Asia, home to about 4.5 billion people or almost 60% of the total world population, is the fastest-growing region in the world in economic terms. Accompanying this economic growth are large economic disparities, persisting inequalities, destruction and erosion of the commons, intensifying political turmoil, rising authoritarianism, and increasing social and environmental injustice, including widespread hunger and malnutrition.
According to the 2018 data of the Global Hunger Index (GHI)[i], countries in the regions of South Asia and Southeast Asia are experiencing serious hunger situations. Out of the 119 countries included in the GHI report (higher rank means hungrier), Myanmar ranked 68th; the Philippines 69th; Nepal 72nd; Indonesia 73rd; Cambodia 78th; Bangladesh 86th; Lao PDR 83rd; India 103rd; Pakistan 106th; and Timor-Leste 110th. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations (UN) reported in September 2018 that the number of hungry people in the world is growing—reaching 821 million, or one in every nine people in 2017.[ii]
Across the world, the dominant economic system prioritizes the exploitation of natural resources for profit over sustainable management of such resources to feed the growing population of the world. According to the 2017 report of the ETC Group, Who Will Feed Us? [iii], more than two-thirds of the world population rely on the Peasant Food Web—small-scale farmers, peasants, pastoralists, rural women, small-scale fishers, and indigenous peoples—who produce food using less than one-fourth of global resources including land, water, forest, and fossil fuels, to feed the world. These food providers, many of who are women, are those involved in peasant and family farmer-driven agriculture, artisanal fishing, pastoralist-led grazing, and traditional agroecological practices. Their central roles in ensuring food security, maintaining employment, reducing poverty, and sustainable management of natural resources have been highlighted by the Committee for World Food Security since 2011.[iv]
These small-scale food providers are threatened by the industrial food chain led by global agribusinesses and food corporations, who provide food to less than one-third of the world’s people while using at least three-fourths of the world’s agricultural resources, emitting significant amounts of greenhouse gas emissions, and being a main contributor to climate change.
The 2007 Declaration of Nyéléni defines food sovereignty as “the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems.”[v] It argues, among others, that people should have the right to define their own food, farming, pastoral, fisheries, and indigenous systems, and determine the most appropriate methods and practices of food production, distribution, and consumption based on environmental, social, and economic sustainability. Food sovereignty resists the whims and demands of free markets, corporate dominated trade, and the industrial food regime, and instead, prioritizes the development and growth of local and national economies and industries. Above everything, the concept of food sovereignty advocates for the rights of peoples, communities, and the environment above economic and financial considerations.
The right to food is enshrined in Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that first recognized the right to food as a human right: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services.”[vi] The right to food is intertwined with the inalienable right to life and the realization of life with dignity, as it is imperative to the realization of other human rights. It is not about charity, but about ensuring that all people have the capacity to feed themselves in dignity.[vii] Moreover, the right to food is not merely the people’s right to consume food, but also their right to have assured access to food and the right to produce their own food. The 2018 Independent Civil Society Report on the Use and Implementation of the Right to Food Guidelines argues for a holistic approach to realizing the right to food—recognizing that all human rights are universal, indivisible, interdependent and interrelated, and that the realization of the right to food cannot be achieved in isolation, nor can other human rights be enjoyed when violations of the right to food persist.[viii]
Even so, many small-scale food providers continually suffer violence, exploitation, marginalization, discrimination, manipulation, and displacement because of middlemen/brokers, local elites, agribusiness companies, transnational corporations (TNCs), financial institutions and governments. People are often pushed off and out of their lands, ancestral domains and fishing areas by large-scale investment projects including but not limited to mining operations, plantations, industrial food estates, contract farming, aquaculture, Special Economic Zones (SEZs), and Industrial Zones (IZs). Most of these businesses operate with impunity, in connivance with governments that have adopted neoliberal policies and entered into free trade-investment agreements that destroy the local agricultural sector. Local food providers lose control over their territories, farmlands, grazing fields, water, seeds, livestock, fish populations, and access to markets. New technologies introduced by mainstream academia and research institutions enable powerful corporate players to concentrate control over food, agriculture and fisheries and undermine the abilities of small-scale food providers to develop, share and implement knowledge and skills needed for localized food systems.
The Thai agro-industrial and food conglomerate Charoen Pokphand (CP) Foods is a virtual food monopoly with more than 280 subsidiaries operating in more than 16 countries. In 2014, the Guardian’s six-month investigation revealed the slave labor practices and human trafficking behind the complex supply chains that supply fishmeal to CP’s farmed prawns.[ix] An estimated 300,000 people work in Thailand’s fishing industry, 90% of whom are migrants from neighboring Myanmar and Cambodia, with unscrupulous business outfits preying on them, duping, trafficking, and selling them at sea.
In the Philippines, the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program remains unfinished and incomplete after 30 years of weak implementation, and competing interests between landless peasants, and landlords and proponents of converting agricultural lands into real estate development projects and commercial sites. Agriculture in the Philippines now faces land re-concentration through huge agribusiness ventures with very close and strong ties to powerful politicians, land-banking by corporations that render vast land tracts idle and taken away from food production, and very low farm gate prices for farmers—in large part caused by the imposition of tariff policies that favor importation of rice and other crops through the lifting of quantitative restrictions.
In India, the diversity of local seed varieties and traditional knowledge, systems, and practices of food production including agroecology, are threatened by genetically modified foods and the introduction of new technologies in the guise of “climate-smart agriculture.” Expanding corporate investment in food retail, through online and brick-and-mortar markets threatens local food cultures, food production and distribution systems, and people’s access to food.[x]
In Cambodia, the fisherfolk of Tonle Sap Lake are experiencing significantly decreased fish catches that are no longer enough for daily survival, as they contend with the effects of climate change through droughts and floods, the impacts of dams to generate electricity for cities and industries elsewhere, and continued illegal fishing by commercial fishers. Rural families are forced to take on onerous loans to address the growing costs of agricultural production and dwindling crop prices, pushing many to leave their rice fields and migrate to cities and neighboring countries to look for work.
Tragically, those who produce food to feed much of the world are oftentimes those who also suffer from severe and chronic hunger. Most of the rural provinces that are considered the breadbaskets, the rice granaries, and the major food providers of the world are also those that have high poverty incidence. For example, in the Philippines, Bukidnon province is known as a “highland paradise” and Northern Mindanao’s “food basket.” It is among the country’s top producers of sugar, rice, corn, banana, coffee, pineapple, and other fruits and vegetables. And yet 93% of families do not own land, more than 116,000 of them belong to poor households—the highest among the country’s 16 poorest provinces.[xi]
Although women produce most of the food across Asia and despite their central roles in food production and provision, they continue to face discrimination in their homes, communities and in social-economic policies.[xii] Rural women are oftentimes overburdened with both agricultural and domestic work as they are forced to fulfill their “traditional roles” in families, even as their key contributions are neither recognized, nor compensated. Women also face several constraints in accessing markets arising from time constraints, unequal access to productive resources, technology, finance, education and relevant services, and limited influence over decision making on economic matters.[xiii]
“Sapagkat ang lupa ay buhay, ito ay itinuturing naming sagrado. At sa unti-unti nitong pagkasira ay unti-unti din kaming namamatay.”
– Inged Fintailan