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Environmental Food Sovereignty

February 2007

Today I facilitated a sub-work group of the Access and Control of Natural Resources thematic working group focused on the environmental aspects of the struggle for food sovereignty. It gave me a great opportunity to hear experiences and learn about the values that different cultures place on natural resources.

Speaking through an interpreter a Thai indigenous person said, “We are like the chicken trying to fight the lion, and what we need is more chickens.” His words were captured in a drawing that showed a fierce lion face squaring off against a lone chicken.

Indeed, the stories that I heard presented a strong case for his perception. I came here wanting to find the hopeful cases–the ones that showed that food sovereignty approaches can conserve our natural resources and produce sufficient food for our communities. What I heard was a lot about the desire to make this vision happen.

I also heard many, many horrific stories about the struggle for the right to a healthy environment and access to the natural resources that allow for a dignified life.

There is the Filipino farmer leader who told me that there is a bounty on his head because he is working for agrarian reform and environmentally-just agriculture. His organization exposed the use of an illegal pesticide in the monoculture plantations that was making thousands of workers sick and, in some cases, dead. They did an investigation that was given to the local authorities. A few months later the general secretary of the organization was murdered and the report silenced.

There is Henry Saragih, general director of the Federation of Indonesian Peasant Unions (FSPI) in Indonesia, who told me that because of pollution from the massive expansion of palm oil, rubber, cacao and eucalyptus plantations the rural people no longer eat fish from their rivers and streams. They now have to buy fish. The FSPI is trying to change the economic model in Indonesia so that agroecological farming is supported and the agrarian reform law is implemented. But this work comes at a large personal cost for Henry; in the last 16 years he has not stayed at home with his wife and two children for even the length of one month.

There are the fishers of Selingue, Mali, who lost their fishing rights when a river was dammed for hydroelectricity. The local, small fishers are not allowed fair access to the reservoir because outside fishers are given priority. Local people also lost precious land when the area was flooded. They are fighting to be consulted about fishing rights and to have land access to the reservoir.

There are the Filipino women fishers whose contribution to the conservation of fish resources is systematically overlooked. They have no formal rights and, therefore, no participation in natural resource management decisions. They are fighting for women’s rights to natural resources.

There is Maria Costa of the Grassroots’ partner organization, the Movement of Small Farmers (MPA) in Brazil who is fighting to maintain food sovereignty with respect to forests. Biofuel plantations in Brazil are clearing the land of its forest and savannah cover, an economic and food security source for women and their families. They are working regionally to expose the environmental and social devastation that biofuel is causing.

And there is the case of Palestine where farmers are fighting to stay on their land, and in Lebanon, where farmers’ fields are contaminated with cluster bombs. They are fighting for their very survival under extreme conditions. But they are persisting so that their biodiversity and cultural traditions of farming do not perish.

These environmental activists are the chickens fighting the lion in their countries and beyond. But I think they already know the wisdom of the Thai indigenous man. Despite all of the environmental devastation, personal sacrifice and tragedies, they persist in numbers. I believe it is the strength of their convictions and the support of their people that enable them to continue.

When I asked Henry, how he could continue to make such a huge personal sacrifice, he told me, “There are 40 million people in Indonesia living poor, I cannot stop.”

When you do not have healthy, adequate food, when you cannot fish from your rivers and when your forests are disappearing, you have no choice but to fight to save the natural resources that support your community and all of humanity.

I only hope that their environmental service to the world is not lost to us, and they will not have to continue to sacrifice with their lives.

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