Q: You are mostly known for your work around food sovereignty, can you tell us a bit of personal history and how you decided to get engaged on that issue; then, how do think your work is related to the concept of the commons?
A: From a very early age I questioned the injustices of the world and looked towards collective movements for solutions. When I started university, I believed the only logical path was to study biology – the study of life. I then melded that into the local food, environmental and peace movements, all of which I was an active member in. I continued to approach solutions through a wide lens. For example, I studied fishing cooperatives to explore whether they could not only market fish, but also organize and represent small-scale fishermen in the policy arena. As I concentrated on fisheries policy, I saw global problems that were common to both fishing and farming communities. Then, I had the opportunity to collaborate with La Via Campesina, the movement that coined the phrase “food sovereignty” in 1996. And that was it. We all depend on food. Food is life. Food sovereignty is relevant in every corner of the world, and resonates with a common fundamental right.
Food sovereignty is a holistic approach to a global need. The seven principles of food sovereignty are as follows: Food: A Basic Human Right, Agrarian Reform, Protecting Natural Resources, Reorganizing Food Trade, Ending the Globalization of Hunger, and Social Peace and Democratic Control. Farmers are at the heart of the dialogue to actualize food sovereignty, yet its essence is inclusive, bringing together many sectors of society to protect a common good.
The commons is also a holistic approach to actively ensure the health and well being for all that society shares. The commons approach is broader than food sovereignty by incorporating aspects of life that relate to the natural; social and institutional; political; and, intellectual and cultural. Food sovereignty covers those same themes, but within the umbrella of food. Both the commons and food sovereignty movements are gaining traction around the world due to increased corporate dominance, environmental disregard, economic slavery and political oppression. We must work together as a global society. Only then can we protect our planet for future generations and prevent our commons from being used as weapons of oppression.
Q: Your work transcends the focus on food; can you describe your other specific concerns and work, but also how you see any potential transition to other alternative economic systems?
A: I firmly believe that new economic systems, not necessarily based on monetary principles, have to be embraced globally. We see current economic structures dissolving in every corner of the world, as the rich get richer and the earth is ravaged. Modern economic systems have already collapsed or are currently collapsing and the only solution is to build new models that are adaptable to local and regional circumstances.
In 2010 and 2011, I travelled through five countries, speaking with farmers and fishermen about their struggles and solutions within the context of food sovereignty. Their voices contributed to my Food Voices project and they have been featured in articles, on the radio, through blogs and in a book. Many spoke about building alternative economic systems. I would like to raise their voices here.
Felix Lopez is the Coordinator of Production at the Aracal Cooperative in Urachichi, Venezuela. He speaks about the cooperative structure as a new mode of living and working and ultimately, true food sovereignty. Felix expounds on this idea: “In order for it to be a true revolution, we had to change the model of production, which had been production by and for a single owner. The socialism that we have been working to move forward is not a form of socialism that is just following some recipe of Marx or of Mao. It is a Venezuelan style socialism. We are taking different concepts and adapting them to our conditions. So, a group of people came together to write down exactly what it is we are striving for. And to convince those people who did not yet believe in this new model. It is hard work, but it is not impossible.”
Steve Decater from Live Power Community Farm in Covelo, California is focused on building an economic system that benefits all and requires a shift in consciousness. He runs a biodynamic farm dependent on natural power sources: horses to plow the fields, wind and solar to provide energy and people to harvest the crops. He also runs a community supported agriculture program, which Steve views as integral to creating new models.
Steve explains eloquently: “I make a distinction between community based agriculture and market based agriculture. Our farm is 100% community based, in that we grow food for about 200 households. And those 200 households are co-producers with us. What I am talking about is an associative economy where the economic process is governed by the needs of all the players. When you look at that together, and not in the alienated way that you have in the market economy, then people can see what the farmer’s needs are. The farmer can hear what the eaters needs are. They can both talk about what the earth’s needs are. Then, a consciousness comes out of that that is bigger than any of those individual players. The bottom line is not individual profit, but the good of the community as a whole.”
What we are looking at are economies based on community and compassion. Compassion for each other and for the earth. It brings the world together is a way that has not yet happened at the scale of the current population of the earth. Economic Localization, Transition Towns, Slow Money, Business Alliance for Global Economies are gaining popularity. They all approach nature and humans as part of one ecosystem, sharing a finite space, working together with all members of the community. By refocusing on local needs – people, nature, culture and knowledge -the tide can be turned.
Q: How do you see the role of digital media, in the context of the specific approach we take at the P2P Foundation, which is to focus on networks as tools not just for communication, but crucially for the self-organisation of value creation, and a deep change in the mode of production. Do you see any commonalities with your own work?
A: Over the last five years, the world has seen the potential of digital media. Through digital campaigns, Arab Spring was organized. Digital exposures of social injustices and police brutality have been circulated to organize for policy changes in as disparate places as the United States and India. The local food movements have expanded their local and regional reach through digital networking. There is no doubt that social media is a crucial tool for change.
Digital media has played a large role in the grassroots development of the local food movement. In the past few years, in the United States, the local food movement has not only grown through traditional organizing, but also through the Internet. The Internet has been a tool to create new market places, reaching people searching for community supported agriculture and fisheries programs. It is used to organize people to take political action to ensure a local, state or federal policy is either upheld or opposed. There are more and more interactive sites, where people can post their own stories of struggle or victory; thus, motivating the larger community to become engaged.
Q: Have you done any thinking, and/or practice, on the issue of access to these networks by those people who have less means and possibilities to have access? Access to digital media and the networks?
A: As the potential and expanse of the Internet grows, there are issues with which we must contend. First of all, an estimated 4.4 billion people do not have access to the Internet, according to a 2014 study by McKinsey and Company.[i] The following statistics offer some insight to the current limitations of digital networking: One quarter of the world’s population is offline in India, as are 730 million in China; 210 million in Indonesia; 150 million in Bangladesh; nearly 100 million in Brazil; and 50 million in the United States. While looking at population percentages, 99.5% of the population in Myanmar is offline, as is 98% in Ethiopia and nearly 95% in Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
It is a very complex situation, as the governments may be unstable and access to basic needs such as shelter, food and potable water may be scarce. Education, infrastructure and the energy to power devices and Internet transmissions are often in the hands of the few, allowing them to draw wealth from increased use and charges. Can a sustainable, ecological infrastructure be built that supports the transmission of digital media, as well as the devices used to access it? We need to bring the control and distribution of access into the hands of the commons, while developing technologies that respect the earth. Removing barriers to information is crucial, as social media and digital networking are integral tools for global change.
These days, more people without access to the digital world do have cell phones. For those who are literate, text messages are a great way to spread the word, to create dialogues and to activate change. Additionally, it is the responsibility of those who do have access to transmit messages from those without to the digital society. One of the goals of Food Voices was to bring the voices of those fighting in the trenches – in the fields and on the boats – to a greater audience. That is how we can support those without digital access, without a digital voice.
Q: Does your work leave room for any specific concern about sustainability, our relation with nature ?
A: The local food and the food sovereignty movements are embedded in sustainability and the interactions between humans and the rest of the natural world. It is impossible to separate them. The food sovereignty movement recognizes that food is not a commodity. Food is a system of relationships that intertwines soil, life, water, air, fish, other animals and humans. The health of a food system depends directly on the nature of those relationships. It is also the relationship between those who provide food and the rest of the consumers. Food sovereignty ensures that local communities are fed with healthy and culturally appropriate foods that respect the environment. It is impossible for food sovereignty or any new economic model to be realized without acknowledging that nature is at the core.
In 1987 United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development defined sustainable development to be, “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” [ii] Unfortunately, sustainability has become a buzzword and corporations, looking to increase their profit margins, have captured the term. For example, as demand for organic and hormone-free products have increased, the corporate domination of the organics market has grown, leaving small scale producers in the dust as they cannot compete with the lower prices of mass organic production, nor the increasing bureaucracy of obtaining organic labels. In this context, sustainable food systems focus on the production method, but tend to overlook the political framework. Sustainability is one aspect of Food Sovereignty, one aspect of the commons, and we must ensure that its integrity is protected to ensure we have a common language.
Q: I would like to focus on fisheries, a common resource that needs to have a space in both the food sovereignty and commons movements.
A: Until recently, the local food movements have approached seafood with trepidation. Rather than applying the same principles of land-based food, many consumers look for easy answers. Green for eat; yellow for caution; and, red for stay away. Unfortunately, those directives take one fish species at a time, rather than looking at entire ecosystems – both marine environments and human communities. Community supported fisheries and fishermen selling at farmers markets are on an increase. Consumers are learning how to fillet, what to do with a whole fish and how to identify a fresh one. When consumers connect to the people who catch their fish and who care about the ocean health, they become advocates for the community-based fishermen and the marine ecosystem.
It is essential that these links be made and that the food and commons movements understand that fish and the waters where they live are a public resource. They are a global commons. Unfortunately, for the past 30 years a fisheries management regime, called catch shares or individual fishing quotas (IFQs) or individual transferable quotas (ITQs), has been gaining popularity amongst governments and corporations. IFQs remove fish as a common resource and privatize the right to fish by allowing fish quotas to be bought and sold as a commodity. Proponents of IFQs are looking to sell and trade future fish populations on the stock market. A common resource is being sold to the highest bidders.
The pressure that puts on the fish populations, the environments and the communities is unfathomable. The IFQ system began in New Zealand in the 1970’s. By the 1990’s, most of their fisheries were under an IFQ system. When the red snapper populations began plummeting, the New Zealand government had to reduce the total number of fish caught. The industry responded with a series of legal actions, claiming the fish are private property. Fortunately, in that case, the judge dismissed the claims and the government did lower the allowable catch to protect the red snapper. In Alaska, IFQ holdings have been at stake in divorce proceedings, and judges divide them up with the rest of the assets and private property.
This system also makes it impossible for people with small catch quotas to survive. Before the program was instituted in the Alaska red king crab fishery, there were 251 boats; within a year after it was implemented the number of remaining boats was 89. In the New Hampshire groundfish fishery, within one year of passing the catch share regulation, nearly 20% of the boats went out of business. The impact of those boats out of the water reverberates throughout the community, closing processors, losing jobs and creating a monopoly among the shore side businesses that survive.
To me, this is one of the greatest assaults against the commons. Fish are a public resource. Water is a commons. No one should be given the exclusive rights to a natural ecosystem that spans state, country and continental boundaries.