates. “Most of them are illiterate, but experts of indigenous agriculture” (Jeong Kim, 2013, p. 2). Their deep connection to the land is vital to the future of local, traditional farming methods. The KWPA is a progressive movement that recognizes the importance of the past. “The young generation makes it possible to reconsider the role and value of women peasants, who had been undervalued and excluded from the capitalized market economy system in the process of modernization” (Jeong Kim, 2013, p.3). The Korean government deemed the older generation of women farmers as obsolete and their knowledge as meaningless. The KWPA is building a space where the value of these women can be realized and their knowledge can be used to improve the future of local communities.

The KWPA’s Sister’s Garden Plot slogan is: “An honest producer and a caring consumer: Together we can solve the problem”. They are simplifying the process food goes through before reaching consumers’ tables.  Their pamphlet states that, “As consumers increase, rather than increase the scale of production, it is better to create a larger community in which producers and consumers meet.” They focus on local, seasonal farming – which is cheaper – and better for the environment. The food they grow goes directly back to the community. They have the freedom to grow food more sustainably because they’re controlled by their local market not by the restraints of the global market.

Capitalism can foster innovation and can efficiently boost economies. But it’s important to be aware of its limitations. Capitalism is independent of culture and community and displaces and devalues local knowledge. Multinational companies are protected by conflicting laws and trade agreements that limit access to local food and discourage localized, sustainable farming. Under capitalism everything is disposable and replaceable. Economic competition disrupts the natural cycle of growing, harvesting and producing food. Korea started growing cash crops because it’s economically more efficient. They became more reliant on food exports not because it’s practical – but because of trade laws and barriers that dictate what governments deem important.

We already have the necessary tools to create sustainable food sources. We have the farmers and their knowledge; what we need is a structural shift within society that supports and encourages local farmers. The needs of the global market differ greatly from those of the local markets. Cooperative communities need to be valued over the profitability of capitalism. We need to stop allowing multinational corporations and the governments who support them decide what and who should be valued within societies.

The battle facing farmers in Korea isn’t just a localized issue- it’s a global one. It is a collective struggle that affects all of us. Korean farmers have many roles. They are teachers, activists and protectors of their land and culture. Farmers, more than anyone, are aware of the grave dangers facing our planet. Farmers are a vital part of societies and their voices need to not just be heard, but listened to and valued.


Hyo Jeong Kim. (2013, September 14-15) Women’s Indigenous Knowledge and Food Sovereignty: Experiences from KWPA’s Movement in South Korea. Paper presented at Food Sovereignty: A Critical Dialogue, International Conference, Yale University (1-19).


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