A Right to Food?

A Right to Food?

Hunger is a violation of basic rights: a right to food, but more important, Bolivian and Brazilian experience suggests, a right to power.


“If someone can’t afford to buy food, they’re still a citizen and we’re still responsible to them,” city official Adriana Aranha in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, told me in 2000. What a concept–and one that had helped her to lift her Workers’ Party to victory in municipal elections seven years earlier.

Declaring healthy food a right of citizenship in Brazil’s fourth-largest city, the new administration drew together voices from labor, the church and citizen groups. Their innovations, coordinated by a new city office of food security, range from twenty-five fair-price produce stands supplied by local farmers to open-air restaurants serving 12,000 subsidized meals daily to city-sponsored radio broadcasts leading shoppers to the lowest-priced essentials.

These and many more city-led initiatives to end hunger consume only 1 percent of Belo’s budget, but they’re working. Hard evidence is the city’s infant death rate, a widely accepted measure of hunger, which fell an astonishing 56 percent over the first decade of these efforts. Belo’s approach has inspired multiple right-to-food initiatives nationwide as part of President Lula’s Zero Hunger Program.

Food was first declared a right in the UN’s 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and in 1993 at the Vienna Conference on Human Rights, citizen organizations, especially the FoodFirst Information and Action Network, began demanding specific standards for the right to food. By 2004 the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization Council had adopted “voluntary guidelines for the progressive realization of the right to adequate food,” with 187 governments signing on. Today, twenty-two countries have enshrined the right to food in their constitutions, either for all citizens or specifically for children.

Nonetheless, after a period of decline, the number of hungry people in the Global South rose from the mid-1990s over the following half-decade by almost 4 million a year.

It’s easy to understand why legally establishing the right to food is an appealing strategy. Since most would agree we have a right to live, a right to food–essential to life–doesn’t seem like a stretch. Maybe our evolutionary experience sets us up to agree. Except for the last few thousand of our roughly 200,000 years evolving, Homo sapiens lived in hunter-gatherer societies; and studying those remaining today, anthropologists find humans unique in our “pervasive sharing” of food, “especially among unrelated individuals,” writes Michael Gurven, a leading authority on hunter-gatherer food transfers. Except in times of extreme privation, when some eat, all eat. And the most productive hunters share the most. This relational ethic may have been carried even into feudal times, as suggested by the root meaning of “lord”–keeper of the loaf, connoting responsibility to the whole.

Another strength of a “rights” frame is that it carries the presumption of an eventual mechanism for enforcement. In Brazil the country’s National Rapporteur on the Human Rights to Food, Water and Rural Land, Flavio Valente, is already investigating what he calls “violations of the right to food.”

Yet making a “right to eat” our essential frame for fighting hunger has pitfalls, too.

For one, rights and power are too easily uncoupled. Prisoners have a right to food, for instance…but their power? Even a totalitarian state can guarantee the right to food.

Also, hearing “rights,” one can quickly slide into passive mode–to assumed provision by somebody else, as in the right to an education or to a jury trial, where it makes perfect sense. The frame doesn’t necessarily spur people to envision and build their own power. It can also lead one to imagine an end-point state of being–something settled–not necessarily an unending process of citizen co-creation.

So might there be a more basic frame for addressing hunger? Yes, I think so. And it starts with power.

The need for power can run even deeper in human beings than our need to eat. Think of hunger strikes, where refusing to eat becomes a means to power. Philosopher Erich Fromm believed our need for efficacy to be so basic that he turned Descartes around: “I am, because I effect,” he wrote.

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.

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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