On Monday October 31st I returned from Romania; ﬁttingly for Halloween, feeling like one of the shambling undead after five days at the Expo Transilvania in Cluj Napoca at the Nyeleni European Forum on Food Sovereignty, organised by the global peasants’ movement La Via Campesina. I was representing Transition Town Totnes' food projects and wasn't quite sure what to expect when I arrived. My only tangible experience of activism has been Transition, and my only conferences either business related and the 2010 Transition Conference in Newton Abbot. This was a completely different animal, exploding my Totnes bubble with one swipe.
The purpose of the forum was to determine future actions for the European Food Sovereignty movement, and the upshot of this was ﬁnding myself in a cavernous hall and a series of draughty, freezing tents, one of 500 delegates from 40 countries - growers, fishers, NGOers, activists, eaters, nomads and others - cared for by a small army of volunteer cooks, kitchen helpers and interpreters. The interpretation was truly impressive, and I strongly advocate that we adopt something similar for our work as an international network. A key theme at the forum, both within the thematic axes under discussion, and within the 37-strong UK delegation, was inclusivity and acknowledging the tensions of colonialism that have distorted all aspects of our political reality over the last many hundreds of years.* Giving people the opportunity to speak in a language other than English was one way of preventing cultural dominance, and an organisation called Coati gave us Romanian, Turkish, French, German, Spanish, Italian and Russian, via hand held radios and earphones.
The forum was gruelling and geared towards burn out. The Expo was heated by vast bar heaters strung from the roof, which meant one either froze or had one’s head baked from on high. The acoustics were truly awful, and it was very difficult to hear each other without using a microphone or shouting. Many people developed colds and lost their voices. There was a lot of queuing, and waiting, early starts and late finishes. Nothing started on time. After the first day I thought about running away to the mountains. But I stuck with it, and over the week became inspired by the dedication and commitment everyone was bringing.
There were fundamental differences to a Transition approach that I think made the forum harder work than it needed to be, and perhaps less inclusive than the steering committee intended, and certainly undermines the work that is to be achieved, and it might be useful to go into them.
Head over heart
At the final plenary the steering committee came forward to be thanked and I was struck by how young many of them were (as I had been by the average age of the attendees, all week). It was heartening to see so many people under 30 engaged so fully, but I wonder how different it might have been if there had been more people over 50 planning the event. There is so much energy to burn, passion and urgency, in one’s 20s, that it can be tempting to think everyone has the same stamina, and to expect more from people than is realistic. Also, to my recollection anyway, a kind of burn out heroism that makes the young compete with each other over workload, ability to stay up to all hours, drink, dance etc, that one grows out of, as the body protests more.
There was also a lack of the inner dimension, that made it a very heady experience. The permaculture-inspired trinity of head, hands and heart wasn’t there, and I missed it very much. The flavour was very much of the old school left, with warlike language about struggles, and the fight we must win, and plenty of fist pumping, that reminded me of why I never engaged with environmental politics until I fell over the Transition Handbook and found a way to be part of something practical, without giving up a commitment to my heart. There was a Mistica ceremony at the start of every day, for those willing to get there for 8.30am, but every moment needs to be embedded in the heart to give true sustenance to life.
For anyone thinking, ‘but we work to change people’s minds, and the mind is the tool we need,’ I would point out that the mind is a fine but malleable thing, and far too easy to change with a presentation of new and shinier information. What works in the longer term is to touch and inspire people’s hearts; where the heart leads the mind will follow.
The hands element was missing too, but it is unfair to raise that perhaps, as it is difficult to see how it could have been incorporated easily. We were encouraged regularly to join in with food prep and washing up.
Silo thinking and soil
Fundamental changes to our food system can not be effected in isolation. Food is part of an interconnected web of issues, and this is something embedded in the Transition model, but missing from most of the conversations I heard or participated in at the forum. Unless one is a rural peasant, food must be brought or one must travel - access is fundamental. This requires transport, which requires energy inputs, and this was not discussed; perhaps it was assumed that all food would be, eventually, ideally, consumed at the point of source. There was no discussion of waste and I heard little about climate change, which was extraordinary, given that much of the moral weight of the food sovereignty movement is that small scale peasant farming is low carbon by its nature, and part of the solution for mitigating, and hopefully reversing climate change, through carbon sequestration in healthy soil. So far as I am aware there was no discussion of how climate change will affect the ability of small scale farmers to produce food in the coming years. I may just have been in the wrong tent.
It is likely unfair to the organisers to accuse them of silo thinking. I got the impression that much effort was being expended to make sure the forum attendees got to set their own agendas, and perhaps the wider issues were unfamiliar to some of the delegates, who wanted to tell their own stories of their own struggles and so tended to focus in on specifics rather than relating out to the wider picture of climate change and a carbon intensive system.
There was a lot of talk about struggle. It was exhausting. Call me naive, but if we set the tone of the conversation by talking only about struggle, do we presuppose a negative outcome? Would it make more sense to talk about process? Ie, this is a difficult process we are going through, but we are confident of a good outcome? I do not mean the day to day struggle of people to feed themselves or their families, or of people having their land sold out from under them, or denied access to markets, but many of us there in those rooms and tents were none of those things, and to talk only in terms of struggle is to perpetuate a state of mind that I find unhelpful, and creates an inability to empathise with policy makers we are trying to win the hearts of, and alienates large swathes of people who do not consider themselves political, and just want to buy affordable food in ways that fit in with busy lives.
There is more to diversity than ethnicity, socio-economics, gender, sexuality, or class in the case of the UK. The forum was structured in favour of the opinionated, and given the hectic pace of the schedule there was little opportunity to elicit the thoughts and feelings of people not used to speaking in large groups. Patchy facilitation meant some people dominated conversations and took up all the time available, which was frustrating when their contributions were entirely personal and added little to the discussion after the first five minutes. Perhaps building in time to get to know each other, and to tell our personal stories, early on, would have made later discussions more fruitful, or given facilitators time to identify the personality types in a given group. Constant changing of groups was very tiring for this introvert, as the dynamics never settled into something mappable.
As mentioned, the purpose of the forum (and I confess this is something that dawned on me throughout the week, and I’m not sure if that was down to a lack of information or just doziness on my part - it’s been a busy few months here in Totnes) was to set the agenda for the Food Sovereignty movement in Europe over the next few years - which campaigns and actions to initiate and to support. I ended up in a group discussing alternatives to international trade. Kind of by accident as I had volunteered to be a note taker and this was the group to which I was allocated. It is an area in which my knowledge is weak, so it was enriching to hear from the rest of the group, all representing NGOs, about the UN Human Rights Council’s work on a Declaration of Peasants’ Rights, following on from Via Campesina’s work; the UN intergovernmental working group on a binding treaty on TransNational Corporations which resumes negotiating in 18 months; and the Alternative Trade Mandate. (The announcement midway through the forum, prematurely as it turned out, that CETA was dead thanks to the actions of tiny Wallonia, reminded us how urgent it is to be informing people how abstract-seeming trade deals have a real impact on their lives and localities.) We also talked about the Monsanto Tribunal and the possibility of bringing the advisory judgement to the attention of more people when it is published (hopefully December 10/11th).
And perhaps this is something else Transition could learn from the Food Sovereignty movement; not to stay in our own local bubbles, or silos, to the degree where we do not publicly support and endorse wider international campaigns and movements that are aligned with our goals and ethics, as an organisation rather than as individuals. We are ideally placed to communicate with people all around the world; perhaps this takes place through Hubs, after due consultation, and ad hoc as local initiatives. After all, what we do for resilience at the grassroots level is under constant threat from the mega-mergers our dying system is relying upon to extend its life. Sometimes it feels like we all, as environmental and social justice initiatives, guard too jealously our own little patch, rather than work together as a wider progressive movement. Connecting up the dots, the people and the organisations is important. I know we don’t like to get involved in negative campaigning, but if you look there are always positive sides to a story, and that is the tale we can tell, from our perspective on the ground.
It was a privilege to be invited to the forum, and to know that the Transition movement is valued. I had many inspiring conversations with many different people, familiar with Transition in general and Totnes in particular. I met Tracey, representing Transition Budapest and the Hungarian hub, and we had an interesting discussion about how their hub functions and how the work they are doing in the district she lives in is attracting new people who want to move there - something we need to look at in Devon, as TTT may well be an unwitting factor in the rampant development taking place in Totnes. Elsewhere Brexit was a hot topic, with most of the people I spoke to seeing it as a positive development, undermining the expansion of transnationals and the neoliberal agenda within the EU. And I was surprised to hear support for Donald Trump for the same reason - perhaps both are instances of silo (or wishful) thinking**.
I met some amazing people doing inspiring work around food in the UK and across the world, in particular other field to loaf projects such as Scotland the Bread in Edinburgh and Torth y Tir in Pembrokeshire (though one of their farmers was so inspired by what he saw in Romania he is preparing to move to Lithuania to become a peasant with his Lithuanian wife, so that project may slow down for a little while) and a nascent project in nearer Chagford. I look forward to building on those connections as part of the UK Food Sovereignty movement; I won’t be asking permission, I’ll just get on and do stuff. And in another nod to Rob, powering down society is going to take everybody, not just those involved in Transition.
* If not thousands. As came up in a rather stormy delegation meeting, the UK is still a colonial power - economically and culturally in the present day if not as invasively as in the past. As was very gently pointed out by a Scottish member of our party, the UK has itself been invaded many times, and even 1000 years is not a long time in racial memory, or for untended scars to heal. We are all carrying the pain of our collective past, and not facing up to it risks perpetrating pain on others, in perpetuity.
** I am writing this within hours of the US election, and by the time this is posted, or read, the result may well be in. Whichever way it pans out, I’m pretty sure we’ll all be searching hard for silver linings.
Sophie Galleymore Bird