Hunger is Political: Food Sovereignty Prize Honors Social Movements
By Tanya Kerssen
"Hunger is not a question of production, it's a question of justice, democracy and political will," said New York community food activist Karen Washington last Wednesday (Oct. 10th) to kick off the Fourth Annual Food Sovereignty Prize ceremony, hosted by WHY Hunger in New York City. Four remarkable organizations were honored at the ceremony, demonstrating the depth and diversity of the global movement for food sovereignty: the Korean Women's Peasant Association, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers of Florida, the National Fisheries Solidarity Association of Sri Lanka and the Unified Peasant Movement of Aguán, Honduras.
Washington's opening remarks embodied the spirit of the Food Sovereignty Prize, which was first awarded in 2009 as an alternative to the World Food Prize founded by the late Dr. Norman Borlaug, father of the Green Revolution. Whereas the World Food Prize recognizes technical achievements by individuals, the Food Sovereignty Prize recognizes the work of communities, organizations and social movements to bring about a more just, healthy and sustainable food system.
It is an important distinction, one that points to two conflicting views of the causes of hunger: the first, championed by Borlaug and his followers, that hunger is caused by insufficient production in a growing world; and the second, that hunger is caused by the maldistribution of food, wealth, land and political power.
These differing explanations lead to vastly different solutions. The former puts its faith in experts and politicians, located in laboratories and the halls of power, to come up with the "next big thing" such as a new high-yielding or GMO seed. The latter sees solutions largely in the everyday innovations and struggles of farmers, fishers, pastoralists, farmworkers and urban consumers--those most impacted by the injustices of the global food system.
And those most impacted, as Jeomok Bak of the Korean Women's Peasant Association (KWPA) reminded us, are often women, who around the world shoulder the burden of satisfying family nutrition in the face of momentous challenges like rising food prices, climate change, violent conflict and rural out-migration. KWPA received the highest honor at this year's Food Sovereignty Prize, for promoting food sovereignty and women's rights in South Korea for more than two decades.
KWPA runs hands-on training programs preserving native seeds and linking women farmers to local consumers to ensure a sustainable and healthy food supply. But KWPA, along with the Korean Peasants League (KPL) and dozens of other Korean food and farm movements, have recognized that this grassroots work--and indeed, the very survival of small-scale farmers--is threatened by a global model that privileges free trade and industrial agriculture. They've become a powerful voice not only in their communities, but on the global stage, leading campaigns against the World Trade Organizations (WTO) and bilateral trade agreements with the United States and European Union.
Bak dedicated the prize to Korean peasant women and peasant women everywhere (raising her arms above her head to form a heart for the camera that was broadcasting the event live to viewers around the word--you can watch video of the event here)
Corporate, industrial agriculture brings with it not only the displacement and impoverishment of peasant food producers, but also the exploitation of workers (who are often former peasants) throughout the food chain. In Florida--where 90% of the U.S.'s winter tomatoes are grown--tomato pickers are paid 45-50 cents per 32 pound bucket, with brutal working conditions under the blistering Florida sun. They are primarily immigrants from Latin America, Haiti and Africa, working for some of the largest corporations in the world.
Founded in 1993, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) of Immokalee, Florida has formed one of the most formidable social'movements advocating for farmworker rights. The organization has won numerous battles to improve working conditions, including access to shade and water, increased wages, and the ability to report abuses (including all too common gender-based violence and harassment) without fear of reprisal. As CIW leader Lucas Benítez stepped on stage to accept the Food Sovereignty Prize, the crowd cheered wildly in celebration of the most recent victory: an agreement with the fast food chain Chipotle to join the CIW's Fair Food Program, which ensures a minimum wage and basic working conditions under the Fair Food Standards Council.
The CIW is a testament to what food and farm workers can achieve with strong social movements and alliances with consumers. "The road has been difficult," said Benítez, "but we have walked it together, with our allies all over the country."
Perhaps most conspicuous at this year's Food Sovereignty Prize ceremony, however, were the absences. Representatives from the National Fisheries Solidarity Movement of Sri Lanka (NAFSO) and the Unified Peasant Movement of Aguán, Honduras (MUCA) were unable to obtain visas to attend the event. (NAFSO representatives were denied visas by the U.S. and MUCA representatives were arrested during a peaceful protest and prevented from leaving the country)
Despite their geographical distance, these organizations have a powerful experience in common: militarized repression of peasant communities coupled with mega development projects that threaten their livelihoods. It is an increasingly common experience, especially in the global South, as peasants face a new and intense global "land grab" by investors, agribusinesses and powerful elites.
In the late 1990s, Sri Lanka was emerging from a 26-year civil war that displaced
thousands of people, especially ethnic Tamils from the northern and eastern regions. Despite the end of the military conflict, a climate of violence and fear persisted, as the government and international aid agencies pursued an agenda of industrializing coastal regions for large-scale aquaculture and tourism. After the devastating Indian Ocean Tsunami in 2004, efforts to grab the coastline in the name of "reconstruction" intensified, blocking fishing people from returning to their homes.
NAFSO began its work in 1997, conducting political seminars and trainings for fishing communities on how to defend and reclaim their lands and livelihood rights. NAFSO is now active in numerous international networks, promoting food'sovereignty and human rights and equality for all fishing communities.
In Honduras, the end of Central America's bloody civil wars similarly led to a period of violent neoliberal development, with the government and international lenders pursuing a dramatic expansion of textile manufacturing (maquilas), mega-tourism and industrial oil palm plantations. In the fertile Aguán Valley region of Northern Honduras, powerful elites grabbed peasant lands for corporate palm oil production. 2,500 peasant families formed MUCA in 2001 to recover their lands and fight for agrarian reform. A coup d'état in June 2009, however, unleashed a wave of violence against Aguán peasants--as well as workers, teachers, journalists and others--throughout the country.
This post-coup government, as Honduras Solidarity Network representative Lucy Paguada told the crowd, is supported by the United States, which continues to fund and provide training for Honduran security forces under a brutal regime in the name of the War on Drugs. Over sixty Aguán peasants, many of whom were members of MUCA, have been murdered since the coup. Despite the violence, MUCA continues its nonviolent struggle to resist land grabs, while also operating several model food sovereignty projects raising vegetables, chickens and fish, and providing education and health care at makeshift schools and clinics throughout the valley.
In a moving video acceptance speech, MUCA leader Yoni Rivas noted that the criminalization of peasant movements is a huge obstacle to achieving food sovereignty: "It is important for the people of North America to realize that we are not criminals or armed groups the way we've been represented in the media. No, we are peasants who present our proposals to the government. We point out problems, such as the problem of land. We are peasants who just want a better quality of life for our families."
Rivas' words drove home a powerful reality: food sovereignty is not just an ideal. It is a struggle for democracy and redistributive justice, and one that faces violent persecution. As keynote speaker UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food Olivier De Schutter succinctly put it, "The problem of hunger is not a technical question. It is a political question."
Tanya Kerssen is a researcher at Food First/Institute for Food and Development Policy and author of the forthcoming book Grabbing Power: The New Struggles for Land, Food and Democracy in Northern Honduras (Food First Books 2013)