Agroecology, Radical Democracy and Food Sovereignty
Josephine Becker, 2019: An assignment as part of her MSc Sustainability and Behaviour Change at the Centre For Alternative Technology, Wales, Uk.
Disclaimer: As part of an assignment I have to fulfil certain criteria and standard research methods. Also, I did not address my own biases and place of power (regarding social networks etc) enough in this piece which was written in 2019. I decided not to edit it, which also in a way tracks my learning process.
Is there potential for radical democracy and food sovereignty withstand climate change and feed the 9 billion? A critical appraisal of La Via Campensina and agroecology
The paradox between those suffering of chronic hunger (821 million people) and those of obesity (672 million) is ever increasing (FAO et al., 2018a). Further issues in the global food system such as climate change risks and how to feed the predicted 9 billion people by 2050 pose serious questions to the current food system (Soil Association, 2012). Currently, two main domains can be identified in food production: On the one hand, the industrial agricultural system, driven by transnational corporations (TNCs), small in numbers yet large in scale, power and private profits (LVC, 2018). And on the other hand, small-scale farmers, run by peasants and family-businesses, currently producing 80% of global food with only 25% of the agricultural sector’s resources (Shiva et al., 2020).
This essay will focus on the latter one, specifically on the transnational-peasant grassroots movement La Via Campensina (LVC) (Martinez-Torres and Rosset, 2010). With currently 182 member organisations across 81 countries, connecting over two million peasants globally (von Redecker and Herzig, 2020), LVC is recognised as one of the most important agricultural movements in advocating for peasant-, marginalised- and food system- justice (Borras, 2008; Martinez-Torres and Rosset, 2010). This essay will critically appraise the structure of LVC, in their promise of radical democracy, as well as assessing the potential of scaling up agroecological practices of small holder farmers challenging corporate food regimes that are linked to inequality, exploitation and environmental degradation (Dörr, 2018).
Introduction to LVC
Whilst networks were formed much earlier, LVC was officially launched in 1993 with origins from Central, North and South America, the Caribbean and Europe (Borras, 2008). In opposition to industrial agriculture, neoliberalism, exploitative transnational corporations, hegemony of the market and the commodification of nature (von Redecker and Herzig, 2020), LVC connects through the struggles of rural livelihoods, rooted in food sovereignty and agroecological principles (von Redecker and Herzig, 2020; Rosset, 2013). While food sovereignty describes the rights of local communities to control their food system (LVC, 2018), agroecology is a more polysemic term (Val et al., 2019). This essay uses the Nyéléni Declaration (IPC, 2015) defining agroecology as farming principles based on cultural ecology, based on indigenous and traditional knowledge, without adding any “externally-purchased inputs” into the agri-system (i.e. artificial fertilisers, GM-crops etc). Furthermore, it encompasses notions of land rights, the “cosmovision” of equilibrium between nature and humans and the political principles of education, health, immaterial territory and movement building (IPC, 2015; Val et al., 2019). Some argue that “peasant agroecology is food sovereignty in action” (LVC, 2018: 13).
Focusing on the structural makeup, LVC advocates for a “centripetal and centrifugal” movement, combining localised and global struggles (Val et al., 2019).
Localisation of LVC – Cuba Case Study
As agroecology is rooted in localised practices and context, many of the centripetal, i.e. local peasant networks, are similarly structured with localised differences. Here we use Cuba as an example. When in 1989 the socialist bloc in Europe collapsed and international trade relations were blocked by the US, Cuba experienced an 85% decrease in export (Rosset et al., 2011). With much of the agricultural sector reliant on those inputs, it became apparent that the traditional peasantry sector, independent of inputs, was not as severely affected by political changes. Out of crisis, strong peasant-to-peasant (PtP) networks in Cuba developed practicing non-hierarchical, autonomous, bottom-up agroecology (Val et al., 2019). This is seen as creating essential foundations to the later formalised National Association of Small Farmers in Cuba (ANAP), officially launched in 1996. ANAP organised peasant networks through their memberships of two cooperatives: CCS and CPAs, which promoted land-, work- and/or tool-sharing amongst Cuban peasants (Rosset et al., 2011). Soon enough, the nationwide mass movement MACAC started and enabled the establishment of an agroecological schooling system. Using a Freiran horizontal education approach, ANAP combined formal agroecological education with experience-learning (e.g. farm visits), cultural activities (e.g. meal preparations), and political activism (e.g. marches, land occupations) (Rosset et al., 2019). Through the PtP methodology, the “farmer-promoter concept” was established that encompassed farm visits of those who found solutions to commonly faced issues in the community, promoting bottom-up education. Values of emancipatory learning and collective agency were the focus, with no monetary compensations given (FIAN and LVC, 2004). By connecting with municipal, provincial and national levels, ANAP experienced a drastic scaling up of agroecology from over just 200 family memberships in 1999 to 110,000 families in 2009 (Rosset et al., 2011). This growth is also internationally recognised as a role-model, and LVC continues to host regular international gatherings at the Cuban agroecology training school to share PtP methodologies and scaling-up strategies with the international community (Val et al., 2019; Parmentier, 2014). A generalised structure of this can be seen in Figure 1.
Looking at global organisation, LVC is divided into seven regions, across all continents, such as: EAKEN in Europe (Anderson et al., 2019b). Regionally, assemblies of local peasant groups are hosted to discuss failures, successes, innovations and to strengthen networks (Menser, 2008). In Cuba, this runs under the “farmer-promoter concept” and builds the essential bridge between localised groups and regional networks for skill sharing, theoretical teaching and solidarity building (Anderson et al., 2019b). Each region then chooses delegates to represent them at an international conference held every 4 years, to discuss LVC’s structure. From there, further 2 delegates from each region are chosen to join the Internal Coordinating Commission (ICC), responsible for training programs, increasing regional capacity and global networking (Menser, 2008). These dynamics are represented by no.3 and 4 in Figure 1.
To ensure gender equity within the movement, “women’s assemblies” were created at all organising levels, which meet before every gathering to maximise women’s voices and counter forces of patriarchy within and external to the movement. This practice is deepened by ensuring that one in two delegates for the ICC must be women. This is true also for agroecological training schools (Menser, 2008).
Figure 1: A rough structure of LVC’s framework. The centre is the practice of agroecology and local farming practices. This is connected vertically and horizontally by individuals and through wider networks. While bubble 1-2 show the localised and regional knowledge sharing, number 3-4 show the vertical learning, knowledge-sharing and political mobilisation. The outer circle and headlines highlight some of the main values that LVC members share. (author, 2020 based on Anderson et al., 2019a).
Critique of structure
While some may say that the demand of food sovereignty in itself is radical democracy, it is arguable that LVC goes beyond this and puts their demands into practice (Menser, 2008).
The movement not only stands in opposition to “industrialisation, neo-capitalist, patriarchal, and commodification of the global food system” but creates tangible alternatives (von Redecker and Herzig, 2020). This is achieved by drawing on southern epistemology and indigenous practice, such as including non-human entities in democratic practices (Mignolo and Escobar, 2013) and finding strength in the diversity of members (Martinez, 2011). While this diversity can be seen as a direct resistance against “mono-culture” pursued by hegemony practices by TNCs (Cid-Aguayo and Latta, 2015), LVC works on overcoming (neo)colonial North-South divisions (Martinez-Torres and Rosset, 2010). This is tackled via e.g. knowledge sharing between traditional Latin American practices with relatively new agroecological European groups, or by strengthening solidarity through international social movements (Anderson et al., 2019b). Iles and Montenegro (2014) argue that this combination of centripetal and centrifugal strategy is absolutely essential in scaling up agroecology and combatting a complex global system of monoculture.
It is however inevitable that such approach will call for tension. Knowledge sharing (“dialoge de saberes”), is central to LVC but goes beyond the PtP-methodology of horizontal education learning for food producers. It acknowledges that food consumers, research and policymakers must be included (Anderson et al., 2019a). This highlights that beyond tension between farmers, conflicts of interest between producers and consumers will arise, particularly in densely populated areas due to e.g. urban sprawling. Additionally, the concentration of retail markets has enabled many ‘exotic’ foods to be available for consumers of privilege, that before were geographically restricted. Removal of currently conventional and desired products from consumers could supercharge tension even when underlying reasons are adequate (Dörr, 2018).
Furthermore, LVC’s direct opposition to “multinational corporate giants” (von Redecker and Herzig, 2020) and condemning global players like Monsanto or REDD+ programs makes the movement, and those part of it, extremely vulnerable (Parmentier, 2014). LVC (2018) argues that solutions can hardly come from those that produced the issues in the first place, supported by Shiva et al. (2020) stating that foreign development will continue the legacies of manipulation and colonialism. Around the world this is realised by land grabbing, seed monopoly, and violence (Dörr, 2018). The tension of peasants resisting such developments has led to thousands of victims being violated in their human rights, many being imprisoned, tortured or killed, with the UNDP confirming peasant’s high vulnerability (Golay, 2009). With such struggles, LVC has focused much of their movement building on practical solutions but also international political mobilisation (Val et al., 2019). With many fallbacks, this political mobilisation has achieved multiple success stories on different policy levels. For example, Ecuador was the first country to pass a Food Sovereignty Law in 2009 to protect small-scale farmers (Patel, 2009). LVC, being recognised as playing a crucial role in scaling up agroecological practices by the FAO (2018b) achieved the UN Declaration of Peasants Rights in November 2019 after years of lobbying (Val et al., 2019; Claeys, 2015).
Potential for scaling up
Considering future food trends, and climate change risks, questions around food security are growing (FAO, 2018a). Whilst agroecology has a tradition over millennia, only recently is there increasing attention and support for agroecology by formal institutions, policymakers, nutritionists, science and other bodies (Anderson et al., 2019a; De Shutter, 2010). The IAASTD report, supported by over 400 scientists from around the world, calls for drastic support of agroecological practices which would contribute to sustainability issues and food productivity (Soil Association, 2012).
The yet widest systemic study on such practices examined the land productivity on 12.6million farms across 50+ countries in the Global South with a crop yield increase of 79% when using agroecological methods (Pretty et al., 2006). Issues around productivity decline when switching away from conventional agriculture are expected to be short-termed and dependent on previous practices and their impacts on environmental conditions (Branca et al., 2011). Furthermore, scaling-up could increase employment opportunities, as agroecology is generally more labour intensive but was noted to have better working conditions from e.g. no toxicity from chemicals and natural shade on farms (Parmentier, 2014). Further positive effects on the environment can be accessed via a Puerto Rican case study. After two severe hurricanes in 2017, the country experienced catastrophic infrastructure decline with long-term influences (LVC, 2018). While generally rural communities were seen as particularly vulnerable, agroecological farms were noted as highly resilient, with some food harvested only days after the storms, enabled by crop diversity and soil resilience. Furthermore, long-term PtP-networks prior to the storms had created strong “brigades” between peasants, which allowed communities to come together and resist any international development to advance their interests on vulnerable peasants (LVC, 2018). This resistance to disaster capitalism highlights the practical and political tools agroecology can be used for. The international network of LVC also allowed Puerto Rican peasants to receive international solidarity from the global community, such as political and strategic support (LVC, 2018).
Generally, two types of scaling-up can be assessed here. Firstly, scale as size: scaling up promoting spatially extensive areas and large capital investments, clearly opposed by LVC (Robbins, 2015). Secondly, scale as level: LVC promotes the localisation of food systems, producing for community, rather than the expansion of supply-chain and production for international markets (Robbins, 2015).
So when referring to scaling-up, LVC promotes the quantitative dimensions, integrating more people, plus qualitative aspects, referring to the living aspects, rooted in locality (Val et al., 2019). This aims to connect globally to form strong-enough networks to pose threats to global corporations (Rosset and Altieri, 2017).
While there are many stories of success, the transformation potential for scaling up agroecology and LVC is questionable, largely due to exponential increases in concentration of power in the food regime since the 1980s (IPBES, 2019). Food sovereignty movements, including LVC, are seen to be challenging those, yet no major shift in power regimes are on the horizon. Expansions of trade deals, WTO, NAFTA and others, continue land displacements and the upcoming merging of food and energy sector through fuel-crops will deepen corporate monopoly and power and therefore restrict upscaling potential (Dörr, 2018). Anderson et al (2019a) predict that efforts of agroecology upscaling, according to LVC’s principles, will be met with violence and resistance, particularly from agri-business. De Shutter (2010) proposes multiple policy strategies that would empower food sovereignty, and protect peasant rights through e.g. reorganising markets, supply of public goods such as local markets, and extension services that aid localised emancipatory engagement to address class, gender and race struggles (Mann, 2019). Figure 2 visualises the interaction of these elements.
Figure 2: LVC’s values that will assist in creating conditions for transformational bottom-up upscaling of agroecology. The agroecological farming practice is in the middle, rotted in locality, with the yellow bubbles being values as well as factors that determine the upscaling. The outer bubble is the governance that impacts the realisation of food sovereignty, peasant rights and LVC’s existence (Anderson et al., 2019a).
To conclude, La Via Campensina’s centripetal and centrifugal organisation’s structure, focused on emancipatory mobilisation with a focus of food sovereignty and agroecological practices can be seen as a direct opposition to the forces of the industrial agri-system. Against the odds that the highly concentrated power regime of TNCs pose, LVC’s has many success stories at multiple scales. The upscaling potential is therefore huge, yet conditions favouring this have to be improved, by e.g. policy-changes, which could act multi-beneficiary to not just improve food productivity but also hunger, poverty, gender inequality, labour conditions and land rights. Caution has to be drawn to not romanticise the idea of small-holding farmer networks being able to solve everything. This is particularly true for shifts in power regimes, and yet this is key to enable transformational change. A limitation here is how agroecological practices fit into densely populated areas, and how tensions between food producers, consumers and TNCs are overcome. Whilst some studies touch on productivity and resilience to climate change risks, further research to address future trends of climate change is needed. Going forward, institutional bodies and formal research have an increasing role to play in assisting LVC in the mobilisation for agroecology and food sovereignty and support those who already feed the world. This combination of bottom-up and top-down approach could act as a huge catalyst to transform food systems, rooted in social and environmental justice.
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