Coinciding with World Food Day, the Community Food Security Coalition and the U.S. Food Sovereignty Alliance announced on October 16 that the Brazilian Landless Workers Movement (MST) will receive the 2011 Food Sovereignty Prize in Oakland, California. The Food Sovereignty Prize is more than a celebratory moment—it has great meaning for the food justice movement here and abroad. Now in its third year, the prize reaffirms solidarity and highlights the growth of a global movement for “food sovereignty” or the rights of all people to safe, nutritious and culturally appropriate food to sustain themselves and their communities. The award ceremony will happen on November 6, 2011 during the annual conference of the Community Food Security Coalition (CFSC), a US-based network of more than 500 organizations dedicated to food and agriculture issues.
The Food Sovereignty Prize is an initiative of North American organizations to highlight the work of social movements and individual organizations dedicated to rebuilding the global food system. The prize builds solidarity between communities and strengthens their work in what is nothing less than a David vs. Goliath battle. For generations, industrial agriculture was touted as the foundation of U.S. prosperity and a model for other nations to follow. Among many other initiatives, the Food Sovereignty Prize highlights how grassroots organizations are rejecting the industrial model and are defying the growing control of corporations over local food systems. Food sovereignty is steadily gaining ground among important supporters in the United States and abroad, including a broad movement of farmers, fishermen, consumers, environmentalists, labor groups, faith-based groups and youth.
For 27 years, the MST has defended the rights of peasant families to land and a dignified life. It has challenged the dominant model of industrial agriculture as the solution to hunger. The movement has settled over 350,000 families onto 42 million acres of land – an area roughly the size of Massachusetts. Food rights advocates around the globe find hope and strength in the inspiring story of this organization. The MST’s contributions to the global movement for food sovereignty also include its popular education methods that have branched out to urban farmer organizations and workers’ coops. The MST’s international solidarity brigades have supported the leadership of peasants in other countries including Mozambique, China, Haiti, Guatemala and Bolivia.
In the same way the MST has inspired millions, the Food Sovereignty Prize renews our hopes for a new era of solidarity between peoples.
Cross-border solidarity and the Food Sovereignty Prize
Coined by leaders of the Via Campesina international peasant movement in 1996, food sovereignty has become a powerful organizing tool for food justice advocates around the world.
Peasants and others advocating for food sovereignty believe that corporations have taken too much control from the hands of local communities. Companies like Monsanto, ADM and Cargill control a large portion of the production, distribution and processing of agricultural products, mostly food staples such as wheat and corn. Today, these conglomerates define not only what we eat, but most importantly, how much we have to pay for food. Food prices have skyrocketed in recent years in the United States and abroad in large part due to practices such as commodity speculation by these companies. As a result, the global food crisis has become worse and many low-income families are forced to purchase unhealthy food or depend heavily on food donations. According to a recent report from Project Bread, one in five households with children in Massachusetts “lacked enough money to consistently buy food in the past twelve months.
For decades now, urban communities and farmers around the United States have been creating alternatives to the toxic industrial agricultural model through community gardens, community supported agriculture projects (CSAs), farmers’ markets and seed saving initiatives. Building on these experiences, food rights advocates have established solidarity links within the United States and abroad through networks such as the CFSC and the U.S. Food Sovereignty Alliance.
The Food Sovereignty Prize helps promote and connect community-led alternatives to the current food system. As an expression of global solidarity, the award to the MST brings to light the often invisible work (and leadership) of peasants to cool down and feed the planet.
In the United States, the term ‘peasant’ is often seen as pejorative or inappropriate to describe anyone in these times of industrial agriculture. In Mexico, ‘peasant’ is widely used, but as we cross the border with the United States, we call them farmers, while those who don’t have land are referred to as farmworkers. In the U.S., we are taught to associate farmers with being landowners and practicing industrial agriculture. Nevertheless, food in the U.S. arrives at the dinner table mainly because of the hard work of landless peasants turned into transnational migrant workers. For the MST and other rural organizations in the Global South, the word peasant is a not a pejorative term but a social identity that characterizes rural people—small-scale farmers, landless workers, fisherfolk, pastoralists and indigenous people—and their struggle for resource rights and food sovereignty.
Without access to resources such as land, peasants face a daily struggle to make ends meet. In the United States, new and old small-scale farmers also struggle to find land or to maintain their families’ land so they can farm to sustain their families. In the fields from Oregon to Florida, migrant (and landless) farmworkers are subjected to harsh conditions for a measly paycheck. Furthermore, many were forced to leave their home countries to find work here because corporations and industrial agriculture have taken away their chance to be peasants (with land) elsewhere.
The MST doesn’t fight only for land, but also to protect the commons and the food sovereignty of their communities. The organization advocates for comprehensive agrarian reform and broad structural changes to eliminate hunger among peasants, the majority of the world’s population facing hunger. As the largest peasant movement in Latin America with 1.5 million members, the MST’s work to build solidarity and justice in the food system makes it a worthy recipient of the 2011 Food Sovereignty Prize.