Media coverage: “Keeping Palestinian food culture alive,” by Philip Cox

Aisha Azzam examines harvested wheat near Baqa’a refugee camp, Jordan. Credit: Guochen Wang

The Four Stories project's documentary about Palestinian miller Aisha Azzam has been featured in a recent article by Philip Cox. Check out the short excerpt below, and be sure to read the the full article at!

"It's a late spring day in the Baqa'a refugee camp, home to some 105,000 Palestinians who were born into the overcrowded Jordanian district or settled there after being displaced from their homelands by the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. After months without rain, the days are long, hot and dry.

Within the rejuvenating shade of one of the region’s only stone grain mills, UVic historian Elizabeth Vibert, writing master’s student Guochen Wang, history master’s graduate Salam Guenette and a crew of local teammates are filming an interview with owner-operator Aisha Azzam for a documentary they are producing as part of the Four Stories About Food Sovereignty project—a UVic-led, transnational effort to document community responses to climate change, global economic pressures and political instability through the lens of small-scale food producers on four continents.

'For Palestinian food not to go extinct, the young have to learn from the old,' Aisha explains in Arabic for the camera while three of her grandchildren play near the mill’s wearied industrial equipment. 'Food is the most precious part of Palestinian heritage.'"

New research on rural food systems in Colombia

Four Stories researcher Natalia Giraldo Osorio has successfully completed her research on rural Colombian food systems at the Universidad de Antioquia, and her findings are now available. We thank Natalia for her fantastic contributions to food sovereignty research, and encourage everyone interested in rural food systems to check out her work! You can also find a slideshow Natalia made at

Title: El territorio visto como una colcha de retazos: Transiciones de la Ruralidad y los Sistemas Alimentarios en el municipio de El Carmen de Viboral.

Abstract: In this degree work I make an ethnographic description of the transformations of rurality in the municipality of El Carmen de Viboral and its repercussions on the food system. The methodology used in this study was an intimate ethnography, where I carried out life stories and interviews with my relatives, friends, and close acquaintances, complemented with territorial tours, archive review, participant observation, a visual field diary, embroidered cartographies and maps of food routes. I found through this thesis that the great changes that, since the mid-twentieth century, have been taking place in the municipality have generated unprecedented transformations for food systems and rurality, where both phenomena influence and have mutual repercussions. In the same way, rurality today, together with food systems, cannot be seen through dichotomous contrasts; rather they are permeated by an amalgam of dynamics, appropriations and actors that, like a patchwork quilt, configure the territory in more complex and diverse ways every day.
Keywords: Rurality, Food Systems, Transitions, Intimate Ethnography, El Carmen de Viboral

Resumen: En este trabajo de grado hago una descripción etnográfica de las transformaciones de la ruralidad en el municipio de El Carmen de Viboral y sus repercusiones en el sistema alimentario. La metodología empleada en este estudio fue una etnografía íntima donde realicé historias de vida y entrevistas a mis familiares, amigos, cercanos y conocidos, complementada con recorridos territoriales, revisión de archivo, observación participante, un diario de campo visual, cartografías bordadas y mapas de las rutas de los alimentos. Encontré a través de esta tesis que los grandes cambios que, desde mediados del siglo XX, se vienen gestando en el municipio han generado transformaciones sin precedentes para los sistemas alimentarios y para la ruralidad, donde ambos fenómenos se influyen y repercuten mutuamente. De igual forma, la ruralidad en la actualidad, junto a los sistemas alimentarios, no se pueden ver desde contrastes dicotómicos, más bien están permeados por una amalgama de dinámicas, apropiaciones y actores que como una colcha de retazos van configurando el territorio de forma más compleja y diversa cada día.
Palabras clave: Ruralidad, Sistemas Alimentarios, Transiciones, Etnografía íntima, El Carmen de Viboral

Download here: Natalia Osorio, El territorio visto como una colcha de retazos

Mutual aid in a global food crisis: Rural South African women work together

Hleketani farmers attend a meeting of their grocery savings club.
(Elizabeth Vibert), Author provided

Elizabeth Vibert, University of Victoria

Stark warnings of a looming global food crisis spark fear as millions of people will likely descend into hunger in the coming months.

As the New York Times put it, for the global food supply “there are few worse countries to be in conflict than Russia and Ukraine.” Nearly 50 nations, many low-income and numerous in Africa, depend on these two countries for much of their wheat, as well as other grains and cooking oils.

For households chronically at risk of food insecurity, the Russian invasion is the latest in a long series of pressures.

The proportion of the global population at moderate or severe risk of hunger has been rising since 2015 as a result of the combined impacts of the climate crisis, conflict and more recently COVID-19.

The women I do research with in N'wamitwa, South Africa, have been staring down food crises and working to mitigate the effects for years. Many of these women are counted among “the poorest of the poor.” This means they live on less than US$1.90 a day (the World Bank’s money metric for extreme poverty) and fall below their country’s lowest poverty line, insufficient income to meet minimum food needs.

Despite being “poorest of the poor,” these women are not sitting on their hands waiting for assistance. Like resource-poor people all over the world, they are busy devising strategies and enacting tactics to meet the latest challenge of food shortages and surging prices.

Keeping households afloat

Thirty years ago, these women established a co-operative farm in the midst of a catastrophic regional drought — we made a film together about the ongoing value of Hleketani Community Garden to their households.

Irrigated by water-saving drip hoses, the garden provides nutritious, affordable produce year round. It was a lifeline for the village during South Africa’s strict pandemic lockdowns.

The pandemic “destroyed things at my home, my community, and my country. We could not visit our neighbours, could not check on our relatives,” says founding farmer Josephine Mathebula. “The farm fed us.”

Select scenes from the film ‘The Thinking Garden.’

Another crucial strategy these women pursue is savings clubs, known in South Africa as stokvels. As Caroline Shenaz Hossein, a global development and political science researcher, argues, these savings clubs are “at the very core of what we know as the solidarity social economy.”

They are a key example of the diverse, ethical economic practices — including co-operatives and other forms of mutual aid — that help keep poor households and communities afloat.

South African stokvels are community generated, self-run savings clubs where members pay a monthly fixed sum and take turns collecting the funds accumulated. Clubs multiplied during the 1990s and 2000s, bolstered by growing confidence among Black and brown South Africans after achieving democracy, and in the face of urgent needs during the HIV/AIDS pandemic.

Stokvels are much more than a piggy bank for enforced savings. Strict rules about contributions, borrowing and interest (specific to each group) aim to instil financial discipline and autonomy. Club names like Titirheleni (work for yourself) speak to such goals.

Women in these rural communities say the clubs are rooted in customary practices of shared labour and reciprocal assistance. Farmer Sara Mookamedi notes that club members “help each other, like a family” — albeit one that kicks members out if they fall foul of the rules.

The value of savings clubs

All 27 women who work at Hleketani Garden are members of savings clubs. Some belong to as many as six or eight distinct groups. While members save for everything from children’s post-secondary education to water tanks to funeral expenses, “grocery savings is the number 1 priority” according to Basani Ngobeni, a resident of the village and my longtime research collaborator.

Members of grocery savings clubs sock away funds all year for bulk purchases of dry goods, with some contributing 100 rand (US$6.50) per month, others much more.

In December, they hire a truck and travel to a wholesale warehouse in the city 40 kilometres away to fill their massive order. Clubs prioritize items that are expensive at retail price or hard to find in the village — things like flour, canned fish and sanitary products. The grocery haul a member takes home is in line with their payments throughout the year.

Boxes are piled high as a truck delivers bulk grocery purchases.
Community members unpack a truck loaded with bulk purchases for a grocery savings club.
(Elizabeth Vibert), Author provided

With the cost of a basic basket of foods for low-income households rising 10 per cent in South Africa over the past year — even before events in Ukraine — many South Africans face major challenges in securing sufficient, healthy food for their families. The savings clubs are a lifeboat.

Crisis is nothing new in many communities across the Global South. These communities have been shaped by colonialism, by trade and agricultural policies that undermine local flourishing, by conflict and by the impacts of a climate emergency they did not create. Crisis is a given for resource-poor households globally, but — in the absence of supportive policies — so are these careful strategies of self-provisioning and mutual aid.The Conversation

Elizabeth Vibert, Professor of Colonial History, University of Victoria

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

“Stories of Rurality” in El Carmen de Viboral

Natalia Giraldo Osorio, a Four Stories partner at the Universidad de Antioquia in Colombia, has created this slideshow of life in the rural village of El Carmen de Viboral. Translations into English have been provided by Four Stories researcher Fernanda Pacheco.

From herb gardens and carrot harvests to scenes of local kitchens and chiva buses, these images provide a glimpse into rural life in north-western Colombia.

Natalia adds: "I have been accompanying the project Four Stories as a young researcher and inspired by this project I carried out a personal project of the food system in my region. I carried out this project in a town named El Carmen de Viboral in Colombia with cartography and embroidery techniques. In addition to this, I would like to mention that our team in Colombia has a study group of the food systems. In this group we learn and build knowledge together."

Community partner Fatima Obeidat talks Jordanian food-based livelihoods

Four Stories community partner from Jordan, Fatima Obeidat, stars in two new videos. She is founder of Kananah Women’s Organization, which assists Syrian refugee women and low-income Jordanian women to develop food-based livelihoods.

In the first video Fatima talks about za'atar that her organization prepares for export to the US. Za’atar is the name for both an herb (Origanicum syriacum, related to thyme) and an archetypal Palestinian spice blend, which combines the herb with sesame seeds, sumac and other spices.

The video starts with two bags, one with dried za’atar (Origanum syriacum) and the other with the same product but ground. No spices added yet. The za’atar spice mix is in the containers (it is called Dukkah in Arabic, with a hard k in the middle). It is also called za’atar baladi (original zaatar) and its ingredients are simple: the thyme-like herb mixed with sumac, roasted sesame, and salt.

Fatimah says that za’atar when eaten with olive oil on bread – a favourite snack through Palestine – provides a complete meal, with added health benefits from the herb. (The other voice in the video is just reminding her of her steps, including tasting the product.)

A little online research indicates that za’atar has some impressive health benefits: boosting the immune system and skin health, building strong bones, increasing circulation, clearing the respiratory tracts, soothing inflammation, boosting energy, improving mood, aiding memory, and treat chronic diseases. (We can’t vouch for all these benefits!)

In the second video, Fatima talks about makdous, the contents of the metal cans prepared for export to the US. It is a preserved/ pickled eggplant that is usually eaten for smaller meals (breakfast and dinner) or as a side dish with lunch (the main meal). Makdous is almost always part of a mezzeh platter.

Fatima describes the process:
blanched small eggplant
chopped walnuts
diced sweet and chili peppers (some people use fresh and others powder)
diced garlic
olive oil
Once the eggplant is blanched, make a slit on the side and stuff it with a mix of the other ingredients. Preserve in olive oil. Fatima mentions that between the nuts, garlic and vegetable, makdous is a very healthy meal addition at any time.

Fatima hopes that her export project will be successful and that people of Arab descent living in diaspora will be able to find both products in America and thus eat something from "home." She praises all the children who are living and working away from home in order to help their families.

Documentary: The Thinking Garden

A film telling the inspiring story of South African women seeking food justice

This is a film about resilience – three generations of older women in a village in South Africa who came together in the dying days of apartheid to create a community garden. In the midst of severe drought and political turmoil, older women with limited access to land and little political voice joined together, beyond the household, beyond their kin, to make something new. They named their garden Hleketani – “thinking” in the local xiTsonga language – a place where women gather to think about how to effect change. The garden provides affordable vegetables to local people, nourishes those living with HIV/AIDS, and offers land, community, and opportunity for women. In short, the garden has helped restore the lives of people pushed to the edge. Filmed against the backdrop of a new drought gripping southern Africa, The Thinking Garden tells the remarkable story of what can happen when older women take matters into their own hands, and shows how local action in food production can give even the most vulnerable people a measure of control over their food and their futures.

More information on the Hleketani Garden can be found at Dr. Elizabeth Vibert's website,

Dr. Elizabeth Vibert: “Apartheid, Dispossession and Legacies in Jopi Village, South Africa”

As part of a lecture series on Decolonizing Settler Societies, Dr. Vibert gives a presentation on the history of apartheid and dispossession in Jopi Village, South Africa and the lasting legacies from that history.

*This lecture was originally presented to an undergraduate seminar class in the History Department at the University of Victoria

News from La Guajira: “Community Gardens Restore Hope to Indigenous People of La Guajira”

The following article brings some good news from La Guajira, where a participatory-research project has resulted in a thriving community garden.

Currently, they have crops of watermelon, squash, corn, beans, melon and yucca. The rainwater has also made possible the significant increase of goats and goats, and the care of the cows recently incorporated. This production directly benefits 45 families from the Taiguaicat, Pañarrer and Limunaka communities of the Manaure reservation, in which 206 people live.

Huertas comunitarias devolvieron la esperanza a indígenas de La Guajira

News from La Guajira, Colombia on the impacts of COVID-19 in Wayuu communities

The Crop Captain

"And here I am asking Juya - Father of the Rain, to visit these lands soon, because the livelihood and economy of hundreds of families throughout the La Guajira peninsula depend on the rain and much more in this confinement due to the pandemic."

Photographic rights of: Belkis Fontalvo Ramírez

By Covid 19 Hunger and thirst get worse in Wayuu territory

"With the closure of all commercial activities by governments as a preventive measure to avoid the spread of Covid-19, the Wayuu are forced to abandon their daily activities such as the street selling of food, checheres and handicrafts, the offering of means informal transportation systems, and the high migration flow that takes place at the border to commercialize anything that can be bought or sold has stopped."

Photo License: Miguel Iván Ramírez Boscán

Colombia: Indigenous Children at Risk of Malnutrition and Death

"'The indigenous communities of La Guajira do not have access to enough food or the water necessary to practice basic hygiene, including washing their hands, and information and access to health care is extremely deficient,' said  José Miguel Vivanco , director for the Americas from Human Rights Watch. 'This situation has contributed to the fact that for years the Wayuu have suffered one of the highest levels of child malnutrition in Colombia, and it is extremely worrying in the current context of Covid-19.'"

Hunger: the other pandemic of the Wayuu

"The coronavirus pandemic has further undermined the fragile situation of Colombian indigenous peoples. One of the most worrying cases is that of the Wayuu, who make up 20 percent of the total indigenous population of the country. As the data shows, the situation was dire before covid19 arrived."

Plants that heal the body and soul

"According to the Wayuu, although the healing properties of traditional medicines are not scientifically proven, several cases of daily life in the communities show encouraging results about their usefulness in preventing and curing the symptoms of covid 19."

Social Impacts of COVID-19 in Rural South Africa

South Africa’s already extreme inequality, along racialised axes of income, wealth, and opportunity, has been exacerbated by the global pandemic. The vulnerability of many people’s livelihoods, and the food insecurity that is a key marker of that vulnerability, have been brought into sharp relief.

As Tessa Dooms of Global Governance Futures observes, South Africa’s five-stage lockdown was delivered in ways suited to “middle-class suburbia.” Measures appropriate in well-resourced communities are neither feasible nor humane in informal settlements and poor rural communities. Now more than ever, she argues, the state needs to make targeted practical interventions “that govern the two sides of South Africa.”

South Africa’s strictest lockdown measures (Level 5) were in place from late March to early May; having “flattened the curve,” the country moved to Level 4 (still sharp restrictions) through May and Level 3 in June. The country is now at Level 1 “alert,” while remaining in the top 10 countries in the world for confirmed cases and top 15 for COVID deaths. The country’s national economy will likely contract by 8 percent this year and take at least four years to recover. The UN Development Program estimates that one-third of middle-class households will slip from that status, and that “women, particularly in the poorest female-headed households, disproportionately bear the brunt of the impact of COVID-19.”

Kliptown, Soweto. Hard to social distance. Quartz

Social impacts of the lockdown at household level are illustrated by conversations with a range of community members in the villages of N’wamitwa, Limpopo Province, in May and June, when the country continued in lockdown.*

Family and neighbourly support networks have always been crucial to local wellbeing in these communities. Those networks are “destroyed” by pandemic lockdown, in the words of Josephine M of Jopi village. “We can’t check on our relatives, we can’t go to church, people lost their jobs because their companies have closed. … This thing has destroyed things at my home, my community, my relatives, and my country.”

Gotfrey R of Nkambako says he understands and respects the lockdown for public health reasons. But it comes at a very high cost.

“This is the village. If you don’t have food, [normally] you could go to the neighbours and ask, or to your relatives. That is not happening because rules were set for the country. We are not able to share the little that we have as family, relatives and neighbours. A person has to stay at home and mind their own food. And when it’s finished, the kids look at you, and you get hurt and cry.”

Traditional Authority board member M. C. Baloyi also highlights the impacts on crucial mutuality networks. “In our communities, rural areas, we are used to supporting one another. ... The spirit of UBUNTU is always there. But you now cannot see that happening because people are prohibited from supporting one another.” One of the casualties is stockvels, the savings, credit, and purchasing clubs that so many rely on to grow their savings and stretch their limited funds. “Most of our communities are used to stockvel .. and those meetings are not held anymore. Most families are relying on that to earn a living.” Now people are unable to save to pay their costs and grow their meagre funds. “That becomes a very serious headache for those who do not have income” and rely on these social and investment circles for material support.

Grocery club, Nkambako. 2018

Rose N’s household in Nkambako has been kept afloat by her adult son, whose job continues. He has helped her buy maize meal to feed her school-age children. “If my son wasn’t helping because he is still working, I don’t where will I be.”

Rose describes the narrowing of the diet that came with her loss of income (she is a bartender and stitches for a craft cooperative). Rose curbed her tea drinking because “I feel like when I drink tea I am eating the bread for my children.” She limited her own meals to “pap and sauce” (maize porridge and sauce) to protect some diversity in the children’s meals. “Now I’m just cooking beans. We are not used to this way of eating. We are suffering.”

Rose registered her family for food parcels from the municipality, but they never materialized. “They keep saying we will get [a parcel] on a certain date. But since lockdown the only other help I got was from church; they gave me a food parcel because they could see that I am poor.”

Mthavini M in Nkambako, 80, describes the downward spiral in her household’s food supplies. She stopped going shopping for food in town when health workers warned about contagion, and when runs on urban shops during restricted hours made shopping impossible. “We are not able to get enough food because we are not able to go to the shops. You eat twice a day because if you say you want to eat three times a day, where will you get the food?  Maize meal [gets] finished at the local shops quickly.”

At first her farm income was hit because some were continuing to shop in town while others were reluctant to leave their homes for fear of “this monster” (COVID-19). As more people in the village observed lockdown, at times harshly enforced by police, “they want spinach … and now there’s nothing left because everyone runs to the farm.” Farmers were given permits to leave their homes for work, because “if we farmers say we are afraid to come out of our houses [to the farm], people were going to die of hunger.”

Bus driver Jackson Matsimbi describes the shift from being able to “control the situation around food” to food poverty under lockdown. “If you don’t have money [to shop], you stay at home. … You have to eat pap in the morning and evening, instead of breakfast, lunch and supper. Pap.” Two meals instead of three, pap with few accompaniments. Children stuck at home from school create added strain, since they would normally eat a hot meal at school at midday, and again at after-school care.

Another father,  Gotfrey R, notes that “we have started to respect food. What pains me the most is not me, but my kids. My kids are used to a certain way of eating … but when this situation arrived, things became heavy to a point where I wasn’t coping” because his children could not eat as usual. “We have to reduce the amount eaten [during the day] and save for evening.”

At the time of the interview Gotfrey had not received the government assistance he applied for, nor any food parcels. “I hear that people are getting them [food parcels], but I personally did not get any help so far.”

Traditional Authority board member M. C. Baloyi notes the special challenges for the poorest people. Government emergency funds, added to the social grants that support so many unemployed and low-income households, were difficult to access for those who did not have cellphones or the ability to purchase data. Those who did manage to apply generally found delivery very slow.

Major structural reforms are clearly needed to address deepening inequalities and vulnerabilities in South Africa, vulnerabilities laid bare by the pandemic. Land reform is one structural intervention that could have major impacts in these rural areas. As Ben Cousins argues, land reform is essential “to help address inherited historical injustices, especially those resulting from land dispossession of the black majority.” Pro-poor land reform will restore land to individuals and communities who lost their homes and land due to colonial and apartheid-era forced removals. It will create secure rights to land held by the black majority, helping to create viable and dignified livelihoods in rural areas. Cousins continues, “When South Africa eventually emerges from the fog of the COVID-19 crisis, structural reform, including land reform, will be high on the political agenda as never before.”

Rose agrees. While lockdown has been difficult, she worries about what comes next. “After lockdown, who is going to give us food? There are no jobs, where are we going to work? … You can see how our economy is. Where are we going to start and end? Where? It can never be the same.”


***All interviews were conducted by Basani Ngobeni in the villages of N’wamitwa, in person where permitted and otherwise by telephone. Basani administered a food security questionnaire prepared by the Four Stories About Food Sovereignty research team.

Other sources include

Ben Cousins, “Study Shows Land Redistribution Can Create New Jobs in Agriculture in South Africa.” The Conversation 3 June 2020.

“Beyond ‘Stay Safe’: Covid-19 and Inequality in South Africa.” A Conversation with Tessa Dooms. Global Policy 8 July 2020.

South African History Online. "The Natives Land Act of 1913."

United Nations Development Programme. “South Africa’s GDP could plunge 8  percent this year.” 31 August 2020.

La Guajira food and climate virtual museum

A fantastic virtual museum dedicated to food and climate issues in La Guajira has been created by Dejusticia, a Colombia-based research and advocacy organization. The museum displays a series of beautiful artwork which, in their own words, "shows one of our crudest realities: the constant violation of the fundamental rights of the largest indigenous people in Colombia and Venezuela."

Visit the museum at and explore the gallery!

The virtual tour culminates in Dejustica's five recommendations to address the food and climate emergency. Make sure to check it out!

Notes and Photographs from La Guajira, by Natalia Giraldo Osario

The following fieldnotes and photographs have been prepared by a research assistant on the Four Stories project. They outline some of the challenges faced by Wayuu communities today.

La Guajira, Colombia
Notes and Photographs from the Field, January 2020
Prepared by Natalia Giraldo Osario

Rancheria (Settlement) St. Martin du Puloy
This community is made up of approximately ten families of Wayuu Indigenous people, who go through the seasons there. Families have major problems with access to food. All the food comes from outside since the land is very dry to cultivate and they do not have irrigation systems. Economic livelihoods depend on temporary jobs and selling handwoven bags (mochillas) made by the Wayuu women.

Everyday Life
At about 5:00 a.m. you start to smell the wood fire that announces the beginning of the day. Women gather in the kitchen to prepare food, and they collect water and care for the children. The men perform animal care and look after the land and housing arrangements.

There are many children in the community, who spend their time playing with discarded items found throughout the ranch. They also help to collect firewood and do chores. The school that was at the ranch was recently closed, meaning children must now travel to Manaure to receive their education. Children are the people most affected in the crisis situation occurring in La Guajira.

Women in the community have created mutual support networks, and help to provide each other with items including food, water and other essentials. In addition, some are specialists in traditional medicine. Women are in charge of caring for the nuclear family.

To get to the mill, the only place where there is access to water, involves a walk of about 20 minutes. Women are in charge of collecting the water. This vital element for life, both human and other-than-human, plays a very important role in the social order and cultural life of the settlement. The Wayuu territory is facing challenges of water injustice, which exacerbates their food crisis.

To the rhythm of the drum and the sound of the wind, the Wayuu people dance the Yonna. This is a very important dance for the Wayuu because it is an opportunity to perpetuate their cultural traditions.

Media Coverage: Elizabeth Vibert talks food sovereignty with CBC Radio’s Kathryn Marlow

Many people try to think about where their food is coming from, but advocates for food sovereignty say you should also think about the working conditions of the people who grew or produced it, and what the carbon emissions were to get it to you. Four Stories project director Elizabeth Vibert joined All Points West host Kathryn Marlow to explain, and to give practical tips on how to try and work towards food sovereignty.

"Globalization is a major root cause of many of the challenges facing our food systems today. Food sovereignty seeks to take back a meaningful measure of control or self determination of food systems locally, regionally, and even nationally so that it is not the big global internationals determining the value of food."

Listen to the full segment at

Media Coverage: “UVic-based research project aims to support global food sovereignty”

One of our research assistants, Kelsey Lessard, recently published an article about the Four Stories project in The Marlet, Uvic's student newspaper.


"Now more than ever is the time to help support small-scale food producers around the world to ensure the long-term sustainability of a secure and equitable food system. By working together, a new map that ensures food systems are culturally, ecologically, and economically sustainable can be drawn. While the movement is global, local actions can be taken, just as T’Sou-ke Nation has done, to ensure food security and a measure of food sovereignty for all future generations."


Read the full article at

Children of climate crisis

Ayakha Melithafa is not as famous as Greta Thunberg, but she may soon be. Ayakha is one of sixteen youth from around the world, including Greta, bringing a complaint before the UN Committee for the Rights of the Child. Their claim: climate change is a crisis for children’s rights.

The Committee monitors implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. If the Committee finds that signatories have infringed those rights by “knowingly causing and perpetuating the climate crisis,” as the youth petition charges, then signatory states will be urged to act to protect children’s rights. The petition specifically names Brazil, Germany, France, Argentina, and Turkey, but South Africa, Canada, and every other state that has ratified the Convention may feel a moral obligation to respond. (The U.S. signed but did not ratify the Convention.)

Ayakha, 17, goes to school in Cape Town while her mother and siblings live in the Eastern Cape. Her mother is a small-scale farmer and, like the women at Hleketani Garden, has been living the impacts of climate change for several years. Drought set in in the Eastern Cape in 2014. More recently, international headlines blared as the city of Cape Town counted down toward “Day Zero,” when urban reservoirs would run dry. Rural regions, where thousands of small farmers grow food for their households and local communities, got few headlines.

Small farm, Eastern Cape (Desmond Latham/IPS)

Ayakha, who told her story to The Mail and Guardian, says her mother and other small farmers “really don’t know when the rains will come. … My mom knows when to plant which vegetable. She knows how the weather will be.” Not anymore.

Her mother’s livestock have also been hard hit. “I saw all these animals die,” Ayakha recounted. “A full-grown cow is about R16,000 [$1,450 CAD]. I saw my family lose all that money. My mom is supporting five children; she’s the only one working.”

With this hit to the family’s finances, Ayakha’s mother, along with so many other rural farmers, will struggle to provide for her children’s school needs. Such immediate impacts are obvious and keenly felt. Less obvious, but perhaps even more devastating, is the impact on the dream to send one’s children to university.

In Limpopo Province, at the other end of the country, January Mathebula speaks hauntingly of the declining fortunes of the vegetable farm he tends alongside his wife Lydia. The farm used to thrive and paid for their children to go to university, he explains. At the moment, it barely provides enough for the costs of their youngest daughter's subsistence, textbooks, and travel home from the University of Cape Town, where she is studying mathematics on a scholarship.

“We are waiting for the rain, then we can farm,” January says. “But what about now? What about now?”

Now, January and Lydia need money from the farm to support their daughter in Cape Town. Without rain, however, they don’t know whether or when that money will arrive. “Our children grow up on the money from the farm. What can we do?” Until recently they were also supporting their infant grandson, whose parents work in Johannesburg. Income from the farm’s cabbages and leafy greens is the family’s livelihood, and the food is the source of their health.

Moonrise over January and Lydia's farm

Farmers like January, Lydia, and Ayakha’s mother face an uncertain future as Southern Africa is wracked by drought, intense storms, growing pest pressures, and unpredictable seasons. Farmers in this region know how to innovate and adapt to drought in the short term – it has long been a regular feature of farming here. But droughts that last years, in combination with these additional pressures, are a new kind of crisis.

As Ayakha and her peers insist, it is a crisis with deep consequences for children.