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     Volume 4 Issue 17 | October 15, 2004 |

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People's Caravan 2004 for Food Sovereignty

Shaila Shahid

It was a silent journey across the crop field. A slice of moon was hanging above as we travelled towards Bishnupur near Pathrail in Tangail to join with the gathering of local people and also with the members of People's Caravan.

With the slogan "People's Food Sovereignty: Asserting our rights for land and food" the People's Caravan travelled over 16 countries in Asia and Europe with simultaneous events and public consultations. The caravan called for an end to the devastating effects of globalisation and advocated indigenous agricultural practices, food sovereignty, land rights, poison-free food and social justice. Local farmers, agricultural workers, fishermen, students, scientists, environmentalists, teachers, the media, government officials, policy makers, anti-pesticides and anti-genetic engineering advocates participated in lively discussions at public meetings, press conferences, rice fields, in villages and in towns.

The People's Caravan--a movement of PANAP (Pesticide Action Network for Asia and the Pacific), based in Penang, Malaysia-- is the regional base for pesticide action network, an international coalition of citizens, groups and individuals opposing the misuse of pesticides and supporting reliance on safe, sustainable pest control methods.

This year the People's Caravan 2004 highlighted three sub-themes: Getting WTO (World Trade Organisation) out of food and agriculture, eliminate pesticides and genetic engineering (GE) and resist agrochemical TNCs (Trans national company). The Caravan largely campaigns for agricultural reform that gives the poor peasants access and control over the land, seeds and water, yields that are pesticides and GM free, guarantees an ecological production for present and future generations, supports the rights of women farmers and strengthens the communities in rural areas. The main objective was to gather support from the broad range of sectors to push for the People's Convention on Food Sovereignty, that will be put forward to national governments and to the FAO World Food Summit+10 in 2006.

The recent self-immolation of the Korean farmer in Cancun in protesting the havoc caused by WTO agreements on peasants and farming communities is a tragic testimony to the impact of WTO. According to the World Health Statistic quarterly, a World Health Organisation (WHO) publication, about 25 million workers in developing countries are poisoned every year by pesticides. Moreover, the top five agrochemical TNCs in the world control 80 percent of the US$30 billion market and virtually all of the transgenic seed market. This kind of unchecked growth and corporate power together with policies that support and benefit agrochemical TNCs have a devastating impact on communities' food, agriculture, nutritional needs and their health. Apparently, food sovereignty is the people's fundamental right to determine their access and benefit sharing over their food and agricultural policies that affect their lives and livelihood. Also lack of pro-people land reform measures, without access to land and water, the rights to productive resources are becoming crucial in ensuring food sovereignty.

After visiting India, the members of People's Caravan reached Bangladesh on September 21. The NayaKrishi (New Agricultural) farmers along with a cross section of people welcomed them and organised a meeting at Fakir Lalon Shah's shrine in Kushtia. In this public gathering the farmers raised their voices in protesting pesticides and tobacco production. In Kushtia, tobacco cultivation has been intensified during the last one decade. In fact, no food crop can be grown easily once tobacco is cultivated in the land. For tobacco production farmers have to use pesticides and fertiliser six times more than any other crop. The toxicity of the chemical fertiliser continues to remain in the soil. Gradually it became a compulsion for the farmers to grow tobacco and no food. Farmers from Daulatpur village in the meeting also complained about various health disorders related to pesticide use, which also included reproductive health problems.

"The next day on September 22, the Caravan led on to Chandai village in Natore where they attended another gathering of over a thousand people, mostly from the farming and fishing community. Another part of the Caravan visited Nayakrishi Andolon Centre at Ishwardi. Then the Caravan started for Tangail. On September 23 at Pathrail, Tangail people from different sectors including weavers and farmers of that area attended a rally. They marched to the nearest villages chanting slogans demanding the banning of pesticides use. The march culminated in a public meeting where the District Commissioner of Tangail was the chief guest and spoke about the negative impacts of pesticides. During the meeting, the farmers demanded the use, collection and conservation of local seed varieties. Traditional farming songs, nationalistic songs--reminiscent of the songs of resistance during colonial times--were the highlights of the events in Tangail.

The People's Caravan then started for Dhaka where, at a news conference at the National Press Club, they called for raising awareness among citizens and farmers about the adverse effects of laboratory driven innovations like genetic engineering and GM food. Farida Akhter, executive director of UBINIG, spoke against giving the genetically modified and hybrid vegetable seeds to the farmers during the post-flood rehabilitation phase.

According to PANAP human and environmental rights programme coordinator Kaveri Dutt, millions of people in Asia Pacific continue to suffer chronic hunger and poverty. Zakir Shahin, a farmer of Krisoker Showar (Farmers' Voice), a tiny research institute evolved from the local community, said that much research has been done on high input rice varieties in Bangladesh, but since 1965 hardly few research papers could be found on local varieties. Beedupalli Bhagyamma, an activist from India, revealed that many farmers in Andhra Pradesh are pushed to commit suicide to escape the humiliation of increasing indebtedness. Alex Arias from the Philippines, Saktiman Ghosh, Convenor of International Federation of Hawker and Urban Poor, Kolkata, Dolly Kishani, President, Bangladesh Kishani Shangha, Nagamani from India also spoke at the press conference.

After the Bangladesh visit, the People's Caravan started for Nepal to join the culmination of its one-month-long tour and activities, that was held in Kathmandu on September 30. About 5000 people marched two kilometres around the city of Kathmandu carrying banners and placards while chanting anti-imperialist slogans. The marches observed a one-minute silence to honour those peasants who have died in the course of their struggles.

Through such intercultural exchange, the People's Caravan has created an environment of solidarity and understanding among people across the borders so that they may unite with the common vision to fight for a more equitable distribution of resources. The movement celebrates our traditional food, diversity and wisdom. It promotes the reclaiming of people's rights to land, decent livelihoods and safe food for all.



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