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Livelihoods and food sovereignty


We explore models of development that put “living well” and the protection of “communities of life” foremost. Local responses to neoliberal approaches to growth are diverse and at times divisive because, although resource extraction can provide employment and entrepreneurial opportunities, it comes at a cost to lifeways, livelihood options and food sovereignty. This research theme explores ecologically economic models for prosperity and sustainability, meaning models that decouple ‘prosperity’ from growth and recognize economy as subsidiary to the earth. It seeks to answer what these models would look like for our indigenous partners’ territories and how they could advance these partners’ priorities for “living well”.

Food sovereignty

The concept of food sovereignty is a concept and a movement that emerged in reaction to the global concept of food security promoted by international institutions such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the United Nation. It emerged as an alternative to the form of development, and more specifically of food systems, designed by those institutions. The Via Campesina is the major organisation that promoted it, with the support of a number of NGOs. The concept was critically debated during the Food Sovereignty Colloquium held at Yale in 2013. On that occasion, the definition given was: “the right of peoples to democratically control or determine the shape of their food system and to produce sufficient healthy food in culturally appropriate and ecologically sustainable ways in and near their territory.” Access to healthy, safe and culturally significant food is presented as a human right. Through the concept of food sovereignty, the purpose is to challenge the theory of the former concept – i.e. food security – and to promote new political models which are supposed to be sustainable, local, and democratic.

Whereas food security comprises mainly economic criteria, food sovereignty is respectful to cultural diversity and the environment. The latter is concerned with issues such as production, land distribution, international trade system, and biodiversity conservation. As these topics are very diverse, they often enter in contradiction one with another, posing obvious trade-offs in the process of decision making. Food sovereignty embraces a moral understanding of the economy, and it questions the ethical basis for our economic decisions and our current legal system.

The beneficiaries of the food sovereignty movement are often marginalized peoples: small-scale peasants, landless farmers, rural workers, as well as hunters and fishers, women, youth, and indigenous people. This means that the movement considers a plethora of views and rationalities altogether. Food sovereignty promotes an alternative view of development. For instance, the Andean concept of Sumak Kawsay (Buen Vivir in Spanish, or Living Well in English) appears to be one of the most widely known examples within this movement. Collectiveness and reciprocity are integral components of alternatives to food security, assuming that those social values should be prioritized and maintained.

The activist part of the debate about food sovereignty is to propose new policies, at a national and international level, that will enable an articulation of the main alternatives to food security. Such an agenda should empower indigenous communities, and it should provide practical means to resolve complex issues for all different kinds of actors.

Research questions

The researchers in this theme’s projects are asking questions about neo-liberalism and self-determination. For instance:

  • What are the main ways by which neo-liberalism is manifest in indigenous communities?
  • Are there other alternative ways of thinking local economy than well-being?
  • As food security is supposed to be centered on human rights but failed to do so in an appropriate way, could the recognition of indigenous rights promote the right to self-determine what livelihood might look like?

Theme Leaders: Jon Altman, Treena Wasonti:io Delormier, Nicholas Kosoy

Theme Contributors

Caroline Archambault
Janelle Baker
Elena Bennett
Peter Brown
Caroline Desbiens
Sabrina Doyon
Jackson Efitre
James Ford
John G. Galaty
Ingrid Hall
Andrew Hendry
Gordon Hickey
Timothy Allan Johns
Carole LĂ©vesque
Hugo Melgar-Quiñonez
Catherine Potvin
François Roch
Thierry Rodon
Colin H. Scott
Evodia Silva
Jon Unruh
George Wenzel

Associated Projects

Enhancing Ecologically Resilient Food Security through Innovative Farming Systems in the Semi-Arid Midlands of Kenya

Impacts of Violence in the Latin American Democratic Context: the Case of Chile and Mexico

Indigenous Development: Social Justice, Resource Rights, Institutional Hybridity

Living Well in the Torres Strait: Indigenous Engagement with Economic Change and Development

Protected Areas Development and Environmental Stewardship, Eeyou Istchee (Crees of northern Quebec)

Centre for Indigenous Conservation and Development Alternatives