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Food Sovereignty – Beyond Democracy

17 April 2008


Food Sovereignty – Beyond Democracy

By Dena Hoff
Dena Hoff is a family farmer in United Stated, she is vice president of the National Family Farm Coalition (NFFC), and she also become one of the international leaders of La Via Campesina.

The article below is excerpts from a speech that Ms. Dena Hoff presented to the National Farmers Union in Canada last November to post in support of April 17th and the International Day of Peasant Struggle

Imagine a world without violence where peoples and countries actually form social covenants.  Of course, this covenant for peaceful solution of differences would need to address economics, and, if using the definition of equality of rights, opportunity and treatment, globalization as we now know it could not exist.

When NAFTA was first offered as legislation, our organizations were among the first to see the big picture and the damage and inequalities in a system which was so undemocratic and corporate controlled.  Unfortunately, by the time NAFTA became public, many years of work had been done secretly by its proponents – mostly TNCs and the institutions, agencies, and politicians which pander to them – who lobbied our governing bodies tirelessly, and often illegally.

We knew that giving TNCs unlimited movement of capital and even greater access to cheap labor, raw materials and natural resources, including land and water, has never before translated into real wealth for farmers and rural communities.  We knew it was too good to be true.  The NAFTA Trojan Horse with its offer of prosperity for all, a rising standard of living, and a cleaner environment really held lost farms, lost jobs, increased poverty, forced migration, environmental degradation, and social unrest.

Unfortunately for us, being able to say, “I told you so,” is not much consolation.  What we found in this struggle was the opportunity to reaffirm our shared values and our commitment to work together to build a peaceful, sustainable world where all people can live with dignity.

Food Sovereignty, because it is defined as a right, goes beyond democracy.  Under its broad umbrella hundreds of millions of people worldwide work for food as a basic human right, for agrarian reform, which to us means access to land and credit and ownership of land by people who work the land.  Currently in the U.S. land is being bought as an investment for non-agricultural purposes.  Many farmers who sold their farms to get out of debt are currently farming as renters the land they used to own.  Former NFFC president George Naylor told me that in his home state of Iowa most farmers only own about 20 per cent of what they farm.

Food sovereignty also encompasses the protection of natural resources including seeds and biodiversity, protection of indigenous knowledge, social peace, reorganizing global trade, ending the globalization of hunger, and working for real democratic control of our communities and nations.

We have so many issues which are critical and immediate and require our concentration that we often forget to see where these crises have their roots.  We are always putting out fires, such as Hurricane Katrina’s devastation or a new CAFO’s construction.

The U.S. Farm Bill, which should be called the Food Bill, is important for the entire world, and the world needs to weigh in to speak the truth to power:

– As farmers in the U.S. and Canada we are a small number.  In order to distribute power and not concentrate it further we must continue to build alliances with many other groups in society.  Remember that half the world’s population is farmers and we need their voices like they need ours.  There are many repressive regimes being supported with money and military help from so-called democracies in the developed world.  We still have access to the media and the courts and need to use these advantages in a strategic and coordinated way.

– We must examine the role of government remembering that in a democracy, we are the government (at least in theory) and we must not abdicate our responsibility to work for governance which benefits the public good and governments which work with other governments around the world for a just, peaceful, sustainable place for all world citizens.  We need a moral global economy.

– I believe our major task in this century is to redefine the role of TNCs.  Once their role was to organize themselves to fulfill a specific purpose.  The rules were narrow, defining even the amount of land and resources they could own to fulfill this purpose.  Now in the U.S. where many TNCs are chartered, they have constitutional protections which give them equal protection under the law and due process the same as individual citizens, and allow them to be huge, powerful, secretive forces protected from public scrutiny and largely unaccountable to anyone.  Through their undue influence, we have seen and undermining of local, state, and national laws written for the good and protection of society and increasing attacks on international law.  The Geneva Convention, international treaties on labor rights, human rights, the environment and anything that stands in the way of corporate profit and control are targets.  The World Bank, IMF, WTO, NAFTA, CAFTA, FTAs are not the brain children of ordinary citizens.

– How do we take back our countries and our world?

Unfortunately, populists are much better at making great slogans than at governing.  If we want real democracy and food sovereignty we must each become ambassadors for our collective values and goals.  Let’s see everyone we meet as a possible ally.  The number one reason people don’t act is because no one asks them.  Ask everyone you meet every day to do one thing to make us stronger.  Give them the information they need to carry out the task.

We are in the business of protecting our commons.  How do we regain control of the distribution of power?

– By building alternative models at the community level based on the principles of food sovereignty – models that are so good people will want to join us in changing policy so our model becomes the political reality.  All change happens at the grassroots, but local actions must translate into national policy for real success.  We need a distribution of power for the public good and a moral economy.

Via Campesina is exploring a TNC Campaign to strategically coordinate our millions of members in alliance with partners to curtail corporate power.  There are currently many scattered movements winning grassroots battles against corporate power, but if we are to reclaim food sovereignty we need to win the war by engaging massive social movements to make TNCs accountable.

It is necessary for citizens to pressure governments to use their financial power through taxation, purchasing, investing, and subsidies to reward good corporate behavior and stigmatize bad corporations.  Only a massive concerted public pressure can make this happen.

Currently the standoff over the commons is an unbalanced negotiation among powerful global corporations and a weakened public sector.  Strengthening the public sector is the major piece in breaking the stranglehold of corporate power.

As individuals we can make lifestyle choices, which if done on a massive, collective scale, will have an economic impact on TNCs.  These choices involve using locally produced and controlled sources for food, energy, and goods.  Use less of everything.  Make your own and teach others to do the same.  Invest locally.  Share labor and equipment with your neighbors.  Speak up.  Share your knowledge, skills, and values.

I recently attended a VC ICC meeting in Norway hosted by the Norwegian Farmers and Small Holders Union, and was very inspired by their principles.  Their agriculture policy is based on three levels of solidarity:

– Solidarity with the neighbor – which they explained as helping your neighbor stay on the farm any way you can.

– Solidarity with future generations – by protecting resources so young people have a future in agriculture.  They have a “lamp in every window” campaign to keep farms occupied and they offer a website where farms can be listed for sale to other people wanting to farm.  There are covenants to these sales to be sure the land is not purchased for speculation or development.

– International solidarity – which is towards food sovereignty, maintaining local cultures and resources, and fostering economic and social development through agriculture.  Norway contributes more of their GNP to foreign aid and development than any other country.

The NBS is not connected to any political party.  Only 3 per cent of Norway’s land is arable, so they import 50 per cent of their food, but a growing movement is working to reduce these imports by promoting locally grown traditional Norwegian foods.  Like the rest of the world, corporate pressure is increasing on their government to use GMOs and develop resources for export which they don’t need domestically.

There are organizations and movements all over the world sharing our commitment to changing the global reality.  Harnessing and focusing this grassroots power is our challenge for this century.

We seem to be suffering from a collective failure of imagination.
– Imagine what life will be like when people once again govern themselves.
– When we have separation of corporations and state;
– When we end the privatization of public resources and services;
– When new generations of truly democratically elected progressive lawmakers are dedicated to the public good;
– When any trade agreements are fair and have human rights, labor, and environmental protections;
– When employee-owned businesses, cooperatives, and for-benefit companies flourish;
– When poor nations are freed from unpayable debts;
-When TNCs are held accountable by a world court and their powers are weakened and given back to the people;
– Imagine what our communities, our countries, our world will be like when every life has equal value.  When we have real democracy with equality of rights, opportunity, and treatment.  When we have food sovereignty.

By joining hands and imaginations around the world, we can make this happen.

Globalize the struggle.  Globalize the hope.


17 April 2008
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