Seeds of resistance for food sovereignty

Food Sovereignty is about building a just world and is about a society free of oppression and inequality. This is the only way forward to secure our right to food in our homes and communities, through defining our own autonomous food and agriculture systems, and thereby resist and dismantle the corporate food and trade regimes. The Food Sovereignty Alliance, India is one amongst several such sites of resistance and assertion.

Food means different things to different people. Today we are rapidly losing control over our food, food systems and food cultures. Our decisions around food – what we eat, how it is grown, distributed, packaged, marketed and served, are increasingly being controlled by a handful of corporations, facilitated by governments. Whilst the Green and White Revolutions were the first step in the industrialisation of our food systems, economic liberalisation in the early 1990s, consolidated the expansion of this industrial capitalist system of food.  Agribusiness and food empires are rapidly taking control of our systems of food production, consumption and distribution, thereby impacting our worldviews and lives.  Communities of once self-reliant and independent small farmers are becoming consumers of their products – fertilizers, pesticides, seeds including genetically modified (GMO) and mechanised technologies. Slaves of companies, their cheap labour is extracted to produce industrial food, and trap them into cycles of debt. Thus, once diverse agro-ecologically farmed food crop lands now stand converted into monoculture commodity crops: paddy, industrial maize as animal/poultry feed, coffee, cashewnut and rubber plantations, endless fields of onions, tomatoes, chillis, sugarcane and other monocropped vegetables and fruits. These are sold, only to buy food from the same corporations which control the market chains of food. This industrial food system has deepened pre-existing structural inequalities in society and created havoc in the natural systems and processes of the planet. Our cultural and spiritual connections to nature are being severed. We are losing seeds, breeds, land, water, air, knowledge, health and our sovereignty to make decisions about our way of life.

In the midst of this devastation, there continue to be seeds of resistance, and assertion by adivasis, dalits, peasants, pastoralists, fisherfolk and co-producers[2], who are organising to defend their sovereign control over their resources, food and way of life. The Food Sovereignty Alliance, India (FSA), is one amongst several such sites of resistance and assertion. The Alliance was formed in 2013 to build solidarity towards a common vision of food sovereignty in defence of sovereign rights to food, the rights of Mother Earth and those of future generations. Food Sovereignty is about building a just world and is about a society free of oppression and inequality. This is the only way forward to secure our right to food in our homes and communities, through defining our own autonomous food and agriculture systems, and thereby resist and dismantle the corporate food and trade regimes.

Our practice of food sovereignty

Community action-reflection-action processes to identify and analyse the forces that obstruct food sovereignty, and evolve collective transformative actions for food sovereignty is a core practice of our movement. Community food sovereignty plans have emerged as a critical expression of political action. Life cycles amongst adivasi communities, and agriculture cycles in small farmer peasant and pastoralist communities, along with communities’ indigenous knowledge, provide a framework for the plans. The plans include: democratic governance of resources-land, water, forests, territories, biodiversity, seeds, breeds and knowledge; nurturing life in our soils and growing, consuming and sharing healthy diverse and culturally appropriate food agro-ecologically, asserting seed and animal breed sovereignty through saving and exchange of local seeds and breeds between food farmers;  reciprocal systems of sharing labour, knowledge and produce; strengthening local food markets that connect producers and consumers, leading to the diversification and revival of food crops. The alliance enables members to share and exchange seeds across regions, particularly accessing seeds that have disappeared from their region, which they wish to revive. Social justice is central to the idea of food sovereignty, and hence breaking the unjust structures of caste, class and patriarchy are core elements of the movement.

Intergenerational learning and sharing of knowledge between community elders and youth is an essential strategy. Youth learn from community elders, particularly women, accompanying them as they collect diverse tubers, herbs, fruits and seeds, learning about how to process and store produce, save seeds, establish community seed banks and learn to craft and use local agriculture implements. Celebrating the diversity of food, through local festivals, song, dance, theatre, community cooking and other cultural actions, linked to the life cycles and seasonal agricultural calendars, enhance our practice. Campaigns, jatras and food sovereignty summits, community action research on specific questions, sharing our experiences and concerns through mainstream media, popular and academic journals, are other critical strategies to nurture solidarity and collective actions for food sovereignty.

Members of the Alliance have evolved various collective strategies to assert their visions for Food Sovereignty.

In the adivasi areas of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, adivasi communities, organising through indigenous village councils under their collective voice – Adivasi Aikya Vedika  – are asserting their rights to their homelands and territories evoking customary laws, and community and habitat rights as delineated in PESA[3], 1996 and the Forest Rights Act, 2006. Industrial food production has also occurred in adivasi areas, with devastating impacts. In Mahboobnagar, for instance, Chenchu adivasi communities lured by government subsidies, switched to cultivating GMO Bt cotton. Food crops declined, soil fertility diminished, and honey bees, which are considered sacred, reduced drastically due to pesticides. Through critical reflection and discussion, the community mapped their seasonal food cycles, flora, fauna, biodiversity and festivals related to food. The cycle was a useful visual method to assert their relationship with their forests, as also a way to track the impacts of climate change, and discuss response strategies.  These processes inspired those who were cultivating cotton, to return to cultivating food crops agro-ecologically. This in turn has re-established natural cycles of pollination resulting in visible increases in the honeybee populations.

The Dalit Mahila Sangham in Chittoor district, Andhra Pradesh, has been leading their communities struggle for land. Their struggle includes ensuring that once land is in their hands, they will nurture the land agro-ecologically, drawing on the strong community knowledge, wisdom and practice to build soil health, and re-establish food diversity. The process has strengthened the women’s collective to fight patriarchy, violence and discrimination. Today, the women have established their own local market to sell their produce.

The Deccani Gorrela Mekala Pempakadarula Sangham have been organizing to protect the unique black-wool Deccani sheep breed, critical for shepherding livelihoods in Telangana. The sheep is a source of meat, manure and wool, where the wool has been used to weave the gongadi, a traditional blanket. In the mid-nineties government policies introduced the heavier and faster growing hairy non-wool Nellore breed (from coastal Andhra Pradesh) into the Deccani flocks, resulting in mixed flocks with no wool. The sangham has focused on reviving the breed through organising deccani sheep breeders, and encouraging other mixed-flock owners to replace their Nellore breeding rams with Deccani breeding rams. Defending their grazing rights in forests, halting the felling of acacia trees and sustaining common property grazing resources, along with putting pressure on the government to stop privatizing animal health care, are core to their assertion of food sovereignty. The return of pure deccani sheep has also provided an impetus to the revival of the gongadi which is sold in local markets as also through exhibitions, where the sales at higher prices, cross-subsidise their cost of production.

In 2011, the Sri Gopi Rythu Sangham in Andhra Pradesh, decided to resist the hegemony of corporate dairy processors, by organizing their own milk market. From 6 litres, today they market 600 litres of milk/day, collected from 80 farmers across 5 villages, to a local school and about 150 customers in the nearby town of Madanapalle. Sangham members and the customers, collectively decide the milk price. The farmers also grow diverse food crops: millets, pulses, oilseeds and vegetables. After home-consumption, they process their millets, and sell the surplus in a shop set up in a nearby rural hospital. Recently they have begun to sell their millets to a local food vendor, who after a years dialogue with the sangham, was convinced about including various millet-based breakfast recipes in his menu. This has opened up a new space for local people of the surrounding villages, to eat healthy and support local production.

FSA rejects the idea of monopoly commodity markets, as defined by the capitalist economic system. Local markets are the way forward, as people are in control of the production,  pricing of products and is a concrete way to challenge and resist exploitative global trade regimes and defend people’s livelihoods. The guiding principle is to eat what we grow and sell the excess produce, as also revive storage systems to stock for periods of drought. Importantly we see local markets as a space to dialogue with and involve consumers in the struggles to defend livelihoods.

Decolonizing community action research is another critical component of our practice, and is carried out through formation of working groups from across the Alliance to understand and frame the issue(s) and explore it through community critical dialogues. Creative actions at local, State and National Levels emerge and focus on engaging a larger audience in dialogue towards concrete collective campaigns for justice. Some of our ongoing campaigns are on the crisis in the dairy sector, the beef ban, genetically modified crops and the appropriation of adivasi lands.

Building the movement

Reaching out to children and youth in schools and universities, in rural and urban contexts to dialogue on food sovereignty, is critical for the future of this movement. Interactions are located within the schools/universities, as also at the movement’s Learning Centre, Kudali, located in Telangana ( Various ways of engagement to provoke questioning and critical thinking about our collective future include: meeting agro-ecological farmers, visiting their fields and flocks, eating the food grown on their fields, mapping the biodiversity of the locations, understanding the links between people, the ecology, culture, food, recognising and questioning  the forces and structures that block food sovereignty, learning to work with soil, dung, seeds, and expressing their views in diverse creative ways including art, song and theatre. Translation of this experience to their school and community environments (e.g., growing vegetables agro-ecologically in their schools and homes) can be a very powerful transformative process for both children and their parents: an important action towards taking control of their own food system and consumption patterns.

Decolonising and emancipatory intergenerational and inter-cultural popular education processes are building blocks of organising for food sovereignty. It is through this rainbow of assertions that  we by-pass and free ourselves from the clutches of the Food and Agriculture Empires, assert our autonomy and  defend our rights to  diverse food cultures, towards a just future lived in harmony with each other and mother earth.

The Food Sovereignty Alliance, India

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