Building food sovereignty and economic justice
Gilberto and Natalia Silva are in their mid-thirties. Married and parents of a beautiful little girl, Geovanna, they exude hope for the future. “In life, nothing comes easy,” Natalia says as she works tirelessly in the kitchen. Gilberto nods in agreement from the other corner of the room.
The day I met Gilberto, he was harvesting cassava. With a hoe, he dug out the roots and pulled with great precision the fruits of his and Natalia’s work. “It seems simple, but you need to know what you are doing. Otherwise, you leave the roots in the ground,” he explained. Covered with sweat and dust, he smiled widely as he harvested four or five pounds of fresh food from only one plant. Like thousands of others in Goiás state, Gilberto and Natalia work with the Popular Peasant Movement (MCP), a Grassroots International partner advocating for small producers’ rights. The MCP uses seeds to organize peasants. Through the Creole Seeds Project, MCP invites families to participate in meetings and trainings about the importance of preserving local seeds. As the group grew, the organization installed testing fields so families could examine the yielding performance of local varieties of corn, beans or rice. After four years, MCP’s membership includes more than 1,000 families. Altacir Bunde, MCP’s general coordinator, explained that seeds are an essential component to the economic survival of small-scale farmers. “Like others in my community, I was concerned that I will get to a point that I wouldn’t be able to buy hybrid seeds. They are very expensive,” he said. “And not only that, I also had to buy fertilizers and chemicals, because after you invest your money in those expensive seeds, you are kind of forced to buy other products to make the most out of your initial investment.” Both Altacir and Gilberto mentioned with concern and frustration that some small farmers have been forced to leave their land after losing it to creditors. Farmers have to invest a great amount of cash upfront in order to produce grains. Low-income families do not have the money, so many take out loans. In the event of drought or excessive rain, families may lose their crop and investment – and often their land the only collateral asset for bank loans. MCP helps low-income farmers like Gilberto and Natalia develop sustainable farming methods that do not rely on external seed or fertilizers. The organization advocates for farmers’ autonomy over their own seeds, land and other resources. Through seminars, MCP teaches farmers about the false promises of industrial agriculture — including the dangers of genetically modified and hybrid seeds that can cross-pollinate with other plant varieties. Even more powerfully, the MCP demonstrates the success that small farmers are able to achieve by using low-cost products and valuing Creole seeds. “I wanted to learn more,” recalled Gilberto after he participated in one of MCP’s seminars. The conversation with other farmers energized Natalia and Gilberto to expand their vegetable garden. Through Izequiel, a young MCP member and an agricultural technician, they receive support to make their gardens more productive. Gilberto remembers when Izequiel offered him a sample of natural fertilizer. “I received a bottle of it to test in my garden. I was curious if it would work. So I decided to test it in a lettuce crop that was not doing so well. It was amazing. My lettuce that I thought I had lost completely recuperated and I had enough of it to sell and for our own consumption.” After a long pause, he added, “We[farmers] should only sell healthy products that we would eat ourselves.” As they started using local seeds and technical advice, Natalia and Gilberto reaped the fruits of their hard work. Currently, they produce different kinds of vegetables, grains and other crops and sell some to local schools and farmers’ market. With the profits, they bought a car and three acres of farmland. Life before MCP Gilberto used to work as cattle herder. He did not have any experience with vegetable gardening when he started few years ago. Natalia, who had worked with vegetable garden since she was teenager, taught him this new prosperous trade. Natalia and Gilberto remember the old days when they were farm workers. “We both worked as wage-workers for wealthy farmers. I still remember that even when I was pregnant, I still traveled in a cart pulled by bulls to the city,” Natalia said. “You tolerate abuses, displeasure from the boss, and don’t make enough money to have a good life,” she added Life before MCP had been full of discomfort. Gilberto worked in a Eucalyptus plantation making less the legal minimum wage. “The work day is $15. There I was making $9 a day.” Without enough money and against their will, Natalia and Gilberto had to live for a number of years with their in-laws. Not anymore. Gilberto and Natalia were selected to receive a mortgage to build their own house in their new farm. Natalia and Gilberto dream about the new house. “I want a brick stove and space to organize our seeds,” beamed Natalia. Gilberto smiled as he has listened to her repeat the wish over and over.