Interview w/ La Via Campesina: Global Food System Inspires Global Activism

Interview w/ Dena Hoff, co-coordinator in North America for La Via Campesina, talking about their vision of social change, and how the agricultural challenges faced around the world are not always so different from those faced in the U.S. To read more visit the Worldwatch Institute's Nourishing the Planet blog at



Bio: Dena Hoff is a farmer and activist in Eastern Montana, where she has raised sheep, cattle, alfalfa, corn, edible dry beans and other crops, with her husband since 1979. In addition to her work with Via Campesina, Hoff is Vice President of the National Family Farm Coalition and former Chair of the Northern Plains Resource Council.

Via Campesina has been credited with coining the term “food sovereignty.” Can you describe what it means and how your work supports and promotes it?

Q: Via Campesina has been credited with coining the term “food sovereignty.” Can you describe what it means and how your work supports and promotes it?

Food sovereignty is about a system of agriculture where people get to decide their own food and agricultural policies in their own countries without being dictated by foundations or institutions like the WTO or the IMF or the World Bank or trade agreements. People decide what they’re going to eat, who’s going to produce it, what’s going to be produced. And more than that, it’s a whole life system that is sustainable, that respects Mother Earth, that respects human rights and the rights of people to live in dignity, to be well-fed, to be reasonably taken care of, have a decent standard of living. Everything that food sovereignty encompasses is human rights, women’s rights and education: everything that makes a good life and protects the planet.

Via Campesina is a very large social movement. We’re not a legal entity at all, but we are made up of groups around the world. We think that we have as many as 300 million members, though we’ve never been able to get a direct number. We’re growing, growing, growing because people realize that we can only change the world into a place where everybody can live and a world where everybody wants to live by banding together, standing together, sharing each other’s stories and showing solidarity. We need to educate people: people who are not farmers but who of course are eaters, people who care about the environment, people who care about human rights and social justice and the environment – they need to be part of this movement. It’s going to take everyone.

There are too few people who control the power, who control the resources, who control the wealth of the world, and the destiny of the rest of us. I don’t like anybody pulling my strings. I am not a puppet, I am an independent human being and I have wishes and dreams and fears for my own family, my children, my grandchildren, my nieces, my nephews, my community. And I want to see these things become reality and I’m just willing to just keep working forever.

The biggest part of that responsibility is educating other people, and getting them to stand up to power and that’s a very difficult thing. People do not like conflict, people do not like to stand up to power. They have some idea that the people who are in power are smarter than they are and have something that they don’t have – if only they knew that those people who are controlling their lives are just ordinary people!

Until we give people the confidence to take back control of their own lives and their communities, nothing is going to change. It’s a big, big, task. But it should hearten people to know that there are millions, and millions, and millions, and millions of people around the world who are very dedicated to doing this, and who are willing to do it.

Q: What role does gender play in La Via Campesina’s work?

Gender is extremely important, because most of the world’s farmers are women! And a lot of those women are hungry women, because they are the people who are being forced off land, have no access to resources and no access to credit. We also started a campaign in Mozambique at our Fifth International Assembly against violence against women. So we have that international campaign, and the young people have just taken it up! They have put on plays, and they have dramas, and they are doing literature and are going around to communities and educating people on why it is so important that women have an equal voice, equal rights and equal opportunities.

Gender balance is very important to us. There will never be any real equity in the world until women are seen as equal partners, standing shoulder to shoulder with men. One of our original seven pillars was gender. We also fought very hard in 2000 for gender parity on our coordinating committee, and we got it – we have a male and a female for each of the assigned regions.

We have a lot of programs in a lot of countries also for training women: in agriculture, in literacy, and also in political training. So that they have an understanding of what’s impacting their lives. We also have programs that help them develop means of making a living, so it’s very important.

Q: What are some of the similarities between what’s happening to agriculture across the world, and what’s happening here in the U.S.?

Land grabs happen in this country too (see: Large Scale Land Investments Do Not Benefit Local Communities). In my neighborhood, groups of bankers or lawyers or investors are investing in farmland because I guess they think they’re going to get a better return than on some other thing. And farmers have no recourse. I mean no-one here who wanted to expand or who wanted to help one of their children get started in agriculture, they can’t possibly match those prices. The land is lost for agriculture. A great big and lovely farming ranch along the Yellowstone River went to a real estate developer from Maryland who’s now running for the legislature in Montana. Land is being turned into hunting or fishing places or little retreats – it’s not being used for agriculture.

Look at what’s happening in Detroit. They have torn down about forty buildings in downtown  Detroit, they’re going to tear down about that many more. And there are a lot of vacant lots that can be used for urban agriculture. But, there’s a big developer who wants to commercialize it for profits instead of the city giving the lots over to the community for urban farming. So there’s a big fight going on in Detroit – that’s land grabbing, isn’t it?

I belong to the Northern Plains Resource Council, that’s my state organization in Montana. They have, for years, been trying to protect family agriculture, educate people about the importance of it and protect it from energy developers and speculators. The National Family Farm Coalition has been involved since 1987 in policy work in Washington, DC, trying to get a decent farm bill so that we can protect our family agriculture. But when you go lobby, you hear “We don’t need American farmers, we can import everything cheaper.” Congressmen will actually say that to you.

So my question has always been: If transportation, communication  and energy are a matter of national security, shouldn’t food be a matter of national security? Shouldn’t water be a matter of national security? Instead of just a commodity for someone to make money from?

Q: How does global agriculture and trade policy affect the environment, global hunger, and poverty?

We had all the hype about how industrial agriculture was going to end hunger, how GMOs were going to end hunger, and look what’s happened. There’s a billion hungry people, almost a half a million of those are in the United States. Hunger is increasing, poverty is increasing, and all of the industrialization hasn’t done one single thing to end hunger, and we’ve been destroying the environment. So the solution actually turned out to be very, very damaging – far more damaging than the problems that we had before industrial agriculture was proposed as the solution to hunger and the environment.

Look at the deforestation for biofuels in Brazil, the destruction of traditional agriculture in Indonesia in favor of palm plantations for biofuels. Shoving people off the land and forcing them to the cities where there are no livelihoods is not the solution. Or forcing them to become slaves as is happening all over the world. We like to think that we’re in the twenty-first century, and slavery is something of the past: it isn’t. It’s worse. It’s getting worse every day. There are so many examples of people being forced into slavery, literally having their livelihoods taken away from them because somebody else wants to make a profit off of the resources that they made a modest living with. And then if they wish to survive they can become practically slave labor for these people who just took away their livelihood. So if that’s not slavery, I don’t know what the definition is.

Q: Why are large scale land acquisitions, or land-grabs, problematic?

It’s problematic because there are a lot of places where land is owned communally, or there’s not a deed to the land, and it’s just land that communities have made their living with, in some places for over 1000 years, maybe more. And suddenly, this has a value beyond somebody’s livelihood, beyond somebody having to have food and shelter. And someone finds out they can make a profit, and they come in and take it.

Now in the case of Mali, Mali has put food sovereignty in their constitution – and then their President leases large amounts of arable land to the Saudis, for ten years. That’s totally against the constitution, it’s totally illegal, but there doesn’t seem to be a national or international mechanism to force governments to abide by their own laws and their own constitution. It just seems like increasingly the world is a more lawless place, where anything goes if it makes money.

Q: What policies or programs are needed for more robust protection of land rights and land reform?

Well, first of all I wish the international court would actually take a look at what’s happening in countries where a lot of land grabbing is going on, and tell governments that this is not acceptable, and that you are being held up to international public scrutiny, and we’re not going to allow you to do this. Ultimately I guess it’s just the people having to take control. And that’s difficult, especially in governments where they just send the army in to kill you if you protest.

Q: Do you think there’s any role for multinational corporations to play in improving the situation for farmers and peasants here and across the world?

I’m not sure that’s the role they want. Their mission is their bottom line, to pay dividends to their investors. Their mission is not to do good. Their mission is not to protect the environment or nurture societies. They’re doing what they’re set up to do, and they’ve been given far too many rights and too much power.  I mean, equal protection under the law for a corporation? A friend of mine who was inside used to say, “What kind of craziness is that?” Corporations have no soul to save and no ass to kick and they are totally unaccountable to anyone.

What happens when they do something ugly that causes people to lose their lives? If I would do something accidentally like kill someone in a traffic accident, that would be manslaughter, I would be brought up on charges, I would have to suffer the consequences. You don’t really hear about anyone in a corporation having to take responsibility for the lives they cause to be lost through their greed and negligence. They have the same protection as any individual, but I guess they don’t have the same responsibility.

Q: How could agencies like the World Bank and UN Food and Agriculture Organization do a better job to support La Via Campesina’s mission?

They could do a better job by ensuring that people in countries that need food aid have access to means of production so that they can feed themselves, and not rely on charity. To make them self-reliant. Education, condemning the privatization of water, health care – the poorest people don’t get those basic things and they don’t get basic services, because they simply can’t pay. And all this hype about corporations being able to produce more – producing more is not the answer. You can go to the markets in the poorest countries and you can see mountains of food, and people starving to death right nearby. If they have no means to a livelihood, they have no means to feed themselves, and no means to make a living, then they can’t buy food. There can be all the extra food in the world, but if they don’t have money, they die.

Q: How can people get involved to help La Via Campesina’s efforts?

We always need people to hook up with our organizations in all of our countries, and support legislation in those countries that will turn governments around – so that they do the right thing for civil society and are not totally governed by corporations. We have six organizations in the U.S. that belong to Via Campesina. And we’re always looking for people who can help with translation.

We want people to take an interest in the policies of their own countries, in the plight of family agriculture, family fishermen, migrant workers and landless workers, and get educated about what these people face. And also how it impacts you! Because even if you think you are isolated and insulated from all the trouble that’s happening, it impacts everybody because everybody eats. Everybody eats!

If there are only huge massive plantations producing our food with basically slave labor, if workers have no rights, and the environment is just sneered at (because no-one enforces environmental laws), if human rights are not protected, and people are allowed to be brought into the country illegally or otherwise and then just dumped if they’re injured or hurt, and are not well paid – that does not reflect very well on us as a society or as people. Especially people that like to call themselves “good Christians”, and think that anybody who doesn’t look just like them should be shipped out, or denied services. That they shouldn’t be allowed to eat, that they shouldn’t have health care, that they shouldn’t be allowed to be educated because they “don’t belong.”

My family came as immigrants from Europe, and they had things to overcome too. I think people in this country should realize that unless you’re a Native American, you’re an immigrant – and [they should] identify with the new immigrants.

Q: So much of La Via Campesina’s work is about mobilizing people. What agricultural or economic policies do you think could be implemented to address the needs of small-scale farmers and agricultural producers in order to help create the change you envision?

Certainly a decent farm bill with a farmer-owned reserve, and a farm bill that actually gives farmers a price so that they can live and support their communities. Because it isn’t just about farmers –I mean, the money they make supports a whole entire community, our states. And I think people need to understand the importance of agriculture to this country, and what happens to countries that let their agriculture go, and depend on importing all their food from somewhere else. There are plenty of examples in the world of countries that can no longer feed themselves because somebody decided it was cheaper or more intelligent to buy all their food from somebody else, and concentrate on economies that don’t feed people, and concentrate the wealth into the hands of just a very few.

Q: Final thoughts:

Everybody has to become an activist, even if it’s just educating themselves. Even if it’s just making a phone call or planting a garden, or looking around and seeing if your neighbors are one of the one-in-eight people who are hungry. Be aware of what’s going on around you!

Creating Food Sovereignty for Small-Scale Farmers

This interview with Raj Patel, award-winning writer, activist and academic, was originally featured as a two part series on Nourishing the Planet.

Name: Raj Patel

Affiliation: Visiting scholar at UC Berkeley's Center for African Studies, Honorary Research Fellow at the School of Development Studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and a fellow at The Institute for Food and Development Policy, also known as Food First.

Location: San Francisco

Bio: Raj Patel has degrees from the University of Oxford, the London School of Economics and Cornell University, has worked for the World Bank and WTO, and protested against them around the world. He has testified about the causes of the global food crisis to the US House Financial Services Committee and is an Advisor to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food. In addition to numerous scholarly publications, he regularly writes for The Guardian, and has contributed to the LA Times,, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Mail on Sunday, and The Observer. He is the author of Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System and most recently, The Value of Nothing.

Can you please explain the concept of food sovereignty, and what policies and programs will help encourage it?

Food sovereignty is about communities', states' and unions' rights to shape their own food and agricultural policy. Now that may sound like a whole lot of nothing, because you're actually not making a policy demand, you're just saying that people need to be able to make their own decisions. But, actually, that's a huge thing. Because in general, particularly for smaller farmers in developing countries, and particularly for women, decisions about food and agricultural policy have never been made by them. They've always been imposed.

That's why La Via Campesina, the organization that really invented the term, says that one of the visions behind food sovereignty is that food sovereignty is about an end to all forms of violence against women. That may sound something not at all to do with food, but of course, if we're serious about people being able to make choices about how their food comes to them and what the food system looks like, then the physical and the structural violence to which women are exposed in the home, in the economy and in society, all need to be tackled. Otherwise we will continue with a situation in which 60 percent of the people going hungry today are women or girls. So food sovereignty, to boil it down, is really about power - who has it in the food system, and how to redistribute it so that those who have concentrated it, have it taken away from them.

In terms of specific policies, what Via Campesina are calling for is for agriculture to be removed from the World Trade Organization, which is a way again in which local countries' sovereignty is already been given away. They also call for large corporations to be booted out of agriculture. There's strong opposition to Monsanto for example, and the way that they've been behaving in many developing countries, and many Via Campesina members are campaigning against Monsanto in their home countries.

Will another Green Revolution or more food subsidies help reduce hunger?

To answer the question, let's look at Malawi. It's the poster child for what a new green revolution in Africa might look like, with widespread subsidies of inorganic fertilizer for farmers. When I went there, late last year, what you found was long lines at the gasoline pump, because all Malawi's foreign exchange had been spent on importing this fossil fuel-based fertilizer. The country had bankrupted itself in order that it might be a showcase for the new green revolution in Africa. And of course, there are alternatives right there in Malawi, driven by farmers - invariably by women who are innovating around sustainable systems like poly-culture - growing lots of crops simultaneously together, building soil fertility for the long run.

What this shows is that there are some basic incompatibilities between varieties of ways of addressing agrarian problems in Africa. Some organizations, Worldwatch included, adopt a 'big tent' approach, in which solutions that keep the status quo but improve it marginally sit alongside far more radical approaches. Ultimately, you can't promote genetically modified monoculture or techniques that make large-scale commercial farming less destructive at the same time as wanting something like food sovereignty, which calls for much more of a deeper structural rethink of the way the food system operates. Food sovereignty is about democracy in our food system so that everyone gets to eat - industrial agriculture involves a food system run by technocrats for profit. At the end of the day, you can have one or the other -not both.

How does global agricultural policy affect small-scale farmers across the world?

In general the policies foisted on developing countries through organizations like the World Bank is that large scale agriculture is the way to go: that small farmers are a relic of the past. They are of purely cultural significance but economically, socially, and agriculturally, they stand in the way of development. So the policies that are essentially designed to increase farm size and kick off rural populations to the cities are ones that you see in pretty much every country around the world. And yet of course, it is the poor in rural communities that are being forced to bear the brunt of these policies and these are the communities that are least able to afford it. And again - you can never say it too often - it is on women's shoulders that the bulk of the pain of moving from agrarian society to a so-called modern industrial society one, falls.

Why should American food consumers care about the fate of agricultural producers halfway across the world?

Not out of any sense of pity or charity, but because the struggle that farmers in developing countries face are very similar to the struggles that farmers in the United States face. Industrial agriculture wreaks havoc. We've seen the deaths from E. coli, we've seen industrial agriculture and the rise of BSE, we've seen the massive dead-zone in the Gulf of Mexico because of the run-off from animal feeding operations flowing down the Mississippi. If you're in America and you're concerned about the quality or safety of your food, or about the consequences of the way your food is produced, then you're not alone. Those are all things that farmers elsewhere in the world are worried about, and that consumers elsewhere in the world are worried about too.

There's a proven way in which those concerns can be addressed. It is to wrench power away from the corporations that profit from low standards, from the ability to off-shore pollution, and the ability to evade the costs of defective products. So I think in the US, if you're at all concerned about food safety, health, obesity - any of these things, then you would want to have more control of your food system. And wanting more control over your food system is exactly what food sovereignty is about. In a globalised world, you can't have control over your food system in this country while people elsewhere don't, and this is what makes it a common struggle.

Funding for agricultural research has declined in recent decades. Where should funding for agricultural innovation and research come from?

Funding for agriculture ought to come from the places where research used to come from: the government. I don't have any stars in my eyes when I think about governments in developing countries having a ton of cash in their coffers for research into this. But governments that are net food importing developing countries, found themselves after the last food crisis in very dark times. They're keen to develop new ways of doing things. A lot of these countries haven't had the money to be able to invest in agricultural extension and research, and so what we need are two things: One is a cancellation of the illegitimate debt that these countries have racked up with organizations like the World Bank. There's a huge debt that rich countries owe poor ones - for colonialism, for the ecological damage we have caused and continue to cause by the way we consume. Yet through the World Bank, the debt has been flipped over, and has become an agent for controlling these economies.

So we definitely need a change in the way international development and finance work, but we also need to support change within developing countries so that agricultural extension becomes something that once again is funded and is geared towards the kinds of research that is about low-carbon, that is about democratic control over resources, rather than about pushing a particular kind of product and particular kind of vision of agriculture that is ultimately unsustainable for the majority of countries in Africa.

To learn more about food sovereignty and fair trade, see Depending on A Global Workforce,  In a Global Food System: Breaking Down Barriers and Improving Livelihoods for Food Workers and Making Sure the Food Industry Works for its Employees.

Editor's Note: Many thanks to Raj Patel for allowing us to profile him on the Nourishing the Planet blog. We're a big fan of his work with Food First and promoting food sovereignty. While we're grateful to Raj for highlighting the importance of protecting the livelihoods of millions of farmers all over the world, we would like to respectfully disagree with his suggestion above that Worldwatch has promoted "genetically modified monoculture" systems. Worldwatch has a long history of writing about sustainable agriculture systems that encourage crop diversity and support the livelihoods of small-scale farmers, including our early writing on the local food movement in Brian Halweil's book, Eat Here: Reclaiming Homegrown Solutions in a Global Supermarket; our first-hand reporting in 2001 on why genetically modified crops are not necessarily the best, or most appropriate, or only available solution to agricultural challenges; and Danielle Nierenberg's writing on the spread of factory farming into the developing world and how it could be stopped in Happier Meals: Rethinking the Global Meat Industry.

This blog has taken a "big tent" approach, so to speak, in that we've featured many voices as we scour Africa for examples of farmers, scientists, politicians and others doing great work. This doesn't mean we think all solutions are equally worthy of attention or support. In fact, we have tried to make clear in our posts that we think current investments in agricultural development are irrationally skewed towards crop breeding and big infrastructure projects, like dams for irrigation. Many of the innovations we have profiled-from low-cost ways to cut waste in the food system, to mixed-cropping systems with livestock, to farmer-organized marketing and research cooperatives-aren't making "large-scale commercial farming less destructive," as Raj writes. But, used widely, they could change the very structure of the food economies throughout the world. And that's what will successfully eliminate hunger and poverty.

Thank you for reading! As you may already know, Danielle Nierenberg is traveling across sub-Saharan Africa visiting organizations and projects that provide environmentally sustainable solutions to hunger and poverty.  She has already traveled to over 18 countries and visited 130 projects highlighting stories of hope and success in the region. She will be in Burkina Faso next, so stay tuned for more writing, photos and video from her travels.  

If you enjoy reading this diary, we blog daily on  Nourishing the Planet, where you can also sign up for our newsletter to receive weekly blog and travel updates.  Also, please don't hesitate to comment on our posts, we check them daily and look forward to an ongoing discussion with you.




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