Saturday, April 23, 2011

Food sovereignty

“Food Sovereignty is the Right of peoples, communities, and countries to define their own agricultural, labour, fishing, food and land policies, which are ecologically, socially, economically and culturally appropriate to their unique circumstances. It includes the true right to food and to produce food, which means that all people have the right to safe, nutritious and culturally appropriate food and to food producing resources and the ability to sustain themselves and their societies.”

The dialogue below is between a local farmer (LF) and a local government officer (LG). The discussion surrounds local issues of food sovereignty.

LG: First of all, we had better say way we mean by food sovereignty, don’t you think?

LF: Yes, of course. Well, I think food sovereignty is the right of everybody, wherever they live and whatever they choose to eat, to be able to say what the policies are towards agriculture – food production, if you prefer.

LG: Can you elaborate – explain more for me?

LF: Well, let’s begin with a family living in India – living in the countryside, growing their own food, rearing a few animals and consuming what they produce, and selling any surplus they may have in local markets to local people – neighbours.

LG: These people have presumably farmed this land for some time?

LF: Yes, for generations and generations – for hundreds of years, maybe even longer. They produce the food they need to live.

LG: So what is the issue?

LF: The trouble starts when someone comes along with deeds they have bought to the land that feeds us.

LG: What kind of trouble?

LF: We are then told we have to either vacate the land or else work on it for a wage.

LG: And what’s so wrong with that? At least you get a job to do?

LF: But we cannot then grow our own food. We must use the land to grow a cash crop – for bio-fuel – something we locals can’t eat – can’t use.

LG: Are there any problems associated with a change in land use?

LF: Certainly. Apart from us being virtually rendered homeless, the land suffers.

LG: How does the land suffer? What does that mean?

LF: It means that whereas when we lived off the land, growing and replenishing, the land could sustain us – sustain our activity, and we made sure it did.

LG: How?

LF: I said earlier that generations and generations of my family have lived on this land, didn’t I?

LG: Yes, you did. What of it?

LF: We know how to treat it as a living thing, rather than something to be used up, like gallon of petrol or a tin of coffee – to be discarded when it’s empty.

LG: But land is not a living thing. Land consists of soil and rock – that’s all. It isn’t a living object.

LF: That’s all you know. Like I said, we live on the land and ensure that we treat it with respect, putting back what we take.

LG: What do you take and what do you put back?

LF: We grow the food we lived on – meat as well as vegetation.

LG: But that is not taking anything from the land. The land is still there after you have reaped what you have sewn, isn’t it?

LF: Where do you think plants get what they need to grow?

LG: From the soil, of course, and from the water you provide.

LF: So, continually taking plants from the land is fine, is it?

LG: Yes, of course. Why wouldn’t it be? Like I said, the land is an inanimate object.

LF: And I tell you that you are wrong. Take a cubic meter of soil and discover what’s in it. You will find all kinds of living creatures, plant and animal, insects too.

LG: So?

LF: So who’s going to look after them – keep them alive, if we don’t?

LG: Who cares about a few earthworms and grubs?

LF: You are showing your ignorance, my friend. Everything – every living creature in the soil has its contribution to the fertility of that soil.

LG: But those creatures will still be there after the crop has been harvested, won’t they?

LF: And how will they live when what they need to survive has been taken?

LG: How has anything been taken?

LF: Do not plants take from the soil that has nourished them?

LG: I don’t know.

LF: Fine, it’s good to admit that you are ignorant – after all, you are not a farmer, you don’t depend on this land for your survival the way we do, the way earthworms and grubs do.

We depend upon the land, so we look after it. To us, it is a living thing – something alive that helps us to live. To you and others like you, it is just something that is there, to be used up, turned into money and then discarded. After all, there is plenty of land on the surface of the Earth, why not use it and then move on?

LG: But what else can businessmen or corporations - do? They can’t waste their time and their money – their resources looking after something that doesn’t pay dividends.

LF: But land always pays dividends, if you care for it like we do.

LG: But you have time to wait, plus you’re not going anywhere either, so you have patience to look after the land that supports you.

LF: And businessmen haven’t the time, is that right?

LG: Of course they haven’t. They have to be doing what they do best.

LF: Which is?

LG: Which is making money – getting the highest returns on their investment, that’s what they do.

LF: No matter what?

LG: How do you mean, no matter what?

LF: That in their calculations, their economic forecasts and their projections, they take no account of people, or land, or animals, earthworms and grubs?

LG: Of course not. How could they factor in such diverse things?

LF: So because they can’t factor certain essentials into their economics, they pretend – sorry – assume they do not exist?

LG: I suppose so, yes. What do you suggest they do?

LF: Scale down their projects – slow them down – until such factors can be considered.

LG: But then the returns would take longer to make. They might even lose money.

LF: And they reckon that losing money is far worse than losing life, do they?

LG: That’s ridiculous. Businessmen and corporations don’t set out to destroy life.

LF: But they do so just the same, don’t they? They buy up land that is not for sale; exploit it until it does not yield returns, and move on to the next piece of land.

They have deadlines to meet, figures to gain, money to make. They are not in what they do for anything else but making money, whereas we local farmers do have to consider things other than money.

LG: Such as what?

LF: Well, we have to consider everyone around us, not just our immediate family, not just our friends, but everyone in our community. Do you see that man playing in the sand over there?

LG: Yes, what about him?

LF: He is thirty something years old, and yet he is still like a little child, in his mind. See, he is playing with empty cans, filling them with sand and setting them out as if he was selling something. He is imitating the shopkeepers hereabouts.

LG: Well, what is your point?

LF: Look at his clothes, are they clean or dirty?

LG: They are spotless, apart from a few spots from the sand he is playing with.

LF: And how do you think he manages to keep his clothes clean like that?

LG: I suppose his mother washes them.

LF: He has no mother or father. They died long ago.

LG: So who looks after him? Who washes his clothes? Who feeds him?

LF: We all do. Everybody in this village has something of his to wash and give him to wear when his clothes get dirty. Everybody feeds him. He sleeps in a bed in someone’s house every night, and wakes up to find clean clothes to put on after he has washed.

LG: But why do you do that? He cannot pay you?

LF: His family paid us when they were alive.

LG: In money?

LF: Not at all, for they had little money – like the rest of us. They paid in being.

LG: In being. What do you mean?

LF: They lived amongst us, in that house over there. They tilled the soil that surrounds their home, and they helped us harvest when the time came. We all helped each other – we all live like that. Obligations go beyond the grave with us.

LG: With obligations to each other?

LF: Exactly, and those obligations were not contractual ones such as those that bind workers to corporations – financial ones grounded in manmade laws, but unspoken obligations, tacit understandings that you cannot put a price on.

LG: Then if they have no price on them, are they not worthless?

LF: Not at all, the opposite is true. Being tacitly understood, they are the more readily accepted, unchallenged, and being so are binding in ways that contractual obligations like the ones you speak of can never be.

LG: But if someone doesn’t conform to his contractual obligations, he loses is living, his job.

LF: You say that if he doesn’t conform – in our world, that is not a possibility. We are born into the system in our neighbourhoods. We know what we need to do for ourselves, and we know what there is to be done for others. What we do for others, they do for us. Now tell me that our way is less binding than the way of the corporations and those they employ.

LG: But what has this to do with the land that sustains you?

LF: We have an unwritten obligation to it – to look after it – to nourish it so that
it will continue to nourish and feed us. If we default on our obligations to the land, we suffer, and the land suffers too. The earthworms and the grubs suffer, and we suffer more. We know the value of everything, not just in terms of notes and coins – money, but in something far deeper, far more significant than mere spending stuff. We know the real value of the land we farm, and everything in it too. Most people round here can pick up a handful of soil and tell you in a minute how that soil is – whether it is healthy soil or whether it needs something – to be left fallow for a season, perhaps – to be allowed to recover, like someone who is sick needs rest to recover from an illness.

We know the land, we care for the land, and it is our right to continue caring for it. No piece of paper drawn up in an office in a city a thousand miles away, in another country, by people who have never so much as set one foot on our land, can, with justice and right, deny us our rights to farm it, live off it and nurture it as we would one of our children. It looks after us so we look after it. That is something more lasting, more binding than a contract with a bottom line of so much money.
Robert L. Fielding

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