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.
On my first day volunteering with WhyHunger partner AFEDES (Women’s Association for the Development of Sacatepéquez, Guatemala), I visited a community in San Antonio Aguas Calientes with self-proclaimed “agro-eco-feminist” Mercedes Monzón. Held at the home of one of AFEDES’s members, the meeting’s objective was to learn about the low-impact pesticide lime sulfur and to make a big batch for the group of 10 women to share. In one morning, these goals were met and more. We drank mosh (a sweet oat-based drink) followed by a savory atol (a warm corn-based drink) topped with beans and ground pumpkin seed. As we sipped and worked, group members also shared their frustrations and successes, whether it was a sickness affecting their hens or a bountiful harvest of medicinal plants from their herb garden. AFEDES meetings create these safe spaces for women to come together, to get away from their worries at home and to focus on improving their livelihoods.
Although many members of AFEDES have barely finished primary or secondary school, they keep attendance, minutes, financial records, and plan for their futures. Women in rural communities form organized groups and elect their own presidents, treasurers, and promoters, who become leaders, supporting their compañeras in anything from taking legal action against domestic violence to learning new weaving techniques. These groups later report to the general assembly at AFEDES, which also has its own leadership structure. This dynamic builds networks of solidarity among women within and across communities. I found this especially powerful in a world where women are taught to compete against each other rather than work together.
Olga Zet, vice president of AFEDES, shows support for the Weaver’s Movement.
After wrapping up in San Antonio, we headed to Santiago Sacatepéquez, home of AFEDES headquarters, where we found the office staff in a workshop on bio-energy. I certainly did not expect to receive a chiropractic adjustment on my first day as a volunteer, but I happily obliged after a two-day bus journey through the mountains of Chiapas and Guatemala. After our adjustments, a naturopath led us through a series of energy-balancing processes to center our minds and bodies. Even though I had quite literally just met everyone in the room, I felt a certain unity and connection as we flowed through the different energy centers of our bodies.
Milvian Aspuac, director of AFEDES, later explained to me that workshops like this are part of the holistic approach the organization takes towards building autonomy among indigenous women and their communities. This vision of autonomy includes physical, political, and economic facets of life. For example, reclaiming women’s health, both physically and spiritually, is one of the important pillars of physical autonomy. AFEDES is also guided by the principle of Utz’ K’aslemal, their response as Kaqchikel women to “buen vivir” policies in countries like Bolivia and Ecuador. The ultimate mission is to defend life itself.
Milvian pointed to a large wasps’ nest outside her office window. “We don’t kill these wasps because they are life,” she explained. When there is a march to defend water, AFEDES will be there because water is life. When communities organize against a mining project, AFEDES will be there because land is life. This political clarity is a result of over 20 years of organizing, during which AFEDES has seen many changes in its vision and mission. Through a restructuring process in 2012, the women focused on their core values by asking themselves, “What do we really want?” The answer wasn’t more money or more things, but simply to live well, vivir bien, Utz’ K’aslemal.
With this perspective, elements that might seem disconnected at first soon become inseparable. My first week with AFEDES, I attended a harvest festival and ceremony in the mountains of Chimaltenango and the next day I joined the National Weavers’ Movement in the capitol presenting legal reforms to protect indigenous textile designs (their proposal was accepted in February and is now awaiting approval from the Commission of Indigenous Peoples). Through these experiences, I saw first-hand how women and their communities are organizing and building resilience from the ground up. It’s all part of defending the web of life.
Weaving class at AFEDES headquarters in Santiago Sacatepéquez.
I arrived at AFEDES with an interest in gender and food sovereignty, which began with learning to grow my own vegetables in my mom’s garden and led me to study Human Ecology with a focus in sustainable food systems at College of the Atlantic in Maine. I was especially drawn to AFEDES’s focus on gender and racism in addressing problems in the food system, as a revolution without intersectionality is no revolution at all. What I gained over the six weeks I spent immersed in this community was more than I could have hoped for: I left with a much more complete vision of the kind of world I want to live in and the steps I can take to make that a reality.
As I watched from afar the social movements making waves back home in the U.S., from a pipeline resistance in my home state of New Jersey, to dairy workers organizing for better protections and wages in Vermont, I began to see them all connected in the bigger fight to defend life itself. On many occasions I asked myself, “What would my Utz’ K’aslemal look like without the confines and pressures of capitalism, patriarchy, and racism? What does autonomy mean to me?” I certainly don’t have all the answers, but I think I am beginning to ask the right questions.
“We eat what we plant. What we eat comes from our own labor. It’s healthy,” explained Don Carlos, a Zapotec campesino living in the village of Santa Gertrudis deep in the Sierra Juarez mountains of Oaxaca, Mexico. “Before we ate processed food and we didn’t know what was in it. We are also really blessed to have clean, fresh water.”
Sitting just 40 feet from the fresh flowing mountain water eliciting Don Carlos’ gratitude and eating a nutritious bowl of organic farm-raised Tilapia soup and fresh tortillas, the full impact of the transition back to indigenous food ways he was describing was palpable.
Neon Cruz, another campesino who was born in Santa Gertrudis and began farming at age 12, explained how it used to take him 8 hours a day to cultivate food on two plots of land deep within the lush mountains. First, he would trek 2-3 hours up the mountainside to the nearest market to buy expensive chemical inputs. Then he’d struggle to carry 50 kilos of these agrochemicals on his back as he hiked for two hours on most days from plot to plot to grow his crops, now doused in agrochemicals.
But all of that was before he, Don Carlos and the 30 families living in Santa Gertrudis learned about The Union of the Organizations of Sierra Juarez, or UNOSJO.
On a bright winter morning, the two men joined most of the rest of the villagers in taking a rare break from their daily schedules of planting seeds, cultivating the land, tending to their cows, pigs and fish, cooking, cleaning, and caring for their families to welcome the WhyHunger staff, a group of supporters who are employees of Hard Rock International, and our hosts from UNSOJO to their remote village.
One by one the villagers shared their stories and experiences of working with UNOSJO, an Indigenous-led organization that addresses the critical needs of the local Zapotec families through programs ranging from sustainable food production and women’s rights, to protecting their indigenous territory and providing legal assistance.
Well-known in Mexico and internationally for their pioneering work to expose the contamination of local corn varieties by GMO crops, UNSOJO has been organizing and leading the resistance for years. They’ve taken legal action to block the GMO crop invasion, started local seed banks and encourage farmers to grow traditional varieties of maize. Now they are organizing community-led actions and pushing for legal protections against mega projects, like the hydropower dams, mineral extraction and mining operations being carried out illegally on their territory, which threaten their access to clean water, good soil and their very way of life.
“We are not activists; we are defenders of human rights,” explained Aldo Gonzalez, an Agronomist and leader in UNSOJO’s Indigenous Rights Sector.
To protect indigenous rights, UNOSJO documents abuses to children, women, entire communities and the natural resources they depend on, and offers workshops on the legal, economic, social and cultural rights, like the rights to food and health. They facilitate learning exchanges, farmer-led trainings and provide technical support to build capacity. They work to spread information about actions, threats and opportunities via social media, posters, word of mouth, community radio and a bi-annual magazine they publish. They’ve teamed up with several other local organizations to establish the Collective of Oaxaca and Defense of the Territory as a way to strengthen their collective resistance to the growing threats to their sovereignty.
UNOSJO’s approach is driven by the indigenous collective view of life, where each individual member of the community has “Tequio” or the capacity and responsibility to contribute to the community. Through collective leadership and community organizing they maintain access to the water, land and the resources they need to ensure that everyone can live a dignified life with enough nutritious food to eat. Oswaldo, the coordinator of UNOSJO’s Campesino-a-Campesino program, explained their shared goal of “el buen vivir” or “living well” that defines the indigenous cosmovision of “living well, not better.”
“It’s not a vision of charity; it’s about indigenous autonomy, the indigenous cosmovision,”explained Luz Leila Peres a la Vez, incoming UNSOJO Treasurer. “UNOSJO teaches people new practices to be self-sustaining and less dependent on agrichemicals and commercial seeds, and helps them produce healthy food.”
To illustrate this point, campesino Neon Cruz led our group up into the mountains to view his plots of land and see the benefits of UNSOJO’s partnership up close. Now, with the agroecological practices he has learned, Neon no longer has to buy and lug the heavy agrochemicals around his fields. He only carries a 3-liter spray bottle to disseminate organic inputs – like the supermagro that UNSOJO farmers taught him how to make—which he creates himself, without additional costs, to grow his food.
“There are fewer insects and fungus that attack my crops, now,” explained Neon. “The flavor of the food is better. The grains cook better; they’re less coarse…. I see the results!”
UNOSJO also supported Neon to build a water tank, get a cow and even participate in a shared learning exchange with Brazilian farmers from Popular Peasant Movement (MCP). Now, Neon is teaching others how to use agroecology practices through campesino-a-campesino trainings. This farmer-to-farmer methodology, which relies on shared learning and shared experience, helps to efficiently scale out agroecology across the territory.
As Oswaldo, the coordinator of UNOSJO’s Campesino-a-Campesino program explained, “An agronomist can’t go to a farmer and say ‘you should do this.’ He has no real reference. The farmers have such little resources, they can’t take risks or try new things. But when a farmer has succeeded [for himself], he can teach another farmer.”
Campesina Victoria Cruz, whose corn, beans and squash are layered up the hillside directly above Neon’s plot, explained that, as a single mother, she often relies on offering and receiving help from other farmers in the village. Her Milpa, a plot of land dedicated to the indigenous practice of inter-planting of beans, corn and squash, provides food for her children and space for her to experiment with the agroecological practices she is learning from UNOSJO. She just started growing potatoes, indigenous corn and coffee and, for the first time, is now exceeding production and able to sell in the nearby market in Talea de Castro.
As we finished touring these robust plots dotted across the mountainside and meeting with farmers and their families, the impact of UNSOJO’s support in strengthening the community at Santa Gertrudis was clear.
“We’ve accomplished a lot together as a group,” Don Carlos said with a sense of pride and hope. He told us that the villagers are getting better and better at organizing themselves. They started with organic compost for corn, beans and other plants. Next they began intensive fish farming with tilapia. Then they got the cows. “All of this happened because of UNOSJO’s support.”
Even with the strong social fabric of their community and the partnership of UNSOJO, the villagers are up against real threats. They are working to build international solidarity to amplify the threats from climate change affecting their growing season, multinational companies invading their territory, and spill off from mega projects contaminating their land, water and soil.
“You can help us by sharing stories and letting people know how hard it is to defend the land and territory,” said Oswald.
WhyHunger will continue supporting indigenous communities as they strive to ensure their families can live well.” To learn more about UNSOJO and support their efforts visit http://unosjo.org/
We are excited to continue our powerful Food Justice Voices series in 2017 beginning with El Sueño Americano – The American Dream. Food Justice Voices is intended to amplify the voices and experiences of grassroots leaders that aren’t heard enough, while creating awareness and educating readers on various issues connected to hunger and poverty. El Sueño Americano is no different. In this piece, you’ll hear directly from Kathia Ramirez, organizer and Food Justice Coordinator at CATA (The Farmworker Support Committee/Comité de Apoyo a los Trabajadores Agrícolas) in New Jersey, along with farmworker members of CATA. Kathia is from Los Angeles, CA although her parents migrated from the State of Oaxaca, Mexico where they have a history of working the land. In this piece, Kathia discusses the immigrant farmworker experience in pursuing the American dream, the struggles they face and why the work for food justice is important on many levels.
“Here in the United States, food is produced more as quantity over quality. It is not about whether it is nutritious but rather if it looks "good" on the outside even though it might be tasteless or have been forced to grow in a short period of time. Our food system is dependent on pesticides and paying workers a low wage in order meet the demand for cheap food. This creates a vicious cycle because farmworkers are only able to afford cheap, processed food with little access to healthy, organic produce.” – Kathia Ramirez
Read, download and share this article today!
I will not forget the first time I read Through Her Eyes: The Struggle for Food Sovereignty, WhyHunger’s latest publication that “features a series of dialogues between women organizers, farmers and farmworkers who are fighting for food sovereignty in the face of industrial agriculture and bringing just and sustainable food to their communities.” The minute I opened the booklet, it did not take long before I was fully immersed by the anecdotes, the quotes and the photos of 13 working women. These different women from different parts of the world were coming together not only to share their stories about food sovereignty, but also to educate us on the realities of women in agroecology. From that day forward, I have made it my job to carry an extra copy of the publication everywhere that I go and have shared it with almost everyone, that I have interacted with.
Needless to say, I was very excited to attend WhyHunger’s event launch of the publication at GrowNYC’s Project Farmhouse in NYC. When I arrived to the venue, there were over 100 guests in attendance - students, fellow activists, funders, and community-based organizations. The night began with a wonderful live performance from The Chapin Sisters, who sang two songs, and the evening was moderated by WhyHunger Board Member, food justice activist and farmer Karen Washington. I was excited that I was going to be able put faces to the familiar names and stories I read about since four of the panelists were featured in the publication. The panelists included Chef Pearl Thompson, Kathia Ramirez, Magha Garcia, and Yara de Freitas. Chef Pearl Thompson is currently the Director of the Promise Culinary School at Elijah’s Promise in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Chef Pearl teaches and mentors aspiring chefs and bakers to continue to transform the food system. Kathia Ramirez works as an organizer and the Food Justice Coordinator for the Comité de Apoyo de Trabajadores Agrícolas (CATA – the Farmworker Support Committee). Magha Garcia is an eco-farmer and environmental activist in Puerto Rico, and Yara de Freitas is currently a member of the National Coordination Committee of the Movement of People Affected by Dams in Brazil. Every woman had a different background and experiences that ultimately led to them fighting for food sovereignty.
Throughout the event, Karen Washington asked the panelists questions such as “How does climate change affect the work that you do?,” and “What advice would you give to a young girl who wants to be like you?” The discussion ranged from the fight for the $15 minimum wage in the culinary field to the idea of seed-saving to preserve crops for future generations, all of which are interconnected within the food justice movement. For me, the most impactful part of the night came when the women were asked how they would change the male-dominated narrative and to discuss the ways in which women have been instrumental in agriculture. In response, Chef Pearl stated, “It’s really important for me to make sure that women feel empowered within the field that I teach in. How do you get women to stand up to a patriarchy that is oppressing them on a daily basis? So for me, that's my job...to take marginalized folks - and in this case the larger percent of them are women - and to educate them...to scream, to yell, to demand the human rights that they are entitled to on this planet.”
The four panelists not only moved me by their stories and their touching words, but inspired me to do better, despite any obstacles I may face because of my gender. As Kathia Ramirez said, “we all must defeat the big 3 - colonialism, capitalism, and patriarchy,” to ensure that all women can advance and feel valued in their fields.” Both the event and the publication has made me feel more empowered and in solidarity with other women. It also exposed me to the realities that women battle on an everyday basis in trying to obtain local, nutritious food.
If you haven't read WhyHunger’s Through Her Eyes: The Struggle for Food Sovereignty yet, you can do so here and please share the publication on your social media accounts to celebrate Women’s History Month!
Cataydra Brown is currently a Communications Volunteer at WhyHunger. She is majoring in Law and Society and double-minoring in Africana Studies and Gender Studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Cataydra is very interested in the intersection of race and gender, and how it systematically affects the lives of people around the world.
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.
“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.
This is a repost of an article originally written and published by GRAIN.
Could your pension be pushing small farmers off their land?
Around the world, farmers are losing their lands, often violently, to large companies and speculators who see farmland as a lucrative investment. But what are the complex mechanisms behind these processes? Could your pension fund be contributing to land grabbing in places like Brazil?
This animated video shows how a global farmland fund, managed by US financial giant TIAA-CREF, used a complex company structure to avoid restrictions on foreign investment in farmland in Brazil. It then acquired lands from a Brazilian businessman who has used violence and fraud to grab large areas of farmland from small farmers and indigenous peoples in the Brazilian states of Maranhão and Piauí. This video is intended to pressure pension funds to publicly disclose the names and locations of the farmlands they have acquired across the world and to stop speculating on farmland.
Struggles over land and resources are intensifying in Brazil, where 150 environmental activists have been murdered since 2012, many of whom were fighting to protect the lands of small farming communities. It is important for us to expose the actors and mechanisms behind this violence and say STOP to farmland speculation and land grabbing.
If you have a pension, contact your pension manager to say you do not want your savings contributing to land grabs and farmland speculation!