A Right to Food? | The Nation


A Right to Food?

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Seeing the end of hunger from a "power frame" ignites a dynamic and energizing set of connections and actions. These are on most vivid display today in Latin America.

About the Author

Frances Moore Lappé
Frances Moore Lappé is the author of sixteen books, including, most recently, Getting A Grip : Clarity,...

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For Roosevelt, the New Deal was a way of advancing freedom, which depended on economic as much as political rights.

It's not true that only the rich can help the poor. We must work to empower nations like
Bangladesh that are addressing the problem of hunger by creating networks of
schools, health training and micro-loans.

Beyond Belo's leadership, the Americas' largest social movement is Brazil's Landless Workers' Movement (MST), which didn't start with a focus on the legal right to food. It organized among the landless and taught democratic concepts and skills, including group decision-making, civil disobedience and, more recently, gender equity. The result is MST's bottom-up power, with which a third of a million families have created 2,000 settlements with new farms and businesses, as well as 1,800 new schools. It's lifted family wages and cut the infant death rate.

Bolivia's experience teaches similar lessons. There, a 1952 revolution produced a law intended to grant land titles to the country's majority landless. But with little ongoing mobilization by the country's indigenous people--60 percent of the population--a few thousand large-estate owners became the real winners. A 1990s re-reform brought similarly disappointing results.

Then, in 2000, beginning in the southern department of Tarija, where 80 percent of the peasants have no land at all, the landless took a page from their Brazilian brethren's action strategy. It goes like this: Identify unused arable land--Bolivian law and Brazil's Constitution require arable land to serve a social function--then petition the government for title to it. If ignored, occupy and start farming. Despite deadly attacks by landowners, the approach has already given rise to more than a hundred MST settlements, many now granted legal title, across Bolivia.

This broad-based landless movement also helped generate the majority that elected Evo Morales president last December. This past June Morales traveled to the fertile eastern lowlands to award peasants title to government land, the first phase of a plan to transfer to the landless over the next five years 77,000 square miles of public land--an area twice the size of Portugal.

Citizens' power is trickier to measure than reducing hunger, but it may well be even more important. When you "forget how to say 'yes, sir' and learn to say 'I think that'"--that is when a "citizen is born," Brazilian MST leader João Pedro Stédile stressed to me; and, "like riding a bike," you don't forget.

The right to eat is a beautiful and simple concept touching our most natural instinct for life in community. But its realization flows from perhaps an even more foundational right--the right to power--which in turn demands a reframing of democracy itself. Much more than a legal structure, democracy vital enough to end hunger is the living practice of citizen power creating strong communities. And it is happening.

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