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.
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.