At the intersection of marine conservation and social, economic, environmental and food justice


Monday, November 19, 2012

Fishing, Food Sovereignty, and La Via Campesina

By guest blogger Jennifer Brewer
Assistant Professor, Department of Geography
Assistant Scientist, Institute for Coastal Science and Policy

East Carolina University


NAMA recently had a great opportunity to send a representative to the North America Region and International Policy meetings of La Via Campesina in Mexico City, and as a long time collaborator with NAMA I was the fortunate person to be this representative.  We owe this occasion to the National Family Farm Coalition, of which NAMA is a member group.

La Via Campesina can be translated as the Peasant Way, or maybe the Country Route.  It is an international network of groups working for food sovereignty – the idea that ordinary people should be able to control the production, harvesting, and consumption of food themselves.  La Via opposes genetically modified crops, the consolidation of agricultural land through political and economic pressures on small and medium sized farms, global warming, and depletion of natural resources.  It supports fair treatment of rural workers, human rights, and opportunities for new farmers.  Many of its member groups run programs to strengthen rural communities, discourage outmigration, encourage sustainable food production, educate consumers, create local and regional food markets, and protect human rights.  So many people affiliated with the movement are doing such amazing work, in all corners of the world.  It was a deeply humbling, moving, encouraging, and inspiring experience to meet some of their representatives in Mexico.  

So what does this have to do with fishing?  A lot, as it turns out.  First, La Via Campesina has been a movement of both farmers and fisherpeople, but the fishing part has been less active. Until now! There are many commonalities between our fishing and farming experiences, but three I want to talk about are strengthening food communities, participatory governance, and the need for social change strategies that work on multiple fronts.  

Stronger Food Communities

Communities reliant on fishing, farming, and forestry have independently come to similar conclusions that their long term interests are best served by diversified economies.  Natural resource businesses are often more flexible in adapting to social and ecological change if they are small to medium scale, can shift production among a range of species, use appropriate technology, and don’t carry too much debt.  Communities as a whole are stronger if they include both experienced and newer producers, and a number of business models.  This means providing opportunities for new businesses and innovations.  Consumers are better off if they have diversified options, from a number of producers, and aren’t just stuck with whatever the multinational conglomerates are determined to sell them, by hook or by crook.

In fishing, we’ve seen what federal investment tax breaks did in the 1980s.  They left us with a fleet of large boats owned by non-operators investors, with technology capable of wiping out the entire groundfishery.  The owner-operated and smaller boat fleets are hanging on, but the price of quota, the politics of sectors (a new fishery management scheme in New England), and the depletion of some fish populations have made it impossible for most young people to start their own businesses.  Similarly, one of the biggest obstacles preventing many family farmers from implementing more environmentally sustainable food production is the huge debt they owe on land and machinery – making it hard to take the risk of experimenting with new crops or cultivation practices, and hard for young people to even think about farming.  In the food distribution system, we’ve seen that multinational food conglomerates promote foods that are laden with bad fats, excessive salt, sugars, and starches, pesticides, preservatives, colorings, genetically modified ingredients, and various additives.  Our blind trust in these companies leaves us with serious health problems, including obesity, diabetes, allergies, and cancer.

But the up side is that people who care about food sovereignty are building alternative routes to enter fishing and farming industries.  States and non-profits have started fishing permit banks with the idea that less expensive fishery access should help support new entrants.  Similarly, farming organizations across New England and the Americas have apprenticeships, internships, training programs, experimental farms, seed loans, and land trusts.  These kinds of programs offer new fishermen and farmers the space they need to learn, experiment, and take risks.  Community Supported Agriculture and Community Supported Fisheries projects are providing us with many new shopping alternatives, and other local markets for healthy and sustainably produced goods are thriving.  We need more such opportunities, but at least these models are helping us to learn from our mistakes, and figure out what works.

Political Engagement

A lot of work by NAMA and our collaborators is very specific to fishing – advocating for particular regulatory issues, developing alternative seafood markets, educating consumers on where their fish comes from and why they should care.  But a lot of our work is as much about bigger picture food system and natural resource issues.  Our work persistently asks who will be the future harvesters and producers of food, and whether or not we are on track to sustain food production systems on land and at sea.  We help consumers understand that their decisions about what to eat, and where to buy food, affect how that food is produced, and what food producing businesses, communities, and land and sea are like – how they steward environmental resources, and how they treat neighbors and co-workers.  We help people think about what kind of society we want to live in, what kind of planet we want to leave behind.  So many of you are doing so much to build new food systems, and this mostly local work is so important.  

It seems to me, though, that many of these experiments are working because they put people in closer contact with each other, on a personal level.  They make people more active participants in their eating decisions.  They make people think about things they otherwise take for granted.  They allow people to make more informed decisions about, and perhaps have more influence on, their food supplies.  If we can do that on the personal level, at the local level, can we also take some lessons learned to a larger scale of change?  People are learning more about their food, and helping more to produce and prepare it.  Do they now have things to say that are relevant about the kinds of food that are available to our children in school, to people receiving social services, to other public and quasi-public institutions such as hospitals, prisons, universities, museums, and government buildings?  Can we take some of our new-found knowledge and will to the political level?  Can we create legal structures that allow more public participation in food system decision making across the board, not just in our own homes and neighborhoods?  Not to tell other people what to eat, but to offer them more choices, and more information?  Can we develop policies that foster even faster growth of sustainable and responsible food systems across national and international levels?  Can we start assisting change from the top down as well as the bottom up?  Can we turn all this amazing human capital into political capital?  Can we envision new ways of making food-related decisions as a broader society, just as we’ve envisioned (and now practice!) new ways of making food decisions as individuals?  Can we question the existing structures that govern food systems at a grand scale and propose more democratic and participatory alternatives?  
NAMA's Who Fishes Matters Fight the Big Box Boat banner amongst all the other banners in Mexico City.
Multiple Fronts

Lastly, I am reminded how necessary it is that we work toward food sovereignty on multiple fronts.  We need people who want to produce food more sustainably, and are willing to take financial risks to do so.  We need people who want to market food locally and educate consumers, and will invest the time and energy.  We need people with the courage to take to the streets and bring public attention to realities that some people might find easier to forget.  We need people in the media – writing for newspapers, posting video and audio on the internet, blogging.  We need people who will run for public office, or campaign for candidates who understand these issues.  We need people who know how to lobby – to explain to public servants how some policies and regulations move the public interest forward and others set us back.  We need scientists – ones who care more about reality of lived experience than about the abstractions that might earn them promotions and honors.  We need community organizers, to make sure the food sovereignty movement reaches as many people as possible.  We need teachers, who can help the next generation figure out which pieces of their social and environmental inheritance they want to embrace, and what they want to change.  We need cooks and chefs, in homes and restaurants, to help people enjoy foods that are both delicious and responsible.  We need bookkeepers, shopkeepers, laborers, investors, all sorts of people with different skills and talents to make food sovereignty happen, to build a strong movement.

So I’ll get off my soapbox now.  I was just so impressed that when I told people in NAMA’s network about my recent acquaintance with La Via Campesina, so many responded with such enthusiasm and appreciation.  Several people offered very specific comments that helped me to think more about what the trip means for our work collective work.  Because of the generous support and commentaries in response to my trip, AND because the work La Via Campesina is doing is so inspiring and encouraging, I am especially pleased for this opportunity to collect some of those thoughts here on this blog and offer them for more public consideration.  There are moments in life when we find ourselves in situations that seem to be etching themselves deeply into our memories, like our senses are suddenly more awake than before, like our whole lives are shifting course a little.  This trip felt like one of those moments… 

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