Friday, 7 November 2014

Food riots and food rights: reflections from researchers on the front line

Over the last two years IDS has been leading a research project exploring the causes and consequences of food-related riots and right-to-food movements in Bangladesh, India, Kenya and Mozambique. In this blog researchers working on the Food Riots and Food Rights project share some of their experiences from the field.

We asked for wheat and got bullets instead

Shreya Bhattacharya, India: 'Gom chayite gechilam, gooli khelaam' (We went to ask for wheat and got bullets instead). For me, the Food Riots and Food Rights study is summed up in this quote from one of the action-takers in a village in West Bengal, India where rioting for food took place. It’s a state where political consciousness is ingrained among everyone, where food is not just a question of survival, but is seen as an important entitlement.

The field work experience was really insightful in terms of class and gender dynamics especially in one of the villages where rioting happened. After spending almost a whole day in the rioting village, and having numerous discussions with people, we were directed to the action-takers who had taken part in the riots, with a wary eye from representatives of political parties. The articulation of villagers on macro- economic issues like monopoly in agriculture, high inflation and it’s links to the power corridor (even from a high school student) was another aspect that stood out. Overall, being part of this study reinforced my personal belief in the strength of mobilisation and in people’s movements, which alone can lead to building a just society.

Power of listening

Muhammad Ashikur Rahman, Bangladesh: The Food Riots and Food Rights project was my first ever research involvement. I was excited by the topic, and once I looked through the methodology, I became even more interested. I came across some new and intriguing methods to obtain inputs for the research that helped me rethink academic approaches to social research.  The ‘Listening Post’, in particular attracted my attention as, I think, it was new for almost all of us. I personally enjoyed listening to the people talk about issues that were relevant to them without probing them with pre-determined questions.

Direct impact on citizen action

Noble Khan, Bangladesh: In my personal experience, I have encountered few research projects that have direct and immediate impact on their area of concern. Interestingly, I discovered a direct impact of our Food Riots and Food Rights project on market operations in Gaibandha, one of our sites of fieldwork in rural Bangladesh. After our discussions with people selling goods in a Haat (local market) of Gaibandha in the second phase of this project (discussions that we personally found immensely engaging and insightful) we discovered that due to our presence and discussion with people in the first phase over popular mobilisation and protest against market mismanagement and domination of Ijaradar (who take lease of the market), Ijaradars reduced tax imposed on every goods and commodity sold in the market. The fact that there was strong organisation amongst the sellers in the market also meant that they were able to pressurise Ijaradars more effectively to take steps to reduce selling tax. This direct and visible change produced through our project fieldwork has been very interesting to me, even if it was not consciously intended or planned.

Realities of patriarchy

Khobair Hossain, Bangladesh: On 13 July 2013, during the holy month of Ramadan, we held a focus group discussion with female garment workers who were activists, at Jamgora Asuliya in Savar, Dhaka. The discussion started off with them citing some almost unbelievable realities. But when we moved to the section of the interview about their collective mobilisation against the garment authority, one of their husbands began to shout from the room. At the sound of his shouting, men from other rooms came out to us and commanded their wives to stop the discussion. The women obediently stood up to leave the session. The aggressive behaviour of the men scared us somewhat. However, after we had a calm discussion with the husbands, which went on for at least 15 minutes, they agreed to allow their wives to continue the session. This was a grim reminder for us about the realities and operations of patriarchy in the household that continue to lie behind the militant protests by women garment workers that we admired in the photos and videos shown my the media.

When the mafureira grows upside down? Beer and Riots

Michael Godot Sambo, Mozambique: During the exciting fieldwork time, I had the opportunity to interview many people from different ages in three neighbourhoods. I heard many interesting stories and interpretations about the riots and a multiplicity of contested facts emerged. One of the most striking refrains frequently repeated by people of almost all ages, regarded an advertisement for cheap beer entitled "trĂªs cem" (the advert offered three beers for 100MT, approximately U$3,30). The chorus came in different tones and facial expressions with a big question mark: 'Why is it that the beer price is always falling, whereas food, food which is our necessity, the price is always rising?! Why?", they asked.

The beautiful and heart-breaking poetic explanation given to me by a old shoemaker about this scenario still rings clear in my mind. The shoe-maker had seen a massive decline in his status and earnings over the last few years. He now lives off the meagre earnings he gathers from his shoe-polishing bench in his neighbourhood. He claimed that this neighbourhood, which was one of the first residential sites in the capital's periphery, is one from which a number of current government officials emerged and some still have family members residing there. After a long and friendly conversation, where the shoemaker continuously meditatively nodded his head, he exclaimed in disbelief 'Chamankulo (the neighbourhood's name) means the bathing place for big people!" And he laughed grimly and said: "it's only for you to see that the mafureira (local fruit tree) is now growing upside down'. I could only nod my head in agreement.

Navigating media spin

Bonface Oduor, Kenya: I was in charge of developing the political event catalogue, which was a difficult process, as archives of newspapers were not very easily available or well-organised. My analysis of the patterns of media reporting on food mobilisations strongly affirmed the presence of media bias when it comes to reporting activities of food protest. Reports were typically biased in such a way that instead of reporting on the issues raised by the protesters, they tended to spin the protest and the stories in a way that aligned them with or sold a particular ideological narrative. Very often, food related protests were completely ignored. The political events catalogue gives a very limited and distorted idea of the extent of mobilisations around food.

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