Global Food System Inspires Global Activism

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By Ronit Ridberg

In part two of this two-part interview, Co-Coordinator of La Via Campesina’s North America region Dena Hoff talks about the different players in our global food system, and why we each of us needs to be an activist. To read part one, see La Via Campesina: Fighting for Food Sovereignty, Social Justice, Land Rights, and Gender Equity.

How does global agriculture and trade policy affect the environment, global hunger, and poverty?

“We want people to take an interest in the policies of their own countries, in the plight of family agriculture, family fishermen, migrant workers and landless workers, and get educated about what these people face” (photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

We had all the hype about how industrial agriculture was going to end hunger, how GMOs were going to end hunger, and look what’s happened. There’s a billion hungry people, almost a half a million of those are in the United States. Hunger is increasing, poverty is increasing, and all of the industrialization hasn’t done one single thing to end hunger, and we’ve been destroying the environment. So the solution actually turned out to be very, very damaging – far more damaging than the problems that we had before industrial agriculture was proposed as the solution to hunger and the environment.

Look at the deforestation for biofuels in Brazil, the destruction of traditional agriculture in Indonesia in favor of palm plantations for biofuels. Shoving people off the land and forcing them to the cities where there are no livelihoods is not the solution. Or forcing them to become slaves as is happening all over the world. We like to think that we’re in the twenty-first century, and slavery is something of the past: it isn’t. It’s worse. It’s getting worse every day. There are so many examples of people being forced into slavery, literally having their livelihoods taken away from them because somebody else wants to make a profit off of the resources that they made a modest living with. And then if they wish to survive they can become practically slave labor for these people who just took away their livelihood. So if that’s not slavery, I don’t know what the definition is.

Why are large scale land acquisitions, or land-grabs, problematic?

It’s problematic because there are a lot of places where land is owned communally, or there’s not a deed to the land, and it’s just land that communities have made their living with, in some places for over 1000 years, maybe more. And suddenly, this has a value beyond somebody’s livelihood, beyond somebody having to have food and shelter. And someone finds out they can make a profit, and they come in and take it.

Now in the case of Mali, Mali has put food sovereignty in their constitution – and then their President leases large amounts of arable land to the Saudis, for ten years. That’s totally against the constitution, it’s totally illegal, but there doesn’t seem to be a national or international mechanism to force governments to abide by their own laws and their own constitution. It just seems like increasingly the world is a more lawless place, where anything goes if it makes money.

What policies or programs are needed for more robust protection of land rights and land reform?

Well, first of all I wish the international court would actually take a look at what’s happening in countries where a lot of land grabbing is going on, and tell governments that this is not acceptable, and that you are being held up to international public scrutiny, and we’re not going to allow you to do this. Ultimately I guess it’s just the people having to take control. And that’s difficult, especially in governments where they just send the army in to kill you if you protest.

Do you think there’s any role for multinational corporations to play in improving the situation for farmers and peasants here and across the world?

I’m not sure that’s the role they want. Their mission is their bottom line, to pay dividends to their investors. Their mission is not to do good. Their mission is not to protect the environment or nurture societies. They’re doing what they’re set up to do, and they’ve been given far too many rights and too much power.  I mean, equal protection under the law for a corporation? A friend of mine who was inside used to say, “What kind of craziness is that?” Corporations have no soul to save and no ass to kick and they are totally unaccountable to anyone.

What happens when they do something ugly that causes people to lose their lives? If I would do something accidentally like kill someone in a traffic accident, that would be manslaughter, I would be brought up on charges, I would have to suffer the consequences. You don’t really hear about anyone in a corporation having to take responsibility for the lives they cause to be lost through their greed and negligence. They have the same protection as any individual, but I guess they don’t have the same responsibility.

How could agencies like the World Bank and UN Food and Agriculture Organization do a better job to support La Via Campesina’s mission?

They could do a better job by ensuring that people in countries that need food aid have access to means of production so that they can feed themselves, and not rely on charity. To make them self-reliant. Education, condemning the privatization of water, health care – the poorest people don’t get those basic things and they don’t get basic services, because they simply can’t pay. And all this hype about corporations being able to produce more – producing more is not the answer. You can go to the markets in the poorest countries and you can see mountains of food, and people starving to death right nearby. If they have no means to a livelihood, they have no means to feed themselves, and no means to make a living, then they can’t buy food. There can be all the extra food in the world, but if they don’t have money, they die.

How can people get involved to help La Via Campesina’s efforts?

We  always need people to hook up with our organizations in all of our countries, and support legislation in those countries that will turn governments around – so that they do the right thing for civil society and are not totally governed by corporations. We have six organizations in the U.S. that belong to Via Campesina. And we’re always looking for people who can help with translation.

We want people to take an interest in the policies of their own countries, in the plight of family agriculture, family fishermen, migrant workers and landless workers, and get educated about what these people face. And also how it impacts you! Because even if you think you are isolated and insulated from all the trouble that’s happening, it impacts everybody because everybody eats. Everybody eats!

If there are only huge massive plantations producing our food with basically slave labor, if workers have no rights, and the environment is just sneered at (because no-one enforces environmental laws), if human rights are not protected, and people are allowed to be brought into the country illegally or otherwise and then just dumped if they’re injured or hurt, and are not well paid – that does not reflect very well on us as a society or as people. Especially people that like to call themselves “good Christians”, and think that anybody who doesn’t look just like them should be shipped out, or denied services. That they shouldn’t be allowed to eat, that they shouldn’t have health care, that they shouldn’t be allowed to be educated because they “don’t belong.”

My family came as immigrants from Europe, and they had things to overcome too. I think people in this country should realize that unless you’re a Native American, you’re an immigrant – and [they should] identify with the new immigrants.

So much of La Via Campesina’s work is about mobilizing people. What agricultural or economic policies do you think could be implemented to address the needs of small-scale farmers and agricultural producers in order to help create the change you envision?

Certainly a decent farm bill with a farmer-owned reserve, and a farm bill that actually gives farmers a price so that they can live and support their communities. Because it isn’t just about farmers –I mean, the money they make supports a whole entire community, our states. And I think people need to understand the importance of agriculture to this country, and what happens to countries that let their agriculture go, and depend on importing all their food from somewhere else. There are plenty of examples in the world of countries that can no longer feed themselves because somebody decided it was cheaper or more intelligent to buy all their food from somebody else, and concentrate on economies that don’t feed people, and concentrate the wealth into the hands of just a very few.

Final thoughts:

Everybody has to become an activist, even if it’s just educating themselves. Even if it’s just making a phone call or planting a garden, or looking around and seeing if your neighbors are one of the one-in-eight people who are hungry. Be aware of what’s going on around you!

To read more about workers in our global food system, see: Giving Farm Workers a Voice, Depending on A Global Workforce, and Giving Farmworkers a Seat at the Negotiating Table.

Ronit Ridberg is a research intern for the Nourishing the Planet project.

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