Food Sovereignty at the rural-urban interface #1
The rural-urban interface can be found in the far-flung suburbs, repartos, banlieu, and underserved neighborhoods of the inner cities of the Global North, and in the favelas, barrios, slums and misery belts surrounding big cities in the Global South. But it is also found in villages and towns dotting the global countryside. It is so ubiquitous; it is sometimes easy to miss.
On top of that, beginning with the industrial revolution, capitalism created a rural-urban divide by subjugating rural people and economies to the logic of metropolitan capital.
Today’s capitalist food system continues to extract wealth from the countryside in the form of food, energy, water, raw materials, labor, and increasingly, through land speculation and financialization.
Rather than focusing our attention on the liberating potential of the interface, capitalism exacerbates the inequities and frictions of the rural-urban divide.
The importance of the rural-urban interfacefor food sovereignty is twofold: it provides the places where producers and consumers can build alternative market relations—like farmers markets, food policy councils, and CSAs;
it also provides social spaces where growers and eaters can politisize these alternatives by constructing new forms of food citizenship—like commons and political alliances.
These political alliances between rural, peri-urban and urban communities are critical to the construction of food sovereignty. Why? Because under neoliberalism, the countryside has been “hollowed out” losing most of its public institutions (and many of its farmers).
This leaves rural communities vulnerable to massive corporate wealth extraction, impoverishment, and many forms of state, gang and paramilitary violence.
Food Sovereignty at the rural-urban interface #2
In industrialized countries family farmers are now such a small minority of the population it is impossible for them to build political power on their own. In the Global South, peasant farmers, fishers and pastoralists, all historically oppressed, are scattered across great distances with poor communications and infrastructure, cut off from the cities where structural political decisions take place.
Nonetheless, the places and spaces of the rural-urban interface provide a laboratory for the oppositional and pre-figurative politics that are the hallmark of food sovereignty. On one hand, following the lead of agrarian struggles, political demands for the corporate dismantling, the right to food, the redistribution of land, and access to fair markets are emerging in urban and peri-urban areas. On the other, alternatives like permaculture and agroecology are showing eaters what our food system could look like if the political barriers to massive adoption were removed.
The dense social fabric of the rural-urban interface, can help articulate the diverse (but often fragmented) power of social movements, linking food sovereignty to struggles like the municipal movement, the food justice, environmental justice, and gender justice movements. The possibilities for mutual learning and convergence among these movements offer the opportunity for food sovereignty to serve as a lever to transform the capitalist systems in which our agricultural and food systems are embedded.
Ecuador: Strengthening local food markets and urban-rural linkages*
If people don’t eat healthy local foods, then quality local seeds and community biodiversity, key to agroecological farming, will disappear. So over the last five to ten years we have promoted a process of forging direct, win-win relationships between farmers and urban consumer organizations to strengthen local food systems. In practice, this has resulted in empowering farmers, increasing their incomes, and strengthening their ability to negotiate with buyers. Consumers gain access to healthy, local food at a lower cost–while supporting agroecological farming. Producers from several communities have joined the Canastas Comunitarias movement (Community Baskets, a model similar to “Community Supported Agriculture” or CSA agreements) and started direct sales and agro-ecological farmers’ markets and fairs.
The Canastas and alternative food networks foster more personal, beneficial, and transparent relationships between urban and rural organizations; raise public awareness; and provide opportunities to address issues such as gender relations and appropriate policies for food security, rural investment, and biodiversity. In the words of farmer Lilian Rocío Quingaluisa from the province of Cotopaxi: “Engaging directly with urban citizens is great for us as women farmers. It means we have better income, we do not have to work on other people’s land, we are more independent, and we can spend more time with our families and animals.” Another farmer, Elena Tenelema, adds: “The baskets eliminate abuse by intermediaries. Second, they give us a guaranteed income, which we can use to improve our health, for education, or to buy animals. People in town get to know and eat our products. That is one of the most important things that we are fighting for as indigenous farmers.”
There is growing recognition of these kinds of promising local market initiatives in the political sphere in Ecuador, and the constitution recognizes them under the framework of Social and Solidarity Economics. But fostering direct and reciprocal food systems is not an easy task, especially in the face of industrialized agriculture and food distribution, and much work remains to be done.
We must create productive dialogue and linkages across public institutions, civil society, NGOs, universities, research institutions, and rural and urban communities. This includes collaborating with influential urban networks and consumers’ organizations. We need to be constantly aware of innovations in the urban-rural relationships, including peri-urban and urban agriculture. As Pacho Gangotena, farmer and agroecologist says “I believe that social change in agriculture will not come from above, from the governments. It will come from the thousands and millions of small farming families that are beginning to transform the entire productive spectrum…. We are a tsunami that is on its way.”
* Pedro J. Oyarzún & Ross M. Borja, Fertile Ground:Scaling agroecology from the ground up, Chapter 4: Local markets, native seeds and alliances for better food systems in Ecuador, 2017.
Retrosuburbia; agriculturally productive landscapes*
Permaculture is one of the few threads in the food sovereignty movement that has focused significant activism and effort on the potential of suburban landscapes and residents to be part of the solution to the complex problems that characterize globalized modern food systems.
Cities with extensive suburbs are correctly understood as a product of the motorcar and cheap energy. When contemplating a world constrained by climate and resource limits, most urban commentators have assumed suburbia is the least adapted form and will be replaced by more compact patterns that make more efficient use of urban infrastructure especially public transport.
While the assumption that energy and resource constrained futures will reduce the allocation of space to private motor cars is a reasonable one, I believe the idea that higher density landscapes are a necessary and inevitable response is flawed for many reason.
One of those reasons is that suburban landscapes have enough soil with access to sunlight, water and nutrients to grow the bulk of the fresh vegetables, fruit and small livestock products of the residents. Exploiting this largely untapped potential could massively lower total environmental footprint, increase local economic activity and resilience and enhance social connectivity and health. It could also lead to conservation of prime arable land for staple foodcrops both locally and globally. Higher density development aiming to maintain high daily movement cities would be putting the “sustainability” cart before the horse (of food security and sovereignty)
Places like the Red River Delta in Vietnam (before industrialization) had a higher density of people than Australian suburbs, living more or less totally self-sufficiently. Although such places are special cases; very fertile, flat with extensive irrigation systems, our suburbs have water supply infrastructure that make cities in Australia our biggest irrigated landscapes. We have hard surfaces that shed storm water, which could be harvested and directed into potentially productive soils. We have individual houses that can be retrofitted for solar access because they are generally far enough set back from neighboring houses to harvest solar energy. There are a lot of ways in which the suburbs can be incrementally retrofitted in an energy descent world for frugal but fulfilling and abundant lives.
Given the speed with which we are approaching this energy descent world of less, and the paucity of any serious consideration to planning or awareness, we should assume that adaptive strategies will not happen by some big, long range planning, but organically and incrementally by people doing things in response to unfolding conditions. In a multistory building retrofitting requires a lot of negotiation with owners and other stakeholders and the solutions are technically complicated. In the suburbs, people can just start changing houses and doing things without the whole of society needing to agree on some plan.
So the suburbs are amenable to this incremental, adaptive strategy where someone does something here, and we learn from that, and we don’t need a great roadmap. Historically, there have been people who think they’ve got this grand plan for how it’s all going to work… be really wary of those people!
In practical terms, big suburban houses with only one or two or three people, often who are not present, will re-adapt to work from home and start home-based businesses, take the double garage and dump the cars out and set them up as workshops, and turn their backyards into food producing places. The street, which is a dead place at the moment, will again become an active space because people will be present. That recreation of active suburban life will be not that much different from what existed in the 1950s. There will be larger households—whether that’s a family or a shared household—whether people are taking in boarders to help pay the rent or mortgage, or to share the tasks that need to be done. I’m optimistic about how the suburbs can be retrofitted to adapt to challenging futures, be agriculturally productive and resilience and still house more people without building and paving over more earth.
* More info: David Holmgren, here.