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

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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.

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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.

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.

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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%.

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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.

 

Gleaning the Wisdom: 7 Diverse Voices for Agroecology

Blog and Photos: Rucha Chitnis 

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Last month, the AgroEcology Fund in partnership with the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa, hosted a convening with over 70 delegates from 20 countries in Masaka, Uganda. Farmers, social movements, funders, scientists and policy advocates dialogued on amplifying agroecological solutions in the context of a changing climate, land grabs and corporate control of seeds.

Here are 7 powerful takeaways of #AgroecologyVoices in Masaka:

1. Respect is a Core Value of Agroecology: Bridget Mugambe of Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa summed up respect as the core value of agroecology. In a dominant food paradigm, where the knowledge systems, food culture and ecology of communities is eroded, Bridget reminded us that cultural competency and respect were the foundation of agroecology. 

Bridget Meme

2. Agroecology Defends the Sacred: At the opening ceremony of the agroecology convening, Maria Estela Barco Huerta, General Coordinator of Social and Economic Development of Indigenous Mexicans (DESMI), reminded us on the sacredness of corn to indigenous communities in Mexico. She emphasized how the deep spiritual, cultural and social implications of corn were inherently linked to the identity of indigenous peoples in the Chiapas. 

Maria Estela Meme

3. Philanthropy Must Wake Up and Smell the Rotten Food System: Funders at the convening recognized that disproportionate amount of financial resources were accelerating a food system that was degrading the soil, environment and leading communities down a path of dependency, debt and livelihood insecurity. The Agroecology Fund is a pooled fund of 14 donors, who recognize that collaboration in philanthropy is vital to amplify sustainable alternatives that are promoted and innovated by small food producers, farmer networks and social movements. 

Daniel Meme

4. Global Food System is Accelerating Climate Change: Scientists and policy advocates in the convening pointed out that the global food system is a major contributor of climate change. “We don’t need carbon markets or techno-fixes. We need the right policies and programs to dump the current industrial food system and create a sustainable, equitable and truly productive one instead,” notes GRAIN, an organization that promotes community -controlled and biodiversity-based food systems.   

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5. Women Farmers Are the Solution: The convening had a rich representation of women, who were farmers and frontline organizers in robust social movements from South Korea to Mexico to Nigeria. They recognized the centrality of women farmers in promoting the food security and health of their families and communities. Women’s groups also brought attention to the feminization of agriculture and the power of women’s groups and networks to amplify sustainable food systems. 

Tabara Meme

6. Indigenous Knowledge is Scientific: Social movements, like Via Campesina, emphasized the power of indigenous knowledge systems to amplify agroecology. The wisdom, experience and ingenuity of local communities is often rooted in ancestral knowledge that is passed down from one generation to the next. The convening demonstrated the rich complimentary relationship between indigenous knowledge and science in promoting agroecology as a way forward to mitigate hunger and climate change.   

Vini Meme

7. Resourcing Grassroots Solutions is Key for Mitigating Hunger: There was resounding consensus that the old school style of top-down development would not flower a people-centered agroecological movement. Jennifer Astone, Executive Director of Swift Foundation, emphasized that Swift Foundation was funding agroecology as a key strategy to combat climate change and hunger. “At its heart agroecology is about biodiversity and healthy families and communities. It’s about supporting small farmers to continue their successful agricultural practices that also protect the environment,” she said.

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