Leaders of the Food Sovereignty Movement Meet in Mali

Leaders of the Food Sovereignty Movement Meet in Mali

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John Ahni Schertow
March 3, 2007
 

Dispatch: Leaders of the “Food Sovereignty” Movement Meet in Mali
By Anna Lappé, gnn.tv
February 25

Activists from five continents stand up for the small farmer at the International Food Forum

I am sitting in the “media headquarters” – a squat concrete building in the middle of a dusty compound – at the first gathering of social movements around the world fighting for “food sovereignty.” I’m staying here with more than 500 other delegates from five continents and eighty countries about two hours outside of Bamako, Mali.

When I told people I was coming to this forum not many people in the States seemed to know what I meant by food sovereignty. Many of the organizers of this week’s events think maybe that’s not such a bad thing. “Not knowing what the words mean, gets people asking questions about what we stand for, not automatically assuming they know,” Eric Holt-Gimenez said to me on our 24-hour journey here from Washington DC. (Eric is the Executive Director of the Institute for Food and Development Policy, better known as Food First , the “people’s think tank” my mother, Frances Moore Lappé, co-founded in the early 1970s.)

Fundamentally, food sovereignty means that everyone should have the right to access wholesome food, that producers should have the right to fair wages for their work, and that communities the world over should have the right over their natural and genetic resources, like seeds.

As the organizers of the conference put it, on a painted banner draped along the open-air walls of the forum’s amphitheater, they’re fighting for: agriculture by and for peasants and small farmers; fishing by fisherfolk not multinational companies or on industrialized fish farms; livestock by pastoralists; indigenous people with rights over their own territories; wholesome food for all consumers; labor with workers rights at the center; a healthy environment for all; and a future with youth in the countryside

For the next five days, more than 500 delegates representing social movements from the mountains of Japan to the deserts of West Africa will celebrate the concept of food sovereignty and debate the policies to help promote it globally. The first ever Forum on Food Sovereignty, the goal of the gathering is to develop international strategies and a cohesive policy platform that delegates can take back to their communities across the planet.

On the Air France flight from Paris to Bamako, I happened to pick up an International Herald Tribune. A cover article announced Kraft Foods’ “silver bullet” to please investors. Seems the company is committing upwards of $400 million this year to develop and market new products. Unhappy investors are apparently demanding revenue growth to jump by at least 3 percent. The international company, among the largest food companies in the world, is stepping in with the money to expand its markets.

As I sit here reflecting on the day and a half of discussion I’ve heard so far—from a Palestinian farmer, a Thai indigenous fisherman, a shrimper from Louisiana, an African leader in the African Youth Coalition Against Hunger, among many, many others—I reflect differently on this piece of news from Kraft. For a key theme, throughout all these conversations, has been the impact of transnational companies on the ability for all of those gathered here, from such diverse places and cultures, to be able to continue to farm, to feed themselves, and to provide food for their own communities. They’re facing the onslaught of corporate food in their markets, the impact of trade policies which have forced the opening of their borders to the subsidized food from the industrialized north, the introduction of genetically modified seeds, and more. So far, I’ve made out at least two dozen languages, but in the struggle to translate the complex ideas being discussed, names like Coke, WTO, and Kraft have needed little translation.

As Ahmad Taheri from a farmers association in Iran said today: “What connects us is the discrimination that all farmers suffer. We are suffering from a common pain: the disappearance of small-scale agriculture.”

While many of the delegates share similar struggles, they also share a similar ambition. The concept of the Forum itself was ambitious: The organizers, the international network Via Campesina among other groups, has created a village with huts housing more than 500 people, with food to feed us all, and with official translation in four languages (albeit on sometimes spotty radio transmitters). They started building just two months ago, and though the water, electricity, housing, food, and Internet was all a work-in-progress when we arrived, it’s been amazing to see the Forum come together.

Now, as I dust off my computer keyboard, or wipe the sand from my eyes, or sit on the ground with delegates while we eat our handmade lunches, I think about the $400 million budget Kraft has to export and promote its vision of what food should look and taste like and where it should come from. I’ve never before felt the clear sense of the people power of grassroots movements around the world who are fighting for food sovereignty, in many cases fighting for their lives. Yes, the vision to create a village out of nothing in two months might have been crazily ambitious, but the dream of the people gathered here is even bigger. As one organizer put it, “We want nothing less than to change the world.”

I’ve begun to post pictures here. I’ll add more soon.

GNN contributing editor Anna Lappé is the co-author of Grub: Ideas for an Urban Organic Kitchen and Hope’s Edge: The Next Diet for a Small Planet and the co-founder of the Small Planet Institute and Small Planet Fund.

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