Occupy the Farm A Study of Civil Society Tactics to Cultivate Commons and Construct Food Sovereignty in the United States
Using the case study of the 2012 illegal occupation of farmland owned by the University of California (“Occupy the Farm”), this paper investigates the promises and practical limits of constructing food sovereignty through direct action in the global North. Many grassroots activists find inspiration in the work of the Landless Peasant Movement (MST), La Via Campesina, and the concept(s) of Food Sovereignty (FS); many also express desires to transcend the market/state dichotomy through the creation of “commons”.
Through interviews with Occupy the Farm activists, this investigation will show that despite the theoretical strength of the internationally-recognized “commons” framework for land ownership and management and the framework’s potential articulation with FS as a political movement, its weakly developed state within existing cultural, governance, and property institutions of market industrial societies limits implementation of that framework—even in a case concerning public resources and the presence of an active public committed to commons ideals.
Practical challenges to the implementation of land and resource commons within polities lacking a substantial peasantry stem from two unanswered questions: (a) how to suitably, justly, and effectively constitute communities of decision-making vis-à-vis land commons (Ostrom’s “user boundaries”), and (b) how to address socio-economic limitations to individual participation in commoning activities when the base for personal subsistence is profoundly enmeshed in the capitalist reality of waged labor.
Within the current complex and interconnected nature of industrial society markets and polities, the ideal of resource commoning as taken largely from the global South is found at present to be largely unworkable. However, the case study shows that civil society interventions can be context-specific and therefore effective (rather than purely rooted in general ideals), acknowledge a diversity of approaches to food sovereignty, and accept the limitations placed by a lack of a global North FS commons history on the creation of a ‘rational strategy’ towards creating those commons.
In the last section of the paper, we suggest approaches through which challenges can be addressed, if not solved, suggesting that iterative mitigation of specific problems combined with a longer-term vision of cultural change and policy improvement can create sociocultural, policy/law, and social movement conditions conducive to greater FS in the global North.
Antonio Roman-Alcalá, MA student, International Institute of Social Studies, The Hague, and co-founder San Francisco Urban Agriculture Alliance Antonio Roman-Alcalá’s work focuses on the intersections of global environmental politics and local deliberative democracy, with food and farming as vehicles for politicaleconomic critique and praxis-based interventions. His interest in participatory action research and improving activist/academic collaboration is reflected in his paper for this conference.
Food Sovereignty: a critical dialogue, 14 - 15 September, New Haven.