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Growing Strength to Grow Food: Haitian Farmers Win Annual U.S. Food Sovereignty Alliance Prize

9:32 am in Uncategorized by Other Worlds

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

Defending Indigenous Lands And Waters In Honduras: The Case Of Rio Blanco

12:41 pm in Uncategorized by Other Worlds

By Beverly Bell and Tory Field

Part 29 of the Harvesting Justice series.

On September 12, Berta Caceres, Tomás Gomez, and Aureliano Molina, leaders of the indigenous Lenca organization Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH) must appear in court. Their charges? Usurpation of land, coercion, and causing more than $3 million in damages to DESA, a hydroelectric dam company. Berta, the general coordinator of COPINH and an internationally recognized social movement leader, is also facing separate charges of illegally carrying arms “to the danger of the internal security of Honduras.”

The Honduran-owned and foreign-financed company has been attempting to build a dam on the sacred Gualcarque River in the Lenca community of Rio Blanco. Community members have blockaded the road against the company, thwarting the dam’s construction, for over five months.

The charges brought against the three indigenous rights defenders are part of a strategy of physical, legal, and political suppression by the Honduran government and industries to break indigenous resistance to mining, damming, logging, and drilling. The exploitation of indigenous lands, and the riches upon them, are being imposed without the communities’ consent. This is in violation of the Honduran constitution and of Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization which requires free, prior, and informed consent by indigenous peoples before anything can be built on, or taken from, their lands.

Indigenous communities that are part of COPINH alone have well over a dozen extraction concessions upon them. Dozens more are advancing throughout the country. All were approved by laws passed by an unconstitutional congress that was voted in under an illegal government that took power in a 2009 coup d’etat. The US government was firmly behind the coup.

Everywhere in Honduras and the Americas, indigenous territories have a bull’s eye upon them. They are exploited for their agriculture, water, forests, oil, gas, genetic information, biodiversity, and so-called intellectual property rights, otherwise known as indigenous knowledge. The riches of nature that they have carefully guarded are now subject to theft, privatization, and sale on the stock market. As the Chilean political scientist Sandra Huenchuán Navarro said, “Though indigenous people don’t know it, the most powerful determining factor of their destiny is the New York Stock Exchange.”[i]

Beyond plunder of their territories, the physical, legal, and political attacks on COPINH members and other indigenous peoples in Honduras have been increasing rapidly. Assassinations, kidnapping, machete slashing, arrests, and threats are weekly events in the communities which are resisting. Just yesterday, September 5, at 3:00 in the morning, police stormed the home of Desiderio Méndez and his family. They threatened Desiderio with torture and then took him away.

Yet the communities are not ceding. If anything, they have become more committed to defending their territories. María Santos Domínguez, a member of the Indigenous Council of Rio Blanco, explained, “As Lenca people, these are our lands. Our ancestors fought to defend this land for us. We also have children and grandchildren and are going to defend this land for them.”

For several years, the community has repeatedly rejected the dam project in town hall meetings and community assemblies, protested against it, and filed complaints with government agencies.

As one community member explained, “They say this is development. This is not development. This is for the company’s benefit, for their profits.”

As the company moved forward with the project, it destroyed fields of corn, beans, coffee, and bananas, as well as a solar plant that generated electricity for the community. It brought in machinery and built installations, offices, and housing. Then it arrived with the Chinese-owned SINOHYDRO, the largest dam company in the world. At the end of March, community members suddenly found signs on their lands declaring “Do Not Enter,” “Swimming Prohibited,” and “Caution, Area Under Construction.”

So several days later, on April 1, the people of Rio Blanco began physically blocking construction of the dam, and they have been blocking it ever since. Like the dam, the access road is in their ancestral territory, surrounded by the fields and lush forests that the Lenca have carefully stewarded for hundreds of years. Community members show up, day in and day out, in the rain, in the heat, with or without food, to defend their territory.

On May 17, the zone was militarized and soldiers began intimidating and threatening community members. The US-funded soldiers eat, sleep, and live at the dam company’s installations. Berta Caceres of COPINH noted that they “have turned it into a military base” as they serve the interests of the dam companies.

As COPINH leaders face prison time for their defense of Rio Blanco, one might ask: who should really be on trial in Rio Blanco? Who has really usurped the land and caused damages?

The community’s resistance continues, despite having been evicted several times, despite the continual violence, and despite the men in ski masks who lurked outside the homes of community leaders. As the struggle over control of Rio Blanco continues, please add your voice to the Lenca’s request for international support.

* Join a protest outside a Honduran embassy or consulate near you on September 10, an international day of action to demand that 1) the charges against Berta, Tomás, Aureliano, and all others defending their lands be dropped, 2) the dam concession in Rio Blanco be cancelled and the project stopped, 3) ancestral territories be respected, and 4) the violence against indigenous communities stop. Click here to see if there is an action in your town, and if not, consider planning one.

* Send an e-mail to the Honduran government urging them to stop the judicial persecution of COPINH and to US officials urging them to end military aid to the Battalion stationed in Rio Blanco.

* Call the Honduran authorities on September 10 and urge them to stop the criminalization of COPINH.

* Have your organization co-sponsor an ad in a prominent Honduran newspaper, to run on September 10 before the trial against the three COPINH leaders, demanding that the charges be dropped. Write info.otherworlds@gmail.com by Monday, September 9 to add your organization’s name. (Click here for the ad text.)

 

  1. Huenchuán Navarro, Sandra. “Territorial Impacts of Economic Globalization in Latin American and Caribbean Indigenous Territories.” Statement presented in the XXII Latin American Congress of Sociology of the Latin American Sociology Association (ALAS). University of Concepción, Concepción, Chile, 1999.

 

You can order Harvesting Justice and find action items, resources, and a popular education curriculum on the Harvesting Justice website. Harvesting Justice was created for the US Food Sovereignty Alliance, check out their work here.

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Copyleft Other Worlds. You may reprint this article in whole or in part.  Please credit any text or original research you use to Tory Field and Beverly Bell, Other Worlds.

 

The Ancestral Values We Inherited: Protecting Indigenous Water, Land, and Culture in Mexico

10:25 am in Uncategorized by Other Worlds

The following is from an interview with Saúl Atanasio Roque Morales, a Xoxocotla indigenous man from the state of Morelos, Mexico. He is a member of the Council of Peoples and the Xoxocotla Drinking Water Association.

Moreles landscape

Indigenous people are fighting for their land in Mexico.

Within our indigenous community of Xoxocotla, we continue to hold the ancestral values we inherited. It never crosses our mind to leave them behind. Because in daily life we are always in contact with nature, with our lands, with our water, with our air. We live in harmony with nature because we don’t like the way that modernity is advancing, destroying our territory and our environment. We believe technological modernity is better named a death threat.

We still watch our children chase the butterflies and the birds. We see the harmony between the crops and the land. Above all, we respect our water and we continue to perform ceremonies that give thanks for the water.

There is a ceremony we do together with a group of neighboring peoples at a sacred place. In this ceremony, we predict what the coming season will be like in order to predict the harvest, to know if it will be good or if it’s going to be bad. After, the participants return to the community and share what they observed, joyfully dancing with music, to let the community know about the weather predictions and what the water will be like. It never crosses our mind to leave this tradition behind. On the contrary, we believe that we should keep instilling these values in our children.

And so we have potable water that comes from a spring 12 kilometers away. During the time of the government of Lázaro Cárdenas [1934-1940] the community participated, with pick and shovel, in a 12-kilometer excavation to bring water to the community. The water is very good and very clean. Since that time, we have been the ones that administer and control our water system, without having to be responsible to government authorities.

In more recent times since the 80’s, in the state of Morelos, they wanted to privatize the water. We were not in agreement with this. Together with other communities, we organized and went before the lower house of the state congress in order to protest these laws. We occupied the buildings and the politicians agreed to change the law. In the new law, they included our demand that indigenous peoples can control and administer their water.

But in the past few years, industrial and housing projects have been growing and multiplying, invading crop lands. Crop lands normally serve as a buffer for filtration during the rainy season.  They filter water and replenish aquifers that give life to our springs. We’re witnessing an increase in devastation and paving-over of lands and that inhibits normal water filtration. We attribute the lowering of water levels to these activities.

We learned that there were to be construction projects erected, including ones to build [more than 37,000] houses, close to our spring. There are also plans to build a golf course. Other companies are opening up [plant] nurseries. There’s another company that’s devastating a mountain called Montenegro to extract material to produce cement.

[In 2005] we started to speak out against the government’s actions, and they didn’t pay attention. We blockaded the roads, but the government didn’t respect the agreements that resulted from those blockades. For this reason we organized 13 communities to defend the springs. We didn’t get much attention, so we decided to block highways. We did it to communicate our problem, but we were met with repression and some people got wounded. The people also fought back: they made the police run, they destroyed a couple patrol cars, they took arms from the cops and because of this, some of our people were detained.

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“They Fear Us Because We’re Fearless”: Reclaiming Indigenous Lands and Strength in Honduras

10:37 am in Uncategorized by Other Worlds

“Honduras has been known for two things only: being a military base for the [contra] attacks on the Nicaraguan revolution, and Hurricane Mitch.” So said Berta Caceres, co-founder and general coordinator of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH by its Spanish acronym). COPINH is an organization of hundreds of communities of Lenca indigenous peoples and small farmers.

A member of the Lenca people

Members of the Lenca people & small farmers fight for control of land in Honduras.

The rest of the story, of the resistance of land reform and indigenous movements, what is at stake, and the source of much of the violence, are largely unknown in the US.

Multinational corporations are moving into Central America to exploit gold and other minerals, rivers, forests, and agricultural lands. One area of high interest in the corporate feeding frenzy is the indigenous Lenca region in the southwest of Honduras. The government has given outside businesses concessions to dam, drill, and cut, in violation of national law and international treaties. More corporations have simply moved in on their own.

The most pressing issue now affecting Lenca lands is a series of large hydroelectric dams which are already under construction. They are part of 41 dam concessions which may soon come under active exploitation. The concessions came thanks to a mining law passed in January 2013 by a national congress that was voted in under an illegal government that took power in the 2009 coup d’etat. The law allows for open pit mining as well as mining in populated areas, which opens the door for large-scale displacement. It limits access to public information, and allows consultation with affected populations only after the concession has been granted.

COPINH is at the forefront of a life-or-death movement – literally – for respect for indigenous territories, meaning the right of the Lenca and others to control their ancestral lands, riches of nature, culture, and identity. COPINH is also fighting for the democracy and civil rights necessary for their members to protect what is theirs, and for greater justice overall.

COPINH is now in its fifth month of an occupation which has stalled construction of one hydroelectric dam on the Gualcarque River that runs through Lenca Territory in Rio Blanco.

With the backing of the oligarchy and other elite, the government has struck hard against the group. On July 15, soldiers assassinated Tomas García, one of COPINH’s leaders. Berta Caceres and two other members, Aureliano Molina and Tomas Gomez, are being brought to court under charges of being “intellectual authors” of the anti-dam movement. At a next hearing, set for September 12, a judge will decide if there is evidence to support the charges or if they should be dismissed. At their last hearing earlier in August, the three were given alternative measures to imprisonment while awaiting the next hearing. The measures including prohibiting them from going to the site of the supposed crime – the dam occupation – and requiring them to present themselves and sign in every two weeks.

For years, government forces and corporate-paid death squads have been imprisoning, threatening, terrorizing, following, and falsely accusing COPINH members and other social movement activists. The government has even used basic social services as a tool of expropriation, manipulating access to health care and education to pressure indigenous communities to allow extraction on their lands.

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Without Our Land, We Cease To Be a People: Defending Indigenous Territory and Resources in Honduras

7:45 am in Uncategorized by Other Worlds

By Tory Field and Beverly Bell

Flag of the Garifuna

Miriam Miranda is a leader of the Honduran Black Fraternal Organization (OFRANEH), which works with the 46 communities of the Afro-indigenous Garífuna of Honduras, to defend their territories, natural resources, identity, and rights. Miriam’s narrative below is from an interview with Beverly Bell in Washington, D.C.

We live on the Atlantic coast of Honduras. We are a mix of African descendants and indigenous peoples who came about more than 200 years ago in the island of San Vicente. Without our land, we cease to be a people. Our lands and identities are critical to our lives, our waters, our forests, our culture, our global commons, our territories. For us, the struggle for our territories and our commons and our natural resources is of primary importance to preserve ourselves as a people.

The people, for their way of being, were declared part of the Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2004. We don’t know what that means exactly, but we suppose it implies that the state must take action to protect and preserve the Garífuna people’s identity.

What we Garífuna face is largely the same things faced by people all over Latin America, and in fact the world. Also, the problems of the South are not a problem just for us, but of all of us and the whole planet.

If you map out the conflicts that are threatening our country, you’ll see they reflect exactly where transnational capital is trying to take more resources from indigenous peoples. Maybe you believe that president Mel Zelaya was ousted in a coup d’état [in 2009] because he was a leftist. No. It was because [those with wealth] wanted to take land and resources, which they are now doing. Look at the search for so-called alternatives to oil – through mining, the mega-dams, the biofuels, the production of African palm oil. All these resources are being taken from indigenous areas. There is more pressure on us every day for our territories, our resources, and our global commons.

In Honduras, they’re taking land that we were using to grow beans and rice so they can grow African palm for bio-fuel. The intention is to stop the production of food that humans need so they can produce fuel that cars need. The more food scarcity that exists, the more expensive food will become. The mono-cultivation of some of these crops [for bio-fuel] requires thousands of millions of acres of land. Food sovereignty is being threatened everywhere.

Also we have a problem that is rarely spoken of: narco-trafficking. The Atlantic Coast of Honduras is the main trafficking route. A study showed that almost 90% of the drugs that are going to the North pass through Honduras. We’re exactly in the way of the trafficking and we’re so vulnerable. Honduras has one of the highest levels of crime and violence [per capita] of any country that is not actually at war. We have to fight not only for the permanence of our community, but also to not be kidnapped by traffickers.

Another of our main challenges is the tourism industry. We live almost on the sea, right on the beach. It’s a blessing but recently it’s also become a curse, because of course all those with power want to have a place on the beach. The Honduran government has started on some tourism mega-projects. The displacement of communities and the loss of cultures that come with the development of tourism [is increasing].

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We Don’t Have Life without Land: Holding Ground in Honduras

11:10 am in Uncategorized by Other Worlds

By Tory Field and Beverly Bell. Co-authored by Lauren Elliott

Part 25 of the Harvesting Justice series 

Honduras coffee plantation

Land reform is desperately needed in Honduras.

For the next three articles, we will pause to linger on Honduras. On vivid display there is the search for solutions to the problems addressed in this Harvesting Justice series: the piracy of land, indigenous territories, agriculture, food systems, and the global commons.

We also focus on Honduras because it is home to the highest homicide rate of any country in the world that is not at war. A lot of that violence is directed against communities trying to defend what is theirs. One of our colleagues there, Tomás Garcia, a leader of the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), was assassinated on July 15. Many more live under continual threat of death.

We at Other Worlds hold a great concern for Honduras for a third reason. We are based in New Orleans, a city with the one of the highest populations of Hondurans outside of Tegucigalpa. More than 80,000 Hondurans now reside in New Orleans in large part because of global policies, including those of the U.S. government, that have resulted in high levels of poverty, landlessness, and violence. Challenging the root causes of the migration, in the hopes that Hondurans may one day be able to live with peace and well-being in their homeland, is part of our definition of being good neighbors.

Bajo Aguán, a fertile agricultural region in the north of Honduras, might at first glance look like a bucolic paradise. In fact, it is part of a historic land struggle. It is also the site of a war – a strange war, undeclared and largely invisible, where only one side has arms.

Consuelo Castillo, a community organizer in Lempira, a land reform settlement in Bajo Aguán, said, “Our goal is for everyone who is part of the land occupations to have access to land. Land is our first mother. For us farmers, we don’t have life without land.”

“We’re fighting for our kids. We’ve started this movement for our children so they can have their basic needs met, live in dignity, and have access to education. The political assassinations have left some children without mothers, without brothers. The kids are the ones that are impacted the most.”

Consuelo and her neighbors live in homes made of blue tarps, surrounded by patches of corn and rows of African oil palms. The 3,000 residents of Lempira and five other settlements have been peacefully occupying land for three years. They insist the land has been taken from them, mainly by wealthy landowners and palm oil companies who are making money off the global craze for biofuel. In the Lempira settlement, the families have reclaimed the area from the country’s largest and most infamous landowner, Miguel Facussé.

In response to the occupation, Facussé and other land owners, together with palm oil companies and the backing of government forces and the World Bank, are waging their war. In Bajo Aguán alone, between January 2010 and February 2013, 89 small farmers – many of them also leaders in the land movement – have been murdered. Facussé and the others also use arrests and death threats among their arsenal of weapons to try to eject the settlers.

While the communities fight for legal right to the land, they also pursue their long-term vision. Lempira, for example, has created homes, turned the plantation into a working cooperative, laid the concrete foundation for a school, and created a collectively owned store. Residents are working towards food sovereignty, liberatory education systems, and collectively run media.

The History and the Stakes in Land Reform

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Inherit the Earth: Land Reform in Brazil

11:32 am in Uncategorized by Other Worlds

By Tory Field and Beverly Bell
Part 24 of the Harvesting Justice series

As a key determinant of who has power and who doesn’t, battles over land have been fought from time immemorial. One of the earliest may have been led by Adam and Eve as they attempted to reclaim their garden after having been evicted. Even before the Crusades, through centuries of colonization, to the oil- and water-motivated wars of the present day, land has long been the currency of religious, national, and imperial power.

In the 1950s and 1960s, struggles for land reform throughout the global South had some success. However, in the 1970s and 1980s, economic policies, development ideology, and military crackdowns quashed government-reform advances and the social movements that drove them.[1]

In recent years, the voice and visibility of movements opposing land grabs and displacement, and demanding land reform, are increasing. Though relatively little land has been redistributed, organized movements of small farmers, indigenous peoples, and landless people are developing in size, strength, and organization. They are uniting across borders to break the nexus between land, agriculture, power, and profit.

The Landless Workers Movement

Brazil is home to one of the most powerful land reform movements in the world. Its work has both changed the lives and fates of millions of people within the country, and inspired land and housing struggles everywhere, including here in the US.

Brazil’s land reform has roots in the 1800s, as a response to unequal land distribution that began with the arrival of European colonists more than 500 years ago. Brazil has one of the world’s highest levels of unequal land distribution. Vast properties over 1,000 hectares (2,472 acres) – many of them owned by multinational corporations – have taken over 46% of all farmland. Small and family farms are still producing much of the country’s food needs, only on less land and with more labor. Unable to compete with agribusiness, an estimated 90,000 of them disappear each year.[2]

The 1988 constitution gave Brazilians the right to challenge ownership of tracts over a certain size in two ways: by going after the title’s authenticity or by claiming that the land is not fulfilling its “social function.” Social function means that at least 80% of the land is used effectively, environmental and labor standards are respected, and both owners and workers benefit.

Many rural organizations form the land reform movement, with the Landless Rural Workers’ Movement (MST by its Portuguese acronym) leading the way. The MST’s solution to ending the country’s poverty and hunger is to put agriculturally rich land back into the hands of small farmers. Since the mid-1980s, the MST has won title to 7.5 million hectares of land, on which 370,000 families now live.  An additional 150,000 families live in approximately 900 squatter communities on land that is being contested.

João Pedro Stédile, MST co-founder and co-coordinator, said, “Before, the line had been: ‘No need to worry, you’ll have your land in heaven.’ Now it was: ‘Since you’ve already got your land in heaven, let’s struggle for it here as well.’”

Redistribution of land works this way: The organization researches large holdings that meet the legal criteria for redistribution. When they find one, word goes out and interested families – often totaling up to 100, both landless people and unemployed city-dwellers – take up residence there. They wait it out in tents, on average for two to five years. Meanwhile, MST lawyers battle with the courts to gain collective title to the property. If the MST loses, those in the camp move to another plot of land and, together with the lawyers, start over. If the court orders the tract redistributed, settlers begin creating their collectively owned communities.

In the communities, MST members engage in collective agro-ecological farming and other cooperative ventures, like a honey business or a tractor repair shop. They run their own education systems, resolve conflicts using restorative justice, and develop their own media and cultural empowerment programs. They also run experiments in participatory democracy, equitable social relations, and self-governance.

Brazil’s land reform movement is united with other social movements in challenging the root cause of the problem, which resides in unequal distribution of power and resources. Without deep structural change and the creation of a more just and equitable nation, land distribution will simply revert to the status quo, as struggling farmers lose their land again.

Of course, much work remains, yet the MST shows that solutions to landlessness, homelessness, and social exclusion are available, even without an overhaul of the Brazilian state or political economy. The MST has created living, breathing examples of these solutions thousands of times over.

Women and Land Reform in Brazil

“Back in the early days, most women on land reform settlements didn’t have a vote. It wasn’t until after you’d been part of the movement that you realized you’d had an invisible role.” said Neneide Eliane, an organizer with Deciding to Win, one of many organizations dedicated to obtaining rights, benefits, and power for rural and landless women. In those days, some women were handed the age-old line that their problems would be resolved when rural workers as a whole won justice. Women in the MST reported that for a long time, the group was so focused on unity among its members that it ploughed under the need to specifically address gender.

An organized women’s movement evolved in Brazil in the 1970s, aiming not only for women’s rights but also for an end to the dictatorship. A decade later, a rural women’s movement was born to address gender inequity. In the MST, women formed a national women’s collective in 1995. They have pushed the organization to prioritize gender equality. “Gender” is now an official department of the MST, with a range of programs and policies. Of the leaders that are elected to coordinate each local, regional, and national committee, at least half must be women. Other goals include an end to gender-based violence, access to free birth control, promotion of women’s micro-enterprises and cooperatives, the establishment of childcare centers, and help for women in getting the social benefits they deserve from the state. Gender analysis is a formal part of the MST’s training.

In addition to their ascending integration and leadership into landless organizations, rural women have won legal right to land and social protections – on paper, at least. The 1988 constitution enshrined women’s ability to gain land rights and benefit from land reform directly, not as dependents of their husbands. The constitution also accorded women new labor rights, including unemployment and disability insurance, retirement benefits, and maternity leave.

In practice, today women still account for only a small percentage of all beneficiaries of land redistribution, and overall receive far less revenue than their male counterparts. Many women farmers receive no salary at all, or only a symbolic income.[2]

Rural women still have a long row to hoe. Yet their intensive mobilizing is winning them, slowly but surely, more land titles and greater benefits. They are also advancing toward more just distribution of labor, reduced violence by men, the right to contraception, and the right to education.

Speaking from her land reform settlement in the state of São Paulo, MST organizer Ilda Martines de Souza said, “Without firing a shot, we’ve brought a revolution.” Read the rest of this entry →

Putting the Culture Back in Agriculture: Reviving Native Food and Farming

10:06 am in Uncategorized by Other Worlds

By Tory Field and Beverly Bell

Part 17 of the Harvesting Justice series

Winona LaDuke at a podium

Winona LaDuke helps protect the crops and agriculture of indigenous people.

“At one point ‘agriculture’ was about the culture of food. Losing that culture, in favor of an American cultural monocrop, joined with an agricultural monocrop, puts us in a perilous state…” says food and Native activist Winona LaDuke.[i]

Her lament is an agribusiness executive’s dream. The CEO of the H.J. Heinz Company said, “Once television is there, people, whatever shade, culture, or origin, want roughly the same things.”[ii] The same things are based on the same technology, same media sources, same global economy, and same food.

Together with the loss of cultural diversity, the growth of industrial agriculture has led to an enormous depletion in biodiversity. Throughout history, humans have cultivated about 7,000 species of plants. In the last century, three-quarters of the genetic diversity of agricultural crops have been lost. Thirty crops now provide 95% of our food needs, with rice, wheat, maize, and potato alone providing 60%. Eighty-five percent of the apple varieties that once existed in the US have been lost. Vast fields of genetically identical crops are much more susceptible to pests, necessitating increased pesticide use. The lack of diversity also endangers the food supply, as an influx of pests or disease can wipe out enormous quantities of crops in one fell swoop.

Native peoples’ efforts to protect their crop varieties and agricultural heritage in the US go back 500 years to when the Spanish conquistadors arrived. Today, Native communities throughout the US are reclaiming and reviving land, water, seeds, and traditional food and farming practices, thereby putting the culture back in agriculture and agriculture back in local hands.

One such initiative is the White Earth Land Recovery Project in Minnesota, which is recovering healthy stewardship of local tribes’ original land base. They are harvesting and selling traditional foods such as wild rice, planting gardens and raising greenhouses, and growing food for farm-to-school and feeding-our-elders programs. They are reintroducing native sturgeon to local waters as well as working to stop pesticide spraying at nearby industrial farms. They are also strengthening relationships with food sovereignty projects around the country. Winona LaDuke, the founding director of the project, told us, “My father used to say, ‘I don’t want to hear your philosophy if you can’t grow corn’… I now grow corn.”

Another revival effort involves buffalo herds. In the 1800s, European-American settlers drove wild buffalo close to extinction, decimating a source of survival for many Native communities. Just one example of the resurgence is the Lakota Buffalo Caretakers Cooperative, a cooperative of small-family buffalo caretakers, on Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. The cooperative sees its work as threefold, to “restore the buffalo, restore the native ecology on Pine Ridge, and help renew the sacred connection between the Lakota people and the buffalo nation.” At the national level, the Inter-Tribal Bison Cooperative is a network of 56 tribal bison programs from around the country with a collective herd of over 15,000.

In New Mexico, Native communities are organizing a wealth of initiatives. Around the state, they have started educational and production farms, youth-elder farming exchanges, buffalo revitalization programs, seed-saving initiatives, herb-based diabetes treatment programs, a credit union that invests in green and sustainable projects, and more. Schools like the Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute, the Institute of American Indian Arts, and the Santa Fe Indian School – along with grammar schools, high schools, and non-profit programs – have developed agricultural education programs. The Traditional Native American Farmers’ Association helps farmers get back onto the land, hosts workshops on seed saving and agricultural techniques, and has a youth program.

The annual Sustainable Food and Seed Sovereignty Symposium at the Tesuque [Indian] Pueblo in northern New Mexico brings together farmers, herbalists, natural dyers, healers, cooks, seed savers, educators, water protectors, and community organizers. From the 2006 symposium came the Declaration of Seed Sovereignty, which denounced genetically engineered seeds and corporate ownership of Native seeds and crops as “a continuation of genocide upon indigenous people and as malicious and sacrilegious acts toward our ancestry, culture, and future generations.”

Read the rest of this entry →

We Have a Dream: Farmworkers Organize for Justice

10:47 am in Uncategorized by Other Worlds

By Tory Field and Beverly Bell

Part 13 of the Harvesting Justice series

Farmworkers on a decorated stage protest for better wages and working conditions.

A "Fair Food" Rally in Lakeline, Florida.

For decades, farmworkers – the more than one million men and women who work in fields and orchards around the country – have been leading a struggle for justice in our food system. They have been building awareness and mobilizing the public, successfully securing some rights, higher wages, and better working conditions. Today, a recent string of victories by the farmworker group Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), together with the steadfast work of other groups, have taken the movement to a whole new level.

The United Farm Workers (UFW), founded in 1966 by Dolores Huerta, César Chávez, and others, launched the modern-day farmworker movement. They brought their struggles to national attention by leading boycotts against grape and lettuce growers. Consumers around the country banished grapes and lettuce from their grocery lists, forcing growers to raise wages and to improve labor conditions. Since then, farmworkers have used work stoppages, hunger strikes, marches, union negotiations, and boycotts to win substantial improvements. No longer is it commonplace for crew leaders – those who round up workers and manage the crew – to beat workers, for example, or for farms to aerially spray pesticides in fields while people are working in them.

Exploitation in the Field

Despite these significant advances, farmworkers are still afforded inadequate rights, both on the books and in practice. They perform strenuous physical labor without the protections of sick leave, overtime pay, or health insurance. They are exempt from the National Labor Relations Act that protects workers’ rights to form unions and bargain collectively. If farmworkers try to organize or if they anger their bosses, they can be fired with absolutely no legal recourse. More than half are estimated to be undocumented, and live under the constant threat of deportation if they try to stand up for better conditions.[i] They may also be unable to demand their rights because they don’t speak English, or are unaware of what rights they do have.[ii] Racism and xenophobia play out in many ways, compounding the exploitation.

The minimum wage didn’t even apply to farmworkers until 1966, long after most professions were covered. And today, despite the law, many don’t in actuality make minimum wage. Farmworkers are twice as likely as other workers to live below the poverty line, and most earn an average of $10,000 to $12,000 per year.

These low wages are the result of cost-saving endeavors of corporate players along the food supply chain. The monumental profits of the fast-food industry, for example, come in part from companies’ ability to buy their ingredients cheaply. In an industry with estimated sales of $167.7 billion, company buyers use their power to pay the lowest prices possible to growers and food processors. Growers and processors, in turn, pay the lowest wages they can for field and factory work. Those suppressed wages go hand in hand with suppressing rights, so that workers don’t have the power to organize for better pay.

Farmworkers are also subject to inhumane working and living conditions. In the worst instances, they have been victims of slavery. Workers have been kept under armed guard, locked up at night, forced to work, denied the right to speak to people off the farm, and beaten if they attempt to escape. Since 1997 in Florida alone, the federal government has won seven criminal prosecutions for farmworker slavery, involving more than 1,000 workers. Since 2010, Florida has initiated two more prosecutions.

Most farmworkers come from villages in Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean. They are living the boomerang of globalization, often forced to emigrate in search of work because agriculture in their home countries has been weakened by US and global trade policies. One farm advocacy group noted, “US agriculture policy has thus created a de facto immigration policy.”[iii]

Rights and Power

Read the rest of this entry →

Weeding Corporate Power Out of Agricultural Policies: Communities Mobilize for Food and Farm Justice

8:07 am in Uncategorized by Other Worlds

Tomatoes at Waterpenny Farm

By Tory Field and Beverly Bell

From the school cafeteria to rural tomato farms, and all the way to pickets at the White House, people are challenging the ways in which government programs benefit big agribusiness to the detriment of small- and mid-sized farmers. Urban gardeners, PTA parents, ranchers, food coops, and a host of others are organizing to make the policies that govern our food and agricultural systems more just, accountable, and transparent. They are spearheading alternative policies on the local, state, national, and international levels. Some advances include the following:

* The National Family Farm Coalition is educating and lobbying to restructure the subsidy system so that it benefits small farmers instead of agribusiness. Together with other groups like Food and Water Watch, Food First, and the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, they are engaging in research, education, and strategies to help turn us all into effective policy-change advocates.

* People from all walks are becoming more involved in the US Farm Bill. Up for renewal every five to seven years, this hugely influential legislation lays out the framework for national food and farming policy. It regulates agricultural subsidies, food stamps, school lunch programs, rural conservation, and much more. Given the heavy impact this set of laws has on our daily lives, more and more people are asserting the need for public participation in crafting the legislation.

In preparation for the 2012 Farm Bill, for example, the Community Food Security Coalition, a group of nearly 300 organizations, helped the public learn about and lobby for the issues, and drafted a platform of top priorities. This built on coalition’s history of successful grassroots lobbying for Community Food Projects in the 1996 Farm Bill, wherein government grants go to food projects supporting lower-income communities. During the lead-up to the Farm Bill vote in 2008, community food, family farm, and farm-to-school organizations helped secure vital policy changes. These included placing a moratorium on land foreclosures under certain conditions, prioritizing socially disadvantaged farmers for federal loans and grants, and promoting locally grown produce in food stamp and school-lunch programs.

Despite the activism on the most recent Farm Bill, it was allowed to expire at the end of 2012 due to a stalemate in Congress around payments to farmers and broader budget issues. Congress implemented a nine-month extension, but several important programs were de-funded, including support for new farmers and farmers of color, conservation efforts, research into organic farming, and other progressive initiatives. Organizations of farmers and activists are now pushing for these to be reinstated in the next Farm Bill, which is slated for action in summer 2013. Groups such as the Rural Coalition and National Family Farm Coalition have been developing citizen-driven advocacy to ensure that priority programs addressing equity and access issues are not left behind.

* People are becoming wise to the ways of industrial meat, dairy, and egg production, and demanding an end to abuse of animals by industry. In 2008, California residents organized a ballot initiative mandating better conditions for livestock and poultry. More Californians voted for it than for any other citizen initiative in state history. Michigan, Arizona, Colorado, Florida, and Maine have passed similar laws.

* The 2009 “Country of Origin Labeling” (COOL) federal law mandates that retailers label certain meats, produce, and nuts with their country of origin. In 2011, the WTO ruled against COOL labeling for meat products, claiming that it interfered with international trade law. However, due to pressure from the grassroots and groups like Food and Water Watch, the USDA is working to amend the COOL regulations in a way that upholds the labeling while complying with the WTO ruling. Some states such as Vermont, Minnesota, Montana and Maine have their own state-labeling policies and programs to help residents choose foods produced closer to home.

* For nearly 60 years, US law has required that all food aid distributed globally be grown in the US and shipped abroad. This system is inefficient, involving tremendous costs and time. More significantly, imported food aid undercuts farmers in recipient countries, who are often unable to sell their own food when competing with cheap US products. While short-term needs for emergency food may be met, aid imports undermine the local food production that can address hunger in the long-term. Instead, US food processors and transporters benefit. In April 2013, the Obama Administration proposed a policy change that would allow the US government to purchase food aid from within recipient countries, as most other donor countries already do. Organizations like the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, Oxfam America, Partners in Health, American Jewish World Service, and others have been organizing petitions and press releases to gain support for the new legislation.

* Groups at the town, city, and state level are putting together food policy councils to create food systems that better serve their communities. The councils work on projects such as increasing the amount of local food purchased by public institutions like schools, hospitals, and prisons; preserving farmland; and drafting sweeping charters to guide future food policy. These councils aim to democratize food systems by encouraging broad public participation in policy-making. Some 200 such councils now exist in the US, with new ones forming all the time.
To become an active and effective citizen-advocate:

• Support a shift in US aid policy to source food aid locally from within recipient countries. Take action to support Obama’s current proposal, and learn more about food aid policies, here: http://ajws.org/reversehunger/take_action.html.

• Plug into advocacy on the Farm Bill. The next few months will be crucial as policymakers determine which aspects of the legislation will be extended. Stay tuned through the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (http://sustainableagriculture.net/), the Rural Coalition (http://www.ruralco.org/) and the Farm Bill Primer website (http://farmbillprimer.org/).

• Consider joining a food policy council, or starting one if there is none in your area. Learn more here: www.foodsecurity.org/FPC/council.html.

* Join up with organizations listed in the last article in the Harvesting Justice series to get involved in their campaigns and movement-building.

Many thanks to Kathy Ozer and the National Family Farm Coalition for their generous help with information and analysis.

Download the Harvesting Justice pdf here, and find action items, resources, and a popular education curriculum on the Harvesting Justice website.

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Copyleft Other Worlds. You may reprint this article in whole or in part. Please credit any text or original research you use to Tory Field and Beverly Bell, Other Worlds. Read the rest of this entry →