National Fisheries Solidarity Movement, a 12,000-member organization based in Sri Lanka, will receive the Food Sovereignty Prize.

Food sovereignty is a relatively new term, but it draws on a long tradition of human-rights activism and the struggle for social and economic justice. La Via Campesina, a global network of peasants, farmers, and indigenous people working to defend small-scale, sustainable agriculture, is widely credited with introducing the concept in 1996. The organization defines it as:

… the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through sustainable methods and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems. [Food sovereignty] develops a model of small scale sustainable production benefiting communities and their environment. It puts the aspirations, needs and livelihoods of those who produce, distribute and consume food at the heart of food systems and policies rather than the demands of markets and corporations.

It’s not surprising, then, that over a decade later, La Via Campesina won the first annual Food Sovereignty Prize, an award recognizing grassroots groups fighting for a democratic food system. This year marks the fourth time the prize has been awarded, and the first time the ceremony, held in New York City on Oct. 10, will be open to the public.

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The award originated at the grassroots just like the groups it honors. Siena Chrisman of WhyHunger, the organization hosting the prize, explains that the idea for it came about in 2009 when the nonprofit Community Food Security Coalition held its annual meeting (a gathering that draws several hundred people from around the progressive food world) in Des Moines, Iowa. It just so happened that the World Food Prize was being awarded in Des Moines the same weekend. The World Food Prize, Chrisman explains, “really focuses on the industrial agriculture model” — rewarding individuals who have made technological innovations in line with Norman Borlaug’s “green revolution,” which introduced the type of high-yield, disease-resistant crops often credited with both alleviating third-world hunger on a mass scale and ushering in the era of pesticide-reliant monocrops.

“We felt like we needed to have some kind of response,” Chrisman says. “The Food Sovereignty Prize is very focused on organizations and communities. We believe solutions to community problems come from the ground up.”

The Korean Women’s Peasant Association (KWPA), a national organization of women farmers based in Seoul, South Korea, will receive this year’s grand prize.

Since that first year, recipients of the prize have ranged from the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network to the Landless Workers Movement of Brazil. One of this year’s honorees is the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), the Florida farmworker organization that won a big victory last week when Chipotle finally agreed to sign onto the group’s Fair Food program, following in the footsteps of other national grocery and fast-food chains — like Taco Bell, Whole Foods, and Trader Joe’s — that have pledged to source ingredients only from producers who provide humane conditions for workers.

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CIW’s fellow 2012 honorees represent the diversity of food-sovereignty activism: They include the Sri Lankan National Fisheries Solidarity Movement, the United Peasant Movement of Aguan (MUCA) from Honduras, and the grand-prize winner the Korean Women’s Peasant Association, which will receive a $5,000 grant. CIW and the other honorable mentions get $1,000.

Lucas Benitez of CIW says receiving this award “will motivate us to continue to struggle. We’re at a crucial moment for this campaign for fair food.”

Alison Cohen, WhyHunger’s director of programs, said looking at current events — like the momentum CIW’s Fair Food program has right now — helped the judges narrow down this year’s field of about 30 applicants. For example, MUCA, the group from Honduras, has seen stalled progress on land reform since a 2009 coup, and the struggle against government efforts to convert land into palm oil plantations has turned deadly: Over 60 peasants and supporters have been murdered, including a human-rights lawyer recently assassinated at a wedding.

“It seemed like an incredible movement to lift up at this particular time,” Cohen says. Unfortunately, the representative MUCA planned to send to the awards ceremony in New York is not allowed to leave Honduras after being declared a criminal for participating in a nonviolent protest.

In addition to hailing from across the globe, this year’s winners demonstrate the multiple elements crucial to food sovereignty — from the land reform sought by MUCA, to the fair working conditions CIW hopes to achieve, to the efforts of the Sri Lankan fishermen to resist coastal development, and, finally, the Korean Women’s Peasant Association’s focus on the importance of women’s rights in the movement for food justice.

Food-sovereignty movements are inextricably rooted in the needs and traditions of local cultures, but that doesn’t mean these far-flung organizations have nothing in common or nothing to teach each other. On the contrary, one of the benefits of the Food Sovereignty prize is the opportunity it provides for groups to cross-pollinate.

“Workers here in the States and worldwide have to learn from one another and look for a way to work together,” says Benitez, “and make food sovereignty a much bigger movement.”

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