Reflection: First Month of Rise Up! Summer School, on African Food Sovereignty

By Haruka Nagano and Neo Mazur, Summer School participants

Reading Group Discussion

On June 12, CAGJ held a dinner potluck and discussion to launch the Rise Up! Summer School, an anti-oppression leadership development program exploring food sovereignty movements situated in our local area.

Enjoying the amazing food each participant brought, we started off with 25 attendees sharing their names, pronouns, and what brought them to this event. Everyone was interested in food and social justice issues, and very eager to learn more about them. After getting know each other, we moved onto community agreements. Since everyone has a different background and norms, we developed guidelines so that we all can be in the same place without pushing anyone into the panic zone (extremely uncomfortable and stressed zone) and to encourage us to be in the stretch zone, where we can feel safe but also challenged. We shared our opinions of what it looks like to make a space comfortable to be yourself. These agreements surely made us able to be ourselves and discuss authentically.

Next, we split into small groups and discussed “what is anti-oppression and how does racial justice fit into this,” “how do you interface with anti-oppression work?” and “what is leadership in the context of anti-oppression.”

After the rich small group discussions, we came back together to talk about the reading materials which CAGJ gave us in advance to this discussion event. The readings were about Food Sovereignty in Africa, what the Green Revolution of the 1950s and ‘60s actually brought to Africa, the difference between agroecology and industrial agriculture, and the spiritual and cultural value of seed in South Africa. In our discussion, we reflected on how here in U.S. we don’t have a lot of opportunities to learn about Africa or its long and varied history. Growing up, many people were told, “Don’t waste food because there are starving children in Africa” from their parents and teachers, without being taught the history and ongoing legacy of colonization across the continent, the impacts of foreign development, and how often Africa is painted over as one country when there are 54 nations.

AGRA (the Gates Foundation’s Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa) is supposedly supporting food sustainability and market opportunities in Africa. But in what way and what kind? During the discussion, some pointed out that AGRA is not a sustainable pathway for farmers but a reinforcing cycle – once you are in it you can’t get out of it because farmers must rely on the provided seeds and market. One of the readings, A New Green Revolution for Africa? suggests that AGRA’s idea is to create “an effective demand for its own product, prescribing a model of development that is not able to survive on its own” (GRAIN, p3). According to another reading material, Soil to Sky: Agroecology vs Industrial Agriculture Infographic, agroecology agriculture (organic and eco-friendly farming) is more beneficial for all human health, wildlife, and environment than industrial agriculture. However, AGRA is not promoting agroecology since it’s focusing on agribusiness and profit.

We ended the discussion by generating some questions we wanted to explore when we visited the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


Gates Foundation Discovery Center Field Trip

On June 23, we visited the Discovery Center at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Using the guiding questions below, we were encouraged to think critically as we explored the Center.

  • In terms of agricultural development, how is the “problem” represented or defined?
  • How does the Center represent who has power (in terms of intervening in agricultural ‘development’)?
  • Agribusiness and GMO promoters have a campaign to discredit critics by claiming they/we are “anti-science”. How does the Center invoke technology or science as an objective, universal frame?
  • What kind of evidence does the Gates Foundation use to convince people of their narrative? What rhetorical tools do they use?
  • How do they define “results” of their intervention, what are they looking for?
  • Is the Foundation co-opting language of their opposition?

With these questions in mind, we walked around the center individually, occasionally forming small clusters around areas that provided insight into some of our guiding questions. We flipped panels, moved blocks, and swiped on screens to explore the Gate Foundation’s work. The Discovery Center was full of emotional testimonials related to the different focus areas like education and disease eradication. By the end of the hour, spent interacting with the displays, we moved to the Seattle Center to discuss our observations of the Discovery Center and to make connections with the readings we had discussed at the first Summer School meeting.

We began the session by reintroducing ourselves and sharing our first impressions. Many people felt overstimulated, and uncertain what to think about our experience at the Discovery Center. The bright colors and moving images everywhere were one source of these sentiments, but there was also an underlying dissonance between what we had seen and the other information we had read in preparation for the visit. In small groups, we dove more deeply into our experience and the discussion questions.

Captivating and interactive, the Center was intentional in its design, attempting to persuade visitors that the Gates Foundation has seen incredible success in their work. The Center was filled with pictures and videos of smiling, mostly brown, faces from different countries, the presumed beneficiaries of their work. We noticed that the vague language and the focus on the seemingly extraordinary successes made the information feel almost irrefutable. Surely 7 million famers gaining access to new tools is a good thing, but how are they measuring this access? Is access enough? In this and many other pieces of information, we questioned which perspectives were left out.

Throughout the entire Discovery Center, it was hard to determine who was actually doing the work. “We” was used throughout the Center, giving the credit for all of the achievements to the Gates Foundation, and the names of partner organizations were entirely absent.

The planning process for the agricultural initiatives seemed to be that the Foundation determined priorities and a strategy, then they began to seek out partner organizations and farmers. Mentions of creating global markets and “bringing interventions” provide insight into the Foundation’s approach that centers global capitalism as the basis of power and change. This stands in stark contrast to the agroecological approach discussed in the first reading group that centers locally based approaches that take into account the needs of communities, the land, and other living beings.

We finished the day by writing down concrete individual actions inspired by our learning thus far in summer school on seed-shaped paper, planting the seeds for a very fruitful CAGJ Summer School.

Posted in Agra Watch Blog Posts, Food Justice Blog Posts, Uncategorized.

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