NEWS: Highlighting ALC Co-director Ernesto Méndez on multiple panels
ALC Co-director Ernesto Méndez has participated on three virtual events in the past month, one based out of the University of Vermont as well as two hosted by other institutions. See below for ways to access recorded versions. We are grateful for the opportunity to join in on important conversations, about food systems, agroecology and climate change, which are being held during such a critical time.
On October 7, Ernesto Méndez joined five experts in agroecology in giving ‘lightning talks’ on their interpretation of the evolution of agroecology as a practice, research discipline, and social movement. Recording coming here soon.
On October 8, Ernesto Méndez interviewed author Jonathan Safran Foer about his book, We are the Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast, and work surrounding climate change. The event was heavily attended.
On September 18, Méndez joined four other experts in the field to discuss redistributive policy tools towards the “5D of Redistribution”: Decolonization, Decarbonization, Diversification, Democratization, and Decommodification. Watch the recording here.
When we imagine the Andes, we see majestic peaks and a vibrant texture of landscapes and cultures. Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru are the three countries where the projects of the Collaborative Crop Research Program (CCRP), funded by the McKnight Foundation, work together as a community of practice (CoP). The CoP is formed by local NGOs, research centers and other associations, which directly work with smallholder farmers. Central to the activities of the Andes CoP is to support producers who wish to orient their farms towards agroecology, conserving soil health, enhancing agricultural biodiversity and integrating different knowledge systems, including indigenous knowledge and western scientific methods.
Every year, in an invigorating atmosphere of friendship and collaboration, the Andes CoP gathers in one of the three countries to exchange insights and discuss new and lifelong questions that kindle the research of the CoP across farms and communities. This year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the 16th conference of Andes CoP took place online. Yasmin Jalil and Sergio Larrea aptly organized the online system, supported by the CoP organising committee and the regional team composed by Claire Nicklin, Roberto Ugas and Carlos Barahona. Yasmin and Sergio facilitated the conference, and the animated and keen group, was able to instill life to two weeks of high-quality content. This included seminars, thematic groups, open spaces for discussion and planning, presentations of advances in GIS mapping, as well as a new session dedicated to agroecology fellows.
Agroecology is at the core of the CCRP program’s commitment to support an ecologically sound and socially just transition of the Andean food system. The CCRP’s interest is particularly directed to collaborative agroecological research and knowledge-sharing, aimed at strengthening the capacities of farmer groups, research institutions and development organizations. The Agroecology Support Team (AES) includes Ernesto Méndez, Gabriela Bucini and Nils McCune, of the Agroecology and Livelihoods Collaborative (ALC), at the University of Vermont (UVM). AES seeks to deepen the agroecological knowledge of the program participants and assists in research and co-learning that supports a transition towards agroecological systems.
Ernesto, Nils and Gabriela participated at the Andes CoP16 and facilitated a dialogue around agroecological transitions. The two sessions entitled “Reflexión sobre Agroecología en Los Andes” (Reflection on the agroecology in the Andes) provided fertile ground to collectively reflect on the current state and visions for the future of agroecology in the region. The AES team proposed questions for nine working groups aimed at bringing collective awareness around the values and principles that guide their work with Andean producers, and which are vital to create strength and cohesion in the agroecological journeys of the local communities.
Agroecological Visions for the Andean regions
What does it mean to be in an agroecological transition? Where are we starting and where do we wish to go? What principles guide us in the journey? The work of answering these questions and envisioning actions to start or to continue the agroecological transition were grounded in the CoP wisdom and experience. To catalyze the dialogue, Ernesto gave a presentation on agroecological principles and showed concrete examples of principles-based transitions in two farming systems of Vermont, U.S.A, where the ALC is located. His presentation encouraged the participants to note that agroecological principles have the depth to support real change and the width to reach different contexts and cultures in the world. These principles can hold meanings that overlap with indigenous principles, such as those of the Andean cosmovision, and can therefore be held together.
The visions for the regions of the Bolivia central plateau, the central zone of Peru and the central zone of Ecuador were shared in a plenary session. The themes spanned across the three dimensions of agroecology – science, practice and movement – with strong emphasis on the social, cultural, political and economic dimensions. Technical skills are important but need to be built within a participatory and sincere exchange of knowledge between indigenous farmers and technicians. The CoP visions wish to enhance the inclusion and legitimization of indigenous knowledge in the farming practices and in the schools, in order to strengthen the presence of local farmer organizations in the governance, to continue to work on women’s empowerment, equity and food sovereignty. Markets for agroecological and autonomous products and conscious consumers supported by short market chains are important for the future of farming in the regions. The visions call for responsible policies that account for the interests of local farmers, instead of supporting capitalistic and extractive farming and mining practices.
Agroecological components, such as agricultural biodiversity, seed conservation, ecological pest management, water conservation/management, soil health, risk management for climate change, and healthy nutrition are all part of the visions for agroecology in the Andes. The challenges of COVID-19 add a need for the health of the people with whom we interact. “Agroecology is a concept in construction at the scale of the individual, the family, the community and the territory”, said one participant. Another participant noted that “agroecology is a trajectory that is made on the base of principles but also on the base of the analysis of opportunities and threats in the current conjuncture.” When we look at the principles that will orient the journeys of the CoP, we find them in the integration of different knowledge systems and in particular the Andean cosmovision, which recognizes the connection of natural and human systems. The CoP emphasizes participatory and horizontal learning approaches based on trust, solidarity, respect, humility, cooperation, equity and inclusion at all levels. The collective action and complementarity of efforts that leverage the capacities and values of people can lead to a transformation not only of single individuals but also of families, farms, communities and ultimately, of food systems. Sovereignty is essential, the CoP recognizes, in the three dimensions: in the resources, the food and the individual choices.
What is missing for agroecology to be strong in these territories? Technical skills are necessary to improve research quality, but they need to also be supported by an agroecological approach that influences political economies, and more explicitly, national, regional and local policy. The principles of participation, co-learning and humility transform research by creating relationships of trust that empower all participants to work for change. A key challenge identified was the connection with consumers, both in rural and urban contexts. For a new agriculture based on indigenous and agroecological principles to thrive, it is necessary to educate and direct consumers towards healthy diets and a preference for traditional/local food ingredients. Influenced by consumers, markets can then also more directly support agroecological food systems. Another challenge is keeping local knowledge alive by integrating scientific and technical knowledge with indigenous knowledge, viewing them both on an equal basis. This process can start in schools where the new generations can be encouraged to apply local knowledge. Technology poses a more general challenge, according to some people in the CoP, which poses questions on who brings the technologies and how to make sure that it is appropriate for the local environment and culture.
Noches de cultura and a closing of a beautiful story
On Friday night, it was time to take out the musical instruments and warm up the voice. All are welcome to share their talents …both modest efforts, as well as the more experienced! The CoP Andes has wonderful musicians! The charango and the guitarra accompanied voices and brought many smiles through computer screens. Music and song bring people together in a special way and makes us feel close.
We close with a personal story illustrating the relationships that support the co-creation of agroecological knowledge, shared by Juan Torres from the project “Semillas y Escuelas” (“Seeds and Schools”). He often visits producers of his project and works with them in the fields. He shares his knowledge and learns from them. During a visit, he asked a producer what he wished. The producer said: “You always come to the field and get to know our environment and how we work. I’d like to come to where you work once and see how you learn and you work”. This led to an arrangement for the producer to go visit the campus of the Universidad Nacional Agraria La Molina in Lima, Peru. The producer enjoyed visiting the big library and the building where Juan works. A simple visit opened a new vision of science and generated more equity in the relationship. This story reminds us that an individual’s professional positionality and experience can become a place of learning and discovery for others, if we are open to listen and share. Equal interest in the technician/academic and the producer to share their knowledge can open new horizons and strengthen relationships for expanded learning.
En la Vivacidad de la 16ª Reunión Anual de la Comunidad de Práctica de los Andes
Cuando imaginamos los Andes, vemos majestuosas montañas y una textura vibrante de paisajes y culturas. Bolivia, Ecuador y Perú son los tres países en los cuales los proyectos del Programa Colaborativeo para la Investigación en Cultivos (CCRP, por sus siglas en Inglés), financiado por la Fundación McKnight, trabajan juntos como una Comunidad de Práctica (CdP). La CdP está formada por ONG locales, centros de investigación y otras asociaciones, que trabajan directamente con los pequeños agricultores. Un aspecto central de las actividades de la CdP de los Andes, es el apoyo a los productores que desean orientar sus granjas hacia la agroecología, conservando la salud del suelo, mejorando la biodiversidad agrícola y la integración de los diferentes sistemas de conocimiento, incluyendo conocimientos indígenas y los métodos científicos occidentales.
Cada año, en una atmósfera vigorizante de amistad y colaboración, la CdP de los Andes se reúne en uno de los tres países para intercambiar ideas y discutir nuevas ideas y cuestiones que persisten, y las cuales catalizan la investigación de la CdP en las granjas y comunidades. Este año, debido a la pandemia de COVID-19, la 16ª conferencia de la CdP de los Andes ocurrió en línea. Yasmin Jalil y Sergio Larrea, organizaron acertadamente el sistema en línea, con el apoyo del comité organizador de la CdP y el equipo regional compuesto por Claire Nicklin, Roberto Ugas y Carlos Barahona. Yasmin y Sergio facilitaron la conferencia, y el animado y entusiasta grupo, pudo dar vida a dos semanas de seminarios de alta calidad, grupos temáticos, espacios abiertos para el debate y la planificación, presentaciones de los avances en la cartografía con SIG, así como una nueva sesión dedicada a los becarios de agroecología.
La agroecología es la base del compromiso del programa de la CCRP de apoyar una transición en el sistema alimentario andino, de manera ecológica y socialmente justa. El interés de la CCPR está dirigido en particular a la investigación agroecológica en colaboración y al intercambio de conocimientos, con el fin de fortalecer la capacidad de los grupos de agricultores,y a las instituciones de investigación y organizaciones de desarrollo. El Equipo de Apoyo en Agroecología (AES, por sus siglas en Inglés), integrado por Ernesto Méndez, Gabriela Bucini y Nils McCune, del Colaborativo y Medios de Vida (ALC, por sus siglas en Inglés), de la Universidad de Vermont (UVM), busca profundizar los conocimientos agroecológicos de los participantes en el programa y prestar asistencia en la investigación y el aprendizaje conjunto que apoye a la transición hacia sistemas agroecológicos.
Ernesto, Nils y Gabriela participaron en la CdP16 de los Andes y facilitaron un diálogo en torno a las transiciones y transformaciones agroecológicas. Las dos sesiones tituladas “Reflexión sobre Agroecología en Los Andes” proporcionaron un terreno fértil para reflexionar colectivamente sobre el estado actual y las visiones para el futuro de la agroecología en la región. El equipo AES propuso preguntas para nueve grupos de trabajo con el fin de crear una conciencia colectiva en torno a los valores y principios que guían su trabajo con los productores andinos, y que son vitales para crear fuerza y cohesión en los recorridos agroecológicos de las comunidades locales.
Visiones agroecológicas para las regiones andinas
¿Qué significa estar en una transición agroecológica? ¿Dónde estamos empezando y a dónde queremos ir? ¿Qué principios nos guían en el viaje? La labor de responder a estas preguntas y prever medidas para iniciar o continuar la transición agroecológica se basó en la sabiduría y la experiencia de la CdP. Para catalizar el diálogo, Ernesto hizo una presentación sobre los principios agroecológicos y mostró ejemplos concretos de transiciones basadas en principios en dos sistemas agrícolas de Vermont, Estados Unidos, donde se ubica el ALC. Su exposición alentó a los participantes a observar que los principios agroecológicos tienen la profundidad necesaria para apoyar un cambio real y la amplitud necesaria para llegar a diferentes contextos y culturas del mundo. Estos principios pueden tener significados que se alinean con los principios indígenas, como los de la cosmovisión andina, y por lo tanto pueden mantenerse unidos.
Las visiones para las regiones del altiplano central de Bolivia, la zona central del Perú y la zona central del Ecuador se compartieron en una sesión plenaria. Los temas abarcaron las tres dimensiones de la agroecología -ciencia, práctica y movimiento- con un fuerte énfasis en las dimensiones sociales, culturales, políticas y económicas. Los conocimientos técnicos son importantes, pero es necesario crearlos en el marco de un intercambio participativo y sincero de conocimientos entre los agricultores y técnicos indígenas. Las visiones de la CdP desean mejorar la inclusión y la legitimación de los conocimientos indígenas en las prácticas agrícolas y en las escuelas, fortalecer la presencia de las organizaciones locales de agricultores en la gobernanza y seguir trabajando en el empoderamiento de la mujer, la equidad y la soberanía alimentaria. Los mercados de productos agroecológicos y autónomos y los consumidores conscientes apoyados por cadenas de mercado cortas son importantes para el futuro de la agricultura en las regiones. Las visiones exigen políticas responsables que tengan en cuenta los intereses de los agricultores locales, en lugar de apoyar las prácticas agrícolas y mineras capitalistas y extractivas.
Los componentes agroecológicos, tales como la biodiversidad agrícola, la conservación de semillas, el manejo ecológico de plagas, la conservación/gestión del agua, la salud del suelo, la gestión de los riesgos del cambio climático y la nutrición saludable forman parte de las visiones de la agroecología en los Andes. Los desafíos de COVID-19 añaden una necesidad de cara a la salud de las personas con las que interactuamos. “La agroecología es un concepto en construcción a escala del individuo, la familia, la comunidad y el territorio”, dijo un participante. Otro participante señaló que “la agroecología es una trayectoria que se realiza sobre la base de principios, pero también sobre la base del análisis de oportunidades y amenazas en la coyuntura actual”. Cuando miramos los principios que orientarán los recorridos de la CdP, los encontramos en la integración de diferentes sistemas de conocimiento y en particular la cosmovisión andina, la cual reconoce la conexión de los sistemas naturales y humanos. La CdP hace hincapié en los enfoques de aprendizaje participativos y horizontales basados en la confianza, la solidaridad, el respeto, la humildad, la cooperación, la equidad y la inclusión en todos los niveles. La acción colectiva y la complementariedad de los esfuerzos que aprovechan las capacidades y los valores de las personas pueden conducir a una transformación, no sólo de las personas individuales, sino también de las familias, las granjas, las comunidades y, en última instancia, de los sistemas alimentarios. La soberanía es esencial, según la CdP, en tres dimensiones: en los recursos, en los alimentos y en las opciones individuales.
¿Qué falta para que la agroecología sea fuerte en estos territorios? Los conocimientos técnicos son necesarios para mejorar la calidad de la investigación, pero también deben estar respaldados por un enfoque agroecológico que influya en las economías políticas y, más explícitamente, en la política nacional, regional y local. Los principios de participación, co-aprendizaje y humildad transforman la investigación al crear relaciones de confianza que facultan a todos los participantes para trabajar en pro del cambio. Un desafío clave identificado fue la conexión con los consumidores, tanto en contextos rurales como urbanos. Para que prospere una nueva agricultura basada en principios indígenas y agroecológicos, es necesario educar y orientar a los consumidores hacia dietas saludables y una preferencia por los ingredientes alimentarios tradicionales/locales. Influenciados por los consumidores, los mercados también pueden apoyar más directamente los sistemas alimentarios agroecológicos. Otro desafío es mantener vivos los conocimientos locales mediante la integración de los conocimientos científicos y técnicos con los conocimientos autóctonos, considerando a ambos en pie de igualdad. Este proceso puede comenzar en las escuelas, donde se puede alentar a las nuevas generaciones a aplicar los conocimientos locales. La tecnología plantea un desafío más general, según algunas personas de la CdP, que plantea cuestiones sobre quién aporta las tecnologías y cómo asegurarse de que son apropiadas para el medio ambiente y las culturas locales.
Noches de cultura y una hermosa historia final
El viernes por la noche, era el momento de sacar los instrumentos musicales y calentar la voz. Todos son bienvenidos y bienvenidas a compartir sus talentos… ¡Los principiantes y los más experimentados! ¡La CoP Andes tiene músicos maravillosos! El charango y la guitarra acompañaron a las voces y trajeron muchas sonrisas a través de las pantallas de las computadoras. La música y el canto unen a la gente de una manera especial y nos hace sentir cercanos.
Cerramos con una historia personal que ilustra las relaciones que apoyan la co-creación del conocimiento agroecológico, compartida por Juan Torres del proyecto “Semillas y Escuelas”. Él visita a menudo a los productores y trabaja con ellos en los campos. Comparte sus conocimientos y aprende de ellos. Durante una visita, preguntó a un productor qué deseaba. El productor dijo: “Siempre vienes al campo y conoces nuestro entorno y cómo trabajamos. Me gustaría venir a donde trabajas una vez y ver cómo aprendes y trabajas”. Así que arreglaron que el productor fuera a visitar el campus de la Universidad Nacional Agraria La Molina en Lima, Perú. El productor disfrutó visitando la gran biblioteca y el edificio donde trabaja Juan. Una simple visita abrió una nueva visión de la ciencia y generó más equidad en la relación. Esta historia nos recuerda que la posición profesional y la experiencia de un individuo puede convertirse en un lugar de aprendizaje y descubrimiento para otros, si estamos abiertos a escuchar y compartir. El mismo interés en que el técnico/académico y el productor compartan sus conocimientos puede abrir nuevos horizontes y fortalecer las relaciones para un aprendizaje más amplio.
Querencia as “love of home, love of place” is described by American author and founding father of Nuevomexicano Chicano literature, Rudolfo Anaya, in his foreword to Querencia: Reflections on a New Mexico Homeland (University of New Mexico Press). And it is this querencia for northern New Mexico- El Norte- that is inextricably tied to the land and how the practices of cultivation have defined both place and people. This querencia extends to the wisdom of Native and colonist antepasados whose Indo-Hispano heritage is rooted in La Madre Tierra, from the headwaters that serve the oldest acequia systems in the United States, to the adobe walls that envelop familia, to the parciantes on these acequias who collaborate to share water to grow for the needs of the community. It is these food traditions that have assured food security in northern New Mexico for centuries. Continued colonization and development of irrigable land move away from these practices and threaten the livelihood of these agroecological systems.
“…from centuries past to present, the wisdom of the ancestors alive, and I listening.”- R. Anaya
The villages of northern New Mexico (El Norte) are home to the descendants of prehistoric Native Pueblo and Spanish colonist peoples who established communities along the headwaters and streams flowing into the Rio Grande in an otherwise arid land. Access to these waters, joined with indigenous wisdom and colonist understanding created that which is sacred and has fostered ceremony, community and familia. Seasonal and companion planting, such as the Three Sisters being squash, corn, and climbing beans; the use of the alkaline in soil to preserve dried maiz concho (corn) so it would be available in the winter for posolé and frijole con chico, that would be part of many family meals. Still today, though threatened by the affliction of greed, the food systems in El Norte cultivate an earnest respeto y permiso (with respect and permission) for the land and people.
In a conversation with old-timers in northern New Mexico a rancher who was 86 in 2005 told me that the land degradation didn’t start “until the fences came in with the Forest Service.” He reflected on the days when livestock were rotated to new locations each season to keep the underbrush and risk for overgrazing down. He noted that the rotation of livestock was in its own way, fire management. It was also the rotation of vegetation crops that maintained the quality of the otherwise sandy loam soil. Communities planned their crops and exchanged their harvests that supported a more balanced diet. Once I was referred to derogatorily by an employer as a beaner, referencing my Chicana heritage. It was shortly after that when the Food and Drug Administration revised the Food Pyramid, placing legumes at the top. Proudly I can note that the people of El Norte, and many other indigenous communities, have known what is healthy for them.
Community, by nature, is self-defined, fluid in the outcome of shared values with each generation contributing to its ongoing identity. The communities of El Norte have long been formed by those who share a mutual respect for the relationship between water and land, sharing in the identity of El Norte. It is here in El Norte, where nature is a sacred member of the community, where seeds are family, and where days for planting and harvest are aligned with those of patron saints and phases of the moon. The food traditions of El Norte were born from the wisdo
m of the ancestors establishing an unwrote discipline that has been practiced for centuries. Greed, contemporary and historic, has often challenged the balance of life in this area. It has been in revisiting the folkore of our ancestors, and alignment with natures systems, where we have often found solutions to our modern-day conflicts.
“…we learned a deep, enduring love for the sacredness of the earth, for the unity of life, a harmony that brings peace and happiness. Querencia means vecinos.” -R. Anaya
Nature as a sacred community member is ever evolving and adapting to the influences of its vecinos. From the headwaters that are driven to nourish the fields, orchards and livestock, agua es vida – life wants to live. Nature’s course is to nourish, and traditional farming methods were seemingly aware of this fact. It is in El Norte where querencia is born of indigenous knowing and cultivated in a manner that cannot be disputed, and are supported by science. It is in these local practices where a sense of place and identity are formed and shared with our vecinos. When we are in disharmony, nature will seek to create balance. To live as a parciante on an acequia means to abide by a system that seeks to assure that all vecinos are served equally. When we contest natural laws, nature will hold its course and time will reveal the victor. When discord disrupts balance, our sense of unity and harmony is compromised. The lessons of our ancestors teach us to work with and respect natural systems and hold natural laws as sacred.
It has been said that the remains of ancestors that billow when the wind picks up the land. It is this land where seeds are planted and provide nourishment as they have for the ancestors and will for future generations. For farmers whose use of the land has become tradition, and the tradition is to produce food, the connection becomes integral to identity – if “for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return” then there is profound meaning in connection to the land. In El Norte there are communities whose identities are based on the connections to the land and the ancestors who billow in the seasonal winds. It is not uncommon that seeds are identified by a family name and referenced by the grandmother who acquired it for a family or community.
As the local communities have transitioned from the barter to the cash economy, the local food system has become a complex dynamic of access, economics, tradition, and identity.
Our sense of place, with unique geographic elements, customs, practices and people, conforms only to the natural environment that surrounds it. In historic communities with pre-historic roots, such as in El Norte, the foods are unique to place. Some foods have been derived from indigenous tradition and others have been adapted from European influence to accommodate ingredients available to the area. It is here where the influences of the natural environment on food culture contribute to both personal and community identity. Shared experience contributes to community identity, and sense of place contributes to how we see ourselves in our community. External influences on the traditional people of El Norte have only in the last century had a profound influence on the economics and perception of wealth, as well as the desire for convenience. Labor on the land is less desirable when comfort and convenience can be purchased. Community food traditions are threatened by imported food commodities and systems and the threat to community health prevails. As our traditional community food systems are challenged, so is identity. Knowledge of oneself and sense of community is necessary for mental and spiritual health, and when nature is part of our community, our physical health is a benefactor. The messages of our ancestors remain constant and the traditions contribute to the livelihood of the lands and its peoples.
ALC member featured in Seven Days article on VT mutual aid
ALC graduate student, Sam Bliss, has been working tirelessly with Food Not Bombs for years. Their work, and that of many other VT organizations, are featured in this Seven Days article, highlighting their efforts since the onset of the COVID pandemic.
Member interview: Nils McCune on peasant balances, Hurricane Maria, the power of popular movement building and beyond
Nils McCune, a research fellow at El Colegio de la Frontera Sur (ECOSUR) in Mexico, is the newest member of the Agroecology and Livelihoods Collaborative. To welcome him to our community of practice, ALC graduate student Sam Bliss interviews him here about an article he got published a year ago in the journal Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems.
This research is about Puerto Rican coffee farmers’ responses to the crisis triggered by Hurricanes Irma and Maria. It continues a recent theme on the ALC blog: in February, Sam interviewed ALC grad student Tatiana Gladikh about her research on Puerto Rican coffee farmers’ participation in government conservation programs; and in March, ALC grad student Luis Alexis Rodríguez-Cruz wrote about how the Covid-19 pandemic impacts food sovereignty in Puerto Rico. Both argued that current policy stands in the way of making the island’s agri-food food systems more just, ecological, and resilient. In what follows, Nils talks about how Puerto Rican peasant farmers are already coming together to construct sovereign food systems, from the understanding that people must build power collectively to make change for the better because those in positions of power will not.
Nils McCune: Every day we make decisions about how to use our time and energy. These decisions involve combining different kinds of values, as well as considerations of the present and the future. A good example is the way the quarantine is hitting those people who are able to work from home, in the presence of their family or in their community, and who must balance an economy of care with a needed level of income. How important is it that I play with a child instead of letting him look at a screen all day? Can I balance that needed playtime with getting my salaried work done? Are there certain key tasks that, once completed, let me then switch the use of my time and energy and just focus on taking care of my family or my community? These are ways that all people make sense of the different systems of values that make up our social and cultural reality. We learn to strike many invisible balances, and we sometimes drop the balance for periods of time, in order to focus on one particular need– like writing a thesis–, but eventually we must find the balance again, before our hair falls out and we go mad.
In the early years of the Soviet Revolution, there was an enormous debate about how to end poverty and hunger in Russia. Socialism was supposedly based on an industrial model, but Russia was a country of poor peasants and rich landlords. So the question was how to carry out a land reform that could guarantee food production, but also develop a social consciousness, a revolutionary sense of social responsibility. At the time — like today — many thought that peasants represented inefficiency, backwardness, poverty, and ignorance. However, a prominent agricultural economist, Alexander Chayanov, noticed that peasants were in fact operating a sophisticated system of labor-based, non-market economies. Today we might call them circular, sustainable economies. A peasant family worked extremely hard until it had guaranteed that everyone would have enough to eat, and then it stopped working and began holding cultural activities, harvest festivals, or simply resting. Chayanov called this the consumer-drudgery balance.
Rather than a capitalist economy, where profit-maximizing is the goal, the peasant economy is built upon balances that ensure health, promote local traditions and provide for future well-being. What makes it all unique is the fact that peasants are able to build this autonomy even while being pushed on all sides by capitalist relations — labor markets, land sales, commercial seeds, fertilizer and pesticide marketing schemes, credit programs, commodity prices, migration, and so on. Peasant balances are the duck-and-weave, the dance of long-term survival on the land, despite living within a predatory economic system. As such, building peasant balances means carving out non-capitalist spaces even while surrounded by a global capitalist system.
SB: Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico right in the middle of your interviews with farmers, organization representatives, and government officials. How did that change your initial research questions and plans?
NM: Well, it immediately introduced serious ethical implications to my work. Absolutely everyone I had met in Puerto Rico was thrown into a very serious disaster situation: damaged houses, roads and farms, tangled electrical wires everywhere, many communities cut off from towns. In Utuado, where our project was based, people were walking for hours in order to drink water from the rivers.
We all know that the roots of the crisis are in the colonial relationship that the United States has with Borikén (colonially known as Puerto Rico). That relationship, plus the deindustrialization of the US and the rules of the global financial system created a fictitious debt crisis, i.e. the people of Puerto Rico “owe” much, much more than they ever borrowed or received. Before the Hurricanes Irma and Maria hit, there was already a very complex pseudo bankruptcy taking place that included the installation of a foreign economic council (“la Junta”) with the capacity to override Puerto Rican law in order to cut public services, in line with neoliberal theory that attacking the public sector would be the way for Puerto Rico to pay the Wall Street hedge funds that currently hold its debt. A preposterous arrangement, because the debt is unpayable even if every last public service were cancelled on the island, even if they privatized all schools, hospitals, roads, electricity, water, firefighters, and every other government institution. Plus privatizing services make it more difficult for Puerto Rico to have a functional economy capable of servicing debt payments. And remember that the hedge funds purchased that debt for fractions of a cent on the dollar, so they would be reaping profits of up to 10,000% if somehow the Puerto Rican people did pay the full official amount of the debt.
So before the terrifying destructive power of Maria, there was already an extreme case of disaster capitalism, with debt vultures circling over the heads of the Puerto Rican people. There was already an ethical situation of how I, with a salary coming from the United States, could responsibly carry out a research project in a situation where such a huge economic crime is taking place. With the scale of the catastrophe created by Maria, I had a very difficult time figuring out how to ethically participate in the research project. There was an academic rush on Puerto Rico in that context– disasters make for good science — and I felt very torn about taking data from farmers who were facing enormous material losses, depression issues, and sometimes personal tragedy. I tried to be congruent with my values, spending time with farmers, bringing them tiny solar-powered lamps (which would appear for a couple days at a time in local stores), and checking in constantly with Organización Boricuá, the Via Campesina member organization, to hear their perspective on the local situation and my work. In the end, everything I have published on Puerto Rico has been with the co-authorship of Boricuá members.
I also worked with Organización Boricuá on a month-long reconstruction brigade, which was a phenomenal experience. In a group of 20 to 30 people from several countries, popular organizations and cultural traditions — but spearheaded by the Black Dirt Farm Collective of African-American small farmers and peasants — we traveled from farm to farm, from Toa Alta to Vieques, spending two to four days in each place, sleeping in tents and doing construction work during the day, along with a lot of political and cultural activities. To me, there is a very interesting dialectic there. We’re dealing with a situation that obviously requires structural change, but rather than wringing our hands on the sidelines, or taking a “neutral”, academic, data extractivist approach, we participated in mutual aid brigades. These work brigades are not self-care; they are physically tough, transformative, collective experiences that dramatically change the situation for farmers. A farmer who has spend two months just looking at their destroyed farm– uprooted trees, broken sheds, twisted greenhouses– and all of a sudden a group of 20 people comes over with a bunch of power tools and celebrates a work party with them: rebuilds the shed, rebuilds the greenhouse, rebuilds the terraces, pulls the weeds, chops the broken trees into firewood, and plants the fields. By the time the brigade leaves, the farmer and the brigade are family. It is magical and possible at the same time; I think that the work brigade model is how we need to move forward with agroecology in every country, making adjustments as we go and respecting the fact that a Boricuá volunteer work brigade on the Isla del Encanto is a tough act to follow.
SB: You and your coauthors write that agroecological brigades traveled the countryside after Hurricane Maria helping what you call “unconventional” farmers repair infrastructure and restore their fields. How did these roaming collective work parties come together?
NM: They came together thanks to the excellent organizing work of several key people. Let me take a step back. Across the world, there is a tradition of people farming together. Enslavement-based plantation agriculture, then modernized agriculture, global free trade, the Green Revolution, consumerism, neoliberal politics, all of it is about breaking with these traditions to pursue an individualist, utilitarian myth of upward mobility, the nuclear family, living through our commodities. The Organización Boricuá de Agricultura Ecológica was formed in the late 1980s by independence activists who realized that without food sovereignty, Puerto Rican independence was an illusion. So they went up into the mountains and taught each other to farm. And Boricuá was founded through just this kind of work brigade. The model became important again in the economic crisis that has taken hold since 2014, and then even more so after the hurricanes of 2017. On the day after Hurricane Maria, there were already Boricuá brigades plowing and planting fields of Boricuá member farmers, in preparation for the food crisis that was about to begin. Sit on that for a second.
As the Puerto Rican social movements have continuously improved this model of work brigades– in the cities but especially in the countryside– organizations from many countries have taken notice. So immediately after the hurricanes, several organizations, led by Organización Boricuá, Black Dirt Farm Collective and the Climate Justice Alliance, along with allies such as WhyHunger and others, organized international brigades in addition to the permanent local brigades.
SB: Why didn’t conventional farmers draw on their communities to rebuild?
NM: There is a labor scarcity in Puerto Rican agriculture, parallel in some ways to how US agriculture has been impacted by the Covid-19 crisis. Simply put, farm prices do not allow farmers to pay decent salaries, because cheap, subsidized food floods Puerto Rican supermarkets. So, using a conventional economic farming model, nearly all farmers in Puerto Rico are losing money. It is only when farmers creatively use peasant balances, combining their own labor and know-how with solidarity networks, reducing external inputs and developing a relative autonomy from the market, that farming becomes a viable life activity. Many farmers are figuring this out, but like agriculture around the world, there is a major generation gap that separates elderly farmers from the youthful energy of the agroecological movement. Some young people really understand this problem and are making a strong effort to engage with non-agroecological farmers, basically in order to save Puerto Rican agriculture from the collapse of the conventional model. But Coca-Cola and Monsanto-Bayer are also major players in Puerto Rico; both own and rent a lot of farmland, and control markets, so there are big stakes. The big corporations in Puerto Rico basically play the same role that drug cartels play in Mexico, Colombia and several other countries: they monopolize and militarize when small-scale agriculture gets stuck in market economies where it is meant to lose.
SB: What does the experience of small farmers rebuilding after these recent hurricanes have to teach us about how to respond to and recover from the current crisis, the Covid-19 pandemic?
NM: Look, for quite some time now, it has been clear to the world’s decision makers that globalized food systems are totally unsustainable and have high vulnerability built into them. Since at least the food price crisis of 2007-08, governments, corporations, and international bodies such as FAO have known that food sovereignty– the right of people to control and defend their own farming, grazing, fishing and food systems using agroecological principles– is the only responsible way to move away from climate catastrophe and toward resilient food systems. But here is the lesson: the world’s leaders are not going to do anything about it. They will absolutely lead us off the climate cliff, with starvation, war, mass migration, and a lot of fascism to come.
Only the people will solve this. And if we can’t produce our own food, we will not be able to survive the coming storm. What I mean is that right now — not after the November elections, not after they find a vaccine for the novel coronavirus, not after the next crisis, not after Rapture — right now, we can build food sovereignty by practicing agroecology and continuously pushing for justice in every walk of society, from the prison-industrial complex to the heroin epidemic to homelessness, from the banking system and the blatant racism of the Republican party to the unwavering imperialist foreign policy of both major parties. If we are not building a robust popular movement that reflects our values, we’re not being responsible to ourselves, much less the planet and those who will inherit what we leave behind. So our day-to-day can reflect that understanding, and a lot of humble efforts to build on one another’s ideas and actions can add up to big change.
SB: So, for peasants, labor isn’t so much a cost to be minimized but a resource for sustaining livelihoods and agroecosystems. What would a food system, or an economy, look like if we all viewed labor that way?
NM: That’s right, peasants do not necessarily subscribe to the Western dualist thought that separates work from everything else we do and turns our labor into a necessary evil in our lives. It is true that work is a part of life and sometimes we have to do things that are difficult. Just hang out with a peasant for a few hours and you will be marveled by what they can do. It’s true what they say: the real genius is in the working class. In the city or the countryside.
If we conceive of our life energy as something that can contribute to building the world we want to see, and we look for people who are doing things we want to support, then work becomes demystified and we find a tremendous amount of meaning in the many difficult things we do. That goes for spending time with elders, taking care of people’s children, planting, harvesting, building, fixing, healing. We call it movement time, movement labor. Not a new concept. There have always been people who dedicate their time to make sure others have the time to contribute to the social struggle. The key is to be part of a coherent whole that corresponds and reciprocates. Hard to find. But worth the journey.
A blog reflecting on the COVID-19 pandemic by
ALC Educational Coordinator Vic Izzo
Since the “Stay home, Stay safe” order was initiated here in
Vermont, I have had the pleasure of spending each morning (and often evening)
exploring the wonders of nature with my two year-old son. Our journeys are
often a mixed bag. Some days we head out to a lesser-known hiking trail to
learn about trees, while others days you might find us inspecting the entrances
of ant nests poking out from the cracks in our driveway. Though these nature
observations are fun and educational, my son’s most enjoyable outdoor
excursions are our visits to our local community garden plots. Now don’t be
presumptuous about my son’s predilection for gardening… While he does enjoy
helping his dad turn soil, plant seeds, and water our thirsty seedlings, the
real reason he begs for “garden time” is the resident woodchip, soil, and
gravel “mountains” that he gets to climb unsupervised. With each successful
ascent of these “mountains” he raises his arms in the air and begs for my
adoration. These literal small victories are undeniably adorable; but more
importantly, they have been a healthy reminder for me to appreciate those
things around me…to smell the woodchips. To be honest, I barely noticed the
many piles of sorted materials until my budding mountaineer scoped them out. I
knew the piles were there but I never really acknowledged them or appreciated
their significance. They are generally not on my radar and I’m not a two year
I recently had a similar revelatory experience during an
intriguing ALC workshop led by a colleague from the Rubenstein School of
Natural Resources, Dr. Matt Kolan. Matt is the director of the Leadership for
Sustainability Master’s Program (MLS) here at UVM. His work and teaching
uniquely examines leadership and education in a holistic and expansive way.
Students in the MSLS program actively engage in discussions and projects that
explore how power and privilege shape our educational and leadership
experiences. During his lecture, Matt pointed out that the dominant model of
higher education is built upon a process that selects for rapid and confident
responders and rewards those students with positive descriptors such as “fast
learner”, “quick processor”, or “confident speaker”. These designations are, of
course, quite familiar to me as they are the backbone of many of my best
recommendation letters. Never do I find myself writing that a student is a slow
learner, moderate processor, or quiet communicator.
As I sat and listened to Matt’s reimagining of the college
classroom, I found myself reliving some of my own undergraduate classroom
experiences. Vividly I remembered how I approached each class as a contestant
on Jeopardy, eagerly looking to prove my worth. From the moment I sat down in
class, I was in a race to respond to any question or comment before my
competitors could capture the instructor’s attention. In my mind, the entire
lecture process was an opportunity to quicken my intellectual skills. Yet, as
Matt and others within the workshop unpacked the pitfalls associated with
selecting for rapid responders, I suddenly began to see a giant woodchip pile
emerge from the periphery of my perspective. Similar to my son, Matt provided
me with a new lens, or more precisely, he expanded my view of the world around
me. He didn’t reveal anything necessarily complicated or new.Quite the
contrary, he simply pointed out a rather intuitive concept: reactionary
behavior is not always a beneficial trait.
Much the same way that our educational systems select for
rapid responding students, our businesses, organizations and governmental
agencies tend to seek out leaders that exhibit those same fast thinking and
quick responding traits. Never has this tendency or bias been more evident than
in the current COVID-19 reality. As the coronavirus pandemic has taken hold of
our social, political and economic consciousness, so has the thirst for quick
responses and reactionary policies. Daily news headlines and articles are chock
full of economic timelines, infection rates, and critical examinations of
decision making speed. From an academic perspective, I’ve seen no less than
three recent grant requests-for-proposals (RFPs) with the word “rapid” in the
title and an appropriately paired “rapid” submission deadline. Now, I
acknowledge that crises, especially those of this magnitude, often necessitate
quick decisions to avert catastrophe. However, it is important to acknowledge
that the speed of a decision is rarely directly correlated with a successful
outcome. As many of my fellow educators can attest, the rapid move to online
instruction in response to the coronavirus outbreak, though (likely) necessary,
may not have achieved the outcomes our organizations expected. Our communities
are asking, begging leaders in every facet of society to make decisions, give
us answers…now. And yet, when those quick decisions, predictions, and/or
responses fail, we become angry, disappointed and (ironically) are often left
at the trailhead of a longer road to resolution.
Witnessing and experiencing the pervasive pressure to make
quick decisive decisions in my home and work life has left me depressed,
frustrated, and introspective. It has also led me to more deeply consider the
revelations brought to light by both my son and colleague:
Perhaps it is time to pause.
Perhaps it is time to slow down some of our decision-making
Perhaps we need to call upon those “slow thinkers” to help
Perhaps there is a woodchip pile that we are not seeing that
can provide us with a better vantage point.
Perhaps we should all take some time to think a little more
like a two-year old.
Read Matt Kolan and Kaylynn Sullivan TwoTrees paper on the intersections of sustainability, diversity, privilege and power here.
to a 2018 publication from the European Coordination of La Via Campesina, food
sovereignty is a ‘concept in action’ that “…offers
itself as a process of building social movements and empowering peoples to
organise their societies in ways that transcend the neoliberal vision of a
world of commodities, markets and selfish economic actors. There is no
one-size-fits-all solution to the myriad of complex problems we face in today’s
world. Instead, Food Sovereignty is a process that adapts to the people and
places where it is put in practice. Food Sovereignty means solidarity, not
competition, and building a fairer world from the bottom up.”
So, there we were,
nearly 40 of us – gathered in the cabins and grounds of a summer camp, to
listen, learn, unlearn, and strategize. We came as farmers, activists, members
of coalitions, and representatives of front-line organizations, each trusting
that this was a critical step in our movement forward. Though neither of us was
officially there representing the ALC, both Nils and I were there – Nils as a delegate of LVC and I on behalf of the Agroecology
Research Action Collective. The
ambitious agenda of the week left less time for individual connections than
everyone hoped, but we covered a lot of ground, and uncovered/rediscovered a
lot of truths. Our food system is broken. It has been built on a base of
exploitation of land and peoples, and yet that narrative has been carefully and
intentionally covered up. Our work is to interrogate both our past and present,
to recognize where we are complicit and bravely face the discomfort of seeing
ourselves in what is wrong. Only then, and through building solidarity with
others, will we be able to achieve the transformation we seek. This blog from Agrarian Trust’s Megan Browning catches the
essence of the week, https://agrariantrust.org/news/globalize-the-struggle-globalize-hope/
of the closing observations of the event was that to make this transformation we
will need revolutionary discipline and revolutionary healing. So,
surround yourselves with good revolutionary people (even if only virtually),
and follow Adrienne Marie Brown’s advice that joy is a form of
resistance. Megan ends her post with a poem written by Efren Lopez, one of the
incredible youth participants representing the Community
Agroecology Network . I’ll
do the same – it deserves more than one reading.
the tools that those frogs spoke about by the fire ~efren lopez
cool pools form on victory missing the wet steps i took from my casita to the library it’s a foggy feeling, but the warmth from the pier by the pond it was part of the healing
the snap back raised my head chin up! this fight isn’t a bed back and calm and partially better only then did i realize the weather
one huge storm! from street to street from coast to coast from sea to sea from pole to pole one huge storm!
while our methods to bare might reappear invisibly i recall that other feeling that hasn’t fleeted explaining why we made the effort to come together in the first place
it really takes a heart for the land to understand that the resistance to the forces before us the ones who hate our guts calls us ruts deprives our dignity lack of pity
have no chance when the seeds we sow food we cultivate has our hands not pointed but loosely gripped to the tools that we made for each other passing them to one another
circling our collective battles we sit humbled their resiliency our resistance in joy! in joy!! in joy!!!
New project launch: ALC takes on new grant from the McKnight Foundation
The new cross-cutting Collaborative Crop Research Program (CCRP) grant – Agroecology Support to the CCRP, or AES, is in motion (as is its new official website!) The grant will be executed by a team from the University of Vermont’s Agroecology and Livelihoods Collaborative (ALC). The ALC, using its approach of transdisciplinary research and education and participatory agroecology, will work closely with teams from across the CCRP, and the three Communities of Practice (Andes, East & Southern Africa, West Africa), to deepen co-learning in agroecology, advance agroecological performance assessment and monitoring, coalesce support teams around agroecology, and engage diverse actors in a dialogue that advances agroecology globally. Read more about the team and their efforts here.
The COVID-19 Pandemic and Puerto Rico’s Food Sovereignty
By Luis Alexis Rodríguez-Cruz
(ALC member Luis Alexis Rodríguez-Cruz recently published this Op-Ed piece in the Puerto Rican publication “El Nuevo Día.” It highlights the importance of food sovereignty during this moment of global crisis. Below is his translation of the article into English, which can also be found here. The original version in Spanish can be found here.)
Puerto Rican farmers and fisherfolks, beyond safeguarding our natural and agricultural resources, are key agents in strengthening our food security. Sadly, they have not been taken into account during the emergency we are going through. The COVID-19 pandemic should increase our awareness of our vulnerable island food security, and drive us to actualize actions that have a positive impact on our food system.
The Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) of the United Nations highlights that food security is frail in island food systems. Given their small territories and economies, and higher exposure to extreme weather events, islands often do not have the resources needed to cope and recover quickly from impacts. Furthermore, their high dependence on imports is another obstacle towards achieving food security.
Puerto Rico imports around 85% of its food, and most of it is shipped from the port of Jacksonville in Florida. Moreover, the majority arrives at the port of San Juan. The escalation of the COVID-19 pandemic could heavily impact our supply chains. Thus, it is crucial that we have a strong local food system that can provide us a significant quantity of the food we need.
Before Hurricane Maria made landfall in 2017, our farmers and fisherfolks were seeing positive opportunities. Local production was increasing in a time of fiscal crisis. It was like we were slowly gaining awareness about the importance of food sovereignty. Puerto Rico, and its farmers and fisherfolks, need the power and control to produce the food that nourish us. Moreover, food sovereignty makes us aware of the political and power dynamics that govern our food systems. There cannot be food security without food sovereignty. We in Puerto Rico know very well what happened after Maria. Our food system is still recovering.
Farming in Puerto Rico is hard. Our farmers and fisherfolks, most of which are 50 or older, have to compete with cheap imports. They often do not have access to local markets, and the government does not facilitate them support to go through the bureaucracy the government itself imposes. Additionally, most of our farmers and fisherfolks are small-scale producers. They sell their products independently, through farmers’ markets, within their communities, and through small businesses. Though the curfew imposed by the governor of Puerto Rico does not apply to big producers, and wholesalers like supermarkets, it applies to street sellers, placeros, farmers’ markets, and other alternative venues. That negatively impacts farmers and fisherfolks.
The Secretary of Agriculture said this week that family markets will be canceled―an initiative that allow farmers to sell in municipal plazas to participants of the Nutritional Assistance Program―, and that he anticipates losses in local production. Furthermore, the media has reported improper police interventions with farmers (regarding the curfew), and with businesses important for farmers and fisherfolks’ to sell their products (e.g. restaurants). Yes, social distancing is crucial to decrease the spread of the coronavirus. But, did the governor took into account how the curfew would impact our farmers and fisherfolks? Was it considered how limiting local production would impact our food security, given our high dependence on imports?
As long as we continue to depend on supply chains that we cannot control due to the Jones Act and other federal and local measures, nor do we carry out policies that give political agency to our farmers and fisherfolks, our food system will not be prepared to feed us. We do not have the required food sovereignty to build a new food system that provide us the food security we deserve as islanders. If something the past disasters have taught us, through the political and bureaucratic pitfalls that our farmers and fisherfolks faced, is that we cannot reduce the vulnerability of our food system to a “production issue”. May this pandemic make us more aware of the importance of developing food sovereignty to feed ourselves.
VEPART featured on UNH Extension “Over-Informed on IPM” Podcast
The episode, called “PAR for Leek Moth” highlights our core team members, Vic Izzo (ALC Education Coordinator) and Scott Lewins (ALC Extension Coordinator), and their leek moth research project under the VEPART (Vermont Entomology and Participatory Action Research Team) umbrella. They detail issues the leek moth pest poses for farmers in the Northeast, control methods including Trichogramma wasps, the PAR (participatory action research) approach they take when working with farmers, and much more! Check it out here.