This is a big year for food sovereignty. Amidst global pandemic, climate chaos, and other intersecting crises, movements are putting the principles of food sovereignty into practice as they advance urgently needed measures on the ground, providing a glimpse into what’s possible. At the same time, they are launching a process toward a major global convergence to articulate an updated vision for food sovereignty and take a collective leap forward toward realizing it. The following are some insights into present challenges and opportunities directly from movement leaders.
Sowing food sovereignty in the here and now
Among the impetuses for the global peasant movement La Via Campesina to launch food sovereignty onto the global stage in the 1990s was increasing corporate control over the food system. This remains an ongoing front of struggle today, particularly with regard to the corporate capture of the world’s genetic resources. Four transnational corporations control 60% of the global commercial seed supply — and they are aggressively going after the seeds held by farmers. One means is through the imposition of national seed laws based on global norms shaped by corporate interests, especially across the African continent. According to David Cidi Otieno of the Kenyan Peasants League (KPL), “In our region, there is an onslaught from transnationals, and the gateway is through seed laws criminalizing farmer seed systems.” But farmers are fighting back. David stresses that:
“We believe that the only way to fight transnationals is by building strong movements grounded in food sovereignty and agroecology and having practical solutions. We believe that the genesis of a good law lies in disobeying an existing bad one. But how do you disobey it? You disobey it by having practical interventions, on our own farms, in our own movements, to be able to build change.”
In concrete terms, this means working to ensure that every member of KPL has a household seed bank to secure farmers’ control over the seeds they use. And while building food sovereignty from the ground up through local control over seeds, KPL is also waging a battle to reverse corporate-backed seed laws at the legislative level. In doing so, they are drawing upon the UN Declaration of the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2018 after a hard-won battle by food sovereignty movements.
Just as peasants are using seeds to resist neocolonialism in Kenya, Palestinian peasants are doing the same as they resist settler colonialism, including ongoing land and water grabbing, forced displacement, and military violence by Israeli forces. According to a representative of Palestine’s Union of Agricultural Work Committees (UAWC), applying food sovereignty principles on the ground under such conditions presents a “huge challenge.” But as with the experience of KPL, a concrete step forward has been through exerting control over seeds.
In 2010, building upon years of prior effort, UAWC took a major step in protecting Palestinian peasants’ seeds by establishing Palestine’s first national seed bank. The seed bank now serves thousands of farmers with more than 50 varieties of local seeds. The fact that these are locally adapted seeds for rain-fed crops is particularly crucial given Israeli control of Palestine’s water, making rain-fed varieties essential for survival. The UAWC representative explains that:
“It’s been a very long journey to arrive to the point where we now have control over more than 50 different varieties of our local seeds…This means that the basic, crucial source of our food is under our control, partially, in some areas of Palestine. This is the struggle of food sovereignty under occupation.”
Intersecting crises, intersecting solutions
Up north in the former colonizer of both Kenya and Palestine, Britain, movements recognize that building food sovereignty is linked to fighting racism in its multiple forms, including racist legacies etched into the UK’s food system. According to Roz Corbett of the Land Workers Alliance:
“One of the really interesting and exciting things about our movement is its diversity and how we’re building on intersectionalities around racial justice in the UK, including racist policies in the immigration system at the moment.”
Along with dismantling racism, many movements also see tackling discrimination and violence against women and gender nonconforming people as essential to the construction of food sovereignty. As Joan Brady of National Farmers Union of Canada and La Via Campesina North America put it:
“The women of La Via Campesina are working to change the narrative on the empowerment of rural women…We, peasants and women farmers, are active political subjects, agents of our own change and development, and we must be recognized as having the right to self-determine ourselves and our bodies. We are generating the required public policies that are gender oriented or specific for rural women and are building peasant and popular feminism as a political tool against oppression and violence.”
Nalu Faria of World March of Women adds that the World March of Women and La Via Campesina have been in joint processes of political education and movement building to add strength to their shared struggles. Together with other movements, they are articulating a feminist vision of food sovereignty that, among other things, challenges patriarchal notions of care work and the gender violence pervasive throughout the food system.
Another critical point of intersection is between the food sovereignty and climate justice movements, which are increasingly converging around agroecology as a grassroots strategy. Jesus Vázquez of Organización Boricuá de Agricultura Ecológica de Puerto Rico shares that:
“For us the struggle for food sovereignty connects to the struggle for climate justice because we’re on the front lines receiving the impacts of the decisions that are made in the global North by multinationals and states serving capital. We’re feeling the impacts in the Caribbean. And we’re in permanent construction of our solutions, solutions that are being built step by step by communities through education and political formation.”
Jesus elaborates that in 2017, when Puerto Rico was hit by the devastating hurricanes Irma and Maria, in the utter absence of a response by the state, “the people had each other’s backs.” Even without electricity, running water, and means of communication, members of Organización Boricuá managed to reach the most vulnerable with essential provisions, using food that they had produced themselves through agroecology. “This enabled us to put agroecology to the test,” explains Jesus. “We were able to harvest food to provide to the community, to families in need, in a moment when boats couldn’t enter the country to bring in food.”
Judith Hitchman of the Urgenci community supported agriculture network adds that similar was seen across the world at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, when direct channels between producers and consumers continued to function while many other parts of the food system experienced delays and shut-downs.
Sustaining the struggle ahead
Last year marked 25 years since La Via Campesina first shared food sovereignty, as a vision, proposal, and framework for action, with the world. In the years since, an evolving food sovereignty movement has achieved landmarks once unimaginable. Cities, states, and even some nations have adopted food sovereignty into official policy, supporting dynamic processes of construction across the world. The rights of peasants are enshrined in international law, and legal instruments like the Tenure Guidelines and Small-Scale Fishery Guidelines – shaped largely by and for social movements – exist and are being put to the test. Movements have unprecedented access to spaces like the UN Committee on World Food Security, where they negotiate and debate face to face with world leaders. Outside of official spaces, movements have developed their own vibrant spaces for convergence, and have birthed countless examples of food sovereignty in action.
In addition to struggle and dedication, all of this and much more has taken a massive amount of behind-the-scenes and on-the-ground effort. This includes the seemingly impossible coordination across time zones, languages, cultures, and territories. As stressed by Joan Brady:
“The strength of La Via Campesina is its autonomy, and it is critical that the movement has strong internal systems, teams, and exchange mechanisms at the local, regional, and international levels.”
Joan elaborates that La Via Campesina is organized into ten regions, with each region’s membership consisting of grassroots organizations. The regional structure is the autonomous forum in which these organizations interact with each other and with the international process. Each region appoints two coordinators who facilitate the regional process and sit on the International Coordination Committee, the body which directs the movement at the international level. At each level of coordination, principles of gender balance and youth leadership are increasingly reflected.
Simultaneously, La Via Campesina is actively striving to expand its membership, particularly in under-represented regions; deepen political education and training among its bases; and support the next generation of leadership – all while working to radically transform the food system from the local to global levels.
To facilitate global coordination, La Via Campesina is active in the International Planning Committee for Food Sovereignty (IPC), described by secretariat member Stefano Mori as an informal international platform of movements working toward food sovereignty. The IPC was instrumental in organizing the first global food sovereignty forum, Nyéléni 2007, which has served as a critical reference point for movements for more than a decade. Now the IPC is in the midst of organizing a new Nyéléni, with regional processes starting this year that will feed into a global assembly in 2023. This approaching convergence holds tremendous potential for building collective strength and catapulting food sovereignty forward, even in the face of intensifying assaults.
All of this, of course, requires resources, making fertile ground for the strengthening of bonds between movements and progressive funders. Grassroots International is honored to be part of a group of funders who are in deep dialogue with La Via Campesina and other movements on sustaining the struggle. Our hope is to keep broadening the circle to match the urgency at hand.
The quotes and learnings shared in this piece are based on the workshop “Food Sovereignty for All: Supporting Struggles that Transform Food Systems” held on October 12, 2021, as part of the EDGE Funders Annual Conference. The workshop was organized by La Via Campesina, hosted by American Jewish World Service, Grassroots International, Thousand Currents, and WhyHunger, and co-sponsored by CLIMA Fund, CS Fund, and Agroecology Fund. If you’re a funder interested in getting involved in these ongoing dialogues, we’d love to hear from you.