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VANCOUVER—After the Copenhagen Climate Conference failed to produce a legally-binding agreement, Kim Carstensen, Leader of the World Wildlife Fund's Global Climate Initiative, stated in a press release that the Copenhagen Accord translates into “three degrees Celsius of warming or more.” Those three degrees could trigger the migration of millions of impoverished agriculturalists around the globe.
The direction of climate change negotiations concerned 150 small-scale farmers of NGO La Via Campesina for a different reason. “Our farms are not for sale on the climate market,” they protested in Copenhagen on December 15.
Negotiations at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change favoured agro-fuels on large-scale farms as a means of climate change mitigation. However, an underreported result of industrial farming is the millions of poor, landless migrants who are losing their land to large-scale farms.
The international peasant movement La Via Campesina (literally, "the way of the farmer") represents millions of small farmers, landless peoples, and rural men and women from around the world. The group calls for radical changes to the global food system.
“To really change the food system, it is important that all sectors of society work together,” says Josie Riffaud of La Via Campesina.
Food sovereignty, or “the peoples' right to define agricultural and food policy,” is a proposed solution to climate change’s drastic effects on farmers. Via Campensina, which coined the term “food sovereignty,” claim that these radical changes have the potential to achieve reductions of between 50-75 per cent of current global emissions simply by returning organic matter to the soil, developing local markets and reversing intensive livestock production.
A food sovereignty system requires the re-localization of food production, and, perhaps, the re-localization of migrant workers. These farmers are not begging for carbon credits or other trade-based solutions; rather, they are offering a solution to the current crisis: a diverse food system that supports local markets and promotes local labor.
Moreover, food sovereignty is not a new idea; societies have been food-sovereign for most of human history. Only in the last 100 years has industry taken over food production. This de-localization of food supply and labor has contributed to climate change.
In Vancouver, No One is Illegal (NOII), a grassroots anti-colonial immigrant and refugee rights collective, aligns its goals with those of La Via Campesina.
Immigration is not a topic often associated with the food system, but Harjap Grewal of NOII says immigration and the food system are “very much linked.” He sees immigration as “the human impact of free trade policy, [and therefore] the reason why [farmers are] migrating.”
Immigration is a growing issue in Canadian politics in the past decade, stemming from an increase in the number of people seeking refugee or migrant worker status in Canada. “We've actually made the politically difficult decision to maintain historically high levels of immigration,” Jason Kenney, Minister of Immigration, said to the Calgary Sun.
On the surface, Kenney seems to be making it easier for migrant workers to stay in Canada. Kenney said migrants are “doing work Canadians are unwilling to perform,” and that his government, despite the recession and rising unemployment, will maintain its practice of encouraging immigration and foreign labour. Tarina White of the Calgary Sun reported, “Calgary newcomers will have access to more language training (to the tune of) almost $9.5 million in funding. ... Kenney said he hopes the investment will boost the percentage of immigrants enrolling in language programs each year, which currently sits at 25 per cent.” According to Bill Kaufman of the Sun, Kenney said his government is stepping up its monitoring of foreign workers' treatment while making it easier for the newcomers to become permanent residents and citizens.
However, a closer look reveals a different agenda. Documented by NOII, Kenney “oversaw the largest immigration raid in recent Canadian history, which went largely unreported. In an illegal move, 41 [migrants] were tricked into signing waivers that removed their right to a hearing and many have now been deported.”
White reported that Alberta Federation of Labour President Gil McGowan blames international free trade agreements for “setting up foreign workers to be exploited.” McGowan accuses Kenney's ministry of “washing its hands” of temporary foreign workers once they arrive only for them to be routinely abused by their employers. He noted, “Only three per cent of migrant workers are eligible for permanent residency.”
“We're the ones who set up an advocacy office to help workers who are exploited; we're the ones picking up the pieces. ... I find it galling [that] Kenney's trying to wrap himself in the cloak of virtue.”
“How can a self-proclaimed bigot responsibly manage Canada's immigration policy?” This question by a concerned citizen during a Q&A session with Kenney at UBC in November was seen by those overseeing the event as “too impassioned,” and the individual was later detained by UBC campus police.
A similar event had panned out differently at McGill. There, 50 people confronted the minister outside the Arts building, briefly denying him access. The event was canceled. When questioned about his immigration policy, he responded, “I plead guilty, I’m a racist,” with a “hint of sarcasm,” according to NOII Montréal.
Kenney's subsequent visit to UBC was greeted with less animosity, and a police presence.
Campus Conservatives President Robert Sroka, organizer of the UBC event, said, “[It was] an opportunity for anyone who wanted to respectfully participate in interaction between students and government.” But, he admitted, “It's a contentious issue and there is always going to be someone unhappy.”
Fathima Cader, a participant at the UBC event, confirmed the negative reception of the controversial MP. “A majority of the questions were highly critical of the MP's immigration policy, to which he mainly responded by talking around the question,” which, she believes, is because Kenney is aware of the real reason immigration in Canada is increasing.
“The increasing number of migrants and refugees around the world is due to the effects of capitalist exploitation that Canada is complicit in,” says Grewal. A report by the United Nations Development Programme Human Development Report of 2005 states, “Unfair trade policies continue to deny millions of people in the world’s poorest countries an escape route from poverty, and perpetuates obscene inequalities.” In other words, international trade policies result in poverty abroad, thus creating the incentive for foreigners to partake in the jobs that Canadians are “unwilling to perform.”
The rise of capitalist culture has changed the ecology-based farming tactics of farmers in both North and South America. The majority of North America’s arable farmland grows non-diverse industrial crops. In much of South and Latin America, 20 per cent of the population owns 80 per cent of the land. The result of this imbalance—both ecological and economic—is migrant workers: seasonal agricultural employees who are overworked and underpaid. Our culture of respect for farmers as public servants is gone. The industrial food model has degraded our ideas about food.
“When culture breaks down, you'll find addictions,” SFU Professor Bruce Alexander recently said at the Four Pillars Drug Strategy Conference in Vancouver.
Culture in Latin and South America has changed drastically since the rise of industrial farming. Subsistence growers are bought off their land by powerful and wealthy people who create industrial farms. The tradition of local, organic and subsistence growing has been nearly wiped out. To cope with this loss, people turn to drugs. Drug addiction is connected to gang activity, causing people to fear for their lives and apply for refugee asylum overseas.
One of the major points of contention during Kenney's visit to Vancouver was that of a particular immigration case. A Mexican woman applied twice for refugee asylum in Canada due to death threats by gangs in the state of Jalisco. Canada denied her asylum twice, and flew her home. She is now dead.
In our quest for cheap food, Canadians buy into the industrial farming model every day at the grocery store by purchasing subsidized food from monoculture farms far away. BC residents now pay a lower percentage of their income on food than ever before.
On 31 October 2008, Harold Steves, Chair of Agriculture for Metro Vancouver, said, “California is running out of food. California and Mexico is where we get much of our food supply. It's not a matter of if the trucks stop running but when.” If left alone, the food supply in BC would last three days.
Decreasing subsidies on large-scale farms now and providing incentives for local production is in our best interest. Any catastrophe, such as climate change-related disasters, could leave millions hungry in Metro Vancouver. In addition, a shift toward local food production—food sovereignty—would likely decrease the influx of migrant field laborers to Canada, encouraging sustainability locally and abroad.
Ben Amundson is an undergraduate in Human Ecology at UBC.
The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.