Chapter 8: The Poverty of Food Policy

Anthropology is a myopic discipline in some respects, grounded in the details of geography and community practice, place and place making. I immersed myself in this perspective for my Masters research among fishers in the Yukon and PhD study of the political ecology of the Gulf Nahua of southern Veracruz. At CIMMYT, I focused most of my time on the study of a single plant — mucuna in all its human and biological dimensions. This practice, a strength but also somewhat blinkered, was well suited to key aspects of my personality: an ability to focus and a desire for connection to the concrete.

In 1995 I was pulled into a different world, where research and policy advocacy occasionally collided with political activism. Only months after arriving back in Canada from Mexico with my wife and son Ryan, I left for Jakarta, Indonesia to participate in the second Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) on behalf of the International Development Research Centre (IDRC). IDRC is a Canadian government agency dedicated to bringing research funding and support to organizations in the Global South. The Convention is a legally binding treaty that had come into force after the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, signed by 168 countries. It includes three main goals: the conservation of biological diversity; the sustainable use of its components; and the fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from genetic resources.

IDRC’s role at the Conference of the Parties (CoP) was to sponsor and advocate for a place at the table for Indigenous peoples. They had been excluded from participation in negotiation of the terms of the Convention even though area-based protection (parks and other protected areas) was and still is the cornerstone of international conservation policy. Most of the world’s remaining biodiversity is in the traditional territory of Indigenous peoples, a fact not widely recognized at the time. Many governments of the day, including Canada, discriminated against the territorial rights of Indigenous peoples and embraced the perspective that people living in protected areas were the primary conservation problem rather than the basis for a solution.

IDRC sponsored 6 people, representing Indigenous organizations from Asia, Latin America, North America and Africa, to lobby at the meeting for the right to inclusion in the CBD process. The arrangement had been set up by Chusa Ginés, an IDRC biologist I was replacing temporarily while she was on maternity leave. Chusa was a small-framed, elegant woman originally from Spain, with a feisty personality, sharp mind, and kind heart. Her knowledge of Indigenous groups, and spirited advocacy of their perspectives, made it possible to bring together in Indonesia an impressive and well-organized group of Indigenous leaders. I was there to observe and, if possible, facilitate introductions to scientists and government delegations. The Indigenous leaders did not need much introduction, however. They organized their own parallel sessions and, for the first time since the Convention had been signed, established a compelling presence from the floor of the plenary hall and in back room meetings. As COP 2 unfolded over a period of 10 days, various delegations, including Canada, started to listen. While no actions came until years later, this organized group of Indigenous leaders had succeeded in creating a space for Indigenous perspectives to be heard. A seed had been planted, made possible in part by modest travel funding from IDRC, and Chusa’s careful selection of people to sponsor.

For me, the meeting in Indonesia was an eye-opener to ethical dimensions of sustainable development I had not thought about. In addition to Indigenous territorial rights, most modern medicines have their origins in Indigenous knowledge of the properties of particular plants and other natural materials. Indigenous peoples and nations are the original medicine innovators in the same way that small-scale farmers are the original plant breeders. Both are also the custodians of a vast treasure-trove of biodiversity conserved in-situ, in their living territories and fields, not in the frozen gene banks controlled by international institutions and private interests. Ethically, it follows that corporations and countries benefiting from the use of Indigenous and local community knowledge, innovations, and practices have a responsibility to share the benefits in some way. Furthermore, it is clearly wrong to exclude farmers from the right to save their own seed, as seed companies do, and to patent life forms or Indigenous knowledge, innovations, and practices, as pharmaceutical and cultural industries do. This is biopiracy, understood as unfairly applying patents to genetic resources and traditional knowledge of biodiversity. For decades, anthropologists and botanists have been complicit, brokering relationships between the parties but largely ignoring or fudging questions of prior, informed consent and ethical sharing of benefits.

What I learned from the Indigenous leaders at the conference, and from Chusa, was that the Convention on Biological Diversity was important because it was the only legally binding international treaty available at the time to advocate for Indigenous and farmer rights.1 Their hope was that it could be a fulcrum for international leverage on national governments reluctant to recognize these rights. Some thought it could act like a Trojan horse inside international institutions and agreements that paid little attention to Indigenous or farmer concerns. Academics such as the American ethnobotanist Darrell Posey and international civil society organizations such as the etc GROUP, led by Canadian Pat Roy Mooney2, helped to amplify the demands by putting Indigenous and small-farmer concerns in the context of global governance, corporate concentration of control over food and medicines, and intellectual property abuses. IDRC funded cutting edge research and policy debate on these issues for almost a decade under the banner of the Sustainable Use of Biodiversity Initiative started by Chusa.3


Using Diversity

A number of months after the conference in Indonesia I travelled to New Delhi, India, for a meeting with South Asian scientists and activists, scouted by another IDRC colleague. I stayed at the India Habitat Centre, a unique facility in Central Delhi designed by Joseph Allen Stein, an American architect and pioneer of the San Francisco Bay environmental design movement. He moved to India in 1952 and was commissioned to design several important buildings in Lodhi Estate, a stone’s throw from the famous Red Fort commissioned by Emperor Shad Jahan in 1638 and the Tibet House of the Dalai Lama. IDRC had a membership in the Centre to provide staff with access to the tiny guest rooms, extensive gardens and restaurants and meeting rooms on the site.

My meeting, however, took place at the Pusa Campus of the Indian Agricultural Research Institute outside of the city centre. I wanted to ground the discussions in national and regional agricultural institutions, and unbalance traditional donor-recipient relationships. Southern leadership was important to IDRC at the time, and consistent with my own values and budding approach to funding research. Meeting for the first time in a facility frequented by Indian elites and foreign expatriates did not seem like the right move with leading regional scientists and activists highly critical of Western dominance and funding largesse. The strategy seemed to work, and by the end of two days of discussion the group agreed to form a steering committee for a programme of small research grants to grassroots organizations and farmer groups in neglected, high biodiversity regions of South Asia.4

In the early evening hours after the Pusa Campus meeting concluded, I was paid a visit at the India Habitat Centre by Farhad Mazhar and P.V. Satheesh, two members of the new steering committee. They had talked among themselves, and concluded that I had potential as an ally they could take under their wing and introduce to the broader agenda of a new network they were creating in the lead up to the 1996 World Food Summit in Rome. I was lounging in the gardens of the centre, nursing an intense headache and the beginning of a fever threatening to overwhelm me. I managed to listen, however, as the two outlined for me the political perspective and practical strategy they had in mind for the summit.

The 1996 World Food Summit, scheduled for November, was convened by Jacques Diouf of Senegal, the first African Director-General of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). It was the first time since 1974 that governments would gather to discuss the global state of food and agriculture, and proposed to rally nations around the goal of achieving “food security for all.” This slogan later became the centre piece of the Rome Declaration on Food Security signed by 186 countries.

The concern raised by Farhad and Satheesh was that the means to address food insecurity being promoted by the FAO focused primarily on aid and trade. Hunger and malnutrition were reduced to a humanitarian and market problem for the rich countries to solve, a prospect unacceptable to societies with long and rich agrarian histories. “People are not just holes to be filled,” said Farhad. “Food in our culture is not just another commodity to be traded, like a cell phone.” Furthermore, the FAO invitation to the summit gave little attention to the negative impacts on agriculture of multilateral trade regimes such as the World Trade Organization (WTO) and numerous bilateral agreements between governments and private interests linking trade, aid and human security arrangements. Satheesh said simply, “Transnational companies are trying to make local farming obsolete through industrial farming and international trade in food surpluses. If they succeed, farmers and whole nations will become prisoners to these corporations.”

Later that evening I took a heavy dose of acetaminophen to bring down my fever before presenting myself for check-in to a plane bound for Ottawa. Some 24 hours later my wife Debra picked me up at the airport and took me directly to Emergency at the Ottawa Hospital. I had a fever of over 104 and spent several days self-isolating in our basement, waiting for a diagnosis of malaria, dengue or other viral disease that never came. The dye was set, however. I had begun to see agriculture and international agreements in a new light. The network Farhad and Satheesh were bringing to life — the South Asia Network for Food, Ecology and Culture (SANFEC) — captured in its name what was missing from the FAO vision and at the same time articulated an alternative perspective embedded in specific cultures and ecosystems. Defending local sources of food and local farming practices from the universalizing tendencies of international institutions and agreements — the strategy at the heart of the politics of food sovereignty — suddenly took on a new meaning and sense of urgency. I felt lifted from the trenches of farming technology to the front steps of corporate offices.

Crops of Truth

The landscape looked bone-dry when I dismounted from a white Premier Padmini, India’s classic four-seat sedan, in the village of Pastapur on the Deccan Plateau of south-central India. Satheesh was relaxing on a bench built into the side of a mud building, an IBM ThinkPad at his side. He was sporting a goatee, facial hair I later came to favour as well. The building was the Pastapur office of the Deccan Development Society (DDS), and home to one of the most remarkable grassroots organizations I have ever come across. It recently won two of the world’s prestigious environmental awards for its work with Dalit women farmers — the 2020 UNDP Equator Prize and the 2021 Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation Award. I was there in 1999 to participate in a Biodiversity Festival organized to share the results of one of the first Using Diversity Awards.

Satheesh spoke with the precise diction of his training as a media journalist, and the heart of a lion. “Local people”, he said, “call the traditional Rabí or post monsoon crops Satyam Pantulu, which means “Crops of Truth.” The phrase refers to the hardiness of the crop, even in the driest of conditions and on the poorest of soils common in the Deccan. “The people are hardy too,” he continued, “staying here whatever the misery, whatever the wretchedness. Crops that demand nothing, like the farmers, are crops of truth — to be celebrated and cared for.”

Photo: Laxmamma, with a sorghum plant. The surrounding seed are crops of truth.

Research on the seed types and seed sources of dryland agriculture in the Deccan, and the mixed cropping practices used to cultivate them had been led by Dalit farming women over the previous year. First, they made maps of their fields, using coloured chalk to represent the different species and varieties combined on their land. A high diversity farm like that of Gangwar Manemma might include four varieties of sorghum, three varieties of pigeon pea, three varieties of cowpea, three varieties of foxtail millet, little millet, finger millet, two varieties of hibiscus, Dollochis Lablab, yellow cucumber, groundnut, four varieties of redgram, three varieties of field beans, niger, and horsegram, all on a plot a little over a hectare in size.

Deccan dryland agriculture crops of truth.

Chandramma, an elderly Dalit women I met several times over the years, and other women farmers, facilitated scoring and analysis of the crop characteristics. They made a huge matrix in chalk on the ground, and used stones to rate specific crops against a long list of potential uses. Ground democracy, they called it. The results, Chandramma said, show that “There is no seed on our farms that does not answer the need of medicine or fodder or food or nutrition or ritual. Every crop we use is good for the soil, good for human beings, and good for the animals. It is this relationship that sustains agriculture.”

Sharing the results of the research funded by the Using Diversity Award, which I was there to witness, was dynamic and meaningful to people imbued in an oral and visual culture. DDS hosted a jatra (fair) that brought together over a period of three days some 5,000 women and men farmers from dozens of neighbouring villages. Many arrived in carts drawn by oxen with painted horns and plaited braids as local bands played in accompaniment. The processions converged on the fair grounds, a large field planted with dozens of crops and surrounded by temporary shelters. The shelters housed displays and events which people wandered through as though in a village market place. One was a livestock pen, with traditional breeds of cattle, goats and chickens, and piles of diverse fodder crops. In other shelters farmers used coloured chalk, seed, leaves and clay figures to recreate miniature versions of their farms. Every crop was matched to a particular soil type. They explained to visiting farmers what and why they grew what they grew, and the recipes used to turn harvests into food. I saw some women cry when they held in their hands the seed of a crop they no longer grew, and realized the seed wealth they had lost.

Photo: Mural near jatra.

I too was overwhelmed. The food venue was a spectacle, with huge vats cooking curries and a clay tandoor built for the occasion churning out roti flatbread from the flour of millet and sorghum. Colourful mats were laid out in long rows for people to sit. Somehow, every day for three days the cooks fed hundreds of people, each served with a range of pulses, cooked vegetables and roti on a banana leaf plate. Painted motifs on the buildings, songs, and dances added to the experience. The event concluded with a pledge, called out by Satheesh and responded to in unison by 2,000 women farmers and several hundred invited guests. We had formed a human chain around the central mixed crop field and said, “We pledge that we will continue to preserve and promote diversity on our farms. We pledge that we will ban chemicals from our farms.”

Photo: Dancers at a village celebration of seed diversity.

After the first Biodiversity Festival in 1999, DDS switched from holding the fair in a single location to organizing it as a caravan of ox carts filled with colourful displays of local seeds and agricultural implements. Today, each village welcomes the caravan at the village entrance, and takes responsibility for the celebration until the next day. They then hitch up their own bullocks and take the carts to the next village on the route. People put holy marks on the bullock foreheads, and wash their feet, in a ritual of gratitude. Singers, dancers and drummers join in, bringing their own stamp of novelty and creativity to the caravan. The songs they compose are sung in front of the temple, the mosque, the church and the Sufi shrine, embracing all faiths in the celebration of crops, seed, livestock, and agricultural implements. Evenings are marked by food festivals and screening of films on local agriculture made by local people, attracting huge crowds. Substantive discussions on food and farming futures are also organized, particularly when the caravan stops at a mandal town (representing a group of villages). This brings farmers together with village, mandal and district level officials.

Photo: Minister of Finance (top) and a farmer, anointing a bullock cart.

When I later asked Satheesh why they had shifted their format from a village fair to a mobile caravan, he said, “The mobility ensures unprecedented participation.” Now in its 22nd year, the caravan passes through more than 60 villages, touching the minds and hearts of at least 100,000 farmers every year and etching for itself a permanent place in the cultural calendar of the community. It has also elevated farmer concerns to the national stage. “Over time,” explained Satheesh, “the farmers have become very clear about what they will accept from governments and what they will reject. Top agricultural scientists, bureaucrats, and politicians now come to the festivals to learn new perspectives on agrobiodiversity and gratefully honour farmers.” From these simple expressions of awareness among officials, small and larger shifts in policy perspective emerged. One of the more significant was a decision by the state government to allow locally grown millets and sorghum into the Public Distribution System (PDS) used to distribute subsidized grains among the poorest segments of the population. Previously, only wheat and rice imported from other parts of India had been included, a bias that placed these crops above others and by-passed local farmers. “Farmers did not see themselves, and their crops, in the government policy,” said Satheesh. “Now they do.”

Photo: Model of a bullock cart from Medak. Photo by Justin Wonnacott

The Future of Agriculture

Salt Spring Island sits off the west coast of British Columbia among a smattering of other small islands between the City of Vancouver and Vancouver Island. Today it is a fabled place of expensive real estate, relatively protected from the open ocean and connected to Vancouver Island by a short ferry ride. When I went there in 2003, it was still a haven for back-to-the-land advocates, adventuresome retirees, and crafty artists. It was also a hot spot of organic farmers, seed savers, and entrepreneurs connected to the emerging food movement in North America.

I had arrived at Salt Spring Island as part of a caravan of South Asian and Canadian farmers and political activists. I convened the caravan on behalf of the South Asia Network on Food, Ecology and Culture (SANFEC) with funding from IDRC and InterPares, a Canadian NGO dedicated to solidarity among equals as an approach to international cooperation. Abra Brynne, a long-time British Colombia food activist, provided expert local knowledge of farmers to visit and arranged the local logistics. Twenty of us travelled, ate, and learned together on a tour of organic farms around Victoria and on Vancouver Island, culminating in a presentation at the Organic World Congress in Victoria, British Colombia. South Asia was represented by farmers and allies from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal, and Sri Lanka. The Canadian farmers came from Quebec, Manitoba, and British Columbia. Our goal was to develop and communicate a common vision for the future of agriculture.

The experience, captured beautifully in a video led by Chinna Narsamma, a farmer-filmaker and Dalit woman from a village in Andra Pradesh, India, was a remarkable moment for its insight into the biodiversity crisis we live today and the power of food to unite. Two observations by South Asian and Canadian farmers involved in the caravan illustrate the connections and the importance of food sovereignty as a tool for reconciliation and peace building.

Photo: A farmer from Sri Lanka (right, I've lost her name), preparing for her interview with Laxmamma, a Deccan farmer-filmmaker.

The first observation started with Cathleen Kneen, who co-hosted the launch of the Caravan in a small conference hall outside of Vancouver. Cathleen is described by Oxfam Canada in a 2016 obituary as “a food hero” and “the grandmother” of grassroots food security organizing in Canada. Not surprisingly, seed saving was top of mind for her and many seated around the circle with Cathleen. Saving money, controlling your own food supply, adapting seed to your soil and climate, preserving genetic diversity, and asserting farmer rights to use open pollinated seeds were among the various reasons to save seed people listed during the session.

Everyone knew of the Percy Schmeiser versus Monsanto law suit in full swing at the time, and the profound implications of the outcome for the rights of all people everywhere to save their own seed. Monsanto started the row by suing Percy for using its patented canola seed without a licence. Percy claimed the seed had blown into his field from a neighbour and contaminated his own seed with their product. He was suing them. The first ideas for the declaration “Our Common Ground: South Asia-Canada Dialogue on the Future of Agriculture” presented at the Victoria conference were focused on seed, and farmer rights to save their own seed free from harassment by corporations.

Image: Copyright. Image by Justin Wonnacott.

A few days later, we sat again to discuss the role of seed and biodiversity in farmer livelihoods and food systems at the Foxglove Farm on Salt Spring Island. Michael Ableman, who ran the farm with his partner Jeanne-Marie Herman, explained his perspective as we sat on the neatly mowed grass next to his house and bed and breakfast accommodation. Micheal had for 20 years managed Fairview Gardens in Santa Barbara County, California, helping to establish urban agriculture as a pillar of the 1990s food movement in North America. His 1998 book “On Good Land: The Autobiography of an Urban Farm” chronicles the life of the 100 year-old farm and struggles to save it from urban development. Now, he and his partner run a model farm catering to food tourists. Like many of the market garden farms we had visited in British Columbia, the grounds were impeccable, with carefully tended garden beds and rows of vibrant and photogenic vegetables.

What surprised the Canadians, as we went around the circle sharing impressions from the Caravan, was a comment by Janna, a Bangladeshi woman farmer in her 60s. Dressed in a dark Borkha and head covering, and speaking through translation, she said simply, “You have lost so much.” Far from being impressed with the beautiful Canadian farms she had seen during the caravan, her tone and message was one of sympathy. There were no animals on Micheal’s farm to provide manure and milk, and among the vegetables in the gardens there were few grains or pulses critical to food security. Other farms we visited had similarly narrow niches and limited production practices, isolated from each other and from the full range of biodiversity native to traditional agricultural communities. To her, Canadian farming, including organic farming, was sterile and vulnerable compared to the richly integrated practices of her tiny biodiversity-based farm and village life in Bangladesh. It was a shadow of what it could be, dependent on distant markets and with key components of life missing from the ecological and social landscape.

This theme — the poverty of food policy driving the loss of agricultural biodiversity — became a rallying call for the group. John Wilcox of Duck Creek Farms on Salt Spring Island put the solution succinctly on the film record; he said, “We commit to recreate community.” He was referring to the community of plants and animals that make up the agricultural landscape, including humans. His own farm focused not on extracting the maximum amount of product from the field but rather attending to the myriad relationships he understood bound him to the land and people around him. This included the beavers on his land that sometimes damaged his crops but also created a water balance necessary to the long term health of the land. It included as well his neighbours, with whom he organized around farming rights. Robin, a young woman with a soft voice and strong back new to farming at the time, also acknowledged the importance of recreating diverse plant and human communities. Without any land of her own, Robin’s market garden depended on her relationships with older generations in her community in suburban Victoria that provided access to their backyards in exchange for a share in the harvest.

Cathleen, Michael, John, Robin and other small-scale Canadian organic farmers we met during the caravan tour also spoke out strongly against the corporate take-over of the achievements of the organic food movement in North America. The risk was evident at the Organic World Congress in Victoria we attended where large corporations occupied prominent positions selling their products under the organic label. Lundberg Family Farms, for example, was there with a prominent booth. The corporation started as a family farm in 1937, but by 2003 controlled a large part of the global organic rice market through a huge network of suppliers. It manages rice monocultures with organic inputs on a massive scale, bringing hundreds of farms and communities under a single system of technological and corporate control.

We brought the problem of control directly to congress organizers and participants through a plenary presentation on behalf of the caravan. Satheesh first pointed out that small scale farmers around the world, not corporations, are feeding the vast majority of the world’s population. This is true even today everywhere outside of North America where industrial farms dominate. These same farmers, he noted, including the thousands of small-scale farms in France, Italy, India, Kenya, and many other places, are also doing the hard work of transforming conventional farming into sustainable farming. They are doing the experiments, developing the local understanding and conserving the plant genetic resources necessary to the future of agriculture. “But the gains,” Satheesh said, “are vulnerable to the greed of corporations seeking new profits in organic food production.”

Sammamma, a Dalit woman farmer, described her farm, focusing on what local seed meant to her. She referenced a phrase she had heard during the caravan from the Bangladeshi women farmers, “Sisters, keep seeds in your hands.” She added, “This practice helps me and other farmers remain self-reliant.” Others concluded, “The conditions of production must not be defined by conglomerates, super-markets, food propaganda and an urbanizing culture that has lost its link to the true meaning of agriculture.” The threat is even clearer today, with green investors building brands on a food movement they did not contribute to and do not represent in spirit or practice.

Photo: Sammamma. Photo by Yessu.

The caravan’s stand against corporate control in the realm of food and farming impressed a farmer from Pakistan travelling with a delegation headed by Shahid Zia, a prominent SANFEC member and founder of the Lok Sanhj Foundation. xxxx, a man in his fifties from the Punjab region of Pakistan, had been sharing accommodations during the caravan with a Bangladeshi farmer of a similar age. Mixing farmer accommodations across national boundaries was a deliberate strategy of the caravan, without some risk considering that the governments of the two countries were in conflict. Memories and misunderstandings regarding the 1971 war that separated Pakistan and Bangladesh were painful for people even thirty years on. Many Pakistani felt rejected by the Bangladeshi people. Young Bangladeshis had grown up being told that Pakistani farmers were rich and tried to keep farmers in Bangladesh poor.

The two roommates struggled at first to understand each other, speaking Urdu on one side and Bangla on the other, with a few English words along the way. Shahid reminded me recently that they kept knocking at his door in the next room, even up to midnight, to ask for translation of this or that term or idea. They were particularly excited by the caravan discussions about seed, and rights to save seed as well as the role of animals in helping to sustain agriculture. By the end of the tour, the two were fast friends. XXXX said to the whole group in a closing meeting, “I no longer see the West as my enemy. I now have friends in the West, in Bangladesh, in India, in Sri Lanka, and in Nepal who are also opposed to the violence of transnational corporations.” He conveyed for many the excitement generated by the caravan and its statement of solidarity across political, economic and cultural boundaries. Common ground on the future of agriculture seemed possible, bridging as well to indigenous movements against patents on life forms, social movements to rebuild local communities, consumer movements for safe and healthy food, and urban movements for a new form of urbanization based on sustainability and inclusion. On the day we left, the two farmers had tears in their eyes as they hugged each other.

Learning Across Boundaries

My first experiment organizing farmer exchanges was shortly after I joined IDRC. I was still immersed in the excitement and potential of cover crops as a robust technology for sustainable agriculture, and convinced my colleagues that IDRC should sponsor 4 farmers from Benin and Ghana to a major conference on sustainable agriculture in Santa Catarina, Brazil. The Rockefeller Foundation had convened the conference, and sponsored participation by a group of 10 or so Mexican and Central American farmers, selected and chaperoned by Marjatta Eilitta, a Finnish agronomist I had worked with at CIMMYT. The Brazilian hosts organized various visits to farmer fields as part of the conference process.

A surprising outcome was that several of the African farmers bought manual seed planters manufactured in Brazil and used by small scale farmers to speed up the process of planting cover crops in their fields. Similar in concept to the traditional digging stick, the metal tubes hold a few kilos of seed, open a hole and deposit one or two with a step and manual push action. Recently I learned that Brazilian manufacturers of farm implements have a steady market for their small-scale machines in several West African countries.

One of my more eccentric ideas of this ilk involved the purchase a few years later of a full-sized European scythe, the kind associated with the grim reaper. As a teenager living in a village in Germany I had used a scythe to help a friend cut grass for a colony of rabbits he fed in their hutch everyday. A search on modern uses of the scythe turn up a host of organizations in Europe promoting the scythe to harvest hay from fragile meadows. Scythe festivals, peening workshops and competitions abound in Ireland, Scotland, and other European countries. “Would a scythe be useful to farmers in Bangladesh?” I wondered. I purchased one from Lee Valley Tools in Ottawa, disassembled it and packed it in my hard-sided suitcase for a trip to Bangladesh. I then got the implement through customs in Bangladesh, and into the hands of farmers in the Cox’s Bazaar region where grasses are cut in common mangrove forests (more on harvesting from common lands in the next chapter). I failed to bring with me, however, practical knowledge of use (beyond practice cutting the grass in my backyard), or an Irish farmer, to show the way. As far as I know, it was rarely used, and eventually re-purposed.

Farmer exchanges organized by SANFEC were not simply an extravagant curiosity, and were much better thought through than my initial efforts. I learned from these experiences that, in the hands of thoughtful organizations, farmer exchanges can be a catalyst for profound human-to-human learning and practical advocacy. Farhad reminded me recently, in the context of reflections on the current global pandemic experience, “Directly meeting people, and the kind of relationship you develop from meeting people, is always superior to other forms of human interaction. Even fanaticism and other forms of extreme conservatism can be neutralized through genuine people-to-people relationships.”

From 2000 to 2007, SANFEC organized, with their own resources and funding from IDRC, a half dozen cross-border farmer exchanges. Canadian farmers made a reciprocal tour of Indian and Nepali farms, meeting along the way with government officials to share their struggles with biodiversity loss and policies favouring large scale farms. A caravan of farmers from Pakistan picked up farmers in India and Bangladesh, who carried on together to Sri Lanka before returning home. Dozens of women farmers from India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Pakistan converged in Bangladesh for 10 days of visits with their sisters in farming communities throughout the country. The caravan concluded, on International Women’s Day, with a large rally in Dhaka dedicated to bringing farming women onto the center stage of the urban and regional women’s movement.

Photo: Sundaram (left), a farmer-plant breeder from Rajastan, India with Bangladeshi women farmers.

Key practices in ecological farming were constant themes, including composting, mixed cropping, pest management without the use of harmful pesticides, and the integration of animals and crops in the farming system. Farmers learned how if they lose one crop they can compensate with another crop, and how to calculate economic returns from farming in a holistic framework involving simple calculations of costs, cash returns, household food security, and family cohesiveness. Importantly, the exchanges disseminated ideas, including the elimination of false ideas about the other. Farhad, reflecting with me on the exchanges, said, “The way people survive was a complete surprise to visiting farmers. Bangladeshis were amazed to see the agriculture of farmers in Andhra Pradesh, where there is no water. Indian farmers could not believe how Bangladeshis cultivated with so much water around. How Nepalis managed to protect their fields on steep hillsides was astonishing to people from the plains.”

National events, often under the banner of SANFEC, included seed festivals and food festivals bringing together women farmers and middle class urban women nostalgic for lost foods and food arts. These were always celebratory, and always included policy dialogue with agricultural scientists and government officials on national and international policies with impacts on agriculture, food and farming women. Many of the events included at least some international representation, making it easier for national hosts to say that they were not alone in raising these concerns. Podiliname, the SANFEC animator in Sri Lanka said, “Getting heard by the national government on why we should oppose Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) is something we could not have achieved on our own. Having Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Nepali NGOs all saying the same thing meant they could not dismiss us so easily.”

Shahid Zia, a Pakistani economist and SANFEC co-animator, told me recently that SANFEC-inspired farmer exchanges and policy dialogue were foundational for the development of the Lok Sanjh Foundation in Pakistan, which is now working with 160,000 farmers in more than 250 villages in eleven districts of Punjab, Kashmir, Sindh and Balochistan. It is the largest non-governmental organization in the country focused on promoting ecological farming, particularly with women farmers. “In the late 1990s there was no organization or individual in Pakistan thinking about the relationship between agriculture, ecology, and culture highlighted by SANFEC.” Shahid said. “The experience transformed my thinking as an agricultural economist trained in mainstream research organizations. I’d been taught that productivity was the main issue, with no thought about the relationship of food to ecology and culture.”

From Policy Advocacy to Political Activism

Farmer-based research, farmer-to-farmer exchanges and dialogue between farmers and scientists facilitated by SANFEC, with funding from IDRC and other institutions, were a conscious attempt to build peace in a fractious region.

The Pakistan-India relationship has been fraught ever since the partition of British India in 1947, and was very tense in the early 2000s. Both countries had armies sitting ready on their borders, and equal numbers of nuclear warheads. The movement of citizens between the two countries was restricted, and exchanges even among scientists difficult to arrange. Bangladesh and Pakistan also harboured long-standing hostilities rooted in the 1971 war and subsequent famine in Bangladesh. Migration from Bangladesh and Nepal into India, and trafficking of women and children from both of these countries, were particularly sensitive issues at the time, and remain a largely hidden form of modern slavery. Relationships between India and Sri Lanka were also tense over the ongoing militancy of the Tamil Tigers in northeastern Sri Lanka. More generally, India, by far the most populous and economically powerful actor in the region, often acted like a bull in a china shop on a wide range of issues. This created, and still creates, considerable resentment among its smaller neighbours.

The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), which also includes Afghanistan, Bhutan, Maldives, and Sri Lanka, was set up by governments in the late 1980s to help manage some of these tensions. As with many bodies of this nature, however, it lacks real power and often suffers from a lack of imagination regarding what, concretely, can be done to address areas of common concern. SANFEC, from outside the annual SAARC meetings, did what it could to draw attention to the insights coming from their collective experience. For a decade they organized the SAARC People’s Forum in cooperation with several regional justice organizations. Street protests outside the venue of the official meetings were a common tactic, along with conferences on the contributions of traditional agriculture to food security and meetings with other organizations to strategize on ways to influence national governments. SANFEC routinely ensured that women farmers occupied centre stage in the Forum, in numbers sufficient to make their presence not only seen but also meaningful. Celebration of food cultures and sharing of food were part and parcel of the practice of serious fun imbued in the activism. The common message was that many of the most difficult issues being addressed at the SAARC, such as migration and trafficking in women and children, were not primarily political or social issues. Rather, they were directly linked to the destruction of local food sources in regions where there are few economic opportunities. The poverty of food policies, driven by the World Trade Organization (WTO) and international scientific bias towards industrial agriculture, were at the core of the problem.

Photo: Anti-globalization poster from Pakistan.

The perspectives on food policy brought forward by SANFEC, based in part on farmer-based research funded by IDRC and other organizations over a period of ten years, were strongly critical of the power given to corporations to shape the food system. They were anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist in a context where traditional agrarian societies and lifestyles offered more to ensure the survival of people than industrial technologies built on exclusion from common genetic resources and pollution of land, water, and people’s bodies. From this perspective, food sovereignty is key to safeguarding the conditions for peaceful co-existence among peoples.5

The political stance, while uncommon, was not unheard of at IDRC. During the 1990s and early 2000s, research initiatives with sharply political implications were supported in Palestine, in Guatemala, in South Africa and among some Canadian NGOs doing research for policy advocacy. Broad funding envelopes approved at the level of the Board of Governors, and administrative tools for small exploratory grants, provided staff with the flexibility they needed to take intellectual risks, and follow their interests and passions. Senior management went along, so long as the work was grounded in credible southern perspectives and IDRC staff kept a low profile. Reputations for research excellence among staff also created space for research outside of the political mainstream.

Concerns about the impacts of globalization were hard to avoid while also remaining relevant as a research for development organization. The mid- to late 1990s witnessed the emergence of a global movement of protest against its worst effects:

  • the 1996 call by the Zapatista Army of National Liberation in Chiapas, Mexico, for indigenous control over land and for global action against neo-liberalism.

  • demands for “food sovereignty” articulated by the Via Campesina and by SANFEC in a statement of common concern at the 1996 World Food Summit in Rome.

  • The "cremate Monsanto" campaign of the late 1990s, which involved burning fields of genetically modified crops in Karnataka and other states of India;

  • a series of large-scale protests during meetings of the G8 countries and the World Trade Organization (WTO) to highlight global resistance to capitalist globalization, culminating in the “Battle for Seattle” protests of 1999.

Credible researchers in both the Global North and the Global South were riding, and in some cases leading, that wave. This could not be ignored by funding agencies with their eyes open. Maureen O’Neil, the IDRC President from 1997 to 2008, understood this. She put it this way in 2003 with the opening remarks for a SANFEC panel discussion I organized in Ottawa called Promoting Peace by Addressing Food Insecurity in South Asia:

“IDRC is interested in this perspective because it is grounded in local experience and links research to policy. While the causal links between social instability, poverty and food insecurity are plain enough to see, new and innovative thinking is needed to focus our attention on addressing these problems in relationship to each other. Peace building programs and poverty alleviation programs that do not enhance local capacity to produce food are ignoring a cornerstone of healthy and self-confident communities. We think that this developing country perspective can be useful to Canadians who are also grappling with issues such as globalization, sustainable food production systems and healthy rural communities at home.”

The extent to which some IDRC partners, and some Canadian government funding during this period, blurred the line between policy advocacy and political activism probably remained largely invisible to most senior managers. I knew that Farhad and Satheesh were firebrands, and so did other members of the program initiative. I used my research and writing skills, and credibility within the organization, to help articulate and publish the research findings to a high standard. The relevance and quality of the research results were hard to challenge. I also worked with partners to keep IDRC out of the limelight in public fora. By and large I succeeded at this, although the farmer exchange caravan to Salt Spring Island and Victoria did cross a line. In a personal capacity, I signed the final manifesto of the caravan, a statement of concern about the future of agriculture replete with the tactical language of political activism. I had my hands slapped by middle management, as did the IDRC communications officers that had joined the caravan in Victoria and also signed. What I learned from this experience, in addition to the limits of independence in a government institution, was that it was not enough to simply articulate new perspectives on development alternatives and inform policy advocacy, as IDRC was mandated to do. Social change also requires of us that we put skin in the game.

A Chance to Show Quality

Honesty, integrity, courage: I did my best to bring these qualities to my work at IDRC and to my life generally. Farhad Mazhar, more than anyone else I know, showed me what integrity of thought and deed looks like in the context of political activism. The first sign of this from him came when, some months after I met him in New Delhi, I asked for background on a letter I read in the New York Times signed by Jacques Derrida, a major figure in postmodern philosophy. In the letter Derrida and two others demand Farhad’s immediate release from jail, where he was being held for criticizing the Bangladesh government's ruthless suppression of a mutiny in the ranks of an auxiliary police force. More than 30 members of the Bangladesh Ansar, a poorly armed rural contingent, were killed by a much better equipped and trained para-military force, the Bangladesh Rifles, sent to put down a mutiny over low pay and unfair treatment. “We want to insist at once that this rebellion was just,” wrote Farhad in the Bengali magazine Chinta. His analysis of class struggle and state abuse of power are are the centre of his argument:

“The state, in its attempts to preserve law and order, gathers manpower from the oppressed subaltern class. The armed forces built with these very people are then used to further the rule of the oppressing and ruling classes over poor farmers, labourers, and the working class. Their revolts are suppressed. Killings are carried out. The BDR soldiers that shot and killed the Ansars are also the same ‘farmers in uniforms.’ And yet, the BDR soldier did not realise that he had just killed his own brother.”

The cruelty and callousness with which human life was treated by the state, and the muted response by the Bangladeshi intelligentsia, however, were the centre of his outrage. “Is there no one in this cruel society to listen to the Ansars?” he wrote. In my conversation with Farhad he told me that when he was put in jail under the Special Powers Act and the offending issue of Chinta banned, he feared for his life. A group of prisoners immediately approached him and insisted he be moved to the infirmary, where they felt he would be safer from government reprisals against him. After a little more than a month, he was released by the court under the pressure of a deluge of international attention from protectors of press freedoms.

What struck me the most from his story, beyond the perspective on the class causes of the rebellion, was the integrity of his position. He knew very well that the Ansars were also brutish and responsible for many abuses in villages during the exercise of their routine policing tactics. They were not a sympathetic group in and of themselves. Yet he spared neither government nor the silent progressives and culture of hypocrisy in his midst. “If a son of the middle or upper classes dies, even if a rich man´s terrorist son is killed in a brawl, the entire city is in mourning,” he said. “And yet there is no action when Ansars are shot like animals. The same people who love to chant formulas of ‘democracy’ and ‘human rights’ did not get busy to condemn their murder.” I learned from this not only the importance of integrity between thought and action but also the compassion and respect with which all people must be treated.


  1. The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) was a distant dream in 1996 and even now is a non-binding resolution unrecognized by key governments such as the United States, Australia, New Zealand and, until 2021, Canada. Still, according to some, it resonates powerfully with Indigenous peoples, and may yet serve as a strategic vehicle for airing historical grievances and bringing forward the political and cultural aspirations of Indigenous peoples. ↩︎

  2. Pat Mooney received The Right Livelihood Award (the "Alternative Nobel Prize") in the Swedish Parliament in 1985 and the Pearson Peace Prize from Canada's Governor General in 1998. He has also received the American "Giraffe Award" given to people "who stick their necks out." ↩︎

  3. Some of the most original and influential work of this nature was a dialogue on the impact of intellectual property rights on biodiversity, conservation, trade and rural society, dubbed The Crucible Group. It included grassroots organizers working with small-scale or subsistence farmers, agricultural research scientists and science managers, intellectual property specialists, trade diplomats, and agricultural policy analysts from South and North and from government and industry. Chusa Ginés represented IDRC on the management committee. She died in a plane crash on January 28, 2002, in the Andes Mountains. Friends and organizations affected by her work and the loss established a fellowship to support advanced studies in biology for women in the Global South. ↩︎

  4. The Using Diversity Small Grants Programme launched during that meeting ran from 1996 to 2007 with IDRC funding, and continues today under the direction of Rajeev Khedkar, a steering committee member who later became a close friend and colleague in my work with tribal communities in India (Chapter x). It has provided more than 100 small research grants to support unique traditional farming practices and local uses of biodiversity, documented in local languages for local purposes and under local authorship and control. ↩︎

  5. Precisely how people relate to nature, food and each other in an alter-globalizing world is the focus of a later chapter on the wealth of the social landscape. ↩︎

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