By Beverly Bell, Other Worlds

The US Food Sovereignty Alliance (USFSA) works to end poverty, rebuild local food economies, and assert democratic control over the food system. As a US-based alliance of food justice, anti-hunger, labor, environmental, faith-based, and food producer groups, the USFSA upholds the right to food as a basic human right and works to connect US struggles to the international movement for food sovereignty.

Next week, the USFSA is awarding the 5th Annual Food Sovereignty Prize, which recognizes grassroots initiatives that are building solutions to poverty and hunger, and resisting the corporate control of food and trade systems. This year’s winner, the Group of 4 and Dessalines Brigade/Via Campesina from Haiti and South America, and the honorable mentions, stand in sharp contrast to this year’s World Food Prize winners, Monsanto, Syngenta, and the Institute for Plant Biotechnology Outreach (IPBO).

***

“Instead of foreigners sending us food, they should give us the chance to do our own agriculture so it can survive.” So said Rony Charles, a rice grower and member of the Agricultural Producer Cooperative of Verrettes, in Haiti.

Giving domestic agriculture the chance to survive would address four critical needs:

  • Creating employment for the majority, estimated at 60% to 80% of the population;1
  • Allowing rural people to stay on their land. This is both their right as well as a way to keep Port-au-Prince from becoming even more perilously overcrowded;
  • Addressing an ongoing food crisis. Today, even with imports, more than 2.4 million people out of a population of 9 million are estimated to be food-insecure. Acute malnutrition among children under the age 5 is 9%, and chronic under-nutrition for that age group is 24%.2 Peasant groups are convinced that, with the necessary investment, Haiti could produce at least 80% of its food consumption needs; and
  • Promoting a post-earthquake redevelopment plan that serves the needs of the majority, unlike the one currently promoted by the U.S. and U.N. which is based on the growth of sweatshops. (See “Poverty-Wage Assembly Plants as Development Strategy in Haiti”.)

This year, one of the U.S. Food Sovereignty Alliance prizes goes to Four Focused Eyes (Kat Zye Kontre), a coalition of Haiti’s four largest and strongest peasant organizations, who are addressing these needs head-on. The name comes from an expression pertaining to cheating in Haitian card games, “Four focused eyes, an end to lies,” and refers to the long-term distrust between some of these organizations.

Four Focused Eyes includes the country’s two national peasant groups – Tèt Kole Ti Peyizan Ayisyen, or Heads Together Small Producers of Haiti, and the National Peasant Movement of the Papay Congress (MPNKP) – plus the two largest regional organizations – the Peasant Movement of Papay (MPP by its Creole acronym) and the Regional Coordination of the Organizations of the South-East (KROS).

The coalition is building unity and strength for the common agenda. Together, they are helping the peasant sector become both more capable of growing food, and shore up might to win policies that promote domestic agriculture. Four Focused Eyes is pushing the state for a pro-peasant agenda, especially around food sovereignty and land reform, through mobilization and advocacy. They are advancing their agenda collectively through negotiations with the Ministry of Agriculture and national pressure. Moreover, they are making common cause with other farmer movements and allies around the globe, such as the U.S. Food Sovereignty Alliance and La Via Campesina, to fight for trade and foreign policies that promote small-farmer food, agriculture, and land systems.

Like their counterparts the world over, these farmers are focused principally on building food sovereignty. They are on the frontlines of a clash between two development models: food sovereignty and neoliberalism.3

Food sovereignty is the right of a people to define their own food and agricultural systems, premised on growing domestically for domestic consumption. It is based on other social and economic rights, too: the right to food, the right of rural peoples to produce, and the right to land.

Food sovereignty promotes small-scale agriculture, government management of food imports, protection of native seeds, and large-scale redistribution of land with protections of land tenure for small farmers. It calls for the democratic participation of the population in shaping trade policies and for development programs which protect domestic production, especially by small growers.

The opposing model, neoliberalism, is the one governing farming in Haiti and much of the world. An ideology as well as a set of free-market policies and programs, neoliberalism opposes a significant role of government or community in planning, investing in, or intervening into markets in ways which could protect and promote national development. Neoliberalism gives primacy to corporate control over domestic production and the environment. Key players here include the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, World Trade Organization, governments of industrialized countries, large landholders, and corporations.

The model is based on global trade rules which allow rich countries to make profits off Haiti and other low-income countries in two ways. The first is as a source of cheap, raw goods for the so-called First World, which are extracted or produced by intensive exploitation of labor, land, and other resources. Haiti used to fill this role, historically exporting hardwoods and more recently – until the 1908s – foodstuffs, until the agricultural sector no longer had the capacity to do so.

Low-income countries’ second role is as a market for corporate goods from high-income countries. The trade policies of wealthy nations and the conditions on loans by international financial institutions pressure low-income countries to lower import tariffs, though high-income countries’ own production remains protected by subsidies. In Haiti, conditions on two loans from the IMF, in the 1980s and 1990s, forced the government to reduce tariffs on food imports to as low as 3% from former levels of up to 150%.4 This made it suddenly cheaper to buy food from U.S. agribusiness than from the farmer the next field over, thus effectively putting out of business the farmer in that next field.

Until the early 1980s, Haiti was largely self-sufficient in food, but now domestic agriculture meets only 43% of Haitians’ food consumption needs.5 This has led to the further impoverishment of the small farmer sector; those who still try to survive through growing do so in grinding destitution. Another option has been to flee to the cities, and for more than three decades peasants have been arriving in droves for Port-au-Prince, where they have found jobs in the assembly sector or the informal sector if they were lucky, or have remained unemployed if they weren’t. This led to another impact of so-called free trade policies: the dense population in Port-au-Prince of rural emigrants and others, virtually all of them living in shoddy housing on terrain often unsuitable for dwellings, contributed greatly to the high death toll (estimated at 250,000 to 300,000) from the January, 2010 earthquake.

Attaining food sovereignty in Haiti would necessitate a governmental commitment to invest significantly in agriculture. Farmers need support for tools, seeds, credit, irrigation and water storage systems, and assistance from agronomists. Food sovereignty must involve land reform, since peasants currently don’t have the land they need to grow. It would mean staunching the flow of dumped U.S. commodities which, more than ever since the earthquake, has meant that Haitian farmers either have to sell their food for a pittance or cannot sell it at all. Food sovereignty would require raising tariffs on food imports to protect national production.

Food sovereignty would also involve turning around Haiti’s ecological crisis, since its effects – topsoil erosion, deforestation, destruction of watersheds, floods, and droughts – all impede agricultural production. Some Haitian farmer-activists are promoting a set of programs to address this crisis, with their own programs of reforestation, integrated water management, and creation of non-charcoal energy sources. But the farmers say they cannot reverse the environmental decline on their own, and ask the government to commit to national programs and to enforce ecological protection laws that are already on the books.

Food sovereignty in Haiti would require, furthermore, passing a law against genetically modified [GMO] seeds and limiting multinational corporate involvement in Haiti’s seeds, which Haitian farmers call “the patrimony of humanity.” The need has been underscored this year by new imports of seeds from Pioneer and Monsanto. Some of them, such as Monsanto’s calypso tomato seeds, are treated with deadly poisons which the EPA banned for home use in the U.S.6 While Monsanto, for one, is donating its seeds at the moment, one suspects that that largesse will quickly end and that farmers will be forced to buy them in subsequent years. Meanwhile, agriculture becomes dependent on foreign corporations for the very foundation of agriculture. (For more, please see “Haitian Farmers Commit to Burning Monsanto Seeds.”)

Silion Pierre, a national coordinator with Tèt Kole Ti Peyizan Ayisyen, Heads Together Small Producers of Haiti, said, “Our idea is to reinforce our strength and capacity to mobilize by bringing together all progressive forces, Haitian and foreign, to make Haiti into another nation where people can live with security and food.”

1 The U.N. in 2006 estimated 60%, while peasant organizations commonly use the figure of 80%.

2 World Food Programme, 2010, http://www.wfp.org/countries/haiti.

3 Posited by Via Campesina, as explained in “Food Sovereignty” flyer, 2002, discussed in Peter Rosset, Agrarian Reform and Food Sovereignty: Alternative Model for the Rural World, Center for the Study of Rural Change in Mexico, Feb. 2006, p. 7.

4 Oxfam International, Kicking Down the Door: How Upcoming WTO Talks Threaten Farmers in Poor Countries, April 2005, p. 26.

5 World Bank, 2008.

6 Extension Toxicology Network, Pesticide Information Project of the Cooperative Extension Offices of Cornell University, Michigan State University, Oregon State University, and University of California at Davis,http://pmep.cce.cornell.edu/profiles/extoxnet/pyrethrins-ziram/thiram-ext.html