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Food is Power
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Anna Lappé attends the first international Forum on Food Sovereignty in Mali. With more than 600 participants from 98 countries, the meeting will gather some of the most important social movements working for food rights global.

If you’ve ever heard the myths that all Africans are hungry for genetically modified foods, that U.S. food aid has unilaterally helped small farmers around the world, or that indigenous farming and fishing practices couldn’t possibly provide enough food to feed the peoples in developing countries, you have heard different stories than those of the farmers, pastoralists, and fisherfolk gathered here in Mali this week.

I’m writing this missive from the very dusty outpost of the foreign journalist and communications team for the mostly volunteer-led “Forum on Food Sovereignty? near Bamako, Mali. For the first time, the world’s largest social movements working on behalf of food producers throughout the world have gathered to discuss the idea of food sovereignty. The organizers include international social movements of peasants, women, fisherfolk, environmentalists, and consumers.

Most of the focus of the forum has been conversation, discussing what the delegates represented here are fighting for, what they’re fighting against, and to set an agenda for the next five to ten years for collective, global campaigns. The gathered groups will also develop position papers on themes ranging from trade and local commerce, to resource rights and urban-consumer partnerships, from production models and appropriate technologies to bilateral and multinational trade policies.

Ultimately, this alliance plans to share these position papers with networks in their home countries as well as heads of state, the United Nations, the FAO, and development bodies.

I’ve been here for a few days now and have been continually amazed by the feat to pull this event off. In rural West Africa, the organizers were able to create a village for more than 600 delegates, from scratch, using mostly local materials and mostly local labor. As one of the organizers said last night, this is the world’s first village built for food sovereignty.

Sure, when we got here the electricity might not have been working, the outhouses were marginally functional, kinks in the meals were still be working out, but a few days on and we have the Internet and a buzzing office and simultaneous translation into French, English, Bombara (the local language), and Spanish.

I’ve been asking every delegate I meet, from Thai fisherman to Senegalese peasant organizers, what food sovereignty means to them. As one delegate, a mayor from Norway (and probably the only mayor here) said: “For me, food sovereignty means we must support food producers in every country. Food, after all, is power, and we need to decide who has that power: food producers or large corporations.? Said an African delegate from Sierra Leone: “Food sovereignty is the ability for our people to be able to feed ourselves. Here in Africa, hunger is not a problem of production, it’s a problem of access and distribution. We need basic things like storage and food processing facilities. We need access to networks for sale and distribution. If we had these things, we could have food sovereignty in five years.?

To host the event here in Mali was strategic: the country’s government has been supportive of the concept of food sovereignty, even advancing it in its new Law on Agricultural Orientation. The President of Mali, known universally by his initials A.T.T., even paid the forum a visit. In the packed open-air amphitheater, the President welcomed the gathered guests on behalf of the people of the deserts, savannah, and fields of Mali. He stressed that in the year 1236 this region’s charter acknowledged that the rights of all human beings are sacred. “There is nothing new about our democracy; our democracy is ancient,? he said. “It was written in the sand.?

Despite the different geography and languages and religions, it’s been remarkable to note the similar struggles emerging over and over, from the fishing community in Indonesia, to the pastoralists in West Africa, to the dairy farmers in Wisconsin. Concerns about the environmental, as well as social and economic, impacts of industrialized farming have been discussed, including concerns about genetically modified foods as well as widespread and unregulated pesticides.

The increasing privatization of natural resources, including water and seeds and land, control of these resources has also been a core theme. “If we want food sovereignty… we must make it clear that seeds are part of the global inheritance of humankind,? said delegate José Bové, a farmer from Francewho is also a presidential candidate in his country.

Throughout the conversations, key transnational corporations have also been mentioned by name. You could probably guess who they are, but in case you need some help, they include: Coke, Nestle, Cargill, Monsanto, and Wal-Mart, among others.

In addition, the rights of indigenous peoples have been highlighted as a vital part of protecting food sovereignty.

Another dominant theme has been the impact of World Trade Organization and bilateral trade policies on small farmers globally. We’ve heard from rice farmers, fishing communities, cotton growers, and more, who have been devastated by cheap imports from dumped subsidized products by industrialized countries in the global South.

A team of translators seventy large has been helping the delegates communicate. Many others—Koreans, Indonesians, Iranians, and others—have come with additional translators, which sometimes means ideas pass through three languages before they’re heard. (It sometimes feels like a global game of telephone). I ran into two interpreters from Ireland last night. When I told them I was from the United States, they said: “That’s wonderful. It’s so important for Americans to understand what’s happening, to hear these stories, to know that all of these people are here and what they’re fighting for.?

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