Agroecology is the heritage & tradition of indigenous peoples

Blog by Dr. Carl O. Rangad, Vice Chairman Operations, North East Slow Food and Agrobiodiversity Society, India

photo-1
Agroecology is connected to the intrinsic wisdom of indigenous peoples, says Dr. Rangad                      Photo: Rucha Chitnis

The North East Slow Food and Agrobiodiversity Society (NESFAS) is a grassroots organization in Shillong, India, that is closely linked to the Rome-based Indigenous Partnership for Agrobiodiversity and Food Sovereignity. NESFAS promotes ecologically and culturally sustainable agriculture and food systems that are embedded in the culture, traditions and emerging practices and culture of the peoples of North East India through food festivals, biodiversity fairs, exchange visits, local, national and international workshops and other initiatives that are agreed with participating communities and partners.

The Northeastern region of India is a bio-cultural hot-spot, home to some 235 tribes living for centuries in harmony with their environment. This region accounts for 67 percent of the biodiversity of India, and it is estimated that around 640 rivers criss-cross the region. Meghalaya, the headquarters of NESFAS, literally means “the home of the clouds” in Sanskrit and experiences the heaviest rainfall in the world.

There exists a rich traditional and cultural practice among the indigenous peoples inhabiting this bio-diverse land, where agriculture is the mainstay of the people. Traditional agricultural practices have been sustainably in vogue for centuries, but with the advent of the Green Revolution and globalization with all its ramifications, these local knowledge systems and values are slowly being eroded and replaced by modern agricultural practices which, needless to say, have brought more problems than solutions.

In this context and challenges, NESFAS works to promote indigenous knowledge systems to empower local communities on the Slow Food concepts of good, clean and fair food. Efforts are being made by NESFAS and its participating communities to internalize these principles in the local food systems linked to their intrinsic wisdom of the ages. NESFAS works towards the preservation of the “heritage agriculture,” where land management, livelihoods, relationships and wellbeing are deeply rooted in nature. We firmly believe that it is the flavor and wisdom of the communities that forms the guiding principles for future action to ensure that every member in the community is involved and no one is left behind.

4w6a3791
Dr. Rangad at a grantee convening of Agroecology Fund and AFSA in Uganda. Photo: Rucha Chitnis

Based on these principles, NESFAS organized the Indigenous Terra Madre (ITM 2015) in Shillong last year. This event was unique in that it was led by 41 communities of the North East and backed by the government and a host of international partners and donors. This unique global event served to amplify the voices of the local communities, which were heard worldwide. The event showcased the rich culture and traditions of the tribes of the North East, who steward vast biodiversity. The most inspiring aspect of the ITM was the wholehearted support of the chief minister and the local government that came forward with 50% of the finances to carry out the gathering and offered the services of all its departments and manpower. The government offered itself as a partner with NESFAS and the communities and not as a leader. The government even went a step further by asking NESFAS to conduct smaller ITMs for the North East, as well as a national ITM on a regular bi-annual basis.

Inspired by the success of the ITM, where the ownership and leadership was taken up by the communities to showcase their ancestral wisdom and the avowed principles of NESFAS , a conscious decision was taken to take up heritage agriculture and knowledge systems as a major plank of “the future we want”. The heritage agriculture of the North East India embodies most of the principles of agroecology and it is the endeavor of NESFAS to serve as a platform for a sensible fusion of traditional wisdom and scientific knowledge as well as research. With the very proactive resonance of the government, we had hoped that policy changes would also follow and that the government would continue to partner with NESFAS. Indeed, initial discussions have seen a commitment from the government to support the setting up of agroecology schools in the state. Several universities in the state have also voiced their eagerness to open agroecology departments in their institutions.

NESFAS looks forward to creating an agroecology hub in North East India, which would not only preserve the indigenous practices and wisdom but would also bring about a vibrant, sustainable and equitable ecosystem for the sustenance of our future generations.

Advertisements

Agroecology: A Path We Walk On to Defend Mother Earth

Maria Estela Barco Huerta, General Coordinator of DESMI in Mexico, reflects on the agroecology learning exchange in Uganda that the Agroecology Fund hosted in partnership with the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa this Spring.

4w6a3873
Photo: Rucha Chitnis

When we received the invitation to participate in the learning exchange in Uganda, it seemed impossible to travel to such a distant land that is Africa. We were requested to bring a farmer, preferably a woman, to join this gathering, but it was difficult to convince them to travel. Our partners and peers, who are part of the Zapatista movement and have practiced agroecology for a longer time, don’t travel to these meetings. It’s a decision they have taken for several years within the movement. At the end, Rigoverto Albores, an agroecology trainer and I, as the team coordinator, agreed to represent DESMI.

The gathering in Uganda was very rewarding despite the limitation of language. With Katherine and Lorenzo’s translation, we could participate in the activities and share the work of DESMI. This gathering was enriching; I met women and men who have passionately defended Mother Earth, both personally and within their organizations. It seemed like we all value learning from indigenous and rural communities. We all recognized the vitality of ancestral knowledge of indigenous peoples, and we are fighting to preserve it.

Setting the intention with opening mística

This moment was very important to initiate each day to set the tone, create an intentional environment and prepare for the gathering. We learned about ceremonies and rituals from different countries and it was a moment to reaffirm our struggles and commitments.

Sharing regional experiences

We created posters to share more deeply about our organizations and movements. For me, it was important to learn the work of other groups, the challenges they face in their own countries, such as the struggle to stop GMO maize in Mexico, GMO bananas in Uganda, etc. Each organization has its own methodology; some approaches are similar. In the end, we’re all striving for agroecology to become a way of life in the communities we work with. We were also able to share what has worked for us and the lessons we have learned.

4w6a3926
Photo: Rucha Chitnis

Dialoguing and Listening

We recognized that agroecology is a path that we’re constantly walking on, a path that encourages possibilities (big or small) to achieve food sovereignty, including the right to be a small peasant farmer. Agroecology is also a solution to cool the planet, and hold large multinational companies accountable for their role in accelerating climate change. I learned about organizations that are marketing agroecological foods and have strengthened a solidarity economy with indigenous people.

Visits to farms of local communities

This site visit was a good experience; it allowed us to witness their work and learn about the culture of African communities. This experience reaffirmed what small farmers can achieve with their own knowledge, by adding new techniques, such as biodigesters, water harvesting, integration of various crops, women’s leadership and harnessing community wisdom. It was great to see the joy and willingness of peasant farmers to share how they cultivate crops. It was interesting to learn how communities make their clothes traditionally with the bark of a tree, and grow coffee. I found the people from Africa very noble.

Building strategies, linking struggles to defend Mother Earth

I think we made good progress in clarifying that we’re all working towards the same goal. We agreed on the need to expand agroecology globally, including in the United States. We also dialogued on how we can defend the seeds of farmers so that they remain in their ownership, and are protected from threats by Monsanto and other big transnational seed corporations.

We recognized the importance of linkages that strengthen our work, that provide, both, positive and critical feedback to our collection of experiences. In other words, no one should work in isolation, and it’s not enough to work only with indigenous peoples in the communities. Instead, we are looking for partnerships to mutually strengthen each other. We also talked about the importance of educating, from an agroecological perspective, to care for Mother Earth as a way to promote local advocacy. We see the value of strengthening communities so that rural families—women and men—can stop transnational forces. The power also lies in indigenous communities. Governments have forgotten where the power exists, as they govern in favor of large interests and suppress the rights of people who elected them. Now the governments want to patent seeds to deliver them to transnational corporations like Monsanto and open doors of our countries to GMOs. Only the strength of community organizing can deter this. As the Zapatistas say “the people rule and the government obeys.”

A dialogue with funders

The presence of women and men who had the vision to create the Agroecology Fund was important. Firstly, we were able to meet them in person, and they were no longer names, but people who have dreams and ideals like us. We all seek to change the systems of food production so that fertility is restored to Mother Earth, and she can continue to feed us. The funders are people who believe in our work and in the struggles of peasant farmers for exercising their right to food every day, and who defend our seeds because they are inherited from our grandmothers and grandfathers. The Fund members are working to amplify agroecology across the globe as a model that can be mainstreamed, where food sovereignty of all people is secured.