Agroecology as an Organizing Principle

Blog and photos by Scott Fitzmorris 

Scott photo

This past spring I was fortunate to participate in the AgroEcology Fund’s learning convening in Masaka, Uganda. I saw how through careful collaboration, philanthropy can benefit and perhaps solve some of its own most fundamental problems by applying agroecological principles to organizational procedures. The term “agroecology” is a philosophy that encompasses virtually all aspects of life: food, culture, environment, justice, respect, tradition and future. Like a small-scale farm with mixed cropping in Uganda, the AgroEcology Fund seeks to operationalize the same principles of diversity, symbiosis and collaboration.

As in big business, philanthropic organizations often operate in a top-down, one-size-fits-all mode. When a solution is identified by science and research, these organizations may be driven by a well-intentioned impulse to apply the solution broadly, despite opposing ideas from those who are the focus of the aid. In retrospect, often, it becomes clear that the people who have intimate knowledge of their communities and ecosystems had the best ideas and solutions at the start.

For me, the clearest example of this in the United States is the restriction of controlled burning, despite Native Americans’ insistence that this practice was necessary. Now, after decades of telling the native people they were wrong, my home state of California is in a precarious position where our forests can burn with high-intensity crown fires, consuming forests and buildings. The best prevention of wildfire is now known to be low-intensity controlled burning, as traditional ecological knowledge guardians have long advocated.

In Uganda, I experienced how the AgroEcology Fund has learned from lessons like this one. It places trust in local ecological and social knowledge. The granting foundations aim to collaborate with, and learn from, grantees and advisors. Its structure is like an ecosystem where no species is in charge but all interact and adjust according to feedback.

For example, over the course of our days together in Uganda one discussion and activity built upon the previous and fed into the next. People were invited to give suggestions derived from their experiences as well as offer creative inspirations from the moment. The schedule was like a living thing that derived not from hierarchical, but rather lateral inputs from the diverse voices in the space. While people were still focused on structure, the structure was in service of connecting different ecological representatives to common causes, while respecting fundamental differences.

Scott pic 2

Choosing Uganda as the location of the convening was an example of the insight that can emerge from this sort of collaboration. It was surely difficult to choose the best host site when every country offers diverse social and ecological challenges, but thanks to the advice of the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA) this country, which stands at the edge of many possible futures, was chosen. Depending on parliamentary deliberations currently underway, Uganda could be among the pioneering nations, which reject GMOs, or they might let monocultures sweep their traditional farming techniques away. The soil is rich, and plants and animals prosper, but many people are in jail because of hunger.

Across the world, industrial agriculture has directly led to greater hunger. I was able to understand this in a personal and immediate way by listening to other participants at the learning exchange. Low-income families – when they can afford it – purchase hybrid and GMO seed to grow crops for export, creating a spiral of debt. This debt accumulates over time, making it harder and harder for them to feed their families. In addition to this debt spiral, the imported monocrops are susceptible to disease and collapse as climate change shifts the ecology.

As a part of the convening we visited farms that demonstrated a more ecological and resilient option than industrial monoculture. On these farms, families grow bananas, eating the fruits and feeding their animals on the spare roughage instead of planting a specific crop for the animals. Coffee is grown for the market, among other diverse medicinal and nutritious plants used for the family’s consumption. Insects and animals pollinate and aerate the soils for free. Families barter and trade heirloom seeds and breed them to adapt to their shifting environment.

Philanthropic organizations could also benefit from this sort of attention to diversity when fostering solutions to our social and ecological problems. It is true that the organizational manner of agroecological farming can feel complicated and messy. A truly collaborative model in philanthropic organizations can feel equally complicated. However, the results of such organizing principles are more resilient, healthy and stable. Monoculture in the farm and the board room is not the solution. The AgroEcology Fund, though relatively new, has already set out on an innovative course that could help move our agricultural and philanthropic systems toward more effective structures.

 

 

 

Reforesting Arid Lands: Agroecology is Working in the Sahel

Blog by Peter Gubbels, Groundswell West Africa collaborative partners

It was inspiring to participate in the learning exchange hosted by the Agroecology Fund and Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa. I appreciated the perspective endorsed by the participants that amplifying agroecology requires context-specific support to enable small scale farmers to adapt specific practices that will lead to a progressive transition to a productive, resilient, sustainable and nutrition-sensitive farming system.

To amplify this process requires support for agroecology as a science and a grassroots social movement. In most countries, there is an urgent need for more conducive policies and programs.

photo Ghana Hands on pruning by farmer volunteers

Photo: Hands on pruning by farmer volunteers in Ghana

There were not many participants from the French-speaking Sahel region of Africa at the learning exchange, and I thought I would share our ground realities and the challenges we face to promote agroecology. Small scale, dry land farmers in the Sahel are facing a chronic food and nutrition security crisis.

This is caused by declining soil fertility, degradation of land, loss of tree and vegetative cover, and climate change. In addition to increasingly frequent drought and erratic rainfall, the Sahel is a region that climatologists say is going to be most affected by increased temperatures of up to four degrees Celsius by 2050.

If current millet and sorghum cropping systems do not change, sun and heat will reduce average yields from 15 to 40%.

Photo Ghana

Photo: Farmers from Bilanga, Gayéri and Tibga carefully listening to Michel Zorome during a FMNR demonstration in Yako

One of the key innovations farmers are adapting to cope with this is Farmer-Managed Natural Regeneration of Trees (FMNR). This is a form of agroforestry that builds on traditional methods. Through innovative ways of managing trees on crop lands (a simultaneous fallow), farmers can sustainably improve soil fertility, and reduce the effects of high temperatures through dispersed shade.

FMNR is only one of several innovative agroecological practices that are part of a transition process that gradually transforms local farming systems. Others include variede soil and water conservation measures, effective use of crop residues, and improved methods of composting.

There is already evidence of how these agroecological practices work.

The challenge for amplifying agroecology lies in strengthening social movements, changing current agribusiness-oriented agricultural policies, and re-orienting agricultural research and education to create a vastly more enabling environment. Without this, and innovative strategies for quick horizontal scaling of successful experiences in agroecology, the crisis will get worse.

The two main opportunities or windows for influencing or changing policies are the current government priorities for building resilience and adaptation to climate change. I hope our experience in the Sahel can contribute to this learning and exchange site. However, we are also counting on the support of the Agroecology Fund, AFSA and participants to help us in the Sahel overcome our growing critical food and nutrition crisis.

Our use of the word “crisis” is not an exaggeration. Every year in the Sahel, good rains or not, there are over 20 million people, (mostly dry land farmers), who are food insecure. Many depend on humanitarian aid to survive. More seriously, over 35% of all children in the Sahel suffer from irreversible physical and cognitive damage because of chronic malnutrition.

Agroecology, in all three of its dimensions—as a practice, science and movement—is a critically important part of the solution to resolve this crisis in the Sahel.