On public land, corporate interest and the fight for food sovereignty

Cynthia Franklin

On Wednesday, Oct. 17, the UH GMO Education Project and UH Food Sovereignty Hawai’i sponsored a panel entitled “Public Land, Corporate Interest and the Fight for Food Sovereignty” in the UH Manoa English department. This discussion, attended by approximately 60 people, was one of a series of events sponsored by these groups, which are part of the organizing efforts of Walter Ritte and Joe Farber. For the past several months, Ritte and Farber, as part of the group Label it Hawaii, have been working with UH-M students and faculty to raise awareness about GMOs and to build support to pass state legislation to make it mandatory to label GMO food. Ritte is a long-time community activist, and an off-the-grid fish farmer and hunter. He is currently running for an at-large seat on the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, and is dedicated to working on and rallying people to address food security issues in Hawai‘i nei. Farber, an environmental planner and activist, is attending the UH Richardson Law School.

The October 17 panel discussion featured Noelani Goodyear Ka‘ōpua, a Kanaka ‘Ōiwi Hawai‘i and an associate professor of Political Science at UH-M; Laura E. Lyons, a professor of English at UH-M and co-editor of Cultural Critique and the Global Corporation (Indiana UP, 2010); and Hector Valenzuela, a Professor and Vegetable Crops Specialist in the CTAHR Department of Plant and Environmental Protection Sciences, who conducts educational programs and field research on small farms, organic farming and sustainable agriculture.

Valenzuela’s addressed corporate vs. community (or indigenous) perspectives on land use and agriculture and in the context of increased energy costs, food security, and the impacts of climate change.

Valenzuela began by providing a larger historical context for his concerns regarding GMOs, noting that “This year represents 520 years since the occupation and conquest of the New World, and over 200 years since the Western occupation of Hawaii, resulting in the long-term exploitation of its indigenous social and natural resources. A proper understanding of the structural problems within our society requires an analysis of the root causes of this structural instability- namely an analysis of the corporate-based capitalist economic system.”

He provided statistics to document that globally, major segments of the food system, from distribution, to processing, to retail, are controlled by a handful of transnational corporations. For example currently four companies control over 50% of global seed sales, and one company controls over 90% of global GM soybean seed sales. He discussed the force of these companies’ PR campaigns and the neo-liberal “instruments” used to push their economic agendas of privatization of the economy and natural resources, deregulation, and the cutting of social programs.

He concluded by addressing the growing international call for a radical change in our agricultural systems, to move in the direction of agroecological production methods, based on small-scale production systems, to reduce our dependence on capital expensive inputs, energy, and on external chemical applications.
Lyons’s talk focused on the legal and political processes that have led to corporations attaining “corporate personhood,” and how that has allowed corporate rights to outstrip the rights of actual human beings. She urged that particular attention be paid to corporations’ occupation of land in tracking their ruthless pursuit of profits.

For her segment of the panel, Goodyear Ka‘ōpua discussed the overturning of the GM kalo bill a few years ago; the existing frameworks in international law that have been set up to protect indigenous people and indigenous relationships to foods/ancestors/lands; and the Public Lands Distribution Corporation (PLDC). After discussing “the dangers of increasing encroachment of private corporations into public institutions and of their increasing influence over the available visions and conditions of possibility for our potential futures,” she asked what role GMOs and corporations should play, if at all, in envisioning a more balanced economy.

After outlining the problems faced by indigenous people globally and in Hawai’i that come with private corporations encroaching on public institutions, public lands and our collective futures, she concluded by raising issues around which to build a movement, in short- and long-term ways. These included resisting Monsanto’s rights to 2.636 (2.6 mn?) gallons per day of water from the Waiahole Ditch for growing corn seed. Noting that Monsanto has applied for the rights to another 2.6 million gpd from a Waipahu-Waiawa well as back up, she addressed the need to make water “available for a range of possible future uses, not the least of which is to grow food we can actually eat.” She also urged the need to push for “State policy changes so that lands recognized as ‘important agricultural lands’ be restricted to use for growing foods, medicines and other plants that can be consumed in Hawaii. … Instead of the PLDC approach, we might consider ways to let communities to use public lands for producing food that they need.” She ended by making a call for the importance of Hawaiian independence that is not only political but economic, and posed some pressing questions to the audience: “We are embarking on a new phase of economic development in the islands—remaking the urban core, establishing new forms of mass transit, building infrastructure for new sources of electricity. How might we delink corporate interests from science in order to think about these issues? How might we instead link the resources of university scientists with Hawaiian and local communities in relations of constructive engagement and equal exchange?”

A lively discussion followed these presentations that ranged from the need to pass GMO labeling legislation, to attend to the use and abuse of university funds and the corporatization of the environment, and to support local organic farmers.

On November 8, this discussion will continue. “UH’s Responsibility as a Land Grant Institution: A Town Hall Meeting” will be held in the UH-M Architecture Auditorium at 7 pm. Confirmed panelists include Tom Apple (UH-M Chancellor), Maria Gallo (CTAHR Dean), Brandi Hyden and Z ‘Aki (UH students with Makawalu), Jon Osorio (UH-M Center for Hawaiian Studies), and Scott Enright (State Dept. of Agriculture). Walter Ritte will moderate.

The format will involve each panelist addressing the following questions:

1.      What are the University’s obligations to the community as a land
grant institution?

2.      How can this university system help meet the needs of a society that imports 90% of its food?

3.      The UH Strategic plan calls for the university to be “A Hawaiian
place of learning.”  What is the role of Hawaiian traditional knowledge in fulfilling the University’s obligation as a Land Grant Institution?