COVID-19 | Remembering the ongoing assassination of human rights defenders in Colombia

COVID-19 | Remembering the ongoing assassination of human rights defenders in Colombia

When a peace agreement was signed in 2016 in Colombia between the government and armed forces (FARC), citizens and activists seized the opportunity to make longstanding grievances heard and press ...

COVID-19 | New modalities of online activism: using WhatsApp to mobilize for change by Lize Swartz

COVID-19 | New modalities of online activism: using WhatsApp to mobilize for change by Lize Swartz

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As the COVID-19 pandemic progresses, we are slowly settling in to a ‘new normal’. For many of us, having lived our lives online the last few weeks has made us ...

Dignity Over Austerity in Puerto Rico’s Food Sovereignty Movement by Salena Fay Tramel

As the Puerto Rican food movement looks into the future, Comedores Sociales has a slogan that says it all: ‘We don’t eat austerity; we cook dignity.’ This organization in Puerto Rico that runs community kitchens is an overtly political group that directly connects hunger and poverty to the island’s capitalist and colonial system, rebelling through alternative food provision mechanisms. Such communal initiatives have shown their importance in a time of rising precarity driven by the COVID-19 pandemic and its links to the global capitalist system, writes Salena Fay Tramel.


A few weeks ago, Grassroots International got word that a leading Puerto Rican food sovereignty activist was arrested while demonstrating against uneven political responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. As a fierce defender of social justice, Giovanni Roberto’s recent activities have included organizing food deliveries to people in lockdown, as well as island-wide ‘caravan for life’. Thankfully, he was released after a short time; however, the crackdown on social justice movements in Puerto Rico remains a cause for alarm.

Giovanni works with Comedores Sociales (community kitchens), a Grassroots International partner in the organization’s new Puerto Rico program. Comedores Sociales is an overtly political group that directly connects hunger and poverty on the Caribbean island to the capitalist and colonial system. In fact, Puerto Rico may be the oldest colony in the world; first, the island was wrested from the hands of the Indigenous Taíno peoples by Christopher Columbus and his marauding crew, and it was then acquired by the U.S. as booty after the Spanish-American war.

Today, the island remains an unincorporated territorial possession of the U.S. This means that while Puerto Ricans pay taxes and are encouraged to serve the interests of the ‘mainland’, for example as members of its armed forces, they are not entitled to congressional representation, nor are they able to vote in presidential elections.

Giovanni and his comrades at Comedores Sociales are well aware that it is food that is often weaponized by the powerful to ensure that subaltern classes remain subordinate. Puerto Rico imports some 85% of its food from the U.S., mostly through the hundred-year-old Jones Act, which stipulates that all goods entering the island must do so on ships that are built in the U.S. and owned and operated by Americans.

Cutting Puerto Rico off from its Caribbean neighbors not only forces its citizens to pay exorbitant prices for basic goods, but also causes food shortages when disasters like hurricanes strike, as they do more frequently in the contemporary era of climate chaos. When the eye of Hurricane Maria passed over Puerto Rico as part of its deadly march up the Antilles in 2017, the food disparities that followed unfolded along the existing lines of race, class, and gender and fed on U.S.-imposed dependence.

However, food sovereignty activists on the island are quick to point out that if Puerto Rico once grew most of its own food—not to mention the food that was extracted to satiate its colonizers, coffee for Spain and sugarcane for the U.S.—it can do it again.

Across the island, the food movement insists on meeting people where they are at. ‘Organization has to be based on people’s needs, not just an ideology,’ said Giovanni. He explained that movements have to ask themselves critical questions: ‘What could we do to fortify social change projects? How do we do it in a way that does not depend on anyone else: not on the state, not on the Federales (U.S. government), not on the foundations?’

Comedores Sociales hinges its work on the consumer side of food politics, such as through its delivery of food aid during the coronavirus lockdown. In times of free movement, the group operates Cocina Rebelde (rebel kitchen), a beautiful community space where people can access food for a fair price. The resources obtained through Cocina Rebelde, a solidarity economy project, help to sustain the Comedores Sociales permanently, as well as provide salaries. These projects intentionally involve young people, particularly by linking them to their island’s rich heritage of jíbaras and jíbaros (peasant farmers). Understanding these intersections between production and consumption is a way out of the impasse.

In addition to a rootedness in place and territory in Puerto Rico, the food movement is also branching out abroad with allies in the broader social justice space. For instance, activists from Comedores Sociales, La Colectiva Feminista en Construcción (the feminist collective under construction), and La Jornada se Acabaron las Promesas (the day the promises are over) have travelled to Brazil to participate in the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (Landless Workers Movement, MST) radical peasant organizing school.

There is still much to do, especially at a time in which almost everyone is worried about the impending economic fallout of an uncertain political moment. But as the Puerto Rican food movement looks into the future, Comedores Sociales has a slogan that says it all: ‘We don’t eat austerity; we cook dignity.’


This article was first published on Grassroots International. The title image shows Giovanni Roberto from Comedores Sociales Cocina Rebelde during a Grassroots International solidarity delegation to Puerto Rico in 2019. Photo Credit: Brooke Anderson, Movement Generation.


Salena TramelAbout the author:

Salena Fay Tramel is a journalist and PhD researcher at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) in The Hague, where her work is centered on the intersections of resource grabs, climate change mitigation, and the intertwining of (trans)national agrarian/social justice movements.

Revindicating the Black Power Movement by Bob Brown and Ana María Arbeláez Trujillo

Revindicating the Black Power Movement by Bob Brown and Ana María Arbeláez Trujillo

Ana María Arbeláez Trujillo in conversation with Bob Brown, organizer of the All-African People’s Revolutionary Party (GC) Since the 1960s, the leaders of the Black Power Movement have fought tirelessly to ...

EADI/ISS Series | The Battle is on: Civic Space & Land Rights by Barbara Oosters and Saskia van Veen

EADI/ISS Series | The Battle is on: Civic Space & Land Rights by Barbara Oosters and Saskia van Veen

Defenders of land rights all over the world struggle with shrinking civic space. The more that space for people to peacefully claim their land rights is restricted, the more intense ...

COVID-19 | Driving transformative social change through an internationalist response to COVID-19 by Lize Swartz

A recent webinar organized by the Transnational Institute and partners brought together activists from all over the world to brainstorm how to make social justice central to our responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. The main message? Stand united instead of divided, let empathy inform context-based responses, and start thinking of changing what’s broken, including our healthcare systems. These principles should also guide our collective efforts to enact transformative social change that starts with our responses to the crisis and ends in a sustainable, just and resilient future—one in which no-one is left behind.


We find ourselves standing on the edge of a cliff with an abyss in front of us, left with three (or more?) choices: build a bridge to reach the other side, which is unknown territory; become engulfed by the darkness of the abyss and stand paralyzed; or retreat from the edge of the cliff to deceptive safety. This metaphor symbolizes the critical juncture[1] we’re currently at and the pathways we can choose: a radical transformation (the other side representing an unknown future, hopefully a sustainable and just one), paralysis (do nothing and watch the crisis run its course, whatever the consequences), or many steps in the opposite direction (further away from each other, creating a new normal that is worse than the one we had before).

Never before has the opportunity for real, comprehensive change been greater, never before has it been as necessary, and never before have the stakes been higher. But we have to start now―the window of opportunity is closing. There is some progress on this front as activists and thought leaders gather forces to fight for change. A webinar held recently by the Transnational Institute (TNI), in collaboration with the Alternative Information and Development Centre (AIDC) and Focus on the Global South, brought together roughly 600 participants to brainstorm how to build an internationalist response to COVID-19 in light of the crisis of deep global inequality.

Current responses to COVID-19 will shape future trends in how crises are tackled, and it is imperative to 1) prevent further injustices and inequalities arising from current responses that build upon already-existing inequalities and divides, and 2) start to enact radical change to prevent a return to the old normal or the adoption of a new normal that may be manifold worse. Thus, our responses show which of the pathways we choose now that we have reached the critical juncture, and responses should mirror the future we desire.

This seems like a mammoth task, but there are many energetic fighters across the world that are eager to get started. The webinar was a starting point to discussions and strategies for enacting change collectively. Discussions centered around not only humane responses to COVID-19, but also the need to critically discuss the state of our healthcare systems and to transform them. The crisis has clearly highlighted that healthcare systems in the Global North and Global South alike are woefully unprepared to deal with pandemics, not even providing universal healthcare services in non-crisis times. Mazibuko Jara, founder of the Treatment Action Campaign and currently Deputy Director of the Tshisimani Centre for Activist Education (both in South Africa), emphasized the need for healthcare to be seen as a fundamental human right—a public good, which would change how it is approached.

Many are not focusing on building up (improving health systems), however, but on breaking down (fighting the virus and fighting each other). Sonia Shah, award-winning investigative science journalist who authored the book ‘Pandemic: Tracking Contagions, from Cholera to Ebola and Beyond’ (2017), noted during the webinar that diseases and viruses are framed as external, prompting the closing of borders and the closing of minds as we distance ourselves from these ‘alien entities’[2].

Rather, what she calls a ‘microbial xenophobia’ arises as the disease is blamed on China and cultural practices in Asian countries. This process of ‘othering’ entrenches racism and xenophobia, enacted both by individuals and countries, preventing a collective global effort to transformative change and leading to increasing isolation as countries shut their borders and global geopolitical divides are strengthened. A strong counternarrative to this militaristic imaginary of ‘being at war’ with the disease and with each other urgently needs to be created.

Several discussants highlighted the inadequacies of current responses. Even if stringent measures can prevent the spread of the virus, which has yet to be proven by evidence, the authoritarian measures lack humaneness, further threatening the survival and dignity of already vulnerable populations without access to basic human rights. A one-size-fits-all approach, such as a national lockdown, does not work in contexts where such lockdowns can hasten the spread of the virus and lead to suffering due to loss of income and hunger, for example.

Thus, keynote speakers at the seminar concluded, we need an internationalist approach that:

  • Is based on solidarity and empathy so that responses are context-specific and do not create new injustices or inequalities that place an additional burden on vulnerable people
  • Creates a strong counternarrative to the xenophobic, militaristic narrative that is driving defensive and authoritarian responses, with a central emphasis on human rights and a common humanity, shown in how we communicate and how we act
  • Are based on health as a human right, a public good and working toward transforming the health system to this end
  • Recognizes that we are facing a supercrisis, that standing crises of poverty, inequality and climate change are interacting with biological crises such as COVID-19 and cannot be viewed in isolation
  • Counters growing authoritarianism and fundamentalism at all levels of society that are threatening to deepen social divides and split the world apart.

Participants agreed that solidarity and empathy should drive responses to COVID-19, but I argue that we need to go further than just responding. Our recognition of the root causes of injustices and inequalities should drive a multi-pronged strategy to not only prevent the spread of the virus and prevent unjust responses to it, but also to enact radical transformation through our responses to ensure that the inequalities the crisis feasts on are eradicated and that no-one is left behind as we move on to a future we can only dream of.

Without the recognition that the crisis requires a collective global response, we will get nowhere. And central to this is questioning the underlying structures and institutions that have created the breeding ground for the virus and the disaster that it has brought along with it, and changing them through intense and enduring collaboration based on a sense of shared humanity, or what especially Buddhist monks have called interbeing.

[1] Thank you to Duncan Green for mentioning the term ‘critical juncture’ that perfectly sums up the thoughts that I’ve had since the pandemic broke out in February.
[2]She also highlights the failure to recognize that pathogens or microbes become pandemics due to humankind’s encroachment on wildlife habitats.

This article is part of a series about the coronavirus crisis. Find more articles of this series here.


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About the authors:

Lize Swartz is a PhD researcher at the ISS focusing on water user interactions with sustainability-climate crises in the water sector, in particular the role of water scarcity politics on crisis responses and adaptation processes. She is also the editor of the ISS Blog Bliss.