By Eric Holt-Giménez, executive director, Food First
I was invited to give a talk onFood Crises, Food Sovereignty and Rural Development at the IV International Congress on Rural Development in Villahermosa, capital of the torrid state of Tabasco, Mexico. Between the plenary presentations and work sessions what struck me was how much the idea of rural development has changed since the 1970s when I worked as a rural development volunteer in Mexico.
Basically, few people believe in Development anymore.
I suppose this is understandable.Forty years of failure—of the Green Revolution, of Integrated Rural Development Projects and of government programs to end poverty in the countryside—followed by NAFTA’s widespread destruction of rural markets and the unregulated explosion of extractive industries (mining, dams, agrofuels, etc), has identified Development with rapacious capitalism rather than with the improvement of people’s livelihoods.
Having worked in and studied Development for thirty years, I am not surprised when rural people express scorn over Development. What was surprising to me was that so many researchers, technicians and students at an International Rural Development Congress were so deeply critical, disillusioned and even cynical about what was ostensibly the very essence of their profession.
Another surprise was that several presentations at the Congress challenged Development with another—well received—concept: “El buen vivir.”
Loosely translated as “good living”, El buen vivir comes from the indigenous term Sumak Kawsay, an anti-colonial concept that rejects the modernization projects that have devastated First Nation communities over the last half-century. Discussed and adopted by such diverse groups as the EZLN (Zapatistas), the World Social Forum, the government of Bolivia and Occupy,
[Sumak Kawsay] means life in harmony and equilibrium between men and women, between different communities, and, above all, between human beings and the natural environment of which they are part. In practice, this concept implies knowing how to live in community with others while achieving the minimum conditions for equality. It means eliminating prejudice and exploitation between people as well as respecting nature and preserving its equilibrium.
The other remarkable thing about the IV International Congress on Rural Development was the open outrage over the blatant fraud of the country’s recent presidential elections that pervaded the plenaries and the coffee breaks. While discussions among rural sociologists and anthropologists are often political, it is unusual for agronomists and engineers to join in—especially in an academic gathering.
On my way back to the U.S. I stopped in Mexico City. There was a big demonstration against the new president in Mexico City’s main square, the Zócalo. Workers unions and students from the “Yo soy 132” movement filled the enormous square in front of the National Palace. Yo soy 132 (I am 132) takes its name from a student demonstration against the president elect Peña Nieto when he was running for office. Apparently, students from the private Ibero-American University ran him off campus. The television stations claimed those involved were outside agitators. 131 students came forward with their student cards, claiming responsibility for the action. Then another person came forward claiming they were number “132.” Now everyone against corruption and fraud in Mexico claims they are “132.”
On the way back from the demonstration I stopped at Sanbourn’s for coffee. Sanbourn’s has been a Mexican institution ever since Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata had coffee and chocolate there when their revolutionary troops took over Mexico City in 1914. While reveling in the history, my friend informed me that Sanbourn’s was now owned by Wal Mart. Turns out Wal Mart also owns pretty much all of the supermarkets in Mexico (though they retain their original Mexican names). On the way back to my hotel I walked past a Burger King being guarded by riot police. Híjole!
Eggs are a big deal in Mexico these days. I mean big deals are being cut. A bout of avian flu led to the destruction of a number of industrial poultry farms. This tripled the price of eggs, which are a mainstay in the Mexican diet, particularly among the poor, who can’t afford meat. The government promptly imported eggs from the U.S. However, somehow, those eggs ended up in private hands that have been very slowly doling them out. Just slowly enough for the price to continue rising…
Mexico, the birthplace of corn is reeling under the rapidly rising price of corn. This is because thanks to NAFTA, they now import most of their corn from the U.S., which of course is also reeling from the worst drought in 50 years. When combined with the fact that half of U.S. corn goes to agrrofuels, one can see how prices would rise; Now comes the hoarding and speculation. No, not from Mexico, where most corn belongs to Archer Daniels Midlands and Cargill—from the U.S.
In the midst of all off this, I took a couple of day to travel to visit RICDA, the Indigenous and Peasant Network for Agroecological Development, a Food First Sponsored project. Farmers in RICDA are planning a big gathering in two weeks to share information about their agroecological efforts to rescue native pollinators. Not an easy proposition, given the spread of chemicals and GMOs. I shared a microphone with farmers at a local radio station in Calpulalpan, Tlaxcala. They were intent on informing the peasant farming population about the dangers of GMO release (for experimental purposes) in Mexico, warning about the possibilities and consequences of GMO contamination. With support from Food First and the CS Fund in California, RICDA has been carrying out a three-year campaign for the restoration of pollinator habitat. They expect over 200 farmers, researchers and consumers to join them for their three-day conference-field trip-agroecological fair this September 21 to 23 in Vicente Guerrero, Tlaxcala. This great group is an offshoot of the Campesino a Campesino movement for sustainable agriculture.
I’ll be doing a lot of traveling over the next two months; The RICDA Gathering in Mexico, the Food+ Democracy=Justice Conference in Minneapolis, the Cornell Land Grabs Conference, the Heirloom Seed Conference in Santa Rosa, California, the Terra Madre gathering in Italy, Nicaragua, Morocco… I hope to report about the challenges, and the hopeful alternatives being advanced by the food justice and food sovereignty movements. Times are tough and it looks like we are set to be hit by another food price crisis. However, people, communities and social movements are on the move, taking back our food systems from the corporate food regime. Another food system is possible!