Expanding territory for agroecology (part 4 of 8)

This is the fourth post in an eight-part series about how we can transform the roles of non-governmental organizations like Groundswell to make food sovereignty a reality. Read the first, second and third posts.

Expanding territory for agroecology

Women processing vegetables grown on agro-ecological village farms in eastern Burkina Faso.

Women processing vegetables grown on agro-ecological village farms in eastern Burkina Faso.

Bern Guri says that in Ghana, “isolated examples of small scale farmer agro-ecological production exist, but the government of Ghana doesn’t see what small farmers are doing as relevant, because they are focused on larger farmers. They see small scale farmers as holding back production. We need to shine a light on the successful examples, but also create a market. To do this we identify capacities that farmers already have for agroecological farming and strengthen them and spread them. We work to document and disseminate the good work already happening so people know that alternatives exist.”

A common critique of agroecological practices is that they always appear to work for a small number of farmers but are never widely adopted. Why is this often the case? There are a few possible reasons: a) farmers are not aware of agro-ecological alternatives; b) they are aware of them, but aren’t convinced that they work, or believe that something else works better; c) incentives (economic, environmental, social or psychological) push them towards ways of farming. NGOs must work together and with farmers to overcome these constraints and develop more effective strategies to scale agro-ecological practices across communities and regions—to expand the territory for agroecology and healthy local food economies.

The question of whether or not agro-ecological farming works for small-scale farmers in the developing world is perhaps the easiest to address. As noted above, broad experience along with a growing body of research and evidence demonstrates that it works for them on multiple levels. Even proponents of industrialized agriculture usually accept agroecology’s success on a small scale, but argue it is not viable on a larger one. Yet many farmers in the developing world are already adopting and practicing agro-ecological farming, and the only incentive they have to do so is that it brings them benefits—more food, less cost, an improved environment, healthier families and communities, greater resilience to shocks and so on. While there are a powerful set of actors with a major economic self-interest in promoting the sale of their agricultural inputs and technologies, the same is not true of agro-ecology. The only incentives for external actors to promote agroecology are social—reducing poverty and creating a more inhabitable planet.

So how can we spread awareness of agroecological farming among rural communities? What strategies can make these practices more effective, and how can we create incentives for using them, so that the territory for agroecological farming and local food economies is expanded?

Farmer-to-farmer and Community-to-Community – Nothing convinces farmers like showing them how they themselves can increase production on their own farms. Visiting farmers who have succeeded in the same conditions is a powerful motivator for them to learn as well. We have long employed these farmer-to-farmer strategies to reach a critical mass (30-40%) of innovative farmers in a community. Once such a critical mass is reached, successful practices tend to spread to others over time. The same strategy can be applied between communities. Cantave Jean-Baptiste notes that “we can also facilitate communities to visit and learn from each other, and to develop plans for action together.”

Capacity Strengthening – Managing, sustaining and further scaling these farming methods inescapably requires strong local organizations and networks of rural people. For NGOs, this implies some combination of working with existing community based organizations and strengthening their capacities for self-management. While NGOs often get stuck in a cycle of delivering services, some have developed strategies for strengthening the capacity of community-based organizations. In Haiti, Partenariat pour le Développement Local (PDL) has created a highly effective approach to strengthening local peasant organizations (which typically group 15-30 villages). The foundation of these inter-village associations are gwoupman, solidarity groups of 8-15 people who work, learn and apply agro-ecological practices together, pool savings for loan funds, and create and manage both seeds banks and tools banks. Representatives are elected from the gwoupman to form committees that coordinate activities within and across communities. This allows them to take on challenges individual farmers can’t manage on their own (e.g. controlling free-grazing animals) and increase their ability to access markets and advocate for health services and schools. In this way, PDL is strengthening the social infrastructure needed to scale sustainable farming and build local economies (they are currently working with 9 local peasant organizations representing over 148,000 people). Cantave Jean-Baptiste adds, “We are now working to create networks of these local peasant organizations so that they can work together and support each other. As an NGO, we need to facilitate communities and local organizations to learn from each other, work together and lead their own process of development.”

Action-Learning networks:  In eastern Burkina Faso, isolated examples of successful agroecological approaches exist, even under the very difficult Sahelian conditions that are currently being exacerbated by growing population pressure. But the spread of these “islands of success” through a wider adoption of agroecological practices is constrained by a lack of sharing and coordination among the local NGOs and community-based organizations responsible for the work. And there is no significant effort by the government or major donors to promote, invest in or spread these alternatives. In response, a new network of local organizations is emerging in the region to facilitate the sharing of knowledge of successful strategies and define action plans to replicate them.

Peter Gubbels believes that “we should invest strongly in farmer to farmer and community to community learning and exchange, particularly within agro-ecological zones where the climatic conditions, crops and farming systems are similar. Without practical examples of how successful agro-ecological methods can be taken to a much wider scale, it will be difficult to make a compelling case to other NGOs, the Ghanaian public and policy makers that this is a viable alternative to the industrial, export-oriented, Green Revolution approach to agriculture.”

– Part 5 will be posted on May 24.

This segment and the rest of the article was a collaborative effort by Steve Brescia (Groundswell’s International Director), Fatou Batta (Groundswell Co-Coordinator for West Africa), Peter Gubbels (Groundswell Co-Coordinator for West Africa), Cantave Jean-Baptiste (Executive Director of Partnership for Local Development), Steve Sherwood (Specialist in Rural Innovation at EkoRural), and Bern Guri (Director of the Center for Indigenous Knowledge and Organizational Development).

Later this year the full text of the article will appear in a book titled “Food Movements Unite!”, which is a collection of essays by food movement leaders from around the world that all seek to answer the perennial political question: What is to be done? It will provide a sector by sector road map for bringing the tremendous transformative potential of the world’s food movements together into a powerful transnational force capable of ending the injustices that cause hunger. “Food Movements Unite!” is being edited by Eric Holt-Giménez, Executive Director of The Institute for Food and Development Policy/Food First, and Annie Shattuck, a PhD candidate at the University of California at Berkeley.

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