Miryam Gorban is a determined, plain-speaking, cheerful Argentinian woman. She has seen 87 winters and they have given her memory, courage, analytical precision and the capacity to lead the fight for food sovereignty with acumen. Her eyes sparkle with the genius of someone who has dedicated her whole life to high ideals and lucid thinking. Today Miryam is the coordinator of the Cátedra Libre de Soberanía Alimentaria, the Free Chair on Food Sovereignty, at the University of Buenos Aires, one of 40 of its kind in the country.
She has dedicated her life to education, health and food. She worked as a schoolmistress before moving to Buenos Aires to study dietetics at the Faculty of Medicine. She began working at the Ministry of Public Health before finishing her studies and only eventually graduated at the age of 60.
The year that changed her life was 1996. It was then that she took part in the FAO-organized World Food Summit and got to know Via Campesina – which coined the term ‘food sovereignty’ precisely on that occasion – and discover a network of people round the world working on issues close to her heart. It was also in 1996 that the Argentine government opened its doors to transgenic soybeans, allocating large tracts of land to their cultivation and turning the country into the world’s first GMO open-air experimental laboratory.
2003 saw the institution of the first ‘Free Chair of Food Sovereignty’ in La Plata and today there are 40 of them in the most prestigious universities across this immense country, from the Andes to Patagonia. ‘These chairs have a multiplicity of purposes,’ says Miryam. ‘The first of these is to create a theoretical and practical space for training in food sovereignty. Others are to promote connections between diverse skills, to help spread and consolidate productive and social experiences to generate local alternatives, and to take part in the debate to orient public policies in support of food sovereignty.’
Miryam explains why the chair is called ‘Libre’, or free. ‘It’s because it’s made up of an interdisciplinary group of students, professionals with experience with civil society as doctors, anthropologists, sociologists and lawyers. We focus on food from different perspectives, convinced that it is the core of human life, a common good and a right, not a commodity.’ Hence her Chair publishes a series of pamphlets that use a participatory approach to select the most interesting research studies and the most burning issues with the aim of triggering debate and discussion.
In her writings, Miryam speaks of the crisis of civilization, and the responsibilities of neoliberal economies, which by denying access to food also deny access to work, education, health, housing and a decent livelihood. ‘From the health point of view, this is a moment in time in which part of the population is undernourished and another overnourished with a greater incidence of pathologies such as diabetes and chronic diseases, a product of the new model of industrialized food. Fallouts are serious from the environmental point of view, too: the present food production model, in fact, is based on massive exploitation of the soil, monoculture, deforestation, river pollution, agriculture for export and so on, which all contribute to climate change. Respect for biodiversity and the development of agro-ecology are fundamental aspects of the concept of food sovereignty.’
‘More specifically, agro-ecology demands public policies and should have nothing to do with private interests. Many interesting experiments are underway all over Argentina but they need to be stimulated by access to credit and training, channels of commercialization and scale production. But instead we are witnessing an increase in the price of land and fixed production costs. This is why agricultural produce fails to yield income for farmers and, at the same time, is inaccessible to consumers. Since they both lose, we all lose.’