In what was probably the world’s poorest international conference, about five hundred participants were crammed into a makeshift “auditorium” - actually a huge open-air tent put up in the midst of an almost barren landscape - in the small town of Selingue, Mali. Every now and then, a wind would blow into the tent, but instead of cooling down the crowd, it only brought in more dust and bad odours from the nearby rows of public loos which had been completed only a few days before.
The shabby conditions, however, seemed a perfect fit for the theme of the Nyeleni 2007 Forum for Food Sovereignty. The six-day programme was initiated by and for the underprivileged worldwide, whose major concern may be their next meal. Among the five-hundred-plus in attendance were small-scale farmers and fishermen, indigenous peoples, landless migrant workers, pastoralists, and NGOs who have been working with the rural and urban poor. The name “Nyeleni” was deliberately chosen as a tribute to a legendary Malian peasant woman who was highly respected for her ability to farm and to feed her people (see related story).
For every single meal during the conference, participants had to form a long queue for their rations of food. One could not help but wonder if the organisers had intentionally set it up this way to expose them to the grim realities of the lack of food security in many parts of the world.
While waiting for their meals, participants discussed the differences between food security and food sovereignty. According to the international activist association Via Campesina (see box story), one of the conference’s organisers, “food sovereignty” goes beyond the concept of food security, which basically means that everyone must have the certainty of having enough to eat each day. But the term says nothing about where that food comes from or how it is produced.
Food sovereignty is the right of peoples to define their own healthy diet and agricultural practices; to protect and regulate domestic production and trade in order to achieve sustainable development.
"Food sovereignty does not negate trade, but rather, it promotes the formulation of trade policies and practices that serve the rights of peoples to safe, healthy and ecologically sustainable production", reads one of Via Campesina’s many statements.
Since 1996, Via Campesina has initiated many conferences related to food security and sovereignty, and many poor farmers and allied groups from around the world have left the meetings with a deepened understanding of the issues. Jorni Odochao, one of seven Thai delegates at the Mali meeting, said that what he had learned gave him more confidence in the farming practices of his indigenous Karen group in Chiang Mai.
"We have been producing food in a way which is suited to our culture, using the local ingredients. We produce enough for our families, but we’re concerned with preserving our forest as we have to think about the next generation," said the community leader.
Ahmad Taheri, a farmer from Iran, said farmers from across the globe were being taken advantage of.
Jorni Odochao, an indigenous leader from Thailand, trying to communicate with a local hunter in Mali. They formed a friendship even though they cannot speak the same language.
“Big corporations are behind many policies that are imposed on people around the world. Even if we can produce food enough to supply our people, they often say it is not enough and encourage us to use GM (genetically modified) seeds. This leads to a loss of our seed varieties.”
The meeting was aimed at strengthening the dialogue between different sectors and interest groups, and sought a better understanding of their analyses, goals and strategies for working together. The organisers divided the discussion themes into seven areas which cover some of the most crucial issues related to food sovereignty, such as trade policies and local markets, local knowledge and technology, and production models and their impacts on food sovereignty, people, livelihood and environment.
The Thai delegation was made up of a varied group, representing the country’s landless, fisher folk, indigenous peoples, migrant workers and urban poor. Each delegate was interested in pursuing different themes. Due to the shortage of interpreters, however, some of these had to be abandoned.
For example, Lamduan Serathong is one of those who were affected by the construction of the Pak Moon dam. She had wanted to learn and share in the session called “Access to and Control over Natural Resources for Food Sovereignty”. The theme is very crucial to her, as her access to the Moon River has been prevented since the dam construction was competed in 1994. She blamed what she calls the “dominant development model that has been sponsored by the World Bank”.
Said Lamduan:“The dam has prevented at least 6,000 families from fishing in the river. The mega project has violated our right to fish, and therefore our food and cultural security. Many of us have had to migrate to big cities to find work.”
One of the most popular themes, which about 200 delegates participated in, was the one entitled “Trade Policies and Local Markets.”
There were initially big discussions involving all participants. Later, delegates were divided into five regional groupings. Thai delegates took their place in the Southeast and East Asian discussion.
The temperature outside the auditorium was sweltering, but inside it was also on the rise, as the topics up for discussion are burning issues in every corner of the world. Not least of these was the matter of international trade.
Yoon Geum-Soon, president of the Korea Women Peasants Association, said that Korean farmers have been fighting against policies to open their country’s agricultural markets for several years.
In recent years, Korean farmers have encountered problems resulting from both multilateral World Trade Organisation (WTO) agreements and bilateral free trade agreements (FTAs).
"Based on the information issued by our own government, we can expect that the agricultural sector will go bankrupt if the FTA between Korea and the US is concluded, because farmers’ incomes will be reduced by half,“remarked Soon, adding that Korean farmers would likely even be forced to import rice from the US if it is cheaper than domestic rice, because of the subsidies which are commonly given to US farmers. Korean farmers are able to produce more than enough rice for domestic consumption.”The Korea-US FTA will devastate Korean food sovereignty," Yoon predicted.
The Korean farmers’ movement is considered a role model for struggling farmers worldwide, and their actions speak louder than their words. Yoon told the meeting that the Korean Peasants League and 42 other farmers groups had established an agro-livestock committee in order to stop the FTA. Moreover, last April they enlisted the help of movie stars, partly because film actors are also affected because of language in the FTA on screen quotas.
Yoon also told audiences at the conference of strategies used by the farmers’ alliances in fighting against FTAs, for example the sit-in in Seoul last June. She said they have organised many rallies and protests and can mobilise about one million farmers to participate.
They also organised an educational forum in July, giving lectures for rural people so that they can initiate the public debate on solid ground.
Notably, in this international conference there was a spirit of solidarity in evidence, of alliances being strengthened and differences being bridged. For example, there was none of the historical bitterness between Japanese and Korean farmers. They were sitting together in small group discussions and speaking in similar tones of concern.
Japanese farmers expressed the idea that food sovereignty is crucial for them because a stable supply of wholesome food is a basic requirement for their children and the entire nation. They said Japan’s heavy dependency on US grains and soybeans has made consumers guinea pigs for genetically modified food. About 72 percent of grains consumed in the country are imported.
The Japan Family Farmers Movement, also known as Nominren, expressed its opposition to its own government policies which promote FTAs and Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs).
"We demand that the government implement more strict regulations toward TNCs (transnational companies) and build new international relationships based on peace, reciprocity and equality," said Mashima Takayoshi, the vice president of Nominren.
Moreover, the organisation says the “waste colonialism” that is implied in some of these agreements cannot be permitted. Other Japanese citizen’s groups have also urged the government to remove clauses which allow the export of waste to developing countries, and seek national self-sufficiency in the management of wastes. The groups submitted their letters of concern to their government in February.
Free time was also used for discussion. Farmers from different countries organised their own small meetings to strengthen the affinity between different sectors and interest groups. For example, Thai delegates organised many meetings with farmers from Japan, Korea and the Philippines, where they exchanged information and got to know each other as people with problems similar to their own.
"I have learned that small scale Japanese farmers are also affected by trade liberalisation. The Japanese people are dependent on imported foods, at the cost of the destruction of their domestic agriculture," said Ubol Yoowah, a Thai farmer leader from Northeastern province of Thailand.
He also found out that many Japanese workers are earning lower wages so that Japanese manufacturers can try to compete with low-cost imports. Both Japanese farmers and workers want to realise the merits of their hard work.
Thai farmers exchanged ideas and swapped stories with farmers from Cuba and Venezuela, and formulated plans with farmers from Brazil, Mali and other West African countries for farmers exchange programmes.
Rangsan Saensongkuae, another Thai farming leader from the North, agreed that the many rounds of discussion proved people around the world have so many things in common.
“We face similar problems, such as no property rights on our own traditional lands. The most threatening problem is the invasion of TNCs, which have taken advantage of small people around the world.”Fortunately, I have seen many small people who are ready to unite, and we will fight together," added Rangsan.
Many people have the perception that African countries are lacking in the ability to produce enough food to feed their people, or that the land is mostly non-arable. But Mali is an eye opener. The ecologically friendly agricultural practises have provided food sovereignty to the people.
Dena Barry is one of many Malian milk producers in Selingue. He has 20 cows, who supply more than enough milk for the needs of the 21 members of his family. He sells the surplus to the local market. Dena and other cooperative members practise pastoralism, a subsistence pattern in which people make their living by tending herds of large animals. Their cows feed chiefly on natural grass. Their profits depend on the seasons. For example, they will get less income during the summer as the grass is not so abundant.
The milk produced from the cows yields 250-300 Communaut financire d’Afrique (CFA) francs per litre at the market (one US dollar = 450 CFA francs).
“We get more money when the weather is favourable, but whatever we get, we are happy,” Dena said with a smile.
Thai farmers had the opportunity to visit Malian farms in different locations in Mali. In Segou province, a rice-growing area in the Niger River basin, the fields stretched beyond the imagination, dispelling more preconceived notions of Africa. Farmer Bino Kene of Konondimini village in Segou grows, sorghum, cassava and other root crops as well as rice. On average, he is able to harvest about two tonnes of paddy rice per hectare, which brings about 210 CFA francs a kilo.
After these visits, Ubol commented that no matter how unprolific a piece of land might look, if the agricultural practices are in line with a respect for nature, it will certainly give substantial yields.
"Look at Timbuktu. It is a trans-Saharan area, but the area is rich in livestock. It reveals to me that even such desolate land can feed human beings when we respect it’s ecology and find a suitable way to exploit it at a minimum level."
Jorni expressed his feeling that the international meeting on food sovereignty was a vibrant venue for common people around the world to come together and share their ideas and resources.
Commenting on the senselessness of bickering over food in a world where the right agricultural philosophy yields a bountiful harvest, the Karen elder made an analogy that compared transnational corporations to tigers: “If we compete against one another for food like chickens, who have small mouths and can eat only a few seeds at a time, we might have no power left to fight a tiger that has been watching and waiting to prey on us.”
The Forum for Food Sovereignty held recently in Mali was supported by an alliance of international social movements, namely La Via Campesina, ROPPA (Network of Farmers and Agricultural Producers Organisations of West Africa), the World March of Women, the World Forum of Fish Harvesters and Fish workers, the World Forum of Fisher Peoples, the International Planning Committee on Food Sovereignty, The Food Sovereignty Network, and Friends of the Earth. Many heads of the state from around the world have also expressed support.
President Amadou Toumani Toure of Mali gave a speech on the first day of the conference in support of the central theme of food sovereignty. President Hugo Rafael Chavez Frias of Venezuela was unable to attend, but sent representatives and a videotaped message to the forum in which he congratulated participants for their work. He pronounced his government in favour of food sovereignty and said the policy was being written in Venezuela’s constitution.
The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations also sent a representative.
The chief organiser, Via Campesina, a Spanish term which refers to the international farmers movement. The organisation coordinates farmers organisations of small and middle-scale producers, agricultural workers, rural women, and indigenous communities from Asia, Africa, America, Latin America and Europe. They are a coalition of over 100 organisations, advocating family-farm-based sustainable agriculture and were the group that first coined the term “food sovereignty”.
Through long-term planning and discussions to find the needs of members, the organisation came up with the Forum for Food Sovereignty.
The global struggle for the maginalised received generous support from many activists who volunteered to be translators, interpreters and technicians. As well, farmers and housewives in Mali played a key role in making the forum a success.
The reports, declaration and action plan from the conference can all be found at the website: http://www.nyeleni2007.org