Category Archives: Latin America

Review: Organic Sovereignties

Organic Sovereignties. Struggles over Farming in an Age of Free Trade. Guntra A. Aistara. University of Washington Press. 2018. ISBN: 9780295743110.

Laura Kihlstrom (University of South Florida)

Guntra A. Aistara has written what the foreword of the book describes as the ‘first sustained ethnographic study of organic farmers outside the U.S.’. Organic Sovereignties is a multi-sited ethnography placed in Latvia and Costa Rica, countries described as regional peripheries in the European Union (EU) and Central America, respectively. I approached this book with great interest, given the lack of multi-sited ethnographies in food studies, as well as the frequent focus of books on organic farming exclusively on North America.

 One of the fastest growing sectors of the global food industry, organic agriculture is now an 82 billion industry. While 90 % of all sales are made in the Global North, 89 % of all organic products are produced by farmers in the Global South, the industry reflecting longstanding inequalities in the food system. How are these contradictions solved among organic farmers in two countries? How do Latvian and Costa Rican actors in the organic agriculture movement negotiate, create, and maintain sovereignties while their countries promote free trade?

The backdrop to the book is Latvia joining the EU in 2004 and Costa Rica joining the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) in 2007. Through utilizing a multi-sited approach, Aistara demonstrates how seemingly different localities are in fact part of a broader global neoliberal system, and heavily influenced by their powerful neighboring countries, whilst having their own unique agrarian and political histories in how organic agriculture has developed. Similar to the approach of Alyshia Galvéz in her book Eating NAFTA (2018), Aistara follows free trade agreements at the micro-level to deepen our understanding of food sovereignty. The result is a rigorously researched ‘ethnography of frustration and resurgence’.

Chapter 1 follows the personal stories of organic farmers and those involved in the organic agriculture industry in the two countries. While the practices of Latvian organic farmers mimic the country’s agrarian past through so called quiet sustainabilities on subsistence farms, Costa Rican organic farmers associate their actions with democratic ideals and principles of agroecology. Despite these differences, organic actors in both countries have asserted their sovereignty not independent from the state but in relation to it. And in both cases, small-scale farmers frequently share an experience of being perceived as impediments to progress and modernity by political elites in power.

Chapter 2 is an exploration into the events leading the countries to EU and CAFTA. In Latvia, reactions to a potential EU membership were built around a general narrative of correcting a Soviet history of collectivization and confirmed in a referendum in 2003. In Costa Rica, membership in CAFTA was resisted loudly and openly, and ultimately decided upon in a referendum. Eventually, both countries have had to deal with the built-in inequalities in the trade deals. In EU, eastern member states still receive fewer subsidies than member countries in the west. In CAFTA, Costa Rican small-scale organic farmers were up against an unfair advantage against farmers in the Global North, as well as wealthier farmers in the middle parts of the country.

Chapter 3 focuses on the symbolic importance of landscapes for organic farmers as sites of memory, pain, loss, but also resistance. For Latvian farmers, organic landscapes have been designed by drawing from the past to which they share a deep connection. In Costa Rica, organic landscapes can be seen as a means to protect biodiversity and as a response to the history of colonization in the region, which has resulted in deforestation and chemical-heavy farming of export crops. In both places, organic farmers develop new models for farming and assert their sovereignty through maintaining and altering landscapes.

Chapter 4 weaves together organic farming and biodiversity. Aistara challenges the notion of biodiversity as a list of species and re-conceptualizes it as something that can be both created and maintained by organic farmers. She uses the concept of networked diversities to describe new forms of diversity that emerge from interactions between organic farmers and nonhuman actors in lived landscapes. For example, organic farmers in Latvia use their informal social networks to diversify their livelihood options, such as by inviting tourist groups to the farm to see grazing wild horses in the adjacent meadows. The positive feedback they gained from this experience further encouraged them to protect the biodiversity on the meadows. In other words, networked diversities demonstrate that new forms of diversities do not always emerge from conscious action but from a combination of informal social connections and multispecies interactions In Latvia, diversifying has been a way to expand livelihood options, while in Costa Rica informal seed exchange networks have been a way to conserve agrobiodiversity as a means of political resistance.

Chapter 5 is an overview of the challenges that organic farmers have dealt with since becoming part of transnational trade deals. In both countries, the process of ‘harmonization of legislation’ in EU and CAFTA has challenged the sovereignty of farmers. In Latvia, organic farmers have been discouraged by a surge in surveillance and inspections on their farms, while in Costa Rica seeds that had historically been managed by farmers have risked becoming the property of a privileged group of breeders.

Chapter 6 focuses on the failed promises of trade deals for small-scale organic farmers and businesses. Rather than becoming managers of supply chains, both Latvia and Costa Rica have remained in the margins and continue to mainly produce raw materials for European and North American processors. Aistara explains this as the result of a process of conventionalization in which small businesses are taken over or grow into the organic industrial complex (Guthman, 2014). Farmers in both countries have had challenges in being able to afford the expensive certification process, in not being able to meet strict hygiene standards for export products, or not having the resources to increase the value of one’s products.

Chapter 7 focuses on the tensions within the organic movement itself. This chapter demonstrates that organic farmers are indeed not a homogenous group of people. In both Costa Rica and Latvia, within the movement, amateur and small-scale farmers have often been marginalized. At the same time, as the movement aims to achieve recognition as well as to produce enough food to meet the demands of the industrial food systems, organic farmers in both locations have shifted their focus from values and principles to giving primacy to funds and resources available for them.

Is it possible for organic farmers to maintain their sovereignties while being shaped by free trade agreements and globalization? The book Organic Sovereignties is an ethnographic exploration of the frustrations and agency of organic farmers in two countries that are considered regional peripheries. By following two countries, Aistara demonstrates that there are similarities in how organic farmers and actors become disadvantaged by free trade policies, while their acts of resistance and resurgence build upon each country’s individual agrarian histories, as well as forms of political or colonial oppression.

The book makes several noteworthy theoretical contributions. It challenges the concept of sovereignty and describes it as something that is not necessarily free of the state but exists in a dialectical relationship with it. Aistara also conceptualizes biodiversity not as something in juxtaposition with farming activities, but as something that may be maintained and created by organic farmers. She concludes that conservation efforts geared towards protecting biodiversity may be unsuccessful if they discount farmers’ knowledge on the topic. Third, this book highlights that organic farmers are not a uniform group of people but have different subjectivities which are affected by histories of colonization, oppression, class, race, and geographies.

My one critique for the book is that the multi-sited approach makes it difficult at times for the reader to remain connected to both localities. Focusing on a couple of characters in each chapter throughout the book might have made some of the book’s themes more digestible. I recommend this book to graduate students in the field of food studies, agronomy, anthropology, sociology, and political sciences.

References

Gálvez, A. (2018). Eating NAFTA : trade, food policies, and the destruction of Mexico. University of California Press.

Guthman, J. (2014). Agrarian Dreams : the Paradox of Organic Farming in California. University of California Press.

 

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Filed under agriculture, anthropology, food security, food systems, Latin America

A Binational Learning Community on Food, Culture and Social Justice

eduador field image

Photo courtesy of the Food in Culture and Social Justice blog, osufcsj.wordpress.com.

Joan Gross
Oregon State University

I recently completed a pilot run of a binational learning community focused on food, culture and social justice in Ecuador and Oregon. I live in Oregon and have been working with food activists there. I took a sabbatical in Ecuador in 2006 and later watched the development and aftermath of the inclusion of “food sovereignty” in their 2008 constitution. I returned on a Fulbright in 2012 and interviewed food activists, along with beginning the work on this exchange program. In September 2013, we received the Ecuador group in Oregon and spent two weeks touring alternative food sites. This was followed by 10 weeks of linked classes and then a two week food system tour of Ecuador in December. I’ve been in Ecuador since the program ended. Last night I attended a talk by Vandana Shiva at the Central University in Quito and in the question period afterwards (which was more like a mini lecture series) one young man asked her how she has used her education. Without missing a beat Dr. Shiva said that her dissertation was on quantum physics and there were two things that underlay both her work in physics and her work in food systems. The first is that everything is connected and the second is that everything is in flux.  I thought that this might be a good way to think about this program on food, culture and social justice.

Because everything is connected, I formed a learning community of people with a variety of interests: nutrition, farming, public policy, gastronomy and, of course, anthropology. Our site visits ranged from farm to table with presenters constantly emphasizing connections between soil health, plant health and human health. The economic aspects were ever present as we discussed the thorny problem of how to get healthy, fresh food to people without much income when they can more easily fill their stomachs with cheaper, less nutritious food. As much as possible, we tried to pair sites in both countries. We visited urban agriculture projects in Portland and Quito; agroecological farms with culturally specific CSA programs; farmers’ markets; seed savers. In the Willamette Valley we heard from organic seed producer, Frank Morton, about why the Willamette Valley is a prime area of the world to produce seeds and the threat of GMOs to the thriving organic seed industry there. He summed up how GMOs have been surreptitiously introduced in Oregon as a policy of “contaminate, then negotiate.” In Ecuador, we heard from Xavier Leon of Acción Ecológica about the constant threat of GMOs from agroindustries, even though the constitution declares Ecuador a GMO-free country. We also saw how the two countries are connected. Our natural foods co-ops sell high end chocolate and organic bananas from Ecuador and American brands and fast food outlets are very prevalent in Ecuadorian cities.

Vandana Shiva also spent time talking about oppression and liberation within the food system how food should be a human right. This was another theme of the binational learning community. We talked with Latino farmworkers in Oregon and ex-hacienda workers in Ecuador about the injustices of the industrial food system. It was enlightening and depressing to see similar struggles within very different cultural/historical/political contexts. We heard about the innovative community organizing programs at the Oregon Food Bank and later helped the gleaners do a food re-pack and shared their pot luck lunch. There is no food banking system in Ecuador, but we visited the successful Canastas Comunitarias program in Riobamba where low-income urban dwellers have connected with agroecological farmers. Every two weeks they buy in bulk, directly from the farmers and divide up the produce among the urban buyers. This system has spread around the country.

ecuador fruit

Photo courtesy of Food in Culture and Social Justice blog, http://osufcsj.wordpress.com/

Everything is in flux, and through lectures about changing diets through time, we laid the groundwork for change in the future, a predilection of the people inside the learning community and those who presented to us. Often the change they proposed was a return to earlier patterns of consumption. We focused on the particular situations of Native Americans who had their land stolen and their foodways altered and are now suffering from diet-related diseases at a much higher rate than the rest of the population in both countries. A focus on Native Americans also allowed us to understand the importance of ecosystems in the creation of cultural foodways. We spent a day with the Confederated Tribes of the Siletz on the Oregon coast and another couple days with the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla on the high plateau. In Ecuador we visited two Kichwa groups who have started community tourism ventures: one at 12,500 feet in Cotopaxi and another group in Misahuallí in the Amazon basin. In each place, we discovered new plants and animals that nourish people there. The Ecuadorians were shocked to eat elk and the American shocked to eat Chontacuro grubs. Most Ecuadorians are a generation closer to farming and to shopping at open air markets, but we heard about how quickly things are changing. Overweight and obese children are more and more common, as well as non-communicable diet-related diseases such as diabetes.

Learning is not simply an intellectual exercise. It involves our emotions and all our senses and is linked to our daily practices. Learning communities work against the fragmentation of information and the decreasing sense of community by setting up a non-hierarchical atmosphere of collaborative learning that is rich in experience. With a focus on food, practically every meal became a classroom as chefs explained where they obtained their food and how they prepared it. We prepared ceviche with Oregon mussels with Slow Food Corvallis and we roasted and ground chocolate in the jungle. We weathered short bouts of intestinal problems (in both places) and altitude sickness in Ecuador. We had numerous conversations on buses and we sang and danced and joked together. We learned new vocabulary in two languages. Sometimes we struggled to understand and other times we struggled to express ourselves in a new language, but we got better at both tasks. We shared our knowledge and learned many new things together. If any of you are interested in putting together a similar program, I’d be happy to talk with you. You might even want to check out the group’s blog at osufcsj.wordpress.com.

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Filed under agriculture, Andes, anthropology, Eduador, food policy, Food Studies, foodways, Latin America, Oregon

Foodways and Urban Change in Latin America and the Caribbean: AAA 2013 Panel!

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by Aeleka Schortman and Amy Lasater-Wille

Please consider submitting paper abstracts for our proposed panel on Foodways and Urban Change in Latin America and the Caribbean (see full panel description below). While we focus on urbanism, we encourage the submission of research based in rural or urban areas, so long as it speaks to issues of urban change, planning, development, and the like in Latin America or the Caribbean.

We further encourage non-anthropologists and applied researchers with similar interests to submit, especially as this year’s AAA meeting theme is “Future Publics, Current Engagements.”  This theme encourages us as anthropologists to engage with scholars in related disciplines as well as with issues of pressing social, political, and economic significance.

Working Title: Foodways and Urban Change in Latin America and the Caribbean

Panel Abstract:

This panel addresses food and foodways in Latin America—here, including the Caribbean—to understand the processes, practices, and politics of urbanization and urban change in that region. Exemplifying worldwide trends, Latin America is growing increasingly urban, a transformation frequently associated with: land and resource consolidation, deepening inequalities, mounting security concerns, and growing involvement in—and dependency upon—globalized, industrialized, and inequitable agro-food systems. Today, historically unprecedented numbers of people, and city-dwellers, in particular, draw needed sustenance from novel and rapidly-changing food procurement and preparation networks. Changing metropolitan foodways present urban residents and visitors with new ways and places in which to consume, produce, or sell foods, and in which to (re)assess and (re)make the meanings of such practices. Providing far more than sustenance, food has social, symbolic, economic, and ideological value. Thus, participating in—or, alternatively, abstaining or being excluded from—eating, shopping, or laboring in urban markets, restaurants, kitchens, or informal locales can have profound social, symbolic, and economic significance. Moreover, changes in urban foodways frequently involve rural transformations, as both urban and rural residents engage with—and create—the production and distribution networks that characterize, and quite literally feed, the region’s growing cities.

Food is central to survival, daily life, and the webs of meaning, and power, that color human existence. Consequently, studies of food and foodways offer exceptional entry points through which to explore and engage with pressing issues of our time, including, here, urbanization and urban change. Latin America’s centuries-old involvement with inequitable, uneven, and increasingly globalized political-economies and agro-food systems makes the region a particularly alluring place for contemporary food-related research and scholarship. Moreover, despite great internal diversity, present (and historical) patterns of socioeconomic development, and inequity, unite portions of Latin America and the Caribbean, offering interesting fodder for both food-related analyses and discussions of regional trends. These include patterns of: foodway and demographic change; neoliberal development (and its alternatives, or backlash); deep, persistent (and frequently-racialized) socio-economic divisions; uneven/inequitable integration into regional/global political-economies; and tourism- and/or corporate-led development (amongst others).

Here, then, we explore food to shed light on the challenges, promises, and dynamic processes of urbanization and urban change in Latin America. In so doing, we engage with themes and issues of critical importance in the theory and practice of anthropology and related fields including: economics, social geography, sociology, urban planning/development, socio-economic policy, and nutrition/health. More precisely, individual panelists may address questions including: (How) are patterns of urban change—or development—implicated in shifting food acquisition, production, distribution, and consumption systems? Who benefits, or fails to benefit, from local, regional, and/or (trans)national food-related policies, programs, practices, and/or discourses? How do urban residents conceptualize and negotiate food-related constraints and opportunities, including potential paradoxes of food/nutritional scarcity amidst seeming abundance? How are Latin America’s urban foodways colored by long-entrenched (or newly emerging): socio-economic inequalities and patterns/practices of socio-economic, political, and/or spatial (geographical) exclusion (or inclusion)? And, how do people perpetuate or resist such inequities? How (and why) do city-dwellers ascribe particular meanings, or values, to specific food-related practices, policies, discourses, and/or symbolic representations? Moreover, what can studies of urban food and foodways tell us about changing—or newly emerging—economies, political systems (or visions), social movements, or global interconnections in Latin America, both urban and rural? What might studies of food reveal about the social, economic, political, and/or nutritional consequences—or implications—of existing economic models, socio-economic policies, or development programs?

DEADLINES (and Related Information):

Abstract Submission for Consideration in the Panel: Please submit proposed paper abstracts by Saturday, April 6th, 2013. All submissions should be sent to BOTH: Amy Lasater-Wille (ael337@nyu.edu) and Aeleka Schortman (schortman@uky.edu). We will respond to all interested parties by Tuesday April 9th (4/9/13) at the latest. We kindly ask that everyone abide by the April 6th deadline so that we may respond to all potential participants in a timely manner and assemble a full panel in time for the AAA abstract submission deadline (April 15, 2013).

AAA Submission Deadline: All accepted panelists must submit their own abstracts electronically to the AAA by April 15, 2013. (We will email instructions regarding how to do this.) Please note that participants must register (and pay) for the 2013 AAA meetings by that deadline as well.

Meeting Information: This year’s American Anthropological Association (AAA) Annual Meeting will be held at the Chicago Hilton in Chicago, Illinois on November 20-24, 2013. The meeting theme is Future Publics, Current Engagements.

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Filed under AAA, AAA 2013 Chicago, anthropology, Caribbean, CFP, foodways, Latin America, sustainability, urban