Almost a month ago I, like thousands of Canadians, sat down to Thanksgiving dinner, replete with turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, family and friends. Thanksgiving was a good opportunity to pause and show our gratitude for the nutritional bounty we routinely enjoy. Thanks to globalization and logistical advances, more and more, we get to savour foods from all over the world and in all seasons of the year. Dessert usually follows a fabulous feast, and Thanksgiving dinner was no different. But have we stopped to ask where the sugar that sweetens our pies and cakes comes from, or how the cooking oil we use to prepare meals is sourced?
Last month, the Vancouver International Film Festival screened the documentary No Land No Food No Life by Amy Miller. The documentary highlighted the struggle in Cambodia between small-scale farmers and sugar agribusiness and the spread of oil palm plantations in Uganda taking over the family farms of diverse crops. In the two countries thousands of miles apart, the governments sided with the foreign corporations and turned on their own farmers.
In Cambodia, the government forced the small-scale farmers off their own land so that it could be sold for cheap to the foreign-owned sugar agribusiness. Needless to say, the original crops the farmers cultivated were razed to the ground to make way for swaths of sugar plantations. As an exchange, the farmers were offered jobs in the sugar plantation for meagre wages and exhausting hours. One of the farmers interviewed in the movie said she felt like she was working as a slave on her own land. When the farmers organized themselves to demonstrate against the actions of the agribusiness, the military descended on their village to physically quell the protest, sending the government message that the farmer’s request for justice would be met by physical force.
The oil palm burgeoning industry in Uganda exists at the expense of virgin jungles and small-scale farms growing mixed native crops. A Singaporean owned oil palm conglomerate managed to convince the Ugandan government that oil palm could be used in everything from heating fuel to cooking oil and thus be a miracle resource that could industrialize the country. Farmers were convinced to convert their hereditary farms into oil palm plantations. The oil palm conglomerate would pay them a certain amount for their black boulders of harvest. They did not know, however, that the middlemen transporters taking their crop to the processing facility would only come once a week, which is too infrequent for the shelf life of the oil palm. The oil palm had to be harvested at just the right time and transported promptly to the processing facility, otherwise the price of the crop would depreciate. And to add injury to insult, the oil palm plantations require regular spraying of pesticides manufactured by another agribusiness that is probably on the top of mind when people think GMO: Monsanto. Hired teenagers without any protective gear walk through the oil palm fields discharging the toxic chemicals via a back pack spray pump. The chemicals leach through the soil and run into the nearby rivers and lakes, thereby killing the aquaculture villagers rely on.
These are unfortunately not the only examples of injustices farmers in the developing world face. Thousands of farmers everyday are being evicted from their land so that consumers in the developed world could purchase food at cheap prices. However there are campaigns to promote the farmers’ rights. The Clean Sugar Campaign is trying to reverse the forced land grabs in Cambodia at the hands of the sugar industry. There are also dozens of other organizations and campaigns fighting against land grabs; you can find them here.
Next time we sit down at the dinner table, we should consider if farmers were evicted from their land and livelihoods for the food we eat. Perhaps we might think twice.