By John Wilson
When we introduce Agroecology we tend to throw out our little phrase that it’s ‘a science, a set of practices, and a citizen’s movement’. No, no, no, Agroecology is far more than this. It may be a useful summary at times but we don’t do it justice when we only keep throwing that little stock phrase out. The reflection below comes out of today’s time spent in my garden as I wondered: What is Agroecology?
Agroecology is art
Agroecology is a science as we say, but Agroecology is also art. Farmers who have been caught by the industrial value chain are cogs in a great big global machine. They are tiny links in that chain, chained to its inputs and its way of thinking. They are slaves, chained together, often with peer pressure, working for the shareholders behind the global giants. There are few creative acts in their farming lives.
Agroecology farmers on the other hand, are artists as well as farmer scientists. They creatively try things out based on their observations. This is true of Amai Chibero in the amazing Chikukwa permaculture project, Zimbabwe, or soil health pioneers and farmers Gabe and Shelly Brown in North Dakota, USA. I also remember my visits to the great Zimbabwean water-harvester Zephaniah Phiri when he creatively described in depth how we must marry the water and the soil. Many Zimbabwean farmers who have learnt from him will tell you how his descriptions inspired them as much as his practical examples. He was an artist-farmer. He was also a scientist-farmer.
Agroecology is creative solutions
Agroecology is about loving the act of farming as a constant process of adjustments, the act of buying food from local markets, of cooking; and always thinking about what to do next and how. Many farmers who leave the poisonous chemical path where they were simply following instructions talk about how Agroecology has brought farming alive for them, how it enables them to use their creativity, how much more enjoyable farming has become. Agroecology is NOT about going back to labour intensive farming methods. Instead it is about creatively finding and co-creating appropriate practices and technologies that take away the drudgery of farming.
Take the case of Julius Esteve in Western Kenya. His farm is a riot of life, a multitude of tall trees and shorter trees, of shrubs and bushes and annual crops. Creepers everywhere weave it all together, almost into one. Julius’ eyes sparkled along with his ivory white smile as he talked about his plans to plant a variety of high-value timber trees in addition to those he already had. I’ve rarely seen a person more full of life than him. What’s more, as he weaves his plans in his mind, he also thinks diversity of income sources. From his two acres he has been able to put his children through college, earning income from fish, avocadoes, charcoal, timber, other fruits like tree tomatoes, honey and much more, undoubtedly.
In that sense, agroecology is also about finding creative ways of making an income and moving out of poverty. Agroecology is all about supporting farmers, processors and those involved in marketing, to be creative in their own situation, rather than being lackeys in an industrial food chain. Agroecology is always creative. Without this creativity it can’t move forward.
Agroecology is connection
Agroecology is a spiritual connection to the land and to Nature, through whatever faith we may hold. Many people in Africa will hold up the importance of sacred natural sites, as the basis for our relationship with the land. For me, Agroecology is spiritual because it’s all about connectedness – to Nature, to our food, to each other. It’s a school of never-ending learning, a way of life that celebrates all kinds of diversity. I thought I knew a bit about what it means to farm Nature’s way, and then I heard about farmers who are successfully sowing a mix of over 12 cover crops at once. That’s when I understood how little I know! What a fascinating path ahead.
Agroecology is nurturing people
Agroecology is about feeding people with diverse and nutritious food, sustainably produced. It’s a complete myth that industrial agriculture will feed the world. How can it when it damages its production base so badly? This is just not sustainable, so cannot keep going. Transitioning to Agroecology means learning to understand natural systems and processes much better. Even with very little support to date from the scientific and investment worlds there are an increasing number of farmers doing this.
Agroecology is revolution
Let’s keep our eye on what Agroecology is, its breadth and its depth. It’s nothing less than a peaceful revolution that can take advantage of appropriate technological innovations in a politically astute way, while bringing ourselves back into line with Nature and ecosystem processes; that can celebrate the diversity of cultures in a modern world without all the hang-ups about focus on culture being a backwards movement.
At last, an increasing number of people are talking about transformation rather than tinkering with things and continuing to treat symptoms. Agroecology is truly a transformation, in so many positive ways. It’s a journey towards a very different world. Let’s celebrate that and start journeying together and more effectively towards the huge potential that Agroecology has, those of us who sense this.
Agroecology is potential
It is clear also that we have to get much better at doing Agroecology and there are an increasing number of indications that this is very possible. Imagine what can happen with more support from the scientific and (ethical) investment worlds. We are on a steep learning curve and that is Agroecology’s real potential, the fact that in most instances we are actually not yet doing it that well. This is why I believe industry is starting to get worried, because what if we were?
Agroecology is solidarity
And Agroecology is about moving forward in solidarity in our global world, bringing together all our different efforts so that our children and many generations to come can celebrate life’s diversity. Solidarity is crucial, because perhaps our greatest struggle in Agroecology is political. With growing numbers, with increasing global solidarity amongst all eaters of nutritious food that is fair to nature and to the producers of it, we have to be taking every opportunity to influence the public and decision-makers at every level. We have to work solidly together against laws, policies, protocols and practices that undermine what Agroecology stands for. Even with the understanding that there may be some differences between us, and that we can’t be politically naïve, this has to be a North-South and East-West movement.
All of this… and more
Food is at the centre of everyone’s lives – we all need food to survive and thrive. What people eat relates to their physical and mental health and is undoubtedly connected to their spiritual well-being. Agroecology is about all of this. It’s time we started to bring it centre stage more. Unless and until we can, we’ll continue down the path of processed, chemical foods amidst processed, chemical lives.
While the three main ‘pillars’ of Agroecology will remain a useful way of giving a quick overview of what Agroecology is, let’s never forget that Agroecology is much, much more than this. In this reflection I’ve tried to remind myself and those of you who have had time to read this just a few of the many elements of what that ‘much more’ is.
John Wilson is a freerange facilitator and activist, working mostly in East and Southern Africa. Sometimes he works with community-based organisations and at other times with regional, continental and global networks, notably with the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa. John aims to play a small part in helping facilitate a stronger food movement in Africa that benefits rather than exploits small-scale farmers and their communities and that enhances ecological vibrancy as well as providing nutritious food for eaters.