The Structure of Hunger and the Rise of Spiritual Indignation
By Stephen Bartlett*
“We believe that God has made a covenant with all of creation (Gen 9.8-12). God has brought into being an earth community based on the vision of justice and peace. The covenant is a gift of grace that is not for sale in the market place (Is 55.1). It is an economy of grace for the household of all of creation. Jesus shows that this is an inclusive covenant in which the poor and marginalized are preferential partners and calls us to put justice for the “least of these” (Mt 25.40) at the center of the community of life. All creation is blessed and included in this covenant (Hos 2.18ff).
--Accra Confession, 24th Assembly of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC), in Accra, Ghana, 2004.
The heightened impoverishment and mass hunger being experienced in the world today has a structure and an ideology behind it, driving it ever forward. This impoverishment runs parallel to the deepening process of expropriation of what people have considered the Common Goods of Nature, or the Abundant Gifts of God to Humanity.
People from millennial peasant and family farm traditions have understood land, water and biodiversity including seeds, cuttings and animal and fish species, to be such common gifts. People of the land and sea have been among the first victims of the economic structure and ideology that would concentrate wealth into fewer and fewer hands, at the altar of profit-taking and the so-called “invisible” hand of self-interest that has driven capitalism into the system of virtual corporate monopoly we see today. The “invisible hand” however has been exposed to be corporate entities pulling strings like a puppeteer busy formulating economic, commercial and agricultural policy at the national and international levels. We are being welcomed to the inhuman, unjust machine of exclusion, exploitation and expropriation by multi-billion dollar advertising campaigns.
Testimony: “Given the fact that even today most food consumed by a majority of humanity is produced by small-scale farmer families, given the poorly understood fact that small-scale farming produces more food sustainable per acre of land, and given the fact that women provide the majority of labor worldwide in such small-scale production, we can assert the following without exaggerating: On the whole it is not a white man on a tractor who feeds humanity, but a woman of color with a hand tool and a basket.”
-- Rodrigo Lopez, National Leadership of the Movement of Landless Rural Workers (MST) of Brazil, during the No Hunger, Cool Planet tour organized by Agricultural Missions in November, 2008.
Testimony: “We were selling fresh milk from our family’s five cows to a local cheese maker. But in the three years since the government of the Dominican Republic began allowing the importation of powdered milk from Europe and the U.S with their slick ad campaigns, the price of locally produced milk has fallen to 1/3 of what it was, while the peso (our national currency) has lost much of its value. We have had to sell our cows for meat and now Checho must do many days of agricultural labor per month on neighboring farms and I need to take in laundry in order to feed our family.”
--Rubia y Checho Alvaro of El Guao in converation, Dominican Republic, 1999.
This young couple and their children were (and are) my neighbors in a rural hamlet in the Dominican Republic, where my own family settled and worked from 1990 to 1996. Since that time, the 200 or so Dominicans who lived in our area now number around 100 due to the rural exodus. In their place, 75 or more Haitian immigrant workers have moved into the area, doing the jobs on the farms abandoned by the able bodied Dominicans who have left. As with immigrants from Mexico and Central America coming to the United States, these Haitian immigrant workers generally receive significantly lower wages, due to their social and legal vulnerability and the need that drove them to migrate. In both the U.S. and the Dominican Republic the vicious head of racism is being aroused by unscrupulous politicians and some media figures, distracting people from the structural causes of the impoverishment. My friend Checho who I quote above is now learning to speak Haitian Creole conversing with his workmates while making farmers’ cheese and feeding pigs.
Testimony: “I am 56 years old, a farmer from South Korea who has strived to solve our problems with the great hope in the ways to organize farmers’ unions. But I have mostly failed, as many other farm leaders elsewhere have failed. Soon after the Uruguay Round Agreement was sealed, we Korean farmers realized that our destinies are no longer in our own hands. We cannot seem to do anything to stop the waves that have destroyed our communities where we have been settled for hundreds of years…Once I went to a house where a farmer abandoned his life by drinking a toxic chemical because of his uncontrollable debts. I could do nothing but listen to the howling of his wife. If you were me, how would you feel?…To make myself brave, I have tried to find the real reason and the force behind those waves. And I reached the conclusion, here in front of the gates of the WTO (World Trade Organization). I am crying out my words to you, that have for so long boiled in my body. I ask: for whom do you negotiate now? For the people or for yourselves? Stop basing your WTO negotiations on flawed logic and mere diplomatic gestures. Take agriculture out of the WTO system.”
--Lee Kyung Hae, leader of the Korean Peasant’s League, in a written declaration handed out to fellow members of the Via Campesina International, in the days before he immolated himself with a knife, ending his life suddenly in our presence at the barricades outside the World Trade Organization (WTO) negotiations in Cancun, Mexico, Sept 10, 2003. Despite the tragic nature of this act, it did contribute to the collapse of the WTO negotiations, a victory for the family farm movement.
People call this famine “Clorox” because it tears through and eats up your guts like bleach or acid. Children and women are particularly affected. Malnutrition is prevalent among the children and youth of poor areas. Women are borrowing from loan sharks at incredible rates of interest in order to support their small commerce of food products, and to try and feed their children as they can. In the northwest, men are swallowing their pride to admit that they depend on their wives to survive.
Another aggravating phenomenon is the migration of men towards the Dominican Republic. Much of the active professional manpower from Haiti is going to the Dominican Republic although they are not very welcome there. Some in the Bateyes (plantations) are treated like slaves. Others are killed for no reasons.
Testimony: “This economic crisis is dividing families. The men leave to look for work while the women spend their time on the road “searching for life” as they say. They go from market to market trying to earn a living for their families. Children are left to fend for themselves. An ever- increasing number of children cannot afford to go to school and many form marauding gangs of delinquents prone to all sorts of criminal activities including murder and robberies.
“Diseases like tuberculosis, stomach ulcers, infections are increasing in occurrences. Health centers are full with sick patients who cannot pay for medicines whose costs are exorbitant and out of reach.
“At the same time, farmers who remain on their land or who cannot afford to leave their areas, are not able to obtain credits to buy seeds, tools and fertilizers to take advantage of the coming rainy season. This is a true vicious circle.”
--Chavanne Jean-Baptist, Executive Director of the Mouvement Paysan Papay /MPP, in Haiti. (Agricultural Missions has been a long time partnership with the MPP of Haiti and in March 2009 held a conference called “Food and Ecological Crisis: Rebuilding Local Food Economies in Haiti and Where You Live,” with delegates from Haiti, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Granada, and the US.)
The rebuilding of local food economies is a dynamic response to exclusion and injustice known by the name of ‘food sovereignty,’ a concept popularized by the Via Campesina movement, representing small-scale farmers, rural women, and landless rural workers across the world. Food sovereignty goes beyond the concept of ‘food security.’ ‘Food sovereignty’ means the democratic rebuilding of local agricultural systems to produce healthy, culturally appropriate food accessible by all, utilizing practices that sustain soil fertility and biodiversity and provide the greatest distribution of employment and wealth. It implies the right of peoples to limit importations of food ‘commodities’ when such importation would harm the livelihoods of food producers and processors of a given community, region, or nation. It is not anti-trade, but supports fair trade practices based on mutual benefit, putting the focus on self-reliance for the important food staples traditionally eaten by a given people.
When food commodities become the target of financial gambling, as with unregulated speculation in futures markets, when agribusiness corporations have undue influence over government policy and even international financial institutions that impose slanted policies in favor of profit-taking at the expense of local markets, producers and consumers, when land is concentrated into fewer and fewer hands, when water, seeds, and biodiversity are privatized, excluding many or most people from the benefits of agricultural production and food processing and distribution, when people are driven from the lands for the extraction and exploitation without restraint of the common goods of nature, we are looking into the face of systemic evil at work in the world. To maintain our integrity, people of faith must respond to this challenge with righteous indignation and acts of redemptive justice. We must educate and advocate, and listen to those most impacted by these policies!
The ten commandments brought by Moses to our Christian forbearers can be adapted to the current structure of systemic evil in order to help us rethink our faith and what we are called to believe and do. Participants at a South South Forum of Reformed Churches held in Argentina have composed one such adaptation or deepening of the meaning of our ten commandments:
1. We shall not make mammon our God, accumulating power and wealth.
2. We shall not make ourselves an idol, worshiping the effectiveness of our achievements.
3. We shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord God, calling the implementation of the wealth accumulating market and imperial wars a Christian policy.
4. We will observe the Sabbath day by not exploiting human labor and destroying mother earth.
5. We will provide for solidarity between the generations, not only by securing a decent living for the aged, but also by not burdening the coming generations with ecological damage and debt.
6. We shall not murder, excluding from the economy those who have no private property or who cannot sell their labor in the market.
7. We shall not tolerate the commodification and sexual exploitation of women and children.
8. We shall not allow the manifold robberies of economic and financial actors.
9. We shall not misuse the legal system for our personal profit but promote the economic, social and cultural rights of all people.
10. We shall not follow the greed of limitless accumulation by depriving our neighbors of their means of production and income, so that all may live in dignity on God’s rich and beautiful earth.
--South South Forum of Reformed Churches, Buenos Aires, 2003: Covenanting in Life for Fullness. (PDF)