Land and Labor the Focus of 2014 Food Sovereignty Prize

Food First | 10.21.2014

By Tanya Kerssen, Teresa Miller and Tiffani Patton

On October 15, 2014, the Palestinian Union of Agricultural Work Committees (UAWC) and the Bellingham, Washington-based farmworker organization Community to Community (C2C) received the sixth annual Food Sovereignty Prize at a ceremony in Des Moines, Iowa. Awarded by the US Food Sovereignty Alliance, the Food Sovereignty Prize recognizes movements working for a more democratic food system around the world. This year’s winners highlighted the strategic roles that land and labor play in the struggle to build a more just, healthy, and sustainable global food system.

Land as the Basis of Sovereignty

Once the backbone of the Palestinian economy, farming in Palestine has dropped from 28 percent of GDP in 1993 to only 5.8 percent today. Between 1967 and 2012, the percentage of Palestinians employed in agriculture fell from 46 percent of the workforce to 11.4 percent. Loss of access to water is central to this precipitous decline. With almost complete control of the aquifers in the occupied Palestinian territories, Israel has drilled deep wells to supply its settlements, causing water tables to drop dramatically, especially in the West Bank.

Due to water scarcity, few Palestinians farm anymore, and those who do generally opt for rain-fed olive tree production. Palestinian trees, however, are routinely vandalized or uprooted, especially near settlement areas: about 2.5 million mostly fruit-bearing trees on Palestinian lands have been uprooted since 1967. The flood of low-cost Israeli food imports also undercuts Palestinian farmers in their local markets, and the high transaction costs of navigating Israeli checkpoints and roadblocks make accessing export markets exceedingly difficult.

In the most recent Israeli military campaign—between July 8 and August 26, 2014—the devastation of widespread civilian casualties was compounded by the destruction of businesses, cropland, greenhouses, irrigation systems and fishing boats. Additionally, one quarter of the Palestinian population of Gaza—nearly half a million people—was displaced by the conflict, with the vast majority of displaced persons requiring emergency food assistance.

This year’s winners of the Food Sovereignty Prize highlighted the strategic roles that land and labor play in the struggle to build a more just, healthy, and sustainable global food system.

In the face of this near-constant state of crisis, organizations like the Palestinian Union of Agricultural Work Committees (UAWC) have emerged to defend Palestinian land and resources in the West Bank and Gaza. Founded in 1986, UAWC’s work includes land reclamation; olive oil marketing; water resource management; training in animal husbandry; supporting women’s leadership; and building cooperative seed banks and farmer cooperatives. UAWC’s flagship project is its National Bank for Local Seeds, which “dries, processes, stores, and documents local seeds with the vision of more organic, healthy and environmentally friendly produce” and provides free seeds to families relying on dry-farmed crops.

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For Khaled Hidan, General Director of UAWC, the Food Sovereignty Prize is an important vindication of the group’s struggle:

This important prize inspires UAWC to carry on its work defending Palestinian farmers’ rights against the brutal Israeli violations, both through supporting small-scale farmers and fishermen toward their food sovereignty and rights to land and water, and also through coordination with local and international movements for social justice and human rights.

Farmworkers at the Forefront of the Movement

If we are to build a genuinely sustainable and just food system in the United States and globally, those most affected by the food system’s injustices must be at the forefront of the struggle. Thus, it is fitting that this year’s food sovereignty prize be co-awarded to Community to Community (C2C)—a women-led, place-based, grassroots organization working towards restoring justice to food, land, and cultural practices.

Food and farm workers are often rendered voiceless within the current food system—particularly the hundreds of thousands of primarily Mexican and Central American immigrants who seek employment in the United States. The lack of economic opportunities in their home countries—often stemming from free trade agreements like NAFTA that undermine their local economies—brings these workers to US farms, where they work long hours for little pay, under conditions of insecurity and isolation.

But farmworkers, documented and undocumented, are coming together—they are organizing. C2C works to cultivate leadership among immigrant farmworkers so that they can influence the legislative and policy decisions that directly affect their lives. To that end, C2C has incubated worker-owned cooperatives and promoted domestic fair trade to help farmworkers have greater control over working conditions.

In honoring Community to Community, the USFSA honors indigenous farmworkers in the US. Displaced by NAFTA, these peasant farmers from Mexico are practicing a tradition of struggle for justice. – Rosalinda Guillén, Executive Director, Community to Community

Most recently, C2C partnered with Families United for Justice (Familias Unidas por la Justicia, FUJ), a farmworker union organizing against unfair labor practices at Sakuma Berry Farms in Washington State. The groups brought a lawsuit against Sakuma farms for failure to pay wages, denial of rest breaks, and inaccurate wage and hour information. Sakuma and the farmworkers agreed to a class action settlement, which includes changes in unlawful employment practices and a payout of $850,000.

C2C patterns its mission and work on Cesar Chavez’s community-organizing model and the counter-hegemonic values and principles of the World Social Forum process developed in Porto Alegre, Brazil. Like Cesar Chavez’s National Farm Workers Association before them, FUJ is using a boycott as an organizing tactic, calling on businesses and community members to avoid Sakuma berries and the Driscoll’s brand. Given the rarity of farmworker union contracts, the Sakuma fight has the potential to set an important precedent, bolstering farmworker rights in other parts of the country as well.

Rosalinda Guillén, Executive Director of C2C and Food First board member, grew up on a berry farm in Skagit County herself and recognizes the importance of the Food Sovereignty Prize for keeping C2C’s causes like the FUJ struggle in the spotlight. She says:

In honoring Community to Community, the USFSA honors indigenous farmworkers in the US. Displaced by NAFTA, these peasant farmers from Mexico are practicing a tradition of struggle for justice. Together, C2C and Familias Unidas are promoting food sovereignty in rural Washington State and challenging the corporate agricultural interests that are controlling our food system. C2C works to address the exclusion of women, people of color, and people of poor and low-income communities from accessing their basic human rights.

Food Sovereignty: A call for land and dignity

By awarding this year’s Food Sovereignty Prize to UAWC and C2C, the US Food Sovereignty Alliance reminds us that food justice and food sovereignty are rooted in control over land and resources; cultural and political self-determination; freedom from violence and discrimination; and the right to a dignified livelihood. The Palestinian UAWC demonstrates how sovereignty is fundamentally about land—and food sovereignty is about the people’s right to the land that feeds us. The work of C2C highlights the critical role of workers—and of forging alliances with laboring classes—in the global movement for food sovereignty.

Featured image: Israeli soldier watches the harvest in the West Bank. Photo by Michael Loadenthal

Also in this issue of News & Views:

  • Introducing Alexandra Toledo: Food First’s New Development Director
  • After 29 Years: Moving Out, But Not Moving On