On Saturday, 23 January 2016, some fifty individuals gathered at the National Agronomy Institute of Tunisia (INAT) in Tunis for the first meeting on the Tunisia-North Africa Food Sovereignty Forum. Launched by geographer and filmmaker Habib Ayeb, the Forum proposes an alternative to the country’s national consultation on agriculture, in efforts to transform–not just repair and reform–agriculture and the food system. In an interview with Nawaat, Ayeb shares his vision for the Forum and what he believes a national debate on food sovereignty can accomplish.

What is your vision for the Forum?

The idea of the Forum is to open the debate on questions concerning food sovereignty, agricultural policies past and present, policies we would like to see implemented whether in Tunisia or elsewhere. This is the first step, to open the debate in Tunisia. The second step would extend to the surrounding regions in North Africa, and the third step to Africa.

On January 23, you held the first meeting in Tunis; who participated?

More than fifty people participated—there were youth, women, older adults, ten or so foreigners, three university professors, which was largely sufficient because everyone had an opportunity to speak, individuals who work with NGOs…

What was surprising was the number of people who came…there are political parties who organize meetings where 15-20 people show up; we didn’t have anything for the first meeting—neither well-known names, nor organization, nor political party—but people showed up, and they came as individuals from different backgrounds with different interests and varying degrees of awareness about the theme and related issues ….This is powerful because it means that the form, the idea of citizen debate is taking hold.

The Forum is set for 2017; what is to take place in the meantime?

The Forum will wrap up just about a year and a half of debate, so the first step for people who want to participate is diffusion—to relay that there is something underway, to discuss topics related to food sovereignty, the difficulty in finding good things to eat, food dependency in this and other countries. It’s not only Tunisians but more than half of humanity that suffers from these issues. So the first action is to talk about the Forum, to talk about these concepts and begin the debate today.

The Forum is conceived sort of like the Agora, the space where people would assemble to discuss different affairs. Similarly, we hope that people will come down from their mountains, their buildings, will come away from their social statuses, their positions, their activities, to gather and say what they think, what they want to eat, drink, export, import. It’s the moment when everyone comes together, but before arriving to this place we must keep the conversations going. We have about a year and a half ahead of us and we have to mobilize. And the media have an important role in diffusing this information, not only about the Forum itself but the issues concerned.

What about financial backing?

We are not going to work with private companies, foreign governments, or political parties: this is a citizen movement. We will work with the current Tunisian government because the money that the government manages is our money, and government institutions are our institutions and everything that the government is doing affects us. In terms of sponsors—we won’t take money from just any funding source: we will have a set of criteria and will take a look at what it is they do, what they sell, what are their objectives…if they go against our principles, we will not solicit their support.

We cannot organize a forum on food sovereignty and demand financial support from Monsanto; Monsanto is a target for the Forum—Monsanto must be broken. Also we won’t work with USAID or AFD or GIZ…

The most important thing is to remain loyal to the concept since it rights-based. Without this loyalty, we cannot gain anything, we cannot make any progress. We cannot organize a forum on food sovereignty and demand financial support from Monsanto; Monsanto is a target for the Forum—Monsanto must be broken. Also we won’t work with USAID or AFD or GIZ—these are governmental organizations that try to impose their models on the Global South, and they are also targets of the Forum.

How will regions outside of the capital be included in this debate?

We will go there. First of all, the Forum itself will not take place in Tunis. In the meantime, we will organize meetings, discussions, film screenings, book talks, conferences in different regions…And also the role of media is key: it is essential that news outlets diffuse the information, that we talk about this throughout the country. It’s not important for the media say it’s a good idea, but simply that it exists. In the same way that there are dispatches when a political party holds a meeting, there should be reports when, for instance, the Forum organizes a meeting outside the capital.

How will farmers be a part of the debate? What is their role in the Forum?

Farmers…can show their work, their products…explain why it is interesting to produce one’s own varieties and not necessarily commercial varieties, why it is important to protect bees…

They will be a part of coordination, commissions, and activities leading up to the main event. Farmers are the first individuals who have the right to take part, they are the priority. The VIP seats—figuratively speaking, that is—will be reserved not for researchers or officials but for farmers. Discussing food sovereignty without farmers makes no sense since they are the ones who will ensure it. When a farmer wakes up in the morning, he doesn’t wonder how much capital he will accumulate, he thinks about feeding his children. He says I harvested 100 quintals of wheat and next year I know I won’t die of hunger. I produced 200 quintals this year, so 100 quintals will be for me and 100 quintals will be for the market which will enable families who do not produce to eat. I need the doctor and he doesn’t produce wheat, so I must feed the doctor. I need the minister and he doesn’t produce wheat, so I must feed the minister.

In terms of coordination, farmers will be invited to all of the meetings leading up to and during the Forum. If they want, they can show their work, their products, explain why it is important to conserve one’s own seeds as opposed to purchasing seeds, why it is interesting to produce one’s own varieties and not necessarily commercial varieties, why it is important to protect bees…It’s not someone from the classroom who is going to explain all of this, it’s a farmer.

What exactly do you mean by “farmer” (“paysan” in French, “fellah” in Arabic)?

When a farmer loses his land, he cries; when a large-scale producer loses his land, he calls his accountant.

A farmer is a custodian of nature and resources. The farmer manages to conserve generation after generation. In spite of everything, farmers manage to feed 7 billion people. Of course there are farming companies, but it is mainly farmers who feed the population. The relationship between farmer and land is one of love; a large producer works from his office. When a farmer loses his land, he cries; when a large-scale producer loses his land, he calls his accountant. The profession of a farmer is noble and indispensable but it is also one of responsibility. It’s crazy we don’t think about the work that farmers do.

Disdain for farmers is worse than politics in terms of marginalization. We have more respect for the investor who destroys land and resources with chemical products than for the farmer who produces to feed his family, because the investor dresses like us, speaks like us, shops in the same supermarkets. The largest professional category in this country is farming: there are more than 500,000 small farmers, but if you count the farmer and his family, the number is somewhere around 2 million people.

And yet youth are not turning to agriculture for employment…

Because they know the land can’t feed them, can’t feed their families. If you are young, you can do other things, find another job that will feed you. We say that youth don’t want to work in agriculture—that’s absolutely false. Youth don’t want to work in something in which they can’t make a living and agriculture doesn’t allow people to make a living because it has been marginalized. One basically has to become a large-scale investor in order to start making money.

Can any of this change through the Forum?

The objective over the long-term is change. Can the Forum alone create change? No—but if people embrace the idea—that they want to eat well, eat things that are good for them and don’t pollute, that having access to sufficient food is our right, that our right to resources is not economic and that the land and water and air and biodiversity cannot be used to accumulate capital… If these ideas become the elements of debate and there are protests in the street to demand these things just as there are protests for human rights …then yes, I believe things can change…

On a global scale, agriculture produces two times more than what humanity consumes. Two-thirds of the population does not eat enough, and does not eat well in terms of quality. These two facts are proof that we can eat well, enough, without destroying the environment, but we have to change the agricultural model. And I’m no fool; I know this won’t be tomorrow. But if we get there in 20 years, that’s very good—that’s perfect.