Alison Cohen, WhyHunger
By Alison Cohen, WhyHunger’s Senior Director of Program
In July of 2014, WhyHunger traveled to the Dominican Republic to spend time learning from WhyHunger partner CONAMUCA. Founded in 1984, CONAMUCA is the only national women-led social movement in the Dominican Republic promoting the rights of rural women to a dignified life.
Forty percent of the Dominican population lives in poverty, and two million Dominicans are hungry. According to the Food and Agriculture Administration, about eight out of 100 children have irreparable retardation because of the hunger they suffer. Families who earn a minimum wage typically live on 2,500 – 5,000 pesos a month (approximately $125) and have to spend more than three-quarters of that salary on food alone.
In a country of 10 million people, 36 percent of the population lives in rural areas where conditions stand in stark contrast to life in the cities and the tourist outposts along the country’s beautiful coastline. Rural peasants have limited access to basic services – running water, electricity, schools and roads – resulting in a high rate of youth migration to the city or other countries. At almost 15 percent, unemployment is high, with rates climbing higher in rural areas and among women and youth. Add to this the encroachment of agribusiness, mining and tourism on land historically used for household food production and local markets, and the urgency of the CONAMUCA’s organizing work becomes apparent — their engagement in rural areas to ensure that women and families can feed themselves, advocate for themselves, and create their own definitions of a dignified life.
Read on to see stories and photos that illustrate CONAMUCA’s vital work in the Dominican Republic.
For the past few years WhyHunger has been learning from and supporting CONAMUCA’s work to bring about food sovereignty, or the rights for all people to land and the means of food production in order to feed their families and build a local economy. “The only way to end hunger is to create the conditions for people to feed themselves.” – Lidia Ferrer, Director of Mama Tingo Organizing and Training Center.
As Lidia Ferrer, Director of the Mama Tingo Organizing and Training Center and one of the senior organizers for CONAMUCA, explained, “CONAMUCA doesn’t have the resources to address all of the needs of the community – they can’t and don’t want to replace what is the responsibility of the government.” Their principal goal is to help people advocate for themselves. “That is the only way for people to achieve a dignified life,” she says.
CONAMUCA has its origins in the 1970s, when campesina women, fed up with their lack of self-determination within society and their own families, began organizing around issues of access to basic services and land in rural areas and bringing awareness to the violence against women that affected almost all communities and families throughout the Dominican Republic. Here, a mural of the generations of CONAMUCA pioneers is painted at the Mama Tingo Organizing and Training Center in San Cristobal.
The first national assembly was held in 1981, and the organization was officially formed in 1984. Currently, the membership stands at around 10,000 members – all women – organized in 15 federations in approximately 230 communities. In this photo, women living in a village in the mountains near the border of Haiti meet with CONAMUCA senior organizers to study different models of cooperative enterprises as they discuss plans to start a cooperative bakery. CONAMUCA has also worked with this community to bring a gravity-fed water system to the community so that women and children are no longer required to walk several hours a day in order to collect water for drinking, cooking and cleaning.
Mama Tingo (Florinda Soriano) remains CONAMUCA’s godmother and inspiration. A campesina with 10 children who never had the chance to get a formal education, Mama Tingo was a leader of a rural group called the League of Christian Agrarians (Liga Araria Cristiana). The 350 families in the League were struggling to hang on to the land that they were born on and had been farming their entire lives. On November 1,1974, Mama Tingo was assassinated by a local foreman. This local foreman had untied her pigs earlier in the day, and when she went to retrieve them, the foreman was lying in wait for her and shot her twice. She was 58 years old. Mama Tingo’s words and actions are a constant motivation for the women of CONAMUCA: “To take away my land, you will have to take my life. Because the land is my life.”
“For CONAMUCA, achieving gender equity is essential to ending hunger.” – Juana Ferrer, co-founder and senior leader of CONAMUCA
A key strategy of CONAMUCA is the integration of youth. Even though only women can be members of and leaders within CONAMUCA, opportunities for training and capacity building always includes boys and girls, men and women. Further, young women – like Katerina Cabrera, who is the national coordinator for youth activities within CONAMUCA — are always paired with older women in co-leadership roles.
“For youth, the struggle is normal – a part of our everyday lives.” – Katerina Cabrera, national youth organizer (front row, far left). Youth also set their own advocacy goals. Most recently, they have been pressuring the government to provide rural youth with transportation so they can have access to secondary and higher education, which are primarily located in cities. They have also begun occupying national parks to keep the government from selling the land to transnational corporations. The youth see protecting natural resources as a struggle for public health. Cancer has been on the rise in the DR and the youth see it as directly related to the encroachment of industry on land originally set aside for preservation.
Establishing training and demonstration farms in some of the most rural communities has been a central project of CONAMUCA in the past few years. As an organization, they have always promoted sustainable agriculture production and organized against the proliferation of GMO-seeds and mono-cropping. As CONAMUCA has joined the efforts of other social movements promoting food sovereignty, such as La Via Campesina, they have begun to study and practice agroecology as way of producing food, cooling the planet and organizing communities around the social function of land.
Slash and burn is a very common practice among rural subsistence farmers in the Dominican Republic. The study and practice of agroecology is beginning to change that in communities where CONAMUCA is organizing.
Diets are becoming more nutritious as a greater diversity of foods — including citrus, avocados, bread fruit, corn, squash, yucca and spices like paprika – are grown locally on small household farms called “conucos.”
The conuco is the basis for food sovereignty, according to CONAMUCA. To have a conuco is to have the right to produce healthy food and to protect the resources needed to grow food, such as water and soil, to sustain a family for generations.
“[CONAMUCA] helped us organize, and it’s changed our lives.” – a campesina from the Dominican community of Matayaya.