Theme 3. Access to and Control over Natural Resources for Food Sovereignty



Food sovereignty has its roots in the lives and struggles of peasant and family farmers, fishers, pastoralists, indigenous peoples and other small-scale food producers and workers. It is embedded in how food is produced, stored, shared, consumed and exchanged. Central to this are access, control and stewardship of the natural resources that farming, pastoral, fishing and indigenous communities rely on for food and livelihoods, for example, land, forests, water, seeds, livestock breeds and fish species. For generations, local communities have preserved the richness and diversity of these resources by practicing ecologically sustainable and biodiverse agriculture, livestock production, pastoralism and fishing, saving and refining numerous varieties of seeds, livestock breeds and wider agricultural biodiversity, and protecting their lands, territories, forests and water bodies from over-use, depletion and contamination. Farmers, pastoralists, fishers and indigenous peoples are innovators, breeders and true conservationists, using a broad array of natural resources, experimenting and adapting plant and animal species to their natural production conditions, and building an immense wealth of collective knowledge about their agricultural biodiversity, land, water and resource management for use by other communities and future generations. Agricultural biodiversity and indigenous knowledge are intricately linked whereby the holders of indigenous and community knowledge also the users and preservers of this diversity and need control over land, territory, water and aquatic resources to be able to use these productively.

Compared to the ecological wastelands of industrial, export dominated agriculture, aquaculture and livestock production, community based production landscapes contain a myriad of biodiversity. They reduce land and environmental degradation, preserve valuable ecosystems, numerous wild and cultivated crop species, fish and livestock genetic resources, and open spaces and forest cover that is critical for preserving watersheds and hydrological resources. All of these are essential for ensuring genuine food security for humanity — food sovereignty.

Access to and control over the use of these natural resources is a complex issue and inter-related to several factors crucial for food sovereignty. It implies being able to have control over secure physical access to resources as well as the organisation of production, foraging, storage and exchange activities. Communities occupying the same local areas often have well developed rules for when and how land should be farmed, forest products gathered and water-bodies fished. They also have rules for sharing, exchanging and selling what they gather and produce, and systems for resolving conflicts over natural resource use. Farm-saved seed is the mainstay of the majority of peasant producers the world over as are local livestock breeds for pastoralists. For indigenous peoples, territory is the basis for social and economic organization and cultural identifications, and viewed as part of a wider territory which includes not only the productive function of land, but also the natural environment, water, forests, subsurface minerals, the air above, and other productive resources. For fishers, control over the use of artisanal fishing grounds, beach landing zones and land-based activities to limit the impacts of harmful run-off from terrestrial land use, is essential.

Many terms are used in this paper that have distinct and potentially contentious meanings in different contexts. These terms include “Access and Control”, “Rights”, “Stewardship” “Natural Resources”. In this paper we are describing a system in which people who grow or harvest food need to be able to use the territory, land and water they require for producing food; or the ponds, rivers, lakes and coastal fishing grounds they need for harvesting fish; or the steppes, savannahs and other grazing territories they need to raise their animals; or the seeds that they have saved, bred and refined to suit their climates and terrains; or be able to use the rich agricultural biodiversity they’ve developed that not only produces food but also provides support for that production (pollination, soil nutrition, pest control) and other ecosystem functions that provide clean air, healthy water and living landscapes. For all these, the food sovereignty policy framework requires that local producers can decide, and indeed have the right to decide, what is used, how it is used and that they, not corporations or governments, have prior claim over their use. It is in this sense that we use the terms access, control, rights, stewardship and natural resources.

The dominant development model is eroding the access and control of local communities to the resources on which they depend for survival and dismantling local systems of resource stewardship, governance and production. Land, forests, water, plants, animals and other genetic resources are increasingly becoming commercialized and privatised commodities. The state, private agribusiness, extractive industry, and large scale tourism and infrastructure projects are encroaching on communal and public lands, natural water bodies and indigenous peoples’ territories. Seeds and livestock breeds are being patented by private agribusiness and biotechnology firms. Water –crucial for sustaining life itself– is deemed as an economic good and allocated to “high value users” (i.e., those who can pay commercial prices). Communal fishing areas, forests, wetlands, pastures and woodlands are being auctioned off to wealthy private entrepreneurs and companies for commercial aquaculture, industrial plantations, mining and logging concessions. The store of indigenous and local knowledge built over generations by communities is being pirated by pharmaceutical and cosmetic companies.

The violation of the rights of peasant farmers, pastoralists, fishers and indigenous peoples to access and control of their resources amounts to an assault on their rights to food, livelihood, economic and cultural security. The commercialisation of agriculture and fisheries has resulted in the consolidation of agriculture and forest lands, seeds, livestock breeds and other genetic resources in the hands of agribusiness and other large commercial entities, displacing entire communities from their lands and traditional occupations to seek insecure, unsafe and poorly paid employment elsewhere. This has resulted in widespread migration of farming, pastoral and fishing families, the creation of new pockets of poverty and inequality in rural and urban areas, and the fragmentation of entire rural communities. Particularly disenfranchised and disempowered here are women and youth. Women, because they are often the keepers of seeds and of local knowledge about livestock and forest products, medicinal herbs and plants, and wild food sources. Youth, because the fragmentation of their families and communities leaves them with few options for personal development and employment.

What are we fighting for?

Local autonomy, governance, organisation and the defense of the commons are at the heart of food sovereignty. They ensure the rights of communities to access and control of their land, territories, water and agricultural biodiversity, and help to resolve conflicts over the use of the same resources by different user communities. They do not deny markets, but rather seek to keep markets under community/societal control. The “local” is an economic as well as political space, which helps communities from all over the world and from different constituencies to identify with each others’ issues and struggles and forge common strategies. But as the commons become privatised and local spaces are occupied by market forces, the need for survival is pushing communities into conflict situations with each other.


– How can we recognise and enforce the legal and customary rights of peoples and communities to make decisions concerning their local, communal resources, even where no legal rights have previously been allocated?

– How can the rights of peoples and communities to equitable access to and control over land, seeds, livestock breeds, water and other productive resources be protected?

– How can we build a comprehensive vision of agrarian and water reform that encompasses the rights and priorities of all communities–farmers, pastoralists, fishers, indigenous peoples, agricultural workers and migrants?

What are we fighting against?

The assault on the commons and communities’ rights of access and control is being led by states/governments, international financial institutions (IFIs) such as the Word Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB) and the Asian Development Bank (ADB), and the World Trade Organisation (WTO) all of whom are acting at the behest of national and multinational corporations. With financing from wealthy northern donor countries, the IFIs more or less control the dominant development model in which the only “access” that is upheld is market access by corporations to the resources and knowledge of local communities. Trade and investment liberalisation, privatisation of the commons and public services, intellectual property rights (IPR) regimes that facilitate bio-piracy, technologies that deny local control, market led “land reforms” and water privatization are the hall marks of this destructive development model. This model also forces local communities and different social constituencies to compete for access and control to a shrinking pool of resources, thus resulting in social conflicts and divisions.


– How can we dismantle corporate friendly IPR regimes and ensure that no patenting takes place on any form of life?

– How can we dismantle the power of TNCs and make them legally and materially accountable to the public?

– How can we disempower IFIs, the WTO and their associated institutions?

– How can we halt and reverse privatisation and liberalisation processes?

What Can We Do About It?

In the neo-liberal development model, global corporations — with the active support of government elites — control the food chain all the way from inputs, resources and production to distribution, processing and trade. Fundamental to this control is restricting and often completely denying communities’ access and control over natural and productive resources, as well as decision making about how resources, production and distribution should be organised and governed. Food sovereignty both, resists this corporate food regime as well as creates spaces for reclaiming access and control, and developing principles and practices for sustainable food, agriculture and ecological systems.


– How can we develop common collective principles and strategies for reclaiming control over community resources? How can we collectivise and internationalise our respective struggles and practices to create a world-wide movement for peoples’ control over the resources they need and have rights to?

– How can we develop joint principles and practices of stewarding and governing natural resources among different user communities with different needs and priorities?

How can collectively conceptualise and realise a food and agriculture system that is based on local autonomy and organisation, local markets and community action?