For Mother's Day we want to highlight women who are fighting for food sovereignty to protect their families' human rights and provide their children with the nutritious food they need. Below is an excerpt from WhyHunger's "Through Her Eyes: The Struggle for Food Sovereignty" publication which features dialogue between Yesica Ramirez and Elvira Carvajal of the Farmworkers Association of Florida, and Kathia Ramirez of CATA - Farmworkers Support Committee. They discuss the harmful effects that agrochemicals on agricultural workers and the solutions we should be striving for.
Kathia: All agricultural workers are exposed to pesticides that damage their health. In the area where we work, I have observed how women use different layers of clothing to protect against chemicals, and though all workers who work directly in the fields are at risk, I think women take more serious risks — especially if they are pregnant. The baby will be at high risk and may be born with health difficulties like a deformity or perhaps a mental problem. Or possibly the girls, who in the future would like to have families, will sometimes not have the joy of being mothers because these chemicals can cause infertility.
Elvira: Not only agricultural workers — but all of us — even those who do not work in agriculture — are exposed to chemicals, mainly in our water. Not only does it damage the water we drink, but all the animals that live in [the water], and so we’re affected again when we consume fish. Farmworkers are also affected mentally and physically; their bodies are poisoned, but also their minds and hearts because of the verbal and physical abuse they often have to deal with. The short- term symptoms [of pesticide exposure] are skin rashes, hives, itching and redness of the skin. In the medium term, it is bone pain, sometimes dizziness and a continuation of the short-term symptoms. There was one case of a woman who had just started the job and she said her knees and feet really hurt. She went home and went to bed and then began to vomit. She is still suffering from joint pains.
Yesica: I remember when we came here to the United States we started working in the plant nursery without knowing anything about chemicals. So, we wore long-sleeved shirts because we saw other people wearing them, but we did not know why. Fast forward to 2010 when I was pregnant with one of my babies. But then I heard of the Farmworker Association and I took the training they offered. I learned how to protect myself and the importance of doing so. When my child was born, she was born with many health problems. She had an underdeveloped skull, sleep apnea, and eczema. I was always at the doctor and deep down I knew this happened because of the chemicals. So, when I speak to women about the importance of protecting themselves and their children, I speak from the heart because of what happened to me. I do not want them to go through the same thing. So when I hear testimonies of women who come to me and tell me, "Look, I'm protecting myself. And now they give us water at work," you see the results you have sown. It gives me great satisfaction that the community responds in that way.
Elvira: Personally, when I worked in the fields, I lost a baby at six months. Afterwards I was informed that it was because of the chemicals I was exposed to daily at work. Right now, we know of a family living in a very large commercial nursery. It has about 6,000 employees. We sometimes find families with children, and sometimes couples who do not have children, living in the nursery. We have seen children hanging clothes outside, and about 50 or 100 feet from where they are playing is the greenhouse with the pesticides. All around them [inside the nursery] are the plants that are being treated with chemicals. So, the families and children are directly exposed and affected. We are trying to document all this information. We also remember a time when there was a hurricane here. [The Farmworker Association] visited some farms and found families living in animal stalls. We started legal processes which ended with the families being removed. So, in one way, we help people [to get out of dangerous living conditions]. But then they may no longer have housing. But if they stay in those places they are endangering their lives, so we also sometimes feel powerless to help.
Kathia: I think that in industrial agriculture everything is based on money. Farmers compete to see who makes more than the other. Agriculture is based on the model of getting rich, and not necessarily focused on the model of feeding the people, as it should be.
Elvira: I believe that the interest of industrial agriculture is to produce quantity over quality; they do not care about anyone's health. What matters to them is production and profit, and we are now trying to raise awareness that people want quality. We know that if you're eating a carrot like the ones we grab from our garden, they may not be thick or large like those sold in the store, but the taste is so different — better.
Yesica: I remember back to the time in my childhood, when we were living in the countryside. As a child I could enter the field to work and there was no danger because there were no pesticides at the time. People sold food locally or exchanged food between them. For example, someone went by in the market and said “I'll exchange peaches for guavas or tomatoes for onions.” So, that was a good thing and we had much access to food. Even though we were poor, at least we could have healthy food. Today, farmworkers have little access to healthy food. It’s cheaper for you to buy a maruchan (junk food) than to buy a kilo or a pound of some fruit because healthy food is expensive.
Kathia: CATA (Farmworkers Support Committee – CATA) participated in the public comment period for the rules protecting workers as a part of our work to reduce the use of pesticides in agricultural products. As a follow up to this initiative, we started a campaign for food justice. We think the conditions [for farmworkers] will not improve just by changing some rules. The food justice campaign is based on the need to improve our food system — not only for workers but also for consumers and farmers. Pesticides are destroying not only our people but also our planet. CATA, along with three other organizations, initiated an interest group to develop fair standards for people involved in sustainable and organic agriculture. Through those standards, we created a label of approval, a kind of certification for “just food.” It’s called Agricultural Justice Project. Part of our food justice campaign has been to expand the label and certify more and more farms to follow these rules, to produce organically using no chemicals and, more than anything, to protect and treat workers fairly. So, not only do we want to raise awareness about the label within businesses and farms, but we must also educate workers, communities, individuals, consumers and other organizations involved. Our goal is to grow the campaign and at the same time, get the support of friends and allies so that we can work together to create a fair system, especially for workers who are essential to the whole process.
As another initiative within the campaign for food justice, we have community gardens that are for the low-income community and agricultural workers to help them to eat healthier. Organic food that is free of chemicals is expensive and, with a minimum wage that is not enough to live on, low-income communities have no other option but to consume cheap and unhealthy food. So that's why CATA offers space, seeds, tools, and water for the community to grow their own organic produce. They take home the food they harvest in exchange for their time in the garden. For the rest of the community, these foods are available to buy at low prices. Our community gardens have become a place of learning and working collectively. Now we’re thinking of including trainings about making compost, growing in small spaces, increasing production, and saving seeds.
Elvira: It is sometimes difficult to do outreach to farmworkers to raise awareness about the hazards in their work areas. We use workers’ rights trainings as a way to identify different types of workplace violations, but also to provide follow-up to specific cases. We need to convince workers to make a complaint to the agency that is responsible for enforcement and encourage them to stick with it until the end, which we know will be long and hard. At first when they are in the workshops they’ll say, "Yes, we are going through with this." But when we identify violations and want to document them, sometimes the workers no longer want to. They want to change the conversation and do not want to follow-up on the case, for fear of job loss or other retaliation. It’s our job as organizers, to convince them to continue in order to stop such violations for everyone.
Kathia: I think many grassroots organizations and organizations of agricultural workers are doing a lot of organizing around the conditions of workers. Therefore, I think personal narrative and testimony is very powerful and perhaps could be a method of communication to consumers. Friends and allies can become aware of the situation from the first person point of view of someone who is facing these realities every day. Also, it helps us to start delving into how many people do not really think deeply about where their food comes from and helps us bring awareness about how essential agricultural workers are so that we can feed ourselves.
The term agroecology is a term that most agricultural workers do not use in their daily lives, yet they are familiar with the practice. Agroecology is a technical term that has emerged and is being used more often. But agroecology is what many farmworkers know as natural and organic planting, using the basic tools that do not depend on large machinery or chemicals for the growth and maturity of the plants. Some agricultural workers who were farmers and had access to land in their countries of origin used ancestral practices, and one of those practices was natural and traditional medicine. More than anything women have knowledge of natural medicine and they often prescribe certain herbs or plants for different injuries or illnesses. Last year CATA began a series of activities related to traditional herbal medicine since we know that many people who do not have legal status in this country also do not have access to good health insurance. Even though they won’t always be able to treat a disease with natural medicine, it is a relief to many in the community. As these skills are related to agroecology, they can be a source to share and connect with other organizations and other people who know about this and have the same wisdom.
Elvira: I think all mothers want our children to be well fed; we seek the best for them. I think that agroecology is a movement with principles and values for all those who care for and protect the earth. This is what we practice in the Campesinos’ Gardens with many farmworker families. The Campesinos' Gardens were started by farmworker leaders in the community of Fellsmere in 2010, and have since expanded to three additional farmworker communities. The gardens serve as agroecology demonstration sites to reclaim traditional growing knowledge, to reconnect to the natural elements in order to inspire people to live differently and better, and to exemplify potential small-scale farm economic development opportunities. The garden sites have not only increased the availability of healthy, fresh, chemical-free foods among farmworker families, but have also provided the opportunity to deepen mutually-beneficial relationships with local governments and a sister non-profit organization through collaborative, productive use of underutilized lands.
Yesica: We are mothers and as mothers we will care for our children. We are the ones that do most of the food shopping and cooking. We therefore play an important role. And there's that phrase that says 'we are what we eat,' right? Earlier, we mentioned that before people lived longer and were healthier and now children are born sick or get sick a lot. We see it every day with people who are not that old but tend to have more health issues than people who came before them. It is good to grow healthy food but also to grow awareness in the community and make the community stronger and united. Also, to capture the wisdom and pass it to the next generation. This is one of our roles as women.
Kathia: There is an urgency about passing on that wisdom — everything that our parents and our grandparents shared with us. Specifically in terms of working the land, many farmers leave their home countries because of poverty and, as a result, those towns that have a wealth of culture are disappearing. And today, it sometimes seems that young people have no interest in continuing to learn who they are, right? And the question becomes how can we come together to ensure it does not end there, that it does not die there.
Want to read more stories about women working for food sovereignty and sustainable agriculture? Download "Through Her Eyes: The Struggle for Food Sovereignty" today.
WhyHunger’s International Solidarity Fund helps to support MST’s efforts to train teachers and young people in Agroecology and help them to develop educational practices to teach Agroecology in elementary and high schools in Brazil. We are excited to share this announcement from MST.
Egídio Brunetto, the Popular School of Agroecology and Agroforestry, launched in partnership with Expressão Popular publishing company, its first Training Book "Agroecology in Basic Education: Suggestions for Content and Methodology."
Grounded in the mistica and the symbolism of collective work, the launch was attended by local authorities, Leftist organizations, students and educators of Agrarian Reform settlements.
The content of the publication was organized by popular educators: Dionara Soares Ribeiro, Elisiani Vitória Tiepolo, Maria Cristina Vargas and Nivia Regina da Silva.
In the material, priority was given to stimulating the study of agroecology as a mechanism to mobilize families, create self-esteem, strengthen the peasant identity, generate income and raise awareness of families in the countryside.
For the educators, the book shares recommendations of how to organize the school curriculum to respond to the different realities and experiences of each community, and leaves to each educator to decide which parts can be used in their classroom.
During the launch, Dionara Ribeiro, one of the editors, said that the creation of the notebook is a result of the work of 64 educators, at an important moment that was the basic course of agroecology that worked on "Agroecology in Basic Education in Rural Schools".
In this sense, it reaffirmed the importance of working with agroecology with children, youth and adults, and that schools will be forming subjects with theoretical and practical appropriation to contribute to the transformation of their environment.
"Our focus is on transforming settlements and camps into agrochemicals-free territories, thus ensuring more health, biodiversity and better relations between people and nature," she explained.
At the end of the launch, an ecumenical act was carried out with the planting of trees, to symbolically start a new cycle, accompanied by "many fruits". According to the MST in the region, this booklet will strengthen the peasant identity through a process of building knowledge among rural families
Just in time for International Women’s Day, WhyHunger is excited to release our newest publication “Through Her Eyes: The Struggle for Food Sovereignty.” International Women’s Day is a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. We know that women are responsible for 60-80% of food production in the Global South and represent 50% of food chain workers in the U.S. Yet, women and girls are disproportionally affected by hunger. And for us, it is very important to recognize and honor the women around the world who are fighting for food sovereignty and creating just, sustainable communities that benefit all. In Through Her Eyes, women from all over share their opinions and experiences on topics including agrochemicals, fishing practices, food stamps, GMOs, farmworkers and more.
It is imperative; therefore, that women’s voices are at the center of the debate about how to dismantle the current food regime and replace it with food sovereignty and agroecology. Though not yet mainstream concepts or practices, the work of grassroots organizations is beginning to result in a scaling out of agroecology in both rural and urban areas. This publication aims to highlight the leadership of women in making that possible.
Through excerpts of interviews and dialogue with women organizers and food producers from the United States and globally in response to the question “what are the impacts of industrial food and farming on women and how are women organizing to build an alternative,” this publication amplifies the voices of women who are on the frontlines in the ongoing struggle for land, water, localized economies, and a world free of violence and hunger.
It emerges in a moment when arguably a new world order is beginning to take shape. In the face of economic and social systems in crisis and deepening inequality the world over, the struggle for food sovereignty, agroecology and climate justice is a struggle for more than just the right to food. It is a struggle for a new world order that centers the rights of women to live freely and safely, and to lead in envisioning and crafting a world void of hunger and violence. WhyHunger is committed to standing in solidarity with women whose lived experiences are forging the path to food sovereignty.
We invite you to read, download and share this publication to learn more about the issues affecting our food system and the women who are creating solutions to achieve food sovereignty.
Sneak peek! This is an excerpt from our upcoming publication “Through Her Eyes: The Struggle for Food Sovereignty.” This story featuring Magha Garcia, Organización Boricuá de Agricultura Ecológica and Anne Frederick,Hawai’i Alliance for Progressive Action(HAPA, is one of many that lift up the voices of women (farmers, farmworkers, food chain workers, etc.) fighting for food sovereignty around the world. Enjoy and look out for the new publication when it is released on March 1st!
Magha Garcia is an eco-farmer and environmental activist in Puerto Rico. She is a member of Organización Boricuá de Agricultura Ecológica , a grassroots group of farmers and allies who advocate for agroecology and are members of the Latin American Chapter (CLOC) of La Via Campesina. Magha also challenges agribusiness with the group Nada Santo Sobre Monsanto, a collective of multiple organizations, representatives of civil society that includes farmers, students, consumers, scientists, professional associations, teachers, and lawyers who have come together to defend the right to healthy food, free of transgenics.
Anne Frederick is the Executive Director of Hawai’i Alliance for Progressive Action which works to catalyze community empowerment and systemic change towards valuing `āina (environment) and people ahead of corporate profit. She farms on a homestead on Kaua’i. She is also the co-founder of Hester Street Collective in Lower Manhattan, New York, where she worked alongside communities on issues of urban planning and public spaces.
Magha: Due to their tropical climate, Hawaii and Puerto Rico are ideal places for the biotech seed companies like Monsanto. They can get three to four cycles of seed breeding per year. Location, shipment system and infrastructure, educated and well trained workers, and no government oversight are all factors conducive for GMO crop proliferation in the Caribbean. In Puerto Rico we have a long history of all sorts of experimentation since the U.S. invasion in 1898, but more intensively after the 1930s. Our status as a “non-incorporated territory” or colony allows the U.S. government and the corporations it supports, especially the biotechnology industry, to use us as they please. Monsanto first came to the island in 1983 when they bought the AgroSeeds Corporation. Then in 1996, Monsanto officially changed their name to Monsanto Caribe and since have grown tentacles that are woven into our communities, the public and private educational system, academia, the private sector and especially our local government. The two main functions of Monsanto Caribe are agricultural biotechnology and plant breeding experiments. The main crops they are experimenting on are corn, cotton, soy, rice, papaya, tomatoes, tobacco and sunflower. As “territories” Hawaii and Puerto Rico experience more experimentation than any of the other U.S. states.
Anne: Hawaii is particularly appealing to agribusiness because of its 12 month growing season so we have the greatest concentration of test sites, compared to the mainland. In 2014, we had 1,387 field test sites, compared to California which has around 75. Since 1987 Hawaii has hosted more cumulative genetically-engineered (GE) field trials — 3,243 — than any other state. In 2014 alone, 178 different GE field tests were conducted on over 1,381 sites in Hawaii. And the seed industry’s footprint here is 24,700 acres, so that gives you a sense of the density. The area planted in seed crops has grown tenfold since 1982 while land growing vegetables and fruits, excluding pineapples, has declined more than 50% since the late 1990s. Often those test fields are directly adjacent to residential communities and we’ve had cases where a school has had to be evacuated because all the kids got sick. The seed companies would claim it was something else. They’d say it was a weed called stinkweed here that made people sick. Multiple EPA scientists have said there’s no way it could’ve been the stinkweed.
Magha: As in most countries worldwide, the main chemical used to control weeds here is RoundUp. It is used by companies, municipalities, landscapers and homeowners to "resolve" the constant growing of weeds. Since Monsanto stated that it is "safe" for people, it is used freely and without any concern by most people. Despite an overwhelming amount of contrary evidence, their false propaganda is still working well. In our case, those experiments are in open fields and our government fully supports them, facilitating privileges like free water and tax breaks, while small scale farmers can barely survive. In the last 10 fiscal years the biotech industry received $519.7 million taxpayer dollars from our government. In addition, they received unique tax rates, exemptions, incentives and wage subsidies.
Anne: Hawaii currently imports, anywhere from 80 to 90% of its food, and we’re particularly vulnerable on Kaua‛i because we have one port where all the food comes in and if that port were to shut down, as it has in the past due to a hurricane or a dock worker strike, that’s it. We have a limited amount of food on the shelves. Food security is a real issue here and we have huge swaths of agricultural land that’s been used to test chemicals rather than grow food. There is a major need for increasing our food sovereignty here. There are people who are interested in farming but the industry and the landowners have such a hold on our local government that it’s been really hard for anyone to make headway over on the west side of the island.
Magha: In the last four years, the main initiative to confront and expose Monsanto or related companies in Puerto Rico is publicly expressed by the annual "Millions Against Monsanto" march. The collective Nada Santo Sobre Monsanto (NSSM), as an umbrella organization, is inviting the public to collaborate on improving effective strategies against Monsanto & Co. This year their efforts led to the rescuing of public land to create gardens. They also showed documentaries to address related topics like transgenic crops, health risks, agroecology, and food sovereignty amongst others.
Anne: The issue area where HAPA has been most active to date is in fair and sustainable food systems — in particular, advocating for better protections for the people and the environment here on Kaua‛i from the impacts of pesticide use. We do organizing, advocacy and education work — trying to educate the community about decision making processes, about opportunities to weigh in to effectively advocate. We sent a delegation of communities – spokespeople — to Switzerland to meet with and speak to the Syngenta shareholders. Gary, our board president, got the organization we work with over there to buy one share of Syngenta stocks so they could get Gary into a shareholders’ meeting. He delivered a very powerful message to the shareholders there about what’s happening and what they’re supporting in Hawaii and specifically on Kaua‛i. We brought over another board member who is a Hawaiian mother living in the homesteads directly adjacent to where Syngenta sprays, whose daughter’s hair has tested positive for 36 different pesticides, including 9 restricted-use pesticides.
We’ve been doing a lot to try to advocate for the governor to mandate and fund data collection and coordination of government agencies on the impact of pesticides. We brought a group of mothers from impacted communities to the governor’s office to meet with him and make a case for implementing the findings in his own report. We continue to provide public education about what’s going on right now with the court cases. We had hearings at the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals here in Hawaii. We were able to raise awareness about that and livestream it, continuing to work with our partners to identify other areas where we think we can have some wins. So one of our campaigns is to try and ban chlorpyrifos, which is one of the chemicals the EPA has already said it’s going to ban and is heavily used here.
Magha: There's still a lot to do but there is an increasing number of people who are helping spread the message. Organizations like Boricuá, CLOC, Via Campesina are in a continual educational process, spreading the message. On a personal level, I believe that it is best for people to grow as much of their own food as possible in order to boycott and avoid the GMO industry.
Anne: We are continuing to organize and develop our community leaders who are on the frontlines of impacted communities and find opportunities for them to develop their leadership. That led us to develop another area of our work which we call ‘reclaiming democracy’ because what we found is that the industry has such a hold on our local government and elected officials, that it’s almost impossible to pass any legislation regulating the industry at all. There’s a tremendous need to get fresh blood into our local government and to encourage people who are not part of the status quo to step up and run for local government. So we started a candidate's training program that includes leadership development, campaigning skills, some community organizing skills. So again trying from another angle — how do we encourage people that want to make a difference in their local community to step up and enter local government and try to run for office? It is a nonpartisan program and we can’t endorse any of the candidates but we can at least provide skills and training.
Magha: Puerto Rico needs allies outside of our island to help us denounce the atrocities, abuses and severe risks of the agro-biotechnology industry. Puerto Rico is in the middle of a complex financial crisis. The current debt is $73 billion. The U.S. Congress and the U.S. Justice Department decided that we have to pay a debt that was created by our government. Since we are a non-incorporated territory we cannot claim bankruptcy. In order to find a solution to this “crisis,” they imposed a Fiscal Board that will govern our country. This board has absolute control over the finances and many other financial and business issues. Their main purpose is to make sure that the investors will get their money back by all means possible. Meanwhile the only ones investing in Puerto Rico are the biotechnology corporations. Last week, Bayer of Puerto Rico announced that they are investing $17 million to remodel their main branch and create a new one. Monsanto is also consolidating and investing more in their facilities located in the South of the island. We have no doubt that the 11 biotechnology corporations will be fully protected by this board.
Anne: The most heavily impacted communities happen to have the highest density of Native Hawaiian residents. I think they have been some of the most powerful voices, especially Native Hawaiian mothers like Malia Chun on Kaua‛i who’s been a really vocal critic of the industry and a very powerful voice. A lot of companies claim to be these major job providers but actually it’s a pretty small amount. You talk to plenty of Hawaiians over there and they all just say that [the jobs that are created] are not worth the contamination of our land; we have to look more long-term at the future of āina. The seed company has been really successful in using this issue to drive a wedge in our community and there’s this ‘don’t rock the boat’ mentality — “don’t threaten your jobs, don’t make waves.” That’s why voices like Malia and other mothers who are Native Hawaiian are so important in the movement. And stepping up in our small communities is really challenging. I think here is where relationships are so important. People don’t like to jeopardize relationships or talk out against their neighbor, so people are very reluctant to speak out about the industry publicly. The ones who do put themselves out there become exhausted and it takes a toll. Also, there have been cases where people have stepped forward and shared their stories and were not happy with the media’s use of their story.
On the north shore of Kaua‛i, we have a lot of organic farms and generative farming practices and then the west side is literally like a food desert. So there are folks on the west side — like one of our board members, Josh Mori, and some of his partners who are trying to start a youth farming initiative. Similarly there’s an organization on Oahu called Ma‛o Farms which has a similar mission of youth leadership development, growing the next generation of farmers, and trying to create pathways in local agriculture. There’s definitely work happening; it’s just hard because those projects tend to be relatively small and we don’t have the political will to incentivize them or to get them on state land. So even though there’s discussion at our county and state level of increasing food production, it seems like the policy has to catch up to our goals of increasing food production. Meanwhile, there are a lot of people just kind of doing it — just trying to create the solutions outside of working with government. I think we could be doing a lot more to incentivize that here. For instance, last year we hosted a food justice summit, with the help of the Pesticide Action Network, where we brought together four women working on food sovereignty projects and battling the impacts of the agrichemical industry in their home countries to speak about their struggles and lessons learned and to share and exchange with Hawaiians and with the local food movement here. That was really powerful. I think that it’s helpful to share what’s happening in Hawaii because people think of Hawaii as this tropical paradise where you come for your honeymoon. Yet we are ground zero for pesticide testing. Pesticides are actually going into the water here, this pristine beauty that we think is Hawaii is actually not the case; our ecosystems are in distress and sharing that message is really important.
This is the second article of the series “People’s Agroecology”, written by Blain Snipstal, a returning generation farmer in Maryland, at Black Dirt Farm. Blain is a youth member of the global movement La Via Campesina International. As part of the continuation of the Campesino a Campesino Agroecology Encounter led by farmworkers in the US, Blain visited four of the leading organizations in this effort to learn more about challenges and current practices to advance their goals through Agroecology.
“Our work is grounded in the larger political and social struggle for equality, dignity and self-determination of indigenous citizens, migrants and border communities on the U.S.-Mexico border…” Alma Maquitico, 2015
This history of labor in the food system is long and vast; from its beginnings with indentured Irish servants, then onto enslaved African peoples for over 200 years and to present day with laborers primarily from México, Central America, Haiti and other parts of the Caribbean. Today, as was before, the experience of labor in the food system, specifically that of farmworkers, holds a central importance to understanding the true nature of our food system, and the needs and visions for what the alternatives are, and how agroecology is being built and used on the ground.
As part of this series, we are amplifying the experiences, visions and actions of each participating organization. Three of the four organizations, Community-2-Community (C2C), Farmworker Support Committee (CATA), and the Farmworkers Association of Florida (FWAF), are farmworker-led, with Boricua (Puerto Rico) being primarily a small-scale farmer’s organization. This “part 2” of this series will go into detail about the various elements that are being evaluated, studied and integrated into their organizing efforts around agroecology. This piece will then share examples and experiences of those elements in action.
Political and Social Formation: the basis to organizing and scaling-out Agroecology
“Training is always connected to the objectives of the social movement - in the case of the MST, the struggle for land, agrarian reform and social transformation. In order to construct those objectives, what type of person do we need to struggle for land, agrarian reform, and social transformation? Training is an integral process where it includes production, education – how can we construct a new society without people that can’t read and write? In the training, we need to understand how the systems of oppression function and the human relations.” Janaina Stronzake, MST–Landless Workers Movement
From the experience of social movements that form the International Peasant Movement – La Via Campesina, a variety of forms, techniques and methodologies have been in development to equip rural peasant, indigenous and farmworker activists with the tools to address the complex issues they face. The organizations that are highlighted in this series organized a study-group to deepen their understanding of agroecology and political training and situate it in relation to their current work. The inspiration to form this study-group came out of the 1st Campesino-a-Campesino Agroecology Encounter that was organized by the Farmworkers Association of Florida and the Rural Coalition – both are members of La Via Campesina North America. This group of four organizations – C2C, CATA, FWAF and Boricua, is informally referred to as “El Grupo de Formación en Agroecologia” or the “Group of Training in Agroecology.”
Formación is translated literally into English as training or formation. It involves a deeper social vision of strategy that refers to the construction of a better human being through “critical reflections and actions” (McCune, Reardon & Rosset, 2014). This form of training is centered upon the constant and consistent elevation of the political and critical consciousness of activists and leaders. Formación, or formation as it is conceived of here, is not an intellectual exercise based on expounding upon theories or a-political ideas. This form of deeply political and cultural training is suggesting that, as stated by Paulo Freire, “the more radical the person is, the more fully he or she enters into reality so that, knowing it better, he or she can transform it”. This form of training is often structured, or systematized, as a methodology that combines many influences – history, gender, ecology, organizing, food production, etc. The core of this form of training is centered upon the lived experiences of a given base-community and the cultural and political values they identify that are central to transforming their contexts.
In relation to this understanding of political and cultural training, the organizations highlighted in this series, sought to merge this form of training with their deepening understanding and use of agroecology. As a result, they utilized a concept and methodology developed by La Via Campesina called Formación Agroecologica or Agroecological Formation - a political and cultural formation process, in conjunction with agroecological practices and techniques. (McCune, Reardon & Rosset, 2014; Snipstal, 2015). This particular practice and methodology was centered throughout the 1st Campesino-a-Campesino Agroecology Encounter in Florida, in 2015, and with the formation of this group, was taken to the next level so as to move closer to integrating these concepts within their respective organizations.
Within this formation, the organizations planned a series of learning calls with accompanying articles to be read prior. Each call was led by various members of the group, in conjunction with visiting leaders and technicians from various movements within La Via Campesina. They covered themes like popular education, feminism and gender, farmer-to-farmer methodology and more, to give a broad stroke view from critical and leading farmer-based perspectives and efforts in relation to agroecology, human rights and political training. The themes also provided concrete and real-world examples to examine and place next to the experiences of each organization in order to draw similarities and see ways to integrate the learnings into action. This experience was viewed as a virtual and tele-based expression of the farmer-to-farmer methodology. On the ground the seeds of this multi-year process are starting to sprout and take root within the various communities of each organization- all of whom have been engaged in agroecological movements for 5 years to over 30 years. The agroecology encounter and the experience of the “Grupo de Formación en Agroecologia” are seen as culminating moments and processes that are helping to take the historic struggles of each organization into the next phase through the elaboration and use of a socially, culturally and politically-centered agroecology – a People’s Agroecology (Agroecologia Popular in Spanish).
At the base
“We understand agroecology as a series of agricultural principles that have been in existence and practiced by communities throughout millenary times. But it is also a series of political principles that allow communities to develop collective consciousness about restoring bodies, families, communities, and the land in which they live.” – Alma Maquitico, excerpt from WhyHunger’s “Agroecology: Putting Food Sovereignty into Action”
Each organization is very active, dynamic and strategic about the nature and depth of their work, and what is at stake for the base that they are accountable to and organized by – farmworkers and small-farmers - and have developed models of organizing that have come out of their respective historic struggles. Drawing from the richness that each organization has to offer, below are several chosen examples of agroecology and formacion in action that were lifted up during the site visits with each organization. The themes are organized within two frames – understanding power and building power.
Understanding Power: Dignity, Revalorizing Traditional and Local Knowledge, and the Leadership of Women
“For me, people’s agroecology -- what’s important -- is to return to our roots of our past ancestors, to rescue all of the values that we had before.” Linda Leon, FWAF Board Member, Homestead, Florida
Out of the dynamic visits with each organization, there were several strong currents that flowed through each organization and their efforts to construct and advance their models of agroecology. These currents include the centrality and leadership of women, valuing and systematizing traditional-local knowledge, and bringing dignity back to agricultural labor and rural life.
The Farmworkers Association of Florida (FWAF) is one the largest members of La Via Campesina North America. At 37 years of age, its standing and history within the farmworker community in Florida – and nationally, is well known. Since the early 2000’s, the organization has been developing various agroecological gardens among its five geographic areas of work – Pierson, Fellsmere, and Florida City/Homestead. These efforts culminated in 2015, with the first agroecology encounter in the southeast amongst Farmworker organizations (La Via Campesina, 2015).
FWAF has a rich and broad base of members and leaders, representing Haiti, Mexico, Guatemala, and El Salvador. Within and amongst the agroecological projects they have underway, one can find a richness in the amount of ancestral and traditional knowledge in natural medicines, uses of plants and how to plant in harmony with nature.
At their Homestead location, they currently have two growing spaces or, as Claudia Gonzalez shares, “parcelas” (plots) – one just adjacent to their office, and another one acre plot down the road. At the experimental plot just adjacent to their office, which they call the “Huerto Familiar Agroecologico” or the Agroecological Family Garden, they germinate their seeds for transplanting, plant their medicinal and trial crops, and experiment with various biological teas and plant-based fertilizers to enhance the vitality of their plants and the soil. As you walk through the “Huerto” you may need a tour guide, for the majority of the medicinal and culinary herbs they have are native to their respective home countries of Mexico, Guatemala and Central America.
The leadership that surrounds both garden plots, and more broadly the leadership in Homestead, is intergenerational and made up of predominantly women. When asked about this, Elvira Carvajal, the lead organizer in Homestead, shares: “…change for our community, especially for our families - that is the significance of agroecology. A transformation, a change in our food ways, which is what’s significant for me. And in our gardens to recognize the participation and work of women, who are the majority in our gardens.”
Throughout the site visits, it was clear that the leadership and visions of women is fundamental to the agroecological processes happening amongst the organizations. In each case, especially that of FWAF, the various projects and initiatives at the organizational level and in respect to agroecology was being driven by women. This particular point is critical, given historic persistence and many forms of gender-based violence and violence against women that permeates all aspects of our society and our food system, inside and outside of our homes. The centrality of women – their visions, direction and support, is a basic pillar in the scaling-out of agroecology, and more broadly the transformation of society. For without their leadership - which shines a spotlight on patriarchy, we can be assured that our social movements, will not truly be transformative and challenge the relations of power within the food system, our communities and society at large.
The Farmworker Support Committee (CATA), is based out of Southern New Jersey, with offices in Maryland and Pennsylvania. CATA was founded in 1979 by migrant farmworkers. It started with Puerto Rican farmworkers, and now has members from Mexico and Central America. They organized themselves to “empower and educate farmworkers through leadership development” (CATA, 2015). According to CATA, there are an estimated 20,000 – 25,000 farmworkers in Southern NJ, living in 300-400 farm labor camps and rural communities. Their members provide the labor for the blueberry, tomato, fruit and mushroom industries through New Jersey, Maryland and Pennsylvania.
CATA utilizes the Paulo Freirean methodology of Popular Education. They describe this as – “the theory that everyone has knowledge and experience that shapes their understanding of topics and that serves to create a better understanding for the entire group. Steps are consciously taken to see (look at a situation), to judge (measured against common understanding of how things should be), and to act (making collective decisions on how to respond)” (CATA, 2015).
This methodology, which is a basic tenet within political formation and agroecology, gives critical space for exploration and valorization of one’s own knowledge and the knowledge, experiences and wisdom of their traditions and ancestors. This is so vital, especially for the masses of black and brown folk within the food system today and historically, that have had their customs, ways of knowing and culture dehumanized, devalued, appropriated and abused by the interests of capital and agribusiness. Giving space for dignity and value to meet, truly builds power and love for ourselves, which cannot be ignored as a vital aspect to the methodology of agroecology – particularly amongst farmers of color and farmworkers.
During the site visit with CATA, members were participating in a dynamic workshop on medicinal herbs and traditional plant-based knowledge. It was a beautiful exchange of wisdoms and ways of knowing. For within the migrant farmworker experience, the path for agroecology must rely upon their traditional wisdom and knowledges from their places of origin (or homes), as they interact and find ways to adapt and infuse them into their current contexts. In this sense, political formation in agroecology within the migrant farmworker experience is a path based upon and towards resiliency.
As Katia Ramirez, one of CATA’s field organizers shares on her reflection of the intersections that exist between Agroecology and Formation:
“Agroecology and formacion is a way for these people to revive their culture and practices [that have been lost] due to extreme poverty…Because our current food system doesn’t give workers the opportunity to have access to healthy nutritious food due to the cost and low wages, our community gardens is the basis where CATA members have the opportunity to grow their own food using ecological methods and also by putting their knowledge into practice…Not only is agroecology reflected in the way people grow their food but also how they cure and handle their illnesses. CATA works a lot with the undocumented community who also do not have access to good health insurance due to their [immigration] status. Therefore, they have to find alternatives and ways to take care of themselves and their families. I can then say that agroecology is also reflected through natural herbal medicine. It is quite interesting how the many ways and practices people have known for many generations is now being described with all these technical words.”
Building Power: Leadership and Systematization
As we tease out a popular experience of agroecology in the US and Puerto Rico – a Peoples Agroecology (Agroecologia Popular) -- and ground it the real experiences of folk on the ground, the basics of mass social struggle hold true – building power from the base out is the starting point. To that effect, the process of building power within agroecology, or through agroecology, will ultimately be based upon the methods, models and ways we are able to scale-out and massify our proposal for a radical shift in the dominant agricultural paradigm, the industrial model of production and the relations of power throughout the entire agricultural model.
Community-2-Community Development (C2C) is based out of Bellingham, Washington. It was founded in 1980, by a group of women who were leaders in the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador. During the 80’s, Bellingham was a national hub of organizing against the US intervention in El Salvador. Initially during that time, C2C was a fundraising organization to support the livelihoods and work of rural peasants and rural communities in El Salvador. After years of activity, the organization went dormant in the late 90’s and early 2000’s. After years of working with United Farmworkers, Rosalinda Guillen returned home to Bellingham in 2002, with the “full intention of forming a women-led non-profit” (Guillen, 2015).
Prior to reviving C2C in the early 2000’s, she visited Porto Alegre, Brazil for the World Social Forum and met various organizations and social movements, like the Movement of Landless Workers (MST). This trip was very influential and timely as she was exploring the ways to best merge the various theories and forms of organizing that came out of the farmworkers struggles, with more collective and women-led forms of leadership. While she was in Brazil, leaders of the MST pulled her aside and shared with her “that any organization that was going to form, should be 50% women leadership.” She went on to share that, “they were clear that society and the whole planet were on a cycle, that it was time for the feminist and the eco-feminist part of humanity to step forth and lead….and that we should really look at developing organizing models that were led by women, and that feminist and eco-feminist principles were built into the organizing” (Rosalinda, 2015).
C2C takes their form of leadership – collective, and led by women -- into their organizing work supporting farmworkers throughout Washington State. They work very closely with Familias Unidas por La Justicia, which is a newly formed farmworker union made up of roughly 300 members. Familias organized in 2013 in response to decades of wage-theft and abuses while working for the Sukuma Brothers Farms (Why Boycott, 2015). Together, C2C working with Familias Unidas launched the Boycott Sakuma and Driscolls campaign, which merges the nation’s largest retailer and distributor of berries – Driscolls, with the Sakuma Brothers Farms, who sell to Driscolls. This campaign is international for, with the support of C2C, Familias Unidas was able to make contact and build with “La Alianza de San Quintin,” which is the organization of farmworkers based in Baja California that formed after going on strike against the oppressive conditions they faced picking berries for Driscolls, as well.
C2C, when asked about formacion and how they organize, shared simply “our formacion is through action. We just do it.” They offer a strong critique of traditional social justice non-profits and organizations that don’t truly work with leaders that are most affected by the injustices of the industrial food system. Rosalinda shares that they follow an action-oriented organizing approach and apply that in their work to build food sovereignty and agroecology. In relation to food sovereignty, she shares that, for them, “food sovereignty is about supporting autonomous movements and their leaders to see and understand themselves…to foster autonomous movements.”
In this exploration of what is a “People’s Agroecology”, we find that there are aspects that do not pertain to the ecological aspects of agroecology alone, and speak more to the social and political dynamics. C2C, highlights this quite well. If food sovereignty is the house, then agroecology is the foundation. C2C’s relationship to building that foundation is shown through innovative organizing approaches and structures.
La Organizacion Boricua de Agricultura Ecologica, is one of the more prominent and active leaders of the agroecology movement in Puerto Rico. With over 25 years in existence, Boricua is an organization with a broad base of farmers, activists, youth and urban supporters. Boricua is the only La Via Campesina member in Puerto Rico, it differs from the other organizations in this inquiry in that it is not a farmworker-based organization. The organization was founded by a core group of small-scale ecological farmers and activists. The core, the heart of the organization is the identity of the “peasant,” which in Puerto Rico are called “Jibaros.” Jibaros were/are those peoples who live from the land, cultivate it and develop a distinct cultural identity. One finds this identity throughout the membership and “feel” of the organization.
Boricua, utilizes a farmer-to-farmer methodology that they call Brigadas in Spanish, or brigades in English. Each month, a weekend or two is selected as a work-day. Various supporters and other members travel to said farm and spend the morning working and getting done whatever it is they need to get done. After a communally prepared “potluck” lunch, people transition into a “conversatorio” – which is a popular education tool used to stimulate and exchange ideas around a particular topic. Each brigade will have a different theme, with topics ranging from technical themes like soil and plant health, to more political and social themes like the push of GMO’s on the island, relation of US colonialism and agroecology on the island, etc.
Another area that Boricua has made advances in is the systematization of local ecological and cultural knowledge and values, and political training into a curriculum. An example of this is with the “Proyecto Agroecologico Josco Bravo” or the Josco Bravo Agroecological Project.
Josco Bravo has a 3-month course that trains people in various technical and political aspects under their formation of agroecology. This is roughly structured as 60% practical and hands-on training and 40% theory and political training. Upon completion of their 3-month course, participants graduate into “promoters of agroecology”. This is designed to give identity and distinction to the graduates as they are tasked with promoting agroecology within their communities, and strengthening the process within the organization of Boricua.
This form of training, which comes from the systematization of Boricua’s experience, is fundamental in the transmission and movement of agroecology amongst people. When we speak of scaling-out or “massifying” agroecology, we are talking about “how” agroecological movements transmit and spread their reach amongst broad swaths of the food system and society at large. This means the spread of agroecological farming practices amongst farmers, farmworkers and food producers more broadly, as well as the spread of ideas, systems and mechanisms designed to allow agroecology to flourish. Systematization, developing curriculum and trainings, training farms and schools, having brigades and “conversatorios” are all examples of ways to successfully build the movement for agroecology, and for food systems transformation.
In this short overview of the various examples of leadership and systematization as being enacted by these organizations, we find more elements to be considered in this current moment of the development of agroecology.
Implications for the debate around agroecology in the US
“I think as organizations that are doing this Food Sovereignty work, which I think is one of the most important political moments today….in the United States, our food producing system is at a time of great power in creating great peril for all of us, and destruction of the earth. And it has reached a certain level that is really dangerous but there’s still possibilities for creating change that would be marvelous for everybody. In order to move towards those changes, we will have to let go of our old styles of organizing, I believe.” Rosalinda Guillen, C2C
This political moment, where the context is at a critical juncture, with a clear need to have a comprehensive and aligned movement to confront industrial agriculture and agribusiness, the centering of the experiences of frontline and leading organizations and groups – representing farmworkers, farmers, indigenous peoples, and food system workers of color is critical.
The voices and experiences offered in this piece, begin to give us a framework that grounds the debate around agroecology in the US. These points, summarized below, highlight dynamic aspects and values from leading organizations which, if centered into the current evolution of agroecology in the US, could bring the movement to a tipping point:
This second part of the series on People’s Agroecology, served to amplify the experiences of each of these organizations in order to introduce critical and real perspectives from efforts and actors that have been historically marginalized in the development of the food system, and even throughout the recent debates around “alternatives” to confront industrial agriculture and agribusiness.
Our struggle, the Peoples’ struggle, is a matter of inclusion. That is, including the most amount of people in the political and social process of agroecology, and of centering the diverse perspectives of frontline groups actively transforming the food system from the base out. What we find in this dialogue of knowledges is that agroecology and food sovereignty/food justice, if removed from the voices and interests that they were created to represent, will only leave us movements and intentions that are hollow. For ultimately, agroecology is not just a question of more ecological and harmonious models of production alone. It is, ultimately, an organizing question - How will the most marginalized sectors of the food system be supported to take their rightful place as food system leaders and lead us in massifying and building-up agroecology?
“I feel that that’s the revolution; a just way to live, a way in harmony with not just with the environment—with people, with everything around us because we are nature, we are a part of nature. Agroecology for me represented the most harmonious way to create that way of life.” - Josué Lopez
On November 11th to 13th, social activists and farmers from La Via Campesina member organization Organización Boricuá de Agricultura Ecológica de Puerto Rico, El Proyecto Agroecológico El Josco Bravo, and other activist collectives organized the Campamento Agroecológico de Formación Política [Agroecological Encampment for Political Formation] at the Siembra Tres Vidas farm in the mountainous municipality of Aibonito, located one hour south of San Juan, Puerto Rico. The encampment’s 25-plus participants brought activists and farmers involved in agroecology projects throughout the island, as well as participants in other social struggles, such as the Campamento Contra la Junta and Jornada Se Acabaron Las Promesas. I participated in the three-day encampment as a representative of WhyHunger, to develop our understanding of the current context in Puerto Rico and to learn more about the organizing work happening on the island around agroecology.
The goal of the encampment was to bring people together to work and learn with one another and study agroecology as a tool of struggle within the current political context. The methodology of the encampment consisted of farm work in the mornings, followed by facilitated discussions on topics including the agrarian history of Puerto Rico, agroecology as a tool for social struggle and gender dynamics within social movements. Those facilitated discussions were followed by more informal conversations around a campfire, during which the participants further discussed ideas generated throughout the day. Tasks such as cooking and cleaning were shared among teams of participants during the encampment, and one team also assumed the task of note-taking during discussions. Towards the end of the process, they synthesized the ideas generated into a draft declaration that was then edited and approved by the encampment’s participants.
I had the great privilege to listen and participate in the rich dialogue and debates that took place that weekend. In thinking about how the conversations in the encampment compared to similar conversations I’ve participated in the U.S., I noticed that, similar to the way many conversations and work around food justice, food sovereignty and agroecology are grounded in an analysis of how U.S. historic and structural settler colonialism and racism have shaped and continue to manifest in the food system today, the conversations during the encampment about the need for agroecology were grounded in Puerto Rico’s history and current status as a colony and their own struggles for self-determination and decolonization.
That history begins with the Taíno indigenous people, who cultivated root crops like cassava, sweet potatoes, squash and corn in mounds called conucos. With the brutal colonization of the island of Borinken by the Spanish in the late 15th century, many Taínos fled to the interior of the island as the Spaniards introduced plantation-style agriculture in the lowlands. This form of agriculture was dependent on the labor of enslaved Taínos and Africans to produce crops to export to the Spanish Empire’s metropole. With the acquisition of Puerto Rico by the United States in 1898 following the Spanish-American war, the focus on the production of cash crops (sugar, coffee, tobacco) for export continued, with little support for jibaros/as, the islands peasant farmers who mostly farmed the mountainsides. Following World War II, small-scale agriculture in Puerto Rico declined further. Largely unable to access land and credit, neglected rural populations migrated to the newly industrialized cities in Puerto Rico and the United States in hopes of better opportunities and higher salaries. The introduction of the food stamp program in the 1970s transformed the diets and consumption patterns of Puerto Rican consumers, who began purchasing more imported and processed food at supermarkets rather than from local markets. Today, more than 80% of food consumed on the island is imported.
These processes resulted in the mass exodus from the mountains and the disconnection of many in the subsequent generations from the land and agriculture, and well as the widespread loss of jibaro/a growing techniques and peasant seeds. Luckily, a back-to-the-land movement similar to that of the United States grew in the 70s and young people returned to the mountains to start organic farms. Many of these folks built relationships with the few remaining peasant farmers and learned how to farm Puerto Rico’s tropical mountainsides. Those returning farmers and the jibaros/as they learned from now make up Organización Boricuá’s most senior members.
(Photo of the Huerta Resistencia in at the protest camp San Juan against the junta. Among other things you can see okra, basil, lemongrass, oregano and a small papaya tree growing)
At over 25 years old, Organización Boricuá has played a huge role in growing the agroecology movement in Puerto Rico. Through Boricuá’s network, farmers and other supporters of agroecology organize monthly work parties to provide support for farmers across Puerto Rico. Additionally, Boricuá has been able to mobilize in support of campaigns such as resisting Monsanto’s presence in Puerto Rico, as well as the successful fight to prevent the spraying of the Naled insecticide throughout the island in response to Zika. Members of Organización Boricuá promote agroecology through exchanges, events, and trainings, such as the training program offered by El Proyecto Agroecológico El Josco Bravo. A number of encampment participants had gone through that training program and were actively looking to establish farms, yet they encountered many of the same barriers that exist for many beginning farmers in the U.S.; issues with land access, financial barriers, and a lack of support from the government.
One participant, Josué Lopez, had recently started a cooperative farm and hoped his experience would inspire others. He and some friends who had been involved in Puerto Rico’s student strikes in 2010 and 2011 became interested in agroecology as a way to achieve food sovereignty for Puerto Rico, and as new way to live; “I feel that that’s the revolution; a just way to live, a way in harmony with not just with the environment—with people, with everything around us because we are nature, we are a part of nature. Agroecology for me represented the most harmonious way to create that way of life.” Josué and his friends, who didn’t have much money, pooled their resources and purchased some land to start a farm; “it’s a difficult landscape, but that gives us inspiration, you know? Because it’s what we can do . . . the perfect conditions will maybe never arrive, and if we sit around waiting for the perfect conditions to build our revolution, I think it will never happen. We create the conditions. And if we can give this example of working that land and living there and making an agroecological project that teaches in those conditions, no one has any excuses.”
The farm was created for the participants personal consumption and to sell surplus to meet their living costs, but Josué was clear to point out that their “vision isn’t necessarily to generate more money than conventional agriculture, but to allow us to require less money in order to live . . . we know we don’t control this monetary system, we know we don’t control this economic system, and if we are totally dependent on this economic system we will always remain enslaved.”
Josué offers a good example of the connections between those involved in the agroecology movement with other social struggles in Puerto Rico.
Like Josué, many of the encampment’s participants had been active in the student strikes of 2010 and 2011 and developed their radical politics through that process. Additionally, many participants in the encampment were also involved in the current protest movements against the PROMESA bill and the federally-appointed fiscal control board (colloquially known as la junta), which has been granted the authority to unilaterally restructure Puerto Rico’s finances in the wake of the debt crisis. Given the recent developments regarding the PROMESA bill, I was expecting the current debt crisis to be a central theme of the discussions. However, I came to understand that to many of the participants, the junta was not understood as a completely new situation for Puerto Rico, but merely a more explicit manifestation of Puerto Rico’s colonial status and the continuation of the process of colonization that began over 500 years ago. This analysis was evident when I returned to San Juan and visited the protest camp against the PROMESA bill and the junta in front of the federal court building. Signs, banners, and messages painted on the sidewalk presented their current struggle against the junta within a global narrative of colonialism and anti-colonial struggle. The messages connected the fight for a self-determining Puerto Rico to current struggles against police violence against black, brown, and indigenous people, to the fight of the Standing Rock Sioux and its allies against the Dakota Access Pipeline. In the middle of the camp across the street from the federal court building, protestors had cleared a strip of land in the sidewalk and created a small garden, where they were growing herbs, vegetables and fruit with a sign reading ‘Resistance Garden: for an agroecological Puerto Rico.”
The conversations of the encampment also reflected upon the internal dynamics of the agroecology and other movements. Conversations around the campfire addressed the need for focused outreach to groups whose voices needed to be a part of discussions around agroecology and food sovereignty. Additionally, during discussion on gender and patriarchy, the participants agreed that the participation and contributions of women and non-binary folks to social movements—the agroecology movement included—needed to gain more visibility. During the self-critical conversations of the agroecology movement, many positive attributes were discussed. Magha Garcia of Bosque Jardín Pachamama, made the observation that the agroecological movement in Puerto Rico is the only place she’s seen multiple generations organizing together; “I started as an activist in 1980, 81, and it was always either the young folks or the older folks, each one in their batey [a Taíno word for a gathering or meeting place] as we say in Puerto Rico.” Magha explained that the agroecology movement has produced a historic moment for social struggles in Puerto Rico where she’s seen “two and three generations all sitting and sharing and that has allowed us in some way to draw this social continuum . . . in that sense, now we are sharing the same batey.”
Though the encampment was short, the mixture of group farm work with thoughtful discussions, reflection, delicious shared meals and laughter, created the conditions for the kind political education and relationship-building necessary for developing strong social movements. The encampment left participants (myself included) feeling inspired and renewed, and with a collective statement outlining a shared analysis and steps forward for Puerto Rico’s agroecology movement. In times like this when strong social movements are greatly needed, meaningful processes like Organización Boricuá’s Agroecology Encampment for Political Formation are essential for building and sharing the practice and politics of agroecology as well as building bridges to other social movements.
"Everything the people have comes through struggle." WhyHunger supported the Assembly of the Poor (AOP) through our International Solidarity Fund and went on a site visit to learn from the villagers about their struggle and how they are fighting for food sovereignty. Below is a personal account and pictures from Tristan Quinn-Thibodeau's experience.
When the peasants in Chongtuko village were forced out of their homes and off their farms in 1993, they had nowhere to go. The Thai military wanted their land to use as a training field, and the villagers did not know how to solve their problem. After years of landlessness, they joined the Assembly of the Poor (AOP), a national social movement linking rural peasants and forest dwellers with urban workers and coastal fisherfolk pushing for social justice and food sovereignty. Through AOP, in 1997 they pushed the provincial government to allocate 256 acres of land in the forest for the villagers, who moved in and called their new village Kokedoi.
They set up small farms within the clearings and harvested the wild foods from the forest. They set up a small market along the road, where all of the villagers set up stalls. The villagers, who are peasant farmers and not shopkeepers, had to overcome their shyness and modesty to support themselves in the market. They found out that forest products, which are rare and are hard to harvest, sold really well. Now their market is thriving.
But their success has not come easily. For many years, they faced constant threats and attacks from a logging company that wanted to plant and harvest eucalyptus trees. The company moved in illegally and began to plant industrial eucalyptus on the land where the villagers were growing food and harvesting wild vegetables from the forest. They insulted the villagers and threatened them, and they put pressure on the provincial government to force the villagers out.
The pressure that the villagers were under was so bad that they decided they needed to block the entrance to the forest. In the middle of the night, they moved their entire village – 88 families’ homes – from beside the road to the center of the forest, where the company was trying to cut down the eucalyptus trees. Because of this heroic maneuver, their homes, their fields, and the forest was saved.
It did not come naturally for the villagers in Kokedoi to live in the forest. In fact, when they were first planning their village, some of the families wanted to cut down all of the trees, creating more land for them to plant. But others in the community wanted to protect the forest, and they argued that since so many of the middle class, urban people in Thailand blamed environmental problems on peasants and said that poor people cause deforestation, the villagers of Kokedoi should prove them wrong. They also pointed out that the logging company wanted to destroy the forest, so they needed to protect the forest. They became creative and learned how to sustain themselves from the forest vegetables, the fish that lived in the ponds, and the bullfrogs that lived in the mud and riverbeds.
However, the confrontation with the logging company continued and worsened. At one point, the company even hired assassins to kill the leader of the village, Uthai. Through the support of the Assembly of the Poor, as well as the courage of the villagers, Uthai and the people of Kokedoi survived and held onto their land. They did not give into the pressure, and eventually the assassin actually approached Uthai and told him that he had been hired to kill him but would not go through with it because of the strength and courage of the community. I asked Uthai how he was able to face that danger and what he was thinking. He told me, “I thought about leaving the village, but I realized that this would not solve the problem and would have hurt and weakened the village.” It was only because the people in the village supported him and guarded him that they were able to survive.
They also did it for their kids, to ensure that their children had a good life. If they gave up their land again, they worried what would happen to their kids. Now, they are learning agroecological farming, because chemicals used in industrial agriculture hurt the forest and will kill the forest vegetables. They have traveled to other villages that are members of the Assembly of the Poor, through its Alternative Agriculture Network, and they are experimenting with new crops and new markets.
As I was leaving, the villagers reminded me again the lesson of Kokedoi: everything that they have, they have because of struggle. They showed their flags for the Assembly of the Poor proudly, which hung next to their bustling market.
Hunger is not solved by sympathy or by charity. Hunger and poverty are the results of oppression and powerful interests, and they are only ended when the people who are the most impacted stand up, often in the face of life or death threats, for their human rights and dignity.
WhyHunger is excited to be participating in the upcoming World Social Forum (WSF) in Montreal, where tens of thousands of people from groups in civil society, organizations and social movements will gather to strategize for global social justice. Since it began in 2001, the WSF has been one of the most important convergences in the world for people who want to build a sustainable and inclusive world, where every person and every people has its place and can make its voice heard. This year marks the first time the WSF will take place in North America, and WhyHunger is playing a large role in the Forum, organizing two workshops and bringing together many alliances and networks from across many sectors.
The organizers of the World Social Forum say “Another world is needed. Together, it is possible!” In that spirit, WhyHunger is bringing together many different international and national social movements and alliances to solve problems in the US. We are organizing two roundtables, one focused on the Human Right to Food in the US and the other focused on People’s Agrarian Reform.
It is important to understand hunger as a violation of human rights, because the data shows that people are hungry because the current food regime is focused on making profits, not feeding people. Year after year, the United States overproduces staple grains, yet according to the US Department of Agriculture, over 14% of the households in the US are food insecure. Feeding America – a network of food banks and pantries – estimates that there are currently 48 million people who are food insecure in this country.
The fact that human rights to food is re-emerging in the debate around hunger is a reflection of the fact that families in the Global North are still suffering after the neo-liberal policies and fiscal austerity that followed the 2008 financial crisis. In order to end hunger, we need to protect the human rights of the families facing hunger, which means developing the leadership of farmworkers, farmers, and vulnerable families and learning how to build a national alliance around the Right to Food framework in the US.
This panel will highlight the perspectives of farmworkers, farmers and scholars around the issue of food as a human right in the US. Speakers from Via Campesina – North America, Closing the Hunger Gap, allies, scholars and more will address the opportunities and challenges on how to build a nationwide alliance around the Right to Food framework in the country.
Will you be in Montreal? Join us at the roundtable!
The Right to Food in the United States
Date/time: August 11th, 2016; 1:00 p.m. – 3:00 p.m.
Venue: Université du Québec à Montréal – Pavillon SB (Local SB-M220)
141, avenue du Président-Kennedy. Montréal, QC, Canada
The international peasant movement La Via Campesina organized the International Conference on Agrarian Reform last April, where they brought 130 representatives from 28 countries together to talk about the need for agrarian reform that not only redistributes land to farmers, but ensures that all of society has a healthy and just food system. Via Campesina asks:
“Now we ask, which is better? Do we want a countryside without peasants, trees or biodiversity? Do we want a countryside full of monocultures and feedlots, agrochemicals and GMOs, producing exports and junk food, causing climate change and undermining the adaptive capacity of communities? Do we want pollution, illness, and massive migration to cities? Or do we want a countryside made up of the food producing territories of peasants, indigenous peoples, family farmers, artisanal fisherfolk, and other rural peoples, based on human dignity and diverse knowledges and cosmovisions, with trees, biodiversity, and the agroecological production of healthy food, which cool the planet, produce food sovereignty and take care of Mother Earth?”
We are planning to bring together allies from La Via Campesina, the US Food Sovereignty Alliance, the Grassroots Global Justice Alliance, and the National Black Food and Justice Alliance to learn about the meaning of People’s Agrarian Reform in the context of the global struggle for food sovereignty and climate justice and discuss the challenges and opportunities raised in the International Conference. The speakers will also reflect on how this framework can contribute to the building of a broader alliance between different sectors in the North American context.
Will you be in Montreal? Join us at the roundtable!
People’s Agrarian Reform: What does it mean for North America?
Date/time: August 12th, 2016; 9:00 - 11:30
Venue: Université du Québec à Montréal – Pavillon SB (Local SB-M220)
141, avenue du Président-Kennedy. Montréal, QC, Canada
The WSF is going to be a great opportunity for us to build new relationships and strategize with partners and allies from around the world about critical issues that affect us all. In August we’ll share learnings, pictures, stories and actions with you about our WSF takeaways, so stay tuned!
I had the pleasure of sitting down with 2016 WhyHunger Chapin Awards honoree Raul Amorim, a representative for our social movement partner Brazil’s Landless Workers Movement (MST), while he was in town to learn more about the issues and struggles his organization faces. Raul spoke passionately about the continued fight for agrarian reform, or the redistribution of land to the people for food production, and their right to land. In the below Q & A I hope you gain some insight into the issues that concern Raul and why WhyHunger believes that supporting social movements, like the MST, is key to ending hunger and building a just world. This interview is edited and translated from Portuguese.
1. Tell us a little about yourself and what you do with the MST?
My parents were very involved in the MST, so I’ve had that relationship since I was a child. At the age of 15, I began helping with educational and farming events, but was not fully involved yet. For the past 4 years I have been working with the Youth Collective, organizing against large land ownership, by taking on more responsibility, playing music/guitar during demonstrations, and working to organize on the city, regional and national level. I’m helping to get more youth involved and educated about the MST, and the issues impacting them such as education, farming/food production, racism, violence and sexism, so they know how to defend their rights for better life in the settlements. What affects them, affects others.
2. Why is it important for you to be involved with the MST?
It is in the MST that the youth and peasant farmers find a better perception of the world. It teaches them to go beyond the individual; it brings them into the movement. It is impossible to face the challenges of the world by yourself; you will get frustrated, and realize that you will not gain anything alone. Therefore, the MST creates a community where we bring change together. The MST gives us the tools to face the issues in society and everyday struggles constructively. The MST strives for building a better world. To be in a political organization is like to dream of a source of hope. In the case of the MST, we address issues of feeding the world and building an alliance between workers.
3. Why the focus on land?
Land is a central element for humankind. Land is source and creation. It goes beyond food production. Land creates culture. It’s where we socialize. And unfortunately the fight over land and land disputes takes place because of exploitation among people. The condition of being landless is the main basis of fighting for land reform, democracy and a return to the land. When a relationship to the land is back, it opens the possibility to fight for other things like better education and schools in the communities where we live.
4. What are some of the current struggles or things the MST is pushing for?
There is currently a struggle for agrarian reform. The main goal is to end the concentration and monopolization of land so that more people can have access to it. There must be a transition to agroecology. There are 4 million families in Brazil that are landless, and that must change. It is necessary to fight back the businesses that try to take away our land.
Agrarian reform goes beyond the vision and goal of capitalism. It is our desire to have a new society that includes food production democratization. The opportunity to think about how we produce food and what we produce; and to see food as a basic human right.
We denounce the current coup d'état in Brazil and work to defeat it with large, massive mobilizations. Part of the attack in Latin America is from conservative forces that want to roll out neoliberal policies. They are operated and funded by corporations and corporate media, which select what we hear and read about. That’s why it’s important to build a broad alliance of progressive organizations. To fight against the coup we need the space and power to build a political agenda that benefits the workers. We need more political education, so people can understand the struggles in front of them and more actions to bring together everyone: students, workers, peasants, etc.
5. How can/does WhyHunger act as an ally? Why is that important?
The alliance being between WhyHunger and the MST is a very positive and necessary step to break barriers between people in Latin America and the US. It makes it easier to understand each other’s struggles and recognize common enemies. Can you imagine if our alliance was strong enough to declare a multinational boycott of McDonalds? Denounce a corporation like Monsanto? Allies are very helpful and create learning exchanges so we can share things like best agroecological practices and successful strategies to gain workers’ rights.
6. What do you look forward to in the future?
I’m very optimistic about where we’re going. When you’re going through a storm, like with the coup, it can be difficult to see through it, but what I’m seeing it more people energized to fight. More people are saying that our history has not yet ended, change can come. More people are fighting against capitalism when they learn that there are people like us (the MST) fighting. I think there will be an increased commitment and responsibility to building stronger and larger alliances with partners like WhyHunger, so that we make change happen on a number levels.
7. What is your favorite meal?
I like dishes made with corn. In the Northwest region of Brazil where I’m from, there are a lot of festive activities when harvesting. And I got really happy when I learned that corn is a symbol of Latin America resistance. It represents our strength and energy. A favorite of mine is Brazilian Couscous. It’s made with corn meal and corn flour, and is steamed and rises like a cake.
We truly appreciate Raul’s time and hope you learned something new. Continue learning about the MST and ways you can help here.