The western part of the African continent is awash with diversity. In the north, terracotta sand dunes cut through the seemingly endless Sahara Desert horizon, while deeper south, the Niger River feeds Sahelian and savanna ecosystems. Clusters of rainforests hug the southern Atlantic coastline and the vast marine habitats beneath its surface. Farmers, pastoralists, fishers, and other small-scale food providers have shared these spaces for millenia, at times with palpable discord.
Today, land and water grabbing and the capture of peasant seeds, often for agribusiness and climate change mitigation schemes, puts extra pressure on communities that are already weighed down by the effects of colonialism and other forms of extractive development. These issues are entangled with militarized conflict, more often than not provoked by external forces and factors.
West African social movements have responded to these circumstances with political clarity and visions that span across sectors of historically siloed populations. Food sovereignty and ecological justice – through the avenues of agroecology, grassroots feminisms, just transition, and beyond – are scaled political projects that have squarely put regional people’s movements on the global map. As land and water grabbing and climate change have become entwined with one another, so too have the political reactions from social justice movements.
These are dynamic and complex projects that unfold horizontally and vertically at once. For instance, Malian peasants and pastoralists – who have long been largely at odds with one another – are carving out joint working spaces that will serve both sectors at the local, national, and transnational levels. Meanwhile in Nigeria, feminists and environmentalists are growing a Pan-African climate justice movement from the Niger Delta that fills the representational and regionally nuanced gaps that exist in some international spaces.
Today, we celebrate these movements, their accomplishments, and their forward-reaching political visions as we publicly announce the formalization of Grassroots International’s West Africa program. This program revolves around partnership with ten amazing movements that work across sectors and scales for a more just and equitable continent and planet. It is one that is carved out of partnership, a process of relationship that is central to Grassroots International’s work in solidarity philanthropy and beyond.
For us, partnership emphasizes shared vision and values, reciprocity, trust, transparency, movement autonomy, and walking together for the long haul. This distinction is critical because NGOs have often unilaterally imposed so-called “partnership” models in ways that have maintained colonial structures and vastly unequal systems of oppression.
A Journey of Learning from West African Social Movements
Grassroots International has been learning from West African movements for some time now. In 2007, we attended the International Forum for Food Sovereignty at Nyéléni in Mali, witnessing an historical moment for the peasant movement, in which food sovereignty was defined as “the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agricultural systems.”
The years that followed this important political moment brought its relevance into the spotlight when the multifaceted 2008-09 food price, fuel, and financial crises ricocheted across continents. These events, and the corporate and state responses that followed, came down particularly hard on West Africa. Hunger and displacement cut deeper, and so did the dizzying array of land, water, and seed grabs that came next – provoking a vicious circle of more hunger and displacement in an already fragile region at capitalism’s final frontier.
Movements have responded to these and other threats by expanding their scaled work to include intragovernmental regional bodies (e.g. the European Union and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS)) and global governance institutions (e.g. the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, the UN Human Rights Council, and the UN Conference of Parties to Climate Change) alongside their advocacy at the state level. This work is not meant to serve as a replacement for radical “outside” movement work; rather, it is intentionally complementary. Changing the system occurs from within, outside of, against, and in parallel to its far-reaching appendages. This is especially true in West Africa where social movements have long histories of working within states, even while understanding their borders as European impositions that must be blurred in favor of a more Pan-Africanist vision.
These are delicate balancing acts. Senegal and Mali have written food sovereignty into their state agricultural legislation in recent years; however, without implementation – and ultimately, empowerment at the community level – these advances could be rendered meaningless. Transferring work from paper to practice is one of the most important tasks of social justice work, and it occurs in the field, in the classroom, and on the streets.
Introducing Our New West African Partners
We have been continually impressed and deeply humbled by the work of West African social movements amidst the most challenging of circumstances. We will be rolling out much more information about these groups in the months and years to come, but we are thrilled to briefly introduce Grassroots International’s West African partners here.
Grassroots International now has three partners at the West African regional level. We are excited to partner with Nous Sommes la Solution / We are the Solution (NSS/WAS), a network of women-focused family farming organizations that has members in seven countries, working intersectionally across the fields of agroecology, popular education, and grassroots feminisms. Also at the regional level, we have entered into partnership with with Convergence Globale des Luttes pour la Terre et l’Eau – Afrique de l’Ouest (Global Convergence of Land and Water Struggles – West Africa), which has brought together diverse sectors – from domestic workers to mobile pastoralists – representing 14 countries and known for the popular caravans it organizes. We are likewise committed to the regional work of our global partner, the Marche Mondiale des Femmes – Afrique francophone (MMF/WMW World March of Women – Francophone Africa), which is currently shepherded by its Côte d’Ivoire-based member Association de Soutien à l’Autopromotion Sanitaire et Urbaine (ASAPSU, Association for the Support of Sanitary and Urban Self-Promotion).
At the national level, Grassroots International is now partnering with four NSS/WAS members in diverse geopolitical settings, as a way to connect the regional work with the base-building work happening at the local and national levels. First, in Burkina Faso, Fédération des Organisations de Producteurs du Burkina Faso (FENOP, National Federation of Producer Organizations of Burkina Faso) has grown to include some 500 Burkinabe peasant groups that work at the intersections of women’s leadership, food, land, and climate politics.
Second, in Guinea, a country that is often forgotten in transnational movement circles, Association Guinéenne pour la Sécurité et la Souveraineté Alimentaires (AGUISSA, Guinean Association for Security and Food Sovereignty) works at the cutting edge of rights to seeds as a fundamental starting point for related struggles for food, land, and territory.
Third, in Mali, where some of the most dynamic resistance movements in the region converge, Coordination des Associations et ONG Féminines du Mali (CAFO, Coordination of Women’s Associations and NGOs of Mali) is working to restore rights to territory and biodiversity while bridging the rural-urban divide. And fourth, in Senegal, the youth- and women-led movement Association des Jeunes Agriculteurs de Casamance (AJAC-Lukaal, Casamance Agricultural Youth Association) is serving a complex part of Senegal while currently acting as an anchor for NSS/WAS regionally.
Also at the national level, Grassroots International is now partnering with Coordination Nationale des Organisations Paysannes du Mali (CNOP, National Coordination of Peasant Organizations of Mali), one of the key regional anchor organizations of our global partner La Via Campesina, and primary convener of the Nyéléni processes. Finally, we have formalized partnerships with two organizations in Nigeria: the Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF) and Kebetkache Women’s Development and Resource Centre (Kebetkache). These groups are engaged in environmental and water justice work, using political projects and frameworks such as feminist economies for the sustainability of life and just transition.
We have deep appreciation for these growing partnerships — and are beyond excited for them to strengthen and evolve over time.