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Archive for May, 2011

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

Building alliances with farmers’ movements

Village meeting in rural Haiti

Haitian farmer voicing his opinion at a meeting near Saint Michel, Haiti in February 2011.

Many have criticized NGOs for focusing on technical approaches to supporting agricultural (even agroecological) development while failing to fully collaborate with farmer’s movements in promoting food sovereignty and changing policy. It is often a fair critique.

Farmers are important social actors in rural people’s organizations, articulating the interests of their members and giving them political voice. NGOs must identify effective means of supporting and strengthening them as autonomous political entities. Unfortunately, NGOs can easily lose sight of this and put themselves in the center of policy debates. As Bern Guri notes, “NGOs should try to strengthen farmers’ voices in the political process and not replace them.”

It must be emphasized that NGOs and farmers’ organizations are diverse and neither type of organization is immune to the challenges that tend to face any organization. Developing and implementing strategies that are effective, broadening and renewing leadership, remaining driven by values and mission, or avoiding overly centralized decision making and power structures, are just a few of these. Both must focus on promoting the interests of rural people and achieving food sovereignty, and there is ample opportunity for them to collaborate.

We have been involved with a number of NGO efforts over the years to collaborate with farmers’ organizations and movements, particularly in Latin American and Caribbean countries such as Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Haiti, Ecuador, Bolivia and Peru.  The goal has generally been to strengthen local agroecological pilot initiatives which can be scaled throughout existing networks. Unfortunately, these efforts often fall short of their potential impact. Farmer’s movements have in some cases demonstrated commitment to their genuine need for land rights and political influence, but expressed little interest in sustainable farming methodologies.  Meanwhile, NGOs, despite their best efforts, have failed to build adequate trust in negotiating their role in strengthening the community-level base of broader movements. Clearly, both political voice and appropriate farming methods are vital.  Changes in political policy are necessary; one can’t farm without access to land or if production is undercut by subsidized imports. But even with land and policy supports, successful farming still requires a locally led process of innovation for productivity and sustainability.

There is a need for NGOs and farmers’ movements to engage in honest dialogue: to examine common interests and what each brings to the table, to look for win-win opportunities that can be gained through collaboration, and to develop trust. This often happens by starting with small, concrete initiatives.

“Most leaders of Ecuador’s indigenous movements have worked closely with NGOs over the years,” says Steve Sherwood. “There has been a lot of productive collaboration. But many NGOs have become project-driven. And even many indigenous leaders have become urbanized. As they have gained power, they need to live in cities and get involved in politics. This has weakened the indigenous movements in some ways. Both indigenous leaders and NGOs need to get re-plugged into rural families and communities.”

“In Burkina Faso, limited movements exist to promote agroecology,” notes Fatou Batta. “Groups tend to be working in isolation. An agroecology platform does exist in Burkina, but it is not very strong. Those social movements tend to be stronger in Mali. So in Burkina we need to support efforts to pull things together and show the viability of these alternatives.”

In the words of Cantave Jean-Baptiste, “In Haiti, we are strengthening the base. We need to strengthen local peasants and their organizations to assume the roles of actors in leading their own development. We also facilitate them in strengthening networks across many communities, and to connect to the wider peasant movement organizations.”

Most of the local peasant organizations in Haiti belong to wider peasant movements and networks. While these networks play a vital role in Haiti’s development, they would be further strengthened by greater participation from their base groups, and better two-way flow of communication between the base and peasant network leaders. Jean-Baptiste notes that “sometimes the peasant organizations also need to do a better job of communicating with their own base. For example, while peasant movements were protesting and burning hybrid Monsanto seeds in Haiti in June (of 2010), I visited some of their base groups that had received some of those same seeds from the AID supported program. The farmers did not have adequate information about what to do with the seeds, or what the impact would be if they became dependent on hybrids. Some of the farmers were even eating the pesticide covered seeds as grain, which is dangerous.”

Peter Gubbels observes that “most members of farmers’ organizations in Ghana are larger scale commercial farmers. They are organized in associations around the production and marketing of specific commodities like rice, tomatoes, poultry, and cotton, and advocate for policies affecting their particular commodity. This includes seeking government subsidies for inputs, agricultural research, and trade regulations that prevent dumping or subsidized imports. Yet these groups are not representative of the mass of semi-subsistence peasant farmers, men and women, who are mostly illiterate, and who practice traditional agriculture with hand tools. Most members of the influential farmer organizations are oriented to agribusiness or industrial methods of production. So while their advocacy for trade regulations that prevent dumping, and for government subsidies for inputs and agricultural research is compatible with food sovereignty, their approach to production and sustainability often is not.”

Bern Guri believes there is an opportunity in Ghana to strengthen a movement from the bottom up. “We need to work through indigenous institutions, such as chieftaincies, which are closest to the people, and are legitimate and respected.” Chieftaincies have strong influence with rural people and control community land; therefore, they have the potential to change communities’ attitudes, promote agro-ecological innovations and revalorize local seeds and food crops. “We can support these indigenous institutions to build a mass movement. NGOs need to have the capacities to do that.”

– Part 6 will be posted on June 7.

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

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

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

Expanding territory for agroecology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Part 5 will be posted on May 24.

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

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

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PLD nurse with hand washing placard

Haitian nurse / PLD staff member showing placards used in teaching family health and sanitation measures.

Despite considerable obstacles, progress in Haiti over the past six months has been impressive.  We continue to focus on building the foundation upon which to create strong, lasting local institutions. This includes assessing existing local structures, promoting community development plans, strengthening priority activities to meet basic needs, and developing broad-based leadership where women and youth may participate equally in decision making structures. Since October 2010:

  • 341 new gwoupman (small solidarity groups of 8-15 community members who pool their limited resources) have been formed.
  • 1,258 village leaders have initiated training to learn to support locally-led development processes.
  • 46 democratically-elected village committees have been established to promote cooperation, help ensure continuity of the process, and fulfill a number of other important functions.

Also, due to the cholera outbreak that began in October, during the past six months we have paid special attention to community health. Since last October:

  • 227 new large family water filters and 273 latrines have been built.
  • 2,231 families have adopted water and sanitation (including hand washing, water treatment, etc.) measures to avoid cholera and other waterborne diseases.
  • 18 village health committees were formed. They promoted and supported the cholera prevention activities as well as workshops on HIV/STD prevention, which were attended by 3,594 adolescents and adults.
  • PLD staff and local health committees launched a massive campaign to aid victims, educate families about preventative sanitation measures and provide basic supplies (chlorine for water treatment and oral re-hydration solution).

Finally, great strides continue to be made with respect to agroecology and natural resource management. For example, during the past six months:

  • 1,182 farmers have been trained in critical soil and water conservation techniques.
  • 89,194 tree seedlings have been produced and have or will soon be planted.

These are just a few of the recent accomplishments in Haiti. Now that the cholera epidemic has abated somewhat, we are again shifting our focus back to creating strong local organizations, and we are placing increased emphasis on income generating activities (seed banks and micro-savings and credit) that have the potential to become self-financing mechanisms for local organizations. We are also working with partners with stronger capacity levels and those that have already transitioned out from being directly supported by PLD to build networks between peasant organizations and supporting them to increase outreach to neighboring villages.

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