Sovereignty, Justice and the Commons

Fergus Walker
21st November, 2016

Sovereignty and Justice for access to food, skills and technology: reflections on the Nyeleni Europe forum Romania Oct 16

Last month I was fortunate to be one of a delegation from the UK attending a Europe-wide forum on food sovereignty, with 600 people from 42 countries from Europe and beyond – incuding indigenous people from Sweden (Sami) and Siberia (Chukchi). The aim of the forum was to generally progress the food sovereignty movement across Europe, including agreeing on the principles established in the first European forum in Krems in 2011 and providing opportunities for people to learn from each other and further cross-European projects.

The forum was held in Cluj-Napoca in Romania – the country that is the most significant representative of the struggles for food sovereignty in the EU. Romania has about half of the EU’s farmers. It has about 6 million agricultural workers in a population of 20 million (30% compared to the UK 1.5%) though the actual number of those involved in food production is likely to be higher, with many people in the city with gardens some even with a pig or cow and access to common grazing land. We were very entertained to one evening spot a tractor with plough attached, parked on the street next to a block of modern flats! However the way of life of the nation’s small farmers is under threat due to corporate land grabbing for agribusiness, inflexible EU health and safety rules, and the influx of cheap imported food via the supermarkets. I was one of 7 from Scotland in a UK delegation of 33. It was a great honour that two of Common Good Food’s board members (myself, Fergus Walker, Chairperson and Mags Hall, Treasurer) were able to take part as delegates – along with Chelsea Marshall from Scotland the Bread, Evie Love from Leith Community Crops in Pots, Elly Kinross representing the Jack Kane Centre in Craigmillar (Edinburgh), Reuben Chesters from Locavore and Frances Ryan from Edinburgh University.

The aim of Common Good Food is to be a practical advocate of food sovereignty in Scotland - so this was the place to be to garner ideas and inspiration! Food Sovereignty is a powerful concept, the idea that communities have the right to define how their food is produced – self determination in that most basic and most culturally rich human need. The principles are that food should be for people, not for profit; food providers should be valued in society; food systems need to work in a localized way; land and resources need to be controlled locally; knowledge and skills are a commons that need to be retained and built up; and perhaps most importantly, food sovereignty works with nature. 

At the beginning of the forum we held a ‘marketplace of nations’ witheach country manning a stall with a display of projects, food, photographs from their country. The buzz was incredible, and there was a great chance to wander, taste, chat and experience the best of Europe’s food culture crammed into the slightly crumbling foyer of the grandly named Expo Transylvania (the architectural impacts of the USSR and the legacy of Ceausescu’s dictatorship is stark in the city).

Global solidarity: Ireland and Chukchi (siberia) swap drums!

With an interest in appropriate technology for food production I was delighted, in wandering across the Expo carpet to France, to discover a large presence of French cooperative Atelier Paysan. An amazing initiative: they design and build farm machinery and tractor implements from scratch using basic metalworking tools, running workshops across France for farmers to attend and build their own equipment. They are an impressive concern, employing 11 full time staff, 5 researchers and 5 interns across France, running 60 manufacturing workshops this year. They have developed a catalogue of sophisticated engineering plans, which are published on an open source basis (creative commons license). The designs they create are developed through a collaborative, iterative process whereby likely designs are scoped out by researchers visiting farms and recording innovative designs farmers have made (or from ideas posted up on their online forum), then a prototype is built and field-tested in one of their farmer manufacturing workshops. Following the tests suggestions for improvements are taken on board and a refined design is drawn up, which then gets rolled out to future workshops across the land and further refined each time a prototype is built. “These are living tools” says Julian Reynier one of the ambassadors for the project. “They are continually being adapted and improved”.

Later on in the second day, having discussed policy approaches at different levels (local, national, internation), the participants split up into groups according to themes identified by the organisers – Workers’ Rights, Peasant Agroecology, Local food distribution markets, Common Agricultural (and food) Policy, alternatives to globalised free trade – and the group I went to – Land, Water and Fisheries in the hands of the people. I was part of a really positive discussion about access to land – with examples of the commons in action across Europe – from Bancos de Tierra in Spain to a cooperative quota system for fisheries in the Netherlands. The assembled group reeled off 12 organisations across Europe that are involved in protecting and gaining access to land. People were excited to hear about the Scottish Government’s land reform legislation, and wanted to hear examples of people using this specifically to grow food. Watch this space!

On the third day I joined a fascinating discussion group led by Atelier Paysan in a seminar on democratising research, looking at Appropriate Technology. For me this is a key issue – what is the role of technology in farming, given that it is industrialisation of technology that enabled business models with hardly any farmers, just machines. We discussed the role of the Open Source movement – the idea of tools as commons, and the idea of Technology Sovereignty. That afternoon, I went on a field trip out to visit a goat farm with 150 goats, that makes soft cheese to sell at the local market.

On the fourth I caught up yet again with my new heroes, Atelier Paysan, this time in a lively discussion on how to share, teach and disseminate practical skills for Agroecology across Europe – part of a new network that is currently being coordinated by the Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience in Coventry. Agroecology is the new buzzword in the food movement, as well as popping up throughout governments and policy. It is a description of farming practice that follows ecologically sound principles, and it is exciting because for the first time it is an idea that has come from the fringes and the Global South and is being taken seriously by the powers that be. In the discussion I was part of, we discussed the importance of the dissemination of these new ideas (or old ideas in a new context) through practice – including a collaborative, cooperative peer review process. Nicolas Sinoir of Atelier Paysan described this as “collective creation and collective evaluation by doing”.

Meanwhile in Italy, there is another great example of a farmer-led network called Deafal, with informal workshops and courses between farms around Italy, as well as international exchanges. Atelier Paysan and Deafal are now both on the steering group for this Agroecology Learning and Training Network – and I joined their working group on practical techniques and technology.

However, the high spirits that some of us felt (despite being rather tired from non-stop days of talking, listening via simultaneous language translation, and drinking Palinka and other Romanian alchoholic delicacies, there was a more sobering discussion going on through the meeting – that of marginalisation and disenfranchisement within the European food sovereignty movement.

As I understand it, the feeling amongst a group who convened a meeting of marginalised people, speaking for the ethnic minorities and the urban poor, is that the ‘Nyleni’ movement in Europe has sought to replicate the energy and passion of food sovereignty as it originated in the Global South – as the rallying cry of peasant peoples striving to protect their way of life from corporate takeover – but has not addressed the complexity of how to respond to this call for solidarity while also acknowledging European complicity in that takeover. When we held the UK national delegation meeting, it became clear that the issue of marginalisation is particularly stark here. As a former colonial power with a history of rapid industrialisation, concentration of land in very few hands, a political union based on empire building, and a consumer-focussed industrialised corporate food system – we have a bit of soul searching to do! As citizens we are both oppressed and oppressor, privileged and disenfranchised.

There are a few useful approaches in treading the path towards understanding. One is to see a distinction between the origins of the Food Sovereignty movement, and what could be called the Food Justice movement. Food Sovereignty, with its origins in peasant agriculture, could be seen as standing to protect a way of life; Food Justice (which has gained traction in the USA) could be seen as striving to gain a standard of life that is denied by the current system. This latter approach – which is the more appropriate to the majority of the population of urban-centric Scotland and the wider UK – is much more difficult than the former. How do you stand for something which you have never yourself experienced, without being dismissed for being romantic, nostalgic, or utopian (as is often the risk in calling for a more agrarian society)? And that dismissal comes from all quarters.

There is a question that is vital to a movement for food sovereignty and regards the central tenet of our industrial society – how deeply rooted is the idea of economic growth and technological progress? We know that technology has allowed farming to change out of all recognition over the last 100 years: previous horse handlers, land walkers and environmental observers are now engineers, machinery operators, software users. Do we know where this is leading us? Do we have a handle on the upper environmental limits of technological development?

A brilliant book published by the UK development charity Practical Action (founded by E.F. Schumacher) called Rethink, retool, reboot, Rethinking technology as if people mattered calls for Technology Justice - or Technology Sovereignty. It defines a global imperative to raise access to technology to above a minimum for adequate living standards (access to clean water, fuel, cooking and food etc) while also limiting runaway free-trade driven technological development in order to keep us below the maximum planetary limits defined by Johan Rockstrom. Their motivation is social justice – and the argument for Food Justice is completely interconnected: we need food, the technology to produce it and the right governance for the food system to be in the hands of the people. However, if we reject the idea of profit-driven technological innovation as a panacea, we need to discover an alternative vision, that can incorporate the idea of food sovereignty without dismissing it as being a backwards step to a back-breaking agrarian past – or as an unattainable new fangled utopia. 

There is a powerful vision gaining traction across the world that for me articulates a foundation for food sovereignty or food justice, an idea that is both universal and very specific to place: the commons. Amongst the general chaos and destruction, people globally are organising to protect commonly held resources. Think Standing Rock, think fracking, think fossil fuel divestment. People are finding their feet, and they are finding their voice.

As we face ever more encroachment and exploitation of natural resources across the world, we need to find a way to stand up for the land and waters that provide us with our most essential sustenance, starting with food. 

Indigenous people are at the forefront of many of these protests, and we can learn from their language of solidarity with the Earth. We need to stand for a food commons – the idea that our food should be a common good.

What are the age old ideas that we have that are indigenous to Scotland, that newer ideas like food sovereignty can be seamlessly grafted onto? In amongst our bloodthirsty history we can draw on those which value the common good over profiteering – for example Common Good Funds / Land; the commons-based crofting townships that have been the starting point for community buyouts and land reform legislation. There is also powerful language we can draw on from Gaelic, and more hidden away in Scots and English – and newer mother tongues of Scotland – to describe the importance of our connection to the land and sea that provides us with our food. In Gaelic there is the concept of Dùthchas – the idea that people belong to the land and the land belongs to the people – and there is an excellent article by Madeleine Bunting on Dùthchas and the potential power of language in defining social & environmental justice. In English or Scots perhaps we want to reclaim the idea of the peasant (or old Scots ‘paisant’) in line with the currency it carries in contemporary French: replacing the image of the destitute serf with a 21st century version of a part-time self-directed food producer with a fair wage?

In a neat plot twist in the conversation about Technology Justice, it is the communication technology revolution and the field of computer software development which has reawakened the power of the commons, from Wikipedia to open source software. We can use the new to rejuvenate the old.

On returning to Scotland we held a meeting in a cafe in Edinburgh to disseminate what we had learnt from the week in Romania in partnership with Nourish Scotland (many thanks to them for all their work in organising this and sending the 7 of us to Romania!). We were surprised that 40 people turned out on a rainy Thursday night, some coming from as far as Dumfries and Galloway (More to come on next steps, including moving beyond just Edinburgh!)

Despite the enormous challenges, it feels something is slowly stirring in Scotland. In the words of the ploughman poet, it's comin' yet for a' that.