African Women Organize to Reclaim Agriculture Against Corporate Takeover

Reposted with permission from Other Worlds, a women-driven education and movement support collaborative. This is the 5th in a 7-part article series featuring interviews with grassroots African leaders (mostly women) from Senegal, Mali, Kenya, Zimbabwe and South Africa. Each is working for seed and food sovereignty, the decolonization of Africa’s food system and the preservation of traditional farming practices. The content below is from an interview with Mphatheleini Makaulele by Simone Adler and Beverly Bell. Mphatheleini Makaulele is an award-winning indigenous leader, farmer, and activist, and Director of Dzomo la Mupo, a community organization in rural South Africa. She is also part of the African Biodiversity Network.

Everybody originated with indigenous ways of living and the way of Mother Earth. The real role of women is in the seed. It is the women who harvest, select, store, and plant seeds. Our seeds come from our mothers and our grandmothers. To us, the seed is the symbol of the continuity of life. Seed is not just about the crops. Seed is about the soil, about the water, and about the forest.

When we plant our seeds, we don’t just plant them anytime or anywhere. We listen to our elders, who teach us about the ecological calendar. The seed follows this natural ecological flow. When it bears another seed, that one is planted and the cycle continues.

If you cut the cycle of the seed, you cut the cycle of life. We do not understand how something [like genetically modified and chemically treated seeds] can be called seeds if they cannot continue the cycle of life.

Reviving African Agricultural Values

In South Africa, we know there is a freedom of plants to germinate and grow. People are now awakened to the word GMO, and many people are trying to bring forward the issue of food sovereignty.

Here in Limpopo Province, in the indigenous region of Vhavenda, we are organized as the Dzomo la Mupo, the Voice of the Earth. I founded it in 2008. The meaning of mupo is the natural creation of the universe, giving space to every being on the Earth. We have led several campaigns to protect our environment, including campaigns against the Australian mining company Coal of Africa, court cases against development on sacred sites, and registering sacred forests as protected areas under the South African Heritage Resources Agency.

The African Biodiversity Network (ABN), [a regional network of individuals and organizations across twelve countries], is also looking at the issues facing Africa, women, and traditional agricultural practice. The ABN works toward deepening these values and is becoming a big voice in Africa and across the world. The ABN is a home for reviving African values of biodiversity, indigenous practices that bring us health, and traditional farming systems.

The Global Loss of Seed and Food Sovereignty

I live in an environment of mountains, dense forest, and fertile soil. Our mothers, they selected seed from the previous harvest, which they would plant. We had a way of growing seasonal food and of storing seed from season to season.

Mining is wrongly threatening our water, soil, mountains, and seed and food sovereignty. The government is allowing mining in our soil and the dense, thick mountains, including in tropical areas with good soil and pure water. We need to dialogue about the alternatives to save the forest, rivers, plants, everything in mupo, the Earth.

Commercial farming has dominated traditional farming and food sovereignty, too. It looks only at money as the end product. The seeds depend on chemicals and don’t grow following the ecological, natural flow. Chemical seeds and fertilizers make the soil dry like a crust, like plywood. Our soil is damaged and dry. Our natural seeds that germinated on their own no longer grow in that soil. And this problem is causing the loss of natural foods and traditional farming systems, making our food sovereignty vanish.

When the soil is damaged, when the forest no longer has trees to pick fruit from, it affects women first. In Africa, most women are not employed. Our income is the soil where I can grow food, the forest with trees where I can harvest wild, organic fruits, the stream and river where I can fetch clean, pure water. Globally, women who are not employed or educated are experiencing the problem of where to get food and eat the way we have been for generations.

Now, people are depending only on markets [for the food we eat] because their fields are no longer producing natural food, and they have to buy everything, including seeds, resulting in hunger and poverty. People no longer touch the soil for their food; they find the same frozen and packed food in the same shelf in every season.

Not only is this causing a loss of seed and food sovereignty globally, but we women of indigenous ways know that health is affected by the food we eat. We need variety in food. But going to the store year-round and not finding our natural [and seasonal] foods affects our family’s health.

When children and family members are sick, this impacts women first. Women can no longer find the herbs in the forest to cure their sickness because the trees are being cut down and the soil can no longer let the seeds and plants germinate for us to pick the wild greens.

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Calondra McArthur