Land as the Basis of Sovereignty: Palestinian farmers awarded Food Sovereignty Prize

Tanya M. Kerssen and Teresa K. Miller | 10.09.2014
his approach
to love he said
was that of a farmer
most love like
hunters and like
hunters most kill
what they desire
he tills
soil through toes
nose in the wet
earth he waits
prays to the gods
and slowly harvests
ever thankful
 
“Land” by Palestinian poet Suheir Hammad

 

On October 15, 2014, the Palestinian Union of Agricultural Work Committees (UAWC) will receive the sixth annual Food Sovereignty Prize along with the US farmworker organization Community to Community. Awarded by the US Food Sovereignty Alliance, the Food Sovereignty Prize recognizes movements working for a more democratic food system around the world. This year—following a brutal campaign of Israeli rocket attacks on Gaza that killed over 2,000 Palestinians—the selection of UAWC as a Food Sovereignty Prize winner strikes an emotional chord. It is a powerful reminder that there can be no sovereignty—let alone food sovereignty—under conditions of military occupation and war. It also reminds us that food justice and food sovereignty are fundamentally rooted in control over land and resources; cultural and political self-determination; and freedom from all forms of violence.

Once the backbone of the Palestinian economy, farming in the Palestinian territories has dropped from 28 percent of GDP in 1993 to only 5.8 percent today. Between 1967 and 2012, the percentage of Palestinians employed in agriculture fell from 46 percent of the workforce to 11.4 percent. [1. Palestinian National Authority Central Bureau of Statistics, “Press Report Economic Forecasting, 2012” December 2011. http://82.213.38.42/Portals/_pcbs/PressRelease/EcoEstimate2012E.pdf.] Loss of access to water is central to this precipitous decline. With almost complete control of the aquifers in the occupied Palestinian territories, Israel has drilled deep wells to supply its settlements, causing water tables to drop dramatically, especially in the West Bank. [2. Palestinian Ministry of National Economy, The Economic Costs of the Israeli Occupation for the Occupied Palestinian Territory. September 2011. http://www.un.org/depts/dpa/qpal/docs/2012Cairo/p2%20jad%20isaac%20e.pdf.] While half of Palestinian wells have dried up over the last twenty years, farmers must pay for water to be trucked in for irrigation, raising the cost of production for Palestinian crops. [3. Hugh Naylor, “Palestinians Struggle to Farm in the West Bank” The National, Feb. 17, 2013. Accessed Feb. 5, 2014. http://www.thenational.ae/news/world/middle-east/palestinians-struggle-to-farm-in-west-bank.]

The selection of UAWC as a Food Sovereignty Prize winner is a powerful reminder that there can be no sovereignty—let alone food sovereignty—under conditions of military occupation and war.

Due to water scarcity, few Palestinians farm anymore, and those who do generally opt for rain-fed olive tree production. Palestinian trees, however, are routinely vandalized or uprooted, especially near settlement areas. The Applied Research Institute of Jerusalem estimates that about 2.5 million mostly fruit-bearing trees on Palestinian lands have been uprooted since 1967. [4. Cited in Palestinian Ministry of National Economy 2011, Op Cit.] The flood of low-cost Israeli food imports also undercuts Palestinian farmers in their local markets, and the high transaction costs of navigating Israeli checkpoints (delays, special permits, additional fuel) and roadblocks make accessing export markets exceedingly difficult. Beyond agriculture, since 2009 Israel has reduced Palestinian fishing areas to three nautical miles from shore, cutting Palestinians off from the best fishing waters and relegating a once-wealthy fishing population to food aid dependence. [5. “Fishing for Justice: A Fact Sheet about fishing in the Gaza Strip” Grassroots International, n.d. Accessed Oct. 8, 2014. http://www.grassrootsonline.org/publications/fact-sheets-reports/fishing-justice-fact-sheet-about-fishing-gaza-strip.]

In the most recent Israeli military campaign—between July 8 and August 26, 2014—widespread civilian casualties were compounded by the massive loss of productive assets such as businesses, cropland, greenhouses, irrigation systems and fishing boats. [6. OCHA, “Occupied Palestinian Territory: Gaza Emergency Situation Report” August 4, 2014. Accessed Oct. 8, 2014. http://www.ochaopt.org/documents/ocha_opt_sitrep_04_08_2014.pdf.] Additionally, one quarter of the Palestinian population of Gaza—nearly half a million people—was displaced by the conflict, with the vast majority of displaced persons requiring emergency food assistance. [7. OCHA, “Occupied Palestinian Territory: Gaza Emergency Situation Report” Op Cit.] This is on top of previous vulnerability: 72 percent of Gazan households were already characterized as food insecure prior to the most recent crisis. [8. OCHA, “Occupied Palestinian Territory: Gaza Emergency Situation Report” Op Cit.]

This important prize inspires UAWC to carry on its work defending Palestinian farmers’ rights through supporting small-scale farmers and fishermen toward their food sovereignty and rights to land and water. -Khaled Hidan, General Director of UAWC

In the face of this near-constant state of crisis in the Palestinian territories, organizations like the Palestinian Union of Agricultural Work Committees (UAWC) have emerged to defend Palestinian land and resources in the West Bank and Gaza. Founded in 1986, UAWC’s work includes land reclamation; olive oil marketing; water resource management; training in animal husbandry; supporting women’s leadership; and building cooperative seed banks and farmer cooperatives. UAWC’s flagship project is its National Bank for Local Seeds, which “dries, processes, stores, and documents local seeds with the vision of more organic, healthy and environmentally friendly produce” and provides free seeds to families relying on dry-farmed crops. [9. La Vía Campesina, “La Via Campesina congratulates the Union of Agricultural Work Committees (UAWC): Equator Prize 2014” June 11, 2014. Accessed Oct. 8, 2014. http://viacampesina.org/en/index.php/main-issues-mainmenu-27/biodiversity-and-genetic-resources-mainmenu-37/1616-la-via-campesina-congratulates-the-union-of-agricultural-work-committees-uawc-equator-prize-2014.] Over the last fifteen years—a period of deteriorating living conditions for Palestinians, especially famers—the organization has focused primarily on emergency projects such as distributing farm inputs; promoting home gardens; providing drinking water; and delivering aid. [10. UAWC, “Background” Accessed Oct. 7, 2014. http://uawc-pal.org/articleen.aspx?ano=85.]

For Khaled Hidan, General Director of UAWC, the Food Sovereignty Prize is an important vindication of their struggle:

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This important prize inspires UAWC to carry on its work defending Palestinian farmers’ rights against the brutal Israeli violations, both through supporting small-scale farmers and fishermen toward their food sovereignty and rights to land and water, and also through coordination with local and international movements for social justice and human rights. [11. US Food Sovereignty Alliance, “U.S. Farmworkers and Palestinian Farmers Share 2014 Food Sovereignty Prize” Sept. 9, 2014. http://foodsovereigntyprize.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/FSP-2014-Press-Release-Honorees-Announcement.pdf Accessed Sept. 17, 2014.]

The struggle of farmers in occupied Palestine illustrates that hunger is not a simple question of scarcity, which can be solved by increasing production with technological fixes. Rather, it is a matter of injustice that often involves ruthless displacement and the violation of people’s right to life. By awarding this year’s Food Sovereignty Prize to UAWC, the US Food Sovereignty Alliance has made a strong statement: sovereignty is fundamentally about land—and food sovereignty is about the people’s right to the land that feeds us all.

Click here to learn more about the Sixth Annual Food Sovereignty Prize ceremony, which will take place Oct. 15th in DesMoines, Iowa.

This article is adapted from Food First’s Winter 2013-14 Backgrounder Five Global Threats to the Survival of Family Farms in the International Year of Family Farming by Tanya Kerssen.