Food Sovereignty from the perspective of La Via Campesina

Food sovereignty is the grassroots demand for a rights-based re-organization of the food system, grounded in gender equality, agroecology, and solidarity. La Via Campesina first proposed the concept of food sovereignty in 1996, and over the last several decades, this transnational movement has been working tirelessly to deepen critical analyses of the obstacles and opportunities towards building food sovereignty.

On Monday, December 4th, the second day of the 8th International Conference of La Vía Campesina, two sessions were devoted to expanding conceptions of food sovereignty. Drawing upon the perspectives of grassroots activists from across the globe, movement leaders drew attention to the impact of transnational financial mechanisms, international institutions, and multinational corporations in creating and perpetuating a structurally inequitable food system. With clarity about the struggles of the global food system, activists shared experiences and strategies of grassroots activism, providing context for one of LVC’s slogans, which is being strongly emphasized throughout the Conference: “Globalize the struggle, globalize hope.”

In the first session, “Against the Global Crisis, We are Constructing Food Sovereignty to ensure the Future of Humanity,” Ibrahima Coulibaly (Coordination Nationale des Organisations paysannes du Mali) began by setting the context: “We say that feeding ourselves is a non-negotiable human right. This right will never be respected by neoliberal policies.” For Coulibaly, a clear strategy towards protecting the human right to food is advancing food sovereignty. “The only solution for us to start producing our own food. Neoliberal policies will never work. We need agroecology.” La Via Campesina has become increasingly engaged with and adept at advocating for policy change. The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in the Rural Areas (UNDROP), which was ratified in 2018 by the United Nations General Assembly, was the product of years of sustained activism by LVC and its partners, and is a concrete example of the ways in which the movement is working to advance food sovereignty through public policies at the global scale. Coulibaly reminded the hundreds of activists in the audience that advancing agroecology and policies for food sovereignty has been an ongoing process. “At first no one believed in us. But now, institutional perspectives are changing. And we need policies that support agroecology, and we are very far from that.”

La Via Campesina has not only helped define food sovereignty, but the struggle for food sovereignty has come to define this transnational movement. As Coulibaly emphasized, “food sovereignty is the mother of all the struggles that we fight. Everything we fight for comes from food sovereignty. Whether we fight the World Bank, or international trade, we are fighting for food sovereignty. We need to have policies that are coherent, and in advancing these we will build our power. That is why we are focusing on developing policies for food sovereignty.”

Concluding the morning’s first panel, Veronica Villa (ETC Group, Mexico), illuminated the structural conditions driving the food crisis, suggesting that “we have always been aware that catastrophes have a first name and a last name, that crises are the result of the consolidation of power by multinational corporations. It is important to understand where such crises arise from, and it is important to know that various peasant networks are facing these crises.” Villa moved on to talk about how peasants are creating solutions to these crises in the present. Focusing on the linkages between food sovereignty and health, Villa shared that during the pandemic, agroecology was a critical and under-acknowledged strategy that saved lives. With 70% of global food coming from peasant forms of production, agroecology offers a direct intervention in what is increasingly a global health crisis. Agricultural transnational corporations, Villa argued, have turned food production into one of the major health crises that we are facing. “The majority of people are no longer dying from communicable diseases, but from the additives and pesticides that are in the food we consume. 200 million people die each year from toxic agrochemical poisoning. 500 million die each year from work-related illnesses. For every dollar we pay for food, we pay two dollars for illnesses.” Making the connections between gender, food sovereignty and health, Villa recalled how “At the center of food sovereignty we have women, who save and sow thousands of types of seeds, which are stores of knowledge. We, as women, take care of food in hard times, when the agriculture system cannot help us, it is our peasant networks that have defended our lands, and it is us who give food to anyone in need.”

The morning’s second session was a roundtable entitled “Building Alliances to Advance Food Sovereignty.” This roundtable brought together activists from throughout the world to discuss how to build connections between movements as part of an organic process of advancing food sovereignty.

Fausto Torres ((Asociación deTrabajadores del Campo /Nicaragua) connected the importance of the food sovereignty struggle to the rapidly expanding climate crisis. “We are able to solve the climate crisis, because food sovereignty is connected to earth, water, and land. We all agree that the only solution to the climate crisis is access to land, water, and territories; agroecology is essential.” Margaret Eberu Masudio (ESAFF-Uganda), shared the reality that in Africa, food sovereignty is not very well understood and that this lack of consciousness is one of the impediments to advancing it politically. Masudio suggested that “food sovereignty is a threat to the political leaders because they have special interests in industrial agriculture. It is difficult to enact laws and policies for food sovereignty, in part because many do not understand it.” Food sovereignty gives people the power to control their food system. It is challenged because it is giving peasants the power to control their own food system. Based on all these challenges do we need to run away, do we need to sit on our hands? Mobilizing is what has made us more resilient. In our various organizations, we empower small-scale farmers to understand the importance of agroecology in advancing food sovereignty.”

Turning to North Africa, Hatem Aouini (Million Rural Women, Tunisia) offered that food sovereignty is a fight in the service of youth, and women. Food sovereignty is a fight for traditional seeds because colonialism has different forms, and one of them is the colonialism over food. Fuad Abu Saif (Union Of Agricultural Work Committees-Palestine) provided insights on the Palestinian context from a pre-recorded video, given that the current genocide has made international travel impossible. Abu Saif shared the critical insight that “food sovereignty is not just a concept and it’s not just about food. It’s part of our struggle against the Israeli occupation. Since Israel is applying this policy of cutting off water and food, we need to advance our own concept of, and practice of food sovereignty. They are using food as a weapon, starvation as a weapon. Key ways we’ve done this is through working to improve our land, and establishing the first national seed bank.

The morning’s session concluded with an analysis of the recent historic Indian farmers’ protests that lasted more than a year and were successful in pressuring the Indian government to drop its attempts to remove minimum support price supports. These protests were successful in part because they involved building broad solidarity with civil society. As Yudhvir Singh told the audience, “more than 50,000 allies joined the protesting farmers, including doctors, lawyers, students, all of these sections of society came in solidarity. Villages donated supplies. We made the border of Delhi our home for over a year. More than 50,000 people came for up to a year to join us in meals.” Yudhvir ended by suggesting that “we should celebrate November 26th as a day for Farmers’ mobilization, it’s a day where we can globally take inspiration from the Farmers’ movement in India. Our success would not have been possible without all of your support.”

As Pramesh Pokharel (All Nepal Peasants’ Federation in Nepal) concluded, “existence is our struggle. We are putting forward the solution. We continue to build alliances. We are happy that so many alliances are being built during this 8th Conference. We have common challenges, and we have common agendas. That’s why we continue to build the values of solidarity and internationality. We are very hopeful. If we fight, we win. We will save the climate from the destructive nature of capitalism. We have many inspiring stories to share. If we fight, we win.”