The food sovereignty movement seeks to protect the rights of agricultural communities across Latin America and shows that resistance to corporate food production is driven from below.

In the age of faceless corporate agriculture, the food sovereignty movement seeks to democratise the food system for both producers and consumers. While global in scope, the movement has particularly strong roots in Latin America, which has a long tradition of rural people resisting and fighting for productive land rights.

Decades of neoliberal development policies across the region have pushed farmers deeper into debt thanks to high input chemical farming and a market that prioritises export produce, such as biofuels, to the detriment of staple food crops. In this landscape basic foods are imported from abroad, forcing smallholders to compete using high yield chemical and GM farming, all of which destroys ecology and biodiversity.

The shift from small-scale subsistence or local producers to mechanised and industrialised agribusiness has been entrenched in trade deals such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which has impoverished rural communities throughout Mexico.  Similar recent trade deals between the European Union, Chile, Peru and Colombia have reduced import tariffs, cut agricultural subsidies and removed affordable credit for farmers and rural communities.

In response, campesino (peasant farmer) communities are fighting to preserve their economic, ecological, social and cultural rights. Across Latin America this has taken the shape of food sovereignty projects. Food sovereignty was popularised by the transnational peasant farmer social movement La Vía Campesina (LVC), founded in 1993 by peasant farmer representatives from Latin America, North America, Africa, Asia and Europe. The aim was to defend the rights of small farmers against the globalisation of agriculture and domination of agribusiness.

In 1996, LVC declared the right of all peasant farmers to healthy, culturally-appropriate, sustainably-produced food and the resources to cultivate it. The organisation’s basic principles are to regain the dignity and agency of rural communities by reasserting the primacy of the ecological smallholder economy, so combatting the corporate turn in agriculture.

Cuba’s food revolution

Cuba presents one of the strongest examples of food sovereignty in Latin America. The move towards locally-grown, low-input food in the country was triggered by the collapse of the Soviet Union, which led to food shortages during a serious economic crisis from 1989 through to the late 1990s. The result was greater focus on self-sufficiency.

The first step was radical land reform in 1993, which saw large state-farms (representing 74 per cent of total agricultural product) converted into small-scale cooperative farms. The reform awarded a 33-acre parcel of land to any landless citizen wanting involvement in food production, while those already with land were given access to anything up to 99 acres.

Each application was accompanied by state supervision on how food was to be produced and which local markets would be used. By 2010, 690,000 hectares had been redistributed. The move was a sweeping response to acute food shortages, incentivising ecological and localised food production.

Small co-operative Cuban farms were tasked with agro-ecological organic food production. Food sovereignty projects began to sprout, partly due to lack of money for fertilisers, but also from conscious ecological considerations. By 2010, some 120,000 Cuban farmers were producing entirely organic food, while another 110,000 applied agro-ecological principles and 60 per cent employed diversified cropping systems, all boosting biodiversity and crop resiliency to climatic change.

Despite this, the country still imports around 60 per cent of its food and government reports show that in 2014 the food import bill in fact rose ten per cent to $2.2 billion due to factors such as bureaucracy. This highlights the need for greater investment and accelerated decentralisation of the agricultural process.

The path towards realising food sovereignty in Cuba is paved with co-operation between the state and campesinos. From the beginning of the Cuban economic crisis, the government commissioned research into agroecology and invested in developing the natural resources needed for organic farming. This was supported by the Campesino a Campesino (Peasant Farmer to Peasant Farmer) movement, which began in Guatemala in 1972, before spreading to Mexico, Nicaragua and Cuba. It facilitated campesino exchange and provided forums in which farmers analyse their positive and negative experiences of agroecology. A unified social stance in achieving food sovereignty, reinforced through political support, has allowed Cuba to robustly respond to crisis and to emerge healthier and greener.

Other Latin American countries under progressive governments have followed suit. Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia enshrined the ideas behind food sovereignty in their new constitutions. In these countries, this is closely related to the idea of el buen vivir (the good life) or the Quechua indigenous translation sumak kawsay.

In Ecuador, the results have not been as glowing as in Cuba, since wide-reaching land reform has not taken place. Questions remain about how effectively the new Law of Rural Land and Ancestral Territories (Ley de Tierras Rurales y Territorios Ancestrales), passed in January 2016, will do this and cater to the diverse interests of rural groups around the country. For instance, indigenous groups in the Amazon are concerned whether the state will respect their autonomy, as neo-extractivist projects endanger communal lands. Meanwhile, peasant groups in the northern coastal region fear the expansion of African palm oil. Both these raise the possibility of Ecuadorian agriculture being further appropriated by the corporate food regime. Further criticisms of the new law have been made. The national NGO Observatory of Rural Change (OCARU) denounced the omission of a clause prohibiting the use of genetically modified organisms (GMO), contradicting its prohibition in the country’s 2008 constitution.

Similar issues exist in Bolivia, where inequality in landownership remains high, despite progressive measures implemented by Evo Morales’ government. Although the Bolivian and Ecuadorian governments continue to offer positive messages about food sovereignty, business channels for agribusiness remain precariously open, a trajectory that threatens the future of smallholder agroecological farming.

Tensions also exist in relation to who leads the food sovereignty movement: the state or campesinos themselves. Although state support is vital for land redistribution and the shift from export-led trade to focussing on national markets and needs, it is vital that campesino agency be strengthened and not debilitated. Democratisation of land ownership is key, but so is democratisation of the political process around food sovereignty in order to ensure a united front against the exigencies of the corporate food system.

Mexico and the market

An interesting contrast to these cases is Mexico, which, thanks to NAFTA, remains firmly under the grip of the corporate food regime. The extent of agricultural decimation in Mexico is highlighted by the fact that the country was producing most of its own staple foods in the mid-1970s. Since the neoliberal turn in the late 1980s and 1990s, Mexico’s land ownership structure has steadily grown more market-driven while the goal of food self-sufficiency has been abandoned. Post-NAFTA Mexico has seen an even more significant rise in imports. By 2013, the country’s food import bill was being driven up by over $20 billion per year, with maize and wheat imports markedly increased.

This is reflected in rising rates of obesity. According to a United Nations report, in 2013 Mexico surpassed the USA as the world’s most obese nation. Mexican diets have faced an overhaul that can be traced back to NAFTA and the resultant nutrition transition, in which a national diet high in fruits, vegetables, grains and protein was substituted for one high in animal produce, sugar and fat. In this climate, smallholder farmers are battling for the right to plant native seeds and to produce and sell locally using agroecological methods, but also to culturally and nutritionally reclaim Mexican dietary habits.

Clearly the path towards realising food sovereignty in Latin America is a complex one. Campesinos in the global south have agitated in the highest annals of power, lobbying for food sovereignty and agroecology in the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation. Making food sovereignty a reality is the next challenge, which can only be realised through increased collectivisation and popular mobilisation. Fortunately, there are hopeful advances towards this, especially through organisations such as La Vía Campesina. The struggle for ecological, healthy and green food production and consumption is one our planet cannot afford to lose.

This article was originally published in Alborada magazine issue three (Winter 2016/17)