Ruby van der Wekken / RIPESS Europe

Between the 10th -12th of May, some 50 representatives of different civil society organisations, unions, farmers, Indigenous Peoples, pastoralists, fishers, consumers, women and gender diversity, youth and food cooperatives as well as researchers from different countries in Europe and Central Asia came together in Istanbul, Turkey for three days of Nyéléni Europe and Central Asia (Nyéléni ECA) food sovereignty movement (building) meetings. The Nyéléni ECA meetings in Istanbul were one of the regional consultation meetings currently taking place around the world, gathering input in the run up to the Nyéléni global food sovereignty forum in India, in 2025

The meetings in Istanbul, held at a location provided for by the municipality of Istanbul and lunch by a climate activist cook, reflected on food and agriculture in the current political context of Europe and Central Asia, and included deep exchange regarding the main challenges and common (campaign) topics of interest. The meetings also looked inwards as to how to strengthen the Nyéléni network and process. On its third and last day, participants met with an FAO representative and consolidated input prior to the 34th session of the FAO Regional Conference for Europe (ERC34).  A main outcome of the meetings was the Nyéléni ECA statement presented by Ana Benoliel Coutinho, of Gradina, Moldova, during the opening session of the FAO Ministerial meeting on May 14th

Three RIPESS representatives took part in the meetings. RIPESS Intercontinental board member Judith Hitchman from Urgenci International Community Supported Agriculture Network has been a member of the international facilitation group of the Nyéléni global forum process, whilst RIPESS Europe co-coordinator Drazen Simlesa has been a member of the global steering committee of the Nyéléni ECA towards Nyéléni 2025. Ruby van der Wekken also joined in Istanbul from the perspective of her new role in RIPESS knowledge-sharing tools. 

A bit of history of the food sovereignty movement

In order to contextualise the Nyéléni food sovereignty movement for those in Istanbul and new to the process, RIPESS Intercontinental board member Judith Hitchman gave a brief overview of the history of the movement by taking participants back to the student protests of the1960’s around civil rights, and to how in the 1990’s with corporations gaining more control, many more social movements came to be born. This was the period of the demonstrations in Seattle against the WTO when agriculture was also included in the WTO – and when food became a commodity.  This period equally gave rise to the birth of the food sovereignty movement, as well as to the Social and Solidarity economy movement, in 1997, in Peru.  

The food sovereignty movement grew further as a response to the globalisation of agribusinesses and agricultural policies affecting peasant farmers in the South who had to compete against cheap exports from hyper-productive, highly subsidised European and American agriculture. Small-scale farmers needed to develop a common vision and campaign – to defend their livelihoods and participate directly in the decisions impacting their lives.

La Via Campesina, the world’s largest social movement, composed of some 200 million small-scale farmers’ organisations, rural workers, fishing communities, and landless and indigenous peoples globally  put forward in 1996 the concept of food sovereignty first;  and brought it to the public debate during the World Food Summit of the UN in 1996. Food sovereignty was defined as “the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods and their right to define their food and agriculture systems.” The concept of food sovereignty places agricultural producers and consumers at the core of the debate. 

The International Planning Committee for Food Sovereignty – born out of struggle and giving birth to action: Nyéléni

The movement at that point in time did not yet have a voice at the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN (FAO) until it became further organized globally into the International Planning Committee for Food Sovereignty (IPC). Born out of struggle, the IPC played a big role in the democratisation of the institutional process. It was instrumental in reforming the Committee on World Food Security to incorporate different civil society constituencies in the discussions around food security through the Civil Society and Indigenous Peoples Mechanism of the Committee on World Food Security. The various constituencies participate in the entire policy-making process, but do not vote on policy decisions, as this is the prerogative of States; there is also a framework at the FAO for bi-annual consultations with civil society. The IPC thus came to actively engage in advocacy and policy at UN level, with efforts being geared to the reclaiming of solutions being in the peoples hands, and to stand up for Food as a Human right, as a commons and not a commodity

The IPC has not only been tackling institutional processes but also the organisation of action. Ten years after the World Summit in 1996, a landmark Nyéléni Food sovereignty forum was organised in Mali in 2007, bringing together some 500 delegates from all continents and constituencies, to strengthen and deepen the concept of food sovereignty. The name of the Forum is in itself a tribute to a peasant farmer woman in Mali who was called Nyéléni, and who fought for the rights of peasant farmers, especially of women peasant farmers in Mali already a few hundreds years ago. The forum set a framework for the growing food sovereignty movement. The outcome of the meetings was the Nyéléni Declaration, laying out the contours for a vision and an action agenda around food sovereignty, to be shared internationally. 

Alongside the decentralisation of the Food and Agriculture organisation of the United Nations (FAO), also a decentralisation of the IPC also took place. The IPC took on a regional structure, and so there is the Nyéléni European and Central Asia food sovereignty movement, Nyéléni ECA –  a regional articulation of civil society and indigenous people working towards the realisation of food sovereignty. 

In 2011 the first Nyéléni Europe forum took place in Krems, Austria, and a second European Forum was held in 2016 in Kluj-Napoca, in Romania. In 2015, many of these same movements came together at the Nyéléni Forum for Agroecology, where they agreed upon a common definition of Agroecology as a key element for the construction of food sovereignty. Currently then, the IPC is in the process of organising towards the next global Nyéléni forum in 2025 in India, in order to readdress strategy and to reorganise and strengthen the movement. 

Learning from India – the broadening of alliances, SSE & Nyéléni. 

The movement is heading to India to learn from India. During the times of the corona pandemic, and in protest to the liberalisation of farmers’ markets, a massive farmer”s protest movement came together, importantly also including movements on other issues. This broadening of alliances is what the Nyéléni process wants to replicate on a global level. The movement is also heading to India to stand in solidarity with the struggle of the farmers, with the widows of farmers that committed suicide, that continuing their caring for their families and for their land. 

As a part of the broadening of alliances, also several artists were invited to the Nyéléni meetings in Istanbul as Rosanna Katie Morris, an illustrator working her art also for the Land Workers Alliance (UK) as well as movie director Kinshuk Surjan, whose “Marching in the Dark” movie’s trailer was watched in Istanbul. The movie is about “a group of women farmers who recently lost their husbands, and decided to meet a local psychologist and activist to share their stories and problems and help others in their grief. In this act of silent rebellion against a patriarchal society, the 28-year-old introverted Sanjeevani finds the courage to be self-reliant”. 

Also the issue of intersectionality and the food movement was addressed, as well as the issue of the building of new alliances together with movements that are not traditionally part of the food sovereignty movement, including movements working around issues of public health and climate justice as well as solidarity economy building at large. Solidarity economy, which is about the making of collective and not individual wealth, is an integral part of Agroecology. SSE is also specifically mentioned as one of the ten elements of agroecology, adopted by the FAO during its second symposium on Agroecology in 2018. However, this was the first time that RIPESS officially participated in the broader food sovereignty movement. The fundamental belief is that unless there is deep system change, it will not be possible to realise food sovereignty. The acknowledgment of the fact that if we want to change the food system, we need to work on the changing of the economy as a whole (and to review from that perspective economic partnerships wanting to tackle food security issues) was also something reminded of in the meeting with FAO representative Pedro Aires during the Istanbul meetings, and in the run up to the FAO meetings in Rome which were held in the following week.  

In Istanbul solidarity economy practices were also present. So for instance there was good interest among participants to learn of the Campaign for a social security for Food in Belgium, a form of a social security contract which in practice entails the receiving of a sum of money (via a credit card system) for food which is earmarked as to where the money can be spent, and the food thus bought – directly from farmers or in coop shops. This kind of an initiative which makes food a social product and not merely an agricultural commodity, could be funded collectively in a progressive manner, according to income. There are some 5 social security for food projects in Belgium and some 50 projects in France. It was also interesting to learn of the efforts of European Coordination of La Via Campesina (ECVC) to develop a new multilateral framework for trade, which is having food sovereignty and solidarity at its core. 

Digital solutions and Our data

In many corners, high value is put on technology, innovation and digital solutions, which was also something addressed in Istanbul as part of the CSO input to the FAO. Peasant agroecology brings innovation by itself and is in constant adaptation, whilst digital tools are not perse generating sustainability. Technological solutions often do not address the systemic root causes they aim to address, and are also not made in a peoples process. The movement as such is not against digital tools, but wants for them to serve peoples real needs, to have ownership over them and not to merely support with them new dependencies on the private sector. 

Another main topic discussed in Istanbul concerned data. One issue is the want for peoples sovereignty of their data, whereas in practice data is often ending up in private hands. Another issue is the manner in which data is collected, and which indicators are used. As an example of the latter, participants discussed the fact that the FAO as per the SDG’s has been striving to secure access to food for the poor, and is self congratulatory about achievements so far. However, overlooked in the presentation of data gathered, is that there are also food insecurity issues in donor countries, in Europe. As such, FAO data is not reflecting the issue of nutrient poor food in donor countries. This calls for a revision of the SDG indicators. 

Towards Nyéléni India 2025 – putting those that have not been visible at the center 

Participants in Istanbul confirmed that the Nyéléni process is a platform for the articulation of struggles, and that the platform should facilitate :  thematic exchange on common topics of interest; project collaborations, for instance with researchers in order to collect data; direct action and the countering of the narrative of the FAO (and thus the putting forward of the movements own narrative)

Towards the end of the meetings, Drazen Simleza spoke more on behalf of the steering committee of the Nyéléni process on how also the committee is already reflecting a diversity of movements beyond the food movement. Also in India there is a Nyéléni steering committee preparing for the forum, which most likely will take place in 2025. Before the forum in India several meetings will be held online. 

In terms of the delegation taking part in the Nyéléni forum in India, the aim is to put those that have not been visible at the center. It is envisioned that some 450 people will take part in the forum, with a breakdown countrywise leading up to some 135 persons coming from the Asia & Pacific region, and some 68 from the Europe & Central Asia region. Besides the geographical breakdown, representation is further divided according to constituency and intersectional criteria, with a majority made up of small scale farmers and for instance the Climate Justice, Feminist, SSE, Human Rights defenders, Peace builders, Health and Right to the city and research representatives each of 5%. As to funding, the movement is still seeking to secure the other 50% of the necessary funding.