• The Gender Security Project

Feminist Foreign Policy through Food Sovereignty

By Kirthi Jayakumar



Image Source: FoodTank


The term “food sovereignty” may have been formally coined in 1996 by the members of Via Campesina. However, it has endured as a significant part of life and practice among indigenous communities. It is knowing the “species we have on our lands, knowing what kind of seeds to plant in each territory.” It refers “a concept that Indigenous people have developed over the past several years as a key component of their right to control how their lands and territories are used.” The concept has also been crystallized as law under Article 1 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant of the Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, where there is a strong affirmation that no people shall be deprived of their own means of subsistence.


Indigenous communities have engaged with food sovereignty through a variety of means that range from hosting solidarity markets to educating Indigenous youth on traditional foodways. However, with indigenous populations being displaced, their lands being grabbed by both governments and companies alike, this fundamental right to their lives and sovereignty. Added to this is the challenge of climate change, which affects the lives, livelihoods, and living environments of Indigenous people by “rendering inhospitable the habitats of the plants and animals on which they depend for food.”


Doing Feminist Foreign Policy

The role of women is central to the practices and approaches of food sovereignty. In the words of Cecilia Brito, “The special role of the Indigenous woman is to maintain the ways of our ancestors. [We fulfill] the important role of preserving our cultures. We produce and reproduce. For the most part, women are in our homes each day with our children, with our family, while the men go out. The woman is the one who most works the earth. As women we hold an important role as protagonists in moving forward.”


This has less to do with the essentialist and stereotypical construction of a nexus that ties women to domestic work, and more to do with the traditional knowledge, the deep connection to the Earth, and the many projects that Indigenous women have and continue to helm to suffuse local food capacity and overall food sovereignty with strength. However, even if one may argue that the nexus between food sovereignty and women may tend to reiterate gender stereotypes that tie women, female, and feminine to home and hearth, the subversive nature of their engagement questions structural violence and calls for the dismantling of systems of oppression.


In most Indigenous communities and countries in the global south, women are the primary producers of food and fight hard to preserve their communities’ rights to food sovereignty. Guarani women in Paraguay conserve native varieties and educate people on agro-ecology to fight industrial farming, transgenic crops, and seed patents. Maasai women in Kenya planted vegetables and green crops at the household level, and slowly built up to a greenhouse, where they grow food with less water, to deal with the low availability of water as a result of climate change. In Brazil, Guajajara women, in collaboration with other Indigenous groups like the Ka’apor and Awa-Guaja, handle territorial protection for conservation, while also educating people on conservation. Xicana women in South Central LA centred women's leadership, and created a women's cooperative section to support women who intended to grow edible and medicinal plants of their choice. In the Sivirú community in the Colombian Pacific, women's "knowledge and labour in cultivating home gardens in Sivirú, for example, provides access to fresh vegetables, fruit, herbs, protein, medicines and sometimes income or exchangeable goods that in turn enable access to other foods and maintain social security networks within the community."


Indigenous Women doing Food Sovereignty as Feminist Foreign Policy

The appropriation of Indigenous lands almost always finds state backing. The adoption of capitalist and neoliberal policies challenge the sovereignty and ethno-nationality of Indigenous communities. Free trade agreements mean that high-quality domestic produce is exported abroad, while low quality food is left behind for the inhabitants of the region to use. Coupled with climate change, the adverse impact on Indigenous communities is nothing shy of disastrous. The rapid denudation of the environment from industrial activity and climate change means that there is a loss of biodiversity, changes in migration patterns, rising in sea levels, and atypical rainfall patterns. The capitalist normalization of pesticides and “improved” seeds augments the damage to traditional food production. Forced to stop producing food in line with their traditional knowledge, Indigenous communities are also forced to give up on preserving and passing on their traditional knowledge to their future generations.


In the words of Rufina Juarez and Josefina Medina, who spoke at the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, addressing the Special Rapporteur on Migration Issues in 2007:

“The corporate production of food, such as hybrid corn, soy, and wheat, has taken over the production of local high quality ancestral food (i.e., corn, squash, and beans) through the displacement of traditional agricultural communities who produce food for their own use and for trade. Corporate takeover of agricultural lands forces families to flee to local and international urban areas, where they transform from a self-reliant, highly skilled agricultural society, into poor and politically vulnerable substrata of urban society. Economically dependent on low wages for unskilled labor, men, women and children lose their relationships, roles, ancestral knowledge and practices of self-sufficiency. Their lack of economic resources makes them dependent on cheap poor-quality food produced by the corporations, which displaced them in the first place. Coupled with the lack of health education and basic health care they are highly defenseless to long term diseases like obesity, diabetes, cancer, and asthma, which make them life-time consumers of pharmaceuticals. The rise of childhood illnesses produces long-term profit for corporations. Indigenous peoples in diaspora are in fact paying for their own oppression.”


In fighting capitalistic and neoliberal structures that assume a right of privilege over Indigenous lands, cultures, bodies, and traditional practices, these women are not only asserting their human rights to food sovereignty but are also dedicatedly establishing their right to self-determination. Their actions, they centre their own voices, narratives, truths, and most importantly, lived experiences against a patriarchal, racist, capitalist, and violent structure that exercises entitlement over their lives.

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