Food Sovereignty and the Environment: an interview with Habib Ayeb

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Habib Ayeb is a founder member of the NGO  Observatory of Food Sovereignty and Environment (OSAE)  and  Max Ajl is a sociologist, activist and an editor at Jadaliyya and Viewpoint.

Max:  Habib, you have made many films and written at length about food sovereignty in Tunisia and in Egypt. Can you start by telling us how you see the conversation around food sovereignty in this part of the world?

Habib: In recent years, the issue of food sovereignty has begun to appear in academic and non-academic debates, and in research as well – although more tentatively – in all the countries of the region. That said, the issue of food and thus agriculture has always been important, both in academic research and public debate, as well as the academy, political institutions, and elsewhere.

During the 1970s and 1980s, in Tunisia and throughout what was called the Third World, we spoke mainly of food self-sufficiency. This was, in a way, and at that time, a watchword of the left – a left that was modernist, developmentalist and statist.

If I’m not mistaken, I believe that the concept of food self-sufficiency dates from the late 1940s with the wave of decolonization, which began after the Second World War, and probably also dates to the great famines which claimed millions of lives in India and other areas of the South.

Furthermore, many states, particularly those governed by the state-socialist regimes that had acquired political independence during the 1950s and 1960s, had initiated Green Revolution policies.

These had the aim of achieving food self-sufficiency to strengthen political independence, in a Cold War context wherein food was already used as a weapon and a means of pressure in the context of the confrontation between the USSR and the Western bloc.

It is in this context that the experiences of agrarian reforms and agricultural co-operatives in Tunisia (from 1962), in Egypt (from 1953) and in many other countries had proliferated. But almost all of these experiments ended in failure or were aborted by liberal counter-reforms, which were adopted everywhere beginning in the 1980s amidst the victory of liberalism, the USSR’s disappearance, and the development of a global food regime, and its corollary: the global market for agricultural products and particularly cereals.

It is at this point that the concept of food security, based on the idea of comparative advantage began to gradually dominate. It would appear for the first time in the official Tunisian texts in the sixth Five Year Plan of the early 1980s, in which the formula of food self-sufficiency would give way to that of food security.

From then on, agricultural policies would favour agricultural export products with a high added value, whose revenues would then underwrite the import of basic food products.

Paradoxically, agricultural issues, food issues, and rural issues writ large would gradually disappear from academic agendas. There was a sharp reduction in funding for research on the rural world, and instead it went first, to the urban research profile, but also to examine civil society and political organizations.

It was not until 2007/2008 and the great food crisis that agricultural and food issues, and furthermore the peasant question with its sociological dimension, would reappear in public debates focused on these matters. It was during the same period that the concept of food sovereignty, proposed by Via Campesina in 1996, would appear in Arab countries and to a much lesser extent in research.

Even today, many use the food sovereignty frame to talk about food security, even while the two concepts are radically opposed, even incompatible.

“the urban left subjugated by modernity have developed a sort of disregard for the peasantry, which they consider as a brake and an obstacle to development. We know that this is not new – already Marx, in his day, had little regard for the peasant world”

In Egypt, I participated in many discussions on issues of food security and sovereignty. We were, with some other friends and colleagues, including the anthropologist Reem Saad, responsible for helping to initiate the first discussions around the specific theme of food sovereignty. We organized workshops, research seminars, and other activities, too, more oriented towards civil society and the media.

We also organized two seminars in Damascus, in Syria, in 2008 and some others in Tunisia between 2007 and 2011. Concerning Syria, it should be noted that it is one of the very few countries in the South that did not suffer from the food crisis of 2007 and 2008, because the Syrian state has always thought, amidst a particularly hostile and explosive geopolitical context, that the food issue was part of its national defense strategy.

Thus, agricultural policies before 2011 (and even after, with the difficulties that we can imagine) always aimed at a level of cereal production sufficient to cover basic needs. The lesson of the embargo imposed on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq after the war of Kuwait was well-learned by Damascus.

From 2011 on, spaces and opportunities for debate would greatly expand, touching upon a multitude of topics and diverse themes – even if the rural world, and more specifically, agricultural and food topics, remain relatively marginalized, or often forgotten. Nevertheless, the issue of food sovereignty has seen some fairly significant actions and initiatives.

In Egypt, the principle of food sovereignty was enshrined in the first post-Mubarak constitution (2012). In Beirut, there was an attempt to form an Arab Network for Food Sovereignty. In Gaza, food sovereignty is a strong demand to which the Israeli embargo gives shape and consistency.

And then in North Africa, public discussions and various activities around food sovereignty began in 2012-2013. It must be noted that throughout the region, there is still a kind of confusion around concepts, slogans, and even demands and claims.

If the notion of food sovereignty begins to spread there is then a risk of trivialization and misuse of the expression, which may occur – it has happened with other concepts, including that of sustainable development which has been totally emptied of any real meaning.

One puzzle I have come across while doing my research on food sovereignty – and I mean the narrow meaning, or the specific use of the term, as it has become linked to Via Campesina – is that there are very few regional social movements that are tied to Via Campesina. There is one in Morocco, there is one in Tunisia.

And there is the Union of Agricultural Work Committees, which is the regional coordinator, and has been a part of Via Campesina, I think since 2003, since the second Intifada. This is the part of the world where Via Campesina has entered least – or has the fewest links. Why do you think this might be the case?

It is difficult to explain. Without being categorical, it seems to me that this is largely due to the paradoxical absence of direct relations between the city and the countryside which go beyond the marketing of agricultural products, an exchange which does not necessarily bring the two areas into continuous contact.

Between the countryside, especially the peasants and agricultural workers who live and/or work there, and the city, including the ordinary inhabitants, the intellectuals, the activists and the trade unionists’ communication and exchanges are relatively limited.

The former does not necessarily have access to the city, whose codes they do not know, and the latter do not understand the countryside, and stigmatize its inhabitants. In the city, the word fellah (peasant) has become an insult.

When the Egyptian government carried out its agrarian counter-reform in 1992 by adopting the so-called 96/92 law which completely liberalized the land market, and which resulted in a massive rise in the price of agricultural land, overnight about a million peasant families, former tenants, found themselves without land to work and therefore without income.

In response to an attempt at resistance, the government reacted with great brutality from its police, leaving about 150 dead, not counting the dozens of wounded and imprisoned.

Astonishingly, these events in the Egyptian campaign did not provoke any rush of solidarity from urban political and intellectual elites, with the exception of a few activists and NGOs, already more or less engaged in the peasant milieu, who tried to organize some demonstrations and support activities. Today, I tend to think that these isolated and repressed peasant movements of the mid-1990s were the first fruits of the revolutionary processes that ended the Mubarak regime in early 2011.

Few people in the area know about Via Campesina. Even amongst those people who, by a kind of mimicry, use the expression food sovereignty, know nothing about Via Campesina and the history of this concept. In itself, this is a real political problem that further aggravates the invisibility of rural and peasant populations and widens the rift between the city and the countryside, thereby limiting relations to exchanges of products and services through closed circuits.

I wonder if some of the separation you talk about between the city and the countryside is also because, speaking generally here, with exceptions such as Yemen, it’s been a very modernizing left. Whereas in Asia you had Maoism, and in Latin America you had liberation theology, Christian-based communities, and you had all these ideologies and forms of organizing that were much more centered on the world and the culture of the countryside.

Whereas in North Africa it’s generally been, or rather there has been an embrace of a modern/traditional dichotomy.

Yes, sure. Compared to North Africa specifically, I think not only does the city not know the countryside, but additionally, the urban lefts subjugated by modernity have developed a sort of disregard for the peasantry, which they consider as a brake and an obstacle to development. We know that this is not new. Already Marx, in his day, had little regard for the peasant world which, surprisingly, he had never tried to understand.

Generally, the Maghreb left, excepting a few generally unorganized intellectuals, reject the idea of ​​rural social classes. I have the impression that this rejection is more a reflection of the contempt towards the peasantry than the output of a serious work of reflection and conceptualization. But this is an issue that deserves a real dispassionate debate.

“It is the privilege of social scientists who choose to be physically and intellectually close to their objects of research and their interlocutors in the field. That’s what has always interested me”

Let’s take the example of the considerable difference between the history as it has been constructed and told – storytelling – of Mohamed Bouazizi and the real story, which is much more interesting, because it is linked to the stories of many peasants in Sidi Bouzid, and their sense of being robbed, dispossessed, marginalized and impoverished [Mohammed Bouazizi was the Tunisian street vendor whose immolation in Sidi Bouzid, a city in Tunisia’s Center-West, has often been heralded as the spark that lit the Arab Spring].

We know today that Mohamed Bouazizi, whom almost nobody knew outside his immediate circles, was not an unemployed graduate as had been claimed, and that he had not been slapped by the policewoman. Yet this false story had been disseminated and used to mobilize as much as possible against the Ben Ali regime.

We understand the reasons and the political objectives of this invented history and we can even accede to such a use. For in any case, no one can deny its formidable effectiveness since it allowed Tunisians to bring down a true dictatorship, while the real story probably could not have done so.

However, I continue to think that despite its undeniable effectiveness and its historical importance, Bouazizi’s constructed history has dispossessed the peasants of Sidi Bouzid and the rest of the country of their stories of struggles and resistance, stories with which the real history of Bouazizi fits perfectly.

The popular understanding of the Tunisian revolution stems from a false history, and constitutes in fact a denial of truth, and a marked contempt, albeit unconscious, for peasants, their functions, their roles and finally their resistance. It is in fact a blatant expression of the opposition of the urban middle class and in particular the Tunisian left to any idea of ​​rural social classes.

The debate on rural social classes, opened a good thirty years ago, deserves to be revived and enriched. I have already published on the relationship between the peasants of Sidi Bouzid, Bouazizi and the revolution.

I also wonder if somehow there is a link between the fact that in Tunisia you have actually an incredibly rich tradition of Marxist intellectuals in the academy that wrote about the countryside.

So, like Hafedh Sethom, Slaheddine el-Amami, to some extent Azzam Mahjoub, Habib Attia, who all, of course, wrote under the dictatorships. Some of them helped with the planning process in the 1970s, but they could not possibly be linked to any form of left that was actually organizing otherwise they would lose their job and livelihood. So, this made it harder to have a convergence between an activist left and the academic left especially on this question of the countryside.

Yeah definitely, at least in Tunisia. I don’t know about Morocco or Algeria. Have you encountered attempts to converge between the Marxist researchers of the time, such as the ones you just mentioned, and the left-wing activists of the time? I do not know any.

I must admit that it would have been extremely dangerous for anyone at the time of Bourguiba or Ben Ali, which must be a part of the explanation for the absence of convergences. One could imagine a birth of peasant or pro-peasant unions. But knowing a little about the political context of postcolonial Tunisia, characterized by a dictatorship that has closed all political spaces and the suffocating hegemony of organizations, such as UTAP (Tunisian Union of Agriculture and Fishery) and the UGTT (Tunisian General Labour Union), related through a system of alliances to the existing political power structure and its single party, it is very difficult to imagine political initiatives to create independent organizations.

In fact, it would be unfair to reproach Marxist scholars under dictatorship for not engaging politically. They did a great deal of observation, documentation and analysis in an extremely difficult context.

They have left us with materials that have proven to be rich and indispensable for understanding current agricultural and food policies and the evolution of these policies during the last decades. Anyone who does not know the work of Amami, Sethom, or others cannot understand current agricultural issues and their ecological, economic, social and political dimensions.

Those who ignore these valuable materials produced and accumulated during this relatively long period cannot understand what happened between December 17, 2010 and January 14, 2011. It is extremely important to recall these facts especially since very few contemporary academics could present a record as rich and politically useful as their predecessors.

Even when they proposed it, it was often just a proposal – they might write in their work that a specific programme ‘rests on the activity of the peasants’ but this was a dead letter. Imagine someone going to the countryside and trying to organize the peasants! For all we know there were such attempts, but we don’t know what happened to the people who tried to do these things. Even to take Brazil which is supposedly a democracy it’s known that the MST (Brazilian Landless Workers’ Movement) militants are assassinated all the time by the landowners.

And it’s still the case in many other countries.

And this has been in the post-democratic period in Brazil. So, imagine in Tunisia …

Something like this also happened in Egypt, where the pro-peasant activist Salah Hussein – who was the husband of Shahenda Maklad, also a great pro-peasant activist who died in June 2016 -was murdered in 1966 in Kamshish, his village, which was located in the Nile Delta. He was killed because with Shahenda and the small peasants he had won a political battle against the big landowners of the Delta who were trying to avoid the agrarian reform initiated in the early 1950s by Nasser.

In Tunisia Ahmed Ben Salah would never have allowed anyone to resist his policies. He would have used every means to prevent any resistance. This is the main explanation for the absence of trade unions and farmers’ organizations before 2011 and even since the end of the dictatorship. This also explains why ‘committed’ researchers did not get involved directly on the ground with the farmers.

If we can shift gears a little bit. How do you see your cultural work, your films contributing to the Tunisian debate or collective discourse around food sovereignty? How do you see the contributions of all the films? Because you make a lot of films Green Mirage, Fellahin, Gabes Labes, and most recently Couscous which was shown at the ROAPE workshop in Accra in 2017.

When I first began making films, I did not plan to work on food sovereignty, it came much later. I had in mind work on questions of access to resources – land rights, water rights, environmental rights.

The first film, On the Banks of the Nile: Sharing Water was made in 2003, at a time when, after 15 or 20 years of work on water, I realized that the real problem was not water but farmers and other water-users access to water resources. It was conditions of access that could, at least partially, explain complex social and political situations. Access to water is a precondition for biological life. But it is also social and therefore political.

So, as I often say, ‘ came out of the water to see the peasants, to understand the different mechanisms and questions they face, including those related to water access. The main objective was to contribute to the ongoing discussion, and to bear witness to the peasants’ difficulties, as well as their social conditions.

“Documentary films seemed to me an excellent tool of communication and interchange with a public which is very broad compared to academia. Watching a documentary takes an incomparably shorter time than reading a book, or even a scholarly article”

Of course, all this was not by chance. I did not find myself accidentally lost along Egypt’s Nile Valley. I have done nothing, so to speak, by chance, during my career. My research activities have always focused on subjects which I considered, at the moment of my engagement, as causes to be defended. It’s my way of engaging. I am not in any political party or movement. I am somewhere in the radical left and that suffices for me as an affiliation.

As far as film-making was concerned, I had felt the need to get out of my role as a researcher publishing for a relatively limited number of more or less specialized publications and readers, and to address those and those who are not necessarily in academia or the university environment.

Documentary films seemed to me an excellent tool of communication and interchange with a public which was very broad compared to academia. Watching a documentary takes an incomparably shorter time than reading a book, or even a scholarly article.

I take advantage of what I believe I know to provoke debate. Water was my specialty. Rural issues too. This knowledge and experience allowed me to have special and close relations with the agricultural world, including peasants and all manner of farmers, and therefore with their living spaces and/or work.

These relationships have allowed me to observe the rural space, the activities which go on there, their living and working conditions, the changes underway, as well as ways of organizing rural and agricultural populations. It is, moreover, the privilege of social scientists who choose to be physically and intellectually close to their objects of research and their interlocutors in the field.

That’s what has always interested me. In any case that’s what inspired me in my film Green Mirages (Mirages Verts) that I made in 2012 with my friend, the Egyptian director Nadia Kamel. Basically, I try to do what I can do, using available and accessible means and by mobilizing the 3 or 4 things that I think I know and understand.

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