Food systems revolution in the Basque Country!

Mikel is the president of EHNE Bizkiai (Basque country) and a farmer. I heard him speak at the FACPE jornadas outside Granada, but I decided to give him his own blog slot, partly because the FACPE entry is already very long and partly because it was a really practical solution type example - and is it's own story (or two). I also feel that his view point on the co-ops and SPG certification etc., as tools for social and political change, is very akin to our view at Kindling. That they must be transformative processes for those involved - changing the system, not just replicating it in shorter supply chains to find new markets. Very exciting stuff!

Mikel was in the workshop I was in and I got to talk to him quite a bit in the break, so this is a mixture of all of that. He talked about the importance of remembering that SPG (participatory guarentee system) isn't just about trading food or finding a new markets – it is about completely changing the trading system and relationships – it is a tool for creating social and political change.

He feels that it is key to have an organisation (or a few) that are co-ordinating and pushing for change – in their area that is EHNE (the agricultural trade union). EHNE are the biggest agricultural TU in the Basque Country – it is not only for organic farmers, but it has always been the model they believe in. They don't say the non organic farmers can't participate though – it is a transformative process.

Also being part of Via Campesina has helped to give them a wider vision and to share experiences with others.

Their situation is more similar to ours (in the Northwest of England) than Andalucia, in that in the Basque country the farmers are disappearing (average age is older), getting land is an issue (in Andalucia land is not a problem and there is a lot of agricultural production still), and intensification of farming has increased. However in the Basque country the situation (the crisis) is so bad now that people are starting to return to the land, young people want to grow food and more women are starting to become producers.

The strategic lines of action of EHNE to deal with these increasing problems:

Training – not only technical but political – the aim is to change the model not reproduce it

Awareness raising – work with a range of people – not just farmers but social movements, feminist groups, immigrants, schools etc. - through talks/debates/workshops/local festivals etc.

Alliances – also important to form alliances – e.g. with local groups mentioned above, but also international such as Via Campesina.

Access to markets and consumption:

  • making sure that the projects they work on are transformative and have an impact/effect. He talked about accumulated knowledge – for example challenging some of the regulations stopping small farmers processing food on site (as they always have done) - working with an individual farmer to show that it is possible/safe and then using that knowledge and example to support other farmers to challenge these regulations.

  • Creating local infrastructure so that big companies don't come and buy up all the produce (e.g. of 'president' buying up all the milk for brie) and take all of the profit out of the area. Work collectively and with the local (not global) market.

  • Comedores escolares (school dinners) – if the schools or local authorities block the proposal of local & organic food, go direct to the parents – they care more about the health of their children.

  • Links with small local businesses (independent shops and restaurants)

  • Campaigns against big supermarkets

  • Transparent markets – showing very clearly how much you are paying the producers. They did a price comparison (shopping basket), and found that what cost 20 euros direct to the producer, cost 50 in a small shop and 60 in a supermarket.

Nekasarea – a network of producer and consumer groups.

Nekasarea started in 2006 and there are now 30 different groups which is 600 - 1000 families and 100 - 150 producers. The most important thing is that it is a transformative process (not just a way of selling and buying food).

They started the first group in his village, with a group of women who were already buying oil collectively (their husbands who were the producers weren't interested in working in this way but they women were, and they basically just started taking over the production on the land).

This first group took a fair bit of time to set up – they visited many projects around, and learnt a lot about how they didn't want to do it. One thing they didn't like was the individuality of the projects – 1 producer and lots of consumers, it wasn't a collective process.

So the way Nekasarea works is that each group consists of a number of producers and between 30 – 70 households (average is 40 per group)..

In each group one of the producers takes on being the co-ordinator (who co-ordinates the production, collects the produce from the farms and delivers it). They learn what the needs of the consumers are and what the group doesn't have.

One of the producers will then set up another group - to take more of their produce (with another 40 households, and some of the same and some different producers) and be the co-ordinator of that group. So it is a model that encourages the ripple effect of more groups setting up.

When they started in the village the group could offer meat, fruit and jam. Now they also supply (and produce) eggs, bread, sheep and goat cheese, vegetables, cider, wine. As a consumer you can't decide what you want in your box just how much you want a week (e.g. how much veg, how much meat and cheese, if you want wine and Jam etc.). You get three months trial when you first join, in which time you and the group can work out if it is for you or not, and you get to see how much produce you need. After that you commit to quantities which helps the producers with their annual planning.

Nearly the easiest thing is to produce – once you know what the needs are you can produce it.

They have a put a limit on the number of households as it makes distribution easier and relationships between everyone better.

The producers live from their own farm margins not from putting margins on any other producers products (they don't want to turn the co-ordinators from producers into little middlemen living off others). So the annual price paid by each consumer = the cost of the production and then the co-ordination and distribution cost is shown as an additional cost (paid to the co-ordinator) – so it is all very transparent.

They do have to buy products in – for example they don't produce oil. But they make sure that they buy direct from producers that they know who produce to their methods. At the moment they haven't really needed to use SPG (certification), as the groups mean that there is a direct relationship between consumer and producer, and they know the producers that they buy in from. They will start using it if it is useful from buying further a field though - he thinks it would need to have basic criteria for all members to sign up to in order to be workable (to know the people you're buying from share the same values).

It's a completely different and transformative model.

There was a time when loads of people wanted to enter without any political motivation – the model is about creating social and political change, so we made it that producers have to work with another producer for 3 months first before they can become a member. They also make sure that the training/induction is ideological/ political as well as tecnical (so e.g. talking about how we make sure the land isn't sold for development)

The problem isn't consumers – they have a waiting list, the problem is the lack of producers.

Access and defence of the land:

It is very very difficult in the Basque Country to get land – especially on your own as an individual producer.

They have been working for 15 years to persuade the Basque Country government to create a land bank and finally a law was recently passed re 'banco de tierras' – where if someone denounces abandoned land the government will make it accessible to new growers. It's a really good law, really clear. Although of course what counts is that they put it in to practise.

Locally they have had success with the local authority - it isn't a law but an agreement that municipal land can be given over to new growers - 2 weeks age when the local authority liberated the first 40 hectares (I think that's the amount he said) to two new young growers – so that's really important (and very exciting!).

EHNE are also pushing for a re-definition of land in the local plans – based on calculations of how much land would be needed to feed the town (two villages are already working on this - including it in their plans).

One local experience - Orduna

Mikel then gave an example of how they have worked with one village, Orduna, to push for food sovereignty in their strategic plans.

They did loads of amazing things: debates and talks on organic agriculture, promotion of local production, squatted land and set up community gardens (with no money), training, reviving the local market.

They carried out some participative research. A number of the local farmers let them look through their accounts – they found that there were too many heads of livestock for the area. So they worked with them looking at how to improve their businesses and make it more ecological. They did some experiments – looking at how to improve the grassland.

The result in a very short space of time was that the grass was much better (quantity and quality) – within a year more farmers are getting involved (and 20 more hectares is in the programme). They recently killed the first cows and the quality was amazing. The costs have gone down and the income has gone up.

His answes to questions at the end:

  • Orduna has 4,000 inhabitants
  • the producers don't only live from selling direct to the consumers they supply other markets too, but these are all local too.
  • 30 groups were set up over 5 years. The first group took the longest to set up – although it started in 2006 they had been planning and discussing it for 3 years before that.
  • The main thing is to organise – you can do that without money.
  • The authorities will say it can't be done – but you just do it and then you take away their excuses.
  • EHNE work with different organisations to have a political impact/lobby at different levels.

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