From St Paul's to St Hilda's, food sovereignty in action

25th October 2011 by

What is it that links an international gathering of peasant activists at the House of Commons, the tent city of the ‘Occupy the London Stock Exchange’ protest at St Paul’s Cathedral and a modest, local community food co-op event in Tower Hamlets, east London?

At first glance it’s hard to see a common theme. But I was lucky enough to attend all three in the last two weeks, and I can’t shake the thought that there were common threads linking these unusual and sometimes wonderful assemblies.

The parliamentary gathering was held by War on Want to mark Food Sovereignty Day. I wrote about the concept of food sovereignty in my first Otesha blog post: as a movement it aims to return control over and access to land, seeds, water and other inputs to smallholder farmers and away from corporations, so benefiting peasants, the environment, consumers’ health and sense of connection to their food, and local cultures.

Deeply impressive leaders and farmers from peasants’ and landless people’s movements, from Mozambique, Brazil, Cuba and Sri Lanka, spoke powerfully about their efforts to rescue their livelihoods, dignity and prosperity from the grasp of profit-focused agribusiness. But while these struggles, and the concept of food sovereignty, are often seen as issues of the global South, many at the meeting made the case, too, for a food sovereignty movement in countries like the UK.

And so Reclaim the Fields, an offshoot of the peasants’ organisation La Via Campesina, has plans not only to make connections with Young Farmers organisations in this country in a bid to engage with them about access to land and the future of food-growing, but also, more radically, to stage land occupations next year, echoing the invasions of unused, privately owned land by Brazilian peasants thrown off their own land to make way for corporate plantations.

So what on earth has this debate got to do with the Occupy LSX encampment? It’s not a link I crowbarred into being by myself. In the meeting in Parliament one speaker made the point:

“The Occupy movement and food sovereignty are both all about revolting against a particular kind of capitalism.”

Luis Muchanga, a peasants’ leader from Mozambique, made a similar point:

“The neoliberal model deciding how we produce our food has failed.”

Graciela Romero of War on Want:

“Food sovereignty is about economics, politics, democratic control.”

John Hilary, director of War on Want:

“We need a change to the system. It’s political. It’s about where the money goes and where the political classes put their money. And why the organic and natural movements are marginalised. The globalised food system revolves around increasing trade in agricultural products, and so food is reduced to a commodity, like a car. A commodity whose production is controlled by the major corporations who have benefited so much from this system. … Food sovereignty puts trade back in its proper place: people’s needs before capital’s needs and profit’s needs.”

With this ringing in my ears, I was excited by the connections being made between the food sovereignty and Occupy movements. But would the Occupy protesters in turn see any importance to their own agenda of the issue of control over food and land?

I decided after I left the Palace of Westminster to cycle up to St Paul’s and see for myself what was happening there. And I was impressed to see the links to food and land also being made explicitly in the shadow of St Paul’s.

'In the UK, 1% of the population owns 70% of the land. We, the 99%, own less than half the land owned by the 1%.'

This flyposted image made the point directly: here, in the UK, there is staggering inequality in land ownership and therefore in access to land (the basis of all life and all prosperity).

This feels like a time for sometimes surprising connections and alliances to be made. People from top to bottom have had their faith in our current systems shaken, and this makes fertile ground for new ideas and creative challenges to a system that appears to have lost much of its legitimacy.

But where is the relevance of the Tower Hamlets community food co-op I visited the week before last? Well, a food sovereignty movement for the UK would not only look like confrontation, land occupations or high-level policy debates. It would have to be rooted in every community, at the truly grassroots level, and be expressed through a whole constellation of community-level initiatives. It has been dawning on me that the Tower Hamlets event at St Hilda’s East Community Centre was a brilliant example of this.

A weekly food co-op was showcasing its work enabling local people to buy fresh, affordable vegetables without having to visit the supermarkets, a boost to their health but also to the community, bringing people together who might not otherwise talk to their near neighbours.

The Women’s Environmental Network had a stall, and were proudly showing off their new seed library, from which local people will be able to take and contribute fruit and vegetable seeds, again putting control of food directly into ordinary people’s hands.

A wall display encouraged people to use post-it notes to mark their community food initiatives on a map of the borough. In this inner-city area, the map was filled up.

Here, at St Hilda’s, in its modest way, without protests or occupations, but with an equally powerful message, was food sovereignty in action.

Craftivist Mission of Love (and Justice)

9th February 2011 by

I was very excited when Sarah Corbett of crafty activist group The Craftivist Collective got in touch to ask if I would help her make a video about their Valentines project, and even more excited when I heard that Joise Long, Otesha’s very own patron, was getting involved…

For the last few years the Craftivist Collective have been attempting to ‘hijack’ valentines day by asking people to “show some love” for their global neighbours, as well as their BFs, GFs, BFFs etc. This year they have teamed up with the cult jewellery designer Tatty Devine and on February 14th will be taking to the streets all over the UK to plant alternative love letters, complete with beautiful handmade keyrings, so that they can be stumbled across and make someone’s day whilst raising awareness about climate change. The idea is that whoever finds the letters will not only have the instant impact and mind stirrings from reading the letter (extract below), but will have a beautiful keyring to keep, which will remind them of the project and hopefully spur other actions and conversations.

To my Valentine,

Every year February 14th comes around and provides us with a beautiful opportunity to show someone we care about them: most of the time we direct that love at just one person. This year I want to encourage you not to limit that extraordinary capacity we have to just one person, but to love the world. In the name of love, brighten up someone’s day and remind them of our global community and inspire them to get stirred up to think about how the poorest people in the world are being affected by climate change, despite having contributed the least to the problem.

The best thing about the project is that anyone can get involved – there are already groups doing the project in London, Leeds, Bristol, Bangor and Newcastle. I really recommend it – even just making one, it’s brilliant hiding the letters and then watching people find them and the intrigued bemusement and fat smiles that ensue, all whilst raising awareness on a day which has become so ridiculously commercialised.

There is a template for the letter and instructions on how to make the keyring on The Craftivist Collective website.

The day they blocked the railway

9th February 2011 by

In April 2010, 13 people literally put their necks on the line blockading the railway at Ffos y Fran and halting the coal train on its way to Aberthaw power station. Ffos y Fran, in Merthyr Tydfil is the largest opencast coal mine in the UK. There has been a long campaign opposing Ffos y Fran mine by local residents and climate activists alike.

A spokesperson for the Rising Tide activists said, “Opencast mining trashes the landscape, contributes massively to climate change and threatens the health of local people. We need to leave coal in the ground, and that’s why we put our necks on the line to stop a coal train.”

“With their hands in the pockets of corporations, it’s not surprising that governments failed us at the Copenhagen climate summit. We can’t rely on their false solutions anymore. It’s up to ordinary people taking direct action to stop climate chaos. Fossil fuel extraction devastates communities and is being resisted around the world, from opencast mining in Merthyr to tar sands oil in Alberta, Canada.”

This is a beautiful little video about the day they blocked the railway.


4th February 2011 by

Click for the full size image. More cartoons here.

Mobiles, social media and revolutionary technology- Part II

3rd February 2011 by

I’m a luddite, and I’m fine with that. But aside from disliking the increasingly intrusion of technology and the internet into all aspects of our lives, I do recognise that all this media can be used for good.

When people took to the streets in Iran in 2009 they didn’t call it the Twitter Revolution for nothing. Whilst Twitter didn’t spark the street protests, it was a crucial medium for getting information to others in Iran and the rest of the world.

In October 2010 UK Uncut was 70 protesters in a doorway and a Twitter hashtag. A few months later UK Uncut is a truly nationwide social movement of direct action against the cuts, that wouldn’t exist without social media. “We don’t have any money, little expertise and we’re kind of winging it. But it seems to be going well and we seem to have hit a nerve.” Twitter, facebook and the rest have made it easy for complete strangers to organise spontaneous protests. Stowing an internet connection in their pockets has enabled protesters to report on their actions as they happen. Uncut has taken to the high streets targeting those they believe have been dodging corporate tax and the staff of Vodafone, Topshop, Boots and Tesco up and down the country are familiar with Uncut faces.

It’s no surprise that when the internet went down in Egypt last week the Egyptian government was suspected of cutting access (Vodafone Egypt admitted it had been instructed to suspend services in some areas). According to Rory Cellan-Jones, BBC technology correspondent, “for millions, in countries like Egypt, the ability to get instant access to information which could change the shape of their lives is becoming as much of a human right as access to clean water”.

Last weekend’s Education Cuts March marched off their designated route and on to the Eyptian embassy where they joined the anti-Mubarak protest. And they were not kettled by the police! This is the first of the student demos to have ended so peacefully and the lack of kettling has been credited by some to Sukey,  a security-conscious news, communications and logistics support service for demonstrators. Through a smart phone and mobile phone application Sukey collects and displays real-time police and protest behaviour, and tells protesters how to avoid being contained by the police for hours. It takes it name from the nursery rythme, “Polly put the kettle on, Sukey take it off again.”

As we become more and more connected, the possibilities for exchanging information, ideas and revolutionary inspiration are expanding exponentially and reaching people all over the world. The internet really does have the potential for a democratic and free media.

Do it like the french do it

21st October 2010 by

Last Saturday hundreds of activists descended on Coryton oil refinery in Stanford-le-hope, the biggest oil refinery in the UK, and blockaded the only road in and out. The protest was entirely peaceful, there were no arrests and an estimated 375,000 gallons of oil were prevented from reaching factories, airports and petrol stations in and around London.

All well and good. But look what the french have been up to! France is facing an oil crisis after over 3.5 million people took to the streets. This week 4,000 petrol stations ran dry after a week long blockade of France’s 12 oil refineries. And they’re not even protesting about oil!

If we want our government to sit up and take notice of us whilst they up the retirement age and cut the public sector into smithereens, we’re going to have to shout a lot harder (possibly in french). And if we really want to move our economy, our infrastructure and our lives away from oil, we’re going to have to try a lot harder.

Here’s a little video of the Crude Awakening action at Coryton.

Banking, bikes & bombs

5th August 2010 by

After so much anticipation it seemed they arrived quite suddenly, this swarm of Barclays branded bicycles. Every day for a week a new rack of docking stations appeared at different points on my route to work. By the weekend people were riding the things. I don’t know why, we’d been talking about London’s new cycle hire scheme for ages, but I was surprised to see people actually using it. I like the scheme, I think it’s a practical transport solution with ambitious aims (to create 40,000 extra cycle trips a day in central London), but I imagined it would take people a little longer to get into the seat of the idea.

What took even less time though, was the subvertising of the scheme. The night before the launch Anti Arms Trade activists covered the bikes with stickers proclaiming Barclays involvement in the global arms trade. There are 6,000 Barclays bikes, almost 4000 of which got stickered with messages about Barclays activities: “INVESTS IN CLUSTER BOMBS. OFFERS LOANS FOR NEW LIMBS” – “DOESN’T GIVE A **** ABOUT YOU” – “£20M INVESTMENT IN BIKES. £7300M INVESTMENT IN BOMBS” – “FUNDING DEPLETED URANIUM BIRTH DEFECTS IN IRAQ” and “INVESTS £7.3 BILLION IN THE ARMS TRADE”.

At the Press launch the following morning Barclays (who along with HSBC and RBS, also invests in the Tar Sands) chairman Magnus Agius had “nothing to say” about the stickers. It might be unfair to ruin Magnus’ big day, but it does raise the question can you do good with bad money?

The bike hire scheme is a great, progressive thing that all big cities should boast. In this era of public funding cuts it would’ve been much harder to achieve without corporate sponsorship. But no other city in the world with similar schemes has taken full sponsorship from one company. The hope is that the stickers will raise awareness of Barclays position not only as the cycle hire sponsor, but also as the largest investor in the arms trade in the world.

Carbon Onsetting

28th June 2010 by

Full size version here. More cartoons here

Your Poll Card

5th May 2010 by

Full size version here. More cartoons here.

Top 10 election tips

27th April 2010 by
  1. Do register to vote. Then make sure everyone you live with is also registered to vote. Too late for this time, but never to early for next time.
  2. Do use it. Vote for the raving green monster party if you like, but use it. The noughties have been exactly that on the voting front, with only around 60% of the electorate turning out to vote at the last two elections. We may not have a perfect system, or even a particularly good system, but it’s one that people all over the world are fighting for. We’re pretty lucky, appreciate it.
  3. Don’t moan about politicians. It’s boring, everyone’s heard it before and it gives political talk a bad name.
  4. Do it yourself. If no one out there is representing you, stand as a independent. It’s like finding the perfect sandwich- sometimes if you want it done properly you’ve got to do it yourself.
  5. Do become pen-pals with your MP. Once they start to recognize your handwriting, you know you’ve got their attention.
  6. Do remember they work for you. Whether you voted for them or not, you are officially your MP’s boss. Follow your MP’s voting record then give him or her an annual appraisal and a piece of your mind.
  7. Don’t spoil the ballot. It doesn’t spoil it for everyone, but it just doesn’t do anything. Spoilt ballots aren’t even counted. Voice your dissatisfaction with letters, leaflets, petitions, placards, singing and shouting instead.
  8. Do sing, shout, hold placards, hand out petitions, send letters and leaflets anyway.
  9. Do vote everyday, in the way you spend and save your money, in the things you buy and the things you ask.
  10. Do watch this- poet Danny Chivers performs Election Day.

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