05/14/2014 02:04 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Food Sovereignty in Neoliberal Peru

Bartosz Hadyniak via Getty Images

Alexandra Toledo is graduating in May 2014 with a Master of Public Affairs in Nonprofit Management from Indiana University School of Public and Environmental Affairs and a Master's in Latin American Studies from IU's Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies (in Indiana's School of Global and International Studies) She plans to pursue a career related to sustainable agriculture and rural development, working in the international nonprofit sector.

Hundreds of women marched through Lima, Peru. They were shouting in Spanish, Quechua, and Aymara, dressed in bright-colored skirts and shawls, their long braids swinging across their backs, their arms extended with signs proclaiming "We seek recognition for our contribution to the national economy" and "We the female farmers respect Mother Earth." In the plaza where they gathered, a map of Peru was laid out and adorned with traditional food crops from all the regions: potatoes, purple corn, cacao and quinoa were proudly represented. At the bottom of the map it read in Spanish: "We fight for food sovereignty." One woman held a banner of the International Peasant Movement Vía Campesina.

It was October 16, 2013, the International Day of Food, and these women were marching together to the Congress for the Great Protest and Cultural Act in Favor of the Approval of the Law of Food and Nutritional Security and Sovereignty. The day before, these woman organized the International Forum for the World Day of the Rural Woman, where the speakers demanded greater investment and public policy to promote small-scale agriculture, with emphasis on rural women. The pressure continued two days later, with the Agrarian Forum "Food Sovereignty and Public Investment in Small-Scale Production and Family Farming" hosted by Congresswoman Claudia Coari.

All of this activity was part of the civil society mobilization in favor of a controversial law for food sovereignty debated in Peru throughout 2013, the watershed year for food policy in that country. January started with President Ollanta Humala declaring 2013 "The Year of Investment for Rural Development and Food Security." The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) designated 2013 as the International Year of Quinoa, a superfood grain native to the Andean region, and Peru's First Lady Nadine Heredia as a Special Ambassador along with Bolivian President Evo Morales. The executive and legislative branches both approved food-security-related policies: the executive branch with the National Strategy for Food and Nutritional Security and the legislative branch with the Law of Food Sovereignty and Food and Nutritional Security.

This executive and legislative activity took place in a context of growing interest for food in Peru, both in terms of policy and gastronomy. It is difficult to overemphasize the importance of the newfound pride in national food: nearly every conversation with Peruvians naturally turns to appreciation for their cuisine and the cultural, culinary renaissance has opened the way for food diplomacy to improve the image of Peru around the world. Despite this national and international attention on food, as of 2013 Peru still did not have national legislation on food security or food sovereignty.

Throughout Latin America, most countries have laws or bills on food security, legislation that approaches hunger with governmental initiatives around food aid, trade, production and consumption. The current internationally accepted definition of food security was adopted at the 1996 World Food Summit: "Food security, at the individual, household, national, regional and global levels [is achieved] when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life" (FAO, 1996). In further elaboration, food security includes four pillars: availability, access, utilization and stability.

Food security and food sovereignty are often posed as contradictory because of the stakeholders and ideology that each tends to represent. In practice, they are being adopted in policy in combination as complementary terms representing a method (food sovereignty) toward a measurable goal (food security). At the same 1996 World Food Summit where food security was defined by member nations, the International Peasant's Movement (or Vía Campesina), excluded from participating in the Summit, published a declaration of its concept, food sovereignty: "Food sovereignty is the right of each nation to maintain and develop its own capacity to produce its basic foods respecting cultural and productive diversity. We have the right to produce our own food in our own territory. Food sovereignty is a precondition to genuine food security" (Vía Campesina, 1996). Since 1996, food sovereignty has become a more nuanced platform for social movement advocacy. It has also been integrated into the national constitutions of Peru's socialist neighbors Bolivia, Ecuador, and Venezuela.

In contrast to these countries, Peru has followed a neoliberal policy agenda since the 1990s, opting for free trade agreements, international investment, market-led growth, and decreasing government involvement in social services. Given this reality in Peru, it surprised me that food sovereignty, an alternative platform to neoliberalism championed by Vía Campesina, would also be considered in Peru, where no institutional, organized challenge to the neoliberal model has emerged either from political office or civil society in the past three decades.

In my thesis, I outline a detailed historical process of the development of these food security and food sovereignty initiatives, including precedential policy and relevant cultural context. Then, I analyze this process in the framework of two strategies: Participation -- who was involved in the process and what they represented, and Construction -- what was negotiated and what it means. Both are oriented to understanding in what ways institutionalizing food security and food sovereignty in Peru confirm or contest the "neoliberal food regime" (Pechlaner and Otero, 2010; see also Friedmann, 2005 and McMichael, 2005).

My case study is based on research I completed in Lima in June, July and August of 2013. I conducted 11 interviews with a range of representatives from civil society organizations and social movements, the legislative and executive branch, and the FAO, a key intergovernmental organization. I also participated in various activities related to food security and food sovereignty and stayed informed with media publications on subjects related to agrarian policy along with reading multiple versions of each policy document in question.

The first observation when looking at the food policy landscape in Peru is that two different policies were being developed simultaneously by two different branches of government. The executive branch approved a written document in June 2013 called the National Strategy for Food and Nutritional Security. As of June 2013, two commissions of the legislative branch approved the Law of Food Sovereignty and Food and Nutritional Security, which changed names as it went through the legislative process. The simultaneous activity of two branches of government on related but not collaborative policy inevitably led to tension. This tension was focused on one word: sovereignty. The executive branch officially rejects the use of the term "food sovereignty" because, as they argue, there is no one standard definition or usage of the term the way there is for "food security." In addition, their interpretation sets food sovereignty as antagonistic to free trade and open markets, two elements of the neoliberal food regime that the Peruvian government intends to protect and that the original platform of food sovereignty is deeply critical of due to historical injustices of these two mechanisms in relation to the agrarian sector. Within the legislature, however, Congresswoman Claudia Coari championed the food sovereignty law based on the demand that the Peruvian government prioritize small-scale family farmers instead of export agriculture. Coari, trained as an activist with Vía Campesina, served as a bridge for social movements and peasant coalitions to have a voice in the policy-making process in support of food sovereignty.

The way this tension over the use of the term food sovereignty was resolved, at least preliminarily, highlights the strategy of construction that is critical to my analysis. The effort to institutionalize the term food sovereignty with a neoliberalized definition in the draft law represents a potential coopting of this social movement platform into the neoliberal food regime. However, the ultimate result of the integration of food sovereignty components throughout the National Strategy and the law without the use of the term itself represents a challenge to the neoliberal food regime.

The law, as of its June version approved in two Congressional Commissions, included both food security and food sovereignty explicitly in the title and with their respective definitions. Food sovereignty was defined as: "the capacity of the State to define its own food, agrarian, and fishing policies in the framework of an open economy and respecting international treaties..." (Section 3.1.2, translation mine). Food sovereignty policies are expected to value the knowledge and participation of small-scale farmers, their production methods and their cultures as well as agro-biodiversity. In this Peruvian version, however, food sovereignty is a proposal that upholds the international free trade agreements and neoliberal political economy. In this way, the use of the term "food sovereignty" in the Peruvian context was coopted to fit the current neoliberal food regime. The draft law was revised after debate in the full Congress in December 2013, however, and the term food sovereignty as well as its definition was removed from the legislation. This is the form of the bill be expected to pass into law, meaning that Peru will not, after all, have a national law on food sovereignty.

Despite the lack of the term food sovereignty in any national documents, its components are integrated throughout. For example, while the term food sovereignty is no longer used or defined explicitly in the December 2013 version of the legislative proposal, family agriculture maintains its own section and definition. In Peru, small-scale family farming is nearly synonymous with the idea of food sovereignty. That this population is highlighted by receiving a special definition and consideration is the mark of strong advocacy from the Congress and civil society organizations that represent this population and support food sovereignty, and marks a shift from the traditional national focus on agribusiness export industry. In the same way, the National Strategy for Food and Nutritional Security never once uses the term food sovereignty, but food sovereignty elements are woven throughout, namely: sustainability, organizational capacity and family farming.

Both documents, then, include elements that challenge the neoliberal food regime: in the National Strategy, this challenge comes despite the exclusive use of food security; and in the bill, this challenge prevails in spite of a definition of food sovereignty that was integrated into the neoliberal food regime ideology then excluded completely. While using the term food sovereignty does in some ways resist the neoliberal order because of the historical and regional usage of the term, Peru found a way to diffuse that ideology and institutionalize the term into a neoliberal context. The fact that in the end food sovereignty was not included, even with its coopted definition, speaks to the strength of this platform in resisting cooptation. The rejection of using food sovereignty explicitly means that the term still represents too much of a threat to the economic and political interests of the neoliberal food regime to be integrated into policy documents.

A more strategic alternative to using the term itself is disaggregating and integrating the elements. Civil society actors can insert those elements into documents and proposals that seem wholly focused on food security. State actors do not feel threatened by integrating these more implicit elements into official policy documents since the documents still maintain the dominant policy position instead of mirroring socialist neighbors and potentially alienating international investors. In this way, the implementation of food security will involve food sovereignty principles, implicitly challenging the alignment of food security with the neoliberal food regime.

My research on the case of Peru provides new material for analyzing the trend of institutionalizing food security and food sovereignty into national frameworks. The neoliberal political economy and historically weak civil society in Peru differ from the cases of neighbors Bolivia, Ecuador, and Venezuela in significant ways. The fact that food sovereignty has been defined within a framework of the neoliberal food regime in Peru should alert activists to the "menace" of "neoliberal multiculturalism" (Hale 2002) that allows alternative platforms or players into the process only to strip them of any material challenges to the regime and leave them as symbolic vestiges of civil society participation. Perhaps despite the best efforts of Vía Campesina to contest the powers that be, food sovereignty remains vulnerable to cooptation by governments who view food sovereignty as a threat to the material foundation of the neoliberal model like free trade and open markets. The possibility of cooptation of food sovereignty into the framework of the neoliberal model would have serious implications for the political strategies of Vía Campesina and other transnational agrarian movements advocating the institutionalization of food sovereignty on the basis that it represents an alternative to the current use of markets, trade, and production.

Meanwhile, food sovereignty components -- both material and symbolic -- have been successfully integrated into policy documents even when the term itself is not. This represents an alternative strategy for strengthening the challenge to the neoliberal food regime in piecemeal ways. This is not just happening in Peru, but globally. The FAO declared 2014 the "International Year of Family Farming." Peruvian agrarian collectives are organizing political activities on this theme, and connecting it to food sovereignty, even if the FAO and Peru's executive branch are not. This one example in Peru represents the possibility for food sovereignty principles to make their way into national policy and international campaigns, strategically influencing mainstream policy positions and implicitly challenging the neoliberal food regime on a global scale.

--Alexandra Toledo

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