Building alliances with farmers’ movements (part 5 of 8)

This is the fifth post in an eight-part series about how we can transform the roles of non-governmental organizations like Groundswell to make food sovereignty a reality. Read the first, second, third, and fourth posts.

Building alliances with farmers’ movements

Village meeting in rural Haiti

Haitian farmer voicing his opinion at a meeting near Saint Michel, Haiti in February 2011.

Many have criticized NGOs for focusing on technical approaches to supporting agricultural (even agroecological) development while failing to fully collaborate with farmer’s movements in promoting food sovereignty and changing policy. It is often a fair critique.

Farmers are important social actors in rural people’s organizations, articulating the interests of their members and giving them political voice. NGOs must identify effective means of supporting and strengthening them as autonomous political entities. Unfortunately, NGOs can easily lose sight of this and put themselves in the center of policy debates. As Bern Guri notes, “NGOs should try to strengthen farmers’ voices in the political process and not replace them.”

It must be emphasized that NGOs and farmers’ organizations are diverse and neither type of organization is immune to the challenges that tend to face any organization. Developing and implementing strategies that are effective, broadening and renewing leadership, remaining driven by values and mission, or avoiding overly centralized decision making and power structures, are just a few of these. Both must focus on promoting the interests of rural people and achieving food sovereignty, and there is ample opportunity for them to collaborate.

We have been involved with a number of NGO efforts over the years to collaborate with farmers’ organizations and movements, particularly in Latin American and Caribbean countries such as Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Haiti, Ecuador, Bolivia and Peru.  The goal has generally been to strengthen local agroecological pilot initiatives which can be scaled throughout existing networks. Unfortunately, these efforts often fall short of their potential impact. Farmer’s movements have in some cases demonstrated commitment to their genuine need for land rights and political influence, but expressed little interest in sustainable farming methodologies.  Meanwhile, NGOs, despite their best efforts, have failed to build adequate trust in negotiating their role in strengthening the community-level base of broader movements. Clearly, both political voice and appropriate farming methods are vital.  Changes in political policy are necessary; one can’t farm without access to land or if production is undercut by subsidized imports. But even with land and policy supports, successful farming still requires a locally led process of innovation for productivity and sustainability.

There is a need for NGOs and farmers’ movements to engage in honest dialogue: to examine common interests and what each brings to the table, to look for win-win opportunities that can be gained through collaboration, and to develop trust. This often happens by starting with small, concrete initiatives.

“Most leaders of Ecuador’s indigenous movements have worked closely with NGOs over the years,” says Steve Sherwood. “There has been a lot of productive collaboration. But many NGOs have become project-driven. And even many indigenous leaders have become urbanized. As they have gained power, they need to live in cities and get involved in politics. This has weakened the indigenous movements in some ways. Both indigenous leaders and NGOs need to get re-plugged into rural families and communities.”

“In Burkina Faso, limited movements exist to promote agroecology,” notes Fatou Batta. “Groups tend to be working in isolation. An agroecology platform does exist in Burkina, but it is not very strong. Those social movements tend to be stronger in Mali. So in Burkina we need to support efforts to pull things together and show the viability of these alternatives.”

In the words of Cantave Jean-Baptiste, “In Haiti, we are strengthening the base. We need to strengthen local peasants and their organizations to assume the roles of actors in leading their own development. We also facilitate them in strengthening networks across many communities, and to connect to the wider peasant movement organizations.”

Most of the local peasant organizations in Haiti belong to wider peasant movements and networks. While these networks play a vital role in Haiti’s development, they would be further strengthened by greater participation from their base groups, and better two-way flow of communication between the base and peasant network leaders. Jean-Baptiste notes that “sometimes the peasant organizations also need to do a better job of communicating with their own base. For example, while peasant movements were protesting and burning hybrid Monsanto seeds in Haiti in June (of 2010), I visited some of their base groups that had received some of those same seeds from the AID supported program. The farmers did not have adequate information about what to do with the seeds, or what the impact would be if they became dependent on hybrids. Some of the farmers were even eating the pesticide covered seeds as grain, which is dangerous.”

Peter Gubbels observes that “most members of farmers’ organizations in Ghana are larger scale commercial farmers. They are organized in associations around the production and marketing of specific commodities like rice, tomatoes, poultry, and cotton, and advocate for policies affecting their particular commodity. This includes seeking government subsidies for inputs, agricultural research, and trade regulations that prevent dumping or subsidized imports. Yet these groups are not representative of the mass of semi-subsistence peasant farmers, men and women, who are mostly illiterate, and who practice traditional agriculture with hand tools. Most members of the influential farmer organizations are oriented to agribusiness or industrial methods of production. So while their advocacy for trade regulations that prevent dumping, and for government subsidies for inputs and agricultural research is compatible with food sovereignty, their approach to production and sustainability often is not.”

Bern Guri believes there is an opportunity in Ghana to strengthen a movement from the bottom up. “We need to work through indigenous institutions, such as chieftaincies, which are closest to the people, and are legitimate and respected.” Chieftaincies have strong influence with rural people and control community land; therefore, they have the potential to change communities’ attitudes, promote agro-ecological innovations and revalorize local seeds and food crops. “We can support these indigenous institutions to build a mass movement. NGOs need to have the capacities to do that.”

– Part 6 will be posted on June 7.

This segment and the rest of the article was a collaborative effort by Steve Brescia (Groundswell’s International Director), Fatou Batta (Groundswell Co-Coordinator for West Africa), Peter Gubbels (Groundswell Co-Coordinator for West Africa), Cantave Jean-Baptiste (Executive Director of Partnership for Local Development), Steve Sherwood (Specialist in Rural Innovation at EkoRural), and Bern Guri (Director of the Center for Indigenous Knowledge and Organizational Development).

Later this year the full text of the article will appear in a book titled “Food Movements Unite!”, which is a collection of essays by food movement leaders from around the world that all seek to answer the perennial political question: What is to be done? It will provide a sector by sector road map for bringing the tremendous transformative potential of the world’s food movements together into a powerful transnational force capable of ending the injustices that cause hunger. “Food Movements Unite!” is being edited by Eric Holt-Giménez, Executive Director of The Institute for Food and Development Policy/Food First, and Annie Shattuck, a PhD candidate at the University of California at Berkeley.

You may also like

Leave a comment

Keep up to date on our latest impacts around the world.

Get Involved.


Empower a family farmer today.


Watch videos and learn more.


Host a presentation or event.

Spread the Word

Be an ambassador on social media.