Belo Horizonte

The Beautiful Horizon of Community Food Sovereignty

Wednesday 9 July 2008, by Cecilia Rocha, Wayne Roberts

The concept of food sovereignty is the right of peoples to define their own alimentary and agricultural policies, to protect and regulate their production and trade in such a manner as to obtain sustainable development, to determine the degree of their autonomy and to eliminate dumping on their markets.

A growing number of citizens, civil society organizations, and economic, environmental and social leaders around the world, including in Quebec, have already converted to the concept of food sovereignty. Last September, in Montreal, a declaration was adopted by 45 concerned organizations at the first Quebecois conference for food sovereignty, jointly organized by the G05, the Coop Fédérée and Équiterre.

As worldwide interest in food sovereignty and food security continues to grow, the city of Belo Horizonte, Brazil is enhancing community food sovereignty programs that address health, social equality, job creation, diversified agriculture and the encouragement of local food production.

The center of action for Belo Horizonte’s food programs is the SMAAB, the Secretaria Municipal de Abastecimento or the Municipal Secretariat of Supplies. Food activists in the industrialized world are just beginning to understand that working effectively on food issues means working on- and reforming- the logistics and supply chain of the food system. The government of Belo Horizonte understood that back in 1993 when Partido dos Trabalhadores or Workers’ Party was elected and subsequently acknowledged both citizens’ rights to “adequate quantity and quality of food” and “the duty of governments to guarantee this right.” The government recognizes that food is a guaranteed right that is necessary for citizenship and health, and, therefore, manages the provision and distribution of food. Efforts are also made to engage community groups as partners of the government, thereby reaffirming the open, inclusive and democratic character of program offerings.

Belo Horizonte’s programs are forward thinking; the World Trade Organization legitimizes government interventions in the economy that provide food as long as they are classified as anti-poverty programs. This is a core principle of what Dr. Flavio Valente, a volunteer rapporteur from Brazil for the United Nations office on human rights, calls “the Washington consensus,” precisely because it leaves human rights and food security systems – the right to have basic information about whether food has been genetically-engineered, for example, or the need to ensure adequate fresh fruit and vegetable production for local populations – out of the equation.

The concerns raised by Valente are top-of-the-list issues in Belo Horizonte and throughout Brazil as a whole. There is a profound tradition behind these concerns in Brazil, where the Zero Hunger program can be traced to food system campaigns by popular heroes such as Josuée de Castro and Herbert de Sousa, both of whom identified food as a fundamental human right needed for health and social inclusion. Prominent among today’s Zero Hunger leaders is Patrus Ananias, the former Workers’ Party mayor of Belo Horizonte when its dynamic food programs were launched. He would later become national Minister for Social Development and Hunger Alleviation responsible for the Zero Hunger strategy under the Lula government.

Belo Horizonte’s food initiatives began with a first line of action targeted to vulnerable groups at risk of malnutrition. One program from the early days provided a nutrient-rich flour — made up of locally-produced ingredients – for the at-risk population. Another program, launched more recently, provides unsold or donated surplus, as is common in charitable “food banks” of the North. A third set of initiatives focuses on healthy meals in childcare centres and elementary schools.

Belo Horizonte’s second line of action deals with interventions in the economy to help businesses respond to the food needs of people on low incomes, thereby avoiding such problems as “food deserts” — areas of a city that lack affordable and quality food retail outlets. Belo Horizonte’s three “popular restaurants”, each in a different area of the city, are a case in point. A typical popular restaurant is over 1000 square meters in size and is open for lunch and dinner during the workweek. Meals are simple, frugal and nutritious. One standard, subsidized rate is charged to all. Customers range from workers, students, street youth, to street vendors and seniors. Regular customers can join an organization to suggest or advocate for meal improvements. Other initiatives make healthy basic foods available to people in low-income communities, for example, a “popular food basket” that people in many countries have tried to emulate (such as the Bonne boîte Bonne bouffe initiative in Montreal). With a very modest government subsidy, the popular basket provides about 20 food and consumer necessities a week to consumers on low incomes, using economies of scale- that develop from serving over 4000 families- to keep prices down.

A third line of action actively encourages local food production of fruits and vegetables by small and low-income farmers. This is a four-way win for food sovereignty. It raises the incomes of small farmers close to the city, thereby achieving a major anti-poverty objective that helps more people buy the food they need. Secondly, it helps small, local farmers stay on their land instead of migrating to the overcrowded city where unemployment and poverty are rife. Thirdly, it increases the availability of fresh and health-promoting foods for all, since large farms in Brazil are typically dedicated to exports of sugar and oilseeds, not fruits and vegetables for local consumers. Fourth, by increasing the supply of produce, the price is kept stable.

Fruits and vegetables, the foundations of a healthy diet, have been neglected by large-scale farmers in Brazil, a country where one per cent of rural properties occupy 45 per cent of agricultural land, and where plantation-based and export-oriented agriculture is dominant. To make fresh and nutritious food available, the city government pro-actively encourages fruit and vegetable production in the food economy. SMAAB has also established a central farmers market of 10,000 square meters that moves 40,000 tons of produce a year. More than 45 Country General Stores, and at least one organic market, have been set up to move local produce. The city, as a purchaser, also orders local produce for popular restaurants serving about 5000 meals a day and for schools serving over 150,000 meals a day. As a result of all the businesses and alternatives stimulated by government programs, Belo Horizonte is the only Brazilian city where alternatives outperform commercial supermarkets in the sale of fresh fruits and vegetables.

With all of these initiatives, it is clear that Belo Horizonte is on the horizon of food sovereignty, taking the narrower concept of food security further than simply providing adequate nutrition for its population. Cities of the North have much to learn from these innovative lines of action.

Wayne Roberts is the coordinator of Toronto Food Policy Council and Cecilia Rocha is the director of Ryerson University Centre for Studies in Food Security.

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