Nourishing Life in the Face of Oppression
Women discuss the global fight for food justice.
We at the Cultures of Resistance Network are always on the lookout for people who are creatively and effectively engaged in the many issues that surround the food we eat. Over the years, we have had the privilege of working with some of the most inspiring, cutting-edge groups in the global food sovereignty movement, many of which have helped forge connections between struggles on opposite sides of the world. Recently, we had the opportunity to bring together experts from three of our favorite groups to discuss these connections and to talk about the challenges and hopes of today’s global movement for peoples’ food sovereignty.
Taking part in the conversation was Tanya Kerssen, a researcher at the Oakland-based Food First, an organization that works to counter agribusiness’ arguments and lobbying. Kerssen also leads food sovereignty tours to encourage cross-border solidarity and organizing between people from across the Americas. Also joining the conversation was Diana Duarte, communications director at the international human rights organization MADRE, which provides resources and training to groups working to assert women’s rights to have a voice in decision-making processes. Finally, Sara Mersha joined us from Grassroots International, where she heads the advocacy program’s efforts to provide a voice in Washington for global food justice organizations. Our conversation pointed to some exciting examples of women-led food movements and to some of the challenges that lie ahead.
Women leading the work of resistance
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To start off our conversation, we talked about how food justice issues are often intimately connected with women’s rights issues. Kerssen (Food First) started by talking about women’s roles in resistance movements from the time of colonial conquest to the arrival of industry. Mersha (Grassroots International) and Duarte (MADRE) subsequently offered their thoughts.
Kerssen: At its core, food sovereignty is connected to women’s rights because it is about fixing unequal power relationships at multiple scales, from the global to the national to the community levels and all the way to the household. These unequal power relationships come from a long history of colonial and neocolonial development built on slavery and the exploitation of women’s unpaid labor at home. This free labor has historically served as a huge subsidy for the development of industrial capitalism. Basically, the food sovereignty movement has shifted the lens of development away from just looking at production—of commodities for profit—to looking at social reproduction, which has to do with food and everything else that sustains a family or community. This is often, though not always, the realm of women.
Mersha: We can point to a number of cases where women’s work with food on the local level is an act of resistance. On April 17th, 2012, an international day of peasant struggle, women across Honduras took over 12,000 hectares of land. That’s a lot of land, and they have continued to live on it, to produce on it, and to say, “This is ours.” Another really powerful example comes from Palestine, where women are running bee-keeping cooperatives. These are a way to produce honey and have a sustainable livelihood, but they can also be seen as acts of resistance to the Israeli occupation. As they work on their bee-keeping operations, which are located within hundreds of meters of the separation barrier, they are saying, “This is our resistance—this is one of the ways that we’re nourishing life in the face of so much oppression.”
Duarte: One example that comes to my mind is an organization in Sudan called Zenab for Women in Development. It works with women farmers in Sudan who, despite being the primary food providers in their communities, were not receiving the kinds of tools and resources that the Ministry of Agriculture was offering up to their male counterparts. These women were simultaneously facing the challenges of discrimination and the weather patterns that had become increasingly unpredictable due to climate change. Their solution was truly innovative and effective: they came together out of shared priorities and challenges to form the country’s first women’s farmers union. One of the things that we have seen is that when women farmers are empowered in this way, they turn around more successful harvests, which helps them better invest in their community. This organizing causes ripple effects that benefit far more than just one woman.
Creating space in which women can organize
Next, we turned to issues of how women have been able to carve out space for organizing. This topic yielded some lessons that are useful for any movement that strives to overcome patriarchy.
Kerssen: Although food sovereignty is very interrelated with the notion of women’s rights, women still face huge barriers to participation. The reality is that a lot of the loudest voices for progressive agrarian change have belonged to farmers unions that are dominated by men. This is something we see in all social movements and which requires active reflection. I think there are a lot of examples where farmers unions and traditional government structures have traditionally excluded women. But in many new social movements that have emerged in the last 15 years—in resistance to land grabs and neoliberalism, for instance—women have become 50/50 partners with their male counterparts.
Duarte: I think one point worth emphasizing is that the movement to promote food sovereignty is not unique in how women create a space for their leadership. I think that this is certainly something that persists across social movements and across geographies—women often have to be strategic and organize collectively to have their voices heard. In my experience, a movement is successful when women are able to have their perspectives heard in key spaces, and when we are able to find strength in the intersections between movements—between a women’s rights movement and an environmental justice movement for example. That’s something that as an organization we at MADRE try to prioritize.
Mersha: There are also a lot of mixed gender organizations in which men and women together are learning about the importance of women’s rights and gender equity. One of the other examples is a campaign that is based in West Africa, but goes across the African continent, called the “We are the Solution” campaign. It’s really interesting because it started off as collaboration of a number of different peasant organizations that were coming up with an alternative to the Green Revolution, called the Alliance for a Green Revolution for Africa, or AGRA. The idea was to resist all corporate-controlled seeds and high-input systems that are being pushed on small-scale African farmers. AGRA’s organizers are saying, “those are not going to work for us because we’re going to lose control.” Today, there is a coalition of 12 women-led family farming organizations that are driving the wider campaign. I think there are a lot of exciting evolutions in which women are taking leadership in the struggle for food sovereignty, and that men in a lot of places are following and recognizing the importance of that leadership.
Joining the global movement for food sovereignty
The Cultures of Resistance Network always looks to offer ways for regular people to plug into social movements, so we asked our three experts for advice. Though each had a unique answer, they all stressed the importance of staying informed and building networks in our own communities.
Kerssen: I think one thing is to become more engaged as a citizen in political processes, not just at the voting booth. In the U.S., a lot of policy, such as international military aid, directly effects social movements fighting for food sovereignty. Even something like the Farm Bill, which we think of as a piece of domestic legislation, has a tremendous impact on countries all over the world. I also want to say that the most important thing people can do is strengthen the social fabric in their own communities through food sovereignty, and to do so in active solidarity with global movements.
Duarte: Also, just to emphasize a point that was made earlier, whether it is election time or not, it is especially important for people to be politically engaged and active. This should be on every level, including with local representatives who often are the ones who makes these decisions.
Mersha: We are trying to build a locally-based internationalist movement for social justice. That includes food sovereignty and it includes women’s rights and it includes climate change. We need to be able to act in ways that range from the local level to the national level to the international level. I think there are a lot of actions that people can take here. Grassroots International has been part of the U.S. Food Sovereignty Alliance, which people can check out to find ways to build food sovereignty in their own communities. I think that while you’re creating a community garden or seed library, it is also important to talk to people about food struggles in Honduras or Nicaragua or Palestine, and to think of ways to act in solidarity with those movements.
To learn more about Food First, MADRE, and Grassroots International and to find information about how you can get involved, check out their websites. The CoR Network’s Make Food Not War page highlights a number of additional international movements for food sovereignty with which you can get involved.