The True Food Prize Goes to the Haitians

[Salena Tramel | Article published on Huffingtonpost]

The Iowa state capitol is vibrating with activity this week in preparation for the World Food Prize Laureate Award Ceremony that is set to take place on Thursday. The 2013 World Food Prize credits Monsanto in the fight against hunger through sustainable agriculture — yet there is a disconnect between the spirit of the prize and the U.S. agrochemical giant’s actual practices. Organizers of the Food Sovereignty Prize aim to bridge this gap by honoring grassroots social movements in their own ceremony that will take place on Tuesday in New York City.

Corporate Interventions in the Global South

Companies like Monsanto consistently expand into Global South countries where more than a billion people each year contend with hunger daily.

Those most affected are rural farmers, with the majority being women. Monsanto itself promotes chemically enhanced seeds that perpetuate a cycle of dependency and have devastated parts of the world most affected by hunger, environmental degradation, and extreme poverty.

One of the most palpable cases is Haiti.

The tiny Caribbean nation was once almost entirely self-sufficient, built by generations of highly organized peasants working together in community groups. In the ’80s, that all changed — owing to neoliberal agricultural policies that included stabilization to curb inflation, structural adjustment, and export-led growth. The rice and pork industries in the U.S., among others, saw Haiti as a means to quickly expand their market share. But for Haitian farmers forced to learn the hard way, the loss of their heirloom crops and Creole pigs meant a downward spiral into dependence and hunger.

In 2008, when the global food price crisis bore down on Haiti’s staple crops, many rural Haitians curbed their hunger pangs with patties made from mud, oil and sugar. And the 2010 earthquake took the lives and shelters of many rural farmers who had fled the countryside for Port-au-Prince and surrounding urban areas searching for work.

It was within the context of this catastrophe (couched in decades of foreign agricultural intervention) that Monsanto parachuted into Haiti, offering a gift of seeds in excess of $4 million.

The catch was that the seeds were a synthetic variety, some so toxic that they had been banned in the U.S. Many Haitians knew better that to plant them. Haiti’s social movements took the matter seriously — to the point of burning Monsanto seeds at a protest that brought four peasant movements together, making headlines around the world.

Grassroots Movements Reclaim Food Sovereignty

Haiti’s Group of 4 (G4) came together as a coalition in 2007, representing over a quarter million rural farming members of Heads Together Small Farmers of Haiti (Tet Kole), the Peasant Movement of Papaye, the National Congress of Peasant Movement of Papaye, and the Regional Coordination of Organizations of the South East Department. Its strategy is to provide a unified platform for peasants to voice their concerns, as well as make space for mass mobilization and advocacy.

The G4 recognized control of seeds as a priority from its inception. Making sure that Monsanto’s alleged charity hybrids would go up in flames reiterated their reach and recognition as a movement.

Haiti’s G4 plays an essential role in Via Campesina, the international peasant movement that has more than 200 million rural and peasant members in 79 countries. Via Campesina is dedicated to seed sovereignty as part of the overarching term “food sovereignty” that it coined in 1996 to take the idea of food security the extra mile: instead of just access to and availability of food, proponents of food sovereignty stress that people have the right to define their own food systems.

In one of the vibrant peasant-to-peasant learning exchanges encouraged by Via Campesina, G4 members invited South American activists and agroecology experts to the Haitian countryside in 2007 to work together with priorities of saving native seeds and supporting peasant agriculture. The group adopted the name Dessalines Brigade after the 19th-century Haitian independence leader Jean Jacques Dessalines. Immediately following the 2010 earthquake, the G4/Dessalines Brigade redoubled their efforts — providing communities with doctors, seasoned organizers, teachers, and agronomists.

Winning the Fight for Access to Food

The G4 and its collaboration with the Dessalines Brigade caught the eye of the U.S. Food Sovereignty Alliance, a diverse coalition of member organizations working toward food justice in North America and globally. Annually, the U.S. Food Sovereignty Alliance celebrates the leaders on the frontlines that do the most to advance access to food in their own communities through its Food Sovereignty Prize. The Haitian G4/Dessalines Brigade partnership received top honors this year.

“The Food Sovereignty Prize symbolizes the fight for safe and healthy food for all peoples of the earth,” said Chavannes Jean-Baptiste who sits on the executive committee of the G4. “It’s a fight that must be waged both locally and globally, and requires deep solidarity among all organizations fighting for food sovereignty.”

Flavio Barbosa, a Brazilian organizer from the Dessalines Brigade, elaborated: “Receiving this prize for the partnership between the G4 and the Dessalines Brigade is an incentive for others to participate in long exchanges such as the one we are experiencing in Haiti. And it charges us with even greater responsibility to continue our defense of peasant agriculture and agroecology as a way to produce sustainable, healthy chemical-free foods accessible for all.”

In addition to the G4/Dessalines Brigade’s top honor win, the U.S. Food Sovereignty Alliance lauded the work of women and peasant groups in Mali, India, and Basque Country.

The Food Sovereignty Prize picks up where the World Food Prize has fallen off — building confidence in the rural movements that are positioned to transfer both power and food back into the hands of deserving communities.