Sovereignty, kai, and the land where we grow

By Dan Kelly

As the global movement for food sovereignty starts to gain momentum on our shores, Dan Kelly takes a moment to talk to Dr. Jessica Hutchings, a Hua Parakore (Māori organics) practitioner and author of ‘Te Mahi Māra Hua Parakore: A Māori Food Sovereignty Handbook’.
While overseas versions of food sovereignty have focused on peasant rights and their ability to choose what food is grown and where, in the context of a colonised country, the use of ‘sovereignty’ has a different, more painful history.

The erosion of tino rangatiratanga (self-determination, sovereignty) is in direct conflict with that guaranteed under the Treaty of Waitangi, leaving Aotearoa with an ongoing legacy of exclusion. As Māori academic and lawyer Moana Jackson so often explains, treaties aren’t something you settle, but honour. For Pākehā, this means facing up to our past, and all our uncomfortable history has done to undermine Māori-Pākehā relationships. As our gardens reveal, nothing is ever the same. Things change and grow – the possibility for honour remains. For food sovereignty to thrive here, practitioners will need to face this task, treading carefully and with open ears, less the exclusions before be remade.

Dan: Kia ora Jessica, I want to start off by thanking you for your time today, and all the work that’s led up to this – for those who aren’t familiar, could you give us some background about who you are and what you do?

Jessica: Tēnā koe, I am from Ngāi Tahu and from Gujarat, India. I am passionate about Papatūānuku and the self-determining rights of Indigenous peoples to live in ways that are connected to both land and cosmos. I live on a small whānau farm in Kaitoke, just north of Upper Hutt, where we grow kai to feed whānau, operate within a closed loop system as much as possible and work with both Hua Parakore (Māori organic) practices alongside biodynamics. I have been growing and eating kai from our whenua for the last 15 years.

My personal and my professional lives are connected through kaupapa that I commit to. I am trained as a kaupapa Māori researcher and have worked in the Māori environment, science and development sectors for the last two decades. I am driven by contributing to the development of flourishing Māori food communities which of course is about Māori food sovereignty and for me about Māori organics.

D: To someone who hasn’t heard about the food sovereignty movement, how would you explain the need for a shift? What is it about our modern food system that is so problematic?

J: Simply put – our current food system is broken. It is predicated on a global capitalist model that circulates around profit, productivity and efficiency, not around providing equitable access to all to safe, nutritious and culturally appropriate food. This global food system responds to drivers that are not set by consumers but by those who seek to profit. It drives monocultures in agriculture which then show up in our food system in highly processed foods that are based on wheat, rice and soya – much of which the seed companies own the rights to.

D: Food sovereignty seems to be one of those terms that has a range of meanings, with different practitioners focusing on different aspects. Some readers may be familiar with La Via Campesina, the “International Peasants’ Movement”. In 2007, a gathering of 500 La Via Campesina representatives from 80 countries issued the Nyéléni Declaration, organised around six guiding principles. For them, food sovereignty focuses on food for people, values food providers, localises food systems, puts control locally, builds knowledge and skills, and works with nature. However, while such a definition is useful for building an inclusive movement, it has also been critiqued for being too broad. How would you define food sovereignty?

J: Food sovereignty for me has to take into account our standpoint, we need to first ask the simple questions: Whose land are we on? And on whose land does our food grow? We often do not see the cultural landscape of Aotearoa due to its erosion through settler colonial processes. Māori food sovereignty pulls food sovereignty out of the mainstream or white middle-class discourse and into an Indigenous and kaupapa Māori paradigm. At the heart of it, it is about creating food-secure futures for whānau where we can access safe, nutritious food; it is also about returning to eat the landscapes from which we come from and through this being able to continue to build our Māori food stories and Indigenous narratives to place and space.

D: I think that point – whose land are we on? – is a really crucial one. The food has to come from somewhere! And while ‘sovereignty’ can be interpreted in a number of ways, it’s important to acknowledge our past, the Māori sovereignty or rangatiratanga recognised in Ti Tiriti o Waitangi, and the ways in which this has been undermined by the state. I want to take a moment to acknowledge this, and to point out that this sovereignty has never been ceded. While Māori have suffered at the hands of a number of incredibly duplicitous and racist policies throughout the years, there has also been staunch resistance and solidarity. Do you see food sovereignty as a way to continue this resistance? What support would you like to see from Pākehā and tauiwi in this space?

J: Of course, this is what frustrates me about white discourses of food sovereignty. There is often a persisting settler colonial erasure of Māori connection to place and the theft of our Indigenous lands and food systems – our ability to eat the landscapes of our tupuna (ancestors) and our relationship with food has been dramatically fractured because of colonisation.

Having Pākehā who can be allies in this space is important. Pākehā who can talk to colonial injustice and know the history of this land is critical in moving to a healing space. With the rapid rise of provenance in food stories we need to ensure that Māori are included here and that the NZ Food Story does not perpetuate the settler colonial erasure of Māori. We need to (re-)story kaitiakitanga into our landscapes, agricultural practices and food stories. For this to happen Māori need to be the ones telling the stories. Food provenance in Aotearoa New Zealand needs to not perpetuate colonisation but be part of the healing processes inherent in decolonisation.

D: As you explain in your book, food sovereignty isn’t a novel concept for Indigenous peoples. Prior to the arrival of Europeans, and for many years after, Māori grew, gathered, and hunted all the food they needed, not just for survival, but for feasts, trade and hosting. Could you tell us a little bit about these histories, and the worldview that informs them?

J: Our histories are embedded in land and waterscapes in both Aotearoa and from te Moana Nui A Kiwa (the Pacific Ocean). Everything is interconnected and based on whakapapa, from earth to cosmos where tangata or people are not seen as separate from nature but a part of nature, as nature itself. This is very different from other paradigms of thinking, especially that of Western knowledge with its origins deep in the enlightenment period – premised on the separation of ‘man’ from nature so ‘man’ could take dominion over nature – ‘tame her like a wild beast’ as was said by some Enlightenment thinkers.

D: In terms of food production, I understand that you practice permaculture, and its overall focus on working with natural systems, rather than in denial of them. For many in the West, permaculture can seem revolutionary – a reflection of just how far we’ve got from our more involved peasant pasts – but for Indigenous growers, there is nothing particularly novel here: observing and working with natural systems, practising water retention and improving soil health, co-planting and other ‘permaculture’ techniques are in fact ancient and on-going. Do you see a need to promote this past? How important are these holistic processes – the interconnectedness of natural and human elements – to you, and how do they shape your work?

J: I am nature, I feel myself as nature. Living in the modern world it can at times be very hard to feel this. What does feeling like nature feel like – how often do we talk about this with others, when do we sense this? I feel very lucky that we live on a small whānau food producing farm, where across the road are ancient indigenous forests and tree beings that transcend time. This daily earthly connections along with a dedicated practice of yoga in my life are all manifestations of holistic processes, they reflect the interconnectedness of tangata (people) and whenua (land).

D: As we’ve mentioned, this interconnection is one that the West has long denied, the perceived division (and assumed superiority that goes with it) giving rise to incredible violence, both against the Natural world, and Indigenous peoples. While food sovereignty appears – on a superficial level at least – to be concerned with food supply and access, its calls for agency ultimately position it as a challenge to the deep inequalities of power still so pervasive today. As the Nyéléni Declaration makes clear: “Food sovereignty implies new social relations free of oppression and inequality between men and women, peoples, racial groups, social classes and generations.”

Addressing the structural imbalances in Aotearoa will require more than a few gardens, and yet, in the practice of gardening and the diversity there celebrated, in the physicality and shared work, in the presence that the earth requires of us as part of it (and the humility it fosters), one senses the possibility for healing on multiple levels. Is this something that you’ve noticed in your own gardening? How would you describe the potential for personal transformation in a space of food sovereignty?

J: Te Mahi Mara Hua Parakore is a transformative process, working with the whenua and the soil is deeply healing and connective. For me it takes me outside everyday microaggressions of colonisation to feel and be nature. Māori food sovereignty is more than a few community or marae gardens, it is also beyond the glossy magazines that promote middle-class white food stories full of ethnic diversity and culture. It is about decolonisation, it is about reducing structural inequities and racism so that Māori communities and whānau have access to safe, nutritious and culturally appropriate food and can again return to eat the landscapes of which we come from.

D: Tēnā koe, I want to acknowledge my positionality – after all, this is a magazine that specifically seeks to celebrate diverse food stories! But, for me, I think the challenge is finding a way to celebrate these newer stories while connecting them to a broader struggle, acknowledging that what we eat is political, that we live in a colonised land, and as you said earlier, to have Māori telling their stories, building a shared understanding and solidarity so that those of us who came after can work with and alongside Māori, helping to establish the structural changes hinted at in the concept of food sovereignty, and ultimately, decolonising. To this end, is there anything else you’d like to add? What is your vision for Aotearoa in 2040?

J: I also share the vision of constitutional change in Aotearoa to one of a Treaty-based constitution*. This is part of the larger framework for Maori food sovereignty and being an activist for change on all levels. I also hold a vision of a GE Free Aotearoa where Hua Parakore and organic agriculture can recloak our altered landscapes in greater diversity and connectedness with nature, where we again see ourselves as nature beings.

D: Ngā mihi nui ki a koe Jessica, all the best for the growing season – may it be a bountiful one!

*[for further reading, see the Matike Mai Aotearoa report – available online]