The Story behind Nyéléni 2007: A Forum on Food Sovereignty

Shamali, Amalie and Veronica

photo courtesy Andrianna Natsoulas

Andrianna (3rd from left) with Shamali, Amalie and Veronica

In February 2007, Nyéléni 2007: A Forum on Food Sovereignty took place in the countryside of Mali outside a small village called Selengue. The actual conference village of Nyéléni was built brick by brick, hand by hand by local builders, using local materials. The food was harvested, caught, killed and prepared by a group of women from Selengue. For the first time, Nyéléni 2007 brought together farmers, fishermen, environmentalist, consumers, farm workers, nomads, indigenous peoples, youth, women from every continent, save Antarctica, to answer the questions What are we fighting for? and What are we fighting against? to achieve food sovereignty.

Nyéléni was named for a woman well known in Malian rural communities. She is the symbol of food sovereignty for thousands of farmers and she represents the dedication required to actualize its principles. Osmane Outtara oversaw the Nyéléni village in Selengue and describes her:

Nyéléni was an only child, which in Africa was considered a curse. Nyéléni, as a girl and only child of her parents, suffered in her youth from all the mocking her parents were subjected to. She secretly resolved to remove this slur that men had cast on her by defeating them on their own ground, that is to say agriculture and working of the land.

To every suitor she repeated endlessly that marriage could wait, that first she had a mission to accomplish as a homage to her family, to all women. This was her priority. Nyéléni took part in farming competitions and defeated all the champions with the best reputation in her village and in the surrounding region. Her reputation grew. The more arrogant men would challenge her, day after day, and to their disgrace they were all defeated.

Nyéléni’s reputation grew beyond the limits of her region, she became a living legend. This is the time when her renown was established and she earned respect. And so the legend says that it was at the beginning of winter, which is the rainy season, and she domesticated fonio/angry rice. It’s also thanks to Nyéléni that we have a variety of millet called samio. Nyéléni’s father was called Nianso, her mother was called Saucra, she came from Siracoro. Unfortunately, history does not tell us whether one of her suitors ever married her, and therefore whether she ever had children. This is the story of Nyéléni.

What was the genesis of Nyéléni 2007?

In 1994, The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization established a Special Programme for Food Security to help governments implement national food security policies intended to ease hunger and increase access to food. The Programme coordinated the World Food Summit in November of 1996 to prioritize food security, as declared in the Rome Declaration on World Food Security where the heads of states, “reaffirm the right of everyone to have access to safe and nutritious food, consistent with the right to adequate food and the fundamental right of everyone to be free from hunger.” They also pledged, “to reducing the number of undernourished people to half their present level no later than 2015.”  In response to the summit, La Via Campesina – an international movement of peasants, small- and medium-sized producers, landless, rural women, indigenous people, rural youth and agricultural workers – coined the term food sovereignty. In brief, food Sovereignty is a food justice system that is sustainable in nature and has a governance and distribution system that is imbedded in the community and ensures the needs of the community are securely met.

In 2005, nearly ten years after the World food Summit, leaders of La Via Campesina began discussing the need to reaffirm the principles of food sovereignty and and broaden the table. They envisioned a global gathering to clarify the economic, social, ecological and political implications with greater input across the continents and sectors, with intentional input from women and the youth. The intent was also to create a process to achieve recognition of the right to food sovereignty. and broaden the table.

An International Steering Committee (ISC) was created comprised of members of the Food Sovereignty Network, Friends of the Earth International, International Planning Committee for Food Sovereignty, World March of Women, World Forum of Fish Harvesters and Fishworkers, World Forum of Fisher People, Réseau des Organisations Paysannes et de Producteurs de l’Afrique de l’Ouest (ROPPA) and Coordination Nationale des Organisations Paysannes (CNOP).

The ISC made a deliberate decision to hold this meeting in Africa, where agriculture plays a central role, and where numerous rural and urban families suffer from hunger, despite the abundance of natural resources. At that time, Mali was the perfect choice – there was an active La Via Campesina member group, the government endorsed the principles of food sovereignty as a policy priority and there were democratic contributions to political formations.

The Forum was by invitation only, as a very careful quota system was designed to ensure balanced representation from all regions and all sectors. Each region of the world had two coordinators. They organized a specific number of delegates that included farmers, farmworkers, fisherfolk, environmentalist and nongovernmental organizations. Half of the delegation were women. In total, 600 delegates from the five continents, convened in Mali in February 2007 for one purpose: strengthen and deepen the concept of food sovereignty.

Money was raised to cover all aspects of the Forum – travel for all delegates, building Nyéléni, technical needs. All the funds were raised from private foundations, individual donations and governments. Everything was measured and coordinated – the number of huts built, the amount of food needed, the lines of bathrooms erected. There was also a contingent of medics from Doctors of the World, technical support group, cooks, and builders. There was a team of translators, so that the entire Forum had simultaneous translations into English, French, Spanish and Bambara. In total, there were close to 900 people who made Nyéléni happen.

In the year and a half run up, preparation began with very specific objectives to meet. The Malian organizations created a committee to organize all the onsite logistics. A methodology committee formed to ensure the discussions were as meaningful as possible and fed into the overall platform and call to action. The workshops were organized by theme:

  • Production Models: impacts on food sovereignty, people, livelihoods and environment
  • Sharing Territories and Land, Water, Fishing Rights, Aquaculture and Forest Use, between sectors
  • Access to and Control over Natural Resources for Food Sovereignty
  • Local Knowledge and Technology
  • Conflict and disaster: responding at local and international levels
  • Trade Policies and Local Markets
  • Migration

The perspectives and needs of the youth, women and the environment were fully integrated throughout the workshops through the creation of 3 caucuses, with representatives in each thematic workshop. Every evening the Women’s Caucus, Youth Caucus and Environment Caucus would meet to discuss the workshop and to ensure their perspectives were woven into the discussions. If there was a concern, they would bring their concern to the ISC, which met twice daily. Every morning, the regions would meet to discuss how the issues raised in the thematic workshops could be actualized in the regions.

The opening plenary was led by an Iranian woman and an American woman, symbolizing the importance of women in the food system and reflecting that even difficult political differences playing out in the international arena can be addressed at the Forum through a global movement with a shared vision and mission. Each morning and every evening, plenary sessions grounded the delegates. Amadou Toumani Touré, then president of Mali, welcomed the delegation. The president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, addressed the Forum via video. Farmworkers, nomads, fisherfolk, and farmers all had a space at the plenary sessions.

Of course, building a village and uniting so many people, created challenges. The builders went on strike for more money, which delayed the completion of the village. The electric lines were cut several times and had to be repaired. When the delegates began arriving it was night and the huts were not completely prepared. The organizers quickly put people in groups of three, provided potable water, flashlights, and mattresses to take to their hut. Some delegates had traveled for two days, so stress was high. A few delegates were frustrated with the tight methodology and did not want to participate.

Many of the Malians who provided logistical support had never left their village of Selengue. They did not receive any cultural trainings, so religious differences were hard to understand. For example, the Hindu delegation did not eat for the first couple of days as the vegetarian and meat food were not kept in separate places with separate serving utensils. A fence was erected around the village of Nyéléni, which brought up issues of inequity and privilege. A famous Malian singer came to perform for the Forum, and his first performance was outside the fence, for the villagers. Conversations around issues of inclusiveness and transparency went beyond the physical barrier.

Nyeleni, the legend, statue

photo courtesy Andrianna Natsoulas

Nyeleni, the legend, statue

There were many positive, long lasting outcomes of Nyéléni 2007. A Declaration was endorsed that includes the six pillars of food sovereignty. The regions committed to the creation of regional Food Sovereignty Alliances. NOFA is a member of the US Food Sovereignty Alliance and the Northeast Regional Assembly has convened their annual meetings in conjunction with the NOFA Summer Conference two years in a row. The USFSA has organized activities, including agroecology encounters, across the country to strengthen the food sovereignty movement through dialogue, trainings and community building. The village itself is active. It serves as a training retreat for organizations working on food sovereignty, especially those based in Africa. The Nyéléni Newsletter is produced on a regular basis, covers a range of issues related to Food Sovereignty, and is distributed in three languages across the world. Nyéléni is still recognized as a milestone and an inspiration in the food sovereignty movement.