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Food sovereignty: grassroots initiatives
Juan Nicastro
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Movements and organizations push actions to promote change in ways of eating.

Ownership of land or water, legal frameworks, the pressure of the “technological package” from multinational agriculture firms, agroecological forms of training within the social movements, the autonomy of seeds and supplies, climate change, food consumption in large cities, food collection and distribution, the commercialization networks, the level of social mobilization against transgenics: these are all factors, some determining, others enhancing, that in many cases are showing improvement and demonstrating growth toward food sovereignty.

Observing the reality of Latin America, given the effects of dictatorships and the neoliberal wave in the 1990s, achieving food sovereignty requires a complex social change that can’t be summed up by issues of agricultural production. It is a process that motivates or accompanies profound changes in ways of eating, organization between people, and the human relationship with land. While the concept has gained publicity, for many sectors — especially large urban areas — food sovereignty is still a problem limited to farmers. Rereading the aforementioned list, one can see how complicated it really is.

The following are a few examples, however, of situations mushrooming around the continent, which reflect a number of these challenges.

Argentina. In the central city of Cordoba, there is a new group of food sovereignty activists, the Urban Farmers Movement. They posit that change in cities is necessary. One of its members, Matías Sánchez, told Latinamerica Press that “sitting before a plate in the city, we have to acknowledge three grave problems. Firstly, there is price. [Food] is expensive, a result of global speculation rather than a true relationship with production. Also, there is no real taste, it’s chosen for its esthetic, commercial, or shelf-placement value, not because of nutrition. Thirdly is that it’s contaminated, tainted by chemicals throughout the whole process of production, harvesting, conservation, and packaging. Beyond encouraging good and accessible nutrition, we want to be responsible consumers and, step by step, also producers. The city has to take action.”

Paraguay’s eastern community of El Triunfo is one of the 36 areas taken over since 1989 — about 7,000 hectares (17,500 acres) total — by the Association of Farmers of Alto Paraná, or ASAGRAPA. El Triunfo has 900 hectares (2,250 acres) that since 2002 have been communal property. Part of that land is for collective use — there are two schools, a training center, and a barn — and the rest is for use by families. A few years ago, the campesinos grew soy there. Now they grow beans, rice, corn, cassava, and vegetables there. Each campesino has between 7 hectares (17.5 acres) to 10 hectares (25 acres), enough to be self-sufficient and sell at the regional market in Ciudad del Este. There, in the capital of the department of Alto Paraná and on the border of Argentina and Brazil, they can also get what they don’t produce themselves (oil, salt, tools, medication, etc.). Ultimately, they changed one crop destined for export for a variety of crops, stopped using harsh chemicals, and are learning sustainable farming techniques to improve the soil and grow organically. To some extent, it’s like starting over, and slowly the land is becoming highly fertile again. But the real challenge is taking it a step further: consolidating the communities, generating discussions about alternative models for campesino communities and raising awareness about politics and communitarian organization. The goal is to promote projects within the associations and communities, and to that end, they believe that collective ownership (of land, tools, machinery, vehicles for transporting goods) ensures that despite many families using the land, there won’t be disputes within the community.

Argentina. The Campesino Movement of Santiago del Estero, or MOCASE, has shown the relationship between training and the rest of the steps toward food sovereignty, generating new educational and training proposals that meet the needs of the young, indigenous campesino population and strengthening the communities’ leadership capacity. At its headquarters in Quimilí in the province of Santiago del Estero, since 2006 the School of Agroecology has been making great strides based on a participative process that incorporated the campesino groups of the MOCASE and the National Indigenous Campesino Movement, or MNCI, to boost sustainable farming, strengthen family and community production, promote exchanges between young people in the movement, develop technology and sciences that reduce environmental impact, build educational methodologies that link organic food production to local markets, and increase interest in food production as an art and an attractive profession.

MOCASE leader Ángel Strappazón told Latinamerica Press: “now MNCI is looking to do more, now that the Universidad Campesina is up and running and will be available to young campesinos, indigenous people, and urban and rural workers from around the country,” with focuses on agroecology, community health, grassroots communication, campesino teachers, and area human rights promoters. The university will also have a career in agroecological engineering, he added. “We are aiming for a strategic training for the young people, of political cadres, but based on the possibility of a new political paradigm, that of food sovereignty, which is without a doubt one of the cornerstones of a new era of civilization, because it is the safeguard of biodiversity, combined with the production to overcome hunger and also ecology. It’s about building a new political subject.”

Venezuela. As in Bolivia and Ecuador, Venezuela is one of the countries where political dynamics have been able to change laws to generate some favorable opportunities for agroecology. The Integral Agricultural Health Law establishes that “to transform the country’s economic and social models,” the Executive branch will use agroecology as the scientific foundation of sustainable tropical farming. It will develop and carry out projects “necessary to motivate and stimulate the production of high-quality food, in sufficient amounts for the population,” in addition to promoting teaching and learning of agroecological practices.

An agreement with Cuba lead to the creation of 17 laboratories to produce biofertilizers and biocontrol agents for the agroecological management of agricultural production systems at the National Institute of Integral Agricultural Health. For example, the Cipriano Castro lab, in the western state of Táchira, provides supplies at no cost to small producers and also carries out participatory research in the same areas of production in order to improve the quality of the supplies and advice to producers who are incorporating this technology.

Brazil. The settlement of Filhos de Sepé, which belongs to the Landless Workers’ Movement, or MST, has had 6,000 hectares (15,000 acres) of land since 1999, about 40 kilometers (25 miles) from the city of Porto Alegre in the country’s southern tip. Seven hundred families there are applying a new model of community living: they form units of 15 to 20 families. The individual land parcels are triangles and the vertex converges in a “center” so that the houses are close together (needed for collective living) and at the same time every farmer is on his own land.

In Filhos de Sepé, the farmers discovered that organic rice crops were not only profitable, but that productivity per hectare is double than if agrotoxins were used. They also reclaimed the campesino tradition of preparing the land for planting with the help of ducks. “The ducks eat all the weeds. They clean up the land much better than any agrochemical toxin, and their excrement works as a fertilizer. We leave the ducks there for months and let them get the land ready. Then, to plant the rice, we remove them, and sell or eat them,” Huli Zang of the MST told Uruguayan journalist Raúl Zibecchi in a 2008 article published by the Latin American Information Agency, or ALAI.
Nevertheless, now the community is running into the problem of certification because those in charge are linked to companies that market transgenics. “Breaking down the fences of the estate was not as difficult as fighting the technological packages of the transnationals,” said Zang. Filhos of Sepé is celebrating 14 years without pesticides.

Across Latin America, the rejection of transgenics is increasing, in many cases due to coordinated action between many social organizations. From this joint effort “in protest of” comes coordinated action “in favor of” new protective laws, fair trade networks, agroecological production, community health, and public education, among others, increasing efficiency in production linkages. This can be seen in the increase of fair trade networks, where those who began as “political” militants are now organic consumers and/or producers, or they support through many means the distribution of agroecological products.

The sharing of these examples is not intended to dismiss key issues, like the fact that food sovereignty is not possible without land sovereignty, or the debate on global food model and corporations, the severity of climate change or the hoarding of water, to name a few.

But it’s fair to say that, given the global crisis, the approach to the practical experience is part of what the Brazilian sociologist Boaventura de Sousa Santos proposes when he said that “reality is the sum of what exists and all what it is emerging as a possibility and as a struggle for its realization.”
—Latinamerica Press.


Street markets, which exist throughout the region, are integral to establishing food sovereignty. (Photo: Juan Nicastro)
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