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La Via Campesina

Multinational corporations that are directly responsible for the destruction of food systems in Africa and globally are now purporting to provide innovative approaches to addressing the crisis – the so-called “green revolution.” Absent from these discussions are the voices of smallholder farmers who in reality feed the world. But these farmers are fighting back by establishing resistance networks to restore the power over food into their own hands.

The necessity of food to human life requires that everyone gets concerned about food debates. Unfortunately, the agenda being pushed is one that profits corporates at the expense of smallholder farmers. The global food crisis was most felt in 2008 when citizens of developed and developing nations took to the streets to protest against abnormal food prices.

As noted by Wittman, Desmarais and Wiebbe [1] a growing number of households and communities fear for tomorrow’s meals. Furthermore, even for those who have adequate incomes to pay for grocery bills there are grounds of unease about the content, safety and origins of food and the long-term sustainability of our food system.

In the current situation, food systems are facing intense vulnerabilities stemming from climate change, loss of biodiversity and security of supplies. In Kenya for instance some parts of the country are on perpetual food aid with extreme cases where food and water supply are used as ploys to swing political votes during electioneering years. Additionally, this hunger is not only restricted to the Eastern part of Kenya, it has now spread to pastoral communities and agricultural livelihood zones in the North Eastern and parts of the coast due to absence of adequate rainfall.

The onslaught on African agriculture, of which Kenya seems to be the epicentre (within Eastern Africa region), is the various meetings being converged in the country all touching on agriculture with the clarion call being more investment in agricultural production. But the question that begs is that in all these forums where is the voice of the small-scale farmer who produces food? Why the deliberate exclusion of voices of smallholder farmers who feed not only the country but also the world?

A case in point is the 6th African Green Revolution Forum which took place in Nairobi in September 2016 under the theme “Seize the Moment: Securing Africa’s rise through agricultural transformation.” The emphasis was on investment in agriculture because 70% of Africa’s population engages in agricultural production, and that investment is capable of reducing poverty, increasing food security and nutrition access. The sad reality is that these discussions are normally mute on issues of power dynamics on production.

Furthermore, the push for investment is based on the logic that this is an economic opportunity that needs to be exploited as it represents a $300 billion food market projected to grow to 40.1 trillion by 2030. Comparative calculations are made that Africa’s current import bill stands at $30-40 billion a year and that investment is likely to enable Africa provide its own maker and even become its own market and even a net exporter to the rest of the world. [2]

The push by AGRA on food investments raises the question of effectiveness of the so-called Green Revolution in areas such as India, with the farmer’s suicides resulting from mounting debts. Other hard questions that need to be asked on whether AGRA will be able to deliver include:

  • How will the Green Revolution protect farmers’ rights to their native seeds?
  • How will the Green Revolution empower farmers to advance their own development agendas?
  • What about environmental safeguards within a monoculture production system?
  • How will the Green Revolution address climate justice and frontline communities?

What the pushers of the investment agenda never tell African states is that this is perpetuation of exploitation using various modes including investments in land, “ scientific agriculture” and the promise of a better and greener future for Africa.

Exploitation is on all fronts with corporate capture of the food system being deemed very profitable. Agro-fuels have time and again been blamed for land grabs. The use of arable land to grow industrial crops is increasingly recognized as negative in terms of climate change, water and energy use (Fargione et al 2008). Furthermore, agro-fuels have been criticized based on their impacts as women, the bulk of those who shoulder the impact of food crisis as producers (Rossi and Labmbrou 2008).

The monopoly of the food industry through mergers and buyouts has continued to impact negatively on agriculture, which is the main source of food and income for the majority of the world’s poor. The evidence shows that growth in the smallholder economy is the most effective way of alleviating rural poverty. [3] With mergers come an increased market share and in collusion with states through agriculture related laws, corporations are controlling what people consume from the soil to the table.

During spells of drought the emphasis has always been on food aid. This in essence is creating a ready market for multinationals to dispose of their surpluses in the name of aid. No entity is keen to devise ways through which vulnerability to food aid could be addressed through putting in place mechanisms that ensure availability of water throughout. This is a form of structural violence deliberately aimed at attacking the very core of human existence, namely the stomach.

Time and again solutions have been proposed to address soil infertility; these proposals mainly focus on monoculture and “climate smart agriculture” with intensified use of chemicals. Sadly, the salespeople representing agro-chemicals never tell farmers that overuse of chemicals has the effect of interfering with soil fertility as well as thinning the soil .The major push is how to increase market share and reap maximum profits.

Soil fertility is in a crisis in many parts of the Africa, Kenya included. Many smallholder farmers are nostalgic of the period when the soil was soft and crops could grow without any use of fertilizer. Many farmers complain that their soil is becoming whitish and hard. This is also attributed to the push for using more chemicals at every level of crop production under the false assurance that the more chemicals pumped on the soil and on crops, the more bumper the harvest.

The lack of analysis of issues of soil and detachment of politics from food production processes is another contributor the soil crisis. When discussions on soil arise issues affecting the genesis of crop production are never raised. The contributions of elements such as impact of colonialism with the subsequent declaring of indigenous soil management practices such as rotational farming to be archaic, emphasis on mechanized farming as well as the introduction of land titling have eroded the previous relationship between farmers and the land – where land was viewed as a living thing to be well taken care of.

On seeds, farmers no longer keep indigenous seeds and if one is lucky enough you can only get one farmer in an entire village. This is partly because the culture of saving seeds has been eroded through advertisements of seeds that supposedly produce more yields, use less water (e.g. Water Resistant Maize for Africa) and do not get attacked by pests.

Smallholder farmers are tired of being excluded from issues affecting them and are forming alternatives to push their agenda. As Petronilla Nduku, a farmer from Machakos in Kenya, notes: “We used to grow our crops without fertilizers but now even when we use manure, we are forced to mix it with fertilizers”. This shows that farmers get tied to corporations in the whole crop production process, from soil to seed to care for crops, harvest and post-harvest as well as value addition.

Against this backdrop, smallholder farmers in Eastern and Central Kenya are forging a food justice journey for change. Through networks (Machakos District Small Farmers Association and Central Organic Farmers and Consumers Organization-COFCO) farmers are coming together to learn from each other. Through a system anchored on the food production process from soil to seed to care for crops, harvest and post-harvest, and farmers are getting back to agro-ecological methods previously deemed archaic.

The learning has contributed positively to the farmers and they share that their soil has changed as well as improvements in access to information when they need it. Farming has changed from being a process where a farmer tills land alone into a process of community sharing.

Practical sessions on understanding soil, soil fertility testing, spacing, and seed selection are having a positive impact on these communities. Furthermore, these farmers are sharing seeds amongst themselves and sharing knowledge across communities on how to preserve seeds without the use of chemicals.

Starting with a small group of farmers, more farming communities are coming on board as farmers reach out to more members within and beyond their communities. Farmers are teaching each other and starting field days within their homesteads. Furthermore, this learning is unique in that it  brings on board other activists dealing with struggles different from food. Incorporating gender activists in these spaces , farmers get to learn the relationship between gender and  crop production; artists get to share how to use art as a tool for raising consciousness on  farm related oppressions; health practitioners also get an opportunity to share information on the relationship between food and diseases. As such smallholder farmers get to understand the intersection of production related struggles with other broader struggles within communities.

Despite these successes, more needs to be done in terms of reaching out to more smallholder farmers. The struggle is far from over as there is a need to change the systems, policies and laws that support the exploitation of farmers through taxes and pricing. A vision should be pursued where the smallholder farmer is respected, involved in matters affecting them and where prices of farm produce are not controlled by market forces of demand and supply, but by the farmers themselves.

* Leonida Odongo is Programme Officer, Adilisha: Education for Social Justice, Fahamu Africa-Networks for Social Justice.

End notes

[1] Hannah Wittman, Annette Aurelie Desmarais, Annete & Nettie Wiebe Food





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