Rural Women and Food Sovereignty in the Asia Pacific

Keynote address to the Asia Pacific regional workshop of rural women for the Global People’s Summit on Food Systems last August 18, 2021

Good morning everyone. I’m so glad to meet all the participants in this rural women’s workshop as part of the Global People’s Summit (GPS) on Food Systems. I’m Helda Khasmy, Chairperson of Serikat Perempuan Indonesia (Seruni) and also as International Coordinating Committee (ICC) of the International League of People’s Struggle (ILPS).

The current food system is in full contradiction with the UN Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other Workers in Rural Areas, which was defined by the UN General Assembly in 2018. Policies and regulations on food production, trade, and industry in the world and in the majority of regions and countries do not recognize, do not ratify and implement this declaration.

Mass production of various types of food in the countryside and its industry do not to serve the needs of all nations and peoples of the world, improve the livelihoods of the tiller peasants, as well as the advancement of rural villages. Food production and its processed industries continue to develop as instruments of capital-breeding and wealth-accumulating under the rule of a handful of international monopoly capitalist powers who rule over the big food industry in capitalist countries and the big landlords in pre-industrial agrarian countries.

The evil and inability of the imperialist food system to guarantee the people’s need for just, sufficient, and healthy food is seen more clearly and cannot be covered anymore during the Covid-19 Pandemic era since March 2020. Food production and trade have become the engine of the creation of poverty, hunger and even unemployment in rural areas. The peasants and peasant laborers in rural areas, who devote their energy to producing various types of food, have actually become victims of food injustice. They suffer from hunger, lose the ability to produce independently, experience expulsion from their cultivated land as a result of the increasingly intensive deprivation of their products by big landlords.

Moreover, the prevailing food system is an instrument to deprive freedom and eliminate the chance of peasants, farm workers and their families in the countryside to achieve advancement. The prevailing production and trade as well as the food industry have been shown to create systematic environmental destruction. Destroying natural tropical forests around the world, drying up springs, threatening the diversity of animals and plants, ultimately destroying soil fertility on a large scale so that it can no longer be used for cultivation.

Rural women face multiple oppression. In addition to facing the general oppression and exploitation of all peasants and peasant laborers in the countryside, they also face various kinds of discrimination as result of the patriarchal power of men preserved by the ruling classes.

Rural women occupy the lowest caste in terms of economic, politics and cultural rights. Rural women lose their independence as productive forces. Women are not recognized as important workers in food production in rural areas, are not entitled to arable land, do not receive financial support for production for agricultural inputs, and face various discrimination and oppression due to existence of patriarchal power of men.

Across Asia, ruling states and governments make policies and regulations that put food systems under the control of the big landlords in rural areas. Various cultivation of raw materials for agriculture, fishery, animal husbandry, forestry and their manufactured industries are operated for export-oriented, while domestic needs are mostly met by food industrial products from imperialist countries. Indonesia, with its vast fertile land, consumes rice at a very expensive price and has the status of a net importer. The same applies to major rice producing countries such as India, Thailand, and Vietnam. Through the 2020 Omnibus Act on Job Creation, the Government of Indonesia aligns domestic food production with imported food as two equally important sources of national food stock at the pressure of the imperialists to eliminate the “Non-Tariff Barrier” in the food trade. All national policies and new regulations, including in handling the Covid-19 pandemic, food policy refers to Trade Liberalization. The imperialist illusion that a more open food trade could create a stable national food stock was adopted by Indonesia and all Asian countries without exception. Therefore, all agricultural, fishery, animal husbandry, forestry cultivation work, especially by National Minorities, must be under the direction of the Open Food Trade, without tariff and non-tariff barriers.

In a free-open trade policy and regulation without such tariff and non-tariff barriers, food sovereignty, sooner or later, will be completely deprived. Peasants, farm workers including rural women will leave food production and their land. Because they will lose the power to produce in total, not only food production for trade, but also food production for subsistence purposes.

Most countries in the world and Asia that are still pre-industrial agrarian are only able to produce food raw materials on a limited basis relying on unskilled rural labor, technology, knowledge, machinery, and simple agricultural equipment. Therefore, the doubling of production is only possible with the expansion of agricultural land, which means doubling the workload of the families of the peasants, including the women peasants in the countryside and their children. With the current food system, rural women only consume leftover products from the surplus that is taken by the landlords through land rent and usury and the wages of farm laborers are extremely low. She is forced to limit the amount and quality of consumption for herself, her children, and her family. The allocation of wages and income is insufficient for staple food and children’s education and health needs, which are increasingly unaffordable.

Millions of peasants, farm laborers, rural women left their agricultural jobs because of exploitative and oppressive food policies and regulations throughout Asia. They move and run informal jobs in urban areas or leave their country to become migrant workers in countries that lack productive forces. In the era of the Covid-19 Pandemic, this phenomenon continues. The number of migrations in Asia continues to soar due to losing hope of survival from underdeveloped food production in rural areas.

Countries and governments of various countries in Asia are aware of this. Instead, they promote the cultivation of non-food commodities more broadly, or develop export-oriented food production under the guise of food security while removing all barriers to imported food flooding the domestic markets of all countries in Asia.

During this Covid-19 Pandemic, the ruling countries and governments in Asia should be able to rely on rural areas as a bulwark of defense—a true immune area due to a less dense population, better environment than urban areas and industrial centers, and most importantly, the ability to mobilize labor especially rural women for collective mass food production. But they didn’t do that. They choose to use billions of dollars in foreign debt to build isolation installations in urban areas so that funds can be corrupted.

In the current situation, the peasant movement which is promoting genuine land reform throughout Asia with all its might continues to struggle against the ongoing neo-liberal policies that are being pushed to save the international monopoly capitalist system. In India, peasants and ethnic minorities are constantly fighting for land rights and defending their land against threats of land grabbing by big corporations supported by Prime Minister Modi’s neo-liberal policies. In the Philippines, peasant movements and genuine land reformers are helping the Lumad and other ethnic groups in Luzon to intensify food production in rural areas, against food isolation by the Philippine government. In Africa, the movement against the Green Revolution sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is in full swing.

In Indonesia, rural women’s organizations and movements side by side with peasant organizations have been tirelessly promoting the mobilization of labor in rural areas, mutual assistance work in planting and harvesting and the fulfillment of other basic needs that are cheaper by the peasants, especially women farmers. Rice, cooking oil, sugar is cultivated together so that they can be affordable to peasants who really depend on non-food commodities such as coffee and palm oil for their livelihood.

However, the most important focus of attention at this time is to halt, and if there is an opportunity, to defeat the imperialist sponsored food system with neo-liberal policies, oppose the elimination of all tariffs and non-tariff barriers under the guise of open food trade in order to ensure more stable food stocks or food security. Neo-liberal policies in the food system will destroy the hope of food sovereignty in every country in Asia and destroy the last power of the peasants, including rural women, to produce independent food even for their subsistence needs. The call for joint production in the countryside by peasant and farm workers who rely on rural women will have an important meaning, especially in the era of the Covid-19 Pandemic, as long as it is closely connected and is an inseparable part of the genuine land reform movement to liberate the peasants and peasant laborers from the shackles of the big landlords, imperialist accomplices throughout Asia and the world.