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Sara Franklin

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The Food Debate and Rio+20: Both Sides Now

Posted: 05/27/11 05:20 PM ET

As I recently reported, the state of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil is one of the global leaders in creating a space within government to formally promote green economic policies and programs. Inarguably, there is innovation in their work. But the state of Rio's green economics secretariat is only one amongst the hordes of state, non-profit, special interest and community groups preparing for the upcoming Rio+20 conference. Though there is much excitement about the potential of the gathering to bring timely and pressing environmental issues to the fore, some of those who will be in attendance are not at all happy with the direction in which they believe the meetings are likely to go -- that is, nowhere. They will be using the next year to plan their descent upon Rio to shake things up.

Via Campesina -- an independent international peasant movement dedicated to the principles of food sovereignty, comprised of more than 150 million farmers and producers -- is already preparing its arsenal. The group and its allies are hoping to come together in force at Rio+20 -- which will include discussions of food security and poverty alleviation -- next summer to intervene, voicing their opposition to the development community's track record of land grabs, environmental degradation, and displacement of subsistence and small farmers.

As much as the actions of the development community, it is their paradigm that troubles Via Campesina. In the movement's eyes, "green economy" is a contradiction in terms. The entire concept of food conglomerates goes against the tenets of the Via Campesina movement, which prioritizes responsible local stewardship of land and waterways, as well as communities' ability to cultivate and sell culturally appropriate and environmentally sustainable foodstuffs as they see fit. As we have watched food systems the world over go from diversified and decentralized to concentrated, homogenous and industrial, "peasants" (as Via Campesina members choose to identify themselves) have been systematically removed from the land and waterways from which they derive their livelihoods. Unless these patterns are reversed, Via Campesina argues, "development" programs will only continue to widen the economic divide -- lining the pockets of the rich and exacerbating the oppression of and scarcity of resources available to the poor.

In a statement given earlier this month at the UN's Commission on Sustainable Development by Via Campesina and their allies, New York-based activist and representative Ceci Charles-King read:

Poverty and inequality will become more pronounced as peasant and small family farmers are integrated into a so-called "green" economy, which does not change the monopoly and control of transnational corporations such as Cargill, Monsanto, Archer Midland Daniels and Dupont over agricultural production, processing, distribution and consumption of food.

At CSD this year, topics under discussion included waste management, toxic chemicals, transport, mining and sustainable consumption. Compared to the 2008/2009 gatherings (the foci of which were land, water and, logically, food), farmers and agriculturalists were scarce. But the corporate agricultural powers that be (i.e. Monsanto, Syngenta, Cargill) were, not surprisingly, still in attendance this year. After all, it's no stretch to connect issues of consumption, transportation, waste and chemical usage and disposal to food -- these are the words often used in conjunction with the underbelly of our increasingly global and industrialized food system.

More than empty rhetoric and business as usual, Via Campesina plans to arrive at Rio+20 armed with their grievances as well as solutions. In recent years, a remarkable groundswell of support for local food production, living wages and human rights for small producers has arisen, rooted in community-based and regional programs the world over. Unlike many environmental hot-button issues, the sustainable food movement has as many fans in the privileged and gastronomic communities as it does in the environmental, public health and human rights realms.

In the same statement given at CSD, Via Campesina offered this positive take on the situation facing the world's system of food production and supply:

The solution to our crisis exists. It is in the hands of the millions of peasants and small family farmers that feed the world and the marginalized urban communities that are seeking ways to recuperate control over their local food systems and directly implement sustainable consumption patterns.

Via Campesina and their allies will be up against some formidable forces at Rio+20, but their vigor and persistence thus far proves they will not be silenced. And with a growing number of consumers, non-profits and even politicians supporting their cause, perhaps they have a chance to provide an alternative to the pervasive influence of the development crew on our food system.