Isa Alvarez is an agro-ecologist and researcher living in Vitoria (Spain). She originally comes from the academic world, but has been active for 15 years in different activist organizations working on the issue of food sovereignty, where she incorporates the feminist perspective.
Where does your commitment to activism come from?
When I finished my degree, I understood very quickly that I was not going to end up as a teacher. I then entered a period of collapse, because we are educated to the normative. Looking for my way, I returned to my roots, because I am the daughter and granddaughter of peasants. I wanted to live and work in spaces of transformation, in different activisms; I was always advised to get involved with international cooperation, but I did not want to go anywhere as a development worker, because I believed that there were many things to transform here. And in 2002, during a training course, I discovered a whole world of food sovereignty, and that it was not necessary to go to another part of the world to do things. So that is where my journey began.
Can you tell us more about your journey?
First, I joined an organization that worked on the issue of food sovereignty, conscious consumption and other food systems at the local level. And from there, we built alliances with the farmer’s union in the Basque Country, and then we began to work on it at the local level. Additionally, several of us who were working on this issue decided to develop a project in the form of a cooperative. We opened a bar-restaurant in Vitoria, with organic, local, fair trade food… This is quite common now, but in 2007 it was not. The project was very interesting, because it was urban, it generated many alliances and it was a space where consumer groups began to concentrate initiatives. I then started to do the work of dissemination and then the Ehne Farmers’ Union employed me. This marked my full entry into the world of agroeconomics. I was also active in various spaces working on social exclusion. I was constantly bringing food sovereignty, social exclusion and access to food together, and ultimately, I ended up in Baladre. Baladre is a coordination of collectives from the Iberian Peninsula, North Africa and South America. It fights against inequality, impoverishment and exclusion in any of its forms. In the end, all these spaces converged in Urgenci. So since 2016, I left my job as a union coordinator and now I share my time between my work as a trainer and researcher and my activism in Baladre and Urgenci.
What are the benefits of these partnerships between local and global organizations?
I realized very quickly that even local work has an internationalist vision, because if we want to change things, we have to think big. In my opinion, it is important to link up with large movements, to articulate your struggles, not only at the local level, with other movements, not only to learn, but also for the perspective. Sometimes you need to step outside your own limited perspective to see all the good you are doing, because when you are inside you only see the bad. Also sometimes you get stuck and when you see that your view is not the only one, and that the world is much wider, it allows you to move beyond this egocentric world.
How do you perceive this link between the two worlds?
One of the richest things for me about Urgenci is the exchange. That is reflected in its international structure, where until recently there were only 2 people employed. The work that these people do is above all to find resources that allow the networks to meet and work together on projects. Because it is important that we meet physically. This aspect collapsed with the pandemic.
Another important thing is the advocacy that in the case of food sovereignty is done especially at the global level. Now we have some projects at European level that work on advocacy and we organize training on what advocacy is and how to develop it from the local level. It helps us to learn how people can link what they say in the European Union with what happens at their doorstep.
How do you perceive the impact of Covid-19 on SSE organisations?
The forms have changed, a lot of quality has been lost since going virtual. We included the informal part of care in our spaces.
However, the resilience of our networks has been demonstrated, and people have adapted very well. And it was because Community Supported Agriculture was already in place. And since the community bond was already in place, we only had to adapt the forms, but grassroots organization already existed. It was very difficult in the cities where the social links were already broken, and we wanted to create support groups. In our case, we have seen how our relationships were strengthened. Urgenci has written a report that showed that the demand within the groups grew, more people joined and that the values were also consolidated. With Covid, the food aid queues multiplied and the issues that we had been working on for some time have become central in this crisis. Many projects have been developed and it has been shown that we can resist even though there are several challenges. To summarize, during the pandemic, the importance of social connections has been demonstrated in our struggles to resist.
Has the application of the gender perspective been important in the resolution of this crisis?
A few years ago, at national level, a small group of women farmers, ecologists, producers and informal researchers was born. We have been exchanging and working on different issues from a feminist perspective. In this crisis, women small-scale producers have also been very affected, because from one day to the next their access to food became very limited and priority was given to large-scale distribution. So from this small informal group we created a few years ago, a campaign was born, and we managed to create an appeal effect. Why was the campaign so very successful? Because we adapted the feminist way of doing things, not only in the contents but also in the way of doing things.
Unfortunately, women have had to struggle much more since the outbreak of the pandemic. For example, many women farmers have had problems accessing their grow-your-own gardens. If they were stopped by the police, they would ask them for the land ownership deeds and most of the women are not land owners. So there have been many things that we have had to solve. The pandemic caught me doing research with women farmers and they all say that Covid has meant the position of women in the agricultural world has regressed.
This crisis has brought us all indoors. I also believe that what this crisis has made what until now was invisible become visible, but it has not to changed the inequalities. I am not sure that we will come out of this crisis stronger.
Do you see SSE as a response to this situation?
For some years there has been an effort to include the feminist perspective in SSE. What scares me is that it is an important issue, but not an urgent one for many people. And we have to be careful not to go backwards, to remember that we are still here. But to come out stronger, it was necessary to build on past work. And this crisis alone does not serve as a framework to validate if our previous approach is valid for the times of crisis. And I think that in general the situation has proved how right we were.