Voices from the field

Voice from the field 1

A local seed house spearheads the struggle for Food Sovereignty in Palestine

Union of Agricultural Work Committees, Palestine

In the Occupied Palestinian Territories, a local seed house has been reclaiming seeds and biodiversity as commons and public goods since the early 2000s.

The local seed house is probably one of the most significant contributions in helping Palestinian farmers and consumers achieve food sovereignty. Established in Hebron, in 2003, by the Union of Agricultural Work Committees (UAWC), the house is the first and only of its kind in Palestine. The house saves, protects, preserves, stores and reproduces 45 varieties of local vegetable and field crop seeds from 12 plant families, many of which risked extinction. Among them are corn, barley, wheat, cauliflower, turnip, cowpeas, eggplant, squash, okra, bitter gourd and snake cucumber seeds. All of these seeds come directly from Palestinian farmers and undergo a two-year verification process before being stored and made available to other farmers.

The house is equipped with four units: an entry unit, a test laboratory, a drying unit and a storage unit where seeds are stored for a maximum of five years. To protect this enormous genetic heritage from catastrophic events, samples of these seeds are also stored for the long term at sub-zero temperatures. After documenting the seeds’ performance in the field, such as germination percentage, seedling growth and flowering, UAWC provides these seeds for free to Palestinian peasants for at least two seasons annually.

This contributes to increasing the farmers’ revenues. In addition, these seeds help farmers fight against the effects of water grabbing by the Israeli occupation, as well as global warming, since they are drought-resistant and require no irrigation. As opposed to the hybrid seed varieties sold by Israeli and multinational companies like Bayer-Monsanto, the local seeds are fertilized with animal manure and require no chemical pesticides or glyphosate-based weed killers.

“We used to have to buy seeds from Israeli companies at high costs,” said Mahmoud Abu Kharatabel, a long-time farmer and member of UAWC. “But today, because of UAWC’s seed bank, many of us are able to plant with between 90 and 95 percent local seeds,” he said with pride.

The local seed house works with key farmers like Abu Kharatabel through a three-step process. Once the farmers receive the seeds, plant them and harvest, they divide the newly produced seeds into three groups. The first group is intended for their needs in the current season. The second group has to be stored and planted again in the upcoming season. And the third group is returned to the local bank in order to benefit other farmers and keep building seed sovereignty in Palestine.

“When farmers have their own seeds and can reproduce them, it means they can choose what to plant and when to plant,” explained Do’aZayed, UAWC’s seed bank coordinator. “And that’s why we established this local seed house.” She then summarized: “Seed sovereignty is the first step to achieving food sovereignty”.

Voice from the field 2

Safeguarding also means being able to experiment

Niagui Community, Senegal

Mangroves grow along several kilometres of the bank of the river Casamance. Mariama Sonko shows us the wooden structures where the Diola farmers in the Ziguinchor region raise oysters on strings[1], one of the ways in which they preserve their way of life and food sovereignty. This is the Niagui community in Senegal, on the Atlantic coast of Africa. We are in the savanna, covered with trees, bushes and swamps.

The Niagui people are very involved in their food sovereignty, and have seeds which allow them to sow their own food. Mariama Sonko is a member of the community who is carrying on the tradition of taking care of the seeds. She shows us rows of clay pots of various sizes along the adobe walls of a house in one community neighbourhood: “The clay regulates the temperature, which is essential for preserving the seeds. We make special pots, and by keeping them in those we can exchange them more easily. We women make the pots and lids and write different phrases on the sides, to help us think about the seeds and how important they are”.

Mariama Sonko clarifies that the idea is not to promote seed banks, “because the most important thing is to preserve ‘active’ seeds for the long term, that is the seeds which are in the fields all the time and are exchanged between each harvest at sowing time. The rice variety “brikissa” is the one most sown in the region, and is exchanged all the time; it takes about 50 days to sow”. She continues with great pride: “it was one of those women that in the city they call ‘illiterate’ who started to rebuild the traditional varieties. She understood that the conventional commercial ‘improved’ varieties were eroding our traditional seeds, which are much more resistant and adaptable to humidity and the vagaries of the climate. It is we women who pass on our knowledge, how to safeguard our seeds, from generation to generation. It comes from believing in ourselves.

Conventional seeds do not allow people to observe, calculate or experiment, because they come with precise instructions which leave us no options. We are talking about around twenty varieties of rice, and also sorghum, maize and millet. We don’t want to centralise the safeguarding work. We encourage autonomy, because conditions are changing, the soil is becoming less fertile, there’s a lack of rain and there’s demand for seeds. We are keeping up our practices, but conditions are changing”.

[1] In the mangroves, farmers grow oysters on strings woven on to frames.