Written by Elizabeth Henderson, honorary president of Urgenci
At regular intervals during the 7th International CSA Symposium, Jocelyn Parot, director of Urgenci, asked the people assembled together – “Is there hope after Thessaloniki?” And the crowd roared back – “yes!” Farmers, food activists and researchers from 40 countries gathered for four intense days in the City Hall to share experiences about food sovereignty in a country that has lost its financial sovereignty. For the first time there were representatives from Community Supported Fisheries as well as farms. The Symposium was organized by the International Community Supported Agriculture Network urgenci and its Greek partner, the Hellenic Network for Agroecology, Food Sovereignty and Access to Land, Agroecopolis.
Necessity being the mother of invention, people in Greece have much to teach about how to scrape by when times are hard and about the power of solidarity to save people and communities from the distress brought on by unemployment, slashed pensions, and a steady wave of refugees from war and economic crisis. In contrast to this grim backdrop, the symposium was a joyous learning community, combining three conferences in one: the 4th all-European gathering, the 2nd Mediterranean network and the 7th International conference.
There was a full day of tours, workshop tracks on CSA, food justice and solidarity economics, practitioner sharing, and advocacy, special tracks for the Mediterranean folks, and for CSA beginners, an evening of CSA videos, Greek folk dancing, and as a finale, the Urgenci General Assembly. There was even a group action – digging and planting a small garden at the public school where some of the workshops took place. A team of interpreters who volunteered their services did simultaneous translation to and from English, French, Greek, Turkish, Spanish and Korean. For reports from conference workshops, many photos and the CSA videos, visit the Urgenci website.
As a participant in most of the seven international gatherings, it was an intense experience of encounters with people whose stories I have been following for decades and new acquaintances. Here are some highlights.
The first day, there were tours to a gold mine that threatens to contaminate a village and nearby farms, a refugee center, a cheese maker and his farm, and examples of urban resilience around the city. Having recently toured urban farms in several US cities, I chose the city tour. First stop was Perka Gardens: at the height of the economic crisis, 130 families took over an abandoned military base to grow their own food. Like the other alternative projects Tony Karagiotas guided us to, the legal ownership of the land is still unresolved. Refusing to show us his own plot, Tony spoke with conviction about the participatory governance of the gardens and the democratically established principles that ban chemical pesticides and sales and require traditional seeds. The members who have 50 square meters each include Greek families, refugees and unaccompanied youth. Some of the plots are beautifully and skillfully planted. Others have been taken over by weeds.
Tony next led us to a factory which had been abandoned by its owners in 2011. Instead of leaving, the workers took it over and have been fighting in the courts ever since to gain legal ownership, claiming that the former owners owe them millions in unpaid wages.
They changed the factory’s line of products from toxic glues to eco-soaps and cleansers which they sell through independent markets like the food coop we visited next. The worker owners of the factory source most ingredients locally. The factory also houses a free clinic that provides holistic health services.
CSA has become a mature social movement, with a recognized place in the United Nations
The food coop –Bios-coop – is the only one in this city. After four years of operation, it is finally in the black and that financial achievement has only been possible because 20 people, including our guide Tony, work many volunteer hours. The store reminded me of small coops in the US. I felt right at home.
People who went to the refugee center reported that 65,000 refugees have passed through that area of northern Greece, near Macedonia. The founders of the center were themselves former refugees and their goal is to resettle refugee families in agroecological villages. However, few want to stay and farm. Most refugees have set their sights on European cities. For the time being, the project has been able to provide homes for some families, a major improvement over tents. For sale at the conference were bags and pouches made by refugees from their life jackets at the Lesvos Solidarity Project. I did some of my holiday shopping.
As honorary president of Urgenci, I had the honor of speaking at the opening plenary where I set out a major theme for the conference – making CSAs more inclusive of people of diverse income levels, ethnic groups and sexual orientations.
Urgenci’s real president, Judith Hitchman, proclaimed that CSA has become a mature social movement, with a recognized place in the United Nations Civil Society Mechanism. CSAs and related projects are growing – last year saw the first CSA conference in Mexico, Brazil has over 100, and China, soon to hold its 10 annual conference, has over 1000. There is so much exciting activity in Europe, there is no way to keep up with all the creative projects to spread CSA and help established CSAs to thrive – you can read about Be Part of CSA, SolidBase, and EATingCraft on the Urgenci website.
Together with Jason Nardi, an Italian food activist who coordinates the RIPESS International Board, I presided over the solidarity economy/social justice track We had invited speakers from many countries to exchange stories about CSA as an expression of solidarity economics, CSA and agroecology, building community and social inclusion.
“Agroecology is like the spinning wheel in the hands of Gandhi.”
Contributors to the social justice/solidarity economy track described approaches to sliding scale pricing that make it easier for people from a range of economic levels to participate. In Germany, Stephanie Wild reported, members hold an annual auction where they place bids on how much they will pay for their CSA shares. If the bids add up to the budget that the farm has shared with them, that is what they pay. Some CSAs use a traffic light system. Instead of submitting one bid, members submit three: green is what they can afford easily, yellow is a stretch and red is too high. If all the green bids do not cover the budget, they move up to the yellow bids to set how much each family is assessed for the season.
In the workshop on CSA under conditions of social and economic chaos, we heard from the Philippines, Turkey, Burkina-Faso and Palestine. The personal stories of Mary Ann Nacpil from the Philippines, Ceyhan Temurcu from Turkey and Martine Bonkoumgou from Burkina-Faso bore witness that CSAs are providing solutions for some of the worldwide problems faced by family-scale farms. Converting to a CSA brought her 34 year old son back to take over Mary Ann’s farm.
Selling through CSAs brought price stability from the wildly fluctuating market to Ceyhan’s potato crop. Setting up a network for 1500 small producers to supply CSA baskets has opened up a market for their products in an area of Burkina-Faso that suffers from drought. From Palestine, Saad Dagler, a small, compactly built man with a radiant personality, brought us some hope from that “bloody and bleeding region.” Since the Israelis control all farm inputs, using only local materials – seed, recycled organic matter, cover crops, manure, intercropping – has enabled him through ten years of steady work to help over 300 families to disengage from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to achieve food sovereignty. In his words, “agroecology is like the spinning wheel in the hands of Gandhi.”
In “CSA and Agroecology,” we heard about CSAs that made it possible for farmers in South Korea, Mali, Spain and China to earn a living. In South Korea, Sisters Garden has been tremendously successful in organizing women farmers. Previously, although 60% of the work on farms has been done by women, they were considered “house wives,” or “women living in rural areas.” Sisters Garden has empowered hundreds of women to become farmers in their own right and provide income for their families. Sukya Lee shared the history of organizing among Korean women first to form the Korean Women Peasant Association (1989), and then Sisters Garden (2002), a cooperative box scheme with over 10,000 customers. Sisters Garden has an on-line list of products for customers to choose from, a regular newsletter with information about what is available, recipes and news of women peasants, and a project devoted to native seed production. (www.sistersgarden.org) In the workshop on Social Inclusion, Drazen Simlesa told us how in Croatia, a region once devastated by war, organic farmers have organized a cooperative to sell their produce directly to families in Zagreb, providing boxes that include 80-90% of dietary needs at prices that are fair to both buyers and farmers.
I was able to catch up with an old friend from Japan, Hiroko Kubota, professor of food studies in Tokyo and member of the board of the Japanese Organic Agriculture Association. Hiroko brought me a beautiful video of one of the first Teikei farms started in 1973 – Four Seasons at Ohira: The 401st Year of a Family Farm in Tokyo. She reported that Teikei membership continues to shrink as younger families find more convenient ways to access organic food.
The last day of the Symposium was dedicated to Urgenci’s general assembly where members came together create a plan for the next three years and to vote for a new International Committee (IC)
I made a point to seek out participants in Participatory Guarantee Systems (PGS). Shi Yan Sina, who started the first CSA in China, explained that the members of the rapidly expanding CSA network want to get more of their food needs with an assurance of quality. In response, the CSA network has developed a PGS that includes farms that specialize in rice, citrus and other products not available from most family farms. Using the app that Shi Yan’s partner Cheng developed, CSA members can place orders for a whole list of foods from farms covered by the PGS. Cheng did not come to Greece because he is busy starting two more CSAs. Their home farm, Shared Harvest CSA, crowd funded to raise money to build a greenhouse for year-round production; ten families paid in advance for five years of shares. They also run a school for new CSA farmers; every month, twenty young farmers come for a full week of study.
Christophe Nothomb from GASAP (Groupes d’Achat Solidaires de l’Agriculture Paysanne), the Belgian CSA network, described their project to create a PGS as a way to strengthen their network through involving consumers more actively. They have not yet chosen to make membership compulsory. So far, the PGS serves as an educational project to help consumers learn more about farm realities. The farmers fill out a questionnaire that the members can read to reflect on the partnership with the farm. Then they visit the farm, and report back to a PGS meeting where both farmers and members can make recommendations about the farm and CSA practices. The PGS process serves as a way to achieve a balance between verification and education. They are also initiating a conversation about fair pricing.
The last day of the Symposium was dedicated to Urgenci’s general assembly where members came together create a plan for the next three years and to vote for a new International Committee (IC). A big item on the agenda was improving the financial viability of urgency by collecting dues from CSAs and CSA networks. The diverse membership of the new IC reflects Urgenci’s ambition to become more inclusive and to work better across continents. It includes Judith Hitchman (Ireland), and Shi Yan (China) as co-presidents, Isa Alvarez (Spain) as vice-president, and Denis Carel (France) treasurer, Ariel Molina (Brazil), Qiana Mickie (US), Veikko Heinz (Germany), Simon Todzro (Togo), Shimpei Murakami (Japan). Zsofia Perenyi (Hungary) is special envoy for educational programs and there is a new position for a representative from Community Supported Fisheries which will be filled in the near future. I continue as honorary president.
As CSAs spread to more countries and in each country to more diverse kinds of people, I note with appreciation how the underlying principles are shared, while the details of organization, production and distribution are so different depending on the culture, the land, and the people. Through CSAs, people of good will express solidarity, trust and social justice. As Natalie Markiefka from the Greek conference steering committee observes: “From talking to different participants at the Symposium we came to realize that our current world is in a deep crisis as many countries take a step backwards into nationalism and protectionism. As Ariel Molina, who works with indigenous communities in Brazil told us, activists in his country now have to fear for their lives due to the radical politics of the new president and the future of the Amazon rainforest is under tremendous threat. It is clear that only by working together internationally and by strengthening our alliances we can support each other and create a better future for all.”