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Rich and Poor Food Producers Plot Way Forward for Food Sovereignty 

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Activists battling for a better deal for the world’s poor food producers say the apparent gulf between farmers and fishers in developed and developing countries may not be as wide as most people think. Small-scale food producers from all over the globe pledged to cooperate following the recent World Forum on Food Sovereignty held in Mali. They’re fighting for the rights of farmers and fishers to be the world’s primary food producers, ahead of large corporations they say are increasingly assuming control of global agriculture. The small producers want food sovereignty, which is defined as food producers’ rights to feed themselves and make profits from their own natural resources, before the food is exported to foreign countries. In the final part of a five-part series, VOA’s Darren Taylor examines what small-scale food producers learned from one another at the Mali conference, and the challenges ahead.  

Carlos Morentes, a social rights activist with the Border Agricultural Workers Project in El Paso, Texas, says he approached the food sovereignty forum in Mali from the perspective of an American migrant farm laborer.

In the battle for food sovereignty, says Morentes, there’s not a big difference between small-scale food producers – including farm workers – in the United States, and those in Africa.

“No money in America and no money in Africa is equal to the same thing: Poverty,” Morentes quips.       

As a coordinator at the Mali conference, Morentes informed his African counterparts of the context in which he operates in Texas.   

“Thousands of Mexicans, mainly poor peasants, are unable to survive in their homeland, so every year they cross the border, to work in the agricultural fields of the United States, where they suffer exploitation, discrimination, all types of abuses, by the large agribusinesses and the food corporations,” he explains. 

And it was during the telling of this story to farmers and fishers in Mali, and his interaction with them, says Morentes, that he began to learn that Africans themselves have a lot to teach food producers in the rest of the world. He especially forged ties with South African delegates.  

“We are interested in the struggle of black workers (in South Africa) against the system of apartheid, because to us, here in the United States, we have a similar system, where certain sectors of society – such as the migrant farm workers – are condemned to suffer to provide the products that the majority of the population enjoy. We will be paying attention to the experiences of the struggles of the African people against these systems of exploitation and discrimination,” Morentes pledges. 

Anna Lappe, the American author of two books on healthy eating, attended the Mali forum as a writer. She does a lot of public speaking in the US, urging consumers to eat organic produce that is grown by small farmers, rather than food mass-produced with “harmful additives” on factory farms.

“What I’ll be telling Americans from now on is that we certainly have a lot to learn from Africans – especially about cohesion. What I saw in Africa is people’s sense of community; social movements in Africa are extremely cohesive - in contrast with those in the developed world. In Africa, the social movements bind together and speak with one voice.”

But Lappe tempers her enthusiasm for “grassroots activism” in Africa with caution.

“It’s also true – just like it is here in the US - that the authorities in Africa often ignore this voice of the people, and it’s then that international groups must add their weight to that of Africans to ensure food sovereignty.” 

But what remains “striking” for Lappe following her visit to Mali is “how much power there is in the social movements that exist throughout Africa…For a lot of people in this country (the US), the only images we ever see of Africa, the entire continent, are starving children, and we have this impression that it’s a continent that cannot feed itself; we have this impression that it’s a continent that doesn’t grow any of its own food, when really some of the most powerful grassroots farming social movements are emerging out of the many, many countries that make up the continent of Africa.”

Lappe says her time in Mali has inspired her “to get some of the voices of those farmers and of those social movements to audiences in the US who don’t see it in the mainstream media.”

In her efforts to ensure that Americans eat healthy, “ethically-produced” food, Lappe has also been “deeply influenced” by Kenyan environmentalist and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Prof. Wangari Maathai.

“One of the things that I really learnt from her (Greenbelt) Movement is the interconnections that they’re making between the environment and having control over their own food, and having farmers be able to make decisions about what they’re growing, and not only growing for export. And in Mali I found that there were other similar movements in Africa.”

Her experiences in Africa over the past few years, says Lappe, have revealed to her the “huge responsibility” resting upon the developed world to “set the trade processes in motion” to allow African farmers access to wealthy markets. 

“Of all the places in the world, it has been many of the countries in Africa that have been most affected by the food and farming policies in the industrialized countries of the north, the US and the European Union. And those farmers have been the ones who’ve been most affected. It’s been countries in Africa that have historically been used to extract their resources, whether its mineral resources or plant resources, human resources, and they have not had the sovereignty that this movement is really fighting for,” Lappe emphasizes.    

Following her attendance at the Mali event, says Patty Kupfer, of the US Rural Coalition, her belief that “lands, waters, seeds and biodiversity should belong to food producers, and not to private companies,” is stronger than ever. 

After the forum, farmers, peasants, landless people, environmental and human rights groups from about 80 countries made this resolution: “Most of us are food producers and are ready, able and willing to feed all the world’s people. Our heritage as food producers is critical to the future of humanity. Food sovereignty…puts those who produce, distribute and consume food at the heart of food policies and systems, rather than the demands of markets and corporations.”

But Kupfer agrees that the groundswell for food sovereignty places “significant” burdens on states as well as upon private citizens. For it to be achievable, she says, politicians will have to start listening to the poor,  policies formulated by the World Trade Organization - and accepted by many in the world community, developed and developing countries - will have to be altered to be “friendlier” towards the poor, and consumers in the developed world will have to forsake cheap convenience food en masse, in favor of more expensive organic produce.

“It’s a long shot, but we have to aim high,” Kupfer says. 

An immediate priority for food sovereignty activists is an international treaty on the rights of small food producers, says Lappe. But, in the face of the increasing strength of the large food corporations, and government inaction throughout the world to protect small-scale farmers and fishers, she agrees that this seems a long way from being achieved.

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