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Lessons from farmers and indigenous women: cultivate democracy

Learning to live in harmony with the land is co-constituent to human rights activism. Jennifer Allsopp reports for 50.50 from the second day of the 2017 Nobel Women's Initiative conference. 

Women from Casamance on a march for peace in Senegal. Credit: USOFORAL. Women from Casamance on a march for peace in Senegal. Credit: USOFORAL.  

we have stood in defense of lands, of waters,

for our sons,

for our daughters

for something bigger than ourselves

       Beginning of the poem ‘For the Mamas on the Frontlines’

Helen Knott is a human rights activist from Prophet River First Nations in Canada. With the words above she welcomed international feminist activists to the second day of the Nobel Women’s Initiative gathering in Dusseldorf, Germany. Throughout the day, indigenous women at the conference reminded the participants from around the world that learning to live in harmony with the land is not just something that accompanies human rights activism, but is co-constituent. How, delegates asked themselves, can we learn from indigenous communities and environmental activists to cultivate democracy in our different spheres?

Khadijeh Moghaddam, a woman’s rights and environmental activist from Iran joined Helen in paying homage to intergenerational activism in her presentation to delegates. It was her mother, she explained in a powerful speech, who inspired her to become involved in the environmental movement. Her mother is now 100 years of age, and still fighting for climate justice. This is not an easy space to occupy in Iran, Khadijeh explains, “it’s like walking on a tightrope. You have to be vigilant for you could be pushed off at any time.” In this context, working collectively is not just an ethical choice, it is the only way to stay safe.

Participants at the conference bring a wealth of knowledge when it comes to environmental activism and collective struggle. Yanar Mohammed, an Iraqi activist, began her speech yesterday by lamenting that it is natural resources (the oil) that has been the source of all the country’s problems. “75% of oil from Iraq goes to the multinational companies and 25% goes to our corrupt government.” The Iraqi oil, she insists, was never “ours”. "There’s always a colonial power that comes and sucks up our resources and leaves us poor.”

Julienne Lusenge from the Democratic Republic of the Congo nods as Yanar speaks. It’s the same story. Congo began its independence under the reign of Leopold II when citizens were forced to extract resources for exportation to Belgium or face violence. “He cut the arms off our ancestors because of the resources there”, she explains, “now our women experience brutal rapes, violence, executions.” Like the oil of Iraq, she laments, “the resources don’t belong to Congo. They nourish the kids of everywhere else except the Congo.”

She asks us to picture kids with mobile phones and technologies harbouring the precious minerals, unaware of their bloody origins. “Sometimes,” Julienne reflects, “we wonder if we are suffering because of these riches that we have.” An estimated 6 million people have been killed since 1998 in this well-documented economic war over resources. “Can we not develop trade and business cooperatively?” she asks.

In the green Senegalese region of Casamance it is not just war but also agribusiness that is threatening the land and natural resources, agricultural activist Mariama Songo explains to me later during a break in the proceedings. International companies are seizing land, family plots, and breaking the local cooperatives.

“They take our seeds and sell them back to us as 'intellectual property’,” she explains. “We try to tell them you didn’t create that, that it is inherited, it belongs to us, in the plural. For us seeds don’t belong to anyone. They’re common property.”

She describes how the seeds that farmers are sold by big business, and the chemicals required to grow them, are poorly adapted to the local environment. They can contaminate the whole ecosystem.

Mariama tells me she identifies with the threat to food sovereignty facing indigenous women in Canada. In her intervention, Helen Knott outlined a similar dynamic of contamination among her community where the unfettered advance of new industries – yes, even under Trudeau, she stressed – is stealing land from communities and causing new forms of pollution. “There's a contamination of food" she lamented, "you worry you’re contaminating your kids giving them moose meat or fish from the river.” The river near where Helen lives currently has two big dams, and a third is under construction. But the spaces to resist such developments are shrinking. She is currently facing legal charges for her role in a land defense camp.

In Senegal, Mariama works with youth and women to inspire them to see sustainability as a nobel pursuit; she teaches them to grow food and make a living from agriculture. For her, farming is inherently linked to collectivism. As girls in Casamance they would form seasonal collectives, she reminisces, and go around the different households helping with various tasks: the harvest, composting, fertilising. Mariama had the idea that the girls could pool the pocket money they received for the tasks and do something together. “We held parties,” she jokes, “amazing parties". They also pooled their resources to buy school materials.

Mariama explains her passion for farming as a way to both survive and thrive. “In the war-ravaged landscape of Casamance, growing your own food gives you a crucial sense of autonomy.”

She tells me with pride how she recently worked with an older woman to find a natural treatment for a microscopic worm in the earth that was destroying plants and aborting the growth of new seeds. “We didn’t need outside help,” she explains, “it’s about expertise and experience, pratique et savoir.” Mariama, whose husband was murdered in the Casamance war, calls farming a “practice in democracy."

The idea of working with nature as a practice of autonomy and democracy is an idea that echoes throughout the day. Veronica Kelly, an Irish peace activist remarks that in Ireland the concept of meitheal is making a resurgence. The word describes the way at harvest time people gather together to help one another. It’s the literal ‘hay day’. “The weather is so changeable that when a fine day come everyone has to rush and help from place to place,” she explains.

It’s a tempting metaphor for the network created by the Nobel Women’s Initiative, formed ten years ago to promote peace with justice and equality.

About the author

Jennifer Allsopp is a writer and researcher working on migration, gender and social policy. She was a commissioning editor at openDemocracy 50.50 between 2011 and 2017, facilitating the People on the Move migration platform (2011-2017) and series including 16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence (2012), Unlocking Detention (2014-15) and working with francophone activists for Our Africa (2012-14). She reported from numerous international feminist gatherings including for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (2015) and the Nobel Women's Initiative (2012, 2015, 2017). She has worked at the universities of Exeter, Birmingham and Queen Mary's and is completing a PhD at the Department of Social Policy and Intervention at the University of Oxford. Twitter @JenniferAllsopp.


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