“Our stomachs will make themselves heard”: What Sankara can teach us about food justice today
When it comes to food justice, environmentalism and ecological practices, Thomas Sankara was way ahead of his time.
In recent weeks, news of food crises in countries across Africa has been intensifying. In Ethiopia, for example, international agencies have said that some 10 million people in the drought-affected Tigray and Afar regions are in need of food assistance. Meanwhile, from the Democratic Republic of Congo all the way down to South Africa – via Malawi, Zimbabwe, Angola and many others – low rainfall has contributed to millions more being left vulnerable.
Today’s situation is particularly dire due to shifting El Nino weather patterns caused by climate change, but food injustice on the continent is not unique to this year. Indeed, the current crises of hunger and famine echo previous ones that also resulted from endemic patterns of uneven economic development and inequalities, shifting weather patterns, and unsustainable agricultural practices.
However, hunger is far from inevitable on the continent and there is an alternative African story worth retelling, one of food sovereignty, security and self-sufficiency, and one whose lessons could be revived today.
“You don’t need us to go looking for foreign financial backers”
During his short political career, Burkina Faso’s revolutionary leader Thomas Sankara emphasised national food sovereignty, argued against over-dependence on foreign aid, and implemented several important pioneering ecological programmes. He was only in power for four years before he was assassinated in 1987, but in that short time he managed to make the country self-sufficient in basic foodstuffs.
Sankara is usually remembered for his pro-people restructuring of the government, his staunch anti-imperialisms, his efforts to unite African leaders to repudiate international debt, and his innovative gender programmes. However, until recently, his ecological practices have been relatively overlooked, although they were central to his thinking and to his politics.
Sankara insisted that many of the challenges Burkinabè people faced on a daily basis were rooted in neo-colonial relationships and structures. He believed that meaningful anti-colonial projects should be fixed in a self-sufficiency that “refused to accept a state of [mere] survival”.
At the 39th General Assembly of the United Nations in New York, Sankara made clear the relationship between neo-imperialism and hunger in post-colonial Burkina Faso. In the bold anti-imperial language characteristic of his politics, he said:
“We must succeed in producing more – producing more, because it is natural that he who feeds you also imposes his will…We are free. He who does not feed you can demand nothing of you. Here, however, we are being fed every day, every year, and we say, ‘Down with imperialism!’ …Our stomachs will make themselves heard and may well take the road to the right, the road of reaction, and of peaceful coexistence with all those who oppress us by means of the grain they dump here.”
Since his speech, these assertions have become received wisdom. As many other reports have, a 2006 Oxfam Briefing Paper, for example, noted that the US “sometimes uses food aid to dump agricultural surpluses and to attempt to create new markets for its exports”, continuing that “food aid has the potential both to reduce domestic production of food, damaging the livelihoods of poor farmers, and to displace exports from other countries into the recipient country.”
Yet over two decades before, Sankara was already arguing that humanitarian aid was counterintuitive to the country’s long-term wellbeing in terms of food justice. He combined a formidable anti-imperialism with a conviction in the power of the people, encouraging popular mobilisations in the face of thirst and hunger. “You are going to build in order to prove that you’re capable of transforming your existence and transforming the concrete conditions in which you live. You don’t need us to go looking for foreign financial backers,” he said.
One village, one grove
Along with his insistence on national food sovereignty and boosting local production, Sankara constructed new irrigation canals and drinking wells. He also endeavoured to implement a nation-wide system of agroecology, an approach to agriculture that encourages power-dispersing, communal food cultivation, and the regeneration of the environment.
Sankara set a goal of creating a system in which every Burkinabè had two meals a day and clean water. This might not seem overly ambitious, but in the context of persistent drought and famine across the Sahel, this was a radical project.
At the same time, Sankara focused on combating desertification. He understood self-sufficiency and ecological sustainability to be linked and his un village, un bosquet (one village, one grove) programme encouraged every town to plant trees to mark social occasions. These trees would eventually become a forest on the outer edges of each town. Before the global rise of the discourses of environmentalism, Sankara implemented a tree-planting campaign that transformed the arid landscape of Burkina Faso.
The programme re-established a culture of people-led, grassroots tree planting. The mixing of forestlands and farmlands was historically practiced throughout West Africa but the practice had been suffocated by the colonial domination of land use. Sankara re-linked the practice of tree planting to pre-colonial tradition, emphasising both the usefulness of tree planting as well as valorising it as custom of the country.
These were fruitful programmes. During the fifteen-month People’s Development Programme, an incredible 10 million trees were planted across the Sahel. Meanwhile, according to Jean Ziegler, the former UN special rapporteur on the right to food, hunger was eradicated in Burkina Faso under Sankara.
Lessons for today
Sankara lived a politics that was committed to a holistic revival of health and wellbeing – one that was inclusive of the environment, women and the masses. As Minister of Information in 1981, Sankara pedalled to work on a bicycle. Later, one of his first acts as president was to create the country’s first Ministry of Water.
Meng-Néré Fidèle Kientega, who worked closely with Sankara before his death and the current Secretary of External Relations of the Burkina Faso National Assembly, said of Sankara’s commitment to ecological and food justice:
“Even if the validity of certain commitments and actions of the Revolution are subject to debate, it is indisputable that, from the environmental point of view as well as the ecological, Burkina today would have presented a different face [had Sankara’s ecological approach survived] than the [current] decrepitude and hazardous sell of pesticides everywhere, the plastic packaging that suffocates our land and restrains our animals, and the GMOs [that proliferate] in spite of outcry and almost universal disapproval.”
Sankara emphasised the importance of people-powered national sovereignty for sustainable food justice. And his ground-breaking efforts to work with the people to increase awareness of the environment through incremental everyday activities and to carry out concrete programmes to foster long-term agro-ecological balance for food justice remain a powerful rubric for food justice today.
[See: Beware the Green Revolution]
As international food aid and relief programmes move to intervene in the present famines by “dropping” millions of tons of food to provide short-term relief, we might recall Sankara’s courageous assertions that food aid is too often destructive in the long-term. His emphasis on national food sovereignty in a context of pervasive food aid shows that promoting national production and encouraging collective agro-ecology can be enormously successful in addressing the roots of hunger, even in drought-prone landscapes.
Amber Murrey recently completed her PhD in Geography and the Environment from the University of Oxford. She teaches Development Studies in the College of Law and Governance at Jimma University, Ethiopia. Amber is currently collaborating to put together an Edited Volume on Sankara’s political praxis and legacy in African social movements.
This reflection has been abridged. If you would like to read the full version, please email [email protected].