Food Sovereignty: An African Leader Speaks

“Where I come from, we are born farmers. Our entire life, our entire livelihood and our entire economy depend upon agriculture.”

--Mariam Sissoko, CNOP, Mali

On Thursday, November 30th , Grassroots was honored to host an evening discussion with Mariam Sissoko, an international leader in the movement for a fair, healthy and sustainable food system.

Mariam is from western Mali in the region of Kayes. Grassroots International first came to know her last February at a forum that we co-convened with the National Family Farm Coalition in Washington, DC.

At the “Family Farmers and Food Sovereignty Forum: Global Struggles for the Future of Food and Farming”, we brought together family farmers from around the world to exchange knowledge about their local and regional experiences in advocating for food sovereignty and protecting their livelihoods.

Mariam is proof of the power of grassroots organizing. From her small village in western Mali, Mariam organizes for national and international policies that will improve conditions for family farmers everywhere.

She began by simply noticing the problems that woman in her village were having: disproportionately carrying the burden of producing food for their families, struggling to make ends meet without access to credit or education to improve their farming and lives. Meanwhile, in spite of the fact that 80% of Malians make their living as small farmers, little attention is given to agriculture and family farmers by the government of Mali.

What started as observations 20 years ago turned into a local organization for peasant women called Women of Samé, and eventually into a 4,000 member national association, known as CNOP (National Coordination of Peasant Organizations), which she helped found.

This February CNOP will be center stage as they host the Nyéléni Food Sovereignty Forum in Bamako, Mali. Hundreds of family farmers, agricultural workers, fishers and consumer organizations from around the world will come together to build alliances and put forward their global vision of agriculture.

While Mariam’s told her inspiring story, she reminded us that there is still much to be done. Family farmers are facing the same desperate problems around the world. Malian and U.S. family farmers alike are losing out to big, factory farms.

But in Mali, Mariam said, the loss of family farming is an even bigger loss than in the developed world, because farming is the only way that she and people in communities like hers have to survive.

“There is no other way to make money and feed your family,” she said. “The cities are full and there are no jobs. You can’t go to Europe and you can’t go to America.”

Yet, as Mariam pointed out, Malian farmers are not in control of their agriculture. Global trade rules like common export tariffs and global prices for staple foods like rice and goods like cotton restrict farmers’ ability to sell products in their own communities. Mariam, along with CNOP, has convinced the Malian government to consider creating a protective environment for Mali’s farmers. These efforts include a constitutional right to land and advocating for cash payments to farmers rather than food aid from the World Food Programme.

Mariam asked us to not be silent as the world loses its family farmers. Stand in solidarity with her and other family farmer organizations that are fighting to save their livelihoods. Speak out against policies like the U.S. Farm Bill that are against the interests of family farmers. Support family farmers’ access to credit, materials and information. Believe in food sovereignty—the right to a healthy, sustainable food system—for your own family and community.

“It’s a big fight and we don’t expect to win every battle,” she said. “But we don’t expect to lose every battle either. If you can start by winning over your family, and then convince your neighbors, before you know it you will convince the world.”

Read Mariam's full presentation.