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Grassroots Organizing, Regional Trade Agreements and Food Sovereignty in Africa

January 2007

Many developing countries and civil society organizations welcomed with great excitement and relief the once-again-collapsed World Trade Organization (WTO) talks in July 2006. However, the suspension of the global trade organization’s authority on agriculture has not resulted in a sea change in global agricultural policy.

Grassroots movements have made great strides towards putting the power of the food system in citizens’ hands, but ongoing bi-lateral and regional trade negotiations threaten to curtail these advances.

Mariam Sissoko, a grassroots leader from Mali who represents the National Coordination of Peasant Organizations (CNOP), notes that the news about lapsed negotiations at the WTO changes nothing and, in fact, only puts greater emphasis on more decentralized trading arrangements that are harder for affected parties to engage in (personal communication 2006).

In less than a month, hundreds of farmers, farmworkers, fishers and environmentalists will gather in Bamako, Mali for the first-ever World Forum on Food Sovereignty (WFFS). They will advance the objectives of a growing international movement for an equitable and sustainable food system. Participants will set strategy for how to oppose the wave of bi-lateral and regional trade agreements that are replacing WTO agreements. They also hope to deepen global commitments to food sovereignty on political, economic, social and ecological levels.

It is not unintentional that this event is being held in Africa. In the last few years, African nations have taken a leading role in shaping global agricultural politics. The African Union formulated a proposal for global agricultural commodity regulation that challenged the WTO’s Agreement on Agriculture. African nations like Mali are pioneering a new kind of agricultural development and national farm policy that is rooted in fundamental human rights and family farming.

New trade agreements that are under negotiation now have farmers in West Africa and across the African Union concerned about the possible loss of their livelihoods and their entire way of life. These are the European Union-Africa, Caribbean and Pacific Economic Partnership Agreements (EU-ACP EPAs). The EU-ACP EPAs will consist of individualized and generalized regional agreements between ACP countries and the EU. The overall nature of the EPAs calls for ACP countries to allow the majority of EU exports duty-free privileges and to open their markets to competition from EU goods and services. ACP countries’ are under pressure to sign the agreements in order to hold onto a 31-year old preferential trading and aid status with the EU (Godfrey 2006).

Many of the development-aid aspects of the previous Lomé Conventions perversely resulted in stalling African nations’ own agricultural development. The EU-ACP EPAs are not likely to be more helpful for rural development, as they are modeled on the WTO’s standards. These standards include restrictive phyto-sanitary (food quality and health) requirements that determine goods’ eligibility for export to the EU and parameters around competition and investment policies. To make matters worse, the new agreements also differ from the Lomé Conventions in that they mandate significant changes to ACP nations’ economies and legal systems.

Abiding by these standards is challenging for African countries on several levels including developing the know-how and meeting the financial and human resource costs for implementing them. They already face seemingly insurmountable costs to implement the 1994 Uruguay Round agreements. Even the African nations with the most advanced policy development are far from filling in the content behind adopted policies.

Sissoko, who persuaded her government to consider policies that protect its family farmers, explains that Mali, while it is forging a national agricultural policy, has yet to formulate an action plan, implementation timeline or the infrastructure to support its policy.

Finger (2001) points out that, when it comes to trade policy implementation, for developing countries the “issues are development issues, not trade issues.” Conceptualizing legal and economic conditions for nations in trade agreements is not even remotely the same as creating legal and economic conditions on the ground. Investment in building implementation capacity and supporting in-country expertise over a long period of time would be a start in developing balanced trading relationships.

Even worse than the concern that the EPAs will set unrealistic goals for ACP nations is the likelihood that the agreements won’t offer any real benefit to the developing nations. While the EU will significantly gain from the EPAs in terms of new market access, ACP nations will be forced to choose between maturing their industries and sustaining raw material production. Under the EPAs only 20 percent of goods traded with the EU (in monetary value) will be exempted from tariff restrictions. The result will likely be slowing, if not completely halting, countries’ abilities to develop their industries.

The agricultural sector would be especially hard-hit by tariff restrictions, which would give EU nations the advantage of exporting their manufactured foods, and yet, ACP countries’ would be unable to protect their local food markets unless they opt to place food production under the 20 percent exemption (which will result in crippling ACP industrial development, unless they opt to place manufacturing under the 20 percent exemption, and on and on and on).

If Mali serves as an example of how African nations will behave when faced with such a trade-off, Africa’s farmers are being set up in an ongoing struggle to feed their families and communities. Decades of foreign aid have created a system of patronage in which the country’s elites (business owners, bureaucrats and local and national government officials) benefit from aid packages and on-paper compliance with North-driven trade agreements.

Sissoko observes that in Mali 20 percent of the population, found mostly in urban areas, is the priority constituency for Mali’s policymakers. Foreign aid is often tied to compliance with trade agreements, and foreign aid keeps the government running (with sadly little benefit to the majority of the population).

The 80 percent rural majority are largely family farmers who have little political power in Mali. Supporting their livelihood needs would require forfeiting favorable political-economic relationships with the EU and U.S. To its credit, Mali is attempting to please both constituencies by working with CNOP and negotiating with international organizations for more protective programs for family farmers. They certainly have an uphill battle; no country has achieved this balance without creating hostile international relations (cf. Venezuela and Cuba).

The EPAs are also presenting a nightmarish situation for African nations attempting to balance their existing regional economic networks’ obligations. Several networks with long histories already exist. These include the Southern Africa Development Community, The Common Market of Eastern and Southern Africa, East Africa Community and the Economic Community of West African States. National leaders now need to decide where their allegiances lie and which network will provide the best avenue for political and economic gains. This necessarily creates conflict with the EPAs stated objectives for an integrated political economy for ACP countries.

As African countries look outward to the EU for economic fulfillment, cooperative African agreements are being dislodged. A myriad of bi-lateral trade agreements between countries elsewhere are also threatening to disintegrate regional unity. Notable agreements are solidifying between the U.S. and South Korea, Oman, Peru and Colombia; the EU is negotiating with India, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama to name a few. Developing countries are also playing the bi-lateral trade game. India is working out an agreement with the Association of South East Asian Nations; Korea and China are following the same pattern by setting agreements with India and Thailand.

Yet, this is at the government-level and does not represent what is happening at the grassroots-level. Globally family farmers, fishers, community foresters and other small producers are largely left out of national, regional and international policies. When more than 80 percent of the world’s food production never leaves local communities, it is no surprise that grand visions of economic development which are formulated in policies like the EPAs pass most rural communities by. There are many examples of the rural sector deciding to make their own opportunities outside of traditional government policies.

One example of how local rural communities are forming their own representative networks is the Network of Peasant Organizations and Producers in West Africa (ROPPA). Sissoko explains that family farmers in West Africa are using ROPPA as a means to shift their governments towards better policies for the forgotten majority. They have taken a stand against economic development for Africa through exports to external markets and for local production to feed communities and preserve dignified livelihoods.

At the height of WTO negotiations, ROPPA warned their governments, “It is impossible for African peasants to compete on the international market and also to bank on the World Trade Organization for a fair implementation of equitable economic rules. Our pessimism relies on the fact that the WTO has little chance to succeed where the UN failed.”

ROPPA calls for their governments to provide incentives and supportive policies for small-scale producers and in turn promises to produce food and raw materials to support their communities (ROPPA 2003).

Proposals for alternatives to foreign-market driven economic development, especially for the agricultural sector, are gathering considerable momentum. Just as the WFFS is in the final stages of preparation, opposition to bi-laterals and EPAs are stronger than ever. Grassroots mobilization stalled a bi-lateral agreement in Ecuador (Grain 2006) and Venezuela and Bolivia are moving forward with a People’s Trade Agreement concept to counter the U.S. trade negotiations with the Andean Community ( 2007). There are many more examples, but what unites them all is the rural base that is organizing to have a voice in negotiations that have left them out.

The significance of the WFFS cannot be understated. Bringing together rural organizations from all regions of the world that are actively engaged in formulating proposals and action plans to benefit their communities is unprecedented. Breaking down North-South divides with a strong North American delegation of family farmers, fishers, consumers, farm workers and First Nation peoples is one crucial aspect of this.

Many of the forum participants have worked closely together through the host organizations–La Via Campesina, the World March of Women, World Forum of Fisher People, World Forum of Fish Harvesters and Fishworkers, ROPPA and Friends of the Earth International—but the effort to bring them all together is rooted in a deeply visionary strategy for true transformation.

The forum will reaffirm participating organizations and delegates commitment to food sovereignty: the belief that all people have the right to decide what they eat and to ensure that agriculture in their community is fair and healthy for everyone. Instrumental to the food sovereignty vision is the belief that “communities have [the right to the] control of productive resources”, which include land, water, plant genetic resources and seeds ( This belief system reframes how governments should view the function of their economies and political relations.

Several policy proposals are embedded in the food sovereignty concept, including guaranteeing a fair price for family farmers’, fishers’ and foresters’ products; protecting domestic markets from low priced imports; and preserving local and regional markets for small producers. To realize these policy goals, the forum will work towards formulating action plans and strategies to support the goals of bringing together constituencies such as consumers and rural and urban producers.

At a time when states are faltering in shared agreements and belief systems, the WFFS is providing critical opportunity for global cooperation. The incredible strength of the food sovereignty movement is bringing a hopeful vision of economic development to rural communities in Africa and around the world. There are many obstacles ahead for Africa’s small farmers; the EPAs show no sign of dissolving, global capital continues to dominate policy decisions on the local and international scale around the world and developing nations struggling to improve the lives of their people must find ways to cooperate rather than compete in a race to the bottom.

The road to the WFFS was built through sacrifice: grassroots leaders have been assassinated and farmers’ lives have been uprooted by external forces. Indeed, the fight continues and the WFFS is guaranteed to be a founding moment for citizens’ food rights everywhere.

But ROPPA, the Via Campesina and local farmer organizations have resolved to fight for better policies for their communities. “We don’t know when we will succeed, but the battle still continues,” Sissoko says. “It is a struggle that will not subside easily.”

References 2007. U.S. Andean Countries. accessed January 17, 2007.

Finger, M. 2001. Implementing the Uruguay Round Agreements: Problems for Developing Countries. The World Economy 24 (9): 1097-1108.

Godfrey, C. 2006. Unequal Partners: How EU-ACP Economic Partnership Agreements could harm the development prospects of many of the world’s poorest countries. Oxfam International: Oxford, United Kingdom.

GRAIN. 2006. Sharing FTA Experiences. Seedling October 2006. GRAIN: Barcelona, Spain. 2007. The Forum in Mali: The Objectives. WFFS: Bamako, Mali.

ROPPA. 2003. Peasant Organizations Declaration on NEPAD Agriculture Policy. ROPPA: Burkina Faso.

Sissoko, M. 2006. Personal communication. Grassroots International: Boston, MA.

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