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.

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.

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.

 

 

 

Gleaning the Wisdom: 7 Diverse Voices for Agroecology

Blog and Photos: Rucha Chitnis 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.   

Henk meme

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.

jen meme