Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Systems We Create are Us

I've written in another post that I think that #OWS protesters will have to acknowledge that a warped American Dream is part of the reason for the current state of financial distress and discontent, and will, at some point, need to redefine that Dream in ways that have less to do with what material items you have, and more to do with the relationships you create.  I still think that's true, though that idea doesn't seem to be a part of any of the discourse that explains the movement.
I was reading one of Glenn Greenwald's latest posts in which he devotes a long section to why a young activist has devoted so much of himself to the movement at great personal expense.  Jaime Omar Yassi says, "The camp has given my life real purpose, and brought out the best in me and allowed me to befriend the widest breadth of human experience anyone can imagine."  I think what Mr. Yassin expresses is important because it helps to understand what is missing in American society, in general. I think that #OWS happens to be the forum (at this particular moment) in which he has found what is missing, but it really goes beyond the particular message of #OWS. That is, it isn't the message or mission of #OWS that is so important to him, but the solidarity and sense of community and connection between people working towards a common cause. For a long time in America, we've been working, through corporations and capitalism and consumerism, towards a society that is designed to isolate individuals so that they don't have to deal with/rely on their neighbors and communities.
It's an important distinction, and one that hasn't really been a part of the discussions about the significance of #OWS, as far as I can tell: the message is important, of course (the banksters should be jailed), and resonates with many people in this country, but the actual THING that people are hungering for is connection.  I don't think the general sense of malaise and discontent would really be resolved with jailing the banksters, though it would certainly satisfy some of the bloodlust.  I don't even think that reforming the rules of finance and implementing more regulations is going to solve the problem either.  It goes much, much deeper than that.  The state of the economic system is merely symptomatic of the more profound issue. 
'Connection' is instrumental, of course, but it is also political and brings with it power. A consumerist society is designed to keep us separated and isolated and dependent on (i.e. slaves to) the material goods that allow/encourage us to live isolated lives, though we mistake that for 'independence' and 'autonomy.'  That's why this can't just be a wake up call on reforming financial institutions and asking the government to implement systems to re-distribute wealth.  The fix has to permeate every aspect of social life, and it requires active efforts by all of us in our daily lives. Regular people need to make an effort to live more communally,* and to reduce their dependence on such a system. To some extent, that requires withdrawing from the status quo by living locally (e.g. using local banks and credit unions, buying food locally, participating in local politics, going to local businesses). It's profoundly democratic, and doesn't completely eschew capitalism; it just reconfigures it and instills it with something more meaningful than a monetary transaction.  We are the systems we create, and the systems we create are us.  So, who do we want to be?

*Communally is not the same thing as being a Communist.  Just sayin'.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Power of Woman-ness

Jon Stewart had Liberian peace activist, Leymah Gbowee, on "The Daily Show" the other night.  What an amazing person. What I was most struck by, and this is probably because I'm struggling how to best theorize this in the context of my research, was how her 'being a woman' was really an integral part of what she and her sisters did, and are doing, to seek peace and justice in such a devastated, war-torn society.  I often get the feeling that the talk and promotion of gender equality in international development somehow seeks to make one's biological sex unimportant - that one's sex shouldn't matter to the opportunities one can pursue, or how one interacts in the world. I also get the feeling that gender equality advocates too often conflate an African woman's position in society with powerlessness and victimhood.

But, here's a case where women, by leveraging their woman-ness, played (and play) a critical part in promoting peace and reconciliation.  A man could not have done what they did and are continuing to do.  These women drew on, and re-invented, their collective identities as women to do what they saw needed to be done. Listen to her story about how she threatened to remove her clothes in the face of arrest. That action drew on deeply held cultural beliefs about women, and resulted in one of many victories. Listen to her tell how rural women elegantly leveraged their subordinate position in society, and gained the support of their men, via a 'sex strike.'  They all turned power on its head, and they did it by being women...or, maybe it would be more precise to say, they did it by doing woman-ness.  Even more important to understand, they did it by being Liberian women.   This is a particular story at a particular moment in time in a particular place that illustrates the way gender differences can be drawn upon to promote social change.  In fact, I might even be so bold to say that the gender inequality itself was critical to the struggle and to ending the war. Please don't read that as an argument for perpetuating inequality.  I say it to draw attention to the ways in which people negotiate the situations in which they find themselves, and cause change to come about, by drawing on what is and who they are.  Power is fluid and multifaceted and not solely the province of the powerful.

And, kudos to Jon Stewart for getting it, and for being interested and for hosting a forum where these kinds of stories about Africa can be told.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Not So Fast You with Your Miracle Agricultural Technology

When I was in Senegal doing my research on urban farming, I was somewhat surprised by some pretty clear resistance to the use of chemicals in farming.  I guess what surprised me was that I didn't think such a considered opinion would be so widely held (which reflects my first world, elitist 'educated' bias, more than anything else -- mea culpa; I'm still learning).  Despite a clear understanding of what chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides do, many people were by no means sold on their 'advantages.'  Women, for example, were embracing a form of urban agriculture called 'microgardening' because it didn't use chemical pesticides and herbicides.  They appreciated that they got to control how the food was grown and noted that buying food in the market wasn't really a safe thing to do because you never know what chemical residues are left on the veggies.  Some other things I heard repeatedly:

  • chemical fertilizers reduce the storing capacity of vegetables
  • chemical fertilizers corrupt the taste of vegetables
  • chemicals on the vegetables are making people have sicknesses that they've never before seen in Senegal
  • it is better to have steady production over a long period of time, rather than a few years of extraordinary yield.  Naturally maintaining soil fertility with things like crop residues and manure will allow steady production over a long period of time, whereas production with chemical fertilizers destroys the soil and, thus, long term sustainable production. (this one is especially interesting to me because it represents a different way of thinking than the thinking that underlies western-style production systems, which are driven by goals of quantitative yield.  Farmers understand that there is a 'natural' productive capacity of land, and going beyond that with chemicals is too risky and is an anathema to long-term thinking)

Very often, when I hear agricultural development people talking about the first Green Revolution, they say that it 'bypassed' Africa, as if there were some structural conditions, or cultural conditions, or socioeconomic conditions that just didn't come together in the right ways to allow these technologies to 'take hold.'  It is NEVER suggested that Africans might have consciously and deliberately rejected these technologies because they didn't suit their production goals.

In the world of development, the dominant narrative seems to be that western agricultural technologies, because they are assumed to be inherently better, just need to be distributed correctly and that farmers, once they 'see the light' and/or have access, will adopt them. Underlying this narrative is a perception that farmers are ignorant and technologically backwards, and are, essentially, empty vessels waiting to be filled up with a technological approach to farming.  A related mythical perception is that 'tradition' is an obstacle to 'development.' Because the purveyors of agricultural development think this way, their programs are pretty much conceived as a one-way transfer of technology, and they think that obstacles can be cleared with farmer education.

I personally think that agricultural development needs to be more informed by the ideas associated with food sovereignty.  Food sovereignty is a complex idea that recognizes agriculture as not only a productive activity, but also a social and cultural one.  As such, attention to the rights to control and define the food production system receives as much attention as issues related to sustainable production.  In my view, this is a more democratic ideal to which we should aspire.  Furthermore, such an approach questions the hegemony of technology by contesting assumptions of agricultural technologies as neutral.

More of an effort needs to be made to bring African farmers into the discussion about the kinds of food systems people want, and for the imperative of production to take a back seat (or at least, a passenger seat) to the imperative of democratic control.  The following article further makes this case, as well as demonstrates the 'embeddedness' of agriculture in culture and environment.

Women Farmers Feed the World

Fatou Batta: In West Africa, women's resistance to the new Green Revolution shows that the question of agricultural sustainability is also a question of equality.


It's harvest season in Burkina Faso. Throughout the West African nation's rural regions, small farmers—mostly women—are harvesting millet, rice, and sorghum to feed large families. After a full day harvesting grains, each wife will continue the work, tending her own small garden to feed her children.
The harvest marks the end of the "lean season," the dangerous months after the year's food supply has dwindled and the next crops have not yet arrived—a time that leaves many women foraging for their children.
West Africa—and much of the rest of the world—is facing a food crisis. Nearly one billion people are hungry, according to the World Hunger Education Service, and farmers throughout the Global South are experiencing escalating anxiety over the appropriation and control of land, seeds, and farming techniques by foreign governments and corporations—manifested in "land-grabbing," seed monopolization, genetic modification, and the imposition of high-tech, water-, chemical-, and energy-intensive monocrops. 
The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) is a Gates Foundation-funded initiative based in Nairobi and spearheaded by Kofi Annan, former secretary general of the U.N. It's a multimillion-dollar project that seeks to increase food production in Africa by implementing vigorous Western-style agricultural techniques, promising high-yield results for food-insecure populations.
According to the Gates Foundation and other supporters, it's an African-led endeavor, modeled on the previous Green Revolutions of Latin America and the Indian sub-continent but placed in the hands of Africans. It sounds like a good idea.
But a growing movement of local farmers—largely led by women—argue that the surest path to food security is securing food sovereignty. It's a concept that was put forward in the early 90's by Via Campesina, an international alliance of peasant, indigenous, and women's organizations that advocates for communities' control over how food is produced, and who gets to eat it.
The original Green Revolution, beginning in the 1940's, pushed widespread use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and equipment whose expense was out of reach for most peasant farmers. Critics point out that years of water-intensive farming has depleted water tables, while increased use of chemicals has severely damaged soil in some areas. And while new seeds and tools may bring higher production in the short term, many Africans fear the consolidated control corporations exercise over the food supply, not to mention the precarious dependence on large amounts of water and energy inputs, and the environmental toll such methods may eventually take.
The International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), sponsored by the U.N. and published in 2009, found that the adoption of agrochemicals and monocropping, among other Green Revolution technologies, have harmed not only the land, but local communities and economies, benefiting transnational corporations with "near-total control" of food production.
Marcia Ishii-Eiteman, lead author of the IAASTD report, emphasizes instead the importance of agroecological farming, an approach that supports localized farming and draws on traditional knowledge. It not only considers productivity, sustainability, and resilience, but also equity.
This is good news for women. Women, according to Ishii-Eiteman, make up a huge percentage of the world's small food producers (who, she says, together grow about 70 percent of the food supply). They do the most to get food on the table, and they're usually the last to eat it.
Fatou Batta works with Groundswell International, an organization that partners with small-farmer groups across the world, including in Burkina Faso. She's working with a broad, grassroots alliance to show that small farmers‚ and especially women, can feed the world if we give them the resources to control their food, and the proper access to eat and sell it.

Fatou Batta photo courtesy of Groundswell International
Fatou Batta.
Photo courtesy of Groundswell International.
Christa Hillstrom: Let's talk about this idea of food sovereignty. How people in West Africa understand this concept?
Fatou Batta: In our context, it is related to the type of food we want to eat and produce, and having the ability to produce what we eat. It seems that in the U.S., food justice is much better understood than food sovereignty.  But in our context, controlling the production of what we eat is key—not just get something that is imposed.
Christa Hillstrom: You talk about equity—economic equity, gender equity—as a key ingredient of sovereignty. I think a lot of people don't think equity when they think about food security. They think of resilience, sustainability, and high yields. Why is it important to include equity in building long-term security in food production? How does that bring women into the picture?
Fatou Batta: First of all, it's a question of rights. Women are key in producing food. They are working on the farm, they're producing through labor, and when it comes to using food, they are the last ones to be able to eat it. It's important to make sure those who contribute to producing the food also have access to eat equitably. In the family, usually males have the right to eat first. I think it's unfair. It's discrimination. So if we're talking about the right to food, we have to be looking at the gender imbalance. 
Christa Hillstrom: Could you give an idea of what it's like to be a woman farmer in West Africa?
Fatou Batta: The way it works is, there is land for the whole family. On that land, it's the head of household—the man—who manages it. But the labor is largely produced by the women and children. In many places in Burkina, the woman has a small plot of land with which to produce something like okra because she has the responsibility of feeding the family using extra ingredients. The whole family produces staples like millet and sorghum. But they still have to make some type of sauce—like a soup with vegetables. This is the responsibility of individual women.
Christa Hillstrom: So each wife is producing for her own children.
Fatou Batta: Yes. And usually her plot of land is completely depleted and will not yield much. During the rainy season, she will go in the morning and work with the husband and children [and other wives] on the large plot of land, the land for the whole family. She will spend almost the whole day there. The time for her own plot would be in the afternoon when the sun goes down. After the work on the large family land, she will go to her own land to work there before she goes back home, and—after collecting firewood—cook for the whole family. The work burden on her is large.

Seasons of Hunger

Christa Hillstrom: You talked about the lean season, when women must often forage to feed their children because stores from the harvest have run out.
Fatou Batta: From the harvest, which occurs between October and November, until February or March, people usually have something to eat. But from March until the next planting period, this is the hardest part: The food is finished and it's hard to feed everybody. This is the time we call the hunger season. It could last five, six, or seven months. One family may run out of food after just three months, meaning that for the next nine months they are food insecure.
Christa Hillstrom: So into this situation comes a new push toward an African Green Revolution. What do farmers think about this?
Fatou Batta: The Green Revolution requires using a lot of water. What will happen in case of a drought? Farmers believe it's better for them to go from what they know, what they have been using for years. They still have in mind what happened in Asia and Latin America with the Green Revolutions there, and they see it as something they cannot control—they fear dependence on all of these pesticides, chemicals, and imports.
Traditionally, farmers control their own seeds—and share them. Women are the keepers of those seeds. But with AGRA, all of this is going to be out of the farmers' control. This is why we are doing this whole campaign, saying, "We are the solution." The solution cannot come from elsewhere. It's already there.
Christa Hillstrom: Supporters of the Green Revolution technologies argue, you have these dangerous lean seasons, and these new seeds can produce more food to eliminate hunger. What do local people say to that?
Women are those who store the seeds and can protect traditional seeds. If you take their seeds, it's like you're taking their soul away.
Fatou Batta: First of all, it's not yet evident the new seed will produce. It's dependent on fertilizer, pesticide, and new technologies. Plus, here people rely on the rainfall—there is no irrigation. If you cannot control the water, what will happen if you apply the chemical fertilizer and then there is no rain? You could lose everything. So even if these new seeds can double the yield, there are some necessary environmental conditions that are not always met.
Plus there's the cost. Most small farmers cannot afford chemical fertilizers and pesticides because it's very expensive. But farmers have a way of selecting traditional seeds to see which ones are really performing, knowledge that has come down through generations. They do their own selection of what seeds are really good for what context and what seeds can be resilient to drought.
So we all agree that its important to increase productivity, but there are some necessary conditions to make it environmentally sustainable.

Seed / Money

If you don't have control of your life, it's like you are lying on someone's mat and at any moment you can be thrown away.
Christa Hillstrom: Seems like seeds are much more than just tools for food production. What role do seeds play in culture?
Fatou Batta: Women are those who store the seeds and can protect traditional seeds. If you take their seeds, it's like you're taking their soul away. Whatever improved seed you give them, they will still keep the traditional seed because it reflects their culture. They don't want to get rid of it. Under the Green Revolution, it's something that might no longer exist.
Christa Hillstrom: It sounds like this culture of commodity from outside is invading something on a spiritual level—companies come in and patent seeds, take ownership of them, and it kills something.
Fatou Batta: Yes, it kills something. In terms of culture, it kills something. In terms of local knowledge, it kills something. Putting farmers in debt because they depend on a corporation, in our culture, is like you lie down on the mat of someone. That's a cultural image. If you don't have control of your life, it's like you are lying on someone's mat and at any moment you can be thrown away.
Christa Hillstrom: You've said that women who are illiterate may feel like they don't have much to teach, but these are also the women with the traditional knowledge and farming experience that we'll need in coming times. What's an example of that knowledge?
Fatou Batta: Because women are central to food security, they have developed strategies to feed their families in case of things like crop failure. They collect firewood, and they know what is in the bush, what types of species. They learn what can and cannot be consumed. When there is hardship, they will go back to he bush to collect what can be consumed—some leaves, some roots, some fruit.
The shea nut tree is a bank for women. It takes a long time to grow, and they use the nuts to make butter. Traditionally, that's a main source of fat. The shea nut butter is also medicinal, and the nut can be sold for money. It is a coping mechanism during the lean season. When the rain starts, during planting time, the food in the family is usually gone. But in the bush the shea nut fruit is ready and they can eat it.
What we've observed happening now is that through all this technology imported with the Green Revolution, large areas of land are being converted to cash cropping. They cut down the trees and destroy vegetation. This means that women are losing their back-up sources of income and food. Some of the species don't exist anymore in some parts of the country.

An Alliance for a Farmers' Revolution in Africa

Christa Hillstrom: Traditional coping knowledge is critical to hang on to. How are local people—many of them illiterate—preserving and sharing strategies that go against the grain of agricultural principles of monocropping, genetic modification, and chemical farming, especially if they're not writing it down?
Fatou Batta: What is being done is through exchange visits. Groups of women visit each other and share their knowledge about using natural resources and techniques. They bring ideas back and try them through experimentation. You visit one farmer who experiences similar problems and difficulties, and she has tried something that really succeeded. You bring it home and learn from it.
Christa Hillstrom: Sounds like "We are the Solution" could be a transformative campaign, if it can survive what it's up against. What sort of support do you need to give the small farmer movement a real shot at flourishing?
Fatou Batta: I think it requires alliances—getting together and developing advocacy and also making pressure on our leaders. We need to say it's important to invest more in sustainable technologies. Because of the activists nowadays, the debate is happening within the farmer network, and they're trying to hold our leaders accountable.
Christa Hillstrom: So what gives you hope that it can really take root?
Fatou Batta: What is still working is the bond, the relation between people and communities—the solidarity.
Christa Hillstrom: Whose face do you see when you look at the big picture?
Woman Farmer in West Africa photo courtesy of Groundswell International
Photo courtesy of Groundswell International.
Fatou Batta: Many, many, many cases: A lady whose husband migrated and left her with six children to feed. But the land her husband's family gave her was not good land. That's normal—women get land that's not good land, completely degraded. Then they work to improve it. She worked hard. She improved her land based on techniques she learned from one of Groundswell's partners, a local organization that trained her on how to improve the land using some organic manure, etc. The first years were hard, but finally she was able to produce, and now she is completely self-sufficient.
Christa Hillstrom: What would you like to say to the powerful proponents of AGRA?
Fatou Batta: The willingness to feed the poor is good. But the strategy is not a good one. It's completely the opposite of what can work. Just listen, really listen, to small-scale farmers—because they are the ones who feed the world.

Christa Hillstrom Christa Hillstrom interviewed Fatou Batta for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Christa is web managing editor at YES!
Fatou Batta is the co-coordinator for West Africa for Groundswell International.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Plight of the Honeybee

Dan Rather did an excellent report on the honeybee crisis, also known as colony collapse disorder (CCD).  For several years, honeybee colonies have been dying off in alarming numbers but no one has been able to conclusively determine the cause.  Turns out that scientists within the EPA have been voicing concerns over a class of insecticides called  neonicotinoids since they came up for registration 15 years ago.  But, instead of asking for independent third party studies of the insecticides, EPA administrators accepted the studies done by the chemical companies themselves.  This, as was noted in the report, is like asking the foxes to design the chicken coop.

Obviously, this is just one example, among many, of how politics and economics trump science in the determination of the safety of pesticides, of which there are over 20,000 currently registered with the EPA.  My favorite quote from the report, which I think perfectly encapsulates the problem of letting short term economic gain drive policy, comes from retired EPA scientist Bill Caniglio: "(The EPA) judged the risk to be not as important as the benefits, and in that balance, risk-benefit balance, it's obvious that they are not considering the collapse of the entire food chain.  They are dealing with the benefits from a short term perspective." 

The entire food chain!!!  Ah, capitalism...gotta love it.

PS-the video below is the entire episode of "Dan Rather Reports." The story on honeybees is the first among several stories and runs for less than 30 minutes.
PPS-"The Plight of the Honeybee" is a way better title than "Bee Aware."  Just sayin'.

Bee Aware from Greg Stanley on Vimeo.

Other relevant links:
PAN North America
Huffington Post, Dan Rather Reports
Dan Rather Reports

Thursday, September 8, 2011


The emotion surprised me.  I was making bread dough, and listening to a radio program in which they replayed the air traffic communication of that day, interspersed with present-day commentary from the people who'd been directing the planes, and that feeling came back.....the empty, heavy, hopeless sorrow I now associate with that filled me up, and I wept.

That's the feeling that remembering that day brings now, because at the time, of course, it was unbelievable. I don't think I felt anything at first because it was so hard to understand and make sense was hard to wrap myself around it and make it a part of my reality.  It may have taken me days to finally cry, as stories emerged of people jumping to their death, and the terror that I saw on peoples' faces as they ran away made its way deeper into my consciousness, and vigils were held, and everywhere there was sadness.  

I remember where I was, of course.  I lived in DC at the time, and was taking a break from an office job, working as a professional landscape gardener.  On that day, we'd driven out to a job in the rich suburb of Potomac.  My co-worker and I had stopped at a garden store to buy plants and they had a TV on.  No one knew at that point what was happening, because only the first plane had hit.  A horrible accident, we speculated.  We made our way out to the job site, and soon enough, our boss called us and told us to come home.  At that point, all the planes had crashed and it was clear we were under attack.  The drive home was surreal.  It was a beautiful day and practically no one was on the road.  

The sorrow is also deeper now because of what has happened in the aftermath. We are divided in ugly ways. Our fear is normalized and manifest in our behaviors, actions, and reactions. Threats are seen everywhere and fear seems to trump reason more often than not.  We figure better safe than sorry as our civil liberties slip away, and fear of The Other never really seems to wane.  We've never really recovered, and maybe we never will.  I suppose 'recovery' isn't really an option, but I do wish we'd allowed it to change us in other ways.

On that day, before leaving for the job in Potomac, I'd told my co-workers that I was pregnant.  I had just found out, and was feeling dizzy so I figured they should know.  My son was born in May of 2002, and, in a deliberate act of peace, I named him Elijah. It was a name I'd always liked, but it had a special resonance for me in the shadow of September 11th. Elijah the prophet, a good name in the three major Abrahamic religions, and one that still, when I think of it, feels hopeful.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Mourides of Senegal (the diversity of Islam)

BBC has a number of posts (see below for some links) on the political and economic power of the Mourides of Senegal.  The Mouride Brotherhood is a Sufi Islamic order founded in the late 1800's by Chiekh Amadou Bamba, who emphasized "submission to the marabout and hard work, a departure from conventional Islamic teaching" (from Wikipedia-the entry is brief and worth a quick read).
I particularly enjoyed this little gem, which is illustrative of the way Senegalese leverage existing systems to their advantage. I've always admired how Senegalese appropriate the systems/expectations/assumptions of the rule-makers in the serious business of accessing scarce resources.  I also enjoy how the piece draws attention to the practical and instrumental value of Islam.  

Likewise, in my interviews, a pattern that emerges is that the ideological is often subordinate (or, at least, not intractable) to the practical necessities of earning a living and raising a family, e.g. women are increasingly working outside the home, with their husbands' approval, and contributing to the household in monetary ways, which is a departure from the traditional view that women should remain at home.  Presumably this would increase the autonomy of women, as well as the weight of their voices in household decision-making.

The take-away for development programming is, of course, that place matters.  The beliefs associated with this brand of Islam may provide, for example, the road to further emancipation of women.  I think development professionals tend to shy away from religion as an important part of development programming.  That's unfortunate since, in many places, religion is as important as clean drinking water.  Very often, cultural beliefs, far from being an obstacle to development, can be a conduit for it.

Some additional links:
The Mourides of Senegal (a 30 minute radio piece)

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Place and Local Notions of Well-Being

In Senegal, the Wolof word "naat" refers to the vibrant verdure of a healthy garden or field.  A garden is naat when all the plants are growing and producing in abundance.

The word is also used to refer to the places where people live. A household is naat or has naatangue (well-being) if people are working and/or going to school, if there is enough to eat and drink, and if there are good relationships among household members. Parents see one of their responsibilities to their children as modeling harmonious relationships, which are cultivated via honest dialogue and respect for one another.

Naatangue in households leads to naatangue in the community.  In Wolof, the word "dekk" is used as a generic term to refer to all inhabited places.  So, a village is a dekk as are cities and countries.  A dekk that is naat means that it provides what it should for residents.  As described by respondents in my study, this means that there is enough work, enough food, schools, good roads, etc.  

One of the respondents in my study, whose digitized voice I've been listening to, referred to her neighbors and friends as "naatango."  I love this.  By referring to them in this way, she is assuming that all of them together are improving their dekk.  The word seems to suggest that people, in general, are good for other people and that everyone is working towards a common goal.  It is particularly striking when I listen to her while sitting in the US, where strife, discord, and civic disengagement seem to be the order of the day, and where neighbors often have very little to do with each other.  

Friday, July 22, 2011

"Food Deserts": A boon for the corporate food system?

Big Retailers Make Pledge of Stores for ‘Food Deserts’By SEAN COLLINS WALSH
WASHINGTON — Executives from Wal-Mart, Walgreens, SuperValu and other stores joined Michelle Obama at the White House on Wednesday to announce a pledge to open or expand a combined 1,500 stores in communities that have limited access to nutritious food and are designated as “food deserts.” 
With the pledges, secured by the Partnership for a Healthier America, which is part of Mrs. Obama’s campaign to reduce childhood obesity, the stores aim to reach 9.5 million of the 23.5 million Americans who live in areas where finding affordable healthy foods can be difficult. In those areas, many people turn to fast food restaurants or convenience stores. 
“The commitments that you all are making today have the potential to be a game changer,” Mrs. Obama said at the event. “When these stores succeed, they can serve as anchors in our communities.” 
The Department of Agriculture defines “food deserts” as low-income areas where more than 500 people or 33 percent of the population lives more than one mile from an affordable food store. In rural towns, the distance is 10 miles. 
Walgreens, the Illinois-based retailer with more than 7,000 stores, pledged to reach 4.8 million people in such areas by turning 1,000 of its locations into “food oasis stores” that will sell fruit, vegetables and other groceries that they do not typically stock. 
Wal-Mart said it would open or expand food sections in 275 to 300 stores by 2016, employing an estimated 40,000 people. SuperValu, which owns many regional grocery chains like Jewel-Osco and ACME, will open 250 new Save-A-Lot stores in five years. 
Childhood obesity is a signature cause adopted by Mrs. Obama. One of every three American children is overweight or obese, leading some scientists to predict that today’s youth could become the first generation to have shorter lives than the previous generation, according to the White House. 
Mrs. Obama said that food deserts, where 6.5 million American children live, contribute to the phenomenon. The government and the private sector need to work together to eliminate food deserts, she said. 
“With your commitments today, you all are showing us what’s possible,” Mrs. Obama said. “This isn’t some mysterious issue that we can’t address. We know the answer. It is right there.”
The Obama administration’s Healthy Food Financing Initiative, begun by Mrs. Obama in February 2010, aims to financially assist stores that open in food deserts. 
The initiative received a $35 million budget this year, well short of the hundreds of millions requested by President Obama. The administration asked for more than $300 million to be approved for it in the next budget. 
In 2009, New York started its Food Retail Expansion to Support Health, or Fresh program, a joint state-city effort that offers incentives to stores to open in underserved communities. Fresh is credited with being one of the largest efforts to combat food deserts at a state or local level.

I find it interesting that whenever I see the term "food desert," it is in quotes. It seems appropriate because the existence of food deserts is not a settled issue, nor is the idea that a lack/presence of grocery stores actually has an impact on diets (and here's the actual study).  Nevertheless, the government has committed funds and has come up with a plan to remedy them.

USDA defines a food desert  as "a low-income census tract where either a substantial number or share of residents has low access to a supermarket or large grocery store. 'Low income' tracts are defined as those where at least 20 percent of the people have income at or below the federal poverty levels for family size, or where median family income for the tract is at or below 80 percent of the surrounding area's median family income. Tracts qualify as "low access" tracts if at least 500 persons or 33 percent of their population live more than a mile from a supermarket or large grocery store (for rural census tracts, the distance is more than 10 miles)."  Obviously, food deserts aren’t ‘real.’ They are constructed. They didn’t exist before the term brought them into being. There’s a lot behind that definition and it tends to flatten out diversity and variation by applying a few standardized numbers to widely divergent situations. As I understand it, smaller grocers and mom and pop stores are not included in the definition of ‘grocery stores’ and are therefore not counted. They may offer good food but don’t figure into the determination of whether or not there is a food desert there.

On another tangent, will those small businesses be undermined by the introduction of these huge distributors, whose scales of efficiency preclude them from working with small, independent farmers? Seems to me that if you wanted to get good food into a place, you work with and seek to strengthen the existing structures…e.g. connecting those mom and pops to small farmers.

So often, policies seek to ‘fix’ a problem (poor eating) by identifying the most obvious, intuitive proximate cause (lack of grocery stores), when in actuality, there’s a whole bunch of other not-so-obvious stuff going on that has created the problem. IMO, the industrial food system is at the root of the problem. Introducing Walmarts and Walgreens (purveyors of the industrial food system) into an area treats the problem with the problem itself. There’s got to be a name for such a philosophical trap.

I also think there is a real danger here in not acknowledging the role of individual choice. Seems like government programs continue to victimize people by insisting that they aren’t responsible for their own poor eating habits.  The same crappy food will be available whether or not there is a corporate grocery store. The same crappy food, because of subsidies, will still be cheaper. It remains to be seen what people will actually buy, though I have my suspicions.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Paths to Sustainable Food Sovereignty


You can read the whole article at the above link.  Below, I've copied and pasted a few passages (well, more than a few, I guess) that caught my attention.

“Wars are fought over food in the future”
Global Paradigms and the future of agriculture 
The industrial agriculture production system reduces farmers (and pastoralists alike) to money seekers through food and agricultural commodity production. This has led to large mono-cultures, high levels of technical specialization and intensive use of chemicals. Its negative impacts on human health, social economical structures and on the environment were and sometimes still are not accounted for and therefore not acknowledged. 
...meeting the dual challenge of achieving food security and other developmental benefits, on the one hand, and mitigating and adapting to climate change, on the other hand, requires political commitment at the highest level. 
Hoffmann agrees with IAASTD that a shift towards the preservation of the multifunctional character of farming should be the aim. This will result in a knowledge-intensive sustainable way of farming. Important examples of this kind of farming are organic and low external input farming. ...Hoffmann proves to be a realistic man as he states: “There are no quick fixes possible. The key task is to transform the uniform, high-external-input-dependent model of industrial agriculture into a flexible approach of sustainable (regenerative) agricultural systems that continuously recreate the resources they use and achieve higher productivity and profitability of the system with minimal external inputs. (…) A key challenge is to considerably lift the productivity of small-scale farmers by mobilizing and empowering them to use modern methods of regenerative agriculture”[3]
Hoffmann stressed the importance of the development of an autonomous future perspective by national governments based on the economic strengths and weaknesses of their countries. He warns that if a lack of international support for this mosaic of regenerative agricultural systems should discourage national governments of developing countries, industrial agricultural systems will take over and the negative effects that those systems produce in the developed world in terms of climate change, poverty, food security will even increase. 
Sustainability needs a pro-active agenda with a clear concept and a plan that would be much more successful. “Africa has listened too long to the World Bank”, says Hoffmann, “and now the levels of production are lower than a few decades ago. All developing countries need to focus on national food security. Vietnam for example did a really good job... These successful cases depend on a government with a comprehensive strategy and the guts to choose long lasting solutions.” 
Small scale farming lobby
Talking about the heartfelt necessity for change and the rather grim perspective of disaster transition management Hoffmann stresses the importance of a professional lobby. The shift from a technical, chemical and capital intensive agro-industrial system to a sustainable multifunctional agricultural system is one that will evoke a lot of resistance from the vested interests. These interests are thriving because of the perverse financial mechanisms that support it. 
Just like Olivier de Schutter[5], Ulrich Hoffmann stresses the importance of organizations of small-scale family farmers and their advocates, like Via Campesina and the AgriCultures Network. “The fact that sustainable family farming organizations have not got a string and institutionalized lobby behind them, marginalizes them in national and international debates...." 
The downward spiral can be stopped when developing countries take the lead. They should no longer look at the international community but should start developing pockets of restructuring in their own countries. Hoffmann thinks these pockets should concentrate on creating an enabling environment. This asks for investments not in international value chains but in education, infrastructure (to get products to the markets), electricity (to get manufacturing up and going) and e.g. micro credit to facilitate multi-functional agriculture. While the international debate continues and blueprints are developed and re-developed, the economically sound and resilient pockets will grow and shape an independent future for the countries concerned.

For the most part, I agree with what is being said here, and I do think government has a role to play...but, in my opinion, it is particularly important that farmers take the lead in creating sustainability, not governments.  The role of government should be to enable citizens to act in their own best interest, rather than trying to legislate the sustainable system into existence. Sustainable systems will differ according to place and people. Government needs to, more or less, stand by and let it happen. The role of aid organization should be similar, i.e. not to transfer any particular system, or to set goals based on some static notion of 'sustainability,' but to support development of the system from the ground up.

Furthermore, governments need to stop supporting industry and a globalized food system that is led by profit. If profit is the goal, then that is the measure of success, not whether or not people get fed. Communities, on the other hand, have a fundamental interest in keeping everyone fed. That there are cases where the ability to do this has been undermined is unavoidable, of course, but those sorts of things need to be understood on a case-by-case basis.

Lastly, in developing countries, I think so much of what farmers need is access to information. My recent experience in Senegal with urban farmers tells me they are hungry for should be up to them how they use that information to improve their production in ways most relevant to their social and economic situations.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Food System Reform

At present, the majority of my mental power is (or, at least, should be) on urban farming in Senegal.  But, because I’d like my eventual career trajectory to concern the US food system and how we can make it more sustainable, I try to keep my attention focused, if only marginally, on US food system dynamics.  There’s so much going on that it’s hard to keep up, but I try.

I first started getting interested in food systems when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Senegal (1992-96).  When I came home, I got my Master’s in Agroecology and Sustainable Systems.  At the time, in the late 90’s, it seemed like there was a quickly growing awareness of how sick our food system had become.  If I remember right, ‘organic’ was still not a mainstream term, and spring salad mix was considered weird.  Back in those days, a ‘salad’ in a lot of places was still mostly iceberg lettuce. 

Things have changed a lot in the last ten years.  I’ve been reading various blogs and various organizational positions.  Most of the people who feel strongly about the food system seem to take a position that more regulation will be needed to fix it.  I am not in that camp, however, and tend to think that too much regulation and government intervention is what has created such a sick food system, which I’ve discussed in another blog entry.  This article is the latest thing I’ve read on food system reform, and contends that reform isn’t even possible because people have to work too much.  Eh.  I’m not convinced. 

First off, I disagree with the basic premise of the article that food system reform isn’t happening.  Despite the government’s advocacy of the agri-industrial complex, I think we are in the midst of a major food system reform.  That these changes are taking place is not because industry and government are willing to change the terms, but because people are actually taking the food system back.  People everywhere seem to be taking a greater interest in where their food comes from.  Community Supported Agriculture, for example, is still growing according to Local Harvest.  There are more and more young people who are choosing farming as a career, and the number of farmers’ markets continues to grow throughout the US.

Secondly, blaming poor eating habits on a lack of time is a cop out.  I'm a single mom who works and is writing a dissertation. I plan menus and find recipes that are quick, easy, inexpensive and which use actual primary ingredients, i.e. food, rather than food-like industrial products.  It is a matter of priorities.

Lastly, if it isn't already screamingly obvious, no one should wait for the government to implement a 'better' food system.  We all used to be more responsible for our food system and for feeding ourselves. Then, government policies and programs effectively transferred control of the food system to industry. It seems to me that the continuing growth of CSAs, homegardens, and farmers' markets means that people are taking it back. What we have to be careful of is government trying to put the kibosh on it.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Food Sovereignty Fail, Take Two

I've been listening to my interviews with Senegalese urban farmers and one of the recurring themes is that they associate their food production practices with independence and self-determination. Throughout Senegal, in almost every household, whether rural or urban, people are engaged in some form of primary production.  At a societal level, I suggest that this translates into a sort of broad, generalized support for food self-sufficiency, or food sovereignty. Indeed, I've started to think of it as a civic activity, i.e. people take on the responsibility of feeding themselves and their communities. Furthermore, as a civic process, people draw on and leverage different relationships so that food production and exchange provide a forum for building and maintaining social cohesion.

Alternately, in the so-called developed world, food production, processing and exchange are mainly industrial activities. I think that most people in a capitalist society would see this as a natural outcome of the market (never mind that this kind of agriculture took shape because of government policies). Food production has come to be seen as just one more industry, driven by the industrial concerns of efficiency and output.  Also characteristic of this kind of agriculture is that it is done mainly in rural areas on large tracts of land.  Over a period of time the food system has moved out of the hands of regular folks and into the hands of industry. 

In Senegal, where the majority of people are producing food, urban gardens are a normalized part of the urban landscape.  In the US, however, growing veggies in your front yard runs counter to the dominant urban aesthetic. There's a chance that if people do decide to do it in their front yards, neighbors may have the grounds to call the code enforcement people, and the code enforcement people might say something like this (from this article ) :
City code says that all unpaved portions of the site shall be planted with grass or ground cover or shrubbery or other suitable live plant material.
And then you might say, as the Basses did, "Well, for us, tomatoes and peppers are suitable."  In which case, the code enforcement person (in this case, Kevin Rulkowski) might say:
“If you look at the dictionary, suitable means common. You can look all throughout the city and you’ll never find another vegetable garden that consumes the entire front yard....If you look at the definition of what suitable is in Webster’s dictionary, it will say common. So, if you look around and you look in any other community, what’s common to a front yard is a nice, grass yard with beautiful trees and bushes and flowers,” 
*Facepalm*  Never mind that 'suitable' does not mean 'common,' though it does mean 'desireable' or 'worthy,' which really is what Mr. Rulkowski is trying to say.  And never mind that lawns are, well, dumb and produce nothing, but receive large quantities of chemical inputs that run off into watersheds and/or are tracked into houses, where they are inhaled and ingested by the people who live there.

In more technologically developed countries, there seems to be a sort of ideology that positions the hot, sweaty, dirty work of coaxing food from the soil as a poor man's travail.  Thus, the more that can be done with machines and technology, the better.  Success is measured by how much can be forced out of the soil and onto the market.

And that is the ideology that underlies international agricultural development today.  Agriculture in that ethos is not seen as the province of everyday citizens. It is seen more as a 'driver of development' than development, in and of itself.  It is, in fact, very often portrayed as drudgery and something that people need to develop away from.  Nor is it seen as the proper use of urban space, so that urban agriculture is interpreted mostly as a stop-gap measure to mitigate poverty in urban areas as countries make their way to the promised land of 'real' (*cough* Western) development, which, I suppose, might include lots of regulations and codes so that places develop and look the way they are 'supposed' to.

At its core, the current approach to agricultural development is circumscribed by neoliberal ideology, though I'm sure that many agricultural development experts will tell you their market-based approach is more 'rational' than 'ideological.'  I disagree because I think the market based approach is fundamentally much so that it continues to drive development even though the proverbial writing is on the proverbial wall: It's not working all that well. I also think this narrow view misses a lot of the ways in which agriculture is important to the people who practice it and the various ways that people use it to improve the quality of their lives.

In the US, it looks like more and more regular people are discovering the many ways in which agriculture can be meaningful, and are seeking to work outside the confines of the industrial food model. For example, there is a trend across the socioeconomic spectrum to grow more of your own food, which will probably challenge silly, constrictive codes like those facing the Basses. I don't think I'd ever advocate for a complete eradication of the industrial food system, but I would like to see stronger parallel food systems which transfer control back into the hands of regular people. It does seem to be happening, not because the government or industry is willing to share, but because regular people, like Julie Bass, are taking it back.  And, thus, the lowly vegetable garden takes a political turn and becomes a site where struggles over ideology and how we see ourselves are waged.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Senegal: The Unraveling

So, maybe the title of this post is a bit ominous.  Maybe it's a bit premature.  Maybe it's off base.  I certainly hope so.

I left Senegal about 7 weeks ago.  During the nine months we were there, we experienced daily and extensive power and water outages.  People were frustrated, since they can't work, but they were holding it together.  I wrote several posts about it, and all are here on this blog.

Things have apparently gotten worse, while, at the same time, President Wade, who is obviously so far out of touch with what normal people are going through, decided to introduce a constitutional amendment that, according to many, was designed to ensure a third term for Wade and his eventual succession by his son, Karim. Wade must be suffering from delusions of grandeur....I really cannot fathom why he would do such a stupid thing when people are so completely fed up with him.  In any case, the Senegalese, who are some of the most politically astute people I've ever met, were having none of it, and the proposal was withdrawn after widespread expressions of discontent took place across Dakar (some might call this rioting.  I deliberately choose not to).  The following week, widespread expressions of discontent took place in both M'Bour, where I was living, and Dakar, which were attributed to anger caused by energy shortages.  I don't really see the two bouts of civil unrest as distinct from each other.

Some pictures of what's happening are here.  And a short video:

My hope is that the current civil unrest isn't explained away by an "oh, you know how uncivilized Africa is" kind of answer. What's happening in Senegal is no surprise, and I really, really hope it doesn't appear that way to the rest of the world.  In my opinion, Senegalese citizens have shown extraordinary restraint, and they have shown this restraint while being completely tuned in to what their government is doing.

It occurs to me that not one mention of electricity was made at the Town Hall meeting on Sunday.  And maybe that's because the focus ended up being on agriculture, and people don't immediately think of the connections between energy and agriculture.  Maybe people think of agriculture as being inherently about production, rather than consumption.  But, there is no getting around the fact that western style agriculture is extremely energy consumptive.

Senegal is not the only sub-Saharan African country that is experiencing energy shortages.  Perhaps part of the reason that Senegal's energy shortages are so bad is because the country has been doing so well....they are succeeding just like they are supposed to succeed, but, oops, someone forgot that growth like that takes energy. Given the current and future global energy situation (in conjunction with the confounding disdain for renewable energy) as well as the ever-present issue of uneven water availability (which is projected to get worse if you believe the climate change people), the focus should be on sustainable self-sufficiency.  Establish that base first, and then there is a strong foundation from which to proceed.  This is the pragmatic approach, which I'll bet will resonate with farmers (and everyone in Senegal is a farmer, more or less.  Don't believe me?  Just ask a Senegalese).  Farmers are generally a pragmatic bunch the world round, and, man-oh-man, could the development Utopianists use a heavy dose of pragmatism to inform their visions of the future.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Absolutely Fascinating Article about Hunger and Poverty

This is THE most fascinating article I've read in a long time and challenges conventional wisdom in multiple ways about links between hunger and poverty and what it means to be poor. I highly recommend it.