Women and food sovereignty

Women and food sovereignty

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The knowledge and work of women play a key role in sustaining the diverse local food systems that still exist around the world, particularly in developing countries.

The income and livelihood of many people are derived from the sale, processing and exchange of local food. Just think of all the small food industries in every neighborhood in the southern cities and the women who serve lunch and dinner at their food stalls on every corner. Localized food systems provide the foundation for nutrition, income, economies, and culture for people around the world. They start at the household level and spread to neighborhoods, municipalities and regions. Such food systems form a whole network of local organizations, each active in different sectors of the food chain: production, storage and distribution. Women make up the majority of the workforce in local food systems and contribute significantly to food security and the local economy.

Global development at the local level

Governments and global food industries lead us to believe that a new era is coming in which big business will produce food for everyone. The current political agenda is so dominant that the press, universities, colleges and extension services implicitly promote free markets as the only and best form of development. This implies that small farming is out of fashion: small farmers will leave their villages and settle in cities where they will find work related to industry or services, and will buy their food in local supermarkets where food from all continents is sold. If harvest fails in a global region, another supplier will take over. This food security agenda promises food production in large quantities, in a way that reaches all the inhabitants of the planet.

It is an interesting vision, but is it true that free markets guarantee food security? Free trade has been promoted for the last few decades, and yet last year, markets proved that they are not the stable suppliers of food that we were led to believe. When, in early 2008, investors began hoarding food, the price of rice reached its highest level and the importing countries suffered the most. The price of food doubled and the number of hungry people increased by almost 200 million worldwide. For the free market doctrine, food is a commodity: the entire industrial food chain is better established when the prices of labor and other inputs are at their lowest levels. In this way, farmers are forced to work as farm laborers or to migrate to the cities in search of other sources of income.

The price of food in this type of system can go up or down, pushing more and more people into poverty. These events are beyond the control of rural dwellers and even governments. The threat is greater for women than for men, because in most rural households it is women who are responsible for putting food on the table every day. Furthermore, the degradation of living conditions in the poorest rural households has resulted everywhere in higher levels of violence - especially domestic and sexual violence - of which the first victims are women and girls. And, despite the free market, around the world and in every profession in the food chain, average wages for women are significantly lower than those for men. Throughout the world, women are underrepresented in governments, agricultural research and extension, trade unions and producer organizations, and their interests are therefore not given due attention.

The right to food and sustainable food production
Fortunately, the free market is not the only option to achieve development. There are other development models for the future of food and agriculture. Farmers, food workers, nomadic herders, and native populations have a role to play in a different, more reliable global food system. And also women.

The food sovereignty model is an option. The concept of food sovereignty had been discussed for several years when it was made public at the International Conference of Via Campesina ( in Tlaxcala, Mexico (April 1996). In the words of Via Campesina:

Food Sovereignty is the right of peoples to define their own food and agricultural systems; to protect and regulate domestic agricultural production and trade to achieve sustainable development goals; to determine their degree of self-sufficiency; to limit the dumping of products to their markets (…). Food Sovereignty does not deny international trade, rather it defends the option of formulating those commercial policies and practices that best serve the population's rights to food and to have safe, healthy and ecologically sustainable agricultural products.”.

During the 1996 World Food Summit, Via Campesina presented a set of principles that were mutually reinforcing, offered an alternative to global trade policies and could make people's right to food a reality.

Food sovereignty then implies the right of individuals, peoples, communities and countries to:
• food and food production, which means that everyone has the right to safe, nutritious and culturally appropriate food, the resources to produce that food and the ability to support themselves and their societies
• define their own agricultural, labor, fisheries, food, and soil and water management policies that are ecologically, economically and socio-culturally appropriate for them and their specific circumstances
manage, use and control those natural resources that preserve life, such as land, water, seeds, livestock breeds and greater agricultural biodiversity, without restrictions caused by the right to intellectual property and free from genetically manipulated organisms
• produce and harvest food in an ecologically sustainable way, mainly through organic production with low external inputs, as well as artisanal fishing
• choose your own degree of food self-sufficiency and develop autonomous food systems that reduce your dependence on global markets and corporations
• protect and regulate domestic production and trade and prevent dumping of food into their markets and unnecessary food assistance.

A diverse diet from barter

Autonomous and sovereign food systems are not just an illusion. In fact, there are many examples. People know how to combine opportunity with control of their livelihoods in very creative ways. An example of this is the barter that is practiced in the towns of the Lares valley, in the department of Cusco, located in the Andes of southern Peru. The region has an area of ​​around 3,600 km2 and encompasses more than 30 communities with more than 4,000 people who practice barter. It is made up of three agro-ecological zones located at different heights above sea level (m.a.s.l.): the yunga (less than 2,300), the Quechua (between 2,300-3,500) and the puna (more than 3,500). Every week the women of the yunga bring their fruit, coffee, yuccas and coca; Quechua women carry corn, legumes, and vegetables; and the women of the puna carry potatoes, tubers, wool and meat. Products are exchanged on barter markets according to socially agreed measures. Some products are exchanged one for one, such as potatoes and yuccas. Others, based on its volume, such as one or two handfuls of a product. Almost a third of the family food comes from the barter markets, which are traditional in the area. Coca, wool, corn and transportation are sold. Today, barter markets are seen by women as the best way to get food after subsistence farming.

The food sovereignty policy framework is developed by a global network of social movements and civil society organizations. The objective of these organizations is to bring together indigenous, pastoralist and other rural populations, both from the North and the South, and give them a voice and the possibility to influence global events. It is the response of citizens to the multiple social and environmental crises induced by modern food systems (IAASTD, 2008; Pimbert, 2009).

Food security, food sovereignty and political options

The dominant definition of food safety, approved at food summits and other high-level conferences, implies that all people have enough good quality food to eat each day. But he does not worry about where those foods come from, who produces them or the conditions in which they are grown. This allows food exporters to claim that the best way to ensure food security in poor countries is to subsidize and import cheap food or receive it for free as food assistance, rather than producing it themselves. This leads these countries to become more dependent on the international market, small farmers, transhumant pastoralists and fishermen abandon their lands to go to cities, and ultimately food security worsens.

The concept of food sovereignty was developed in reaction to the growing misuse of food security. However, both concepts are frequently confused.

Food sovereignty encourages community autonomy; that is, it leads men and women to determine for themselves what seeds they sow, what animals they raise, what type of agriculture they practice, what economic exchanges they participate in and, ultimately, what they eat for dinner. Here a political dimension comes into play: contrary to the somewhat technical concept of food security, food sovereignty points to the responsibility that peoples and governments have to take into account the local consequences of political and economic processes at the macro level.

The connection between women and food sovereignty is evident. Women do most of the work in agricultural production and food trade, as they are primarily responsible for providing food for the family. Their husbands may be more concerned with cash crops, as each family has expenses (taxes, schools, investments, etc.). Thanks to their close relationship with subsistence agriculture, women have unrecognized traditional knowledge about seeds, harvesting and storage techniques and traditional products. Most do not have access rights to land and water, and they have very little decision-making power.

Food security and food sovereignty in Niger

In Niger, West Africa, 65% of the rural population regularly go hungry. International organizations provide food assistance and have established a system of food banks. Food is stored in poor villages, where people can sell their crops at the end of the harvest and buy food at reasonable prices when there is a shortage. In this way, people save a lot of money, as food prices in local markets triple during the famine season. They are food secure, but continue to depend on outside aid.

When asked what they would need to ensure the production of their own food, the answer is clear: what they need is constant and guaranteed access to the same plot of land. Under the current system, traditional chiefs rotate their plots so that farmers cannot invest in the land they cultivate; therefore, they cannot improve the land. Some plots appear to be productive, but the land next door appears to be less so, so that some of the land is underutilized.

In another part of Niger, farmers planted five million hectares of trees after being granted the right to plant, harvest and sell. In agroforestry land areas the soil is more shaded, more fertile and, as a result, children are better fed. People can produce their own food and participate in the market if they want to. People who participate in these programs benefit from greater food sovereignty, less dependency, and greater autonomy.

Women speak out on the food sovereignty movement

Women have decisively shaped the concept of food sovereignty (Desmarais, 2007). They have established new spaces in male-dominated structures, for example, through Via Campesina's Women's Commission. Similarly, women have influenced global policy debates. Some examples:

On the right to produce
• “Farmers everywhere have the right to produce our own food in our own countries”, was the insistence of women, who had a strong influence on the Declaration of the Rights of Peasant Women and Men (2009)

About agroecology
• women emphasize the need to reduce the use of chemicals that endanger health (for example, pesticides, antibiotics and growth hormones)

About property rights
• women have consistently highlighted the lack of control over equity in ownership of land and other resources, between men and women

Regarding democracy and citizen participation in the creation of policies, women emphasize that their full participation is necessary for equitable access to land and to guarantee the positive impact of agricultural policies on their lives. Those issues that women emphasize are relevant to all food producers and consumers, not just women.

How to promote the roles of women and food sovereignty?

The food sovereignty agenda stipulates that it is not the market that must control food systems, but people and their democratic organizations and institutions. Food policies are too important to be left alone in the hands of corporate monopolies, agricultural professionals or economists; they must also be the domain of ordinary men and women. Food sovereignty implies greater citizen participation and more direct forms of democracy in the governance of food systems. Citizens, and especially women, must cultivate the skills and processes necessary for active civic participation in public affairs. This is not an easy task. For example, local organizations play a key role in reforms for food sovereignty; however, they do not always create enough space for women. For the voice of women to be heard, these organizations have to follow women's priorities and support the development of their capacities. Food systems are not just economic, they involve respect for people and nature. Many subsistence economies respect these values ​​and know how to combine self-consumption and market-oriented production.

The food sovereignty movement must confront a well-organized network of people linked to science, business and politics from the dominant groups. The network of family farmers, local food processors and women leaders needs to get stronger politically. It can form a movement that intertwines villages, towns, neighborhoods and ecological units, and function as a rebellious power to promote a profound systemic change in society. Such a movement would be capable of both opposing and joining state and local government organizations, as well as large food companies - as long as they act on behalf of ordinary citizens. To do this, it needs to recover and develop knowledge that is ecologically appropriate, gender sensitive, socially fair and relevant to each context. The process as a whole should lead to the democratization of research, bringing together researchers and producer families to jointly determine their priorities and fields. Similarly, food sovereignty implies the implementation of radical agrarian reform and the gender equitable distribution of the right to access and use of resources that include land, water, forests, seeds and the means of production. The concept of property rights must be redefined, so that the people best able to produce can have access to land and forests. Finally, all people need some basic material security so that they can participate in these new democratic spaces (Pimbert, 2009).

Many women and their networks are currently engaged in these transformation processes. They, and the men with whom they work, are generating hope and new solidarity as they globalize the fight for food sovereignty.

Michael Pimbert
Sustainable Agriculture, Biodiversity and Livelihoods Program of the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), 3 Endsleigh Street, London WC1H ODD, UK.
Email: [email protected]References
- Desmarais, A.A., 2007. La Via Campesina. Globalization and the power of peasants. Pluto Press, London.
- IAASTD, 2008. International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge Science and Technology. Eds. Beverly D. McIntyre, Hans R. Herren, Judi Wakhungu, Robert T. Watson. Island Press.
- Via Campesina, 1996. The Right to Produce and Access to Land. Via Campesina's position on Food Sovereignty presented at the Food Summit, 13-17 November 1996, Rome.
- Via Campesina, 2009. Declaration of the Rights of Peasants and Peasants, 2009, Seoul.
- Patel, R., 2007. Stuffed and starved. Markets, Power and the Hidden Battle for the World Food System. Portobello Books.
- Pimbert, M.P., 2009. Towards Food Sovereignty. Reclaiming autonomous food systems. (E-book). IIED, London. Available from:


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