In the spotlight

In the spotlight

It is not surprising that peasant, local and indigenous knowledge is important to food sovereignty. Food sovereignty was built by peasants themselves, based on their own experiences and collective analysis — first that of La Via Campesina, and since then an increasingly diverse group of actors who have been enriching this dynamic concept with their own perspectives.

Over the past few years, however, the rhythm of innovation, experimentation and dialogue related to knowledge for food sovereignty seems to be picking up pace. New visions, approaches and spaces for collective knowledge creation are emerging, some of which are captured in the brief stories in this newsletter. These developments reflect the growing importance of the food sovereignty movement in national, regional and international debates, the strengthening of alliances for food sovereignty, the enhanced confidence of the movement, as well as the deepening crises that it is faced with. Social movements are also increasingly aware that realizing food sovereignty requires radically different knowledge from that on offer today in mainstream institutions (universities, policy think tanks, governments, corporations…).

Dialogue between a diversity of actors

One of the most promising alliances in terms of developing knowledge is with indigenous peoples. Indigenous peoples have been taking their place in the food sovereignty movement more assertively in recent years and their contributions are having profound effects on concepts of knowledge and ways of knowing for food sovereignty. They are reclaiming the validity of their own epistemologies [“Epistemology” refers to theories of what knowledge is, what can be known and how knowledge is to be acquired.] which question the mechanistic worldview of positivist science [Positivism is the philosophy of science which believes in objective truth. Positivism recognizes only that which can be scientifi cally verified or which is capable of logical or mathematical proof.]. Indigenous peasants in the Andes, for example, assert that to develop food sovereignty, they rely on the knowledge that is embedded in their stories and rituals, and that is rooted in experiences in the visible world as well as the world of dreams (see Voices from the field 2). Collaboration between indigenous peoples and indigenous and “settler” scholars in Canada has led to challenges to the “colonising methodologies” of academia and to developing emancipatory methodologies (see Box 1).

Creating spaces for inter-regional and cross-cultural dialogue and mutual learning is crucial. A global movement like La Via Campesina or LVC is taking advantage of its diversity to develop horizontal networks for knowledge creation. LVC has an important internal self-study research process underway. The goal of this process is to identify, document, analyze and “systematize” (i.e. not only to document but also to analyse with a view to drawing lessons) the best examples among the member organizations in America, Africa, Asia and Europe, with agroecology, peasant seeds and other aspects of food sovereignty, like local markets. The purpose is two-fold. One is to develop and contribute their own study materials, based on their own experiences, to the more than 40 peasant agroecology schools and numerous political training schools inside LVC. The other is to support campaigning directed at public opinion and policy-makers, with data that prove that the alternatives exist, that they work, and that they should be supported by better public policies (see Voices from the field 1).

Another example of a diverse space for mutual learning is the Democratising Food and Agricultural Research initiative which aims to create safe spaces in which citizens (food providers and consumers) can engage in inclusive deliberations on how to build a research system for food and agriculture that is democratic and accountable to wider society ( More specifically, the methodological approach seeks to facilitate the participatory design of alternative, farmer and citizen-led agricultural research (see text box on agricultural research for food sovereignty in West Africa). Since 2007, this global initiative has unfolded in the Andean Altiplano, South Asia, West Africa, and West Asia. In September 2013, the partners of Democratising Food and Agricultural Research initiative organized an international workshop to share lessons and reflections from Africa, Asia and Latin America with a wider community of European farmers, policy makers, and representatives of the donor communities. Known as the St. Ulrich Workshop on Democratising Agricultural Research for Food Sovereignty and Peasant Agrarian Cultures, this international workshop brought together 95 participants from a total of 17 countries. Most participants were farmers and half of them were women. The St Ulrich workshop focused on the need to both transform knowledge and ways of knowing for food sovereignty and peasant agrarian cultures.

Scholars and activists engage in critical dialogues…

At the conference “Food Sovereignty: A Critical Dialogue” held in the Hague in January 2014, Elizabeth Mopfu, General Coordinator of LVC, invited scholars to share constructive criticism of concept of food sovereignty. “We want to hear your doubts,” she said. The presence of hundreds of scholars, students, peasants and activists in such a forum reflects both the growing interest of researchers in food sovereignty, and the growing willingness of the movement to engage with them in critical dialogue and collaboration (see Box 2).

…and work together to challenge policy and governance

Opportunities for collaboration with researchers are sometimes linked with the policy spaces. As the movement invests in creating spaces for participation in the governance of food and agriculture, it finds that occupying these spaces requires collaboration with researchers. The International Planning Committee for Food Sovereignty (IPC), for example, played a key role in the reform of the UN’s Committee for World Security (CFS) which took place in 2009. Following the food crisis of 2007/8 there were calls for the reform of the system of governance of food and agriculture. The IPC argued for a multi-lateral governance with a system of one-country-one-vote and with the meaningful participation of the organisations of small-food providers and other CSOs. Proposals for less transparent governance mechanisms, including from the G8, were eventually defeated and the reformed CFS was declared the “foremost inclusive international and intergovernmental platform” for the governance of food and agriculture [More information here].The CFS set up its own new expert wing — the High Level of Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition (HLPE) — to provide inputs into its decision-making by developing analysis and policy recommendations. The HLPE’s mandate recognises from the outset the importance of the knowledge of “social actors” and field experience. The involvement of experts with links to the food sovereignty movement in the HLPE, and also the wider work of the CFS, has led to increased networking and collaboration between scholars and activists.

Drawing on multiple ways of knowing

As the number and range of collaborations with researchers grow, there is greater awareness of the need to develop new and appropriate research methodologies in cases where co-inquirers are rooted in different knowledge systems. Since academic knowledge has usually been seen as the superior validating standard for other knowledge systems it is especially important to develop methodologies that reach beyond rational knowledge and experiment with multiple ways of knowing such as humour, music, drama, etc. The “Day of Dialogue on Knowledge for Food Sovereignty“, which was held immediately following the Critical Dialogue in the Hague in January 2014, was one such attempt. The dialogue was open to about 70 activists and academics by invitation who had a history of collaboration. The organisers wanted to open up for a day a space where people could bring their creativity and curiosity to a collective dialogue. It was felt that space needed to made for more playful conversations without the pressure of trying to be efficient to get things done [See the report here ]. This is a key step to developing power-equalizing research (see Box 3).
As the opportunities for research and collaboration between different constituencies grows it will become important to share experiences and draw the lessons from these. Face-to-face encounters across cultures, worldviews and knowledge systems must becoming more frequent.