By Janneke Bruil and Jessica Milgroom
“Agroecology is a process. You cannot expect a process to be perfect immediately. But once you make a step, you are moving.” With these words, Ugandan farmer Jowelia Mukiibi captured both the essence of the agroecological transition and the attention of her audience: over 70 people representing 30 organisations doing groundbreaking work on agroecology around the world.
In May 2016, the AgroEcology Fund (AEF) and the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA) brought grassroots organisers, advocates and donors together in a Learning Exchange to share experiences and ideas about how to amplify agroecology. The AgroEcology Fund is a consortium of progressive foundations that are committed to supporting agroecological solutions across the globe. The exchange in Uganda was initiated to deepen understanding of current and future efforts to amplifying agroecology, and to learn how the AEF could better support this work.
Through creative small group activities such as poster making and theatre exercises, field visits, public events and various other dynamic learning methodologies, a rich, collective pool of knowledge was built about strategies to amplify agroecology. We share here some of the most compelling insights from the four day meeting.
Strengthen farmers’ organisations
Strengthening farmers’ organisations is fundamental in amplifying agroecology, because together farmers’ organisations can create a grassroots movement that is capable of influencing mindsets and policy. Strong and genuine farmers’ federations can give networked farmers a space to express themselves and advocate for their own rights. Insights about how best to strengthen farmers’ organisations point to farmer-to-farmer learning, as that allows farmers to con dently build knowledge from experience.
Put women at the forefront
Women are an important source of agroecological knowledge. Valuing and promoting this knowledge must, therefore, be a central element of any amplification strategy. Putting women at the forefront can be done, for example, by ensuring that they play leadership roles in farmers’ organisations, involving them in campaigns and supporting their own struggles, enabling them to learn from other farmers and providing them with opportunities for technical, political and economic education. The Korean Women Peasant Association (KWPA) shared how some of their members significantly built their skills and self-confidence after an exchange visit with women famers in Thailand. Their experience also demonstrates that agroecology can help to overcome sexual discrimination, especially when practical training is combined with political training.
Create direct relations with consumers
Urban citizens are one of the central agents of change in the agroecological transition. Connecting farmers and consumers enables farmers to sell diverse products directly, and to receive vital feedback on their products. The Agroecological Collective of Ecuador organised a nationwide campaign to promote ‘community baskets’ that bring healthy, agroecologically produced foods to low income urban families. Such connections are particularly effective when they are embedded in local culture, organised as a joint initiative with shared values between consumers and producers, and accompanied by awareness raising efforts.
Strengthen agroecology schools
Agroecology schools around the world are an effective way to engage people, especially youth, in agroecology. Agroecology schools rely greatly on the principle of peer-to-peer learning among farmers – valuing local knowledge – and often also include two-way learning processes between policy makers and farmer groups. The Peasant Workers Association of Nicaragua (ATC), the Zimbabwe Smallholder Organic Farmer Forum (ZIMSOFF) and other shared lessons from their own schools. They concluded that the schools must be autonomous rom government and universities, and function best when run by a farmers’ organisation. Many successful schools started at the regional or national level, after which they were replicated at the local level by trained farmers.
Sharing knowledge about agroecology from farmer to farmer is an important way to spread practices. This is especially effective when knowledge sharing is based on local, ancestral wisdom, respects the values, principles and culture of the farming communities and responds to concrete needs. Many participants agreed that knowledge sharing is best done through living examples as opposed to relying on theoretical assumptions.
Support work on the ground and document it
Supporting farming communities on the ground can help them to diagnose and prioritise their problems; identify and test agroecological principles and to engage in learning networks. This fosters the emergence and spread of localised examples. In order to achieve wide, systemic change, it is critical to document and disseminate successful practical experiences, learn from this work, and nd ways to leverage the lessons. Documentation and dissemination provides evidence that agroecology works, generates insights for policy change and strengthens the agroecology movement.
For long-lasting change, it is necessary to insert agroecology into policy frameworks as part of a bottom-up process. Engaging in dialogue with local and national government authorities about how to support agroecology as a tool to fight hunger, poverty and environmental degradation can be very effective, as well as educating people about existing laws (both favourable and unfavourable to amplification of agroecology) and ways to demand that the government protect their rights. Effective advocacy can help to generate public support for agroecology. Policy advocacy for agroecology generally works well when it is embedded in broad collaborations among farmers, researchers, and civil society organisations, and specifically includes women and indigenous peoples. Advocacy must also be based on the documentation of successful agroecological practices and supported by rigorous research. La Vía Campesina emphasised the need to support farmers to advocate for their rights, rather than simply representing them. They enhance farmers’ capacity to advocate by facilitating their active participation in meetings (national and international) and policy dialogues, supported by training beforehand.
Communicate and reach out
Communication and outreach is fundamental for amplifying agroecology, as it is necessary to make the case that agroecology is the food system of the future. Campaigners have found that humour and cultural references can be effective tools in communication. Solid data and research to debunk claims made by agribusiness is helpful to raise awareness about agroecology. Social media, multimedia, documentary films and curriculum development were mentioned as strong outreach tools.
Resist and transform
Many campaigns are based on resisting the industrial agriculture model, corporate power over productive resources, and policies that marginalise small farmers. Agroecology offers living, inspiring alternatives that envision a new agricultural system through the transformation of education, science, culture and policy. As industrial agriculture undermines peasant family farming rather than supports it, many participants agreed that industrial agriculture and agroecology cannot co-exist. It is therefore crucial to promote a transformative type of agroecology.
Create a new narrative
Framing and messaging emerged as central elements in amplifying agroecology because agroecology is based on a completely different set of values about food, nature and people than the industrial system. A special session was dedicated to building a new narrative around agroecology. The conclusions were that it must be based on the notion that agroecology is a viable vocation, rather than a sign of backwardness. The narrative should make clear that agroecology can bring employment, income and well-being, approach agroecology as a knowledge system in its own right and present it as a continuous process of transition.
Develop effective ways to work together
Various participants stated that to amplify agroecology, a variety of actors have to be on board, who can bring different experiences and knowledge to the table. This can be achieved by working in inclusive coalitions. In such coalitions, it is necessary to clarify the role of each partner, to develop a set of core principles to help partners work well together, and to create tools for problem solving. These were some of the important insights for GRAIN, ETC Group and La Via Campesina as they worked together to protect farmer seed systems. Different participants pointed at the need to avoid economic dependence between partners in a coalition.
To achieve the amplification of agroecology, funding a diversity of organisations is essential. As agroecology is embedded in very different and complex contexts, participants emphasised the need for flexibility on the side of both grantees and donors to allow for adaptation of plans and strategies. They stated that funding schemes should include long-term core funding that is directed to reaching the grassroots. With regards to results, donors should not overly focus on quantitative outcomes, but rather on qualitative changes achieved through flexible, trust-based relationship with grantees. Ideally, funding for agroecology is based on shared values between donors and grantees, is regenerative, supports social transformation and policy shifts, and happens at a landscape or bioregional level.
What is the amplification of agroecology?
The notion of ‘amplification’ of agroecology was the central theme of the Learning Exchange in Uganda. This was chosen as opposed to ‘scaling up’, with its connotation of linear, preplanned replication, which is contrary to the way agroecology best develops.
Amplification of agroecological experiences is “the main challenge today”, in the words of former UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier De Schutter, because of its many contributions to addressing challenges such as hunger, poverty, loss of biodiversity and climate change. The participants in the Learning Exchange see amplification of agroecology as the transformation of food systems, rather than just the spreading of a set of food production techniques. Importantly, it promotes alternative forms of economic exchange and places agrobiodiversity, the struggle for land, control over seed and local farming and marketing knowledge (especially that of women) at the centre of this change processes. Amplification of agroecology was seen as a long-term process that is led by social movements, but encompasses all actors in the food system, including consumers. As agroecology is understood as an ongoing process of transition, there is no pre-determined end goal in its amplification, save for the broad objective of transforming food systems around the world.
The insights shared here are drawn from years, and sometimes even decades, of experience. Having a space to share these lessons among campaigners and practitioners as well as with donors made this, in the words of one participant, “a landmark meeting.” More exchange and documentation is surely needed to understand better the respective contributions of practice, science and movement in amplifying agroecology. However, the collective insights and the dynamics of sharing that were forged at the Agroecology Learning Exchange will undoubtedly contribute to the agroecological transition for a long time to come.
Janneke Bruil and Jessica Milgroom are members of Cultivate!. They designed and facilitated the Agroecology Learning Exchange in Uganda, May 2016, together with Daniel Maingi and with Daniel Moss (AEF).