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.
One of the most important components of participatory action research (PAR) is the Action. Where it falls in the cycle varies: sometimes the action can emerge as a result after careful analysis of the data; or it can be a catalyst earlier in the process, centering the value proposition that both the researchers and community members should be receiving real benefit from the effort.
On a sunny Thursday morning in June, at the New Farms for New Americans (NFNA) farm near the Ethan Allen Homestead, Action rolled in. There it was, hitched to the back of a red pickup. To most eyes, it looked like a simple structure. A shed maybe? Or, as one farmer remarked walking by, “a break room?” But, as with most things, there is more to this structure than meets the eye.
For the past three years, Alisha Laramee, program specialist for NFNA, has been participating in the Urban and Peri-Urban Agroecology initiative with UVM’s Agroecology and Livelihoods Collaborative (ALC). We are currently in the second year of a USDA Hatch grant to explore the expression of agroecological principles in urban and peri-urban spaces in Burlington. Our partners include NFNA, the Vermont Community Garden Network, UVM’s Catamount Farm, and the Intervale Center. Alisha has been cautiously interested in this project but is also judicious with her time and energy. She gives all she has to the farm and farmers. When we have been able to fit into that equation, it’s been great. But Alisha has been a strong advocate for her priorities, and there isn’t a lot of room for theoretical conversations about whether or not what’s happening on the farm counts as agroecology.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, New Farms for New Americans (NFNA) is an agriculture program for refugees and immigrants based in Burlington, VT. NFNA supports farmers and gardeners to grow culturally significant crops, increase access to food, land, and agricultural resources, and learn about growing food in Vermont. They facilitate ongoing work with over 275 refugee clients from various countries in Africa and Asia. NFNA has sites in multiple locations, including the Ethan Allen Homestead (2.5 miles from downtown Burlington) and the Intervale (among others), representing mostly peri-urban contexts.
The Ethan Allen site is a secluded, peaceful spot along the Winooski River, with full sun and the rich alluvial soils that come from being in the flood plain. The drawbacks of this site include a high risk for floods and the fact that it is difficult to access without your own transportation. Early on, Alisha mentioned the problems they faced with flooding, pointing out the eroding riverbank, asking if buffer strips or hedgerows might be effective adaptations to consider. As conversations continued, we worked to align what Alisha was identifying as needs with the dimensions of agroecology as defined through the CIDSE principles, and discussed two priorities: the first was improving pollinator presence (an environmental consideration), and the second was the need for a shade/supply area to encourage gathering and sharing tools/knowledge (socio-cultural consideration).
Partnering with co-PI Stephanie Hurley and ten of her students from the Ecological Landscape Design course in the Plant and Soil Science Department worked with Alisha and developed designs for the NFNA farm site and its surroundings. Student designs included options for creating riparian buffers, floodplain wetlands and earthworks to increase flood resilience; pollinator gardens provide nectar and pollen to a biodiverse array of pollinator species and potentially increase crop production; and ideas for structures to provide much-needed shade for the farmers, and to be multifunctional for equipment storage, group gatherings and a safe place for children to play.
Alisha reviewed the design options considering which would meet the criteria that the community had shared; they wanted shade, but since many of the participants carry trauma from their time in refugee camps visibility (being able to see what was going on inside of the structure at all times, from all sides) was also critical. The potential cost of a shade structure with these many benefits was a significant concern. The Winooski Park District required that the structure be mobile, for seasonal use and in the event of floods. Graduate Student Josh Taylor, has been working closely with Alisha as part of his dissertation research, and he and Alisha applied for and were awarded a City Market Seedling Grant to support the construction of the shade structure. That’s when the wheels really started rolling. Originally the project was going to be a community build with the farmers, but COVID-19 removed that possibility. In an effort to see the shade structure through to completion, Alisha contracted RG Builders LLC, a small, local business to complete the build. Carpenter Linsey Brunner (pictured above) donated all of the hours she dedicated to this project, and after recently completing the UVM Master Gardeners program, is eager to consider other ways she can contribute to NFNA’s mission.
Sounds good, you might say to yourself, but how does this connect to research? There are several answers to this. The first is that we have found that the most important research question isn’t always the first to emerge. I was visiting Alisha on the day when the shade structure was delivered, but instead of talking about the shed, we talked about the devastation farmers were facing from pest and disease pressures in their plots. We realized that VEPART could potentially work with NFNA to identify ecological and integrated pest management (IPM) strategies that would help them be more resilient to the threats they are facing. We also hopeful that the shade structure will be a site for future workshops and focus groups, which will give us the opportunity to assess participant opinions about how the structure impacts their time at the farm. Because of all of this, we see this Action as a catalyst, that has been participatory, and has provided us good cause for reflection and reassessment of our research directions.
We also value in the co-production of knowledge that has happened among all of us throughout this process. NFNA has just been awarded a highly competitive USDA Urban Agriculture Grant and in the coming year, they will partner with VCGN to develop a leadership and mentorship program. We see lots of potential for continued cross-pollination among people and ideas as this PAR process continues to unfold. It’s not unusual for PAR projects to diverge slightly from their original paths. As noted in a recently published paper “…participatory research projects, which aim at transformative impacts in complex settings beyond knowledge products and learning, need to sustain high intensities of actor interactions in knowledge coproduction throughout all research phases to achieve their sustainability impact goals.”1
That’s our end goal. Prioritizing research, and learning alongside our partners, but never at the expense of the community. Alisha says working with the ALC and thinking about agroecology helps her to ‘see with new eyes’, and she also continues to say – “call it what you want, I just want to do right by the farmers.”
1 Tribaldos, T., C. Oberlack, and F. Schneider. 2020. Impact through participatory research approaches: an archetype analysis. Ecology and Society 25(3):15.https://doi.org/10.5751/ES-11517-250315
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.
Being part of the ALC means committing to a process of inquiry and reflection that is both individual and collective. For several years, we have worked as a community of practice (CoP) to define norms, interrogate our own positionality and responsibilities, and make commitments to be agents of change both in our personal and professional realms. Given the growing awareness about systemic racism, we thought it was a good time to write a public statement about our position on broad issues of justice. We wrote the following statement together, as a community of practice, which reflects our values and articulates our commitments.
The Agroecology and Livelihoods Collaborative is a community of practice where we strive to understand systems and, in this work, we are confronted with our individual and collective roles in oppression and destruction. We hold ourselves and each other accountable as we work to transform and heal our agrifood system – using collaboration to find co-liberation. This requires us to confront our discomfort and set aside our egos, with the goal of living our values instead of just talking about them. We know this takes time, energy, effort, humility, and, above all, deep listening and reflection.
We center anti-racist work while challenging all forms of oppression. We commit to following the lead of our BIPOC members, supporting the collective protagonism of those that have historically been excluded or marginalized, responding to the demands and calls for social change, showing up in solidarity, and striving to be accomplices in this long-overdue transformation of society. We will learn, unlearn, and imagine with genuine curiosity and care, we will remember that joy and struggle must accompany each other, and we will stay true to this process recognizing that it is not a destination, but a journey.
For Coffee Farmers, Diversification Key to Sustainability
The UVM College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS), recently featured the work of the ALC’s project ‘Assessment of Diversification Strategies in Smallholder Coffee Systems of Mesoamerica’, a Participatory Action Research (PAR) and agroecology process, in collaboration with a diversity of partners from Mexico, Nicaragua and the U.S. Please visit the CALS website to read more.
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.
Statement and Petition in Support of the Movement for Black Lives from The Agroecology Research-Action Collective (ARC):
The ALC has had a relationship with the Agroecology Research-Action Collective (ARC), since its early beginnings around 2016. ARC and ALC share very similar missions and principles. We join our ARC colleagues today in expressing our grief and solidarity with the racial and social injustices against people of color in the United States and the world. These feelings are eloquently presented in the recent statement and petition by ARC “In Support of Black Lives”. We invite you to read the essay and sign the petition in the ARC website by clicking on the link below: https://agroecologyresearchaction.org/in-support-of-the-movement-for-black-lives/
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.