The Frontlines Are at the Grassroots
As corporate interests continually infiltrate the West African region, the frontlines of struggles to defend land, water, territory, seeds, and the earth are at the grassroots. Among the most influential social movements engaged in resistance is Nous Sommes la Solution/We are the Solution (NSS/WAS), a network of rural movements across the Sahel united by a vision of food sovereignty grounded in women-led, peasant-based agroecology.
NSS/WAS emerged in 2010 as a direct response to the Gates-funded Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), and the corporate agribusiness interests that profit from it – under the guide of addressing hunger in Africa. The new network of West African rural women’s associations exposed the disinformation coming from AGRA-led corporate fixes while uplifting what they saw as the real solutions to hunger in Africa – African women’s ancestral knowledge, agroecological practices, and connection to land, water, territory, seeds, and one another. Originally composed of organizations in five countries (Burkina Faso, Ghana, Guinea, Mali, and Senegal) NSS/WAS has recently expanded to two more (Guinea Bissau and The Gambia) and is in exploratory phases with movements in other countries as well. In addition to expanding into new national terrains, NSS/WAS prioritizes cross-local and horizontal growth within their existing countries to strategically build its base.
NSS/WAS advocates for seed sovereignty, movement building, and grassroots feminisms (including a strong emphasis on women’s rights) at the regional level. These political asks, embedded in a vast array of food and climate politics, are addressed through a multi-pronged strategy aimed at changing opinion and legislation vis-a-vis local and regional authorities. For instance, NSS/WAS shows through practice how women are key to combating climate change through the activities they are already prioritizing, such as forest conservation and the preservation and distribution of heirloom and native seeds. In some parts of West Africa, climate change has halved annual rainfall. In others, severe flooding, sea rises, mudslides, and landslides threaten communities’ survival. NSS/WAS and its members are emphasizing women-led agroecology – starting with seeds – as a solution to address climate change and interrelated crises.
Awareness raising and amplification are prioritized through multilayered communications strategies, the core of which is community radio. By partnering with local radio stations, rural women’s associations are able to reach more women and their communities with messages about how to put food sovereignty into action, warn about threats like instances of land and water grabbing, and invite key constituents to critical gatherings. Community radio grew even more important as people isolated during the Covid-19 pandemic.
A concrete example of how NSS/WAS is implementing this communications strategy is its focus on local seeds as a non-negotiable starting point for agroecology. Agribusiness has been able to dig its heels into West Africa in large part through a well-funded public interest campaign which touts – and often, distributes free of charge, at least in early stages – chemical fertilizers and GMO or other corporate-controlled seeds. NSS/WAS has recognized just how organized, and sadly, successful, these efforts have been. As such, the movement sees its own communications work, coupled with practical training, as a counter public interest campaign to win back hearts and minds. This is seminal in that if the majority of rural people opt for local seeds and natural fertilizers/compost, they will in turn push the authorities into seeing them as a serious force to be reckoned with.
RAISING UP WOMEN THROUGH TRAINING
NSS/WAS understands women’s relationship with and access to land more broadly as a dual pronged political project, where one component is working with women and the other is targeting local authorities. This work is regionally nuanced, with training and advocacy adapted to diverse national contexts. In Senegal, for example, NSS/WAS organizes sessions to explain traditional laws regarding land tenure and how these are being captured by corporations and other facilitators of land and water grabbing. Gems and precious metals can render land rights meaningless, wherein land tenure provisions do not include the valuable minerals that may lie beneath. When land grabs do occur, NSS/WAS members organize popular protests, educational sessions with local authorities, and learning exchanges on resistance strategies. Additionally, working through broader networks and movement spaces allows NSS/WAS to scale up its social action work to reach targets such as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the African Union, and the United Nations.
As NSS/WAS looks to the future, one of its immediate plans and infrastructure priorities is the creation of a network of agroecological women’s field schools including demonstration plots that can be replicated in family gardens. In addition to education, these schools are also intended to serve archival purposes, to bring “data from the ancestors” to future generations. This includes documentation of peasant seeds to inform their preservation in modern family farming and legislation to ensure ongoing biodiversity. Another key priority is bolstering women’s leadership within and beyond the NSS/WAS network and to push forward the struggle for gender equality within social movements.