Forum in Mali: Building consensus

João Pedro Stedile
Tuesday 1 May 2007 by LRAN

João Pedro Stedile is a leader of the Landless Rural Workers Movement (MST) of Brazil and of the Via Campesina.

The global Forum on Food Sovereignty that took place in Mali, Africa, represented an important landmark in the building of connections between international networks and social movements sharing this common goal. It also enabled us to establish a much wider common concept of food sovereignty.

The problems of hunger and poverty in the countryside and the lack of markets for farmers’ own agricultural products have been significant and multiplied during the last 30 years. The green revolution and the neoliberal phase of Capitalism are the main causes behind that. Theoretical and political wise the Forum has taken a great step ahead.

In effect, this union has contributed to constructing a wider concept as far as food sovereignty is concerned. In the past, there existed a generic conception of food sovereignty, for example peoples’ right to produce their own foods. Now we add duty to this concept, because all people that want to be free and independent are obligated to produce their own foods. Therefore, it is more than a right; it is a determination, a political condition. For that reason, we have come to apply this concept to all the territorial spaces: countries, regions, cities and rural communities.

We also managed to come to an understanding on the idea that food sovereignty is only possible if it takes place at the same time as political sovereignty of peoples. In order to be able to apply policies that allow autonomy in food production it is necessary to have political conditions that exercise autonomy in territories and towards the State.

Finally, we moved ahead with the idea of prioritizing agricultural techniques that respect the environment and are agro-ecological. In other words, ways to increase productivity and the autonomy of eco-agriculture administered in a sustainable manner, preserving nature for future generations and producing healthy foods.

Our opponents

Even though we failed to reach agreement on certain topics, we moved forward in the debate on identifying the enemies that prevent food sovereignty. We ascertained that, within neoliberalism, 20 transnational companies are in control of all stages of the food production chain: seeds, herbicides, agricultural commerce, agro-industries and international trade. Agreement was reached in Mali on the fact that these companies are our main opponents. This has not been an issue debated in previous meetings.

Neoliberal governments were identified as obstacles, as they look to promoting and applying policies that exclusively interest international capital. In consequence, public policies that protect agriculture are abandoned. This again leaves all resources to the market – under control of transnational companies.

However, the consensus and advancements made at this level did not extend to political tactics. The majority of farmer, shepherd and fisherpeople movements agree on the importance of fighting the system. Nevertheless some environmental networks and NGOs identify the solution to the food sovereignty problem as being only small local initiatives, of an “assistential” nature, or Fair Trade. This can solve problems for communities or small producers; however it does not allow for fighting the very system that generates all the injustice and inequality. Fortunately the great majority of environmental and scientific networks present in Mali also share the same ideas as the farmer movements.

On the other hand, we saw the necessity of incorporating, as one of the principles of our struggle, the definition that foods cannot be considered merchandise: the access to foods must be a right for all people. The fight against the privatization of water was another principle adopted, as it is a resource that cannot be anyone’s private property. Accordingly, we encouraged farmer movements and other movements around the world opposing the privatization of water to begin to coordinate their respective fights with a universal definition: to challenge the fact that in the capitalist system, everything becomes merchandise or an object of profit.

This does not mean that we are against trade in agricultural goods, however we want to underline the fact that trade must not be based on profit, but on peoples needs. Therefore the farmers’ fight is framed against the World Trade Organisation’s (WTO) negotiations and, in general against the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank and other related organisations, because they do not represent peoples’ interests. We must fight for a new international order.

New topics

Several new topics also marked the Forum, and although they were not discussed in depth they will be present on future agendas. It is the case of environmental disasters occurring with increasing frequency due to global warming and climate change.

Another topic considered was biofuels and the impact they have on our countries, especially those at mercy of actions performed by transnational companies, as is the case of Mexico, Argentina and Brazil. Transnational corporations in these countries have the operational capacity to transform huge productive areas to production of biofuels. In fact we consider “agrofuels” or “agro-energy” as more apt terms when referring to energy-giving fuels made from vegetables or agricultural products.

In this topic, the importance of promoting a debate in favour of a new power matrix for transport was recognized, since it is the biggest petroleum consumer, and consequently, the biggest cause of contamination. This discussion is essential, because it no use discussing how to produce cheaper alcohol if the car industry continues to churn out cars in such large quantities, even if they run on alcohol. At root the issue is to confront the system of predominantly individual transport. So, we do welcome the idea of energy produced from agricultural products, but on the condition that it does not replace food production nor use food products such as soy or maize.

Although it is important to have renewable energy, such as agro-fuels which can be cultivated annually, it is equally fundamental that the production is sustainable. Agribusiness can produce soy, sugar cane, peanut and cotton for energy purposes. However, it will do so in an untenable manner, based on the use of herbicides and monocultures. These aspects bring negative consequences for the environment, migration, the realm of farming and even for global warming.

Latin American involvement

Latin American organizations played an important part in the Forum. This was possible due to the fact that we have a significant level of unity among social movements, and between these and other sectors and networks. For example, there exists a positive interconnection between the movements that integrate Via Campesina and those of the World March of Women and other sectors. In Asia too, there is a very positive level of unity.

The great challenge we are facing is in Africa: a continent that has been pillaged, robbed, criminalized and exploited to the point where it has undergone all the curses of capitalism and imperialism. Peoples’ organizations scarcely exist on that continent and those that do are of a local character. This is mainly due to tribal traditions and also to the influence of colonialist ideas of certain European NGOs, which contribute little to independent organization of African movements.

The strong Latin American presence in Mali had repercussions on debates and reflections. In general, we all learned from interchange, as we left with new knowledge and commitments to promote joint action.

A common political project

The issue of food sovereignty has been present in the philosophical ideas of almost all political and ideological tendencies (for example in the works of Jose Martí and Mariátegui). Yet in general it has not managed to gain adherence among the Left, which even today fails to take it on as an important political issue. It is a pending task.

It is important to mention that we are going through a new epoch in our hemisphere - one that is still hard to typify; but clearly there is a need to form a union among all popular forces and sectors represented in progressive and left-wing governments, to construct a common political project, for liberating our peoples. The contemporary social left has developed the idea that social movements must remain autonomous of political parties and governments. I believe that autonomy must be preserved and it is an important condition for the survival of people’s organizations. Autonomy allows movements to establish an independent relationship with governments, whether it comes in the shape of pressure or dialogue. This depends on each country’s situation; however it does not go against the importance of promoting unity. (Translated by ALAI).


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