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Is Food Sovereignty Too Big a Goal?

Nearly a dozen of us stuffed ourselves into a stifling cement room – an oven, really – in the Petite Riviere of the Artibonite, Haiti’s breadbasket. The meeting unfolded slowly. With no breeze and drowsy, my chin bounced off my chest.

Was it the Coca Cola kicking in or that initial formalities gave way to real debate? Either way, my head snapped upright. I was suddenly a fly on the wall of a mesmerizing discussion among a near perfect cast of characters about how to achieve food sovereignty.   Hosting us at his home was Nicolas Pierre Louis, of the Haitian Platform for Alternative Development, PAPDA, a Grassroots International partner.PAPDA is a shoestring, rabble-rousing alternative development think-tank, which also supports pilot agricultural projects in the field. Our host had assembled some half dozen grassroots leaders of Tet Kole, fanning themselves languidly with dog-eared papers. Tet Kole is one of Haiti’s oldest and most politicized national peasant organizations. The Tet Kole members’ discourse was strident, insisting on comprehensive land reform even while most politicians have tossed it into the junkyard of failed social policy and replaced it with land markets. Then there was Cantave Jean Baptiste, of Partnership for Local Development (PLD)/Groundswell and consultant with Grassroots International’s colleague, American Jewish World Service (AJWS), an agronomist who for the past 30 years, has methodically conserved Haitian soil and strengthened local peasant organizations. Cantave and a small group of us sought to understand how peasant organizations measure their tiny steps towards the big dream of food sovereignty.   Nicolas was quick to point out that it’s not exactly food security they’re after – that is, when all families receive adequate nutrition no matter the source of the food. Rather, it’s food sovereignty they fight for – ensuring that small farmers have the public support they require to grow enough food for their families and local markets, replacing the need for most food imports. He cited the current disturbing state of affairs, for which even Bill Clinton apologized for his hand in creating. As free trade has replaced protective tariffs, Haiti has plummeted from a net food exporter to a net food importer. Small farms have failed. Hunger has spiked. Port au Prince has exploded. Cantave said that he shared a similar perspective. That’s what peasant organizations working together within PDL also want. But tell me, he asked, after a year of working with communities, what do hungry families point to as specific ways you’ve helped them resolve their food needs?   The Tet Kole farmers said that indeed their goal too is to increase food production for family consumption and local markets. But, they continued, if the state doesn’t staunch the flow of subsidized rice from the US and improve rural roads, we can’t get far. Prices will always be too low. We grow fruit but we can’t get it to our local markets. We work for local development but we need to reform trade policies nationally.   Is food sovereignty too big a goal? Cantave probed. How do people know they’re getting closer to it?   We work on soil conservation, said one Tet Kole member. We distribute goats to families and in turn see that the kids are distributed to neighbors so that the asset is shared. But we need agrarian reform. Some farmers in Haiti still work as sharecroppers, surrendering the bulk of their harvests to big landowners and selling the rest just to send their kids to school. Shortly after Tet Kole was formed, after the fall of the Duvalier dictatorship, 134 of our members were massacred for occupying land. The state should break up these large farms and redistribute land. Reforestation is difficult on rented lands – there’s no security – and until there’s land reform, Haiti won’t have enough trees. We have to raise consciousness about land reform in the Artibonite, family by family. We hope to have a radio program soon to talk about this.   That makes good sense, said Cantave. And at the end of the year, which of your strategies results in more food production and more environmental protection?   Well, we have to work on climate change as well, Nicolas explained. We need to be planting but it hasn’t rained yet. Then the hurricanes come stronger and wash our crops away. We sent farmers to the recent climate negotiations in Cancun to tell their story.   I got involved, added a Tet Kole member, organizing my neighbors when I was a schoolteacher. The kids would come to school hungry and get served an unhealthy school lunch of imported foods. They couldn’t think and study. Teachers brought in local vegetables for the kids and we saw they were more awake and concentrating better. The problem is that we have a government that prefers hand-outs to helping small farmers grow healthy foods.   Aha, said Cantave. That’s what I was looking for – how PAPDA works with you to translate the big picture into local strategy. Thank you for describing your steps forward and how you influence your neighbors to act differently. We all benefit from this global view that PAPDA provides.   And so the exchange continued – the agronomist, the lay political economist and the small farmers seeking to reinvent Haitian agriculture – missing each other sometimes and at other times finding common ground. No ill will, a clean debate, even a shy exchange of business cards between PAPDA and PLD.   Back in the jeep, accelerating past irrigated ricefields, coating roadside vendors under a shower of dust, I asked Cantave what he learned from that discussion. I wondered if his deliberate method of building community organization through tangible gains squared with Tet Kole’s lofty political objectives. He paused for a time, preparing a response. He is as precise in language as he is in measuring a hillside slope.   “That it’s very complex,” he finally said. He described that the Peasant Movement of Bayonnais (MPB), a local small farmer organization with which PLD works would soon be finishing its annual work plan. He would double check to ensure that it includes local advocacy goals, changes within the reach of local authorities. “I like to work locally,” he admitted. In the rice paddies we passed, farmers squatted and yanked ripe rice stalks. In a neighboring field, they threshed them. Hearing the distinct passions left me feeling happy. Tet Kole would continue pushing agronomists towards things political just as Cantave presses to measure protest in a plate of food. At Grassroots International, we celebrate these hopeful occasions when this kind of real dialogue occurs.

PHOTO: A member of PAPDA (The Haitian Platform to Advocate for Alternative Development) wears a t-shirt that says in Hiatian Creole «We defend human rights in our country in all affairs related to  food.» Photo by Grassroots International