Nyéléni - The World Forum for Food Sovereignty > by Joel Catchlove

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April 2007

On the dusty shores of Lake Sélingué, Mali, West Africa, amid mud brick huts and donkey carts, peasants, family farmers, fisherfolk, nomads, pastoralists, indigenous and forest peoples, rural workers, migrants and consumers from across the world laid down a challenge. From their many languages and regions emerged a global call for food sovereignty.


The World Forum for Food Sovereignty (named ‘Nyéléni’ after a legendary Malian woman farmer) is held here in rural Mali, because this is the reality of rural life for much of the world. As the sun slowly sinks, a shimmering disc suspended in the dusty sky, silhouetted fisherfolk punt their pirogues across Lake Sélingué, checking their nets. If you follow the road towards the lake, you’ll come to rice paddies, banana groves and vegetable gardens, stretching away down the river valley. While irrigated by a hulking dam that contains the lake, the fields and paddies are gravity-fed, the levels constantly readjusted with mattocks and shovels to regulate the flow. The plots are leased by families, ploughed by oxen and cultivated by hand. Water is scooped onto rows of pumpkins, lemongrass, amaranth and onions from gourd bowls.

Beyond, you cross the river, a tributary of the Niger, to where pirogues are moored and the fisherfolk unload their catch. There’s a village here of mud huts. No photos are permitted; the villagers have beliefs about the power of cameras and a fierce sense of privacy. After receiving permission to enter the village from the village elder you walk among the huts, thatched granaries raised on wooden legs, donkeys and cattle chewing contentedly in the shade of an open straw barn and groves of mango and papaya trees.

Even back in Mali’s capital, Bamako, vacant lots, roadsides and the banks of the Niger and its tributaries are given over to food production through meticulous grids of vegetables and herbs. Like rural Sélingué, it’s dominated by human scale technologies: hand tools, donkey carts, bicycles; the urban gardens are irrigated by water hoisted from wells. Mango trees grow along the streets and papayas flourish behind compound walls.


Nnimmo Bassey, from Environmental Rights Action (Friends of the Earth Nigeria) offered some context on the significance of talking about food sovereignty in Africa,
“Having a world food sovereignty meeting in Africa is very significant because in today’s world, when you talk about food, when you talk about hunger, the pictures that flash across people’s television screens across the world is of people starving in Africa,” he says.
“In fact, governments and the national agencies that work on food issues would not readily give a thought to food sovereignty. All they talk about is food security. People don’t want us to care about what we eat, they only want us to worry about having something on the table. This directly affects our dignity as human beings because you are forced to eat whatever you are given. You are not given the space to meet your own needs: to decide what you want to eat, to decide what you want to grow and to cultivate.”

“People can see that Africans may be hungry, but not because there is no food. Rather because the food is not in the right place at the right time, and because of issues like a lack of rural infrastructure, because of denied access to credit and because of twisted policies that want people to follow a failed pattern. For example, rather than pursuing organic agriculture, rather than using principles developed over centuries, our farmers are being encouraged to use genetically engineered seed, to rely on artificial fertilisers and to follow the failed patterns of the ‘green revolution’.”

“It’s very important that we’re here in Mali, because Mali is emblematic of the continent of Africa. It is a place of rich diversity, it’s a huge landmass and it has been a prominent trade centre over the centuries ... a country where you have a rich agricultural heritage, and although a vast part of the country is covered by the Sahara desert, the people are still able to meet their food needs. It shows a spirit of resilience and what Africa can achieve. It is a land of potentials, and of course, a land of very beautiful music and people.”


International peasants’ network La Via Campesina, together with Malian peasant network Coordination Nationale des Organisations Paysannes du Mali (CNOP) and other groups involved in the forum’s development, chose to build an entire village to host the forum. It lies on the outskirts of Sélingué town, the lone paved road to Bamako stretching past, buzzing with motor-scooters, bicycles and donkey carts.

With two days to go, the site is crowded with workers, some are digging trenches for plumbing, their picks and mattocks tethered with old inner-tubes to the backs of bicycles. The site is almost treeless but for a few persistent stumps and a jacaranda. The hot winds pick up clouds of the fine pale dust, sprinkling it over the thatched rooves, the gleaming white walls of newly built mud huts and the faces of the workers. There are clusters of women, luminous in swathes of wax-printed cloth sweeping out the huts, others are nonchalantly painting designs in black and ochre on hut walls, others are pouring concrete, and others sit chatting under the shade of new thatch.

The forum site embodies the emphasis on the local that permeates food sovereignty. Over the three months it’s taken to build, it has been constructed entirely by hand using local materials and local, traditional methods. The straw, the bricks, the bamboo are all from Sélingué. When the food is prepared in the following days, it is prepared exclusively from locally grown produce by a local women’s cooperative (GMO-free, we are enthusiastically reminded). The meat is slaughtered daily on a bed of leaves only a few metres from where we eat. No companies are contracted in the construction or running of the site; rather, local people are employed. “As we build this place, we also build the future,” announces one of the coordinators. And like the site, food sovereignty is a movement under construction.

As he rushes around the site advising on the progress of the work, I ask Paul Nicholson, from La Via Campesina and the Basque Farmers Union, to define ‘food sovereignty’,
“Food sovereignty is the right of peoples to determine what they eat, who produces it, and how it’s produced,” he tells me, before continuing, “And it is a very important right now, because we are losing that right. We don’t know what we are eating. We don’t know who produces our food and how it’s produced.”
“Food is the major problem in the world: there are 856 million people who go hungry every day, and the tendency is to increase this number, not decrease it. Today, for the first time in history, it is also basically the rural people, peasants, who go hungry.”

The main threat to food sovereignty, says Nicholson, is “the whole free trade logic”. This, he says, destroys local economies, cultures and knowledge of sustainable land use to expand industrialised, multinational agribusiness. He offers Mali as an example,
“Mali is basically an agricultural country. Historically it is self-sufficient. Today they’ve had to open up the markets … When the milk industry was privatised, suddenly the import of European milk was far cheaper than milk production in Mali. Now, the Malian industry only buys milk from Europe. It’s destroyed the whole fabric of milk production.”
“Rice is a staple food here. Mali is self-sufficient in food production, yet rice coming from Asia or from the United States has invaded the local market, making it impossible for local rice production [to compete].”
As concepts like ‘food security’ have been coopted by institutions like the World Trade Organisation into forms that support free trade and corporate globalism and ignore the social and environmental impacts of such a system, it has become necessary to develop alternative principles. In response, in 1996 La Via Campesina articulated the concept of ‘food sovereignty’, a concept that not only ensures communities have access to adequate food, but also emphasises self-determination, environmentally sustainable food cultivation, and trade that guarantees community well-being over corporate profit.


The forum’s days are full, beginning when the sun begins to warm the inside of the huts. There are queues of people lining up beside the taps outside, washing their faces and cleaning their teeth. After a breakfast of millet fritters, mangoes and goat stew, the day’s activities begin. There are layers of complexity: regional discussions deal with logistics; sectorial discussions representing peasants and farmers, fisherfolk, pastoralists, indigenous peoples, workers, migrants, urban movements and consumers ensure each group’s interests are represented; interest groups ensure that the voices of women, youth and the environment are heard; and combined thematic working groups draw together the perspectives to discuss food sovereignty in the context of everything from trade policy to conflict and disaster to forced migration to the preservation of traditional knowledge.
There’s a lull in the heat of the afternoon and delegates drift from dusty shadow to dusty shadow, returning to their huts for sweaty siestas. By 4.00pm, the silence is broken again by conversation and the chants of different regions. The sudden chant of “Down! Down! WTO!” explodes from a regional meeting of East and Southeast Asians. La Via Campesina’s chant, “Globalise struggle!” “Globalise hope!” is called and answered, first in Spanish, then English, then French.
Night is filled with music. Drums are beaten in trenches dug for mud bricks and here and there, transistor radios wheeze out Malian classics through the kazoo of their tiny speakers.

Throughout the five days of the forum, amid celebrations, plates of millet and peanut sauce and performances from the stars of West African music, discussions further defined the concept of food sovereignty and how it can be strengthened locally, regionally and globally. The final day was dedicated to working with politicians from across the world to integrate food sovereignty into government policy.
A journalist tells me how the World Forum for Food Sovereignty has very consciously tried to build on the lessons of the World Social Forum, while establishing itself as a major movement in its own right. This is evident in the careful selection of participants, ensuring the involvement of those whose daily lives are part of the struggle for food sovereignty. Farmers, peasants, fisherfolk, indigenous peoples and rural workers make up the overwhelming majority of delegates. Latin America, Africa, South Asia, Southeast Asia and East Asia were the regions best represented. There were a handful of Europeans and North Americans and more from Central Asia and the Middle East. As the only person from Oceania, I was temporarily adopted by Southeast Asia.

I quickly realise that food sovereignty is not just about food. Rather it acknowledges food as the common ground for all peoples and identifies it as a starting point and guiding theme for broader change. Food sovereignty suggests that it’s impossible to explore how food is produced, traded and consumed without questioning the whole fabric of global economics and society, from resource-intensive industrial production of crops and livestock, to the emergence of dangerous technologies like GMOs and nanotechnology, to the paradigm of global trade peddled by institutions like the World Trade Organisation and manifested in Free Trade Agreements, to food aid as an extension of the North dumping on the South, to the patenting of traditional knowledge, and through all these aspects, the increasing consolidation of corporate control of food production and trade.
The contexts of the struggle for food sovereignty vary across the world. In many places, like the case of Paul Nicholson’s Basque companions, like the peasants and indigenous peoples of Southeast Asia, Korea and Japan, or the traditional farmers throughout Latin America and Africa, it is a struggle to protect and maintain resilient local economies in the face of corporate incursions, Free Trade Agreements and food aid programs which act as another assault on local markets. In North America and Europe, the focus is not only on protecting the remaining small, traditional food producers but also on rebuilding links between consumers and producers. For countries like Australia, where broadscale corporate agribusiness already has a strong foothold, the challenge is to cultivate and rebuild local economies and environmentally sound modes of agricultural production. Australia has already established free trade agreements with the US, Thailand, Singapore and New Zealand and is determined to develop further agreements throughout the region with China, Japan and Korea and others. It’s urgent for Australians to understand the impacts of these agreements and to work in solidarity with farmers, peasants and food producers throughout the region to defend their local economies and cultures.


Beneath all of this, I realise, food sovereignty is intrinsically about connection to land and connection to place. Food sovereignty places those from food production traditions that have been maintained within the boundaries of specific environments over time at the centre of its discussions and action. By acknowledging the wisdom of those who have been feeding their communities for centuries, the peasants, indigenous peoples, fisherfolk and others, it recognises that those who still maintain living traditions of closeness to the earth are best placed to make decisions and advise on how land should be used and how food can continue to be cultivated, traded and consumed in their communities and beyond.


For more information visit:

Nyéléni 2007 – World Forum for Food Sovereignty: http://www.nyeleni2007.org
Real World Radio: http://www.realworldradio.fm
La Via Campesina: http://viacampesina.org

Joel Catchlove attended the World Forum for Food Sovereignty with the support of La Via Campesina and Friends of the Earth International. He would be delighted to further discuss the possibilities for food sovereignty in Australia.

Friends of the Earth Adelaide is currently developing a community food campaign, to be part of it, contact Joel at joel.catchlove@foe.org.au, on 0403 886 951 or 08 8227 1399.