Earlier this month, Betsy Garrold, the executive director of Food for Maine’s Future breathed a long, hard sigh of relief. “I sit at my computer with tears of joy running down my face. This has been a six year struggle against the corporate food monopolies to protect and enhance the traditional food-ways in our state,” Betsy reflected in a blog post on The Populist Farmer as news reached her that Maine’s Governor had signed into law LD 725, An Act to Recognize Local Control Regarding Food Systems, or the “Food Sovereignty Law”. This groundbreaking victory for the food sovereignty movement requires the state government of Maine to recognize the authority of municipalities to regulate their local food economies.
This new law protects farmers in communities that have passed a local food sovereignty ordinance from state regulations, as long as they are engaged in face-to-face farm sales. For instance, a small farmer can sell chickens processed on her farm to her neighbors, or serve dairy products at a community event with less red tape. This is a big deal for small farmers and consumers, as state-level food safety regulations that have been crafted under the influence of agribusiness lobbies have made accessing markets difficult for small farmers due to expensive licensing and facility requirements.
At the forefront of this fight has been Local Food RULES, an organization consisting of local chapters of Food For Maine’s Future that worked to draft and pass the first Local Food and Community Self-Governance Ordinance in Hancock County, Maine in 2011. Food for Maine’s Future, a member organization of the National Family Farm Coalition (which itself belongs to both La Via Campesina and the United States Food Sovereignty Alliance) and a longtime partner of WhyHunger, has been organizing for the past 11 years in rural communities to fight for food sovereignty. Local Food RULES and Food For Maine’s Future have helped organizers from municipalities across the state that have wanted to implement their own Local Food and Community Self-Governance Ordinances, resulting in 20 municipalities passing food sovereignty ordinances over the past 6 years.
These ordinances declare the right of those within the municipality “unimpeded access to local food” through direct face-to-face sales and sales and at community social events (food for wholesale or retail markets outside of its community of origin are excluded). These policies have helped strengthen local food and farm economies by allowing local farmers and local consumers more direct access to each other. However, towns that passed local food ordinances had been receiving letters from Maine’s Department of Agriculture, challenging the authority of those municipalities outlined in the local food ordinances. Now that the state food sovereignty law has been passed, those challenges are expected to cease.
This fight for a decentralized, locally-controlled food system in Maine was galvanized by the case of Dan Brown, a small farmer from Blue Hill, Maine, who was sued by the state in 2011 for selling raw milk at his farm stand without proper licensing or facilities that would’ve cost him to tens of thousands of dollars. Advocates for food sovereignty asserted that regulations like these, which were designed for larger agribusiness operations, were inappropriate for operations like Dan Brown’s one-cow farm and placed unreasonable barriers for beginning farmers.
Opponents of the state food sovereignty law, which included the large dairy and grocery manufacturer lobbies, used the argument that by not adhering to state regulations, local food ordinances presented a food safety risk. However, organizers have maintained that these small family farmers are feeding their families with the same food they are selling at market; “They know you, you know them and, frankly, poisoning your neighbors is a very bad business plan,” Garrold explained in an interview with the Maine Sun Journal.
This bill, introduced by Senate Minority Leader Troy Jackson and strongly supported by Representatives Craig Hickman and Ralph Chapman, was the fourth attempt at passing a state-wide local food law. Although previous food sovereignty bills had passed both the house and the senate, they did not pass by a large enough margin to prevent them from being vetoed by Republican Governor Paul LePage. This time around, proponents made sure to get veto-proof majority, but were pleasantly surprised when LePage signed the bill into law.
This strategy for building towards food sovereignty provides an exciting model for other food sovereignty activists and organizers to draw lessons from. By organizing local grassroots efforts around municipal and state-level food sovereignty ordinances and legislation, organizers are affirming the “right of peoples to . . .define their own food and agriculture systems.” Organizers found that at the local level, the concept of food sovereignty resonated with people across the political spectrum, who understood that the “one size fit’s all” state food safety regulations designed for large farms and food processors, were actually harming small family farms and beginning farmers. They rallied support around the belief that those within the municipality should define the regulations around face-to-face sales of food as a means of supporting small family farms, local food traditions and sustainable agriculture in rural Maine. Since the bill was signed into law on June 16th, even more municipalities from across Maine have been reaching out to Food For Maine’s Future to support them in passing their own local food ordinances.
When drawing inspiration and lessons from the example of Maine, it’s important to keep in mind that other contexts may not be as conducive to achieving local control over food policy. Maine is a “Home Rule” state, meaning that Maine’s state constitution allows municipalities to amend their charters on any matter, as long as the changes don’t violate state laws or the U.S. Constitution. Organizers have used this as a legal justification for municipal authority over local food policy, which could be more difficult to do in other states. However, strategies similar to this could possibly be part of growing the movement for food sovereignty in the US. Even if one isn’t in a “home rule state”, organizations like the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund have helped to establish “home rule municipalities,” as a strategy to protect worker rights, environmental rights and the rights of nature from corporate exploitation at the local level.
As more of Maine’s municipalities pass their own food sovereignty ordinances, it will be exciting to see the impact these laws will have on local food and farm economies and on the success and spread of agroecological agriculture. We at WhyHunger are excited to see what the next steps will be for Maine’s food sovereignty movement and how other food sovereignty organizers will draw and implement lessons from this exciting process of building food sovereignty from the ground up.
New Food Justice Voices issue out now! Our Food Justice Voices series 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. In Pathology of Displacement: The Intersection of Food Justice and Culture, storyteller, healing practitioner and food justice organizer Shane Bernardo tells his story about how displacement has affected his ancestors and family within the Philippine diaspora, and how he is working to reclaim ancestral subsistence practices that connect him to land, food and his roots. In this piece Shane breaks down what was lost due to colonialism and how we can fight to get it back to truly achieve a real "food justice" movement.
"We grew food in our backyard before it was called 'urban gardening'. For us, retaining our relationship to these foods is a cultural expression and a way to cope with being in a place we are not familiar with, or welcome, for that matter." – Shane Bernardo
Stories of WhyHunger ally the National Fisheries Solidarity Movement (NAFSO), and fishing communities in Sri Lanka. This is the 3rd in a 3-part series of articles on NAFSO and the communities whose rights it defends. Read Part 1 and Part 2.
Part 3: Why WhyHunger Supports Communities Struggling for Food Sovereignty
A few years ago, tens of thousands of Sri Lankan fishermen and their families took to city streets across the four corners of Sri Lanka to protest the Sri Lankan government’s decision to cut a vital fuel subsidy for small-scale fishers, and, more importantly, to remember a fisher leader killed by police two years ago in almost identical protests. Antony Fernando, a 36 year-old fishermen with a wife and two children, was shot by police in 2012 while marching through downtown Chilaw to protest a 30% hike in the price of boat fuel – a shockingly high and devastating increase for fishermen who are just barely getting by.
Back in 2012, the government had raised the price of fuel by 30%, putting hundreds of thousands of small-scale fishing families on the edge of crushing hunger. Boat fuel is one of the main costs fishermen face, and the increase meant that small-scale fishermen essentially had to go out of business because they would have had no way to catch enough fish to pay for the fuel. Fishing families felt like the government had abandoned them to starve.
Rising fuel prices disproportionately affect small-scale fishing families. The big, industrial boats can make up fuel costs with the volume of their catch and their access to export markets. For families whose living is producing food from the land and the sea, small changes in the economy can be devastating. Without the power and support of social movements, these communities would be plunged into poverty or forced to migrate looking for jobs in the garment sweatshops or on the streets as prostitutes.
NAFSO held emergency meetings with community fishery leaders around the country to decide how to respond to these price hikes. The fishing leaders were angry at the government and worried for their communities, and they wanted to organize demonstrations around Sri Lanka to demand the government lower fuel to the older price. During the demonstrations, the police opened fire on the fishermen with guns and tear gas, injuring multiple people and killing Antony Fernando.
Even after these protests and the violence, the government refused to revert to the old price of fuel, but instead offered a fuel subsidy. The subsidy may have kept some families from starving and going bankrupt, but it did not solve the problem. Most fishermen don’t own their boats, so they had to fight with government officials to prove their eligibility for the subsidy, and then in 2014, the government announced they would cut the subsidy, triggering a new round of protests from small-scale fishers.
NAFSO assisted demonstrators again, having received support and protection from organizations and governemnts outside of Sri Lanka, to raise the voices of fishing communities on the fuel issue and to continue pressuring the government to support small-scale fishers in the face of ongoing repression and neglect.
An estimated that 10,000 fishermen and women of NAFSO marched throughout Sri Lanka to protest the loss of the subsidy. Thousands walked through the streets of Chilaw, the home of Antony Fernando, carrying a coffin memorializing the struggles of fishing communities to feed their families with dignity. They stood up for themselves to end their own problems: the systematic marginalization and oppression that produces hunger and poverty.
Social movements like NAFSO build up the power and leadership in the communities so that the most vulnerable in society can be heard and seen and have their rights protected and defended. Social movements are not NGOs or charities. They are based in and led by communities who are traditionally and historically excluded, and create spaces for them to build their own power and dignity so that they can participate democratically. When communities can’t make their voices heard, or when their lives and challenges are made invisible, that is when hunger and poverty flourish, spread, and deepen. When communities are organized, their voices can be heard, their lives can be seen, and their needs are respected as being important.
This kind of courage and intelligence is nourished and strengthened in a social movement like NAFSO. Social movements are rare and special, organizations that make democracy a reality for people that are forgotten, silenced, and invisbilized, and they are so important in the struggle to end hunger. Examples like NAFSO are the reason WhyHunger is dedicated to supporting social movements.
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
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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.