La Via Campesina: Fighting for Food Sovereignty, Social Justice, Land Rights and Gender Equity

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By Ronit Ridberg

In part one of this two-part interview, Dena Hoff talks about La Via Campesina’s vision of social change, and how the agricultural challenges faced around the world are not always so different from those faced in the U.S.

Name: Dena Hoff

Affiliation: Co-coordinator for North America for La Via Campesina

Location: Eastern Montana

Bio: Dena Hoff is a farmer and activist in Eastern Montana, where she has raised sheep, cattle, alfalfa, corn, edible dry beans and other crops, with her husband since 1979. In addition to her work with Via Campesina, Hoff is Vice President of the National Family Farm Coalition and former Chair of the Northern Plains Resource Council.

Via Campesina has been credited with coining the term “food sovereignty.” Can you describe what it means and how your work supports and promotes it?

Dena Hoff (left), and Edgardo Garcia from La Via Campesina Central American Region, accept the Food Sovereignty prize in Des Moines last fall on behalf of La Via Campesina. (Photo credit: Carlos Marentes)

Food sovereignty is about a system of agriculture where people get to decide their own food and agricultural policies in their own countries without being dictated by foundations or institutions like the WTO or the IMF or the World Bank or trade agreements. People decide what they’re going to eat, who’s going to produce it, what’s going to be produced. And more than that, it’s a whole life system that is sustainable, that respects Mother Earth, that respects human rights and the rights of people to live in dignity, to be well-fed, to be reasonably taken care of, have a decent standard of living. Everything that food sovereignty encompasses is human rights, women’s rights and education: everything that makes a good life and protects the planet.

Via Campesina is a very large social movement. We’re not a legal entity at all, but we are made up of groups around the world. We think that we have as many as 300 million members, though we’ve never been able to get a direct number. We’re growing, growing, growing because people realize that we can only change the world into a place where everybody can live and a world where everybody wants to live by banding together, standing together, sharing each other’s stories and showing solidarity. We need to educate people: people who are not farmers but who of course are eaters, people who care about the environment, people who care about human rights and social justice and the environment – they need to be part of this movement. It’s going to take everyone.

There are too few people who control the power, who control the resources, who control the wealth of the world, and the destiny of the rest of us. I don’t like anybody pulling my strings. I am not a puppet, I am an independent human being and I have wishes and dreams and fears for my own family, my children, my grandchildren, my nieces, my nephews, my community. And I want to see these things become reality and I’m just willing to just keep working forever.

The biggest part of that responsibility is educating other people, and getting them to stand up to power and that’s a very difficult thing. People do not like conflict, people do not like to stand up to power. They have some idea that the people who are in power are smarter than they are and have something that they don’t have – if only they knew that those people who are controlling their lives are just ordinary people!

Until we give people the confidence to take back control of their own lives and their communities, nothing is going to change. It’s a big, big, task. But it should hearten people to know that there are millions, and millions, and millions, and millions of people around the world who are very dedicated to doing this, and who are willing to do it.

What role does gender play in La Via Campesina’s work?

Gender is extremely important, because most of the world’s farmers are women! And a lot of those women are hungry women, because they are the people who are being forced off land, have no access to resources and no access to credit. We also started a campaign in Mozambique at our Fifth International Assembly against violence against women. So we have that international campaign, and the young people have just taken it up! They have put on plays, and they have dramas, and they are doing literature and are going around to communities and educating people on why it is so important that women have an equal voice, equal rights and equal opportunities.

Gender balance is very important to us. There will never be any real equity in the world until women are seen as equal partners, standing shoulder to shoulder with men. One of our original seven pillars was gender. We also fought very hard in 2000 for gender parity on our coordinating committee, and we got it – we have a male and a female for each of the assigned regions.

We have a lot of programs in a lot of countries also for training women: in agriculture, in literacy, and also in political training. So that they have an understanding of what’s impacting their lives. We also have programs that help them develop means of making a living, so it’s very important.

What are some of the similarities between what’s happening to agriculture across the world, and what’s happening here in the U.S.?

Land grabs happen in this country too (see: Large Scale Land Investments Do Not Benefit Local Communities). In my neighborhood, groups of bankers or lawyers or investors are investing in farmland because I guess they think they’re going to get a better return than on some other thing. And farmers have no recourse. I mean no-one here who wanted to expand or who wanted to help one of their children get started in agriculture, they can’t possibly match those prices. The land is lost for agriculture. A great big and lovely farming ranch along the Yellowstone River went to a real estate developer from Maryland who’s now running for the legislature in Montana. Land is being turned into hunting or fishing places or little retreats – it’s not being used for agriculture.

Look at what’s happening in Detroit. They have torn down about forty buildings in downtown  Detroit, they’re going to tear down about that many more. And there are a lot of vacant lots that can be used for urban agriculture. But, there’s a big developer who wants to commercialize it for profits instead of the city giving the lots over to the community for urban farming. So there’s a big fight going on in Detroit – that’s land grabbing, isn’t it?

I belong to the Northern Plains Resource Council, that’s my state organization in Montana. They have, for years, been trying to protect family agriculture, educate people about the importance of it and protect it from energy developers and speculators. The National Family Farm Coalition has been involved since 1987 in policy work in Washington, DC, trying to get a decent farm bill so that we can protect our family agriculture. But when you go lobby, you hear “We don’t need American farmers, we can import everything cheaper.” Congressmen will actually say that to you.

So my question has always been: If transportation, communication  and energy are a matter of national security, shouldn’t food be a matter of national security? Shouldn’t water be a matter of national security? Instead of just a commodity for someone to make money from?

Stay tuned for part two of this interview where Hoff talks about global agricultural policy and the role that government, intergovernmental agencies, industry, and consumers play in this food system. To read more about food sovereignty, see Creating Food Sovereignty for Small-Scale Farmers, Re-Directing Ag Funding to Small-Scale Farmers for Improved Food Security and AFSA Calls on African Leaders to Remember Farmers in Climate Change Negotiations.

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

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